Ask This General

Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack {Ret.}

Russia’s geography is primarily terrestrial, without significant warm water access to large bodies of water or strategic waterways. This factor drove some of its earliest Czarist-era and Soviet expansionist behaviors. The melting Arctic ice, with the gradual opening of the Northern Sea Route, was not part of this earlier calculus. Ever since the Mongols erupted out of Asia in the 1200s and overran much of the west, including slaughtering and enslaving medieval Rus, the site of present-day Kyiv, the Russians have been in an existential, land-centric wedge beset by threats from every quarter. This was brought about, in part, by its own expansion that, by the late 1500s, had tenuously connected Moscow to the site of present-day Vladivostok, some 5,000 miles away, and that by the mid-1800s had absorbed, by conquest and annexation, much of the Far East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.10 Other fronts included constant struggles with Western states, including Sweden, Poland, France, and Livonia (a historic region on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea), culminating in Napoleon’s disastrous march on Russia in 1812. This was followed by confrontations with the British, French, Ottomans, and others in the Crimean War (1853-1856); the Allied intervention in 1919 during the Russian Civil War (which included the United States); and the ferocious invasion by Nazi Germany in 1941.

As the “Great Patriotic War,” as World War II was called by the Soviets, fades into history for much of the Western world, in Russia it is still a recent memory. Major celebrations and commemorations are held annually on Victory in Europe (VE) Day, May 9, and extensive efforts are made to keep this defining struggle and sacrifice alive in schools and in the collective memory of the general public. The enduring impact of the war was impressed upon me near Smolensk in early 2014 when, while trying to explain why the West and NATO were no threat to Russia, an elderly woman tugged at my sleeve, exclaiming (paraphrasing), “But, General, remember that in my lifetime and that of my parents and grandparents, the Nazis came from the West and stood with their jackboots on the throats of our villages and towns in western Russia and millions of us died.” Completely disarmed, all I could do was sincerely tell the skeptical babushka that today’s West was different and desired a peaceful relationship with Russia. Upon reflection, however, her point was telling, visceral, and evocative. During World War II, a staggering 20–26 million Soviets, many of them civilians, died fighting a brutal war against an unmerciful foe from the West that, if victorious, would have enslaved those who survived the carnage of the invasion.11 Absorbing the Nazi onslaught, surviving, and then overcoming this frightening existential foe was the single greatest achievement of the USSR; it is still a critical—and painful—part of the living memory of Russia today. While the USSR’s allies—the United States, Great Britain, China, France, Canada, Poland, and other nations—paid a bloody butcher’s bill against Germany and Japan, it was the Soviets who endured Nazi Germany’s main effort: a massive invasion by a Western power executing a war of annihilation.

Before looking at post-Cold War drivers in order to malign Russian impulses and behaviors regarding the West, we must also recall the deep scars on the Russian soul, many of them self-inflicted, throughout its long history. Between 1914 and 1954, a mere 40 years, approximately 35-40 million Russians (the exact number will never be known) died as the result of two catastrophic world wars, a monarchy-collapsing national revolution, a brutal civil war, a man-made famine, grisly repression, show-trial purges, and a gulag system that turned the nation inside out. What goes on in the psyche of a nation’s people after enduring such unimaginable hardship and loss? With the Russian Orthodox Church extinguished, what faith or belief system did Russians turn to during those officially soulless years when churches and cathedrals, temples and mosques, if not destroyed, became stables and were labeled houses of atheism? How does this period of wrenching personal and national violence and loss color the worldview of a people so affected by the loss of loved ones to war, famine, or repression within the last century? No wonder that the Russians are suspicious, defensive, reactive, xenophobic, and often paranoid. All of this makes up part of the tough root structure that characterizes both the durability and the hardiness of the Russian persona. It also helps to explain an innate willingness to endure both external and, up to an extraordinary point, internal travail; however, when that willingness snaps, as it did during the bloody revolution in 1917 and as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in the late 1980s, it can become viciously brittle.

“Deep Scars on the Russia Soul.” Peter Zwack, National Defense University. @ndu_edu.

Peter Zwack is the Senior Russia-Eurasia Research Fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute of National Security Studies. He is a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General and served as the U.S. Defense Attaché in Moscow, Russia from 2012 – 2014…