Has Russia always played by its own rules?

Following Russia’s backing of Assad in Syria, its suspected role in the poisoning of an intelligence officer in Salisbury and purported interference in the US presidential election, nine historians offer their opinions on whether such actions reflect Russia’s historical attitude to internationally accepted conventions

Has Russia always played by its own rules?

Janet Hartley

The common perception in western and central Europe was that Russia was not ‘one of us’

“Russia is a European state.” Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, made this statement in 1767 in her Instruction – a document presented as a guide, at home and abroad, to the fundamentally ‘European’ forms of government shared by Russia with other ‘civilised’ states of central and western Europe. Catherine was a German princess, but her assumptions were shared by her predecessor, Peter the Great, who attempted to modernise Russian society and institutions along western European lines, as well as her grandson Alexander I, who saved ‘Europe’ from the tyranny of Napoleon, and all of the tsars up to 1917. Imperial Russia was part of Europe, and therefore followed European rules.

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How did this Europeanness manifest itself? Russia shared European Christian traditions and participated in all forms of European culture. European ideas and philosophy – on forms of government, society, crime and punishment – were considered relevant to Russia. Russia followed the norms of European diplomacy and was an accepted member of the European states system. Russian armies fought in the same manner as European armies. Furthermore, the tsars consciously copied European institutions, laws and noble titles. They deliberately moulded noble and urban society so that their subjects behaved, and even looked, like west Europeans.

Portrait of Russian Empress Catherine II (The Great)
Russian Empress Catherine II (The Great), painted by Johann Baptist Lampi the Elder c1793. She continued efforts by her predecessor, Peter the Great, to modernise Russia along European lines. (Photo by Heritage Images/Getty Images)

There were, however, two problems. First, implementation of European-style institutions was always limited by distinctive Russian features: the sheer size of the empire, which made implementation of change difficult; the existence of serfdom until 1861, which restricted social and economic development; the unwillingness of the tsars to limit their own powers until forced to do so in 1906 after the previous year’s revolution; the slow evolution of a legal consciousness and professional civil service.

Second, a common perception in western and central Europe was that Russia was not ‘one of us’; it was backward and not to be trusted. However much it tried to follow, or considered it was following, European rules it was never accepted as a fully European state. This uneasy relationship continued until Soviet Russia broke the accepted rules of diplomacy in 1918, threatened world revolution and went its own way.

Janet Hartley is professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her latest book is Siberia: A History of the People (Yale University Press, 2014)


Helen Rappaport

Russia’s isolation remains largely self-imposed – a reaction to a sense of being encircled by enemies

Queen Victoria had trouble making sense of Russia. In 1838, her prime minister Viscount Melbourne defined its fortress mentality. Russia, he explained, “retires into inaccessibility, into her snows and frosts”. Appalled at Russia’s “total want of principle”, Victoria saw it as a threat. Russians were “so unscrupulous” and “totally antagonistic to England”.

Aspirations had been different when Peter the Great, looking westward in the early 18th century, had sought to modernise the backward Russian state. But his was an empire that remained stubbornly different: strange, semi-Asiatic and, quite simply, not like us. Seeing off the Swedes and the French, Russia resisted encroachments by the west and its rule of law. Tsaritsa Alexandra summed it up during the 1900s, saying that the Russians didn’t understand democracy – they understood only autocratic rule.

The Soviet imposition of the Warsaw Pact, the comprehensive defence treaty between most eastern European communist states, in the post Second-World-War years underlined a determination to resist the encroachment of Nato and its liberal values. Despite brief periods of rapprochement during the glasnost era under Gorbachev, and after the 1991 fall of communism, its continuing isolation remained largely self-imposed – a reaction to a sense of being encircled by enemies.

Soldier waves Russian flag after failure of military coup against Mikhail Gorbachev
A soldier waves a Russian flag from his tank on 21 August 1991 after the failure of a military coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. (Photo by Willy Slingerland/AFP/Getty Images)

A recent manifestation of Russia’s attitude to rules has been in sport doping scandals. Rules are there to be flouted, and – with an unerring conviction of its inviolability to punishment (beyond economic sanctions) – Russia has continued to act in breach of international law and human rights: annexing Crimea, the support of Ukrainian separatist forces and of Assad in Syria. The world has protested – to no avail. Russia continues to play only to its old, entrenched Soviet rules of engagement.

