First of all, what happens with Russia and Ukraine does not really affect Latin America or the its expat community.
However I have mentioned, somewhere in this corner of the metaverse, that I know a Peruvian whose brother married a Russian internet bride. She looked exactly like what you would think a Russian internet bride looks like. I’ve since learned of another case. This second woman wasn’t an internet bride per se. She met a Peruvian friend of a friend who was in Russia on business (government business, of course), and they were betrothed. He brought her to Peru and secured her a resident visa. She soon dumped him, and then stayed in Lima. Brave new world. Despite its troubles, Peru rich AF.
Russia’s GDP per capita is higher than Peru’s, but this may be paper wealth (petrostate fallacy) and not indicative of real wealth in people’s lives. Otherwise, how do you explain Russian internet brides escaping for Peru by marrying men unseen? Maybe it’s a rural Russia vs. Lima thing, but that’s speculation. I have no idea where the Russian women were from.
How does land war in Europe affect Latin America? Assuming the economic isolation of Russia persists, the supply of desperate Russians looking to escape by marrying into upper-middle-class Latin America will increase. How do you like that?
Kind of a stretch, but I’ve justified the title. Now, on to Russia and Vlad the TBD.
What prompts this post is obviously the unprovoked war of aggression by Vladimir Putin. Coincidentally, I have for years now embarked on a binge of Russian history. It started with Red Notice, which I reviewed on the blog (the Magnitsky Act was not on anybody’s radar at the time of publish, which goes to show this blog isn’t only for entertainment but also edification).
I didn’t deliberately keep with the Russian theme, but other books were too compelling. War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Vladimir Nabokov’s novels. Something in there opened the floodgates and I got hooked. I recently finished Robert Massie’s Romanovs series covering Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Nicholas II & Alexandra. I’m now reading about the fall of the Soviet Union and, in keeping my mixed-up order, will do the Bolsheviks next.
Why the fascination with Russia? If we expats love the chaos of primitive Latin America, that comes from the relative backwardness of Spain and Iberia. Russia is even more backwards, more brutal. Spain has only been a democracy since 1977, but Russia still isn’t one. Russian history is stranger than fiction, more compelling than television.
For anybody watching the news, you’ve certainly heard the pundits opine that Putin aspires to restore the Russian Empire. Some pundits focus more on the Soviet Union, given Putin’s KGB background and the recency bias. Whichever flavor sells better, it involves the same territory.
In 2008, Putin told George W. Bush that Ukraine wasn’t really a country. He has been planting the seeds of a land grab for years. In Putin’s defense, he’s not entirely wrong. To be clear, I believe Ukraine is a nation, not just legally but practically. But on the spectrum of whether a place is really a country or not, Ukraine is not cut and dry. It’s on the spectrum. It’s more of a country than many recognized countries (Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Panama, El Salvador), but it’s still on the spectrum.
There was an attempt at independence in the wake of the Russian Revolution, but Ukraine has only been a country since 1991. In fact the East Slavic nation (comprised of non-Balkan, non-Polish Slavs) was born in Kiev, not Moscow. Kiev was the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox Church, where Vladimir the Great introduced Christianity in 800. The imperial capital St. Petersburg was only built in the 18th century. Before that, Russia’s two great cities were Moscow and Kiev.
Whether reunification was Putin’s idea from the beginning, or an aspiration to build a legacy after consolidating power for so long, it’s clear Vladimir the TBD is trying to restore parts of the Russian empire. He’ll never take all of it, but if he’s going to do anything, the major prize is Ukraine. If Putin is trying to secure a place in history, let’s have a look at how he compares.
Peter the Great
Peter the Great is my (and most people’s) favorite Russian leader. He’s hard not to like. He was a reformer in a deeply backwards country, more backwards than it is today. When Peter ascended the throne, Russia wasn’t considered a part of Europe. It was Asia. Its people were white Christians, but considered barbaric primitives. Light-skinned Mongols.
Peter the Great ended that. Peter couldn’t have been more different than Putin in that he embraced Western Europe. He was an anti-traditionalist. He ostracized the Old Believers of Russian Orthodoxy, in part by enforcing a ban on traditional beards … personally … with scissors. He grabbed grown men by the beard, often nobles, and cut their beards off himself! As a young man, he organized a drunken revelry mocking orthodox ritual, officially sanctioned blasphemy which he continued throughout his life.
