June 25, 2024
Historical Mindedness is a form of reasoning that deals with historical material and present-day problems and it is woven throughout the U.S. Army War College curriculum. It doesn't predict the future or provide all the answers to modern international situations, but it does arm strategic thinkers with the right questions to ask of the dilemmas they face. Alexander Mikaberidze is in the studio today to look at how historical mindedness can inform our understanding of Russia's war in Ukraine. He joins Michael Neiberg to discuss his newest book "Kutuzov: A Life in War and Peace" for this episode in our On Writing series. Alexander argues that the current conflict has its roots in the 18th century and the behaviors of the House of Romanov. He notes that the Russian and Soviet governments have cast historical figures such as Field Marshal Mikhail Golenischev-Kutuzov in different ways, both positively and negatively, to suit their own purposes.

Historical Mindedness is a form of reasoning that deals with historical material and present-day problems and it is woven throughout the U.S. Army War College curriculum. It doesn’t predict the future or provide all the answers to modern international situations, but it does arm strategic thinkers with the right questions to ask of the dilemmas they face. Alexander Mikaberidze is in the studio today to look at how historical mindedness can inform our understanding of Russia’s war in Ukraine. He joins Michael Neiberg to discuss his newest book Kutuzov: A Life in War and Peace for this episode in our On Writing series. Alexander argues that the current conflict has its roots in the 18th century and the behaviors of the House of Romanov. He notes that the Russian and Soviet governments have cast historical figures such as Field Marshal Mikhail Golenischev-Kutuzov in different ways, both positively and negatively, to suit their own purposes.

Putin famously stated that the collapse of Soviet Union, in his mind was the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century, and I think that is the core around which the narrative was constructed of the past two decades. That Russia is the successor to the empire, to the Soviet Union, and that neither the Empire nor Soviet Union have done anything wrong.

Alexander Mikaberidze is Professor of History and Ruth Herring Noel Endowed Chair at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. He has written and edited some two dozen titles on military history, including the critically acclaimed The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History and his newest book Kutuzov: A Life in War and Peacewhich garnered the 2023 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History.

Michael Neiberg is the Chair of War Studies at the U.S. Army War College.

The views expressed in this presentation are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Photo Description: The coat of arms of Russia depicts a golden two-headed eagle on a red background. Above its heads, there are three crowns, symbolizing the sovereignty of the Russian Federation and its regions. The scepter and orb, which the eagle holds in its claws, personify state power and a unified state. On the chest of an eagle, there is a horseman who slays a serpent. This is one of the ancient symbols of the struggle between good and evil and the defense of the Motherland.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of pxhere.com

7 thoughts on “RUSSIAN IMPERIAL HISTORY-THEN AND NOW: ALEXANDER MIKABERIDZE
(ON WRITING)

  1. Russia’s war in Ukraine, etc., today — and China’s potential war in Taiwan, etc., today — these are best viewed, I suggest, from the perspective of New/Reverse Cold War; a war, thus, in which Russia and China, today, face much the same threat to their regimes that the U.S./the West faced, re: their regimes, in the Old Cold War of yesterday. (To wit: the threat of [a] expansionist great nations [b] attempting to — and/or actually achieving — the placement of a rival political, economic, social and/or value system in one’s backyard/in one’s historical spheres of influence.)

    Given this such historic similarity (the Soviets/the communists sought expansion of such things as communism and socialism in places such as Central America in the Old Cold War of yesterday; the U.S./the West seeks expansion of such things as market-democracy in places such as Ukraine today); given this such historic similarity, Russia and China, today, have adopted the U.S./the West’s — tried and proven — and certainly considered legitimate — “containment” and “roll back” strategies. In this regard, note Russian and Chinese appeal today (much as the U.S./the West did in the Old Cold War?) to such things as “traditional values” (i.e., the “natural enemy” of “revolutionary change”):

    “In his annual appeal to the Federal Assembly in December 2013, Putin formulated this ‘independent path’ ideology by contrasting Russia’s ‘traditional values’ with the liberal values of the West. He said: ‘We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.’ He proclaimed that Russia would defend and advance these traditional values in order to ‘prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.’ ” (See the Wilson Center publication “Kennan Cable No. 53” and, therein, the article “Russia’s Traditional Values and Domestic Violence,” by Olimpiada Usanova, dated 1 June 2020.)

