Russia famously was described by Winston Churchill as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. What is less frequently noted is that Churchill went on to solve his riddle. The key to understanding Russian actions was to look at Russian national interest. But is this not simply to state a truism? Isn’t the key to understanding any country’s action to simply reflect on its national interest? Is Churchill actually saying anything at all? Then again, it was not straightforwardly in the American national interest to fight a war against Germany in 1941. The threat came from the Pacific as they had just learned. Why go for a Germany first strategy? Why afterwards spend the next decades defending a largely ungrateful Europe. So too it was not straightforwardly in the UK’s national interest to either defend Belgium in 1914 or Poland in 1939.
Countries do not always act in their own national interest. Many Western countries in the past decades have sometimes cared more for their own sense of altruism and liberalism than narrow self-interest. The human rights of strangers are frequently seen as being more important than a country’s security, sometimes even its very existence in its present form. Swedish kindness and openness to the world is seen by many Swedes and certainly those in Government as being more important than maintaining the Sweden that has existed for centuries. So no, not every country is defined by national interest.
If Russia is a riddle then China is an inscrutable mandarin. If the average person in the West knows little about Russia, they know still less about China. Our stereotype is of meeting a Chinese wise man who baffles us with his depth. Meanwhile we have no idea about what he really thinks, because his face is a mask that gives away nothing. If Russia is a riddle what then is China?
Western knowledge decreases the further we go east. Western education focused traditionally on knowing everything that it was possible to know about some people who used to live in Greece and Italy. Everyone else was a barbarian and therefore not worth studying. We moved on a little and began to learn French, German or Italian. We might have some knowledge of the history of France and of French literature. But no matter how educated a person might be their knowledge stopped at the river Elbe.
During the period of the Eastern bloc people in the West barely even distinguished between the various countries. What was the point? They were all de facto ruled from Moscow. Few indeed were those who could name more than two cities in the Soviet Union or one or two in any of the other Warsaw Pact countries. While French and German were familiar, many in the West did not even really know what Russian sounded like and if we did we certainly could not distinguish between Czech, Polish and Russian. They were just a generic Slavic, which we distinguished no more than the Slavs themselves historically distinguished between our languages. They thought that we were all dumb (немцы [nemt︠s︡y], niemiecki). We thought they were all the same.
Few Westerners know very much at all about the history, language, literature or culture of the lands beyond the Elbe. The languages were too hard. Russian which is a world language spoken by hundreds of millions is barely known. Even the alphabet is a mystery. The average Westerner thinks that it is the equivalent of mirror writing. And that it involves back to front Rs and Ns. Only a very few specialists would have dreamed of learning, Polish, Czech or Bulgarian.
But at least we had some knowledge of the countries of Eastern Europe. We know a smattering of history. A few tsars have filtered into Western consciousness. We are aware vaguely of Polish partitions and of good king Wenceslas stepping out. Not a few of us have read some Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. We watch Swan Lake and the Nutcracker and know about 1812 even if it is only an overture. Our knowledge of Eastern European history can be quite horribly lacking. We know every detail about every battle on the Western front from 1914-1918, but know almost nothing about the events in the East. It is even quite hard to find out. There are endless books about the Somme, very few about the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive. We know everything about one and nothing about the other.
But knowledge of Eastern Europe has at least increased during the past decades. There are still major gaps. Few indeed are those who have heard of Operation Bagration in 1944, which absolutely dwarfs the events in the West, but many have at least heard of Stalingrad and Kursk. The Prague Spring and the Hungarian Uprising reached the consciousness of the average person. Polish Solidarnosc and Lech Walesa became household names. We learned the words “glasnost” and “perestroika” even if we didn’t quite grasp them. Our knowledge of Eastern Europe was lacking, but at least there was some of it.
Contrast this with China. If the Russian alphabet and language are difficult, what about the Chinese? If people in the West only know two or three words of Russian, they don’t even know the words for “Yes” and “No” in Chinese. If people can only name Nicholas II, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible as historical rulers of Russia, they can barely name any Chinese historical figures at all. Was Ming a Chinese ruler, a vase or a merciless ruler of the universe?
How many regions of China can the average Westerner name? How many cities? Even if we can name them, we might only know how they used to be pronounced, Nanking instead of Nanjing. How much Chinese music has filtered through to the West? How much Chinese literature? People may be aware of Confucius, but his thought is not studied in the same way that Plato or Aristotle is studied. Some people might read the Art of War by Sun Tzu, but how many can read it in Chinese? It’s far more likely to meet someone who can read the History of the Peloponnesian War in Greek. Some of the world’s largest cities are in China, yet most of these are unknown to all but one person in a thousand in the West. Is it any surprise that we find them enigmatic? But it may not be their fault, rather it may be ours.
In recent years the Chinese have been visiting us in greater numbers. Frequently they take the trouble to learn our languages. Often they do so rather well even if it is probably as hard for them to learn how we speak as it is for us to learn how they speak. How many westerners study in Chinese at a university in China? Yet somehow we suppose it is their fault that they are inscrutable and impossible to understand.
The relationship between Russia and China is one of the most important in international relations. It is a relationship that baffles however for the simple reason that we know next to nothing about Russia and still less about China. How then can we understand their conjunction and their interaction? The only way to begin doing so is to go back to the beginning. We must build the foundation of our knowledge upon history. It is not so much self-interest that is the key to our understanding, though it may be important. Rather it is trying to understand in broad terms how Chinese and Russian history has influenced and determined what Chinese and Russian people are today. For this reason it is important to try to understand in very general terms the significant ways in which Chinese and Russian history are similar, but also different. By comparing and contrasting the sweep of historical events, it may be possible to grasp something essential. For this reason it is not necessary to explore details. These are the trees that sometimes prevent us seeing the wood. This broad approach may miss something. It may even get details wrong. But this will not matter for at least we will then be aware that there is a Russian wood and a Chinese wood and that together they make a forest.