Events in Salisbury in March 2018 have prompted talk of a renewal of the old enmities of the Cold War. But in truth they never went away. The old nationalism of the tsars has been resurrected with the inexorable rise of Vladimir Putin – a man bent on consolidating the regime entirely to his own agenda, as manifested in the antidemocratic Soviet tactics of murder, provocation and intimidation. As a Russian once observed to the 19th-century German diplomat Count Münster: “Every country has its own constitution. Ours is absolutism moderated by assassination”.

Helen Rappaport is a writer and historian, author of books including the upcoming The Race to Save the Romanovs (Hutchinson, 2018)


David V Gioe and Michael S Goodman

From the Russian perspective, there is no statute of limitations on betrayal

On 4 March, former Soviet military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unresponsive in Salisbury, southern England, most likely poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent known to be in the Russian inventory.

According to press accounts, Skripal served British intelligence for at least a decade, handing over information that was damaging to Russia. Skripal was arrested and in 2006 convicted of treason in Russia, but in 2010 was exchanged in a spy swap between Russia, the UK and the United States. He was resettled in the south of England and kept a relatively low profile, but was not in hiding.

Moscow has a long history of murdering perceived enemies of the state in faraway places. Those cooperating with the west, especially in intelligence, have been targeted for assassination in particular. In 1937, recently defected Soviet intelligence officer Ignace Reiss was executed in Switzerland; his friend and former colleague Walter Krivitsky defected a month later and was killed in Washington DC in 1941. Domestically, Russian assassinations have taken various forms that are intended as gruesome political theatre as well.

Perceived enemies of the Russian state, as during the Soviet era before it, have met their ends in many ways. Though being pushed out of windows, hung or bludgeoned are terrifying ways to die, the Russian fascination with  by poison endures. Poison is appealing for a few reasons. First, it is quiet and can be administered in the open; second, the victim suffers, often publicly.

After the Skripal poisoning, UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson stated that the “use of this nerve agent would represent the first use of nerve agents on the continent of Europe since the Second World War”. This ignores the 1978 murder by ricin of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov on Waterloo Bridge. Although ricin may not technically be a nerve agent, Johnson’s statement about changing norms is a distinction without a difference given the various ways Russians have been poisoned in Britain since Markov’s murder.

The Russian message to intelligence defectors, critical journalists and oligarch rivals is clear – choose your team carefully and ask yourself: can they protect you in perpetuity? From the Russian perspective, there is no statute of limitations on betrayal. Simply because one was traded to the west in a spy swap, as Skripal was, does not mean forgiveness – nor that the betrayal was forgotten.

David V Gioe is history fellow at the Army Cyber Institute at the US Military Academy at West Point, and a former CIA operations officer

Michael S Goodman is professor of intelligence and international affairs at the Department of War Studies, KCL. This analysis is theirs alone and does not represent the position of their employers


In this podcast, Catherine Merridale recounts Lenin’s famous 1917 train journey across Europe to Petrograd, where he took command of the Bolsheviks:


Dina Gusejnova

Russian foreign policy is no longer internationalist but retaliatory

Does the word ‘Russia’ describe the modern Russian Federation, the Soviet Union and the Russian empire interchangeably? Using such a shorthand highlights that these very different regimes maintained supreme authority over an overlapping geographical and cultural territory. But when it comes to their global orientation, the differences can be more significant.

Under the imperial and Soviet regimes, the idea of a special destiny, associated with autocracy and Orthodoxy as well as Soviet party doctrine, went hand in hand with international engagement. Soft power was used extensively, from the Holy Alliance formed in 1815 by Russia, Austria and Prussia, to the institutionalisation of international arbitration at The Hague in the late 1890s, where Russian lawyers played a central role, to the Soviet policies of cultural internationalism under the Commmunist International (Comintern).

The Russian Federation today has no such ideological capacity. What is left are fragments of older ideological frontiers: the notion of an Orthodox world, set against the Ottoman, Catholic and Protestant spheres of domination, or the Bolsheviks’ dismissive attitudes towards ‘western’ legal systems. Soviet practices of lending support to specific political stakeholders in unstable regions through targeted secret intelligence interventions, established during the Spanish Civil War, continue to set precedents, though such forms of conducting military affairs are not unique to Russia. Like the FSB (successor of the KGB/NKVD), MI6 and the FBI celebrated centenaries in the decade from 2008 to 2018.

