Air University Review, July-August 1982
a historical Perspective
Lieutenant Colonel Carl W. Reddel
History speaks to people out of their individual and collective experience, out of their education and training in history or lack of it. Nearly everyone has some idea of what history is or should be. And this perception poses a problem if we think of history in too inflexible a way. Probably most people perceive history in a linear fashion, that is, the idea that history can be described graphically by drawing a line between two points, one point being the past and the other the future with an arrow pointed in the direction of the future, as if to suggest that history has both movement and direction. This approach suggests an eschatological view of history, the idea that history is going someplace, toward the last coming or a Communist utopia.
People do tend to hold such a view of history by being raised, for example, as Christians or as Communists. And various applications or misapplications are made of this view. A political conservative has been described as someone who drives a car down the road by looking continually in the rear view mirror to determine from the past where he is going in the future. One of the brightest historians I have ever read, William Irwin Thompson, once suggested that "history is not a line but a dial,"1 such as the dial of a clock. And if we stand at the center of the clock of Russian history, more specifically the clock of the history of the Soviet empire, we find that as the hand sweeps around we are facing, in later times or subsequent hours, experiences or confrontations that we thought had been left behind. For example, I believe that if I were a Pole, I would find the full sweep of the hour hand for the eighteenth century, with markings for the partitions of Poland at 1772, 1793, and 1795, in which Russians participated in the destruction of the Polish state, all too similar to the sweep of the hand for the hour of the nineteenth century, during which Poles revolted in 1830-31 and in 1863, and again were put down by Russians.
The sweeping hand on the dial of the clock of the empire would come around again in the tour of the twentieth century, with revolutionary armies sweeping into Poland from the Soviet Union in 1920, and in 1939 less revolutionary but more powerful Soviet armies would again participate in destroying the Polish state. To be sure, it is less than a century since the Bolsheviks first wound the clock of the Soviet empire in 1917, but I believe that if I were a Pole or Hungarian, I might not be as sympathetic to a linear view of history as I would to this view of history as a dial, especially if I were to look to this clock to reveal something about the future of the Soviet empire. I believe this is the view of history that is implicit, if not always explicit, in the thoughts expressed here.
But I suspect that most Americans have come to understand the Soviet empire better in terms of its future strength and weakness, especially as it might affect the United States, say, in five, ten, or twenty years.
Unfortunately, Soviet strength and weakness, like beauty, are often in the eye of the beholder. Or are they? Americans in general understand the Soviet Union and the bases for its behavior only very poorly. Perhaps one of the most recent memorable examples at the highest level of American government was former President Carters statement following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: "It is only now dawning upon the world the magnitude of the action that the Soviets undertook in invading Afghanistan. . . ." He continued that this action ". . . has made a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets ultimate goals are than anything theyve done in the previous time that Ive been in office."2
But the former President is not alone. I believe the American people have such a poor understanding of Russian history that they cannot distinguish between Russian and Communist influences in Soviet behavior. Indeed, the former President and his advisors are in the company of Americans at all levels of our society and government, including military professionals.
This lack of understanding of the Russian people and Soviet communism may be significant when addressing the question of the future of the Soviet empire because Communist influences in that society are of relatively recent origin, when considered in the full scope of Russian imperial experience and may be of less significance than is frequently thought unless they are buttressed by the enduring constants of Russian history. For example, the great size of Russia and its expansive tendencies are not new phenomena. The disintegration of two imperial powers, the Golden Horde and the Byzantine Empire, opened to Muscovite Russia imperial opportunities of its own. And from about the second half of the fifteenth century, " . . . the Great Princes of Moscow began in a tentative manner to claim the imperial title."3 Within 150 years, Russia became the largest country on the planet and has remained so ever since. The tsars of Russia ruled over the worlds largest state from the middle of the seventeenth century on into the twentieth century.
