Russia’s DNA: “Fear of Invasion”

Note: This is the first in a series of essays on ‘Russia’s DNA.’

In March 2006, I heard a lecture in Moscow by Dr. David R. Young, Managing Director of Oxford Analytica, and one of the topics he discussed was Russia’s “DNA.” He told the audience that these “genetic characteristics” of contemporary Russia were compiled after extensive discussions with University of Oxford professors. I was fascinated by these insights because I had made similar observations over the course of my sixteen years of work in Russia. It has become increasingly apparent to me that most foreigners, especially from the West, have little knowledge of Russian history and culture and are easily discouraged with Russians who do not act like we expect them to.

Discussing Russia’s “DNA” is risky business, as it would be to discuss the “DNA” of China or the United States. The analyst must make judgments based on historical patterns, the behaviors of both ruling elites and the general population, and the dominant ideologies of various time periods – and there are always exceptions. Nevertheless, this essay and those that follow in subsequent months will attempt to describe cultural trends, attitudes, and behaviors that characterize Russians. With these insights, we can gain an appreciation for and an understanding of Russia’s culture and history. This may help us better understand what Russians believe and how they respond to the realities of the post-Communist period.

Examining the Historical Record

The Mongols Attack Kiev

Fear of invasion is one of the most dominant characteristics of Russia’s “DNA.” While many Westerners are aware of Russia’s wartime experiences in the 20th century, few have a full appreciation of the tragic history of invasions in Russia dating back for centuries – a history that has no parallel in the West, especially in the United States.

Consider this selected list:

  • 1237-1240: The Mongols attacked Kiev and established control over early Russia – a control that lasted more than 240 years. While countries in western Europe were learning about governance and the building of institutions that shared political power, Russians were controlled by Mongols, who forced them into tribute-paying subservience.
  • 1610-1613: The Polish invaded Russia during the “Time of Troubles,” a threat that was finally halted by the defense of Moscow organized by K. Minin and Dmitri Pozharsky. In Red Square, a statue of these two heroes sits right in the front of St. Basil’s cathedral. Despite the liberation of Moscow under the leadership of these two nobles, large parts of Russia remained under Polish and Swedish occupation for years. Armistice agreements with Sweden and Poland several years later brought peace for a brief period of time, but from 1632-1634, Russian and Polish armies were once again at war.
  • 1676-1681 and 1700-1721: These years represent two more military campaigns involving war, first with the Turkish Empire under Ottoman rule, and then Peter the Great’s war with Sweden. Wars with these neighbors began again in the 1740s, the 1760s, and the 1780s.
  • 1812: Napoleon’s Grande Armee invaded Russia and advanced all the way to Moscow, which the Russians burned to the ground before retreating. The French Army, which entered the country with 500,000 soldiers (twice the size of the Russian Army), left during a bitter winter and after much devastation, with only 10 percent of its troops surviving. Tolstoy’s great novel War and Peace tells this story, which all Russians know very well.
  • 1914-1917: The First World War broke out and the Romanov dynasty eventually collapsed in the face of defeat on the battlefield and revolution on the home front. For a period of time in 1915, 25 percent of the Russian troops were sent to the front unarmed and told to pick up weapons from dead Russian soldiers.

The Great Fatherland War

The Battle for Stalingrad

Of all the invasions Russia experienced, none compares with the Nazi attack on Russia in June 1941. The Nazi war machine made dramatic incursions into Russia that penetrated deep into the country’s heartland. It was not until the seven-month Battle of Stalingrad that the Germans met their first significant defeat and the Russians were able to begin counter-offensives that pushed the invaders out of their homeland. The losses at Stalingrad were very high for both sides, but especially for the Russians, who lost almost 500,000 in defensive and offensive engagements, with more than 650,000 wounded.

By the end of the war, Russian casualties dwarfed the sacrifices of any other fighting power. Of the 34.5 million Soviet men and women mobilized, an incredible 84 percent were killed, wounded or captured. Total military deaths from all causes, as recently given by the Russian government, are 8.6 million. To this figure we must add civilian deaths, which are estimated to be 17 million. Taken all together, the total Soviet war dead may have been as high as 25 million – a number that is in agreement with the figures Mikhail Gorbachev publicly announced in 1991.

In light of these enormous sacrifices, it is not hard to understand why Russians solemnly celebrate Victory Day every year, and why many young Russian couples pay their respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin wall as a part of their wedding ceremony.

The Weight of History

With a legacy of invasion that covers almost 800 years, it is understandable that Russians fear invasion — or encirclement that may lead to invasion — by any foreign powers. Their sensitivities are heightened by any potential threats, and while some foreign analysts might consider this a paranoid perspective, the weight of Russian history helps us understand this fear. To many Russians, foreigners are viewed as either threats or parasites.

Russia occupies 6.5 million square miles of territory (1.8 times the size of the United States) across eleven time zones, and shares borders with fourteen neighboring countries, including a border that covers thousands of miles with China. Unlike North America, the Eurasian landmass has no easily defensible borders. For national security experts in the Kremlin, stability on their borders is of critical importance. This reality, together with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of fourteen republics to independent statehood, makes Russians very anxious about their vulnerability. And so we can recognize and understand the first strand of Russia’s DNA: Fear of Invasion.