Jyri sent me this 2018 lecture in Finnish (subtitled in English), given by Martti Kari, a former Colonel working in military intelligence, with expertise in Russian “strategic culture”, and who is now at the university. Here he is explaining why Russians think and behave so differently from us in the West, which gives us some ways of guessing what they might do in the future. This has, for me, shed much light on the motivation behind the Ukrainian invasion and so much else that Russia has done.
Finland, of course, borders Russia, and at various points in history has been part of Russia, fought with Russia, and invaded by Russia. They held off the Russians in the brutal 1939 Winter War, when they invented the Molotov Cocktail, and have, of course, deep knowledge of their bellicose neighbor.
It is an hour-long lecture, and I learned a lot from it. My timestamps are iffy at best, and I took a lot of liberty with my summations and paraphrases. But it’s worth watching in its entirety. Here are my summary notes if you need to get back to the demands of work, doomscrolling or the exigencies of CNN.
3:09 Russia has many layers, which he will enumerate. The foundation of Russian society is Slavic culture. The Slavic people are seen as one, Russians are the most numerous and greatest of the Slavic people, and Slavic unity must be defended.
3:52 With the fall of Constantinople, Eastern Roman traditions came to Moscow, and with this came Religion, Conservatism and Authority and the belief that supremacy cannot be challenged as authority is given by God and is therefore infallible and cannot be challenged.
4:28 In 1240 The Mongols conquered Russia and held it for 150 years. It was a time of cruelty, as evidenced by the Russian words for torture, taxation and corruption, words which have Mongol roots. Total domination is granted to the sole leader, the Khan, and cruelty and corruption are part of his privilege. Under Mongol rule survival meant lying, crime and violence.
5:34 At the end of their reign, the Mongols did not depart, but merged into the ruling culture of Russia. A period of chaos followed the Mongol rule, and the Poles who conquered them did not have a strong leader. The chaos and confusion finally ended when the Romanovs were installed and the Russians saw that A strong leader eliminates chaos, and has, of course, the mandate of God.
It is important to note core Russian beliefs that Democracy is equal to Chaos, and Autocracy is superior to Chaos and Mayhem. Russia has consistently been under authoritarian rule since the Mongols.
6:48 The era of European Russia began, and Russian expansion from 1815-1914. Russia was reified through its culture, its writers, etc. (This was happening in Finland too, with the codification of their national mythology in the Kalevala)
8:44 Then came the Soviet Era and WWII taught them that it was better to fight outside their country. This is because of their fundamental geographical weakness. They have 11 time zones, and are difficult to defend. The Urals are easily attacked and have been throughout history (Napoleon, Hitler). They have no mountains or rivers or place to shelter, and are easy to conquer.
9:07 Russians believe strongly in Russianness, which is made up of ORTHODOXY + AUTOCRACY + NARODNOST. The Russian Orthodox church gives them the infallibility and righteousness of God, and Autocracy is what they have lived under since 1240. Narodnost is “the people” but really “the role the people play”.
Narodnost means submission, sacrifice and passivity: the Tsar cannot make mistakes. He is Just. Around him are Princes who will rise to become Tsar one day. But when mistakes are made they are made by a class of people under the Princes in the hierarchy, the Boyars. The Boyars are the ones who make mistakes and are blamed. These are those supperrich oligarchs and governors in league with Putin who frequently go missing, have boating accidents, or hang themselves in their garages.
The Boyars were once landowners and governors of their land. They owned territories and property. But in recent years they no longer own their lands, but have tenure, and with their tenure comes the understanding that they can control the territories and their slaves so long as they behave.
Once a Boyar reaches a certain level, he is entitled to a certain amount of corruption. High ranking Boyars get to steal, but there are rules. You can’t steal from certain people, and you can’t steal too much. Business oligarchs are Boyars too.
And Narodnost. The Infallible Tsar knows better than the people what they need. And Russians can endure an incredible amount of suffering. In Russia suffering is a virtue. It is honorable to suffer. And the role of the people is to sacrifice themselves for the Tsar.
18:13 Russians live in two realities: the reality of the outside world, and the kitchen table reality. That is, they have conversations around the kitchen table about how things are, but when they leave, they enter a separate reality. This is normal.
21:02 Nikolai I said Russia’s sacred mission is to be “messenger of a higher civilization.” and, a relevant quote “A little warfare in the border regions is needed to maintain a patriotic spirit.”
80% of Russians get their new on Putin-controlled television, comprised of “different facts”. The relevant story on those channels is that NATO is constantly attacking Russia, which is perpetually under siege. Russia sees itself as being at constant war with NATO.
The task of the state leadership is to stay in power. They are not interested in the lives of ordinary Russians. As George F Kennan, American diplomat and US Ambassador to Russia, and architect of the containment policies of the Cold War, said in 1946 “The Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is based on their traditional and instinctive insecurity.”
He also says:
“Russia is deaf to the logic of reason, but very sensitive to the logic of power.”
American imperialism is based on some want or need. Say, oil. Russian imperialism is based on fear.