Peter was the first Russian to name a woman as his successor, and a peasant at that (his Lithuanian wife Catherine I). On today’s standards, Peter the Great was at least an anti-traditionalist, if not a woke revolutionary. Putin, on the other hand, has embraced a nostalgia for tradition, particularly religious, and cultural conservatism.
More important than culture, Peter adopted Western Europe’s methods. He imported not only its technologies and practices, but its people. A recurring scandal in his government was how many Germans, Brits and Dutch he elevated to the highest offices, particularly in the military. He mandated Russian nobles send their sons off to study shipbuilding in Italy, Holland and beyond. Peter modernized a primitive country and converted it into a respected, if not feared, European power … with a navy.
Russia had no navy before Peter the Great. Its only seaport was Archangel, which is frozen six months a year. Peter expanded by conquest Russia’s territory to gain access to the Baltic Sea via Riga, Tallinn and of course St. Petersburg (which he built on a swamp). He won these cities by destroying in spectacular fashion the preeminent northern power, Sweden, whose humbling was the beginning of what it is today, the country that awards peace prizes.
It isn’t fair to judge Putin against Peter based on territory gained, because the world is more settled than it was 300 years ago. But another point of differentiation is success rate and degree of difficulty. Not only did Peter lead an underdog to a shocking upset over the regional champ, he did it with continuous tactical retreats.
Putin is often credited as a brilliant strategist who knows how to play a weak hand, but he has also benefitted from good timing. He has been able to play aggressive offense for the last 15 years given how weary the West (read “the U.S.”) is of war after Iraq and Afghanistan. But he’s been a one-trick pony so far, doubling down on threats and aggression time and again. Time will tell how he adjusts to adversity as Ukraine is not lying down.
Can Putin retreat in a way that ultimately advances Russia’s interests? TBD.
Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great was not only an admirer of Western Europe, she was German herself. She admired the Enlightenment thinkers of France, particularly Voltaire. She certainly loved Russian culture and in particular Russian Orthodoxy, but she was on the side of progress. Early in her reign, she embarked on a failed campaign to free the serfs. She would later grow quite reactionary, especially after the nobility saved her from a peasant rebellion, after which came the French Revolution. But on the whole, Catherine aimed to be a merciful and benevolent leader for Russia. Putin, not so much.
However progressive, this was still the 18th century and kingdoms were fluid. Like Peter, Catherine expanded Russia’s empire. Russia’s blueprint for the slow-motion seizing of territory was in part pioneered by Catherine’s Partitions of Poland.
Catherine first installed as king of Poland a puppet ruler in her former lover, Stanislaus. She attempted to rule through him by keeping the country divided (which it was naturally). But when the Poles united behind opposition to Russian hegemony, Catherine sent in troops to occupy Warsaw until the legislature ratified a cessation of territory. With co-conspirators Prussia and Austria, Russia got the largest share of 36,000 square miles and 1.8 million people, most of whom were ethnic Russians.
After French revolutionaries slaughtered their royals, Russia and Prussia sent armies into what was left of Poland to oppose what they branded a rising “Jacobin threat.” Austria wanted to leave Poland somewhat intact, with an amenable government. Prussia wanted to take more land but leave a small, amenable buffer state between the three. Catherine proposed erasing Poland from the map. Her idea won.
In 1795 they sliced up what was left of Poland, which wouldn’t be an independent country again until the Treaty of Versailles in 1918 (when Germany, Austria and Russia collapsed). In the partition, Russia gained 89,000 square miles, which completed Russia’s absorption of present-day Belarus, Ukraine and most of Lithuania. Russia gained 3 million subjects. A Russian governor was installed and the kingdom of Poland was shuttered, with all regalia, banners, insignia, archives and libraries sent to Russia.
Catherine claimed she had annexed “not a single Pole,” but had simply reunited a people of Russian faith and race to the Russian motherland, and restored Russian and Lithuanian lands to the Russian principality of Kiev. Sound familiar? There’s more. Catherine annexed Crimea in an expansion on previous conquests of Peter the Great to gain access to the Black Sea in the south.
If Catherine sounds like Putin’s perfect antecedent, it’s worth noting Catherine never got into trouble militarily, unlike even Peter, who overextended himself with the Turks, which is why he lost access to the Black Sea. Catherine had temptations, including a request to help the English keep its American colonies. But she never committed to anything that ultimately lost.
