Westerners often consider Russia through the prism of the Soviet Union and the Second World War. But we must look further back if we wish to understand the modern nation’s fears, aims and motivations.
Russia almost didn’t survive the beginning of the 17th century. Convulsed by civil wars, peasant uprisings, foreign invasions, mass famine and repeated power struggles, it faced violence so apocalyptic that a special word was applied to embrace this blood-soaked anarchy: smuta [smoot-uh], usually translated as the ‘Time of Troubles’. It is the most terrifying word in the nation’s history, and yet today, far from just referring to one of the darkest chapters in Russia’s past, it plays a central role in the resurgence of 21st-century Russian nationalism.
If what befell Russia four centuries ago was unprecedented, for those living then it was also totally unexpected. Just decades before, Russia had reached its greatest power to date during the reign of Ivan IV, better known to us as ‘the Terrible’. In English the sobriquet is a misnomer, for it means inspiring awe of the dreadful kind. Not only did his own subjects face that wrath during Ivan’s reign as tsar from 1547 to his death in 1584, so too did his neighbours, particularly to the east. At that time the Volga, while so evocative of Russia now, was controlled by the successors to the Mongol invaders from the 13th century. Hostilities between those descendants and Russia were rampant until Ivan launched an attack in 1552, promoted by the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church as a crusade to eliminate their Muslim foe, against the Khanate of Kazan, whose capital of the same name lay on the mighty river, nearly 450 miles from Moscow.
Kazan fell after a vicious siege and Russia’s victory changed it forever. The city’s conquest permanently altered Russia’s geographic identity by delivering much of the Volga into its hands. This opened up the Urals and Siberia for exploration and annexation and also spelled the end for another neighbouring khanate, Astrakhan, which controlled the river’s mouth as it flows into the Caspian Sea. Four years after Kazan, it fell to Ivan’s soldiers, bringing his power to the foothills of the Caucasus. The age of Russian empire-building had begun. Within three centuries its imperial standard would fly over one sixth of the world’s land mass.
Yet, before Russia reached that peak, the disaster struck that almost brought it to its knees. When Ivan died, he left two surviving sons (two other potential heirs had died in infancy and another he killed with his own hands). By the end of the 16th century, these last two were also dead. The younger sibling, Dmitri, died first, ostensibly from a self-inflicted wound during an epileptic fit; the elder, Fyodor, by natural causes in 1598, but having failed to produce an heir. The Riurik dynasty, which for over eight centuries had ruled the various Slavic principalities making up present-day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, was no more.
The calamity had no precedent and neither did the solution: to elevate Fyodor’s brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, to tsar, though his own blood, albeit noble, ran in the opposite direction, back to the Mongols. Shortly after his reign began, the clouds gathered. Snow fell in the summer and a series of failed harvests left the population reeling from famine. Entire villages succumbed or were abandoned as the starving wandered, desperately looking for food. Those most desperate resorted to cannibalism. Historians estimate that, all told, up to a third of Godunov’s subjects perished.
What might so displease the Lord, shattered survivors could ask, since His assumed pleasure, or lack of it, determined all in the Orthodox world? The people’s collective sins could be summoned as the usual cause, but might there be another one as well, circling around Godunov’s coronation? Was he God’s chosen, as would have been the presumption? Fears over his legitimacy mixed with suspicions over his past. Had he plotted the murder of nine-year-old Dmitri so as to seize power upon the older brother’s death? Or had Dmitri miraculously survived, meaning that Godunov’s election had violated the divine order of succession?
The last idea became fertile ground for much of the violence that followed. A rival to Godunov emerged, claiming to be Dmitri. Backed by Polish troops, this ‘false Dmitri’ also attracted Russians wanting to overthrow the unholy usurper and regain God’s favour. As this army of mixed religions, nationalities and motivations marched on Moscow in 1605, Godunov died, a sure sign of the righteousness of Dmitri’s cause.
