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Life and politics

Why do most Westerners misunderstand Russia?

Image by zhushenje-8000982 from Pixabay

They do not know history.

Vikings had a route of trade with Byzantium going through today’s Russia and Ukraine. About 1,100 years ago, today’s Kyiv became a prominent post on that route. Local Slavs took control, and in 988, a local prince, Vladimir the Great, took Christianity from Byzantium and married the emperor’s sister. It marks the beginning of statehood in the lands of Ruthenia. Similarly, as all over Europe, the beginnings were chaotic, and borders were liquid until the Mongols’ Golden Horde took over in 1237. For the next 240 years, Mongols worked in unison with Tatars, and in Russian history, that period is known as Tatar Yoke.

Mongols did not conquer Lithuania. Lithuanians gradually chipped away at the Golden Horde’s western Ruthenian lands, and by the middle of the 14th century, they controlled territories of today’s Belarus, most of Ukraine, and a part of today’s western Russia. In the 15th century, Lithuania went into a union with the Polish Kingdom, forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 17th century, Russia began shaving off Ruthenian lands. By the beginning of the 19th century, Russia controlled most of them, except a small part of western Ukraine, which went to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Tatar Yoke on most of today’s European part of Russia lasted for about 240 years, until 1480. Mongols and later Tatars allowed local principalities to govern themselves, keeping them divided. They could reward generously for loyalty and ruthlessly punish betrayal. They imposed hefty tributes and duties, requested maintenance services for their officers and military, and demanded gifts for their dignitaries. The clergy was exempt from tributes. Regularly, local princes were called in front of the Mongol Khan; they never knew if they would return alive.

That system kept vassals poor, hampering trade and entrepreneurship.

Russian principalities resisted. In 1480, the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan III, forced the Golden Horde to back off. Next, he took control of all Rus’ territories by politics and brutal force, calling himself a tsar. Modern Russia was born. In the following centuries, Russia conquered the former Golden Horde territory, the entire Siberia and took most of the former Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. That Russia turned into the Soviet Union after World War I. After the USSR fell apart in 1991, it has left us with qualms about Russia and its intentions.

Like it or not, we are what history made us

Many historians point out that 240 years of the Tatar Yoke put Russia behind Western Europe, where crafts advanced and cities flourished. The concept of a “free man” had been gaining traction. The Magna Carta was issued in 1215. Just west of the Golden Horde, in 14th century Poland, a political system emerged, whereby all landowners (nobility) were equal men and the king was not their ruler, but their leader, the first among equals. Townspeople did not have political rights, and serfs worked and lived in slave-like conditions. After all, it was feudalism.

Gradually, Western Europe gravitated, at least ideologically, to the idea of 1776 that “all men are created equal.” It is meaningful that it took one more century to extend that idea to people of color and an additional half a century to give equal political rights to women. And many still claim that we are far from satisfactory in those respects.

By comparison, let us go back to the Tatar Yoke times when a man had only as much freedom as granted by the whims of a ruler. After freeing themselves from the Tatar Yoke, Russian rulers did not know any other social order. Being free from the coercion of another man or giving that freedom to another man was hard to imagine then. They used similar methods to conquer their neighbors and former oppressors. These totalitarian governing methods existed in tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. Concepts of equality based on moral grounds, religious messages, or Western ideas kept arriving, but they conflicted with centuries-old traditions.

Today Russians will ardently deny that their political thinking is subconsciously rooted in the old oppressive methods from the Tatar Yoke era. On the other hand, Ukrainians see a clear connection between the political doctrine of the Tatar Yoke and the contemporary concept of the Russian sphere of influence.

The case of Jacek Karpiński

Let us look closer at the current Russian doctrine of the sphere of influence as a modernized version of the medieval Tatar Yoke.

In my previous article, I describe an incident of a Soviet dignitary extorting a painting during a “friendly” visit to Poland. His behavior was a textbook example of the Mongol luminary extracting a gift from his Russian subject centuries back. He deserved that “gift” because Poland was in the Soviet sphere of influence.

