I’m quite certain I’ve said this before at some point, but one of the most irritating cliches when it comes to Russia coverage is the unspoken rule that modern Russia can only be understood through its own history. We get inundated with articles debating whether Putin is a new Tsar and if so, which one. Is he Andropov? Is he like Brezhnev? Is Kadyrov following in the footsteps of Ivan the Terrible, or could he be a new Stalin-like figure on account of his Caucasian heritage? Is Russia’s current economic situation reminiscent of the 90’s, Perestroika, or the Brezhnev stagnation?
The same rule applies to potential solutions. Russia needs a Peter the Great to re-open relations with the West! Who will be the “Gorbachev” that re-introduces “democracy” to Russia? And so forth. In fact, the rule is often adhered to not only by Western observers, but also pro-Kremlin people as well. After all, Russian chauvinists shudder at the idea that their country, so unique, esoteric, and utterly mysterious, could ever be compared to another nation at any point in history.
Well guess what- someone actually ventured to break the cycle, and how! In this article, Sumantra Maitra dares to compare Putin to Aurangzeb, the last Mughal emperor of India. You may disagree with the analysis, but they deserve credit for daring to suggest that no, Russia is not so ridiculously unique that we can’t find better explanations by looking at other historical precedents in other countries. Personally I’ve always found Putin to be more of a Mobutu than a Russian Tsar or Soviet premier.
Sometimes I wonder how people would react if we applied this rule to other countries, specifically Western European nations, the UK, or the United States. You say Trump is like Hitler or Mussolini? Preposterous! Go find an American analog. Off the top of my head I’d say George Lincoln Rockwell, assuming you’re married to the whole Nazi comparison. Comparison that liken the American experience in Afghanistan to the Soviet one? Impossible! You must choose something American, like the Seminole Wars. It doesn’t matter how different these situations actually are, all analysis of American politics must be based on American history and no other country is comparable!
I hope I’m not a lone voice suggesting that firstly, not all analysis of Russia should be based on finding alleged parallels in Russian history, and secondly, comparisons should be based on what really fits, not what happens to be the closest historical parallel in Russia’s history. Some might claim that since the Kremlin leadership seems to have a similar worldview, whereby history is used to explain every action, it makes sense to use the same technique. That’s credible for sure, but to be fair the historical knowledge of Putin, Lavrov, and other assorted Kremlin cronies is horribly incomplete. They focus on “Russian” victories of the past while ignoring the key defeats, and especially the reasons for those defeats. If observers do the same, I think there’s a danger that their analysis will inevitably suffer as the whole practice starts to resemble a trivia contest.
So just a humble suggestion- maybe it’s time for some journalists and analysts to follow in the footsteps of Maitra and expand their horizons, looking for parallels outside the narrow focus of Russian history.