That impression lasted less than a year. Tsar Dmitri, with his Catholic Polish wife and retinue of foreign mercenaries, soon grated on Orthodox sensitivities in the capital. He was murdered by Russian nobles who again elevated one of their own as tsar. What then befell Russia defies imagination and conventional categorisation. More false Dmitris, then false Fyodors and still other claimants to the throne emerged. As devastation spread through the population and across the land, central power collapsed. At one point Russia had two tsars, two royal courts and two patriarchs. It could only be described as smuta, a term signifying confusion, disorder and foreboding doom.
The only constant during the Time of Troubles was chaos, the kind that marauding bands feasted on and of which foreign neighbours dreamed. From the south came the Crimean Tatars, also descendants of the Mongols, who burned the area around Moscow; from the north came the Swedes, who seized Russia’s Baltic territories. From the west the Poles marched in and, by 1611, would seem to have driven the stake into their longtime rival. They occupied the Kremlin and took the patriarch of the Russian Church (there being only one at this time) prisoner. For that matter there was no longer a tsar and, as if to confirm that Russia’s future was over, a group of nobles, some from prestigious families, had agreed that rule should pass to the Polish king’s son.
Yet Russia survived and the story of its deliverance has given it an irresistible tale to tell, retell and project across its history, up to the present day. The first hero is the imprisoned patriarch, Hermogen, who, though over 70 years of age, turned Orthodoxy itself into a weapon of resistance. Sending secret missives from his cell in the Kremlin, he urged Russians to stop killing their ‘brothers of the faith’ and strike instead against ‘accursed Latinism’.
Others followed suit and a wave of literary broadsides appealed to ‘Christ’s flock’ to fight ‘Satan’s hordes’. The tropes were not original but the impact was real, as Russians could rally around the idea that they, members of the true faith, standing alone against their predatory neighbours, whether Catholic, Protestant or Muslim, were under existential threat. Those who did just that in 1612 constitute the second hero in this saga of resurrection. That year a national militia gathered under the leadership of Prince Pozharsky (a title of nobility, not royalty) and Kuzma Minin, a butcher in charge of its finances and logistics and, seemingly against all odds, they marched on Moscow and threw the Poles out, thereby saving their country and, as they understood it, their souls. While fighting would continue, this event generally marks the end of the Time of Troubles. The following year witnessed the swift election of a new tsar, Mikhail Romanov, whose progeny would make up the next – and last – royal dynasty in Russia.
With this victory came a special sense of salvation for Russia. If everything in their experience derived from God’s wishes, then how could their success, just like their initial punishment, not be part of a divine plan? If they began the ordeal as God’s victims, they ended it as His agents, comprising, as a participant in the militia wrote in a popular history of the time, ‘the forces of the Higher One’. This account by Avraam Palitsyn, a member of the clerical elite, reflects the maturing of a distinctly Russian national self-consciousness, which was inseparable from the land and their faith. ‘Great Russia’, in his words, constitutes a terrestrial and spiritual union, defended by those through whom the Holy Spirit works its wonders. The bond was so tight that it allowed Palitsyn to make striking assertions, such as ‘[the enemy] suffered defeat from the Russian people, that is, rather from God’. Not for nothing has his history been reprinted century after century so that every generation can learn, long before the emergence of Napoleon or Hitler, the key lesson to Russia’s survival: only unity, cemented by faith, can defeat foreign invasion.
The Time of Troubles has lived on in Russian culture and collective memory as an inspiring and edifying episode, no matter what flag has flown over the Kremlin. The decisive victory over Napoleon in 1812, which launched Russian nationalism on a meteoric course, also coincided with the 200th anniversary of the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow. Both times, on its own, Russia repelled western invaders. Soon after, a statue to Minin and Pozharsky was erected in Red Square, the only Russians still to be honoured there in such fashion. The century’s best-selling novel, a swashbuckling paean to Russian greatness, was Mikhail Zagoskin’s Iury Miloslavsky or the Russians in 1612. One of its composers, Mikhail Glinka, devoted his opera, A Life for the Tsar, to the same period. And when time came for its 300th anniversary at the beginning of the 20th century, Patriarch Hermogen, who had been starved to death by the Poles, was canonised.