Imperial and Soviet Russia were internationalist in outlook even when they endorsed special paths; by contrast, today, Russian foreign policy takes the form of a retaliatory interventionism. As the smaller states of the Warsaw Pact sought protection from the EU and Nato, post-Soviet Russia was left with an uncertain patchwork of alliance-building reacting against both. There is no alternative ideological structure such as the Comintern, nor is Russia willing to shape existing institutions of international law to its own liking. Instead, its key political leaders, including the president, the banking sector and the church, have developed personal stakes in the global economy. As Russia is adapting to a changing world, these Russians are truly playing by their own rules.

Dina Gusejnova is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield and author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917–1957 (CUP, 2016)


Geoffrey Roberts

The Bolsheviks aimed to overthrow capitalism, but chose to use traditional diplomacy and its rules

After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917 they aimed to break all the rules of international relations by promoting a global revolution to destroy capitalism and establish a worldwide socialist federation based on class solidarity.

Bolshevik efforts to spread revolution were spearheaded by the Communist International (Comintern), and supported actively by Soviet diplomats, who conducted themselves more like agitators than ambassadors. This coalescence of revolution and diplomacy was reinforced by massive foreign power intervention in the Russian Civil War. An apocalyptic vision of Soviet Russia grappling in a life-and-death struggle with international capitalism became central to the Bolsheviks’ post-revolutionary identity.

Soviet diplomacy reverted to a more traditional role after the civil war, when diplomatic recognition, trade deals and peaceful coexistence were top priorities. Though the Bolsheviks still aimed to overthrow world capitalism, they also chose to make use of traditional diplomacy and its rules. Indeed, by the 1930s, when the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations, Moscow was the foremost champion of state sovereignty and of the principle of non-interference in other states’ domestic affairs. Moscow continued to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries through the Comintern but Soviet diplomats insisted that was purely a communist party matter. A century later the Putin regime remains committed to the principles enunciated by Soviet diplomacy in the 1920s. But there is no equivalent of the Comintern, nor any discernible ambition to universalise the politics and culture of contemporary Russia.

Like all great powers Russia pays lip service to state sovereignty but defends its interests by every means, including meddling in other states’ internal affairs. Soviet Russia aspired to subvert western liberal democracy, but Putin’s aims are much more limited and defensive: secure borders, friendly neighbours, and recognition for Russia as a respected global political player.

In only one detail is Putin truly an ideological child of the Bolshevik Revolution – in his determination to insulate Russia from western-inspired machinations for regime change.

Geoffrey Roberts is emeritus professor of history at University College Cork. His books include The Soviet Union in World Politics: Coexistence, Revolution and Cold War, 1945–1991 (Routledge, 1999)


Catherine Danks

Putin advocates a ‘managed democracy’, stressing patriotism and traditional Russian values

In the 1920s, Russian émigrés developed a concept of Eurasianism as an ideological alternative to Bolshevism. They believed Russia was a unique civilisation, and that it should neither adopt western liberalism and democracy nor entirely reject it. By drawing on Eurasia’s rich diversity and incorporating the best from both the west and east, they believed that Russia could forge a third way best suited to its culture and traditions.

In the 1990s, post-communist Russia set out to become a western-style, liberal, democratic, capitalist economy with an Atlanticist foreign policy. This was a time of turmoil, instability and very real economic hardship for most Russians. According to one 1997 public opinion survey, 60% of Russians rejected the Washington-inspired capitalist model and believed that Russia was on the wrong path. A new form of Eurasianism, which accused the west of deliberately foisting an alien reform package designed to fatally weaken Russia, gained support amongst both communists and nationalists.

Putin did not embrace this Neo-Eurasianism on becoming president in 2000. He sought a constructive relationship with the United States, began strengthening the state and consolidated power in the Kremlin. However, by the time he returned to office in 2012, Putin increasingly used Eurasianist ideas to provide a historical and cultural explanation of why and how the US (the west) was seeking to weaken Russia. In 2014, he even advised civil servants and politicians to read Eurasianist writers who stressed Russia’s messianic role in world history and the importance of the preservation and restoration of Russia’s historical borders and of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Putin also advocates a “managed democracy”, with a stress on patriotism and traditional Russian values. This resulted in a crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs, legislation against “non-traditional” sexual practices and the prohibition of “gay propaganda”.

Time will tell whether Putin has an enduring commitment to Eurasianism, or whether he just recognises the usefulness of a ready-made ideology that provides a handy rationale for his main policy concerns. Putin is pragmatic and understands power; while Eurasianism is useful, he will not abandon it.

