(There are currently two important events unfolding, the downing of the airliner by Russian supported thugs and the Israeli invasion of Gaza. The first is far more important to the US, and I simply cannot think and write rationally about Gaza at this moment. I keep thinking about the German liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, which is an outrageous analogy, though there are some disgusting and disturbing similarities.)
While the details are still lacking because of the inability of the inspectors to enter the crash area fully, it has become clear that the plane was shot down by Russian supported Ukrainian separatists using Russian supplied equipment. It is also clear that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin bears great responsibility for the deaths of almost three hundred innocents and is seemingly unwilling to take any action whatsoever to reign in his terrorists, who are now reported to have bragged about their crime. (I want to say that any person anywhere found wearing a mask and carrying an assault rifle should be immediately shot, but then I would be descending to their level.)
What is the problem with the Russians, who are presenting an increasingly good impersonation of an uncivilized and barbarous country that happens to possess nuclear weapons? Why is this society so addicted to autocratic government and content to live in the nineteenth century? With the possible exception of the Stalin era I have only a superficial knowledge of Russian history, but it is still possible to suggest some answers, some of which are probably wrong (and any Russian historian reading this will likely groan).
Unlike Europe, Russia inherited virtually nothing from classical antiquity but the eastern version of Christianity, and their model civilization was the Byzantine Empire, a thoroughly autocratic society in which church and state were completely fused. The post-classical West on the other hand began its evolution with a church that for all its later efforts to dominate secular rulers was distinctly separate, having developed its own governing structure parallel to that of the Roman Empire. That structure also provided barbarian Europe with some measure of administrative competency, which was completely absent from the infant Russian state. Europe also inherited a sizable body of literature and art produced by a high civilization, and the remains of the Empire included a long-lasting network of roads and other useful infrastructure.
Further, the Roman Empire had laid the foundation of a common European culture, which was not significantly disturbed by outside forces, and Europe’s wars were mostly among European societies. The Norsemen could be absorbed, and the Arabs could be repulsed. Earlier Russian history is characterized by constant assault and domination by steppe barbarians, inimical to settled and urban society and not easily repulsed. Warfare in feudal Europe revolved around horsemen, but they were only the elite component of armies, and the evolving weaponry of infantry helped drive innovation and societies sophisticated enough to produce the necessary new military technologies. There were foot soldiers in the east, but the armies were overwhelmingly mounted, and the technology of mounted warfare had been pretty much perfected. And who can live centuries in the shadow of the Mongols and not be brutalized to some degree?
In the West feudalism helped limit the power of the monarch and produce some tradition of resistance, and although absolutist kings appear in the early modern period, that tradition spurred the emergence of deliberative bodies that could and in some places did prevent and undermine the absolute authority of the king. In Kievan Rus’, Muscovy and other states that ultimately became Russia the boyar was a sort of parallel to the medieval knight and they might form a deliberative body, a Duma, but their power gradually eroded in the face of the growing authority of the Czar. Why this happens is not clear to me, but the result is that by the modern period the Czar is the absolute, unchallengeable ruler, his authority, like that of the Byzantine emperor, derived from god. In the West the growth of trade and industry produced a third powerful player and a challenge to the existing power centers of church and state, while in Russia commerce remained subservient to the authority of the church-supported state, perhaps because the absolutism of the Czar was already so advanced.
Russian culture seems also to support a xenophobia more deeply rooted than in the west, perhaps because of the absence of the classical influences embodied in the literature of Europe and perhaps because of the constant assaults from the steppe. Whatever the cause, this made modern Russia suspicious and hostile to the ideas and innovations coming from western Europe, and despite a Peter or a Catherine Russia lagged in its development, retaining a rural population that essentially remained in the conditions of the early middle ages.
And when Russia finally began to see some change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the cataclysm of World War I and the incredibly bizarre, virtually chance triumph of the Bolsheviks doomed the country to another three-quarters of a century of an absolutism that put the Czars to shame. By the time the Soviet state collapsed the complete absence of any developed institutions or tradition of democratic rule led the state to its present more or less absolute ruler, Vladimir Putin, the Beefcake Czar, who unsurprisingly emerged from the security apparatus of the previous regime. Well, he is certainly the most buff man to ever rule Russia.
Who knows what the fate of Russia will be? Putin plays to the broad masses, who seem to yearn for another Stalin, and caters to their crude nationalism and traditional phobias, and this has a price. The educated and highly skilled are fleeing to the West, and the corruption, malfeasance and capriciousness inherent in his rule discourages increasingly necessary foreign investment. The country survives on the selling off of its immense natural resources, a sign of the economic primitivism associated with developing countries. Meanwhile he squanders badly needed resources on patriotic cosmetic projects like the Winter Olympics and the upcoming World Cup. And if Europe is dependent on Russian gas, Russia is increasingly dependent on Chinese markets.
Russia is also becoming a pariah because of its illiberal policies and creeping expansionism, and Putin has now grandly exacerbated this development with the barbaric act of his Ukrainian/Russian thugs and his refusal thus far to do anything about it. He is playing the same laughable propaganda game the Soviet rulers did, and the entire world is perfectly well aware of his complicity in the destruction of the Malaysian airliner. The guy is a thug, a clever one, but a thug nevertheless.
What to do now? Obama has begun attacking Russian assets in foreign countries and moving towards excluding Russia from the financial mechanisms of the global economy, which would be a disastrous blow. I would suggest even more immediate pressures, recalling the American ambassador and giving Putin, say, forty-eight hours to deal with the terrorists and open up the crash site or face a ban on Russian air traffic to the US and whatever European countries that can be persuaded to follow. I might even threaten to prohibit American carriers from flying into Russia, but this is extremely unlikely, since one then runs up against corporate interests, which would certainly be loath to surrender profits simply because an airliner was shot out of the sky. Already the Europeans and the all-important Germans are dragging their feet because of the natural gas issue and business interests with the Russians.
Well, it is all disgusting and harkens back to the less attractive aspects of the last century, but it sure makes for interesting news.