The biggest difference between Chinese and Russian history is that the one begins rather early, while the other begins rather late. Recorded Chinese history may begin around 2000 BC. Whether the events described are entirely accurate is beside the point. After all did the Siege of Troy actually happen in the way that it is described? Were there really only 300 Spartans at Thermopylae? The point is that the Chinese were writing something like history fifteen hundred years before the year zero. In this they can be compared with other ancient civilizations that developed in Mesopotamia, India and Greece.
The contrast with Russia is stark. What were Russians doing in 1500 BC? It is probably senseless to even ask this question. There isn’t even any historical mention of Slavs until the sixth century AD. At what point did the Russian branch of the Slavs break away from the other branches? It certainly wasn’t in 1500 BC. Where were the ancestors of the Russians in 1500 BC? Were they living around what today is Moscow or St. Petersburg? Perhaps some were. Russians have a mixture of ancestries. But the Slavs were not originally from where they are now. Rather they migrated sometime in prehistory.
When the Chinese had established a civilization the Russians therefore did not even exist. What we know of them depends entirely on archaeology and guesswork. Historical linguistics may be able to make inferences about a Proto Slavic language spoken in 1500 BC, but we have no examples of it. While the Chinese were writing and recording their history we know almost nothing about what the ancestors of the Russians were doing. All we have is what other people wrote about them and what we can dig up out of the ground. For the most part we don’t even have that.
Even in European terms Russian history begins rather late. Quite a lot is known about the history of Britain since at least the Roman Conquest. We know the names of British historical figures, the names of towns and the names of events and when they occurred. If someone wanted to write the history of the British Isles from the Roman Conquest to the rule of Alfred the Great a good deal could be written. Of course archaeology would be useful, but we also have extensive written sources providing us with names, dates and descriptions of events. The same is the case with China. It is these that enable history to be written.
The history of Russia prior to 862 AD is basically a blank page. How many historical figures can be named? How many historical events? How many Russian documents survive? None. All we have is archaeology. There is therefore in essence no history.
Even for first few centuries after the founding of Kievan Rus’ there is dearth of written sources. Apart from Olga of Kiev who converted to Christianity around 950 AD we hardly know even the name of another ruler’s wife or the mother of a prince. The early history of Rus’ depends on chronicles which are frequently dubious, unclear and incomplete. It depends on writings discovered on birch bark. It depends on archaeology in a way that the history of Britain, France or Germany simply doesn’t.
While Western Europe has a culture stretching back to the Greeks and the Romans and continuing into the middle ages, Russia once more essentially has a blank sheet. All we have is chronicles, ecclesiastical documents and pieces of correspondence sometimes fragmentary. Apart from the The Tale of Igor’s Campaign discovered in the eighteenth century, there is no surviving Russian literature written in the early centuries. Some folk tales have been passed down orally and these have been collected, but compared to Western Europe Russia really didn’t produce any literature of world importance until Pushkin.
While Western Europe was producing Beowulf, Chaucer, Dante, Chretien de Troyes, the Nibelungenlied and the Icelandic sagas, Russia essentially produced nothing or if it did it is now lost.
The great period of Russian literature, beginning in the 1830s, springs as it were from nothing. Compare this with China. Look at the achievements of Chinese thinkers, poets from ancient times onwards. It could accurately be said that practically nothing of consequence for anyone else comes out of Russia before 1830. Everything else is either unoriginal imitation, such as St. Petersburg or it is not really of importance at least for anyone else. Russia has no one even close to a Shakespeare, Moliere, Dante or Confucius prior to the nineteenth century. It barely has any culture at all.
The contrast between China being an ancient civilization with vast achievements in terms of invention and culture and Russia which doesn’t really escape the dark ages until the eighteenth century explains much about how these countries are today.
Even Russia’s language in its present form can only really be traced back to Pushkin. The Russian elites until relatively recently so lacked confidence in their own language and culture that they preferred to speak French. Peter the Great found his country to be Asiatic and barbarous. Russians have found themselves looking at Europe with the desire to imitate, but they have never found themselves belonging. They have also always looked eastwards. It is towards the East that Russia has always spread from its Kievan Rus’ beginnings.
So too has China spread from its original heartland along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. First Russia and China met through intermediaries, but gradually they each approached and then finally began to border each other. But how does an ancient civilization respond to a comparatively modern one? Has the relative lack of Russian history and culture made Russian’s insecure and desperate to be recognised? On the other hand have the Chinese felt that much of their greatness like that of the Greeks is something that belongs only to antiquity? Where is the present Chinese greatness to match that of ancient times? Where is today’s Confucius? Has this made the Chinese insecure and desperate to make up for those times when they have been humiliated in recent centuries?
The root of China is from itself. The Chinese come from the Chinese. This cannot really be said of Russia. Was it Russians who began Russia? Not really. Russia at root is a Viking civilization. It is the result of Vikings wishing to reach Byzantium by a quicker route than going all the way round by way of the Mediterranean. The first rulers of Kievan Rus’ are not therefore even Slavs. Rather in time they became Russified.
There is another sense too in which the origins of Russia are not Russian. Since 1991 the cradle of Russian civilization does not even lie with the boundaries of Russia. Kiev is no longer the capital of “Little Russia” rather it is the capital of anti-Russia. The Russian self lies outside itself.
The foundation of the Russian house is Scandinavian. On top of this is piled Byzantium and claims of Moscow being the third Rome. Throughout the centuries Russia has always been looking outside itself. Trying to find whatever it lost at the beginning. These are not solid foundations. These are the basis of the insecurity in the Russian nature that explains much of its history. Why else would a people seek to continually imitate someone else? Why would that people continually be unsure if it wanted to go West or go East? Even as the French sought to destroy Russia the Russians wanted to be French and then fought against the French with a brutality that no-one else had previously come close to matching. The Russians may too have always thought of Germans as “dumb” but yet for centuries their doctors and their generals have been Germans, their skilled merchants have been imported from Germany. While Russians lazed on the divan (Oblomov) the Germans ran their country and at times were at the heart of their royalty. This is the duality at the heart of the Russian mind. They have been humiliated since Peter the Great cut their beards off and built Venice as their capital.