    “This may, in fact, be the missing explanatory element. Ideologies regularly define themselves against a perceived ‘other,’ and in this case there was quite plausibly a common and powerful ‘other’ (to wit: Western liberalism) that both (Chinese) cultural conservatism and (Chinese) political leftism defined themselves against. This also explains why leftists have, since the 1990s, become considerably more tolerant, even accepting, of cultural conservatism than they were for virtually the entire 20th century. The need to accumulate additional ideological resources to combat a perceived Western liberal ‘other’ is a powerful one, and it seems perfectly possible that this could have overridden whatever historical antagonism, or even substantive disagreement, existed between the two positions.” (Items in parenthesis above are mine. (See the April 24, 2015 Foreign Policy article “What it Means to Be ‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’ in China: Putting the Country’s Most Significant Political Divide in Context” by Taisu Zhang.)

    Thus, more recent history — and the historical learning derived from same — being more useful for us study, consider and be informed by today?

    1. Again with most emphasis on the Old Cold War of yesterday — and not so much on Russian imperial times — note how Russia, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — much like the U.S./the West in the Old Cold War of yesterday — and re: our/their similar “containment” and “roll back” strategies then as now — sought/seeks to work more “by, with and through” the more “conservative” individuals and groups throughout the world (and even in the opponent’s own country), to wit: those who are, traditionally and consistently, most likely to be opposed to “revolutionary change.” (“Revolutionary change” such as the Soviets/the communists sought to achieve in the name of communism back in the Old Cold War of yesterday, and “revolutionary change” such as the U.S./the West seeks to achieve in the name of such things as market-democracy in the New/Reverse Cold War of today):

      “During the Cold War, the USSR was perceived by American conservatives as an ‘evil empire,’ as a source of destructive cultural influences, while the United States was perceived as a force that was preventing the world from the triumph of godless communism and anarchy. The USSR, by contrast, positioned itself as a vanguard of emancipation, as a fighter for the progressive transformation of humanity (away from religion and toward atheism), and against the reactionary forces of the West. Today positions have changed dramatically; it is the United States or the ruling liberal establishment that in the conservative narrative has become the new or neo-USSR, spreading subversive ideas about family or the nature of authority around the world, while Russia has become almost a beacon of hope, ‘the last bastion of Christian values’ that helps keep the world from sliding into a liberal dystopia. Russia’s self-identity has changed accordingly; now it is Russia who actively resists destructive, revolutionary experiments with fundamental human institutions, experiments inspired by new revolutionary neo-communists from the United States. Hence the cautious hopes that the U.S. Christian right have for contemporary Russia: They are projecting on Russia their fantasies of another West that has not been infected by the virus of cultural liberalism.” (See the December 18, 2019, Georgetown University, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs article “Global Culture Wars from the Perspective of Russian and American Actors: Some Preliminary Conclusions,” by Dmitry Uzlaner. Look to the paragraph beginning with “Russia and the United States as screens for each other’s projections.”)

      Question: If we were to go back to Russian imperial times, would we find Russia (etc.?) back then — much like Russia today — appealing to “conservatives” worldwide — and to such things as everyone’s “traditional values;” this, (a) much as the U.S./the West did re: its “containment” and “roll back” strategies in the Old Cold War of yesterday and (b) much has Russia has been doing in the New/Reverse Cold War of today?

      1. As to my suggestion, immediately above, of Russia, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, appealing to “conservatives” worldwide — and even to “conservatives” here in the U.S./the West — as to my such suggestion, consider the following re: Putin’s speech on the war on Ukraine; a speech that was given on October 27, 2022:

        “Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday delivered remarks that appeared to be aimed at conservatives overseas, saying there are ‘two Wests,’ with one, ‘the cosmopolitan West,’ being ‘a tool of the liberal elites.’

        The ‘traditional’ West has ‘mainly Christian values,’ and that aligns with Russia, Putin said during his speech at a foreign policy conference near Moscow. The elites have ‘strange values,’ he continued, and they are ‘aggressive’ and ‘neocolonial.’ ”

        (See the October 27, 2022 “The Week” article entitled “Putin Seemingly Uses Speech to Appeal to Conservatives Abroad” by Catherine Garcia.)

