University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: News

Mark Steinberg, expert on Russian history

8/15/2014  9:00 am

In the wake of his actions in Crimea and especially Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been portrayed as a mysterious figure, perhaps even irrational. Even the experts wonder about his motives and how far he might go in risking a greater conflict, despite recent overtures, says Russia historian Mark Steinberg. But don’t fall back on old stereotypes about the country and its rulers, such as they’re exotic or unknowable. Russians are not that different from the rest of us, says Steinberg, co-author of “A History of Russia” and creator of a DVD series on Russian history, who is currently working on a history of the 1917 Russian Revolution. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

One famous saying about Russia came from Winston Churchill, Britain’s leader during World War II, who called it “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” You say that quote makes you cringe. Why?

image of professor mark steinbergPart of the problem is political: what sort of policies will we choose if we think of Russia as so different as to be incomprehensible, as outside of normal ways of thinking? Who needs to study such a place if we don’t believe we need to engage or work with Russia, but only to “contain” its threat?

The other problem is that we too often miss Churchill’s point. His next words in that 1939 speech were: “Perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Which is still a good question to start with.

Churchill spoke of a Russian enigma to warn that predictions about Soviet actions in World War II, which had just begun, might be “proved wrong by events.” A reasonable caution then and now. His point was not that we can’t understand Russia – only that we need to be intelligent about recognizing complexity and uncertainty, even when we think we have found a “key.”

Among other stereotypes, we hear that Russians love or need a strong ruler, have little interest in democracy, will always be alien to Western values. It’s easy to see how the Soviet years under communism might have created or reinforced those stereotypes. But what are we missing?

History! I don’t mean by this how the past shapes the present, but the real complexity of experience and the importance of change, past and present. Sometimes I fear that Russians themselves are to blame for the worst stereotypes about Russia. Already a century ago it was commonplace for nationalists and conservatives to argue that Russia is neither West nor East, but a mixture that can unite and save both civilizations. Politically, they would argue, Russians naturally favor community and solidarity over individualism and conflict, and seek a strong leader who can rise above narrow particularisms to advance the common good.

These are powerful ideas – not only in Russia – and still have an influence, including on Putin. But so many other things were happening in the Russian past: movements for democracy, enthusiasm for ideas about the natural dignity and rights of the individual, attraction to diversity and creativity. These are all strong influences today, including on Putin.

What is it that has made Putin popular with Russians, and what does that tell us that we need to know about the country and its self-image?

Russians still remember the “chaos” of the 1990s: a devastated economy, material suffering, widespread crime and corruption, political conflict, the disintegration of what they perceived as their empire, uncertainty about the future. There is nothing mysterious about people’s desire for order and progress – what Russians call a “normal life.” And this includes international respect for Russia as a world power.

Putin came to power promising all of this, and he succeeded to a large extent. But at a price: an increasingly powerful state – “dictatorship” his critics call it – and a good deal less freedom and democracy, especially for alternative points of view. Most Russians have thought this to be a price well worth paying.

Like most people in the world, they care less about choosing their government or marching in the streets than having government that works for them. But we also need to notice that many people dissent from the conservative complacency of the majority. Most people may gush with patriotic pleasure at the annexation of Crimea – after which Putin’s approval rating, which had been declining, soared past 80 percent – or cheer the campaign against “homosexual propaganda,” but many voices denounce these trends. Dissenters are still few and marginal, and often hounded by the government, but they also tell us something important about Russia and Russians.

Are there limits to what Putin can do?

If what people want above all is a normal life, there are risks for Putin as he becomes more ideological. He has always been contradictory – advocating, for example, both freedom and discipline, and both international partnership and unilateral advancement of Russian influence and power. But as he becomes more single-minded in his embrace of ideology – nationalism, resentment of the West, imperial nostalgia, centralized political authority for its own sake – will the population stay with him?

Putin used to argue that a government that lets ideology overwhelm practical policy will lead to disaster and failure. Time will tell if he remembers this lesson and adjusts course, or proves this again to be true.