China too has faced the humiliation of being a faded power. It may once have expected the rest of the world to pay tribute. It may once have thought that Russians were barbarians who needed to bow down to the Chinese. But by the nineteenth century Chinese greatness lay in antiquity. It was indeed the Chinese who discovered gunpowder. It was they who had a culture and a civilization stretching back to the dawn of human history. China had reached a level of knowledge and sophistication that Europe could not dream of one two or even three thousand years ago, but then they thought they had reached perfection and so stopped.
This is the greatest fault in Asian culture, the lack of continued development. The Japanese decide that a certain form of art is perfection, a certain way of making tea cannot be improved and a certain way of making war may not be altered. They then stop. After this they repeat and imitate. They end up with samurai fighting against machine guns. So too with China. Centuries of thinking they were already perfect led to the humiliation of China becoming a colony which the real Great Powers of the nineteenth century squabbled over and divided as they pleased.
But at root China is secure. Compared to Russia it has a solid foundation. Its culture is not imposed from without. Rather the Chinese house is built on the same foundations that were created in antiquity. The centre of Chinese culture is not divided against itself.
Both China and Russia are civilizations that have expanded from a core and have taken over peoples and places that were not at the beginning either Chinese or Russian. The essence of both is to be colonizers. The fundamental difference however between other colonial powers such as the British or the French is that Russia and China, for the most part colonized contiguously. Britain expanded as far as India, Australia and the North America, but geography doomed the project from the start. In time Australians, Indians and North Americans would always recognise the absurdity of being ruled by a small island that was far away. These oceans created the seeds of the destruction of the British Empire. Russia however began expanding from its small core stretching from Kiev northwards and eastwards. The people who became part of Russia were not Russians, but they were at least contiguous. So too China expanded from its core around the Yangtze and the Yellow river to take in other peoples and cultures. Both Russia and China developed the same policy. What is mine will always be mine. If it ever was mine it still is mine. It is the same reasoning that means some people think Al-Andalus is in essence still part of the Dār al-Islām.
The Russian and the Chinese cultures spread just as their people spread. We find ethnic Russians and ethnic Chinese in places far from where they originated. They dominate and their language becomes the language of all. Vladivostok did not speak Russian a thousand years ago. It was thousands of miles away from anyone who did. It is a colony just as much as Australia was a colony. But Vladivostok cannot free itself from Russian rule, because it is joined at the hip.
So too Taiwan was colonised. Its original people were not Chinese. They spoke an Australasian language and they did not look like Chinese people at all. So too the Uyghurs speak a Turkic language. They are no more Chinese in their origin than Siberians are Russian in their origin. But both were colonised. Russians and Chinese have moved from the centre and now claim where they have moved to as their own. The reason they can keep these places while other Empires have fallen apart is a matter of geography. Apart from that the process by which they were colonised differs in no way from how the British and French colonised Africa.
There is a difference however between Russia and China. The Russian Empire has been in retreat since the peak of its expansion in the nineteenth century and the culmination of its power in 1945. The vassal states of the Warsaw Pact, which in effect were ruled from Moscow, have gone. Far from being buffer states they are now largely hostile. But what had been the Russian Empire gradually began falling apart in the years after 1917. Poland was lost as was Finland and the Baltic States. Parts of these were gathered back in 1939 or 1945, but then were lost for good in 1991. At this point we saw the result of decades, perhaps centuries of Russian imperial policy. Given the chance the parts of the Russian Empire voted with their feet. Those parts that spoke very different languages no longer wished to be ruled from Moscow. Armenia, Azerbaijan and all the other “stans” left. This was painful enough. But what was still worse was the loss of Belarus and Ukraine. It’s one thing to lose places that didn’t speak Russian, but to lose places that did was a far worse vote of no-confidence.
Rus’ was all those part of the Slavic world that were Orthodox and spoke an eastern Slavic language. Most Russians until very recently indeed considered these places to speak Russian or dialects of Russian. Most Russians thought these places were Russia. They were either “white Russia” (Belarus) or “little Russia” (Ukraine) (literally the edge of Russia). It would have been unimaginable to a Russian in the nineteenth century to suppose that Kiev or Minsk were capitals of foreign countries. The core of Russianness, the historical foundation of Russian society, was split in 1991. It is this above all that explains the history of Russia since 1991.
There is a lack of confidence about Russia. The Soviet Union was a great power. They won the “Great Patriotic War”. They put the First man in space, the first woman and the first dog. People in the West were scared on the Soviet Union. We treated them with respect. Their opinion was asked for.
Suddenly the Soviet Union fell. No-one expected this. The West no longer respected Russia. We thought that Yeltsin was a clown. We sent them aid as if they were some third world country facing famine. This is why they wanted a strong leader who we would respect and perhaps fear.
The Russian Empire is in decline, but has the decline finished? This is the key question. After all the Russia of today is made up of hundreds of peoples, many of whom can speak languages different from Russian, who follow different religions to Orthodox Christianity, who look differently from most people in Moscow, and who have often been persecuted by Russians for centuries.
Russia has a declining population and a landmass bordered by populations who are growing. Can 144 million, many of whom are not even at root Russian, really hold on to most of Eurasia while 1.3 Billion Chinese have to be satisfied merely with a corner?
The relation then between China and Russia can be described in this way. While Russia strategically is growing weaker and may decline still further, China is growing in terms of power, influence and wealth.
