All posts by Marko Nenonen

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It is Friday, 13th September. I have learned that Russians are very superstitious, unlike, for example, Finnish and Swedish people. However, there’s no reliable evidence to show that Friday the 13th had had any importance in the history of traditional, archaic magic. The idiom seems to be younger than 150 years.

After a rather long (and sunny) period in Finland, I have been enjoying my time in Moscow. (Indeed, summer was nice and warm in Finland.) I do like this city. Yet I have no idea why. Some of my friends in Finland do not understand me on this issue.

Here and there people ask about Russia and her future. Eh, I am a historian, not a fortune-teller. I am not even a specialist of Russian history. When I tell them I like Russia, people ask whether I always accept what President Mr. Vladimir Putin does. That is not the point; I like the people and the country regardless of the politics. I do not always agree with my favourite politicians in Finland either.

Of course, some things worry me. My question is: Why does only one of Russia’s neighbouring countries see Russia as a good and appealing example of a civic society? The Baltic Countries, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, etc. do not follow Russian example (to say anything about Finland and Norway). The dictatorial Belarus is the only state where Russian style is admired – and even there not that much, as they seem to think that Russia, actually, is too soft towards her critics and democratic ideas. (China, close to Russian style in some matters, has her own way.)

The ideological power of the so-called West originate from the fact that people believe in personal freedom, welfare, social equality and fair legal system and personal security – that is, the branding of the image in the western world has been very successfull. In this sense Russia is light years behind the West. What does the youth of Europe think of Russia?

In history, there is a difference between the developments in Russian empire and Western Europe. Starting from the late Middle Ages more and more stress in Western Europe has been put on the freedom of individuals. Of course, the rich were the first, yet step by step the ordinary people got better chances as well.

If I may slightly exaggerate, in Russia the state (the Empire) and the very conservative Church have always been the most important elements of the society. That means there never was a civic society in the same sense as in Western Europe. Many reasons for the Russian developments have been listed; the Roman Law, Reformations, and the Enlightenment never took root in Russia (as I previously wrote here in my Russian diary). At one point it seemed that Russia would almost surpass the west: serfdom was abolished in Russia (1861/1863) before the slavery of black people was abolished in the USA (1863/1865). And as is well known, racial discrimination continued in the USA as a legal practice up until the 1960s!

However, in the 20th century Russia entirely lost the competition of people’s souls. I want to emphasise, though, that Russia is much, much more than just bad politics.

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As a historian I was asked what are the main factors that have made Russia different with Western Europe. And that question was followed the second one, possibly as important as the first one: can I cut the long story short?

Very briefly, I think there are four major elements explaining the different path in political and social development in Russia compared to the so-called western Europe.

First thing is that the Roman law was never adopted in the core areas of Russia or in the Russian empire. In Western Europe the principles of Roman law supported individual’s position against the overlords and powers of the state or empire. In the Middle Ages a free man could not be tortured! Even the highest authorities had to follow the legal procedures and could always be summoned to appear in court if rules were not followed. Possibly, all this never worked perfectly well but the principles got strength and authority and certainly secured the rights of individuals in many disputes with the overlords.

The second thing was that religious Reformations in the 16th century did not much or at all touch Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church was almost utterly immune to any of such ideas – like individualism – which, in my opinion, were possibly among the most important factors paving the way to the modern society. The Russian Orthodox Church is an extremely conservative force. (One should emphasise that the Catholic faith was also influenced by the new ideas that arose at that time.)

The third difference is that the Enlightenment, also one of the most influencial cultural trends in Western Europe between the Middle Ages and the 20th century, did not find much understanding in Russia. Even though Catherine II (1762—1796) favoured the Enlightenment ideas her influence was not strong enough to further the reforms throughout the society.

Possibly these three issues were the most important factors in creating the western individualism and ideas of human rights and political freedom. This is very much of what historians of the western world usually explain – even though some discord over the details prevails.

Yet, personally, as a man slightly inclined to economic history, I would like to emphasise one more aspect: the emergence of wealthy middle class people. The wealth increased enormously already at the 16th and 17th century in Europe, to say nothing about the 18th century. This heavily contributed individualism and creativeness. Wealth accelerated consumption and luxury which meant more opportunities, more status issues, more change and variety. All this strenghtened the individualistic approach to see what the life is like in a decent society.

Furthermore, it meant that wealthy people wanted to secure their possessions. They needed political sovereignty and fair legal system to protect  their fortune and their rights against tyrants. This principle, manifested in England’s Magna Carta in 1215 and soon also, for example, in some Polish-Lithuanian statutes, was the radical principle fostering the parliamentary system in which the executive power is controlled by the Parliament.

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Yesterday we got something from the post office. A packet. Yes, I think that’s a piece of news. A Christmas present, sent from Riga, Latvia. Postmarked 17 December (2012). Next postmark 12 February (2013), Moscow. A third 25 February, also Moscow. Opened from two corners, taped. And, finally, on Monday 4 March at us.

It took more than 2,5 months. It’s slower than horse transport (in the 17th century).

Anyway, we’re very happy it came. Yet some of my friends in Finland still wait for the letters I’ve sent to them …

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Up until the late 20th century, Russia expanded some 500 years almost continuously. Even the time of troubles at the early 17th century did not change the trend, nor the revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century.

The U.S.A. still lags behind some 250 years – if we count the time. A good perspective to remember?

So far no Western European power has had that long period as a great power as Russia has. Great Britain was rather close, though, and generally the rise of Western Europe surpasses that of Russia’s. Yet Western Europe’s success has been divided by many equally strong states and empires, as in Western Europe the power position has shifted from one to another every now and then.

As a state or an empire Russia survived extremely well. Of course, the success story has a tragic history; it has had its price. Much of what you can find and see in Russia testifies that the human costs of keeping the power status have been enormous. Individuals did not count in Russian history, even less so in the Soviet period. Standard of living was poor, administration arbitrary and legal system corrupted.

People lack many nice things which made life in the western world much easier, softer and admired.

Probably that was the thing that destroyed the Soviet Union and Communism. Political legacy of the governance was questioned.