Foreword by the Saker

My article about 2016 being a year of triumph for Russia has elicited a number of outright bizarre comments in reaction to my statement that there was no such thing as a “Russian ethnicity”.  Some commentators even made it sound as if I was denying the existence of a unique Russian nation.  Others were shocked by my statement (repeated many times over on this blog) that Russians are not Europeans.  Frankly, it would take a PhD thesis to explain it all to those who clearly have no clue as to what I am talking about and I cannot allocate that much time to it.  What I will do is to submit a bullet-point list of theses which clarify, albeit in a one sentence format, what I mean and then I will conclude by re-posting my article about some grain of truth contained in the Ukrainian propaganda.  I hope that these these will be useful leads which will encourage the curious to further explore this issue and, hopefully, look at it from a different prospective.  I fully realize that for people raised in a western worldview of history it will be difficult, if not impossible, to set aside a long list of truisms and understand that they are simply not applicable to Russia.  I won’t bother arguing with those really stuck in the traditional western paradigms of historiography: if you want to think of Russians as “White” and “Europeans” – be my guest, I honestly don’t care.  Just don’t come crying in frustrated despair if Russia makes no sense to you and you end up concluding that she is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.  The problem is not Russia, the problem is you.

Okay, now let’s turn to the bullet point list.

  • Russia is the heir to the Roman Empire.  No, not the western Roman Empire which fell in 476, but the Roman Empire which survived the fall of Rome for a full millennium and which fell in 1453.  And just as “Roman” was never an ethnic category, neither is “Russian”.  These categories are civilizational ones.
  • Russia is the product of the mix of three phenomena: the Ancient Kievan Rus (culturally), the Orthodox Faith (spiritually) and the Tatar-Mongol occupation (politically).  When the Ukrainians claim that the Russian state was created/founded by the Mongol Khans they are essentially correct.
  • Russia never had natural borders and her immense plains, steppes, forests and long rivers favored the rapid and constant flow of a multitude of tribes, ethnic groups, peoples and even entire nations across the vast Russian expanses.  If you think of the immense Russian landscape as a kind of “dry ocean” filled with scattered cities-islands you will get a much better picture than if you think of Russia as a bigger version of France or Germany.  In a way, Russia was much more similar to Indonesia (thousands of islands and hundred of languages and dialects).
  • The people from the Kievan Rus were already an ethnically mixed group including Polians, Drevlians, Severians, Tivertians, Ulichians, Volians, Scythians, Khazars, Polovtsians, Pechengs, Varangians and many others.  Right from its foundation, the people of the Kievan Rus were of Slavic, Germanic, Iranian, Turkic, Semitic, Finno-Ugric and many other ethnic stocks.  Then they began seriously mixing with others :-)
  • Russia did not live through the European Dark Age (aka “Middle-Age”) (remember – Russia is the heir to Rome for over 1000 years longer than western Europe), there was no “Russian Renaissance”, there was no “Russian Reformation”.  Of course, Russia did exist during these key events which shaped Europe, but she did not participate in them nor was she affected by them.  To repeat: the key historical events which shaped modern Europe never happened in Russia!  In a way you could almost say that we when from antiquity to modernity in one jump or, which I prefer, that we modernized antiquity :-)
  • Southwestern Russia, or “small Russia”, in the sense of “central Russia” was exposed to the European civilization for much longer than the rest (northern or eastern) Russia.  The part which was exposed to the Papacy and Feudalism is nowadays identified as “the Ukraine”.  Alternatively, a immensely important event like the “Old Rite” schism was a pure “Great” (or, better, “Greater”) Russian thing and it did not affect what is today the Ukraine.
  • A quick survey of the last names of the old Russian nobility (as opposed to the Europeanized “nobility” created by Peter I) will reveal the undeniable fact that most noble Russian families are, in fact, descendants of Tatar-Mongols (including yours truly).  A closer look to the facial features of many Russians, not only from the nobility, will reveal more or less strongly expressed Asian facial features.
  • As Russia grew she followed the traditional Roman model an incorporated other nations and religions into her civilizational realm.  Russia being an empire in the Roman sense of the word, racial or ethnic categories simply made no difference and, frankly, no sense.  This is also one of the reasons why Russia easily incorporated many European emigrants and immediately began viewing them as “Russians” even when their last names were clearly German, Italian or French.  It is thus not surprising to a Russian that the most famous Russian poet, Pushkin, had both Russian and African origins.  Again, this is typical of the Roman civilizational model.