Since 1917, the size of the Soviet Union is as much a function of Russian historical developments as it is a function of Communist aggressiveness. Similarly, the fact that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a multinational state with fifteen distinct national republics and more than sixty nationalities, of which twenty-three had more than a million members in the 1979 census,4 is not the singular consequence of socialisms international appeal but rather the result of the most rapid overland continental march the world has ever seen, since for 150 years an area the size of modern Holland was added yearly to the Russian empire. Moreover, the Russian political solution to the problem of ruling the worlds largest state, which is also a multinational state with diverse peoples, has been authoritarian government, whether under a tsar or a commissar. And those who have read some of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyns warnings to the West understand that being an anti-Communist Russian does not automatically render an individual sympathetic to the values and institutions of Western democracy.5
Briefly, then, major and salient characteristics of the so-called Soviet empire its tremendous size, its multinational character, and the authoritarian nature of its governmentare not solely Communist in their origins. Thus, Americas problems and concerns with the Soviet Union would not necessarily disappear if communism somehow no longer existed, a view that a Pole, or a Turk for that matter, would much more readily understand as a result of centuries of direct experience with Russia.
Possessing the worlds largest stage on which to act out their national destiny, the Russians, like other nations, have looked for an appropriate script. The first script was received from God himself, with the Tsar of Russia acting as Gods agent on earth and Moscow serving as the third and final Rome, following the demise of the Byzantine Empire. When the Tsar of Russia was removed from his throne in 1917, Gods script was replaced with mans, with the adoption of a socialist prescription for the future, a script which proposed the realization of a utopia on this earth for not only all the nationalities of the Russian empire but for all of humanity.
With the new socialist script, born out of the historical throes of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, the Communist leadership possessed the potential of bursting the bonds of the more culturally bound vision of a Russian Orthodox future. This new leadership found the historical advantage of a script that related to the evolution of non-Western peoples experiencing one phase or another of modernization, which I believe is the essential reason why the romance of the Soviet Union with the Third World has continued for so long. In contrast, Americans suffered the historical disadvantage of a script born out of the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment, which seems to possess for twentieth-century Americans less relevance to the masses of humanity on this planet than Thomas Jefferson once thought.6 Clearly, the so called Soviet empire and its international aspirations with their messianic impulse have Russian historical sources every bit as significant (and possibly more significant) than the more contemporary influence of communism.
The purpose of this argument is not, however, to deny the significance of communism in understanding Soviet behavior, either now or in the future, but rather to suggest that any attempt to understand contemporary Soviet behavior without an awareness of the enduring cultural peculiarities, especially those fostered by a long and distinct history, is an exercise in foolhardiness. It also suggests that much of what appears bizarre or extraordinary in Soviet behavior should be first considered in light of Russian history and previous sweeps of the hour hand on the face of the metaphorical clock of Russian imperial history before jumping to the conclusion that communism is the sole or primary source of Soviet behavior. Americans have had and still have serious problems in accepting the impact of different cultures on communism, an example being the length of time necessary for Americans to accept the distinctive interests of Chinese Communists as opposed to Russian Communists. Now that many Americans have recognized the existence of Chinese Communist interests as opposed to or in conflict with Russian Communist interests, they have mistakenly come to see the Chinese Communists as potential friends and allies, an equally egregious error.
The problem is not peculiar to Americans. All peoples are impelled to view the world out of their own value systems and cultures. When other nations do not behave according to the codes that govern our own behavior, we are puzzled, occasionally hurt or insulted, and sometimes frightened. They face the same problem, viewing the world through their own particular cultural lenses. For these reasons, traveling to another society is sometimes like traveling to another planet. In societies as different as the United States and the Soviet Union, this is certainly true.
Yet communism is the contemporary Russian script for the future of the Soviet empire and must be heeded. Indeed, if one speaks with émigrés from the second and third waves of Soviet emigration, they might infer that the historical Russia or the historical influences discussed here no longer exist. To some degree this is true, but the Soviet leadership has learned to its own dismay that erasing a nations historical past completely is no more likely than the success of an individual in totally erasing his or her past. To injure, harm, transform, and malformyes, but to remove completelyno.
