Among new books on the former Soviet Union, Erica Fatland’s travelogue, “Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan,” grabbed my attention recently. It’s not simply that I wanted to distinguish (finally) between the nations’ consonant-heavy names; I wanted to consider possible futures for neighboring Russia in the wake of its war with Ukraine.
History, culture and current conditions give us some sense of what the former seat of empire once was — a guide of sorts as to what it may become.
Like a modern day Erysikhthon, the mythic king of Thessaly who sought to build a palace but ended up devouring his own flesh, Putin is inflicting as much economic pain on his own country as he exacts on Ukraine. As CNBC’s Christina Wilkie detailed at length, some consider the damage done by Putin to have set Russia’s economy back 30 years.
To that point, as one Joe Biden confidant noted in a recent interview: “Our strategy to put it simply is to make sure that the Russian economy goes backward ... (as) long as President Putin decides to go forward with his invasion of Ukraine.”
Only time will tell how the economic balance sheets of history line up. In the absence of a crystal ball, historians have given us questions and clues from the past to glimpse Russia’s uncertain future.
Twenty years ago, the British historian, Orlando Figes, published one of the most incisive books about Russia in “Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia.”
Written for a general audience, though not for the faint of heart (weighing in at 586 pages of readable text), Figes frames Russia’s history in a series of questions with satisfying responses informed by literature, art and political history.
The questions consider Russia’s identity: Is Russia a European or an Asian nation? Is its cultural core found in the gilt pastels of St. Petersburg’s palaces or the onion domes of Moscow’s cathedrals? What role has the Russian Orthodox Church played in its history? Other questions explore the role of peasants, socialism and liberalism in a sweeping portrait of one of the world’s grand, though deeply misunderstood, cultures.
Where does Russia stand in the world?
The question as to Russia’s continental orientation — European or Asian — has been debated for centuries. Have the principles of liberalism, snuffed out by Nicholas I’s 1825 execution of the Decembrists, given way to khan-like authoritarianism? Have Catherine the Great’s Enlightenment interests vanquished the intuitions of Old Believers among the Orthodox faithful?
For the sake of brevity, we can safely say that Russia is both Asian and European, though at different junctures in history may lean more closely to one or the other.
Today, in the wake of Putin’s punitive outburst toward Ukraine and his pivot toward China, Russia is embracing its Asiatic identity more than its affinity for European norms of the rule of law.
This has less to do with geography or architectural preferences than with ruling tendencies. According to many Russian historians, including Geoffrey Hosking, author of “Russian History: A Very Short Introduction,” Russia tends toward centralized control calculated to defend its far-flung frontiers from potential invaders. “Russians have always longed for security from terrifying and murderous assaults across the flat open frontiers from east to west,” Hosking writes. It’s helpful to note that Hosking wrote these words before the current Russian aggression.
Thus, Putin’s aggressive pivot from Western Europe toward Xi Jinping’s embrace not only accelerated a shift in the global order but cast Russia in an inferior position to China in that Asian alliance.
Now, instead of vying for supremacy among the Communist powers, Russia has shrunk into a subordinate role with diminished negotiating power.
Culturally, the Russian Orthodox Church’s regional influence will likely decline because some prominent prelates, including Moscow’s robed Patriarch Kirill, support Putin’s aggression. A few brave Russian Orthodox authorities have distanced themselves from Putin’s provocations. Doctrinal and jurisdictional disavowals of Moscow’s leadership have also spread through Eastern Europe.
If these cultural reflections give some sense of Russia’s gravitation towards Asia, authoritarianism and the unholy dance of church and state, quality of life statistics paint a stark picture of some of the key differences between former Russian-allied nations, as well as potential scenarios for Russia, should it slide further economically and politically.
What can statistics tell us about Russia and Ukraine?
According to the United Nations Human Development Index, citizens living in the the Baltic NATO nations of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia and the Central European republics of Czechia, Poland and Hungary, have life expectancies between 75 and 80 years of age, can expect to receive a bachelor’s degree, and enjoy incomes between $30,000 and $40,000. These nations also boast relatively high levels of economic and press freedoms.
In contrast, nations that still fall under Russia’s sway, namely Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia itself, have life expectancies in the lower to mid 70s, may attend some college but likely not graduate, earn incomes between $15,000 and $25,000, and live with the constraints of closed economies and a muzzled press.
Interestingly, while Ukrainians only made half the income of Russians in 2020, their opportunities for education were greater and Ukraine’s press much more open than that of Russia, Kazakhstan or Belarus.
While conditions in Ukraine will undoubtedly decline in the immediate future because of Russia’s onslaught, the same social consciousness exhibited by investors and corporations in pulling out of Russia should pour into the ravaged nation, igniting economic opportunities that will capitalize on the greater opportunities and freedoms of Ukraine.
What do these numbers say about Russia’s future?
If long-term sanctions remain in place, coupled with the wariness of Western corporations to reengage an economy shorn of its disposable purchasing power, it would not be too surprising to see Russia slide in relation to its peers, such as Kazakhstan or Belarus. It may even see conditions not much better than the Central Asian developing nations of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan that have life expectancies in the upper 60s and low 70s, can expect no more than a secondary education and earn incomes from as low as $4,000 per year to a peak of $15,000.
To add to this, the state-centric nature of Russia’s economy presents complications that will make themselves manifest in the near term. In Richard Connolly’s timely “The Russian Economy: A Very Short Introduction,” the author explains that the domestic economy operates in two very different spheres.
Sector A, including the oil monopolies and high-tech companies, is exposed to the global economy. It fluctuates to the rhythms of other nations’ fortunes, however free or unfree. In contrast, companies in Sector B produce many of the staple consumer goods used by Russians and enjoy ample government subsidies. Connolly notes that “Much of the profit made in Sector A is taken by the state and redistributed to Sector B.”
Should the Russian state’s generosity, which had been automatic during the flush years of Putin’s presidency, disappear, the entire economy would be subject to market forces without the cushioning pillow of state subsidies. This could force Russians to either relive the uncertainties of the early 1990s, or even worse, descend to new lows in what would make Russia — or a figurative “Russistan” — a rich cousin of the humblest Central Asian republics.
Ultimately, these are simply speculations on what Russians might endure because of Putin’s decision to unleash his military might on Ukraine. But current conditions, historical precedents and cultural tendencies should not be ignored in the reshuffling of the great powers. And still, our overarching hope is for a conclusion to the war with greater prosperity and liberty for all who now suffer.
Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University where he teaches courses on world history.