BREAKING NEWS! Someone compares contemporary Russia to a non-Russian historical precedent!

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.

4 thoughts on “BREAKING NEWS! Someone compares contemporary Russia to a non-Russian historical precedent!

  1. AnonymousExpat

    I think Alexander Clarkson has drawn some parallels between Putin’s Russia and some period in modern Egyptian history (can’t recall what, since my knowledge of the latter is pretty lacking)? Though the main reason I like his commentary is that he avoids a different variant of the same flaw: treating Ukraine as ultra-special weird place that does never-heard of weird primitive things like fights in Parliament, that has a conflict between magical unicorns of reforms and evil 100%-corrupt politicians — rather than just a country that’s a lot more messed up than most, but still, ultimately, filled with a variety of different groups of people which act on some mixture of perceived national interest and self-interest — and where getting things better may involve less-than-perfect deal making, since in real world you can’t just wave a wand and expect everything to become fair and law-abiding….

  2. A.I.Schmelzer

    If you want non Russian comparisons to Putin, actually try Bismark.

    Bismark did:
    -Crack down on contemporary NGO equivalents (the “Kirchenkampf” and the “Kulturkampf”, “churchfight and culturefight” in english) and on German federalism (just ask Hannover) quite heavily.
    -Forge a pretty complex and opportunistic (both internal and international) alliance system which was too complicated for his successors to correctly utilize, resulting him in being quite deeply missed after his eventual departure.
    -Was highly opportunistic and very pragmatic in general
    -knew when to end/finish a war pretty well
    -Used a well calibrated arsenal of sticks and carrots in nearly all of his operations
    -Was an unabashed conservative but not a reactionary (both Putin and Bismark generally regard reactionaries as useful idiots).
    -Heck, even Bismarks rise to power (propping up the Prussian King, whose ineptitude would be a good equivalent to Yelzins, and then cleaning house with those parts of the Kings Camarilla who did not appreciate their place in the new Bismarkian system)

    Aurangzeb is a sub par fit for a number of reasons but is a considerable improvement over the even more wrong “Putin=Stalin” or “Putin=Hitler” comparisons.

    The appeal to increase western humint in Russia is actually a good idea (try to not only talk to marginal liberals), given that the current mainstream “western analysis” of Russia and Putin is mostly either terribly bad and biased against Russia, or completely fawning which is just as useless.

    As far as historic parallels go, Maidan does have some parallels with the Japanese-Russian confrontation over Korea, which included the assassination of the Korean Empress (very formidable lady btw.) Myeongsong by pro Japanese factions, the flight of her imperial husband into the Russian embassy (hello Yanukovich) where he stayed for years, lots of dashed Korean hopes concerning both modernisation and the exact nature of the relationship with the new found “big japanese brother” and eventually culminated the Japanese-Russian war of 1904/1905.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Reading List: All about foreign policy Realism. - Bombs and Dollars

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