  • Culturally and socially, Russia has always been profoundly different from the western civilization.  Russians have always been far closer socially to the Confusianist collectivism than to the western individualism just as they have been far closer to the Indian/Hindu mysticism and asceticism than to western scholasticism and rationalism.  These traits are expressed particularly strongly in the Russian soldier whose willingness to suffer and die has always astounded western invaders.
  • It is true that since the reign of Peter I (which some call “the Great” – I don’t), the old Russian elites have been largely replaced by Europeans.  In fact, the Peter was not the first one to embark on a program of suppression of the Russian national identity which really began with the vicious repression unleashed not so much by the Russian Orthodox Church as by the Russian state against the Old Ritualists which, at the time, represented the vast majority of the Russian people.  But under Peter the repression soon turned not only against the Old Ritualists, but against Orthodox in general.  Soon thereafter a tragic process of separation of the Russian ruling elites from the Russian masses began with terrible consequences in the 20th century.
  • During the imperial period (which began with Peter I) two very different “Russias” appeared: one of the thoroughly Europeanized elites, intellectuals, aristocrats, authors, composers, etc., mostly residing in Saint Petersburg and Moscow and a “deep Russia”, composed primarily of farmers, traders, pre-Petrine nobility, etc which was mostly alienated from and hostile towards the Europeanized elites.  Paradoxically, Kiev was in many ways the most Russian of Russia’s big cities.
  • During the Revolution and subsequent civil war the vast majority of Russian remained neutral, neither White nor Red as they (correctly) saw that conflict as a conflict of elites, not of people standing for their interests.
  • If it is absolutely true that a typical 19th century Russian aristocrat had much more in common with a Prussian aristocrat than with a Russian peasant, that does not at all imply that a German peasant had much in common with his Russian counterpart.  The sad fact is that about most of the books written by Russian about Russia was written by members of the post-Petrine Europeanized Russian elites even when some of them were so-called Slavophiles who were generally positively inclined towards the “common” people and who even sought their roots in the “deep Russia”.  The people in the West mainly form their opinions about Russia based on the writings, biographies and personal interactions with the former group, hence the mistaken conclusion that Russians are “Europeans just like us”.
  • The Ukrainian propaganda is basically correct when it claims that Russians are much more Asian than European.  What they fail to realize, that this is also quite true of the Ukrainians who are no more Europeans that Russians.  Their other mistake is when the conflate non-European with “Asian”.  While Russians are much closer to Asians than to European, they are not quite Asians either – they form their own, unique, civilizational realm.
  • The true ancient Russian culture survived mainly in the remote areas of Russia (Siberia, Cossack lands in the south), in monasteries and in parts of the old, pre-Petrine, nobility.  By the late 19th century and early 20th century this revival of Russian national identity, strongly supported by the Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II eventually developed into a political movement variously represented by people such as Ivan Solonevich, Lev Tikhomirov, Ivan Illin and others only to be crushed by the Bolshevik revolution.
  • During the Soviet era, an initial revival of the Russian national consciousness began during the rule of Joseph Stalin and during WWII.  This slow moving revival continued under Khrushchev, Brezhnev and the rest of them and eventually resulted in the rise of various “Russian” personalties such as the “village-authors” like Valentin Rasputin or Victor Astafiev, directors such as Andrei Tarkovskii, painters like Ilia Glazunov, singers such as Vladimir Vysotskii, political figures like Igor Ogurtsov and many, many others.  This Russian revival culminated in 1999 when Vladimir Putin was appointed and then elected as President of Russia.
  • The author Alexander Solzhenistyn is arguably the best example of the “old Russia”, not because of his age (he was born in 1918) but because during his life he had been exposed to old Russians on the front and the camps and because he became the carrier of their ethos, worldview and spirituality (not to mention uncompromizing anti-Communism).  As for Vladimir Putin, he is, I submit, the perfect expression of the New Russia.  Yet on the following photo, the former “zek” (Gulag inmate) is greeting the former KGB officer with his face radiating with joy and we can see that the feeling is very mutual.  See for yourself:

