I find this video very helpful in untangling the origins of Russia:
A few observations:
1) Russians often say they never had a Renaissance because they were busy protecting Western Europe from the Mongol hordes. The latter part of the video above describes what was happening in the East during the Renaissance.
2) Russians say that their suffering under the “Tartar Yoke” was a disaster. The Mongols were certainly blood thirsty, but as described in this video they had an upside of bringing order and prosperity (President Xi probably finds this idea inspirational).
3) The Normanist v anti Normanist controversy raged in Russia in the eighteenth century and blew up again in the USSR after WW2. I think it has had another lease of life after the invasion of Ukraine. I believe it is basically an argument about how much influence Germanic peoples had in the development of Slavic nations.
4) one of the belligerents in the Normanist v anti Normanist battle was Mikhail Lomonosov. He is hardly known in the West, but all Russian schoolchildren would know him as an intellectual giant. He was a biggie in many fields, including Science and Linguistics. I suppose he was a “Renaissance Man”, except they didn’t have a Renaissance. Here is a potted bio of him:
Once you work out the history of a European country in the last couple of hundred years, you then find that there is another layer before that, and so on back to the Tower of Babel. No wonder Australians and Americans can’t understand what European conflicts are about.
In the case of Russia, they go back to the early Slavs in about 600 BC. One theory is that there was one original Slavic race at that time which spoke “proto Baltic/Slavic”. But as far as I know, there is no evidence for any of it, it is just a theory which might explain later events.
(interestingly, the location of the proposed early Slavs is on the banks of the Pripyet river in northern Ukraine. That is the location of the Chernobyl reactors, which makes archeological investigations difficult at the moment).
There is another theory (which is rubbished by the establishment) that there was no such thing as early Slavs or an original Slavic language. This theory says that different tribes at that time interacted with each other and by that process created the various Slavic tribes and languages. The parallel used to explain this is “what are the origins of the Americans in the USA? Did the pilgrim fathers, French, Spanish and English who settled in north America think of themselves as Americans when they left home?”)
Maybe the other way of thinking about all this is that the shape of European countries is determined by wars and not much else. What is happening in Ukraine at the moment is just another example of what has happened for millenia in Europe. Because of the war, there will be created a Ukrainian identity and universal use of its language.
At least America had a revolution and civil war, Australia has missed out on all this. We had to base our identity on beating England at cricket. But recent immigrants aren’t interested in cricket, so they will have to think of something else to create a national identity.
Nationalism is not necessarily a bad thing, Russia has much to be proud of. But why are Russians so loyal even when they are critical of their government? Here are some ideas:
too much history. Most countries with a long history still preserve memories of their glorious past and think they have “interests” all over the world: France, China, India, England, Spain and of course Russia. To their credit, the Italians have grown out of this.
Russian paranoia. It is true that Russia has been invaded from all directions and lost millions of people as a result. And it is true that the West forgets about this, maybe because Russia is lost somewhere between the “near East” and the “far East”. But why is Russia still so obsessed by fear of attack? It is now impossible since the invention of nuclear weapons.
the Orthodox Church. The church has been part of Russia from the start and has helped the state to spread its messages.
oil. If a country relies mostly on oil for its income, it seems to become corrupted. The steady income doesn’t require too much innovation and it provides enough wealth for an autocrat to keep the people happy enough. It also can be controlled by criminals and there is enough money to go around even if the criminals skim off a lot of it.
the Russian Soul. They are always going on about this and it is a big part of their nationalism. Tolstoy rants about the Russian soul in War and Peace. He says the high society in Moscow was full of French, Germans, Poles etc. They are all morally weak, but the real strength is in the Russian peasants. It is almost like the glorification of Aboriginal’s connection to the land. It feeds their nationalism and willingness to see themselves as the “good guys” no matter what happens.
The size of Russia and the many cultures makes it hard to govern, so the Tsars, Communists and Putin all decided that strong autocratic rule is the only way to go. Their brief try at democracy in the 1990’s resulted in chaos, misery and a collapsed economy.
The autocratic ruler still needs tricks to hold things together and fear of an external threat always works. But will the people beyond the Urals ever get sick of supplying cannon fodder for the army but get very little back from the government in Moscow?
However, we need caution. It would not be a good outcome for Russia to become a province of China.