        Question:

        a. While we certainly might have seen something like this coming from the U.S./the West in the Old Cold War of yesterday:

        “Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism.” In fact, Gorbachev himself gave the Kremlin’s long-term enemy this due, ‘It would have been impossible without the Pope.’ ”

        (See the Public Broadcasting System [PBS] “Frontline” article “John Paul II and the Fall of Communism” by Jane Barnes and Hellen Whitney.)

        b. Would we have seen something like this coming from the rulers of Russia back in Russian imperial times?

  2. The study of History is very important to understand what the present time expresses. The dialogue in this podcast about the origins of the contemporary Russian state and its relations with the rest of Europe is very interesting. Surely such a detailed analysis can give clues to understand the logic of Russia’s expansionism, of its imperial interests as a priority, of its longing to return to its area of influence. However, it would not be accurate to assume that the same patterns are exactly replicated in today’s World current affairs; social conditions are very different from those of the 18th century throughout Eurasia and the rest of the world.
    For example, I am particularly taken by the emphasis on understanding Russia, Putin and the Russian elite as a line of continuity pursuing past imperial glory, from the Romanovs to Putin. It seems to me very important to consider a possible ideological trend or pattern, and how it may influence the motives behind the armed conflict in Ukraine. However, if the interest is to understand such motives, then historical knowledge cannot be one-sided. To abstract from subjectivity is the epic task of the intellectual, and this includes the historian; the risk of being partial is to fall into the arena of propaganda, and not into the arena of historical truths that give movement to conflicts. In addition, long and detailed explanations are very important, and they are more so when they lead to reasoning with the objectivity that comes from the argumentation of opposing parties.
    While the study of the view of Russia as an imperialist country that undermines democracies is not very common in the USA, it would not be surprising that a symmetrical analysis of the performance of the USA in strengthening democracies from their origin would be even rarer within USA Academia. I think it would not be unhelpful to do a comparative study to find similarities and differences between Russia’s thinking outside its borders with that which the Mayflower immigrants and their ideological legacy from Britain adopted on this continent. I hope to have time and resources to look at that forthcoming work on the Louisiana Purchase, perhaps it can help overcome the natural subjective partiality in understanding History.
    In order to think more accurately and ask the right questions to the current conflicts, a broader horizon is necessary. Without the historian introspection the risk of not being assertive increases. How to understand Russian imperialism without understanding USA imperialism? How to analyze the collapse of the USSR without a critical view of the possible collapse of the USA? Perhaps more dedicated, creative and impartial historians approach can help.
    History will tell.

  3. My four quoted items below, these may point to another period of world and Russian history (i.e., to the turn of the 20th century) which — other than my Old Cold War suggestions above — may prove useful to those wishing to practice “historically mindedness:”

    Herein, the overall theme of these such quoted items, I suggest, is the threat that “market society” — at both the turn of the 20th Century and again at the turn of the 21st Century — posed/poses to such things as a nation’s traditional social values, beliefs and institutions. (To include those of both the West and Russia, etc. — then as now.):

    “In this new world disorder, the power of identity politics can no longer be denied. Western elites believed that in the twenty-first century, cosmopolitanism and globalism would triumph over atavism and tribal loyalties. They failed to understand the deep roots of identity politics in the human psyche and the necessity for those roots to find political expression in both foreign and domestic policy arenas. And they failed to understand that the very forces of economic and social development that cosmopolitanism and globalization fostered would generate turbulence and eventually resistance, as ‘Gemeinschaft’ (community) fought back against the onrushing ‘Gesellschaft’ (market society), in the classic terms sociologists favored a century ago.” (See the Mar-Apr 2017 edition of “Foreign Affairs” and, therein, the article by Walter Russell Mead entitled “The Jacksonian Revolt: American Populism and the Liberal Order.”)

    “In The Philosophy of History, Hegel discerned a disturbing historical pattern—the crack and fall of civilizations owing to a morbid intensification of their own first principles. Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.” (See the February 1997 “Atlantic” article entitled “The Capitalist Threat” by George Soros.)

