Professor David McDonald, UW-Madison

Mortenson Lecture: Professor David McDonald, UW-Madison

"The Imperial Rhythms of Modern Russian History"

“Basically, I offer an answer to the perennial question among English-speaking audiences:  ‘Why can’t the Russians be like us?’”

David McDonald

Ms. Alice Mortenson is a Minneapolis resident and University of Wisconsin—Madison alumnus in history who has endowed a chair in Russian history at her alma mater since 2005. TMORA applauds Ms. Mortenson’s generous support of this lecture series in the service of the museum’s educational mission.

David McDonald is Alice D. Mortenson-Michael B. Petrovich Professor of History
at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

Some Excerpts from David McDonald’s work:

For at least two centuries, the successive imperial, Soviet and post-Soviet orders in Russia have alternatively confounded or alarmed Western observers and policy-makers, an attitude best captured by Winston Churchill when describing “Russia” as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  We find ourselves in similar befuddlement even today, as the hopes for a new beginning, inspired by that blissful dawn of 1991, have now given way to troubled reflections on the return of authoritarian governance embodied in the person of Vladimir Putin.  If his predecessor Boris Yeltsin sought, however ham-fistedly, to institute something like what we would recognize as a modern democracy, the flinty-eyed ex-KGB operative who currently runs Russia seems bent on a return to the repressive policies of his Communist forebears and to reimposing Russia’s presence as a player on the world stage.

The response to these developments among Western—or English-speaking—observers most often boils down to a genuine disappointment at Russians’ inability to become more like us.  A similar disappointment pervaded the overthrow of the Provisional Government in 1917, and even the failure of Nicholas II’s government to accept the lessons of the less-known revolution of 1905.  Underlying this disappointment is a complex premise that demands re-examination:  namely, that our participatory, rule-of-law, and market-economy democracies represent a universal norm for all societies; any rejection of them is in and of itself either willful or perverse.  This premise tends to overlook several important, if often frustrating, facts:  the current regime has integrated itself into the global economy much more thoroughly than any preceding Russian government since, arguably, 1900; despite the travails that have wracked in the last 150 years, let alone since 1991, Russia remains a redoubtable global power; and, most curious, the repressive Putin-Med’vedev regime enjoys approval ratings among the populace that would be the envy of any Western politician.

I want to suggest another way of trying to understand the Russian enigma, by suggesting that our perspective on and criticisms of Russia tell us more about what we value in our own societies and governments than they do about what appears “normal” in Russian political tradition.  By contrast, I will suggest that Russian statecraft stems from a set of ideas and perspectives on society and history that are every bit as venerable as those that underpin our own.  This tradition, rooted in arguments for what we now call “absolutism,” sprang from the same milieu that gave us our own notions about the centrality of rights, markets, and the individual:  the religious, social, and political struggles that convulsed Europe in the seventeenth century.  In states like Prussia, the Habsburg Empire and, after Peter the Great [r. 1696-1725], the Russian Empire, the unremitting demands of marshalling domestic resources for military conflict gave rise to a tradition that emphasized the importance of the state as the defender of the realm from external threat and internal disorder; these roles made it the supreme, indeed necessary, mobilizer and director of society and its resources, all in the name of raison d’etat. This view of that state and society anchored statecraft in the three “eastern” empires of Russia, the Habsburg lands, and Prussia/Germany well into the twentieth century; it persists in Russia

In the Russian case, one more important and often overlooked, consideration came into play—the issue of that country’s “backwardness” or its corollary, Russian attitudes toward the West.  I propose that we should understand this issue in another frame, which incorporates the idea that Russian politicians and thinkers have since the eighteenth century accepted a view of history as progressive and developmental.  This view of history almost dictates that Russia stands “behind” its western neighbors and competitors, entailing in its turn the necessity to “catch up to and overtake” the West, to use Stalin’s phrase.  The acceptance of this historical perspective within a larger absolutist view of the world has had important consequences for the career of state power in post-Petrine Russia, including the Soviet and current regimes, as well as for such countries as China, Turkey, and even Iran.

In this view, “catching up” has meant several things, but not least the imperative, associated with raison d’etat, that Russia is a great power and be recognized as such by what leaders and citizens alike would call “advanced” states.  The 1990’s, when Russians might have chosen to become like us, witnessed a dismaying decline in economic well-being and the country’s international status, with the expansion of NATO, the EU, and western policies in the Balkans and Middle East.  Interestingly, statesmen and citizens chose a solution to Russia’s “statehood” that demonstrated the persistence and, to many, the persuasiveness of an older tradition now untrammeled by Communist ideology.  The current apparent success of Russian recovery since 1997 might well entrench the continuation of this approach to statecraft, whether we like it or not.  As citizens of the West, we might well ask ourselves whether our interests are better served by trying to make the Russians into ourselves—at the risk of recurrent disappointment—or working with them as they are.  To take the latter course does not entail endorsing or applauding Russian political traditions, but it does require understanding them.

—Professor David McDonald

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