28:20 Information Geopolitics works by misdirection promulgated by spokesmen. Lenin originated the idea of Useful Idiots, like Trump, who believe they are being given power, but are actually pawns in a game they don’t know they’re playing. (this is my own embroidery; Martti Kari didn’t say this exactly)
30:28 Russians have savior complex: They saved Europe from Napoleon and from Hitler and believe they are saving Europe, even if they have not been asked
33:11 The Bronze Horseman by Pushkin is one of the first poems every Russian child reads. (Which, Wikipedia notes “…symbolizes “Tsar Peter, the city of St Petersburg, and the uncanny reach of autocracy over the lives of ordinary people.”)
36:29 In spite of what may be otherwise believed, Russians are not innovators or technologists. They copied the microchip and nuclear weapons. The current priority under Putin is AI.
38:00 Russian has two words for truth and three words for a lie. Significantly “pravda” means the truth, but not the absolute truth. It’s a “truth” told to get out of an awkward or bad situation, a tactical truth. “Istina” is a truth that is the opposite of a lie. “Vranjo” is a noble lie or a strategic lie. A lie that can be told to people outside your community. Russians are skillful practitioners of Doublethink.
40:27. Everyone understands when someone says something different at the kitchen table than out in public. “We had nothing to do with the shooting down of the Malaysian plane”, for example. Or Putin saying “We did not meddle in the 2016 US Elections. Read my lips.” Russians know, we did, but we didn’t get caught. They will revise the truth when they have been caught. He goes on to give numerous examples, each more egregious than the last. And of course someone’s Grandmother is disappeared for showing her grandson receiving a medal from Putin for a crime he ostensibly did not commit.
44:57 So what would destabilize Russia? He eliminates several possibilities such as “the global recession is not really a problem since they are always in a recession” He homes in on:
The Russians fear turmoil, chaos, as in the time before the Romanovs. the Post Soviet 1990s were a time of turmoil. They equate chaos with having a weak leader.
46:27 Then he shows Putin’s friends from his 70s era Judo club, back in the day, including Zolotov, a lathe operator by trade, but who, though laughably under-credentialed for the job, has been elevated to Boyar by Putin, a three star general in charge of the National Guard–since Putin cannot entirely trust the armed forces
47:38 The National Guard is in charge of suppressing internal unrest, with a mandate to use violence. Except against pregnant women.
Navalny called out Zolotov on his ill-gotten gains, because Zolotov is high ranking and entitled to a high level of corruption. He challenged him to appear in a conversation with him on TV. Zolotov responded by threatening to make “minced meat” of Navalny in a physical fight. Judo, maybe. Business as usual in Russia.
50:14 During the time of turmoil, Power was decentralized, more power went to the various regions, corruption continued. Russia embraced, incredibly, free speech, the West was no longer a threat, and also incredibly, Russia considered joining NATO. But the era of democracy turned the word Democracy into a curse word.
50:48 But fortunately, in the eyes of the Russians, a strong leader emerged in 2000. Putin. And all the familiar things returned:
- Authoritarian system of leadership
- Corruption and cronyism
- Persecution of the opposition
- The West portrayed as a threat
- A mock democracy
- The Messianic Mission
- Imperial expansion
- Make Russia Great Again
53:13 Unlike with the Nazis vs. the Jews, who belonged to different tribes, there were executions and victims in every family and every home in Russia. Both the killer and the victim could be from the same family.
Russians celebrate Stalin and wish to go back to their (fictitious) heroic past. They see their actions as correcting historical injustices. Other nations leave their histories in the past, but to Russia all wounds are fresh wounds.
55:15 So what will happen in Russia? Some possibilities. (remember this was from 2018)
1 Stagnation and status quo until Putin is out in 2024
2 Stalin 2.0: oppression stepped up, more purges
3 Collapse of state due to external shock 👀
4 Democratic uprising (unlikely)
5 East vs. West again. Escalation between pro-West “Zapadniki” and anti-West “Slavophiles”
Who are the Princes, the Tsars-in-Training? They will need to guarantee a peaceful end of reign for the retiring Tsar, as Putin did for Yeltsin. Medvedev is too soft. And the prince needs to be a hero. He presents two:
-previously Putin’s chief security guard
-As Spetsnaz chief, oversaw the annexation of Crimea (and extracted Yanukovich from Kyiv from the “fascists” in power ) in 2014
-Hero of the Russian Federation
-Plays goalie on Putin’s hockey team, and is a pretty good goalkeeper, unless Putin is shooting on goal.
-“on standby” as Governor of Tula Oblast until Putin retires in 2024, where hopefully nothing goes wrong before 2024 so he can stay clean
-Minister of Emergency Situations
…Except he was killed in 2021 (he fell off a cliff) he was made a Hero of the Russian Federation posthumously
58:40 Putin’s reputation and popularity is in decline (Fall 2018) People are saying Putin is responsible for Russia’s problems. That the people’s well being is important, not the military. 20 million people live in poverty.
Olga Koltsova, a protester: “Either those in power are aware of the mood and listening to the people, or some kind of social explosion will happen. When the lid of the boiler is too tight it will fly into the air.” (Nov 2018)
As in 1917, and the November Revolution.
59:49 Last he shows a protester, a child, being arrested. The kid probably doesn’t get his information from Putin’s TV, but from the internet.