Chinese influence is expanding in places as far apart as the Caribbean and Africa. China gives money in exchange for resources and soft power. The only significant loss for China since 1945 was Taiwan and even here it wasn’t really lost. Most of the world accepts that Taiwan is still part of China and that there is only one China even if it looks as if there is more than one. China regained Hong Kong, Macau and Tibet. While the Soviet Union was so weakened by the communist economics and Ronald Reagan’s tactics that it lost the Cold War decisively and ceased to exist, China was fundamentally strong enough to see off the challenge. The revolutionary period in Europe that began in the late 1980s and concluded in the early 1990s saw the breakup of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Communism. But China survived. It defeated the revolutionary forces in 1989. Tiananmen Square did not lead to the breakup of China. The Chinese therefore were and are stronger than the Russians.
This is the key to understanding the present relationship between China and Russia. Russian wealth, insofar as it exists, is a function of its geography. Russian history meant that it was able to colonise vast chunks of essentially empty land that no-one else much wanted. But it turned out that these barren lands held resources. They had oil, gas, and minerals. This is a source of Russian strength, but it is also a source of weakness. Russia relies on what it has rather than what it makes.
The Russian people think of themselves at least in part as First World Europeans. They look to the West and think that they deserve the same products as everyone else, the same lifestyle and the same standard of living. But they have not properly reached a free market system. Few Russian products are sold in the West that they make. Their businesses remain corrupt and inefficient. As soon as there is a decline in oil and gas prices as soon as there are sanctions the Russian economy takes a nose dive.
Contrast this with China. Chinese business is successful, Chinese products are sold everywhere. Chinese people do not expect a Western lifestyle without doing any work. For this reason, many of them approach it and indeed go beyond it.
While there may be a limit to Chinese economic progress for the reason that truly free markets and capitalism require a democracy that China lacks. Nevertheless, despite remaining officially “communists” China has made much more economic progress than Russia in the past decades. Russia may have thrown off communism, but it was simply unable to develop business. In this respect, it is essentially worse off now than it was before the 1917 Revolution. In the nineteenth century, there were prosperous small towns in Russia far from Moscow. Now there is a giant Moscow founded on corruption and wealth derived from ownership of natural resources that were quite frankly stolen in the years following 1991. Life in small town five hundred miles from Moscow today is worse than it was one hundred and fifty years ago.
China may be limited economically by its lack of democracy, but it has at least become a first-rate economic power and the foundation of this economic power is good businesses that produce products that the world wants. Without its natural resources Russia would barely have any economic power at all and without economic power a country in the end has no power. China has not got all of the fundamentals right, but it has at least got some of them right. It perhaps has even got the main fundamental right. Economics. Russia on the other hand has hardly got any of the fundamentals right in the years since 1991. Most of all it has only developed the appearance of a market economy. Russian wealth is dependent not on what they can make, but on what they can find. In this sense, they have not really gone beyond the Hunter Gather stage.
Both Russia and China are great powers in the context of the twenty first century. In different ways, their history as great powers stretches back into history. In nineteenth century international relations, Russia was important in a way that China was not. However, China was already great when Russia was not, when Russia did not even exit. However, despite both Russia and China having long term greatness they have also had long term weakness.
At the beginning of the twentieth century China had been reduced in effect to being a colony of the great powers. It had become the equivalent of the Ottoman Empire in the East and was the “Sick Manchu of Asia.” Each of the great powers, Britain, Germany, Russia, France, USA etc. had a chunk of China and treated it as theirs. Chinese immigrants to the United States were treated as inferiors, fit only to work as coolies or to do laundry. When the Chinese rebelled against foreign rule with the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) the great powers thought they had the right to crush it and so they did.
Russia too entered the twentieth century as a power in decline. The tsar still thought that he ruled according to the concept of the divine right of kings. This is something that Britain essentially dispensed with when it cut off the head of Charles I. France too ceased identifying the power of the state with a single person (L’etat c’est moi) only a few Louis after the fourteenth one. They too achieved this by cutting off the head of a king. But Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century had not really progressed much beyond the seventeen or perhaps eighteenth century.
For a long time, this did not matter. Russia’s vastness, stubbornness, population and brutality were enough to defeat Napoleon. Russia could retreat further than anyone else which meant defeat in battle, loss of life, crops, even a burned Moscow mattered little if at all. Russia also did not play by Napoleon’s rules. It simply refused to surrender and in this way, was able to defeat what it could not defeat in battle.
Russian troops eventually reached Paris. This may have been the peak of Russian power. But the lessons of Paris were not learned. Every attempt to reform Russia was made too little and too late. Those officers who had seen that Western Europe was more prosperous that Russia and who wanted to bring back to Russia the lessons they had learned were crushed by Nicholas the first, tsar of all the Russias who knew better because his power was from God.
This same Nicholas would get himself involved in a tangle with Britain and France over access to churches in Jerusalem. Naturally he must have the right to enter when he pleased. Unfortunately, he discovered at Alma that British and French rifles could shoot further than Russian ones, for which reason the British and French could simply shoot down any Russia without risking being shot in return. Russia had as always neglected technology because of its divine right to win battles.
Russian reforms in the decades after Crimea were two little and too late. Reforms that might have been decisive in the 1820s if only the tsar had listened to the Decembrists were not enough when they were finally introduced in 1861.
The key to avoiding revolution as the British learned over the centuries was to give ground when needed. England had been doing so since Magna Carta. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which wasn’t a revolution at all, prevented real revolution from occurring during the next three centuries. By limiting the monarchy so early it was possible for the British Kings and Queens to survive. By introducing democracy and free markets gradually, the people’s discontent was limited, because they always had hope for better times.
Russia’s failure in the late nineteenth century was its inability to change quickly enough. It simply left the process of beginning change too late to overcome the brewing discontent.
The warning came in 1905 with Russia’s defeat to Japan and its first twentieth century Revolution. How could mighty Russia stretching across a continent lose to a tiny island that had kept itself isolated more or less until 1854? Japan was better than anyone expected and this latent power would be ably demonstrated in the 1930s and 1940s. But Russia was weaker.
