For many of us Cold War kids, the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, and the battle between capitalism and global Communism were just background conditions of our youth. But in the United States, what we really talked about wasn’t the Soviets or the Communists so much as the “Russians,” conflating the dominant Soviet ethnicity with the whole nation. Though Russians were only 50 percent of the population of the Soviet Union, Russian language and culture dominated the USSR. Despite being the bulwark of international Communism, the Soviet Union, by the time Joseph Stalin led it in the 1930s, was for all practical purposes the heir of the Russian Empire. This is how a prominent Stalin expert could refer to his subject as the “Red Tsar.”
The abstract rivalry between global alliances and ideologies, between First World capitalism, and Second World Communism, was the concrete battle between Americans and Russians. In 1985’s Rocky IV, Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago is a towering figure of Russian muscle, the perfect villain for Sylvester Stallone’s plucky American underdog, Rocky Balboa, to face off against and defeat. And a national rivalry was seen as such an eternal condition that the original Star Trek, set centuries in the future, had a Russian character, Pavel Chekov, to indicate a rapprochement between the two great powers.
The Cold War had its ups and downs, but Americans tended to see the American–Russian rivalry as a permanent fact of the geopolitical landscape. Despite Ronald Reagan’s optimistic rhetoric about defeating the “evil empire,” the rapidity of Communism’s collapse and the dissolution of the Soviet Union came as a shock. Almost overnight, “Russia” was no longer a vast nation-state that stretched from Europe to the Pacific, enfolding within its frontiers everything from chunks of Eastern Europe to Afghanistan, but a more modest, albeit still massive, country. “Russia” was finally just Russia. That it was now officially called the Russian Federation was just a footnote.
In the 1990s, Russia faded from the American consciousness, with such occasional newsworthy events as internecine violence during the 1993 constitutional crisis or its 1998 financial collapse. Geopolitically, it was all quiet on the Russian front until the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, when Boris Yeltsin objected to the West’s move against Serbia, a historical Russian ally. But change was in the air. On December 31 of that year, Yeltsin resigned, and a then-obscure Vladimir Putin became president. Yeltsin had been a reformer during Mikhail Gorbachev’s time, but as the leader of the Russian Federation in the 1990s he oversaw the rise of oligarchs who came to dominate a society riddled with corruption, while the state became a cat’s paw for Western social engineers experimenting with neoliberal economics. Yeltsin’s descent into alcoholism and personal chaos paralleled the hedonistic anarchy of 1990s Russia.
This is the ship of state and society that Putin righted. His suppression of a violent Islamist rebellion in Chechnya—the suppression proving incredibly violent, in turn—his persecution of the oligarchs, and his ideology of a strong and muscular state were viewed in the West as evidence of a sinister turn, an end to our dream of a liberal-democratic Russia. But it wasn’t that simple in Putin’s country. In the West, oligarchs like the late Boris Berezovsky were seen as bulwarks of liberalism and free speech, but Russians widely viewed them as corrupt gangsters plundering public resources with impunity and living above the law. Finally, the reemergence of a strong central state was a shift back to the traditional pattern Russians had known, not some authoritarian innovation suddenly imposed upon a populace that cherished the Rights of Englishmen. Putin waxed in popularity during the 2000s because he brought order and ended chaos for the common people. If he rules until 2030, his tenure will have matched Stalin’s, and he may appreciate the parallel.
Even Americans now acknowledge that in the decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia did not achieve an idyllic end of history. We heard tales of an American-style liberal democracy rising from Communism’s ashes, not the dispiriting mobster rule that Russian citizens were enduring. Signs abounded that the narrative the American public was fed was missing something. I remember in high school wondering how freedom-loving, liberal-democratic Russians could have a life expectancy of 65 in 1994, already four years shorter than in the final years of Communism. If they were so much better off under democracy and capitalism, why were they dying in such numbers? We now know that this decline was largely driven by massive increases in alcoholism among men.
In 2022, Russia’s self-conception is again a matter of importance, and Putin has reclaimed for his nation the geopolitical center stage. He has become a truly reviled figure in the West. But in Russia, he has long had a broad base of support. Even Gorbachev, who ended the Communist order, endorsed Putin in 2007.
