All quiet on the forefront
Historian Richard Hellie explores Russia’s legacy of backwardness.
Five centuries after Ivan the Great began consolidating the territories that would become the Russian state—first wresting away a swath of northern Novgorod, then absorbing parts of Vyatka, Yaroslavl, Rostov-Suzdal, and Tver, and recapturing land from Lithuania—Russia remains, despite its size and power, says historian Richard Hellie, a backward civilization. Its economy is primitive, its low-tech industry propped up by sales of hydrocarbons and “second-rate arms.” Farming machinery deteriorates faster than it can be replaced. And despite the Iron Curtain’s fall, censorship is still a fact of life. “Almost nothing in Russia works properly,” Hellie says, “other than bribery and extortion.”
Richard Hellie, who has spent most of the past half-century researching Russian history at Chicago, sees the country’s backwardness as an almost inescapable condition.
A student of Russian history since he entered the College in 1954, Hellie, AB’58, AM’60, PhD’65, has become an expert on the country’s medieval and early-modern past. Now the Thomas E. Donnelley professor of history and, since 1988, the editor of the journal Russian History, Hellie has authored nearly a dozen books on Muscovite law, slavery and serfdom, economic history, and society and culture. His next project is The Structure of Modern Russian History, a sprawling analysis of events from Ivan the Great’s 15th- and 16th-century reign to Joseph Stalin’s 20th-century regime. Russia’s inveterate backwardness, he says, will make a prominent appearance.
The book is still a work-in-progress, but this past October Hellie debuted some of his thoughts on backwardness at a Humanities Day lecture that packed a Stuart Hall classroom. “The initial point I must start with,” Hellie told his audience, “is that the notion of Russian current and historical backwardness is not some politically incorrect slander invented by Richard Hellie, but a very old part of Russian civilizational discourse.” Some scholars trace the phenomenon to the 13th-century Mongolian invasion. Although Hellie warned that an “easy”—and flawed—“temptation would be to blame the Mongols,” he did allow that it is “hard to deny the Mongols had a considerable role in the fact that Russia missed the Renaissance.” Before 1240, he said, the country looked southward and westward for its cultural influences; afterward, it turned away from the rest of Europe and developed a “Latin allergy” that robbed it of access to Roman classical heritage.
More deeply disabling, in every sphere from technology to philosophy, Hellie argued, has been Russia’s tendency toward absolutism. Even as Ivan the Great amassed vast territories, he laid the foundations of an autocracy in which all resources—people and property alike—were at the ruler’s disposal. Even noblemen had no independent power; if they failed to show proper fealty, their lands could be seized and granted to more loyal subjects. In the early 1500s Joseph of Volokolamsk, a Russian Orthodox abbot (and later a saint) helped establish the country’s version of the divine right of kings: “In his person the ruler is a man, but in his authority he is like God,” Hellie intoned. “So this remained the fundamental dogma of Russian autocracy until 1917, when the autocrat was replaced by the Communist Party general secretary and God was replaced by ‘history.’”
Lower classes had it worse than the nobility. Lasting from 1450 to 1725, Russian slavery “differed from the institution elsewhere,” Hellie said, “in that it allowed the enslavement of fellow Russians.” Those who were not outright slaves were serfs, tied to their towns and farms. “Serfdom commenced in the 1450s, and it ended only in 1906” with land reform and the creation of private property. (Alexander II’s 1861 emancipation did not effect the freedom he envisioned.) “Russians have rarely had any rights,” Hellie said, and oppression sapped their initiative.
Distrust of foreigners also has held Russia back. More than 300 years before the Soviet Empire, the Ulozhenie, a law code adopted in 1649, forbade Russians from going abroad. Even when Russia brought in scholars, scientists, or military strategists from elsewhere, it kept them apart from the local populace. “So opportunities for Russians to rejoin Europe at the personal level,” Hellie said, “were prohibited.”
Add to that the lack of an independent judiciary, censorship that persisted through the Soviet era, and Russia’s habit of exiling or executing its most educated citizens. Russian society never encouraged free thought or ambition—“Soviet scholars were bound like serfs to their collectives’plans and found it difficult to go where their interests led them”—one reason for the country’s dearth of important inventors or philosophers.
Despite “brilliant exceptions”—Hellie noted Russia’s defeat of Napoleon; its 16 Nobel Prizes; chemist Dmitri Mendeleev’s organization of the Periodic Table; and writers such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov—he didn’t hold out optimism for Russia’s imminent emergence from backwardness. Property rights “no longer exist,” and censorship is on the rise. Graft has multiplied in the last few years, and Vladimir Putin, in the footsteps of other Russian rulers, replaced Yeltsin-era oligarchs with “Leningrad KGB cronies,” he said. “It does not appear that a middle class or civil society will develop. Backwardness will endure.”