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A brief historical context



As in much of North America the northern ice sheet withdrew from this countryside less than 20,000 years ago leaving behind large freshwater lakes many rivers and streams and fertile soils.  The whole Baltic region (including Scandinavia, most of the UK, Poland and Germany) was under this ice sheet. Surrounding the sheet were regions of permafrost. Human re-habitation of all these regions has therefore happened slowly within the past 12,000 years as mankind moved back into the region from further south. 

As agricultural opportunities were slow to develop human tribes in this area were principally stone age nomadic herders who became more warlike as agriculture with its fortified villages, towns and cities began to make incursions into their previously open range lands. 


Traditional HorsemanshipLocal fair - Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery


It is only within the last few hundred years that towns and cities no longer need to be fortified.  This has had a profound and lasting impact on the nature of central Asia - across Siberia to China. 

Religion for much of the Stone Age period was animist, and based on magic and myths, as is typical of hunter gatherers and nomads.  In Moscow there is an excellent anthropological museum with many interesting pieces from this pre-history.  The subtlety and sophistication of stone arrow heads and other tools; little stone figurers and pottery is remarkable.


Paleolithic tools and figure


By the time of the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 BCE) agriculture had become important and earlier worship involving animals and belief in magic places had given way to fertility based deities (male and female).  One of these is believed to have been the precursor of Thor (remembered in our Thursday).   These beliefs developed into what scholars now call Germanic paganism; embracing, in addition, the Norse and Celtic traditions.  Like the religions of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome this religion supported  many gods and goddesses including: Tyr (Tuesday) Woden (Wednesday); Freya (Friday); and Eastre (Easter; and the compass point).

The Romans were able to find equivalences between their chief gods and the Germanic ones.  I was surprised to learn at Hexham Abbey, when we were in England, that although the Romans did not leave England until 410, 30 years after Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Romans in Britain remained staunchly pagan.

Russia itself was named after the Rus';  a group of Varangians (Vikings, predominantly from the present-day Sweden).   The Vikings had long used the Volga as a trade route down to the Black Sea. Rus in ancient Finnish means "the men who row".


The Nordic Tribes


According to the Primary Chronicle of Rus', the Rus' had relocated from the Baltic region under the leadership of Rurik; soon capturing Kiev and founding Kievan Rus'.  In the ninth century the descendants of Rurik were the ruling dynasty of Rus', and in the twelfth century their decedents created the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the foundation of the Tsardom of Russia. 

In the tenth century the Rus' became Christianised; following the Byzantine tradition.  Although the Russian Orthodox Church has its idiosyncratic view of this conversion, with churches and sculptures to celebrate the occasion, the actual circumstances and timing are a matter of scholastic debate.  

The early Tsars needed a means of uniting a vast territory and numerous Slavic tribes, divided by their many gods and residual animist beliefs.

After trying unsuccessfully to create a new religion himself, Vladimir the Great consulted philosophers and representatives of the three existing monotheistic faiths. Islam and Judaism were unsuitable due to the requirement to circumcise and taboos against pork; the Jew's loss of Jerusalem was evidence of their having been abandoned by God; and Islam was rejected because of its ban on alcoholic beverages:  "Drinking is the joy of the Rus', we can't go without it"  he is reported as saying. 

Christianity also offered the best way of establishing his God given authority to rule.  A great advantage held by orthodox Christianity, since seventh century, has been the power of its Bishops to anoint (confer divine authority on) kings. 


Early Christianity
Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery (1397) - Goritsy


From the thirteenth century onwards this divine authority justified the effective enslavement of an increasing proportion of rural working class as 'serfs'; who were bound 'by the laws of God' to their landlord for life; on pain of severe punishment in this life; and the next.  Serfs were treated like any other animal stock; worked hard; but generally kept healthy and encouraged to breed. Religious festivals, Holy Days, provided them with relief from toil and special treats.   This system was not abolished until the nineteenth century by which time almost 40% of the entire population was thus enslaved.

On occasion our trip seemed like an endless succession of churches, saints and Tsars.  But this is understandable given the importance of religion in the history of the region at every turn and its importance in establishing; and often in deposing; its rulers; in addition to repressing the working class. 


Wooden Cathedral
Wooden Church of Transfiguration - Kizhi Island in Onega Lake


Serfs could gain freedom by joining the army and made excellent 'cannon fodder' on the principle that he who still has troops alive after a battle wins.  It is notable that in almost every military campaign Russian has engaged in their losses far exceeded those of the other side.

Outstanding among the Tsars were Peter the Great and Catherine the Great both for their successful military campaigns to secure access to harbours and new trade routes by sea. Others include Alexander II who emancipated the serfs in 1861 and was assassinated for his trouble; and of course the inglorious last Tsar, Nicholas II, who's extreme incompetence led to a series of revolutions.  He was forced to abdicate by constitutional monarchists in the revolution of February 1917.