In the twentieth century, we tried to understand Russians because of the Soviet Union’s global importance. The study of Russian history and culture was not simply academic during the Cold War. Then, for most of the decades after the fall of Communism, Russia was not of deep interest. The academic field atrophied, and public attention slackened. (Russianist Condoleezza Rice, for example, had to transfer her skills and expertise to grappling with Middle Eastern geopolitics.) In 2012, Barack Obama famously dismissed Mitt Romney’s assertion about the importance of Russia and its threat to American interests. For most twenty-first-century Americans, Russia is simply the land of vodka, models, and oligarchs.
But Russia has made itself matter again. Russian propaganda operations have become entangled in American politics, and broad swaths of the U.S. citizenry now view Putin and the state he heads with loathing. The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 unleashed a far more fearsome wave of anti-Russian sentiment. These public responses don’t get us any closer to understanding the crisis in Ukraine. Clearly, we need to update our understanding of Russia and Russians.
The key to Russian self-conception is not to be found in 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Nor will the 1917 October Revolution that ushered in the Communist era shed much light. Russia’s origins as a nation go back to the arrival of the Swedish Viking Rurik in the city of Novgorod nearly 1,200 years ago, and the subsequent conquest of Kiev by his sons. Russian identity is deeply rooted in the conversion of his great-grandson, Vladimir, prince of Kiev, to Greek Christianity in 988 AD. The Russian soul retains trauma from the arrival of the Mongol hordes in the 1250s, two centuries that they refer to as the “Tatar Yoke.” Likewise, Russians continue to feel pride in the expansion of the vast Russian Empire, which spanned the continent from Poland to Manchuria by the 1600s.
Putin’s behavior is obviously beyond the pale, but what is one to do after concluding as much? Some lose themselves in the catastrophic footage pouring out of besieged Ukraine in recent weeks. Others develop a deep interest in transliterations from Cyrillic and scold those who find the difference between “Kiev” and “Kyiv” irrelevant. In the end, perhaps one costless gesture is as good as any other. But a closer look at modern genomics can add to our understanding of the last millennium or so of human history across Russia, Ukraine, and their neighbors.
To understand the position of Russians in the context of Eastern Europe and Asia, as well the demographic forces that shaped them and their neighbors, I explored patterns of genetic relatedness across various populations. In one analysis, Poles, Germans, and Ukrainians clustered together. Russians, meantime, were positioned more toward the eastern populations, in keeping with the fact that Russians did spread eastward (and north) from their East Slavic neighbors. This general picture of Russian cosmopolitanism compared with Ukrainians and Poles holds across data sets.
The lack of Ukrainian genetic diversity is no surprise. As Ed West has observed, Ukraine in the nineteenth century was a wholly peasant culture. After centuries of foreign rule, there were no true ethnically Ukrainian cultural, political, or economic elites. Polish and Lithuanian elites had traditionally governed Ukraine, while the region’s conquest by Imperial Russia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries meant a new era of rule by outsiders. (Catherine the Great, for example, was German.) Nineteenth-century nationalism, an ethos predicated on linguistic affinity and an elite stratum propagating a common literary culture and history, was hampered from the start in Ukraine because Ukraine’s leadership class was ethnically alien. Lithuanians, Latvians, and Finns faced the same problem.
Despite being from the same original stock as their Ukrainian and Polish neighbors, Russians have long been diverse in their origins. In the sixteenth century, Ivan the Terrible quipped that he himself was not even Russian, as his paternal grandmother was Greek, while his mother came from a powerful noble house with Hungarian and Mongol ancestry. My data show a group of ethnic Russians with strong affinities to Tatars. Throughout history, opportunistic steppe-land arrivistes converted to Orthodox Christianity and assimilated into the elite of Muscovy. The first non-Rurikid Tsar, Boris Godunov, hailed from a noble house with Tatar origins, as did Peter the Great’s mother.
Even more numerous than Russians with clear Tatar affinities, however, are those with ties to Finnic populations. The addition of this component to Russian ancestry probably owed to the migration of Slavic peasants and fur traders northward, into the cold taiga forests then occupied by indigenous Finnic tribes. While the relationship between Tatars and Russians has often been violent, the Finnic tribes of the sub-Arctic lands interacted with southerners mostly through trade. In the medieval period, the forested north supplied much of the world’s furs. The depletion of this natural resource spurred the Russian conquest of Siberia and eventual expansion into Alaska. The Russians absorbed and integrated local Finnic populations gradually, out of the limelight of history and through the daily contact of “truck, barter, and exchange.”