The Romanov dynasty did not survive long after that celebration, but the one that followed, of Soviet pedigree, carried the banner of remembrance further. The religious angle was abandoned, but not the story of triumph over western aggression. Its most brazen expression was the film, Minin and Pozharsky, released just weeks after the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 in accord with the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Its two directors and the two actors who played the title roles all won the Stalin Prize.
The Time of Troubles now has a claim on a 21st-century audience. The reason is simple and undergirds the core narrative behind President Vladimir Putin’s rise and mainstream popularity, even though he has turned increasingly authoritarian. In 1991 the Soviet dynasty was extinguished in the catastrophic implosion of the USSR. For certain nationalities, like those of the Baltic States, it was a time to celebrate liberation from the decades-long tyranny of the Kremlin; for Russia, however, the curse of smuta struck once more.
Throughout the 1990s a single word – crisis – was applied to virtually any concern: political stability, socio-economic infrastructure, financial solvency, standards of living, demographic health or international prestige. ‘Nearly everything that could be destroyed’, declared the metropolitan of St Petersburg during the turmoil, ‘has been’.
Internal fractures again brought foreign invasion, though of a different kind. Western prophets of wildcat capitalism and shock therapy descended like vultures, just as foreign goods and franchises inundated the formerly closed society. The impact flipped its value system so that consumerism, not Marxism, became the new religion. Oligarchs arose like the warlords and marauders of before, seizing large swathes of its economy and preying on a helpless populace. The leader who emerged, President Boris Yeltsin, not only shared the first name of his ill-fated predecessor of 1605, Godunov, unfortunately he liked to jest that he was ‘Tsar Boris’.
His hands were also stained with the blood of his countrymen after a violent clash with hardliners in 1993 and much more Russian blood was spilt in a war with Chechnya, which ended in 1996 in defeat for the former superpower. Along the way the Kremlin fell victim to the intrigues and corruption of the henchmen surrounding Yeltsin, who manipulated him just like the nobles who had plied their own self-interests through the dizzying bounty of claimants and imposters during the Time of Troubles. How would the misery end?
Yet, as in 1612, Russia rose from its knees and the hero of this nationalist version of history is President Putin. Crushing Chechen separatists, taming or co-opting the oligarchs, restoring centralised power, making Russia a military force to be respected once more; these are the key chapters of his political biography. Though not all is due to his hand – the global rise in oil prices, now horribly in reverse, helped rescue the state from fiscal insolvency – the laurels claimed are exclusively his. Putin’s legacy to date is that of a modern-day Hermogen, Pozharsky and Minin wrapped into one. He is Russia’s saviour, which, more than anything else, fuels his domestic support no matter how he appears to outsiders.
In Russian popular culture, which is increasingly difficult to separate from the official kind, the Time of Troubles reigns again as a favoured topic for historical reflection. While nothing can displace victory in the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War, as the crown jewel in Russia’s self-imaging, smuta, when boiled down to a few essentials, offers complementary lessons. Two examples will suffice to demonstrate its patriotic potential.
In 2007 the award-winning director, Vladimir Khotinenko, turned his blockbuster movie, 1612: A Chronicle of the Time of Troubles, into a showcase for Poland’s murderous designs, with its scenes of burning villages strikingly reminiscent of earlier cinematic renditions of genocidal Nazis. Khotinenko’s movie makes a minimal claim on historical accuracy, preferring instead to indulge in swashbuckling swordplay buttressed by magical realism. Nevertheless, the director has admitted his true motivations behind the making of the film:
[In 1612] I am talking about the period after Perestroika. We lived in a Time of Troubles. Its duration even coincided with the one in the 17th century.
Even the film’s day of release, November 4th, was carefully chosen to mark the debut of a new holiday, Day of Unity, which falls on the date when the Poles were expelled from Moscow.