Old Russia (Alexander Solzhenitsyn) meets New Russia (Vladimir Putin)

  • So what do these two man (both with strong Asian facial features, by the way) have in common?  Their common dedication to the Russian *masses* as opposed to the Russian elites, a common belief in a unique, distinct Russian destiny and a common rejection of the European civilizational model.  They have that in common with the million of Russians who for 1000 years refused to accept any one of the various western invaders who tried to conquer, submit, subdue or otherwise incorporate Russia into Europe.
  • There most definitely is a Russian identity and it is a very strong one, reaching across regional, cultural, ethnic, religious and even political differences.  In fact, it is remarkable that the Russian national identity survived 300 years of aristocratic oppression, 70 years of Communism and another decade of “democratic capitalism”.  So no, I am definitely not denying the uniqueness and reality of the Russian people.  I just don’t fit it in racial, ethnic and other western categories.

That’s it for today.  I hope that the above makes sense or clarifies what I mean.

To those celebrating it in a couple of day – Happy New Year and all the best for 2017!


The Saker


Could there be a grain of truth in the Ukrainian propaganda? (original article here)

We have all heard the Ukrainian nationalist line: they are the true Slavs inheritors of the Kievan Rus while the modern Russians are really either Tatars or Ugro-Finns or God knows what else.  And then there the famous quote by, I think, Napoleon, who said “scratch the Russian and you will find the Tatar”.

The interesting thing here is that there might well be some truth to that, and more than a grain only.

But first, what is a “Tatar”?  Well, in modern times, a Tatar is a well defined category, both in historical terms and in modern terms (see Wikipedia entry for “Tatar” here).  The problem with this is that was is missing from these definitions is the ancient usage of this word.  Even nowadays, the various people referred to as “Tatars” have very little in common.  They have even less in common with modern Mongols.  So why do Russian books speak of a “Tatar-Mongol Yoke”?  Who were these “Tatar-Mongols” in reality?

Official Russian (and western) historiography more or less agrees that the “Tatar-Mongols” were a mix of nomadic tribes from Asia (modern Mongolia) who swept across Siberia and the steppes and invaded Russia and many other countries (as far as Poland and Austria).  In fact, these Tatar-Mongols built the biggest empire of all times and they did so just in a few decades.  The following French map shows the huge size of this empire:


But there is a problem with this official narrative.  Tatars are not Mongols.  Worse, the term “Tatar” was applied to various totally different ethnic groups who had very little in common.  There is even very strong evidence that the word “Tatar” was even applied to Russian populations!

Check out this detail of an icon of the famous Russian Orthodox saint Serge of Radonezh which shows a famous battle between Russians and Tatars and see whether you can tell these two groups apart:

click on image for higher resolution

click on image for higher resolution

and now let’s take a closer look at a detail of this (very large) icon:

Битва на куликовом поле - detail

Can you tell the combatants apart? If not, don’t feel bad.  Neither can the historians. Not only are the two sides equipped exactly the same way, but both sides have icons of Christ as their banners!