The superimposition of communism upon Russian culture has left the most extraordinary paradoxes in Soviet life and society. The officially atheistic Soviet society, for example, contains some 45 million practicing Christians, according to a recent estimate by one of the best informed students of Christianity in the Soviet Union.7 In that industrialized and urban society, essentially rural habits of life have not left a people who have only become more urban than rural in their habitat since the late 1950s. And a Soviet society that probably has fewer functional illiterates than the United States, as well as an impressive educational and scientific establishment, is striking to visitors from the West in its ignorance of the realities of life on much of the rest of the planet.
The term Soviet empire is itself incongruous, for communism has anti-imperialism as one of its basic principles. Yet the Soviet Union constitutes the largest empire in the world today with control over many different national groups, as did the former tsarist empire. To be sure, this empire is based on different ideological principles, but it is still very much a Russian empire in that the Great Russian ethnic group dominates the Communist Party itself and the other ethnic groups within the Soviet Union, as well as the nations that border the Soviet Union.
These ethnic distinctions within the Soviet Union are strikingly real. A Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Kirghiz, Tadzhik, or Uzbek, does not by any means confuse his identity as a Soviet citizen with being a Russian. And for a Hungarian, the similarities between the Russian suppression of the Revolution of 1849 and the Soviet destruction of the Revolution of 1956 are more impressive than the differences. I suspect that the Russian generals who suppressed the Polish revolts of 1830-31 and 1863, when the Tsar of Russia was also the King of Poland, would find the Polish labor leaders of the 1980s as much a nuisance as the Polish revolutionaries of their own time. For a historian it is striking to find how bitterly and violently anti-Polish many otherwise cultivated and Westernized Russians of the nineteenth century were. And if we were to use H. G. Wellss time machine to transport a Bristish general from the late nineteenth century, when many British leaders thought the Russians had designs on Afghanistan or even on India, to his own club in London in the twentieth centurywhere no doubt the furnishings would have changed little or not at allit would be difficult for the general not to say, "I told you soit was just a matter of time," when he learned of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Communism has brought something to the Soviet empire that no Russian tsar was ever able to develop: the military means capable of denying all actual or would-be enemies the opportunity to challenge unilaterally the security of the empire or of the Russian homeland. What a heady wine that is! For the first time in the centuries-long history of the empire centered in Russia, no nation can with impunity challenge or threaten the security of that empire. Since the time of Peter the Great, with the introduction of the first standing army in Europe based on conscription, the Russians have carried an immense burden to sustain the military force believed essential by their leaders, both for its defense and for exerting international influence. This tremendous military strength would be less worrisome today if it were not the case that historically, Russian leaders have been both willing and able to postpone or subordinate the internal problems of the country to what they consider the more significant external tasks. This willingness to deny the needs of its own population in the interests of foreign political or military goals is disturbing when the military means to achieve the ends are seen in conjunction with the Soviets view of their long-range future.
For communism has provided not only the means to project political and military influence; it has also provided a vision of the future that has the potential of enabling Russians to identify with mankind everywhere, beyond the cultural limitations of the Russian orthodoxy which formed a significant part of the world view of the tsars of Russia. Not only does communism enable Russians to identify with the diverse branches of humanity whatever their cultural dress, it also provides an integrated and comprehensive means of assessing conflict in all of its forms, political, economic, and social. As a military professional I am concerned that the Soviet military professional may not only outgun us, he may outthink us with a superior intellectual construct for the integration of military capability into the waging of civilizational conflict.
A leading student of Soviet affairs has suggested that if American pilots can "outfly and outmaneuver the Soviet fighter pilots," it, may not be sufficient, because as he further states, "that is not where the main ballgame is going to be won."8 The "main ballgame" clearly includes other than purely military factors in determining the outcome of a given contest. To what degree is the American military professional to be a player in this contest? What are the limits on this role? Clearly there are nationally accepted historical, societal, and legal constraints on his role, which are accepted by the American military professional. There is also the unnecessary and dangerous constraint of limited education on the Soviet military resulting in inadequate professional preparation. To carry the analogy further, we might describe the American military today as a team suited up to play ball but driving around town in the team bus unable to locate the ball park.
