The Kremlin: Russia's Symbol of Survival

by Steve Sailer

UPI, June 26, 2001


A tour of Moscow's Kremlin can help Americans understand just how lucky we are, and therefore why we should not assume that what has worked for us will automatically work for Russia as well.

While the Technicolor onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral in the adjoining Red Square might elicit as much joy as any building in the world, the point of the Kremlin is to overawe. The massive scale and staggering opulence of this ancient fortress that has been the heart of the Muscovite empire for over 600 years provide a visceral illustration of the geographic differences that underline the harshly repressive Russian political tradition in contrast to the individualistic Anglo-American heritage.

On the vast Central Eurasian plain, there are few natural defensive barriers to stop an invading army. During the last millennium, Russia was invaded not only by Napoleon and Hitler, but also by Mongols, Lithuanians, Crimean Tatars, Swedes, and Poles (as recently as 1919).

On the great plain, the small have tended to get stomped by the large. Even a sizable nation like the Poles has only enjoyed about three decades of true independence in the last two centuries.

The rulers of Moscow have always understood this grim logic. From medieval times through the current war to regain control over the breakaway territory of Chechnya, maintaining and, if possible, enlarging the Muscovite state's boundaries has been the national priority. Because foreign rivals often possessed more sophisticated technology and social organization, the Russian government has traditionally relied on the sheer weight of manpower, natural resources and the use of distance to absorb and sap an invader's army.

The Kremlin, with its 65-foot-high walls, was both a physical fortress and a psychological symbol intimidating all those who might challenge its ruler.

Within the walls, the armory now displays the jaw-droppingly expensive jewels, thrones, crowns, robes, gowns, carriages, and Faberge Imperial Easter eggs with which the Romanov dynasty would overwhelm its potential challengers, foreign and domestic.

In contrast to Russia, mighty oceans protect America. With little reason to fear invasion, for most of our history we managed without an enormous army or the crushing taxes that it would consume. This allowed us to develop a highly limited government, commercial dynamism, and individual rights.

Our republican heritage is symbolized in the apparent human scale of the White House and its elegant but not luxurious furnishings. Of course, as the responsibilities of the U.S. government increased, so did the size of its executive headquarters. The East and West Wings were added during Teddy Roosevelt's administration. Yet, they hunker down out of sight behind landscaped berms that mask the true expanse of the compound from citizens admiring the old central wing from Lafayette Park.

Not until the construction of the Pentagon during WWII did the American government allow itself the kind of colossal architecture that truly expressed the magnitude of American superpower.

These differences in geography and consequently world view make it hard for Americans to grasp why Russians take the breakaway republic of Chechnya so seriously. As one Russian scientist told me in Moscow last month, "Most Russians opposed Boris Yeltsin's 1994 war with Chechnya, considering it a colonial war, like France's ill-fated attempt to hang on to Algeria. But after winning the war, the Chechens used their de facto independence to attack the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan."

So, when several Moscow apartment buildings mysteriously blew up in 1999, Yeltsin's new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, seized this convenient, Reichstag-fire style opportunity to reopen the war in Chechnya. This time, war proved hugely popular with the voters, who went on to elect Putin to succeed Yeltsin in 2000.

The Russian people's rediscovery of the harsh logic of their past -- that size matters; that weakness is an invitation to disaster; that the "Domino Theory" is reality -- also no doubt received a stimulus from rapidly expanding NATO's attack on their Slavic cousins in Yugoslavia earlier in 1999.

Russia is now pursuing reunification with the former Soviet republic of Belarus. It might also have its eye on the much larger ex-Soviet state of the Ukraine. Putin recently dispatched as his ambassador to that expansive but beleaguered state his heaviest hitter, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Further, Russia might well feel threatened by the dynamism of China. The Chinese population is 1.2 billion and still growing. The Russian population is one eighth that size and rapidly shrinking due to low birth rates and the tendency of male Russians to drink themselves to death. Russian Siberia is cold, but rich in resources and increasingly empty, except for immigrants from China. The Chinese may well come to view it as Americans in the early 19th Century viewed Mexico's Texas and California: as parts of their manifest destiny ripe for the plucking.

Meanwhile at home, Putin consolidates power and bullies critics. The Russian people seem to approve. One college coed said, "A big country like ours needs a leader who is young, healthy, and strong."

In short, the traditional rules of survival that governed statecraft on the central reaches of the Eurasian plain during the last millennium remain in effect in the new millennium.


Steve Sailer ( is a columnist for and the film critic for The American Conservative.

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