Catherine was never in as much trouble as Putin is in now. I can’t think of a time when Putin exercised calculated restraint. Assuming he doesn’t turn the tables in Ukraine and come out with some astonishing victory, Putin will likely limp away with at least one more L than Catherine.
Catherine was a patron to the arts, amassing the world’s best art collection of the era in the Hermitage Museum. While Peter founded St. Petersburg, she built it into the “Venice of the North” and commissioned the construction of Russia’s most iconic architecture. She set the stage for the emergence of Russia’s best-known novelists, artists and thinkers. Putin? TBD.
Historic gem unrelated to Putin, but relevant today, Catherine was a champion of science. Smallpox was a plague of the era, and Catherine convinced a skeptical public to get vaccinated by being the first to be inoculated herself. I’ve heard academics say, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Man, I don’t think this episode stops at rhyming. From the book:
At the time, the prevailing attitude toward the disease was fatalistic: people believed that, sooner or later, everyone must have it, and that some would survive and some would die.
Many in Moscow’s terror-stricken population came to believe that the physicians and their medicines had brought the plague to the city. They refused to obey orders forbidding them to gather in marketplaces and churches and to kiss supposedly miraculous icons in hope of protection. Instead, they gathered to seek salvation and solace around these icons.
“My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger,” [Catherine wrote].“Catherine the Great” by Robert Massie
Nicholas the Inept
Giving autocrats nicknames fell out of favor before Nicholas II ascended, but I would call him Nicholas the Inept. He was probably a nice guy, just out of his league. Not up to the task. In hindsight, he may have been able to slow-walk a transition to constitutional monarchy.
Nicholas was pressured by the family elders who insisted he maintain the autocracy. He may have sincerely agreed, but his mismanagement laid the path for the Bolsheviks to rise to power, the formation of the Soviet Union and the implementation of communism over tens of millions of people. No small blunder.
Carrying an autocracy into the 20th century was outside Nicholas’s sphere of competence. Russia’s government badly needed reforms, without which would have required a brutal tyrant. Nicholas II was too young and unprepared. In this sense, Putin is nothing like Nicholas. Putin has not only maintained autocracy in the more challenging 21st century, he has helped others maintain or even spread autocracy (e.g. Syria, Belarus, Venezuela).
But people will say Putin has total control of Russia … until he doesn’t. If he is ousted in a year, or in five or 10, the previous 20 count for nothing. Nicholas II held on for over two decades. If Putin is ever ousted, he will also be judged as tone-deaf. Will he have that in common with Nicholas II? TBD.
Nicholas was naïve in geopolitics. He was manipulated by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who goaded him into the disastrous Russo-Japanese War and later facilitated the effective swindling of Russia’s interests in Serbia and Bosnia. Putin may be TBD, but we have no indication he is manipulated by other leaders. If the world is led by manipulators and the manipulated, he is the former.
Nicholas is occasionally lauded for saving France. His confronting the Germans prevented them from sacking Paris early in World War I. In doing so, Nicholas mobilized 15 million Russians into the trenches, almost 2 million of whom died. In this respect, Putin is currently following Russia’s tendency to wage war of attrition with staggering casualties. Estimates aren’t verified, but it seems possible at the time of publish that Russia has already lost as many soldiers in Ukraine as the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. That’s 20 years of American losses in just two weeks … and they don’t even control the territory yet. If Russia’s casualties aren’t that high yet, it’s inevitable they will be if Putin doesn’t cut and run within the next two weeks.
Nicholas the Inept was a sympathetic character in being a family man. He was a devoted husband and father. At a time when royals married for convenience and found love and diversion elsewhere, Nicholas was the exception to the rule in sharing a bed with his wife. A man who could have had a new woman for every erection he ever had, he probably never cheated on Alexandra. They lived for their children, and to be together as a family. If he weren’t so inept at the brutal business of autocracy, they could have had a longer life together. Despite the atrocities of his government, the world was shocked at the Bolsheviks’ undignified slaughtering of Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children.
Will any redeeming virtues emerge for Putin? TBD.
Stalin the Terrible
Ivan the Terrible is the only king I am aware of who was dubbed “the Terrible.” Massie touches on Ivan in Peter the Great, and I get the impression he was like Nero of Rome in just being a mild prick for most of his life, and becoming truly terrible at the end. Stalin was on another level. Like an antichrist.
Putin’s dominance of the political arena and national media isn’t just similar to Stalin, the architect of the Soviet system that produced Putin. It is directly inspired by if not inherited from him. The false reality the Soviet Union created for the public was captured in George Orwell’s 1984. The misinformation was truly untethered, yet so ingrained that revealing reality under Gorbachev’s glasnost was a gargantuan and politically perilous effort.
