Memorial commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of Russia in front of a Russian Orthodox Church, Novgorod, 1862
What is it about Russia and Russians that has allowed them to survive seemingly insurmountable obstacles over the centuries? At the beginning of the 17th century, Russia barely survived a period called the “Time of Troubles.” Three times in the past century, Russia endured prolonged catastrophes that could have easily shattered state and society. Yet Russia remained intact despite the emergence of a sharply different form of government. It did not splinter into myriad successor states or lose its identity.
Historian George E. Munro explores the nature of each of these catastrophes, providing a narrative of the basic events defining each crisis, and suggesting how it was that state and society managed to hold together. Common themes emerge that also help to explain Russia’s current domestic situation and its role in the world.
9:30 to 10:45 a.m. The Great War and the Civil War
World War I brought an end to the five great European empires: Austro-Hungarian, British, German, Ottoman, and Russian. Britain was left with a Commonwealth; Austria-Hungary and Turkey were broken into a number of small countries; Germany lost all its colonies and much of its territory. Russia left the war early as a loser; the empire crumbled; there were two revolutions and a protracted civil war. But in the end, Russia survived with most of its territory, maybe not as an empire but as something similar, if in a different guise. What kept it intact?
11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. The Great Patriotic War
The Soviet victory over Fascist Germany in World War II continues to defy credibility. The enemy attacked without warning in June 1941, and advanced deep into the country’s interior—scorching the earth as it marched on, leaving death and destruction in its wake. The Soviet people—not just Russians, but mainly so—somehow fought back and within two years turned the tide of war. The cost in human terms is still being debated—as much as a fifth of the entire population gone. How to explain such a feat?
12:15 to 1:30 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own)
1:30 to 2:45 p.m. The 1990s
A crisis of spirit fed into an economic crisis, which became a political crisis, which redoubled into an even worse economic crisis, all of which manifested themselves as a demographic crisis. The break-up of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics early in the decade into its 15 constituent republics left Russia as by far the largest successor state, but would Russia itself hold together? In a comparable situation, Yugoslavia—much smaller to begin with—did not. Yet Russia did not dissolve into many states, nor did it fight a civil war. How was it able to muddle through?
3 to 4:15 p.m. Russia Still Has Not Gone Away
Russia today seems to be resurgent. Despite disagreements with some other countries or blocs of countries, Russia seems to have found a new confidence. Is it all attributable to a single leader? How should other countries approach Russia in dealing with it, looking out for their own interests yet also being sensitive to the partner across the table that, as history as shown, seems capable of enduring so much and coming back for more?
Munro is professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University with a specialty in Russian history.
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