Russia: Putin-Bush Palsy-Walsy?

by Milo Clark

January 14, 2002


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"It is only with a nation of slaves that one could carry out great political schemes."
Attributed to Peter I of Russia

To the Western European mind, Russia and the monstrosities of the east have long been demons. Reagan's "Evil Empire" was not his invention. Out of Asia, out of the steppes and mountains of Northeastern and Central Asia, history for thousands of years records successions of barbarous hordes swarming west. The Cold War terrors of Red armor flooding through Germany's Fulda Gap is a very ancient almost racial memory given contemporary form.

Moscow's Red Square was Red Square long before Soviet Communism picked up the ancient cudgels of Russia.

In moving to understand more of Russia, it is important to realize that modern Russia, like modern Europe is an amalgam of once tribal affiliations which morphed through principalities into states as we now name them. Whether those tribal affiliations are nations may become a key question. Also, we may be advised to consider the roles played by the religions which evolved in parallel. Russia's Orthodox Christianity is not Greek Orthodoxy and very much not Roman Catholic Orthodoxy. The Protestant evolutions of Christianity which emerged in Europe are, if possible, even more abhorred by Russia's Orthodox Church than Rome. There is now and never has been any real separation of Church and State in Russia. They may, in some senses, work in parallel but no Czar, Communist chief or President has allowed the Church to overstep its bounds while, at the same time, tightly binding the Church to the State. Seventy years of Soviet mastery of Russia may have finally freed the State of the Church.

Other than dimming memories brought by early immigrants to North America, we have little visceral understanding of these compelling actualities still active in Russia and Europe. I will suggest that learning something of them and trying to understand their present potency may be instructive. We can see some of these lurking actualities in events in the Balkans and also in Central Asia where confusing them with Islam may not be the wisest course available.

We know of Huns. China's Great Wall was built to hold off Huns. Atilla's fifth century incursions into Europe remain engraved in our minds. Defeated in Gaul, now western France in 451 C.E., Atilla died in 453. Huns shortly disappeared into history. But never from western mind.

Also, we need to understand that Hun, Tartar and Mongol surged east as well as west. Present day China was as much established by Hun and Mongol (see Yuan Dynasty) as what we now call Han.

We know of Tartars, hellbeings, from the Greek and then Latin Tartarus, the lowest realms of hades. In the late 1230s and 1240s, as calculated in Gregorian measure, Tartars reached into what is now Poland and further south across Hungary to the Adriatic. Tales of their horrors paralyzed Christendom from Pope to pauper. On defeating the famed Livonian Knights at Liebnitz, nine large sacks were filled with the right ears of the slain. Human walls of defeated peoples were driven before them to overwhelm enemies. Then as now, Europe's rulers were divided. They quarreled rather than united. There was no glorious battle of noble Europe vanquishing the Evil Empire of Jengiz, Chingis, Ghengis, the greatest of Khans and his succeeding sons. It is perhaps of note that the first Khan of central Asia and lineal ancestor of Jengiz was Kabul Khan.

Gathering the tribes of inner Asia and centered in the lands surrounding what we now call Lake Baikal, the greatest of Khans built the fabled Karakorum as his capital. From 1206 C.E. to 1242, he and his son sent their supremely disciplined troops on a rampage of brutality, barbarity and death.

Historian George Verdansky writing in The Mongols and Russia (Yale, 1953, p.1), "The score is staggering. . . . No other place and period have known such a concentration of wholesale killing." They cut out the "largest contiguous land empire ever recorded in history" [W. Bruce Lincoln, The Conquest of a Continent, Siberia and the Russians, Random Houses, 1994, p.7].

In a capricious quirk of history, perhaps paralleled by the end of the USSR in 1989, when the great Ugedei Khan, son of Jengiz, died in 1242 C.E., the Mongols, Tartars, one and all left Europe. Their chiefs sought Karakorum, nearly seven thousand miles east from their farthest penetration of Europe. They went back to deal with the succession. Politics took precedence over conquest. They never returned to Europe. Today's Uighur peoples who worry both Russia and China along their shared borders in the Baikal area hold in their hearts the heritage of the Great Khans.

The swaths of conquest taken by Huns, then Tartars, Mongols in the 1200s today is seen in the southern borders of Russia. I have written several times about that swath. The set of mind which drove such expansion, such barbarity, still dominates the region. Historian John Lukacs, Hungarian raised, groks barbarity. It bursts out, from time to time, as we see in recent history. The veneers of civilization, as understood in the relatively liberal West, are very thin out there, very thin.

Attempting to deal with our inability to understand what we don't understand, to confront our ignorance of our ignorance, to address questions about possible or probable Russian responses to the Bush administration's unilateral abrogation of the 1972 ABM Treaty, to wonder about control of Transcaucasus resources, to penetrate the geopolitical significance of Siberia's largely undeveloped resource potentials leads me to contemplate Russia in much greater depth than before.