Catherine Danks is a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, specialising in Russian history and politics


Charlotte Alston

Soviet leaders engaged in traditional diplomacy but also acted outside it

The question of whether Russia does, or should, conform to standards set by western Europe has a long history. In the 19th century, Russian statesmen and thinkers articulated competing visions of what Russia and its empire ought to be. Should it aim to emulate western ‘civilisation’? Or should it embrace its own traditions, and be a leader in its own sphere? At key moments in Russia’s history – in the revolutionary year of 1917, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – western observers expected Russia to follow a path towards westernisation and democratisation. On both occasions they were disappointed.

Even when Russia took its own path, as the leading Slavic/orthodox power in the 19th century or as the world’s first socialist state in the 20th, it did so with one eye on the west. Industrial development under Stalin was accompanied by rhetoric about keeping up with, and overtaking, established industrial powers. The same was true of scientific and cultural achievements during the Cold War. Throughout the life of the Soviet Union, its leaders both engaged in traditional diplomacy (through alliances in wartime, or the League of Nations in peacetime) and acted outside it (through revolutionary diplomacy and support for communist parties abroad).

Maxim Litvinov, People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs for the Soviet Union, leaves a meeting in 1934 having secured admission to the League of Nations
Maxim Litvinov, People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs for the Soviet Union, leaves a meeting in 1934 having secured admission to the League of Nations – from which the USSR was expelled in 1939 for invading Finland (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Another long-standing feature of the relationship between Russia and western Europe was the presence across the 19th and 20th centuries of a Russian political emigration. In the late 19th century, Russian revolutionaries organised and campaigned abroad against the tsarist regime. In the 1920s, opponents of the early Soviet regime campaigned in foreign capitals. In the later 20th century, dissident literature shaped western understandings of the Soviet system. Such networks were closely monitored by the Russian government. In the late 19th century, the Okhrana (tsarist secret police) office in Paris kept an eye on revolutionaries in London; in the 1920s, the GPU (Soviet secret police)-sponsored ‘Trust’ manipulated opponents abroad.

Evidently, there are stark economic and political differences between today’s Russian émigré oligarchs and the revolutionary or counterrevolutionary emigrations of earlier decades, just as there are between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and earlier regimes. But the question of how Russia relates to its western counterparts is an enduring one.

Charlotte Alston is professor of history at Northumbria University


Evan Mawdsley

Those in charge of the Russian state have felt insecure in a way that the leaders of ‘normal’ governments have not

The question assumes that there are rules, and that some states are ‘normal’ and others are not; both assumptions are questionable. What follows, however, accepts that Russia has behaved in a fundamentally dissimilar way from other major European countries and the United States, and suggests some reasons why this has been the case.

The issue of ‘playing by the rules’ arose immediately after 1945, when western governments struggled to explain Soviet Russia’s abrupt reversal of its wartime re-integration into the international system. Without following too closely the 1946 analysis of the “sources of Soviet conduct” by US diplomat George Kennan, several related factors can be identified that have kept it acting as an outsider for nearly 75 years, including over 25 years of the post-Soviet Russian Federation (RF).


Listen to Robert Service exploring the downfall of tsar Nicholas II:


First of all, Russia was for much of its history cut off from the outside world, and when the state did modernise (under the communists) the new state made every effort to control and limit contact. This is an area where the RF differs considerably from the USSR, but Vladimir Putin and the current generation of leaders were brought up within the Soviet mindset.

In addition, those in charge of the Russian state have, throughout this period, felt insecure in a way that the leaders of ‘normal’ governments have not. The catastrophe of German invasion and occupation in 1941–45, and the existential crisis that came with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, have no parallel. The ongoing sources of insecurity include popular dissatisfaction with economic conditions, and ethnic conflict in a geographical space with many conflicting identities.

Contemporary Russia is probably weaker in geographical, demographic, economic, military and diplomatic terms than at any time in the past century. In dealing with this fearful situation, the government in Moscow has had the advantage over its international rivals of its institutional strength relative to Russian civil society. Both under the communists and under their successors, there were few checks on what the Russian state could do – it has made up its own rules.

Evan Mawdsley was professor of international history at the University of Glasgow. His books include World War II: A New History (Cambridge University Press, 2009)


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This article was first published in the Issue 10 edition of BBC World Histories Magazine