In 2012, for the 400th anniversary of Russia’s deliverance, the anti-Polish platform grew into a generic anti-western one in Vladimir Medinsky’s novel, The Wall, published just before the writer’s appointment as minister of culture. The title indulges a number of assumed barriers distinguishing Russia from the West. Orthodox Christianity lies on Russia’s side, as do moral propriety, compassion for others, human decency, ‘pure love’ and traditional family values. On the other side we find debauchery amid a world of corruption and lies. On these pages, Russia’s superiority over the West even extends to habits of hygiene and rates of literacy among peasants. All of these cultural and religious ‘walls’ merge with a physical one comprising the fortress of Smolensk, a major city then on Russia’s border, sitting astride the road between Warsaw and Moscow. (The Kingdom of Poland was at this time in union with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and their combined territories included present-day Belarus and much of Ukraine.) Though Smolensk fell to the Polish-led army after a nearly two-year siege, it never surrendered, allowing for a story of triumph to emerge from defeat, literally with a bang. After fighting in the streets, the last defenders retreated to the city’s cathedral where the main powder supply was also housed. It blew up, killing all inside. The explosion may have been an accident, but that view has little purchase in Russia. In this rendition, the protagonist sets the fuse himself and, upon explosion, angels bear his and all the defendants’ souls to heaven, where we learn that in martyrdom ‘the Russians were victorious’.
Medinsky also makes room in his novel, which was stridently displayed at the centre of book stores upon its debut, to trumpet key positions taken by the Kremlin. (He is also the author of a wildly popular series debunking the negative stereotypes the West has of Russia.) Russians themselves are non-aggressive, defending their country against an existential attack from the West. The only move they would ever make – and with hindsight it rings ominous – would be to reunite with Ukraine and Belarus, two countries that did not exist then as independent states. The invading western army is precisely that: a combined Polish, German and Hungarian core supported by mercenaries representing the rest of Europe. A precursor to NATO, the myth also references the Nazis, killing Russians for their faith and planning to enslave the rest under a New Order. The division between good and bad also breaks along the value system upheld by the Kremlin today. According to the novel, the West is apparently awash with predatory homosexuals and the protagonist’s first act when abroad in Germany is to kill in self-defence a ‘sodomite’ who attacks him.
While cartoonishly xenophobic for over 600 pages, the novel succeeds, if that is the word, in showing how malleable the Time of Troubles has become, able to adapt to any ideological shift while still enforcing the bedrock rule bequeathed by others before. A great Russia stands on two rocks: a strong leader and a state made equally strong by those who will serve (and obey) it.
Such versions of smuta, echoed in popular histories, religious venues, academic tomes and elsewhere, have armed Putin and the governing elite with exceptionally strong language to speak about their country and their presumed role in it. Favoured refrains concerning ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder’ tap into some of the deepest fears in Russia’s collective consciousness while, at the same time, reflexively justifying the power they have amassed and the suppression of dissident voices.
While the West prefers to reference Russia through its Soviet past, the 1990s serve as a more illuminating point to understand the trajectory of official rhetoric. No one wants to return to that decade’s debacles and humiliations and that knowledge greatly simplifies the narrative of what Russia ostensibly ‘needs’ as a society. Clarification can come not just from the president but also from the Academy of Sciences, the country’s most powerful academic institution. A 2008 round table of historians, for instance, offered a point by point analysis of the ‘disorder and instability’ that inevitably follows any weakening of central authority. The existence of ‘different political groups’ breeds ‘conflict’ with results ‘that are deplorable and disastrous for the country and for the people’. This crisp cause-and-effect puts any political opposition or, theoretically, mere disagreement under the shadow of suspicion. Pressing the analogy further have been others who rail against ‘smuta-sowers’ in their midst, recognisable as anyone who questions authority or harbours ‘anti-Russian’ attitudes.
In 2000 President Putin closed his first inaugural speech with the pledge that unifying Russians was his ‘sacred duty’. Then it meant only one thing: repairing the fissures that were tearing through Russian society. Now, following the events of 2014, one might wonder if, with Putin having largely done that inside Russia, a second chapter has begun. His March 2014 speech announcing Russia’s annexation of Crimea spoke to the same impulse. In the first case splotit means to strengthen or fit together, like the planking on a ship’s deck; in the second vossoedinit means to reunify, that is, to bring Crimea back to the Russia that was once its home. Both, however, point to the same thing: correcting a situation tied to the crises of the 1990s.
