Charles Péguy, the Catholic poet and philosopher, once said that there was no moral complexity in a war. The bad guys were the ones doing the bombing and the good guys were the ones being bombed. That sentiment overlooks just wars in which innocent people tragically suffer and die in the course of lives being saved and humane values being preserved, but the war in Ukraine fits Péguy’s formulation. Russian president Vladimir Putin is visiting unimaginable evil upon an innocent population. The complexity lies in the American response.

Much of the analysis has been so focused on the rapidly changing news that it is often simplistic. It is true, as some proponents of a no-fly zone argue, that American and Soviet pilots engaged each other in the air during the Korean War without causing a nuclear conflict. But it is also true that only the United States possessed planes capable of long-range delivery of nuclear bombs; the Soviet Union did not develop that capacity until after the Korean War was over. It is true that a humiliating defeat or setback in Ukraine might lead to Putin’s overthrow, but few have raised the possibility that such a coup could install a more malign leader. In a situation that has launched a thousand speculations, it is vital to take the broadest possible historical and cultural view.

A good place to start is with Russia’s first literary masterpiece. “And you, Russia of mine—are not you also speeding like a troika which nought can overtake? . . . Whither, then, are you speeding, O Russia of mine? Whither? Answer me! But no answer comes—only the weird sound of your collar-bells. Rent into a thousand shreds, the air roars past you, for you are overtaking the whole world, and shall one day force all nations, all empires to stand aside, to give you way!” The celebrated and enigmatic final paragraph of Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 Dead Souls, published 19 years before the abolition of serfdom in Russia, embodies the colossal tension at the core of Russian history. On the one hand, arriving at the end of a devastating satiric novel that exposes the soulless materialism, selfishness, vanity, greed, and mendacity of Russian society, the fantasy of Russian world domination seems like the delusion of a civilization in perpetual, fantastical escape from its fatal weaknesses. At the same time, though, it is the dream of a society yet to harness the inherent power of its people and material resources. No modern nation has a similar conflict at its foundation, one that continues unresolved in the course of Russian history.

Fantastical delusions of power rooted in fear of weakness is the classic structure of an insecure ego. Alone among nations, let alone superpowers, Russia exists in an eternal adolescence. Pasternak represented it as follows in Dr. Zhivago, describing the newly minted Soviet commissars: “As for the men in power, they are so anxious to establish the myth of their infallibility that they do their utmost to ignore the truth.” Despite his revulsion for his former Communist bosses, Putin shares their vaunting anxiety and its consequences.

Russian insecurity is as vast as its territory. Encompassing both Europe and Asia, it is the very emblem of clashing self-images. The country has always felt inferior to its Western neighbors, from the time of the Middle Ages, when the Hanseatic League, a consortium of trading enterprises run by Germany, managed commerce in some Russian cities. Even the so-called Russian Enlightenment in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century remained a foreign import. Peter the Great insisted that Russian nobles travel to France and Germany to learn newfangled ideas, commissioned Italian and German architects to build St. Petersburg, and demanded that the nobles shave their cherished beards and that men and women dress in the latest French fashions. While in Western Europe, the ideas of les philosophes eventually changed politics and society from below, the Russian Enlightenment was imposed from above by absolutist tyrants who never dreamed of relinquishing their power, or of putting an end to serfdom.

This brings us to what the great Russian scholar Richard Pipes rightly saw as the most profound feature of Russian history. The Russian tsars and their later incarnations, the commissars, had only the most fragile and unstable sense of private property, seeing it as patrimonial, partible (divided among all heirs, which kept the nobles subservient to the tsar), or belonging to the state. Meantime, in the West, the growth of property rights developed alongside the idea of individual liberty. The difference was something like the one between Athens, whose economy was based on trade, and Sparta, whose economy was based on conquest. The exchange of goods ran parallel to the exchange of ideas in Athens, while Spartan culture revolved around an austere martial spirit. In Pipes’s view, Russia’s lack of experience with bargaining and compromise led to its twentieth-century rejection of an international system held together by rules and a balance of power. The Soviet Union’s “instincts,” wrote Pipes, “are to exert the maximum force and to regard absorption as the only dependable way of settling conflicts with other states especially those adjoining one’s borders. There is little need here of theory, because the options available concern tactics rather than strategy or objectives.”

Little need of theory perhaps, but the galvanizing intellectual and, for Russia, spiritual force is the notion of zakonomernost—the belief that inexorable natural laws govern history. Putin has contempt for the Soviet system, but he has absorbed this Russian-Marxist idea, so easily converted from notions of the tsar as the figure working out God’s plans on earth. Putin once said, in an adaptation of the most famous line that Churchill never actually wrote or spoke: “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.” Zakonomernost emerges in an ironclad certainty—the heart and brain are firmly set with regard to Russia’s destiny. What must be done must be done.

One could further note that the nineteenth-century philosophy of Russian nihilism—a breeding ground for zakonomernost—an attempt at using materialism to liberate Russia from what the nihilists perceived as the ignorance fostered by an essentially mystical strain of Christianity, mutated into two forms: the cynical nihilism of the commissars, on the one hand; and on the other, the cynical nihilism, instilled by generations of Communism, of Russians throughout society, from the storekeeper to the oligarch.

But the overwhelming dynamic speeding Russian history is that, even as Russia seems to be heading toward becoming a rogue state in the manner of North Korea, the country has been tormented by simultaneously feeling marginalized and persecuted by the West and wanting desperately to belong to the West. Recall Tolstoy’s mordant portrayal in the opening pages of War and Peace of Russian aristocrats who learned to speak French before they learned to speak Russian. From its suffering during Napoleon’s catastrophic invasion and its stunning defeat in 1856 in the Crimean War at the hands of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia-Piedmont to the monumental loss of life inflicted on it during both world wars and the incalculable ravages of Communism, Russia is a major power with the rotten history of a minor country. It longs both to overtake the world and to be accepted by the world.

Cherishing a capacity for maximum force, Putin will probably curb his most extravagant ambitions only in the face of a serious threat of maximum force in return. But he also needs something to help him sleep at night—just as the U.S. removing its Jupiter missiles from Turkey gave Khrushchev the license he needed to withdraw his missiles from Cuba.

George Kennan had in mind Russia’s colossal inferiority complex when he called the expansion of NATO “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” Kennan counseled “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce.” Kennan knew that Russia was America’s enemy. But he understood, especially in a nuclear world, the importance of knowing Russia.

Photo by Annabelle Chih/NurPhoto via Getty Images


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