    “The expansion of Europe has been a much-discussed process. Unfortunately the publicists’ and historians’ interest has commonly been limited to surface aspects of power, to political, economic, and intellectual penetration. Yet a closer acquaintance reveals the existence of a yet deeper layer of hostile infiltration, a subtler and more subversive onslaught on native values and traditions. The ‘underground’ portions of western expansion have hitherto rather escaped notice, let alone analysis, although among their victims their force was felt deeply if confusedly. Thus an anonymous journalist writing in Russia late in 1896 pointed to that melting away of native guideposts under the western impact when he lamented that ‘under the influence of historical conditions and progress many phenomena which distinguished Russian nationality are now changing and therefore prove no longer to be genuine and unchangeable…’ No hallowed custom, no authority remained unimpaired, even though the surface structure of society and government was preserved and the sovereignty of the state untouched. The termites of western influence were eating away the substance and left only facades. And the invisible portion of western power, its ability to serve as a universal model, proved in the long run even more devastating than armies, battleships, or stocks and bonds.” (See the June 2009 Cambridge University Press, Comparative Studies in Society and History, and the abstract of the article “Imperial Russia at the Turn of the Century: the Cultural Slope and the Revolution from Without” by Theodore H. Von Laue.)

    “Capitalism is the most successful wealth-creating economic system that the world has ever known; no other system, as the distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, has benefited ‘the common people’ as much. Capitalism, he observed, creates wealth through advancing continuously to every higher levels of productivity and technological sophistication; this process requires that the ‘old’ be destroyed before the ‘new’ can take over. … This process of ‘creative destruction,’ to use Schumpeter’s term, produces many winners but also many losers, at least in the short term, and poses a serious threat to traditional social values, beliefs, and institutions.” (From the book “The Challenge of the Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century,” by Robert Gilpin, see the Introduction.)

  4. Here are two additional quoted items of interest — from and/or relating to two of my quoted items immediately above. First, from George Soros’ “The Capitalist Threat:”

    “The present situation is comparable to that at the turn of the past century. It was a golden age of capitalism, characterized by the principle of laissez-faire; so is the present. The earlier period was in some ways more stable. There was an imperial power, England, that was prepared to dispatch gunboats to faraway places because as the main beneficiary of the system it had a vested interest in maintaining that system. Today the United States does not want to be the policeman of the world. The earlier period had the gold standard; today the main currencies float and crush against each other like continental plates. Yet the free-market regime that prevailed a hundred years ago was destroyed by the First World War. Totalitarian ideologies came to the fore, and by the end of the Second World War there was practically no movement of capital between countries. How much more likely the present regime is to break down unless we learn from experience!” (Note that this is written by Soros in 1997 and, thus, not in 2007 or even in 2017.)

    Next, from the end of a 1962 Cambridge University Press, Comparative Studies in Society and History article entitled “Revolution From Without?” by Mary C. Wright — a commentary on the 1961 (not 2009 as I state in my quoted item above) article from this same university entitled “Imperial Russia at the Turn of the Century: the Cultural Slope and the Revolution from Without” by Theodore H. Von Laue:

    “If one looks around the globe, recalling the history of the past two centuries, can one find a single country whose institutions were “exceptionally strong” at the time of the “exceptional emergency” presented by post-mercantilist expansion of Europe? Were not all of them in a period of exceptional weakness, a weakness of greatly varied origins and kinds, but in no case the result of the subversive Western model? The real problem for each of these countries has been nothing less than the creation of a new civilization — for survival. In each country, there has been a traditionalist faction crying for a program of breathing life back into already moribund national institutions, of brining back a few of the finest fruits of the industrial revolution in for the use of the state and the dominant class, while at the same time preventing these from having any substantial effect on the society. Japan succeeded for a time, but paid heavily in the end. Elsewhere these effect has hindered more than they have helped the painful process of modernization.”

    Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above

    As to the items from George Soros and from Mary C. Wright above, sounds amazingly like (and/or more correctly exactly like?) the “threat to institutions” — and the “painful process of modernization” (whether this is occurring in Russia and/or in other countries throughout the world and even herein the U.S./the West) — which (a) occurred at the turn of the 20st century and with the rise of globalization and laissez-faire capitalism back then, and which (b) again occurs at the turn of 21st century and re: the return of globalization and laissez-faire capitalism since them?

    (Herein, to better understand why both Russian and U.S./Western conservatives/traditionalists — and their respective institutions — were/are much the same “boat” — and thus might have seen/could now again see each other as “natural allies” — yesterday as today?)

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