If there’s one fairy tale Russia experts on both sides of the fence seem to agree on, it’s this myth of Russian endurance to hardship. The argument goes like this: You can’t change Russia’s behavior via economic pressure because poverty was the norm for most people and therefore they’ll just weather any sanctions or economic pressure by eating homemade pickles and potatoes from the dacha gardens. All Russians have dachas, of course. I’ve written about this issue before, but on those occasions I was writing in response to a Russian author. Here’s an example of a Western author getting taken for a ride by his “patriotic” Russian host. Does the idea of eternal Russian endurance to hardship stand up to the test of history? No, it does not. Let us examine why.
First, people tend to get very tricky with timelines when they play this card. If you’re going to include 19th century Russia in this calculation, you have to remember that life in Victorian Britain and Gilded Age America was no picnic either. In fact aside from the weather, I think I’d choose living on a Russian peasant farm in the 1860’s over living in New York city or London during the same era. Country living is often over-idealized both in America and Russia, but densely populated areas during the 19th century were cauldrons of disease and violence. Here are just a few of the things you could easily experience in 19th century New York, for example:
-Massive gang riots
-Streets lined with animal waste and garbage
-Massive traffic jams of horse-drawn carriages which often ran people over
-Trains running people over
-Thugs who robbed anyone even somewhat respectively dressed, often by immediately bludgeoning their victim unconscious
-Oversized rats that killed infants in their cribs and actually ate people who got drunk and couldn’t get up
-Food adulterated with all kinds of dangerous additives
My point here is that for a long period of time, large portions of Western populations lived under conditions which, while not always harder than Russian conditions of that day, were far harder than anything Russians have had to deal with since the Second World War, much less since 1991. As such, it is foolish to factor in earlier periods to support this myth of Russia’s history of endurance. It would also be foolish to compare an early 20th century Russian peasant to a Russian born in the 1980’s or 1990’s.
If you want to see real endurance, look at the UK and USA. If we start at the Acts of Union in the case of the former, the United Kingdom has survived roughly 308 years with more or less the same system, same flag, etc. The United States has had many reforms since its constitution was ratified in 1788, and it endured an extremely destructive Civil War, yet apart from adding new stars to the flag it has essentially remained the same country in the 227 years since that time. Neither country has had any earth-shattering revolution in centuries. Can we say the same for Russia?
Oh wait, no, we can’t, actually. Russia experienced a revolutionary terror campaign which not only led to the assassination of some important government officials, but actually took out one of the empire’s most important Tsars, Alexander II. Later there was the revolution of 1905, and finally the successful revolution of 1917. Whether you want to call it a revolution or counter-revolution, one must also count 1991 as another example of Russians not just sitting down and eating pickles, waiting for hard times to blow over. I would also say that 1917 and 1991 represent true revolutions in the sense that each totally wiped out the previous system. These are far more profound than Maidan or any “color revolutions” which merely replaced politicians while making few, if any changes to the overall system.
What of this claim that Russians are used to poverty? Well remember how in the 19th century and for about half of the 20th, millions of Russian peasants got their information from television and yet decided that the allegedly better standards of living in the West weren’t for them? Of course you don’t, because that didn’t happen. The Russian peasant and even city dweller was utterly cut off from the West if not the rest of the world. This means that once again we must strike decades of Russian history from the record if we’re going to talk about the Russian people’s history of endurance. They could not rise up and demand a better lifestyle they could not possibly fathom. Today, even in provincial Russia where people get all their information from the television, one cannot help but notice that people seem to live better in the West. If it doesn’t accidentally leak out during the news, it certainly does from reality shows, series, and movies.
Far more importantly, for nearly a quarter of a century, Russians have been able to travel and live in other parts of the globe. Many have studied foreign languages and, unlike in the Soviet era, they actually used them to communicate with people around the globe. These people know that things are different outside of Russia, even in countries that aren’t exactly doing stellar at the moment. Even those without the ability to travel to Europe or the US have at least been able to afford vacations abroad to all-inclusive resorts in Turkey, Egypt, and Bulgaria, a luxury many American families could only dream of. Then you’ve got the designer clothes, the sushi restaurants, the foreign cars, and the iPhones and assorted gadgets. If you never had any of this, you could easily go without them. It’s another story if you had all this and lost it because of some political hack’s vague political ideology.
If we take a look back at Russian history, we can see that Soviet citizens endured the most difficult hardships in the Stalin era and the Second World War, yet they broke around 1989. What was the difference? While most historians love to focus on the excesses and failures of the Stalin era, what they forget is that it had many accomplishments. The average Russian couldn’t imagine the lifestyle of middle class Americans or Britons in the 1930’s, but plenty could remember growing up in dirt-floor huts and losing siblings to diseases left and right. We like to laugh at Soviet propaganda about tractors and producing massive amounts of coal or steel today, but this was a historic accomplishment back then, and not just for the Soviet people.
Unfortunately success has a side effect. The more you raise people’s living standards, the more they come to expect. Things that were once considered rare luxuries become the minimum standard. The USSR encountered problems with this almost immediately after its post-WWII reconstruction as economic debates arose as to whether the USSR should switch to light industry and consumer goods or maintain Stalin’s position of heavy industry first, then consumer goods. Stalin vigorously defended the latter position in his work Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. Essentially his argument was that the Soviet industrial base was still behind that of the UK and USA, and therefore switching over to consumer goods at that point would be a mistake.