The February Revolution of 1917 was followed in the same year by the October Revolution, bringing Bolshevik rule and plunging Russia into years of civil war.  Unfortunately for him, the Tsar remained a rallying figure for royalists and was strategically eliminated by Leninist forces, along with any of his family who might have succeeded him, in 1918.

The October revolution led to the eventual formation of the USSR in the 1920's; during my Grandparent's adult lifetime. 

My Danish Great uncle worked for Erickson; installing the telephone system in Russia at this time. The USSR became an ally of Britain and the US against the Germans when Hitler tore up his 1939 Non-Aggression Pact and attacked Russia in 1941.   Soviet military and civilian deaths were 10.6 million and 15.9 million respectively,  accounting for about a third of all World War II casualties; equal to about five times the total German military and civilian losses during the entire war.  Needless to say the Russians believe that they made the greatest sacrifice of all the Allies towards the winning of WW2.


Memorial to WW2
WW2 Memorial - 26.5 million Soviet dead


The Allied war with Japan ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs and this technology instantly made the US the World's foremost super-power.  But the Soviet Union was quick to develop atomic and hydrogen bombs of its own and the Russians were then first to put a man in space; effectively demonstrating, without needing to annihilate a city, that they could deliver an atom bomb to anywhere on the planet.

The consequent Cold War between the West and the USSR peaked in October 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Soon there were enough missiles and warheads on each side to annihilate every city on the planet several times over, and the powers achieved the stalemate affectionately known as MAD - mutually assured destruction.  Although a dozen treaties have reduced the number of weapons; both sides still retain an agreed 1,550 warheads; and each of these may be multiply targeted. Both countries have ongoing upgrade programs to renew and improve the effectiveness of their technology within this limit. Thus each country is constantly improving its ability to annihilate the other.

As Bob Dylan sang in God on My Side:

I've learned to hate Russians 
All through my whole life. 
If another war comes, 
It's them we must fight. 
To hate them and fear them, 
To run and to hide, 
You never ask questions 
When God's on your side.


I wondered if the Americans on board continued to harbour something of this sentiment; or is it conditioning?

History has demonstrated that the Marxist economic model is deeply flawed and has little chance of prevailing for long.  The most egregious example was that of Pol Pot in Cambodia.  Countries like China Vietnam and Cuba have increasingly embraced market based economics and the restoration of privately owned capital. 

Despite leading the world in some areas of engineering and science, the Russian command economy was under constant repair from the outset; resulting in periodic famines and wasteful oversupply.  During its last years it was again afflicted by shortages of goods in grocery stores, huge budget deficits, and explosive growth in the money supply leading to inflation. 

A joke from a Russian on the boat:

Lenin, Stalin, Kruschev and Brezhnev are on a train that has ground to a halt.
Lenin says 'I can fix this' and leans out the window: ‘comrade workers’, he says to the peasants: ‘give us your free time and collectively we can get this train moving’; but the train remains stationary.
So Stalin leans out the window and says: ‘anyone not helping to get this train moving will be shot’; but still there is no movement.
Kruschev leans out and says: 'the problem lies in the track so pull up the track from behind and lay it in front'. Still nothing.
So they turn to Brezhnev who smiles and says: ‘comrades let’s just close the curtains and imagine the train is moving’.

In 1991 the USSR spontaneously fell apart as market economics reasserted itself. 

In many cases assets and resources were simply annexed by those with the greatest power or influence. As a result some individuals have been able to acquire vast fortunes. 

Overseeing this for the past fourteen years has been President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. 

Putin has been both Prime Minister and President, in effective control of the country in both roles. He has been popularly elected on several occasions. During Putin's first premiership and presidency (1999–2008), real incomes increased by a factor of 2.5, real wages more than tripled; unemployment and poverty more than halved.  During his first presidency the Russian GDP increased by 72%. 

These achievements have been supported by good economic management but also by a five-fold increase in the price of oil and gas; comprising the majority of Russian exports. 

Putin is accused by critics of being authoritarian and corrupt; and some wealthy individuals are said to be above the law (Russian Mafia).  The country is said to be struggling to retain a viable democracy with an apparently ineffective political opposition and recent crack-downs on dissent.  Remember Pussy Riot.

Some Russians look back with fondness to the past; as do others who lived under communism.

My daughter Emily lives in the old eastern sector of Berlin and prefers it to the previous western sector; not the least for her wonderful apartment in a pretty street; convenient to the centre; with its 15 foot ceilings large rooms and wide, solid floorboards. Not quite what we have been led to believe about the eastern sector.

A friend of hers grew up in East Berlin. He has considerable misgivings about some of the changes he has seen in Berlin; and in Germany generally.  He felt that once people were more civically minded; more caring and more equal. He is very bright, an electronics engineer, and quite intellectual. As Emily says, like an immigrant he is nostalgic about aspects of the land left behind; but it is one he can never return to; perhaps, like many who do return to past lands, to be disillusioned.



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