The tsar perhaps had one last chance in 1905. Even then it was very late in the day. But as always, he did too little and too late. At the beginning of the First World War the tsar still essentially ruled because he had the divine right to do so. He even appointed himself not merely a symbolic head of the armed forces but something like the actual head. While the British king had learned to keep himself in the background and accepted his powerlessness, the tsar took all responsibility and also therefore all the blame. No-one blamed the British king if things went wrong for everyone knew he was just a symbol. After a few centuries of this the British monarchy could see the benefits. George V had less power and influence than either Kaiser Wilhelm II or Nicholas II, but his family kept their throne while his cousins lost theirs. You can’t blame someone who doesn’t have power. This was the key to kings surviving in the twentieth century.
Russia made economic progress in the decades up to 1914. But again they were too little and too late. More importantly those who led did so because of who their fathers were rather than their ability. The mass of Russian soldiers were essentially the same as the ones that had fought Napoleon a century earlier. But it was no longer enough.
The German army continually showed that it was superior both in terms of leadership and in terms of the ability of its ordinary soldiers. This meant that a small force could defeat a larger force at Tannenberg in 1914. Once more Russia retreated, but despite the ebbs and flows of fluctuating fortunes in the years ahead never came close to defeating Germany on its own. Russia’s only hope was to hold on until the Western Allies won, but it could not even do this.
The failure to reform in the previous decades, which can be traced to Nicholas I caught up with Nicolas II and led to his family being bayonetted by Red guards. Russia suffered the greatest defeat in its history in 1917/1918. The German Army decisively defeated the Russian Army in the field. The extent of its advance and the harshness of the peace terms at Brest Litovsk were only reversed in part by the Allied Victory in November 1918 and the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution.
The Russian Empire was an empty shell in 1918 just as much as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It might have fallen apart just as they did. What saved Russia and kept it as a great power was the Bolshevik Revolution. Without this Revolution we might have ended up with Russia being not much more powerful today than Austria or Hungary. Russia might have been left as a relatively small power. Who knows how much territory would have been lost if the Bolsheviks had lost the struggle. But while giving Russia short term strength, the Bolshevik Revolution stored up long term failure. The same can be said for the Revolution in China.
Chinese weakness continued even after the overthrow its emperor. The Republic of China (1912-1949) simply did not have enough time to introduce the reforms necessary to maintain itself. The Chinese emperor until 1912 had been an absolute monarch, like the tsar, but he had been an impotent one. It simply was not possible in the time allowed to introduce the modernisations necessary for the challenges ahead.
These challenges became existential when China found itself fighting a war against Japan. Once more Japan demonstrated that it could fight a country much larger than itself. China emerged victorious, but could not have won on its own at least it could not have won in 1945 on its own. Chinese victory was dependent on American nuclear bombs.
The feebleness of nationalist China is ably demonstrated by the swiftness of its defeat after World War II. Russia reached perhaps its lowest point of power in 1918 with Brest Litovsk, but the Republic of China too reached its lowest point despite technical victory in 1945.
The “victorious” Republic of China almost immediately found itself challenged by communism and collapsed and had to flee to Taiwan shortly afterwards.
China’s status today as a great power is down to the Communist Revolution. Just as Communism made Russia a great power in the twentieth century so too did Communist Revolution allow China to reach greatness in the second half of the twentieth century.
But just as with Russia, so too with China. Both communist revolutions had within them the seeds of failure and weakness. The price of short term power was long term failure.
Russia because of the Communist revolution was able to defeat Nazi Germany in 1945. It enabled the new Russian Empire (called the Soviet Union) to industrialise and to bring about levels of education hitherto unknown. Only tyranny could have defeated Hitler. If Russia had been a democracy in 1941 it would have lost, because no democracy could have accepted the level of sacrifice required. But tyranny, just as with Nicolas I, meant that Russia could not reform quickly enough. It was bankrupted by Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev tried to reform just like Nicholas II, but what he tried was too little and too late. The loss in 1991 was even greater than the loss at Brest Litovsk. The Russian Empire lost its heartland (Belarus, Ukraine) and most of its non-Russian peoples. The tsar was no longer tsar of all the Russias, because now there was only one.
The Chinese Revolution brought with it Chinese power. The other great powers in the world began to respect China in a way that they had not done for centuries if at all. The British gave back Hong Kong only because China was a greater power than Britain.
But although the Chinese Revolution brought with it greatness the cost was great too. The Great Leap Forward, the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution killed millions of Chinese. The country was held together by authority and tyranny.
But China began to reform. From 1978 China has been attempting to reconcile Communism and Capitalism. After the trauma of the previous decades, a trauma that may eventually have led to another revolution, the Communist Party has attempted to evolve.
The major test was in 1989. The danger for any autocracy is when it first tries to introduce change. It gives people a taste and they want more. This is the difficult balance. A state must introduce enough reform to prevent revolution, but not so much that it makes revolution inevitable.
China was able to crush its minor revolution in 1989. Does this mean that it had already introduced enough reform? Were the changes made from 1978 to 1989 enough to maintain the Chinese state? For the moment it looks as if they were, because the Chinese people seem uninterested today in revolution. Now they have the chance to achieve wealth. But it was perhaps a close run thing. The Tiananmen Square democracy protests may have overthrown the path that China is now on. They may have led to something better, but they may have led to something worse. This is the essential problem with revolution that we have learned from the French Revolution to the Arab Spring. Revolution most frequently does not lead to peace, love and democracy. Most frequently it leads to chaos and terror.
But there is still a contradiction at the heart of China. Free market capitalism requires freedom and democracy. There is a limit to Chinese economic progress which is imposed by the lack of consent which ordinary Chinese people can give to the way their society is run.
China’s status as a great power is because of its revolution, but this revolution at the same time limits its prospects.