One may ask, how many gifts might Russians extort from Ukraine? Is it worth the fight? The gift case helps to illustrate the Russians’ understanding of the sphere of influence on a human level, but the most harm comes from the influence in commerce. The case of Jacek Karpiński comes to mind.

Many see Jacek Karpiński as a Polish version of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. In the 1950s, he pioneered the development of advanced electronics, which landed him a yearly internship at MIT. After catching up with the technology leaders, in the 1960s, he focused on what was then called “minicomputers.” In 1971 he introduced K-202, the product of his life, a worldwide top-of-the-line minicomputer. The design required microchips made in the West, but the supplier agreed to resell, worldwide, K202s that were manufactured in Poland.

At that time, I studied electronics. Our polytechnic had just gotten its first mainframe computer, occupying one wing of the main building. K-202 was small enough to be put on the desk or underneath it. A vision of getting K-202s in every lab was exciting.

Karpiński’s invention got a lot of publicity in Poland with the help of my mentor and friend, Stefan Bratkowski, a political writer and passionate promoter of computer technology. At that time, I was an intern at Życie i Nowoczesność, ŻiN, (Life and Modernity), a weekly section of Życie Warszawy (Life of Warsaw), the major newspaper in the capital region, now defunct. I saw censors blocking articles about K-202. I learned how much energy Stefan put into advancing the case by using his connections. All went to waste because the Soviet Union couldn’t take full control of making advanced computers in Poland in technological partnership with a Western company. Poland was in the Soviet sphere of influence; the economic interest of Poland needed to yield to the imperial interest of the Soviet Union.

Personally, I lost double. There were no jobs for computer engineers in Poland when I graduated. If thousands of K-202s had been manufactured yearly, Poland would have needed more electronic engineers than it could have educated. My second career shot was at political writing, and I was successful at ŻiN. After shutting down the K-202 project, not much later, apparatchiks fired Bratkowski and his team. Supporting the K-202 case was one of the reasons. So, my hopes for making a career in political writing were dashed, too.

The long shadow of the Tatar Yoke

I know about many similar instances of Soviet interests impeding Poland’s ability to prosper.

I thought about these cases when, days before Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union in 2014, the Russian president stepped in, claiming that this agreement would be bad for Russia’s interests. For most Westerners it sounded like a reasonable concern. For someone knowing the history of Russia, it was an argument deeply rooted in the political concepts of the Tatar Yoke.

One can repeat a Russian’s argument that major Western countries have their spheres of influence as well. If so, how are Russia’s special interests in Ukraine any different?

For Westerners, history has embedded in our thinking that all men are equal, all independent nations are sovereign. But the world is imperfect. With indignation, we see that the rich have stronger cards than the poor do. Many in the West blame the poverty and crime in Latin America on the undue influence of the United States. But they do not see that Chile is doing much better than neighboring Argentina. They do not ask how the once poor Ireland joined the club of the richest by playing with the same international corporate giants, which are blamed for lasting poverty in many underdeveloped countries.

In the Western world, we have a system, which in its concept is moral. Formally, every man and every nation have equal rights to prosper. Our system is imperfect because humans run it. By the system’s rules, no one is deprived of the right to prosper. Cases like Chile or Ireland show that some find better ways than others.

In the West, we can find instances of undue political interference. It might be a contract or international treaty in which a stronger party is taking advantage of a weaker side. If discovered, the immorality and potential illegality could be reversed.

Russians, looking at the faults in the West, ask what is wrong with their influencing Ukraine. What Russians ask for is establishing a rule that Ukraine has no right to be fully sovereign. The Russians’ approach is rooted in the Tatar Yoke logic that some political entities have superior rights over others. Russians ask that, due to the imperfections of our moral concept, the West should accept as legal the fundamentally immoral concept that countries neighboring Russia have no equal rights to prosper.

Yet, why should Ukraine give up its economic interests for the sake of satisfying the imperial interests of Russia?

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