If Westerners know any Tsar by name, it is usually the westward-focused Peter the Great, famous for dragging Russia into the community of European nations. Before Peter, the Russian Empire looked (and expanded) eastward, rather than west. But this had not always been the case with the East Slavic world. The rulers of eleventh-century Kievan Rus cultivated marital alliances with Western European powers.
What changed Russia—severing the world of Kievan Rus from the West—was the Mongol conquest of the 1250s and the subsequent Tatar Yoke under the Golden Horde. Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith has referred to the Russian Empire that emerged in the sixteenth century as a successor state of the Mongol Empire. The rulers of Moscow retained their ancestral language and religion, but their participation in the political games of the steppe (including intermarriage with Genghis Khan’s Golden Family) transformed them.
Meantime, the southwestern portion of Kievan Rus, the old heartland, was put on a different path. The Mongols conquered Kiev in 1240 but lost it in 1362 to the Lithuanians at the Battle of Blue Waters. In 1385, the Grand Duke Jogaila, the ruler of Lithuania, converted to Western Latin Christianity as he unified his duchy with the Kingdom of Poland. This established a firm divide between the territories held by Poland–Lithuania and those dominated by the Orthodox rulers of Muscovy. While Kiev remained officially under Poland–Lithuania until 1667, the nascent Russian Empire focused on swallowing up the Golden Horde’s successor states, thrusting eastward into Siberia on a scale that makes Manifest Destiny seem quaint. In 1689, the Treaty of Nerchinsk established the border between the Chinese Empire of the Qing and the Russians in the Amur valley region. The drive to the east came to an end only when the Russians ran out of land at the Pacific.
Unlike Ukraine or Poland, Russia is a vast and diverse land that transcends ecologies and continents. Russians draw from the same roots as the Belarusians and the Ukrainians. But over the centuries they became a Eurasian-inflected people who were assimilative, absorptive, and expansive, ruling a cosmopolitan empire-state, as attested by the 1915 construction of a Tibetan Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg.
Russia and Ukraine have many similarities, both superficially and substantively, but politically comparing them is a category error. At the United Nations, they are both present as nation-states, but the Russian Federation is a multiethnic and multireligious empire, the heir to the Russia of the Tsars. Putin’s long-time girlfriend is a woman of Tatar Muslim background who converted to Russian Orthodoxy in 2003, a classic case in a long history of mixing between Russians and people from the Turkic steppe. Russia inherits a tumultuous history with disparate threads that stretch back more than 1,000 years. Ukraine, in contrast, is a self-made nation, new to the world in this form. It is a twenty-first-century heir to nineteenth-century European linguistic nationalism, its elites’ sensibilities being forged through existential conflict with Russia and alliance with the West, as they consciously abandon the Russian language they were taught in schools in favor of Ukrainian.
In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin reiterated his position that Ukraine was simply part of historic Russia, with shared roots going back to Kievan Rus and no history of independent political existence. It is true that Ukraine is a new nation-state, analogous to modern Finland or Lithuania, both of which had been ruled by ethnically exogenous elites for centuries. But Putin conveniently ignores that modern Ukrainians share one thing with many of their western neighbors that Russians do not: they are not an imperial people. After the chaos of World War I, numerous small-to-medium-size states were carved out of the interstices between the former Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and Ukraine resembles these more than it does the hulking Russian Federation to its north and east. An entity being new in the world does not make it any less real. Putin may be wishfully conflating antiquity with authenticity.
Putin’s often-quixotic espousal of Eurasianism reflects a stubborn historical strand that has marked the modern Russian soul. Despite its strong ethnic, linguistic, and religious commonalities with Russia, Ukraine faces west. Its national identity has never stood athwart two continents. Perhaps it is not surprising in hindsight that twentieth-century global Communism, with its multiethnic, imperial aspirations, was headquartered in Soviet Russia. Despite the prediction of orthodox Marxism that it should naturally emerge in the capitalist West, the twentieth century’s most imperial ideology gained purchase in the domains of the Russian Empire.
Though at their root, Russians may be both genetically and culturally European, history has forged Russia into a civilization-state with a constitutive imperial ambition that will always clash with the more modest, cooperative aspirations of other peoples and nations. Perhaps it was not quite inevitable, but where we find ourselves today should not surprise us. History may not be clockwork, but we can count on the past to echo long into the future. It’s up to us whether we choose to listen.
Top Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images