Russia went through a second revolution in 1991, which reduced it to the status of barely being a great power at all. Russia’s enemies have been able to take over the former parts of the Russian empire (Baltics, Poland) and were close to taking over the spiritual heart and origin of Russian society (Kiev). Russia’s response has been to flail wildly and posture (Crimea, Donbass, Syria), but this cannot disguise the inherent weakness of Russia.
China’s economic prospects are first class. But it faces the challenge of reform. Is it possible to hold together such a large, diverse country in a way that is not authoritarian? Is democracy compatible with developing China economically? Would democratic reforms simply lead to the breakup of China? But the lesson of history is that gradual reform prevents revolution. This is China’s task today.
But the fundamental position of China is much better than Russia. China has a large population. It makes products other people around the world want to buy. It has a population that works hard and with good levels of productivity. There is a route for many ordinary people that leads them to a better life and wealth. This wealth depends at least in part on hard work rather than criminality and corruption. Compared to Russia China as many advantages.
The only advantage Russia has is land mass. But this land is essentially empty and becoming emptier. Russia desperately needs both economic and democratic reforms. But Russia has not fundamentally changed at all. It still has the same structure of society as it did during the tsar. At that point there was a small gentry and a large peasantry. During Communism there was a small elite (the Party) and a large mass of workers. Now there is the small group of oligarchs who were able to grab low hanging fruit when communism fell. The Russian rich are powerful because of what they stole, not because of what they invented or the businesses that they made successful. The foundation is not capitalism, but feudalism. The strong (Putin and friends) still rule over the weak. Many ordinary Russians are excluded from any chance of reaching success. But they exclude themselves because of their love, perhaps their dependence on strong leaders.
Russia is a pressure cooker. The 1991 revolution is still ongoing and we may if we are not careful find ourselves facing another such revolution. The Chinese Pressure cooker is letting out steam. Ordinary Chinese can now have as high a standard of living as anyone in the world. They can travel and they can practically speaking live as freely as anyone in the United States. There are challenges ahead. China must resolve its contradictions, but they are at least going in the right direction. It is this that distinguishes China from Russia. Russia isn’t going in the right direction, because it isn’t going anywhere at all.
It may be that that what limits both Russia and China is that they lack what is necessary to reach democracy. They both lack the idea of the individual and the individual mattering. Briefly it looked as if Russia might have made the transition to democracy in the early nineteen nineties. Russia at least did make a peaceful transition from communism to post-communism. It attempted to make democratic reforms and become a multi-party democracy. But the attempt failed. It led to national humiliation (food aid, Yeltsin), weakness and economic crisis. Once more Russia turned to the strong man. But at least Russia tried. China did not and has not even really attempted democracy.
China has made progress in terms of market reforms and has in this respect done much better than Russia, but it has failed to do the one thing that Russia did do successfully. Russia did get rid of the Party peacefully. China has not. This amounts to an albatross around China’s neck. It must know that at some point it is necessary to go beyond the Party, but the longer it continues the harder this looks.
China is a market economy, but it is ruled by the Communist Party. If it is really a market economy why is it ruled by the Party? If on the other hand it is really communist, why does it have a fully functioning market economy? This contradiction is at the heart of China and is a source of weakness. It may be that China will in time be able to mediate the contradiction and come up with a new way of ruling that is compatible with free markets, but as yet they have not done so. China needs a revolution to overthrow the Party, but there is no guarantee that it would be peaceful (more or less) as was the case with Russia. This is the central risk with China, perhaps with the world.
At the heart of Russian and Chinese history is the idea that the ordinary person does not matter. This was the case in Russia where a person’s wealth was counted in souls. Some of these souls could arbitrarily be consigned to the army in effect for life. It did not matter how many of these souls were killed in battle, no more at Borodino than at Stalingrad.
Russia suffered some of the greatest military defeats in history in 1941. I use Russia, of course, to mean the continuing Russian Empire. The Soviet Union in essence was still all the Russias. The losses suffered in Operation Barbarossa in 1941 amount to nearly 5 million people. 700,000 were lost when Kiev alone was surrounded, nearly 350,000 at Minsk. No other army, no other people could have endured such losses.
But these defeats are ignored. They have been wiped away from history just as much as Nikolai Yezhov was deleted from photos with Stalin after he was purged. Museums in Russia today do not mention defeats, only victories. The loss of half a million people does not matter. They are just dead souls.
So too in China. The lives of ordinary Chinese people were governed historically by laws that did not care at all about their individuality. The whim of the Manchu would see someone executed. If the Great Leap forward was built on the backs of millions of dead peasants it would be worth it. Except there was no leap, it was not great and it did not move forwards.
Communism depends on the idea that the individual does not matter. It is for this reason that it has only ever approached something like fulfilment in countries that do not value the individual and where there is little sense of individualism.
Conformity is the key to communism. It is for this reason that Germany would be the perfect communist country and would be more successful than the others. Poles and Czechs always had far too much individuality to conform. If the atom bomb had not intervened then Japan would no doubt have been partitioned just like Korea. In that case we would now have North Japan. Perhaps it would be the ideal communist paradise. But even so it is worth noting that East German conformism did not match West Germany’s Mercedes.
But it is precisely the lack of the idea that the individual matters that makes democracy so problematic for both China and Russia. The traditional Russian steamroller meant that Russian power depended on the idea that this or that Russian would crush and at the same time be crushed. But it wouldn’t matter. Without this the Russian army would not have the traditional power that it always had, nor would the Russian state.
Progress, whether it was the building of St. Petersburg, or the creation of the White Sea Canal, required Russia’s rulers not to care how many people were killed. This too is why Russian casualties in the World War II were so high. The Russian army had so many that it simply did not matter. They would clear a mine field with a regiment if it was quicker than having to go round it. It is in part because of this that Russia’s historically large population has begun to collapse. If the state did not give a damn about casualties, why should the people give a damn about bringing these casualties into the world?