We’ve heard modern Russia has a similarly closed environment of propaganda, if not as extreme. A telling example are the reports of captured Russian prisoners saying they didn’t know their mission was to invade Ukraine until the day before. Meanwhile, all the newspapers of the world forecast for weeks that Russia had some kind of designs on Ukraine given the troop buildup. Big Brother and Newspeak are alive and well in Russia.
Stalin ordered high-profile assassinations of rivals and defectors throughout the world, most notably fellow Bolshevik Leon Trotsky in Mexico City. The assassinations continued for decades after Stalin’s death, but there was a notable pause during Gorbachev’s perestroika. Putin revived the practice with poisonings, often outside Russian borders, and often failing to kill their targets.
Stalin engaged in a handful of short wars with neighbors over territory, as Putin has done in Ukraine and Georgia. Stalin fought Finland, (newly constituted) Poland and Iran. After the defeat of Japan in World War II, Stalin backed a newly divided North Korea’s invasion of the U.S.-backed South Korea. In foreign policy, whether they be land grabs of various success or backing dictatorial regimes and economic degenerates, Putin acts much like Stalin.
Something Americans aren’t taught in schools, or weren’t when I grew up in the 80s and 90s, but which I’ve come to see in my informal education, is that antichrist Stalin the Terrible led Russia in sacrificing more than any other nation to defeat Nazi Germany. Will Putin have any noble legacy? TBD.
Stalin killed between 3 million and 7 million Ukrainians in the Great Famine, an attack meant to undermine Ukrainian national identity and more easily absorb Ukrainians into a Soviet identity. Putin won’t hit those numbers, but he seems to be using the same tactics in terrorizing civilians to break the collective will and undermine their aspirations to a national identity.
Stalin’s final death toll is high enough to join the ranks of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung as the 20th century’s top villains. Nobody does those kinds of numbers today, but will Putin join the elite villains of the 21st century? TBD.
Vlad the TBD and Latin America
We don’t know how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will end. Putin’s legacy is to be determined, but I’ll forward one politically incorrect suggestion, and a final way this episode could affect Latin America.
If Putin wins and it turns out the world continues as it has always been, which is to say national borders are fluid, then let’s made some edits in Latin America … for the better. Instead of growing the territories of closed countries ruled by despots, let’s shrink them.
Colombia can absorb parts of Venezuela, under the pretext of depriving nonstate actors of safe harbor given Maduro’s government is not in control of vast swathes of Venezuelan territory near the Colombian border. While Colombia doesn’t completely control all its own territory, it can certainly do enough to take some of Venezuela.
Mexico can annex parts of the northern triangle. If Ukraine isn’t really a country, certainly Honduras and El Salvador aren’t. Unlike Russia for Ukraine, Colombia and Mexico would be better governance for these target subjects. It would be good for them, like it was for the western states to become part of the United States after the Mexican-American War. Who’s with me? More ideas at Make Latin America Great Again.
Peter the Great is the best read if you want to cheer for an inspiring underdog who prevails against the odds. I understand there is a television series based on his life, but I haven’t seen it yet.
I found myself cheering for Catherine the Great early, as her position is tenuous and vulnerable. The story of her arranged marriage to Peter III is nothing less than outlandish, surreal, freakish, Game of Thrones-esque, ripe for an astonishing television series. Unfortunately, the HBO series based on her life was bollocks precisely because it skipped over her young life and marriage to Peter the Child. Skip the show, read the book.
The most bizarre, page-turning chapter in Russian history is Nicholas and Alexandra (and Rasputin!). If you don’t want to read the book, an excellent Netflix captures the story in The Last Tsars. Must-see TV.
I’m currently reading Lenin’s Tomb on the final days of the Soviet Union, which featured public revelations of its sordid past. I’m set to start Stalin and the Bolsheviks afterward. The Russian television series Trotsky was the best television I’ve seen on the revolution.
War and Peace is great for an intimate picture of the colonial Russians, with the context of Napoleon’s invasion. Its length is exaggerated. It’s about as long as Atlas Shrugged, but without the long, boring speeches by John Galt. Pale Fire by Nabokov is an all-time favorite, but like anything by Nabokov, only provides a little color to existing Russian history.
Please share your recommendations, whether they be books or video!