Of course once Stalin was dead and Khruschev took the helm, the pro-consumer goods policy won out. What is more, Khruschev, having seen America’s capacity for producing consumer goods, decided to challenge the US in a realm that it had already mastered, starting from a much weaker industrial base. Without getting into the myriad of other reforms carried out by his regime, the Soviet Union’s economy peaked in 1960 or 1961 depending on who you talk to, and from there on out it was a long haul toward poor quality goods and shortages. The pro-consumer goods viewpoint of Khrsuchev and many other Soviet leaders was far more intuitive than Stalin’s heavy industry first policy. We can’t say for sure that Stalin’s policy would have worked as he planned, but history passed its judgement on the pro-consumer goods line. Objective historians of the Soviet economy point out that the central planning system worked rather well when the range of goods was small and success was calculated in tons of steel, coal, tanks, and tractors. As the range of goods expanded rapidly after the Second World War and especially after Stalin, state planners began to run up against the so-called “Socialist calculation problem.”
Another problem the post-WWII Soviet Union had was based on its own power in the world. From 1917 till 1945, state leaders could justify repressive measures by pointing to any number of real or at least realistic threats, the most acute being the Axis invasion of 22 June 1941. Prior to that, the USSR hadn’t managed to truly establish itself as a military power and its military value was doubted even before the disastrous Winter War. These days we tend to forget that the USSR lost a war with Poland and in the 1920’s had a very small army.
After 1945, however, the USSR emerged as the second superpower of the world. Indeed, this led to liberalization in the social sphere which increased under Khruschev, but this created another problem for the regime. People will often tolerate things like censorship and crackdowns on civil rights. Even 21st century America in the wake of 9/11 demonstrated how little a threat it can take to convince people that freedom must be exchanged for security. By contrast, Stalin left the Soviet Union as the de facto leader of one half of the world, armed with its own nuclear weapons. Via the establishment of the Communist Bloc and the Chinese Revolution, Stalin had achieved what he had sought for most of his career- massive buffer zones around the USSR’s borders and the destruction of immediate threats in the region. Therefore whereas the fear of German spies creating a fifth column to weaken Soviet defenses in 1937 was believable, it became hard to justify even much lighter repressive measures in the 1970’s when the USSR was acting on a world stage.
Today, with Russia’s opposition disorganized and demoralized and Western leaders seemingly unwilling to even countenance any substantial response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. the idea that the country will be overthrown by a handful of bloggers or Moscow hipsters looks even more ridiculous, no matter what the media and various Duma members say. Russia’s success in the mid-2000’s is the reason why many people simply rolled their eyes about the alleged threat of NATO expansion, and while many people switched sides in 2014, sooner or later they will come to their senses and realize that their worst enemy is still in the Kremlin. What they will do about that is anyone’s guess, but it is idiotic to claim Russians will endure any hardship when they clearly had two great chances to do exactly that in less than a century and each time it led to the complete overthrow of the existing order.
Lastly, this myth of Russians’ eternal endurance is just another example of a patronizing, anti-Russian stereotype. These days we realize that demeaning stereotypes aren’t always negative. Sometimes they can have a double-edge. This is a case of the long-held, paternalistic stereotype of the simple, hardy Russian who gladly accepts his fate. This is presented as virtue, only because we don’t think about what that really means. In real life there is no dignity in endlessly enduring horrible conditions for the sake of some national myth. There was nothing glorious about charging into German and Austrian machine guns while millions behind the front were deprived of bread. There was no point in enduring the endless lines and corruption of Perestroika, when the Soviet Union had abandoned every last pretext of representing socialism. There is no dignity in enduring Putin’s Russia, where orphans suffer in degrading conditions, cities decay, prostitution is rampant, corruption is endemic, and the leadership and its media show nothing but contempt for their own people. To say that the Russians will endure this state of affairs indefinitely when past generations would not is to proclaim this current generation to be nothing more than stupid cattle. It is an insult against Russians, not a compliment, no matter how much those who preach this myth claim that they are either patriots or great admirers of the Russian people. Better staunch critics who tell the truth than such admirers.
If you were expecting Russia’s regime to collapse in 2015 you are likely to be disappointed. The government star is still rising and the European leaders don’t seem to be willing to rein it in. But before claiming that the Russian people will continue to endure more indignity and contempt from their ever-shrinking elite indefinitely, it might be a good idea to keep in mind that this idea has been tested twice, and in both cases it was falsified. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly of all, one should remember that while poverty has indeed been the norm for most Russians for a large part of their history, the current Russian regime is rooted in crass consumerism and the love of luxury. Its greed is what drives it. The average Russian might not live in luxury, but these days he is aware that his masters certainly do. Even now they can’t help but rub it in everyone’s face. When it’s a question of their lavish lifestyle or improving that of the Russian workers, the former will win out every single time. Hence, as the elite continues to squeeze the Russian masses so as to maintain their elite position, the more pressure will build up. The greater the pressure, the more violent the explosion.