This is just one example amongst many, and I will not bore you with the multitude of many others out there.  What I will simply say is this: there is very strong evidence that the “Russian” forces were full of “Tatars” and there is also very strong evidence that “Tatar” forces were full of “Russians”.  Some Russian historians go as far as saying that Russians are Tatars (in the 13th-15th century usage of these words, not in our modern ones!) and that what 18th and 19th century historians describe as a “Tatar Yoke” was in reality a Russian civil war.  Now, before you throw up your hands in disgust, please remember that “Russian” is not (and never was!!) an ethnic category.  In fact, the confusion here comes from the fact that neither Russian nor Tatar are ethnic categories.  Mongol is, but the Mongols were never sophisticated enough and numerous enough to conquer such a huge landmass by themselves.  Still dubious?  Okay – try finding out who the modern descendants of the “Tatar-Mongols” are?  Candidates to that title include Mongols, Turkmens, Slavs and many other ethnic groups form all over the former Empire of Genghis Khan.  The amazing bottom line is this: we don’t know who the 12th-14th century “Tatar-Mongols” really were, but there is very strong evidence that “Russians” (speaking in a purely cultural, not ethnic sense) were very much part of that.  Another way to put that would be to say that Orthodox Slavs were a key component of the civilization which later historians have labeled “Tatar-Mongol” empire.  Some of these Orthodox Slavs were clearly subjects to the invading hordes from the East, but others were official of these hordes.  What evidence is for there for that?  Plenty – including the fact that the invaders used almost exclusively Russian in their administration, that a lot of Russians had Tatar names and vice-versa, or that if you look at the genetic stock in the regions supposedly colonized for 300 years by Mongols from Asia you will find an overwhelming preponderance of Slavic and Europeans genetic markers even though history records that a lot of Russian families were founded by Tatars (including, by the way, my own).


Good, that is exactly how it should be.  I am confused too.  And so are many historians. The evidence for the simple narrative offered by 18th-19th century historians simply does not add up.  But what the true story is has yet to be discovered.

What about the Ukraine in all that?

First, remember that the “Ukrainian nation” is a 20th century invention.  But what is true is that the Orthodox Slavs who lived in what is today the Ukraine have some very salient differences with the Orthodox Slavs who live in what is today the Russian Federation.  Let’s call the first group South Orthodox Slavs and the second group North Orthodox Slavs.  These are some of the important differences:

  1. The South Orthodox Slavs were much further away from the Tatar-Mongol centers of power than the North Orthodox Slavs.
  2. The South Orthodox Slavs spent many centuries invaded by the Polish and Lithuanian armies.
  3. The South Orthodox Slavs did not live through the Old Rite Schism (see here for details).
  4. The North Orthodox Slavs did not suffer Papist persecutions.
  5. The South Orthodox Slavs did live a long time under the Greek Orthodox Church (while the North Orthodox Slavs had their own, independent local Orthodox Church)

There are, of course, other elements, but these few do already point a possible and real differences in ethos.  Of course, acting powerfully to nullify these differences is the truly massive and centuries long mixing of North and South Slavs.  To claim, like the Ukrainian nationalists today, that Russians and Ukrainians are totally different people is absolutely ridiculous and to say that the Ukrainians are descendants of ancient “Ukrs” who are, I kid you not, the ancestors of the Aryans, who built the pyramids in Egypt and were the first to settle the Black Sea coast is plain crazy, of course.  But it is undeniable that South and North Slavs *have* had historically very different experiences and that the North Slavs’ integration in, and acculturation to, to the civilization we now erroneously called “Tatar-Mongol” was very deep, possibly much deeper than suspected until now.

In conclusion, please don’t flame me for what I wrote.  As I said, I am not a historian and there are enough thoroughly confused historians out there to make even a very ignorant person like myself feel bold enough to raise interesting questions without providing any answers at all.  I just wanted to share with you that the history of the people living in modern Ukraine and, even more so, modern Russia is very complex and in many ways very mysterious and obscure and that those nationalists (on both sides!) who have it all figured out and reduced to once-sentence slogans are almost inevitably wrong.

The Saker

The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world