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Russia's Turning Point

After five centuries of being bound and impoverished by empire, Russia and its neighbors may finally be breaking free

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MUCH official and unofficial Western commentary on events in the former Soviet Union is missing the point. Russia is on the threshold of breaking a vicious circle of structural problems that have condemned it to misery since the late 15th century.

Peter Chaadaev, an early 19th century Russian, puzzled over the eternal question for Russian intellectuals, "What is Russia's purpose?" He answered that it was to suffer in order to teach the world a great lesson - how miserable life can be. A convinced Westernizer, he hoped that Russia's suffering could soon be ended, allowing it to join the rest of the human race. His opponents, the Slavophiles, saw Russia on a special Slavic path, not suffering, but showing the world a new path through Russian autocra cy.

What neither the Westernizers nor the Slavophiles understood was that Moscow had locked Russia into a vicious imperial circle as early as the reign of Ivan the Great (1462-1505). Having vanquished all the Muscovite princes, he began to expand Russian control over non-Russian peoples. That required a strong army, which in turn required a central authority that could extract resources from the peasant economy to feed and arm it.

Success in expansionism merely created more military requirements. Non-Russian peoples had to be governed by a martial regime, and neighboring states became hostile to Moscow for fear of being the next victims of Russian imperialism.

Peter the Great, at the turn of the 18th century, lent a new dynamism to this imperialism, formally enserfing the peasantry and ruining the economy on an army and navy for foreign wars. As Peter noted, "Money is the artery of war." Later in the century, Catherine the Great added massively to Russian-controlled territories, and her grandson, Alexander I, continued the tradition during the Napoleonic wars.

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