Streetwise Professor

April 5, 2008

A Chicago Historian’s Acerbic Take on Russia Past, Present, and Future

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:14 am

Richard Hellie coordinated the Russian Civilization sequence I took as an Undergraduate at Chicago in 1979-1980, and I attended several of his classes and his lectures to the combined sections of the RusCiv course. He is a well-known historian of early Russia, particularly focusing on slavery, serfdom, and military issues; I am currently reading his Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy. UC’s alumni magazine has a short piece on Hellie, in which he gives his opinion on Russia, and he leaves the bark on:

Five centuries after Ivan the Great began consolidating the territories that would become the Russian state—first wresting away a swath of northern Novgorod, then absorbing parts of Vyatka, Yaroslavl, Rostov-Suzdal, and Tver, and recapturing land from Lithuania—Russia remains, despite its size and power, says historian Richard Hellie, a backward civilization. Its economy is primitive, its low-tech industry propped up by sales of hydrocarbons and “second-rate arms.” Farming machinery deteriorates faster than it can be replaced. And despite the Iron Curtain’s fall, censorship is still a fact of life. “Almost nothing in Russia works properly,” Hellie says, “other than bribery and extortion.”

Despite “brilliant exceptions”—Hellie noted Russia’s defeat of Napoleon; its 16 Nobel Prizes; chemist Dmitri Mendeleev’s organization of the Periodic Table; and writers such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov—he didn’t hold out optimism for Russia’s imminent emergence from backwardness. Property rights “no longer exist,” and censorship is on the rise. Graft has multiplied in the last few years, and Vladimir Putin, in the footsteps of other Russian rulers, replaced Yeltsin-era oligarchs with “Leningrad KGB cronies,” he said. “It does not appear that a middle class or civil society will develop. Backwardness will endure.”

Not much to disagree with here, depressing as it is. Read the whole thing, as they say.

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