By Chet Yarbrough
A History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev
By: The Great Courses
Lecturer: Mark Steinberg
Mark Steinberg (History professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)
It is timely to review Steinberg’s lecture series on the history of Russia because it offers perspective on Russian leadership. Professor Steinberg reveals a dichotomy in Russian leadership that reaches back to the Czars.
- Peter I the Great (October 22, 1721 — January 28, 1725)
- Catherine I (January 28, 1725 — May 6, 1727)
- Peter II (May 6, 1727 — January 19, 1730)
- Anna Ioannovna (February 4, 1730 — October 17, 1740)
- Ivan VI (October 17, 1740 — November 25, 1741)
- Elizabeth Petrovna (November 25, 1741 — December 25, 1761)
- Peter III (December 25, 1761 — June 28, 1762)
- Catherine II the Great (June 28, 1762 — November 6, 1796)
- Paul I (November 6, 1796 — March 11, 1801)
- Alexander I (March 12, 1801 — November 19, 1825)
- Nicholas I (November 19, actually from December 13, 1825 — February 18, 1855)
- Alexander II (February 18, 1855 — March 1, 1881)
- Alexander III (March 1, 1881 — October 20, 1894)
- Nicholas II (October 20, 1894 — March 2, 1917)
When Czarist Russia is replaced by Leninist communism, Russian citizens continue to demand centralized authority but with greater personal freedom, both of which are inherently in conflict. There is no government in history that has achieved a perfect balance between authority and freedom.
Either centralized authority or freedom are compromised by human nature.
America’s answer is “checks and balances”. Russia’s answer, with few exceptions, is to strengthen centralized authority at the expense of individual freedom.
The natural human desire for money, power, and prestige demand balancing centralized authority with freedom.
The most recent exception for more freedom within centralized authority is Gorbachev. Gorbachev tries to keep the U.S.S.R. together by authoritatively demanding meritocratic government that focuses on improvement in Russian citizen’s freedom. In contrast, Putin looks to define freedom only for those who get things done in accordance with government dictate. The “things done” are meant to improve the economy and power of the nation. Steinberg suggests Putin reduced corruption in his redefinition of freedom, but the rise of oligarchs diminishes his success. Neither leader finds the right balance between authority and freedom.
Steinberg recounts the leadership of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great that appear more like precursors to Gorbachev’s style of government. All three demand a powerful centralized authority but they temper that demand with their desire to make Russian citizens’ lives better. Though Putin is not addressed by Steinberg, as a leader, Putin seems more like Ivan the Terrible and Nicholas the First who looked at what was best for government leadership rather than what benefits the general population.
Steinberg exudes love for Russia in his profile of its past. He reinforces one’s belief that an intimate understanding of another countries culture is necessary for there to be any hope for success in diplomacy.
Putin is at a crossroad in Ukraine. Professor Steinberg implies that a crossroad is not for one direction or another but a middle way that serves the best interests of all Russian citizens, not just those in leadership positions.