When Catherine the Great’s troops conquered Crimea in 1783, it became part of the Russian Empire and remained so until the Bolshevik Revolution. In the new Soviet Union it continued as part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic until 1954 when, a year after Stalin died, Nikita Krushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, transferred it to the similarly titled Ukrainian Republic. (He was born in Russia near the border of modern Ukraine and moved to Donetsk, a Ukrainian city, as a teenager, where his Marxism was nurtured.) Upon the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Ukraine became a sovereign state, Crimea stayed with it.
In his speech Putin declared Krushchev’s move unconstitutional, though no one in the USSR at that time could really have objected since it was still locked in Soviet territory. Russia, he continued, should have addressed Crimea’s status in the 1990s but could not because smuta had brought it to its knees. Russia remained, in effect, the victim of a past injustice until Putin rescued his nation and made it whole again by reversing that constitutional crime. Crimea, the land where legend has it that the common ancestors of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus embraced Orthodox Christianity (but which in his terms is ‘Russian land from time immemorial’), has finally returned home.
However, the key assertion of Putin’s speech, indeed one that frames the Kremlin’s version of the entire crisis in Ukraine, is that the latter still suffers from its own smuta-like condition. After 1991 Ukraine also fell prey to the demons of anarchy, chaos and economic instability, while its government was overrun by ‘usurpers’ and ‘false claimants’ to power. The West, as always, took advantage of that vacuum, backing its own clients and proxies, who in early 2014 pushed out pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich and whose aspirations include bringing Ukraine into NATO’s fold; as happened in the 1990s, when the US-dominated military coalition spread to former Soviet and imperial Russian dominions like Poland and the Baltic States. What started centuries ago as the West’s efforts to contain Russia, ‘to drive it into a corner’, as Putin put it, still continues. ‘If you press down on a spring hard enough’, he warned, ‘it will snap back with force.’
This is what Russia did by annexing Crimea. It had to intervene to ‘defend the rights and very life’ of innocent Crimeans, the majority of whom identify as Russians. There was, to be sure, no invasion; rather a defensive operation involving Russian troops legally stationed there and whose numbers were increased according to treaty. Threading through his speech is a simple story that explains the overall positive response in Russia to annexation (though there were demonstrations against it). Not only does this action right a historical ‘wrong’, it demonstrates on an international stage that Russia has shed its sense of humiliation; no longer can it be ignored or treated as a second-rate power. Russia, President Putin declared, is an ‘independent, active participant in international affairs and it has, just like other countries, its own national interests which need to be taken into account and respected’.
Such rhetoric gains more traction when it is woven into the fabric of another analogy, one that still lives in collective memory: the Second World War. It animates Russian perceptions of the conflict in Ukraine, following a simple logic. If Russia led the fight against Nazi aggression (that is, a western coalition including, inter alia, Hungarians, Romanians, Italians, and Finns), then those, on some of the very same soil, who oppose Russia today are nothing less than the next-generation bearers of a similar impulse. (The fact that some Ukrainian nationalists did, at times, side with German forces during the war never goes unmentioned in the current use of ‘Nazi’ or ‘fascist’ to characterise Russia’s opponents.)
While these allusions receive much attention in the West, those to the Time of Troubles often fall unnoticed due to unfamiliarity with Russian history. The two, however, operate in tandem as heralding triumph over existential attacks by combined western influences. An impressive pairing, they reverberate in a near infinite loop in the mainstream Russian media.
Recognising the domestic appeal of these references does not make one an apologist for Russian actions. Rather, it provides an essential tool to better comprehend what we see and hear coming from there. In this dynamic the Time of Troubles fulfills a dual role: not only does it provide the historical precedent for President Putin to play the role of national saviour and promote his amassing of power as sound policy, it puts his country and people in a special light. Even the most patriotic historians in Russia must acknowledge that Britain, the United States and others played a role in defeating Hitler, albeit at less cost in human life. For 1612, however, Russia shares the laurels with no one else. It is a unique chapter of Russian history, one that offers a potent cocktail of tenets no nationalist would foreswear: surrounded by these threats, Russia can never trust its neighbours; Russia can only rely on Russia. This is why, no matter how distant in the past, the Time of Troubles resonates today more than ever.
Greg Carleton is Professor of Russian Studies at Tufts University and Associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University.