The Amazing Durability of the Russians

The ruble is collapsing. The people are hurting. Western analysts predict another sea change. What does history say?

As the value of 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 say the sliding standard of living will become unbearable, and that it could cause the Russians to turn on President Vladimir Putin.

“[Putin is] facing a full-blown currency crisis that could weaken his iron grip on power,” Reuters wrote on December 17. “It looks all over for Putin,” Forbes said on December 18, adding that his “days are numbered.” Such predictions are popping up all over the Western press.

Will Russia’s economic discomfort become more than its people can bear? Will this lead to the end for Putin?

For the answers, let’s 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 a severe climate, forbidden to own any property or to 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” (The Economy and Material Culture of Russia, 1600-1725). Hellie says that, for many years, up to 90 percent of Russia’s population lived this punishing existence.

After Czar Alexander ii abolished serfdom in 1861, life for the average Russian took a turn … for the worse.

Serfs hadn’t owned land, but most of them only needed to meet a certain quota and then were permitted to keep the remaining crop yields. But after serfdom was abolished, the masses became wage laborers. Everything they grew or produced belonged to the property owner, and they were compensated with a few kopecks a day. They could barely buy the food they had grown with the wages they’d been paid to grow it.

Alexander had abolished serfdom to assuage the Russian masses and prevent a revolution. But the circumstances created by that abolition only increased revolutionary pressure. In 1905, the pressure exploded into a revolution against Czar Nicholas ii. However, because of infighting among the revolutionaries, the czar’s power strengthened. 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, but its ill-equipped yet strong-willed soldiers 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 monarchy scandals. In 1917, revolutionaries toppled the czarist system.

But the overthrow did not result in a power-to-the-people ending, as had the French and other revolutions. Instead, after five years of savage civil war, the Soviets took power.

Russia then entered a chapter bleaker perhaps than any it had known before.

Joseph Stalin and other leaders orchestrated what is sometimes called “the other holocaust of the 20th century”—the imprisonment, debasement and murder of tens of millions by their own government. Communists herded millions of poorer Russians into collective farms, effectively reintroducing serfdom.

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.

Once again, the Russians lacked enough weapons for all of their soldiers. Many units had only one rifle for every 10 men. The unarmed man trailed the armed one, waited for him to be shot down, then grabbed his gun and fought on. Russian soldiers were 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, once again higher than the losses for any other nation.

After 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 himself admitted to destroying 10 million.

Stalin died in 1953, but the grinding Russian conditions lived on. For decades, the Soviet Union endured the Era of Stagnation, languishing under the yoke of communism 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 sank into a deep depression, which, in terms of gross domestic product, was more severe than the Great Depression in 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 Russians’ Strength

Falling oil prices and Western sanctions against Russia for its aggression on Ukraine have pounded the value of the ruble. Russians are suffering. But Russian history shows that its people are no strangers to terrible suffering. For most of them, prosperous times have been the exception, and suffering the norm.

After a recent trip to Moscow, Stratfor’s George Friedman 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” (Dec. 16, 2014).

One of the few times Russia has enjoyed a reprieve from the “and then it got worse” historical pattern was when Vladimir Putin came to power. From 2001 to 2007, the Russian economy grew by 7 percent per year, and its nominal gdp increased sixfold. In 2005, Russia repaid the last of the Soviet Union’s debts. By 2007, Russia had totally overcome the devastating losses of the 1998 financial crisis and the preceding recession in the 1990s. Under Putin, for the first time in their lives, many Russians owned cars and vacationed abroad. The gains continued for the most part up until the Ukraine crisis over this past year.

Because of the last decade and a half, Russians are fiercely loyal to Putin. Instead of seeing him as the cause of the current troubles, they continue to view him as the solution. A December 18 Associated Press poll found that a staggering 81 percent of Russians still support their president. “The most important event of [2014] has been the regressive transformation of Russian society,” the Moscow Times wrote on January 14. “The Crimean adventure has driven Russians into a narrow corridor of ‘renewed loyalty’ to the authorities.”

This soaring popularity and renewed loyalty comes in part because Putin has convinced Russians to view their setbacks as noble sacrifices made in the name of the war effort. In December, one Moscow resident told the Trumpet 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.