Indeed, the ballgame may be played, won or lost, and the American military professional may remain a nonplayer.
The Soviet military professional views himself as a player in this ballgame, but he envisions a game different from the one the American player anticipates, a game that includes the entire planet and outer space as a playing field. The Soviet player also views it as a game that has no well-defined time period and thinks of the game as involving all of historypast, present, and futurewith no time-outs. It is also accepted in the Soviet view that although there are general guidelines, the rules of the game will continue to change, so that the measures of victory and defeat will not remain the same. It is also a game that involves everyone, not just those suited up for a game on a given day. It is a game with no visible or foreseeable end, replete with ambiguity. Although the American military professional may also be a player in this game, he is an unwitting one and one who needs to understand better the scope of his task and the nature of the opponent.
The fact that Americans frequently use sporting events for understanding foreign affairs reveals much not only about American national character but also about the limits of our understanding of the times in which we live. Commonly accepted rules, clear definitions of victory and defeat, unwritten codes of behavior for both winners and losers, the norms and values of fair play and decency for players both off and on the playing fieldall of these are clearly open to question in the international arena today and may be even more so in the future.
The tremendous irony in all of this is that in the future American military professionals may never participate in the conflict for which they have prepared, because it may have a different definition and execution than that which they understand. Indeed, not only American military professionals but most Americans may live and die without knowingly having been part of a great civilizational contest, in which the potential for military conflict on which people are now being asked to focus may never be the final determinant. Indeed, the irony of focusing too narrowly on the potential military conflict as defined in the West will become tragedy if it serves to distract us nationally and internationally from other issues every bit as essential to winning the conflict.
United States Air Force Academy
Editor's note: This article is based on a paper by Colonel Reddel presented at the National Defense Colloquium on "The Future of the Soviet Empire," at the United States Air Force Academy, 15 April 1981.
1. William Irwin Thompson, At the Edge of History: Speculations on the Transformation of Culture (New York, 1971), p. 81.
2. Dispatch from Washington, D.C., 1 January 1980, by Stephen Lynton, "President Rejects Brezhnev Explanation, International Herald Tribune, 2 January 1980, p. 1.
3. Richard Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime (London, 1974), p. 73. Pipes also surveys the expansion of the empire described here and in the following paragraph (pp. 83-84).
4. Ann Sheehy, "The National Composition of the Population of the USSR According to the Census of 1979," Radio Liberty Research Bulletin, RL 123/80, 27 March 1980, Table 1, pp. 10-12.
5. A description of Solzhenitsyns impatience with the West is found in "The Dark Side of Solzhenitsyn," by George Feifer in Harpers, May 1980, pp. 49-51, 54-58. Solzhenitsyn defends his views in "Misconceptions about Russia Are a Threat to America," Foreign Affairs, Spring 1980, pp. 797-834.
6. Shortly before his death, Thomas Jefferson stated his view of the significance of the Declaration of Independence for the history of the world:
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition have persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. The form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of freedom and opinion. All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the power of truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favoured few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Robert Weightman, June 24, 1826, cited in Peter Calvert, Revolution (London, 1970), p. 71.
7. William Fletcher, of the University of Kansas, at the 19th Annual Central Slavic Conference, March 13, 1981, in Omaha, Nebraska.
8. Major General George J. Keegan, Jr., USAF (Ret), "The Soviet Threat and Professional Officer Education," Education Journal, Fall 1977, pp. 29-32.
Lieutenant Colonel Carl W. Reddel(B.S., Drake University; A.M., Syracuse University; Ph.D., Indiana University), Permanent Professor and Head of the Department of History, United States Air Force Academy, has recently served as a Research Associate (Air Force Research Associates Program) and Postdoctoral Fellow, Defence Studies, at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. His former assignments include Executive Officer-Air Force Section (JUSMMAT, Ankara, Turkey) and various faculty positions in the Department of History at the USAF Academy.
DisclaimerThe conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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