Can the Russians Endure the Faltering Ruble?
As Russia’s ruble falters and its economy groans, many Westerners speculate that the discomfort the Russian people feel will become too much for them to withstand. Many believe the sliding standard of living will become unbearable—that it could cause the Russians to turn against President Vladimir Putin. You can read such speculations here, here and here.
Is it true that Russia’s current economic discomfort is more than its people can bear? Will this lead to the end for Mr. Putin?
To get a feel for the answer to those questions, let’s take a look back through the annals of Russian history.
From Bleak to Bleaker
It has been said that the history of the Russians can be summarized in five words: “And then it got worse.”
Beginning in the 11th century, the majority of Russians lived as serfs in a dreary and oppressive feudal society. They eked out a living in severe climates, and weren’t allowed to own anything or leave the estates they worked. Many were essentially slaves owned by a slender minority of landowners. Historian Richard Hellie said they “raised and made most of what they had, and had few resources left after paying rent and taxes to buy anything.” Hellie says that, for many years, up to 90 percent of Russia’s population lived this way.
While serfs hadn’t owned land, most of them only needed to meet a certain quota and could then keep the remaining crop yields for themselves. After serfdom was abolished, though, they became wage laborers. Everything they grew or produced belonged to the property owner. Since the wage laborers were often earning just a few kopecks a day, it was barely possible for them to buy the food they had grown with the wages they’d been given to grow it.
Alexander had abolished serfdom because he wanted to assuage the Russian masses and prevent a revolution. But the circumstances created by that abolition ended up increasing revolutionary pressure. By 1905, the pressure had exploded into a revolution against Czar Nicholas ii. However, because of infighting among the revolutionaries, it only ended up strengthening the czar’s power. The Russian nights grew longer, darker and colder.
When it looked as if things couldn’t get much worse, World War i broke out.
The Russian Army, large but poorly armed, took the offensive against the German-led axis. Russian soldiers were often sent to the front lines unarmed and instructed to fight with whatever weapons they could find on the battlefield. Russia lost more people in the Great War than any other nation, yet its strong-willed troops managed to tie down great numbers of enemy troops.
While the Russian soldiers loyal to the czar were fighting at the front, whispers of revolution within the country grew into cries of upheaval. The people had had enough of Russia’s gross social inequality, discouraging war losses, deepening economic crises, rampant starvation, and scandals surrounding the monarchy. In 1917, revolutionaries toppled the czarist system. But the overthrow did not result in a power-to-the-people ending as it did in the French and other revolutions. Instead, after five years of savage civil war, the Soviets took power.
Russia entered a chapter bleaker perhaps than any it had known before.
In the midst of this dark Soviet chapter came an even darker inset: World War ii.
Russian losses in this largest war ever fought are perhaps best summarized with one tragic statistic: 80 percent of all Soviet males born in 1923 were dead by the end of World War ii.
Again, the Russians did not have enough weapons for all of its soldiers. Many units had only one rifle for every 10 men. The unarmed men would trail each armed soldier, wait for him to be shot down, and then grab his gun and keep fighting. Russian soldiers were also known to sometimes clear minefields by marching over them. Upon witnessing these tactics, one German soldier reportedly said he was convinced that the tough-as-nails Russians would win the war.
It was not only soldiers who suffered. In the infamous Siege of Leningrad, Nazi forces surrounded Russia’s second-largest city and choked it off in order to starve its residents. For 872 days, shelling was constant; starvation and disease pandemic. After all rats, pets and other animals in the city had been eaten, more than 2,000 starving residents resorted to cannibalism. With more than 1 million dead, it was one of the worst sieges in mankind’s strife-ridden history.
The Soviet Union’s total number of war dead for World War ii exceeded 25 million, which is again higher than the losses for any other nation.
Once the war ended, Stalin and the other Soviet rulers returned to inflicting the “other holocaust” on the people of the ussr. Historian I. G. Dyadkin estimated that 56 to 62 million people died “unnatural deaths” from 1928 to 1954, and that excludes wartime casualties.
Stalin died in 1953, but the arduous times for the Russians lived on. For several decades, the Soviet Union endured the Era of Stagnation as it languished under the communist yoke and the ice of the Cold War.
Revolution broke out again in 1989, leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Then things got worse.
In the decade following the ussr’s collapse, rates of poverty and economic inequality skyrocketed. In the late Soviet era, about 1.5 percent of the population lived in poverty (which means they were earning less than $25 per month). By the mid-90s, this number jumped to somewhere between 39 and 49 percent of the population. Russia’s economy sunk into a deep depression, which, in terms of gross domestic product, was more severe than the Great Depression of the United States. Russia’s 1998 financial crisis further exacerbated the difficulties.
Meanwhile, a small class of kleptocratic oligarchs rose up and became obscenely wealthy. In many ways, Russia was again a serf-like state.
In the minds of many Russians, the turmoil and poverty of the 1990s gave democracy a bad name. A large percentage of Russians today agree with President Putin’s belief that the fall of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
The combination of falling oil prices and sanctions the West slapped on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine means the ruble has taken a serious hit. It means Russians are suffering. But Russian history shows that its people are no strangers to terrible suffering. Prosperous times have been the exception for most of them, and suffering the norm.
After a recent trip to Moscow, Stratfor’s George Freidman said, “There is always the expectation that prosperity will end and the normal constrictions of Russian poverty return. … Russians’ strength is that they can endure things that would break other nations.”
One of the few times that Russia has seen a departure from the typical “and then it got worse” historical pattern was after Mr. Putin became the country’s leader.
Russians are fiercely loyal to Putin because of all this, and instead of viewing him as the cause of the current troubles, they continue to view him as the solution. An Associated Press poll from December 18 found that a staggering 81 percent of Russians still support him.
This soaring popularity is in part because Putin has convinced Russians to view their setbacks as noble sacrifices made in the name of the war effort. One Moscow resident, who spoke with the Trumpet on December 16 said that, although Russians are suffering, “The current mood is ‘It’ll be fun and scary!’”
People in such a “mood” sacrifice willingly, endure tough times bravely, and are sometimes even willing to march through minefields to clear them out for their comrades following behind.
The Westerners who think the current discomfort will be too much for Russians have made a mistake: They have assumed that the Russian capacity to endure suffering and sacrifice in the name of the nation is roughly equal to that of the average Westerner. In fact, it is far greater.