Peter, the Great of Russia, 1672-1725, as noted previously, turned the maps upside down in our terms, putting south at the top and north at the bottom. Perhaps an innovation to Western Europeans and certainly to our perspectives of geographic representation, to Russians and others across the old Mongol empires, this is how it is and should be. Peter was raised as Czar at the age of ten. His half-sister, Sophia, seized regency, established the dual Czar structure with the weak and deficient Ivan. She governed with caprice and cruelty. Peter early learned the primacy of dealing most harshly with dissent while quickly pardoning survivors. Achieving his majority and seizing the throne, he never hesitated to assert his authority. Absolute rule rules absolutely. Stalin invented nothing. When Gorbachev relaxed the iron hold, Russia imploded.

Peter, the Great of Russia learned at a very early age that to be absolute required absolute ruthlessness, absolute barbarity. His glove covered a mailed fist. He was a very curious man, intrigued by the simple works of crafts. He often masqueraded as a workman and worked as one mastering several trades rather early in life. He was obsessed with learning from Europe in order to realize his ambitions. He tried to eradicate the reactionary roots of Russia by decreeing and enforcing arbitrary breaks with tradition including the Old Religion. He initiated a Russian navy and lusted for deep-water ports. He lost wars against Turks and Swedes and then learned from his losses to win wars.

A deep Russian habit is involved with slave labor. In the marshes and bogs of the Neva estuary, Peter dreamed of his paradise city and then built it at a cost of hundreds of thousands of slaves. St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad is today and was then the antithesis of Moscow. St. Petersburg, a European city with European pretensions has always been viewed with deep suspicion from Moscow. Later, much of Russia's infrastructure such as the great railroads stretching many thousands of miles across the landmasses of Russia was built by slave labor. Rebuilding Russia after the nearly incomprehensible losses of WW II was also a partial function of slave labor.

There are two George Kennans who crafted the American images of Russia which remain dominant. George Kennan (1845-1924) was obsessed with Siberia. He traveled extensively in the region producing first Tent Life in Siberia (1870) and then the two volumes of Siberia and the Exile System (1891). Siberia as exile, gulag, death sentence for dissent was well established in Russian history by the 1600s. George Kennan wrote in consummate detail about the horrors beyond horror, barbarity and bestial brutality that characterized the system as it existed in the late 1800s. In doing so, he penetrated deeply into the pervasive mindsets of Russians and those who rule them.

George Frost Kennan (1904-), American diplomat with deep experience in Russia during and following WWII, is author of the Cold War policy of containing Russia, then USSR.

Both Kennans reported aspects of what Reagan would demonize as The Evil Empire. We should know that little new was invented by Soviet Communism. Stalin, et al. merely anchored their state in the histories of Russia.

Harrison E. Salisbury, 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning reporter with long experience in Soviet Russia published a novel in 1962, The North Palmyra Affair. He chose a fictive approach to sharpen perceptions of Russia on one hand as home of great writers and artists with a visceral courage to confront the prevailing core of history as manifested in succeeding Russian empires. He shows how the suspicions of Leningrad drove Moscow apparatchiks during WW II, when Leningrad endured 900 days of Nazi siege without yielding. This siege is one of the great epics of history. His unraveling of the ways of power lusts in Russia extends far beyond Russia, per se, to power lusts everywhere. Nothing so terrifies power lusting as peace. The heroine of Salisbury's novel is a sculptress, artist, hero of the siege who crafted a great memorial piece dedicated to peace which, from Moscow, was heresy demanding her exile to Tashkent.

Vladimir Putin, currently President of Russia, comes to us through many years of leadership in the variously named secret services of later Soviet and post-Soviet years. These variously named secret services are rooted very deeply within the mindsets of succeeding rulers of Russia. They are very Moscow. They are in no way a product of Soviet processes. They are rooted in Russian ways from the dawns of history. Putin is a product of Russian history. His mentor was chief in Leningrad. Like Peter, Putin sees the need to learn from the West in order to fulfill ambitions.

George W. Bush, privileged son of a privileged son's privileged son, knows only what privileged sons raised among privileges may know. His personal history is a succession not unlike sons of aristocracy virtually everywhere, especially Europe. His father, at least, did a stint as Director of Central Intelligence. George W. Bush knows things such as Vladimir Putin groks only as hearsay. He has no gut feel for the black side of his job. He can only fake it.

A Russian suckled at the teats of Mongol, Tartar, Rus and myriad other tribal mothers perceives very differently than the privileged sons of America. Very careful. Very slow. Skilled in deviousness and cunning. Time is expansive in ways commonly understood throughout that region, opaque to us. There is a consistency to Russia whatever apparent form of governance may be seen. There is depth. We are comparatively shallow, quite inconsistent, ahistorical and unhistorical.

I think Vladimir Putin is playing George W. Bush like a grand piano. Putin, at least, had a majority (53%) in his election as president. Time may be on his side. Meanwhile, play footsie with W.


       Milo Clark, a founding member of Swans, had it all: Harvard MBA, big house, three-car garage, top management... Yet, once he had seemingly achieved the famed American dream he felt something was missing somewhere. As any good executive he decided to investigate. Since then, he has become a curmudgeon and, after living in Berkeley, California, where he was growing bamboos, making water gardens, listening to muses, writing, cogitating and pondering, he has moved on to the Big Island in Hawaii where he creates thought forms about sunshine. Milo can be reached at Swans.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Milo G. Clark 2002. All rights reserved.

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Published January 14, 2002
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