Chinese losses in World War II are only a little less than those of Russia. While China in total lost 15-20 million Russia lost 26-27 million. Britain and the United States each lost less than half a million. One of the reasons for this of course was the brutality of the fighting in China and in Russia, but it must also be recognised that another reason was that Britain and the United States cared about each individual who was lost and fought so as to limit casualties.
The history of the twentieth century in Russia is of the individual’s rights, even his existence, being subordinated to the power of the state. It didn’t matter if collectivisation killed millions both by hunger and by its inherent long term inefficiency, what mattered was introducing communist doctrine. The Gulag swallowed up millions. It did not matter if it swallowed both the innocent and the guilty so long as Siberia was opened up and gained the workers it needed.
Mao would surround a Chinese city and starve its population to death. He needed to do this in order to win his revolution. It mattered not at all to him that hundreds of thousands and then millions of Chinese would perish.
In the United States people read obsessively about battles of the American Civil War. During the battle with the worst daily toll of casualties, Antietam or Sharpsburg, a little more than two thousand United States Army soldiers lost their lives. In China or in Russia such a battle would not even be worthy of note. But it is for this reason that they struggle to introduce democracy.
In the end free markets depend on democracy, because it is through the creativity of individuals that new products and ways of business are created. Creativity depends on the idea that individuals can reach greatness. It is the lack of Chinese individuality historically that limits them for it means that their economy can only imitate, just as their culture creates little that is new. There is something missing from Chinese violinists, because no Chinese has produced anything close to Beethoven. They just imitate and imitate almost perfectly, but it is the imitation of something that they do not quite grasp.
So too Chinese capitalism is an imitation of the United States, but it is not founded on the individualism of nineteenth century American history. For this reason, the Chinese have not created in the way that Henry Ford did, nor in the way of Bill Gates, nor indeed in the way of Charles Ives and John Ford.
The elite of Russian society could produce greatness both during the time of the tsar and during the time of the Party, but nothing of consequence has been produced since. It is as if communism ate out the heart of Russian culture and left a husk. There looks to be no prospect at all of a modern Tolstoy or Tchaikovsky. The elite have become vulgar, concerned only with consumption and buying expensive brands, the masses look on and wish to buy those same brands. The Slavophiles have decisively been defeated by Christian Dior. But Christian Dior and the essence of all of the other ideas in the West is neither founded on vulgarity, excessive consumption, imitation, nor longing for something you can’t have, it is founded on individualism and the idea that it matters what I look like and smell like and that I can attain these things by working hard. So ordinary Russians have lost what was theirs and cannot attain what is not theirs. The creative tension between East and West that created the greatness of Russian culture has ceased and so they produce nothing.
Both China and Russia founded their twentieth century history on ideas that were not theirs. Marx and Engels were adapted by Lenin, but the essence of the idea was German not Russian. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, were adapted by Mao, but the essence of the idea was Russian rather than Chinese. In this way, they both lost what was original about their own culture by imitating someone else. But really, they were imitating nothing, for Marx and Engels did not intend to apply their ideas to a peasant society like Russia, still less to a medieval society like China. They intended to try communism in Germany. So Lenin was really imitating something that never was, and Mao was imitating a pale imitation of something that never would be. In the process, they lost what was essential and original about Russia and China for the sake of ideas that were not even intended to apply to them.
But some of what had been was retained. The fundamental difference between the Chinese and the Russians is that the former is naturally good at business while the latter is not. Even today if you go to a market in a Russian city, it is most likely that the people doing the business will not be Russians. They will be from the Caucuses. The merchant class in Russia was historically small and often imported from elsewhere, such as Germany. The ordinary mass of Russians worked as serfs. They did what they were told and worked only when someone was watching, but they did not require any sense of business and any sense of initiative.
The Chinese communist authorities may have tried to crush entrepreneurs, they may have been able to kill millions of them, but the historical experience of doing small business could not be crushed entirely. It is for this reason above all that the Chinese economy is able to progress in a way that the Russian cannot. The Chinese are good at business and they like doing it. Business is about gambling, taking risks, profit and loss. But the Chinese since antiquity have been gambling about everything and with their ability to not betray their emotions and to keep their faces blank they are very good at it indeed. Lenin and Stalin could kill off the business mentality in Russia because it was not really there anyway. Mao could no more kill off the business sense in China than communism could kill off the Catholic Church in Poland. These ideas were too strong and too inherent. To be Polish is to be Catholic, to be Chinese is to gamble at Mahjong.
Russia and China both have dominant ethnic groups. In Russia and in all the Russias it is the Russian speaker who traces his linage back to Kievan Rus. In China, it is the Han Chinese who can trace his lineage back to the Han dynasty. These are the colonisers, everyone else is the colony.
One of the strengths of both China and Russia is that they are able to turn what is not Chinese and not Russian into something Chinese and Russian. Siberia is Russian and so is everything in between. The people who are not descended from Kievan Rus still think of themselves as Russian even if they do not look like Russians. Russia has been able to Russify the whole of northern Eurasia. So too the Han have spread and have become the dominant culture of the whole of China.
This is the strength of both Russia and China. While many Western Europeans are ashamed of their identity, the Russians and the Chinese are not. In Britain, the idea of multiculturalism has gained dominance. Each culture and people that has come to Britain is equal to the British culture. In the end, this means that British intellectuals think of their own culture as worse than everyone else’s. The Left sides with our country’s rivals and enemies. No-one in Russia or China thinks in this way. Indigenous cultures in these countries may have rights, but they are subordinate to the central culture. For this reason, everything is centralised. In Vladivostok the trains use Moscow time.
The United States is rapidly losing the foundation of its greatness. It is being eaten away from within by multiculturalism and insecurity about what it is to be an American. Nearly everything of consequence in American history right up until Eisenhower was created by White Anglo Saxons Protestants (Wasps). All important Americans, almost without exception, were Europeans. But now approximately half the population of the United States is from places other than Europe. It is one thing to melt into a common identity people who are essentially the same, but the United States is now attempting to do this with people who are essentially different. Why should such a country stay together? What holds them? Their common culture is really the culture of only half of them. Why should an “American” who is neither white, nor an Angle nor a Saxon nor a Protestant care whether Washington told the truth about chopping down a tree? What has a Civil War fought by white people to do with immigrants from Asia? But what else is there to unite these people?
Europe too is importing people at almost the same rate as the United States. It becomes unclear how these states can retain their identity and their sense of historical continuity with the places that preceded them.
It is here that Russian and Chinese confidence in their own identity may be a strength. Russia remains a homogenous society. Those people who are ethnically or linguistically non-Russian have been there for centuries. They have been Russified. So too the Han Chinese have imposed their culture and their language on everyone else. They have settled and they have come to dominate those places that were originally not Han Chinese. It is this above all that may hold China and Russia together while Europe and the United States face the challenge of keeping together that which has become too multicultural, multilingual and multi-ethnic, i.e. too diverse to hold itself together.
Russia’s economy depends on resources, oil, gas and minerals, but the future is not with these things. Technology will supersede the internal combustion engine. This is possible even now. It will be still more possible in twenty or one hundred years.
The future may see the development of batteries that can store renewable energy. It may see the development of fusion power. The harnessing of the power of the sun, will solve all energy problems in the flash of the hydrogen bomb. This may be a long-term development. At the moment, we are not close. But we are close to developing clean fission energy. Thorium reactors, which China especially is developing, might give us nuclear energy without the downside of storing dangerous waste. At this point oil and gas become obsolete.
The foundation of the Chinese economy therefore looks much more promising in the long term than the Russian economy. Business is a more reliable way of creating wealth than finding resources. It is the lack of progress that Russia has made in creating products anyone else wants to buy that is its biggest failure since 1991. The Soviet Union in most respects had better agriculture and manufacturing than Russia today and the Soviet economy was a house of cards that was brought crashing down by Star Wars. Whatever force the Soviets had, it was not with them. The Americans had the force, which was why they won the Cold War, by bankrupting their opponent, not merely in terms of economics, but in terms of ideas.
Russia has a continent which it found almost empty and found first. This is Russia’s main advantage, both strategically and economically. Russia can always retreat and store up strength. But Russia lacks people and lacks ideas. It is dependent on trying to keep its people happy by means of pretending that Russia is still great. Russia will nibble bits of Georgia and bits of Ukraine and Russians may shout in the street about their greatness, but when they return to their ordinary lives they know that it is not true.
China has people. They face demographic challenges with an aging population, but the fundamentals are still in China’s favour. They have less land than Russia and more people. Their economy is based on manufacturing and business. The weakness of China is their lack of originality.
It is hard to think of any music produced in China that is of world importance. They have great literature, but it is rarely read outside China. There is no Chinese author as famous in world terms as Dostoevsky. Few in any other part of the world read Confucius. Chinese religion has not spread much beyond China’s border. Chinese culture remains something exotic rather than influential.
Both China and Russia are only a few generations away from some of the worst horrors of the twentieth Century. Russian leaders killed far more than Holocaust and so did the Chinese. Perversely this is ignored by the rest of the world and is properly acknowledged neither in China nor in Russia.
In China there is still a picture of Mao in Tiananmen Square. In Russia there is a limit to how much anyone can criticise Lenin, Stalin or Russian history in general. Both Russians and Chinese suffer from “Holocaust Denial”. They deny or refuse to acknowledge what their leaders did. This is their weakness.
The wound festers because it has not been treated. Germany on the other hand for the most part acknowledges what was done and has taken responsibility. The limit is that Germans pretend that all these horrors were done by Nazis and not them. It was the SS. it wasn’t my grandparents. But at least the Germans recognise that there was a Holocaust. This means that Germans can move on in a way that Russians and Chinese cannot.
The Russians and Chinese have a one sided view of history. They focus only on what they want to acknowledge and ignore and suppress what they don’t. The Russians won’t even acknowledge the scale of the defeats that made their ultimate victory so extraordinary. They diminish their own achievement. The Chinese by retaining the Communist Party fail to acknowledge fully what that Party did and the crimes it committed. Neither Russian nor Chinese society therefore is grounded in truth. The foundations of their society are not solid. It is this above all that limits them both.
Chinese lack of individuality means they are willing to work. This is to their advantage, but it is also their ultimate limit. Without individuality, they will not be able to fully create the business conditions necessary for the innovations of the future. But even so China has achieved economic greatness. This is more than can be said for Russia, which still relies on a Soviet aircraft carrier towed by tugs, because it simply could not produce such a ship today.
Russian society is founded on land, but without people land is simply empty space waiting to be filled by someone stronger. The Russian people have more individuality than the Chinese and have a greater history of creativity, but this has declined even from the time of the Soviet Union let alone the time of Tolstoy. Russians think that because they are white and almost European they deserve the same standard of living as those who they watch on television. But their mentality is still that of the serf who requires someone to tell him to work. Their economy is fundamentally worse than it was during the Soviet Union. While China has great challenges, it is possible to imagine that China may achieve a greatness that it has never had up until now. Russia is no longer a superpower, it is barely even a great power. It can still lash out, but this will not even slow Russia’s decline. It depends on natural resources (oil and gas) that are becoming obsolete and a landmass it gradually will be unable to fill with people. Putin’s posturing cannot hide the truth, because it is only posturing.
This then is the fundamental aspect of China Russian relations. Chinese power and influence has increased and will increase still further. Russia is going in the opposite direction. The Chinese understand this and it is this that defines the relationship between these countries.
This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: http://effiedeans.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/better-to-be-dragon-than-bear-chinese.html