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Election of Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov to the throne. Painting by Alexey Kivshenko.

A subservient nation? Russia seems prone to authoritarian rulers. Meduza unpacks one theory about why.

Source: Meduza
Election of Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov to the throne. Painting by Alexey Kivshenko.
Election of Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov to the throne. Painting by Alexey Kivshenko.
Wikimedia Commons

Given the mental anguish and, in some cases, brutal repression endured by the many thousands of Russians who oppose Putin and Russia’s war on Ukraine, everyone wants to know why the Russian opposition hasn’t managed to stop him. One theory holds that it has something to do with an innate Russian national character — whatever that might mean — of subservience, that the Russian people bring dictatorship on themselves by not desiring liberty and democracy enough. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, sociological studies from both within Russia and outside the country have shown that Russian citizens value democratic ideals as much as citizens of much freer states. But the idea that Russians are a “subservient nation” is, it turns out, both old and durable, lasting from the early imperial era, into the Soviet Union, and down to the present day. Meduza explains the history of the idea and why it’s, at best, overly simplistic and, at worst, dangerous.

The following essay was adapted from an edition of Signal, Meduza’s newsletter about histories and ideas that can help us understand today’s news. You can subscribe to Signal (it’s in Russian) here.

In trying to explain why Russians have not “simply overthrown Putin,” some recent critics have reverted to an old trope, calling Russia a “subservient nation.” When Georgia’s legislature considered adopting a law on “foreign agents” that resembled legislation Russia has used over the last decade to suppress dissent, protestors in Georgia shouted “Russians! Are Slaves!” And in October 2022, Ukraine’s former foreign affairs minister Volodymyr Ohryzko said, “The Russian nation is a subservient nation that doesn’t understand what free will or self-governance are.”

And it’s not just an idea imposed on Russia from the outside. The scholar Olgerta Kharitonova argues in her book Voina i Feminizm (War and Feminism) that “the Russian nation has never had the historical opportunity to develop a social consciousness other than subservience.” And the Russian journalist Ilya Varlamov has said that Russian schools instill “a subservient consciousness.” The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has used the same phrasing to explain their electoral losses and voter passivity in the 2016 elections. In March of last year, Putin himself explained Russians’ desire to live in the West as “subservient consciousness.”

The origins of the idea

“A subservient nation” is a very old trope, conceived by foreign visitors to Russia and then picked up by parts of the Russian intelligentsia.

In the 16th century, Sigismund von Herberstein, a diplomat to Russia from the Holy Roman Empire, described Russia as a society in which nearly all people live in “cruel slavery.” Von Herberstein visited Russia twice during the reign of Grand Prince Vasily III and later published a detailed account of his travels called Notes upon Russia. The book would become the foundation of the “discovery of Russia” among Western Europe’s educated public.

Von Herberstein was particularly struck by the fact that the grand prince’s court and entourage were not comprised of aristocrats with inalienable rights and privileges, as was the case in Western Europe (von Herberstein himself was one such aristocrat). Instead, Vasily III was surrounded by “serving people,” who were entirely dependent on the sovereign, lacking any guarantees of property or freedom.

Following von Herberstein, almost all travelers to Russia from the West described Russia and the Russian Empire the same way, culminating in Astolphe de Custine’s book La Russie en 1839 (Russia in 1839). 

De Custine, like von Herberstein, was an aristocrat and politically conservative. He particularly disliked the bourgeois and liberal (for the time) order established in his native France during the 1830s and known as the July Monarchy. He hoped to find a conservative utopia in Russia, with a benign absolute monarch, a loyal aristocracy, and humble but prosperous common people.

He was bitterly disappointed. “A disinterested and unconscious servility reigns here,” he wrote in his very first note about the trip. De Custine formed the impression that everyone in Russia was a slave — the tsar, he thought, treated the nobility little better than nobles treated their serfs. Nobles and serfs alike appeared to him submissive and lacking in self-esteem. No one had any guaranteed rights, and arbitrariness reigned everywhere.

Coronation of Nikolai I in Uspensky Sobor, Moscow, 1826. Engraving by an unknown artist.
Hermitage / Wikimedia Commons

De Custine’s book quickly became extremely popular in Western Europe. It was banned in Russia, but those who were interested read it anyway. If de Custine’s work didn’t create the notion of Russia as a “subservient nation,” it certainly spread the idea widely.

For von Herberstein, de Custine, and their readers in the West and in Russia itself, the most striking aspect of the “subservient nation” was the condition of Russia’s nobility. Discussions of Russians’ “subservience” weren’t about serfs’ rights, but were instead critiques of Russia’s ruling classes. As Western Europeans saw it, the country had no “real” aristocracy that could retain its freedom, well-being, and status independent of the whims of the monarch.

As American historian Marshall Poe notes, this was classic exoticization. Foreign travelers to Russia took the social norms they were accustomed to as the default, and used any deviation from those norms that they found in Russia as proof that the country was wild and barbaric, its people completely unlike those in “normal countries” and somehow just not right.

Poe and other historians have taken pains to explain how the differences between social structures in Russia and Western European countries emerged. Like early travel writers such as von Herberstein and de Custine, they’ve focused on why the aristocracy behaved so differently in Russia compared to Western Europe. But unlike early travel accounts, most contemporary theories find that structural issues, rather than innate national characteristics, undergirded imperial Russia’s social structures. There are two foundational differences, scholars argue, between Russia and Western Europe in the imperial period. First, in the West, the military estate became the aristocracy when war ceased to be a permanent condition. In Russia, that period was only just emerging in the 1830s, when de Custine saw the country. Second, Russia’s climate and agricultural conditions were such that the country produced very little surplus. The Russian authorities therefore had to employ stringent measures to collect agricultural income and redirect it for the needs of the state.

Be that as it may, the idea of Russia as a “subservient nation” took on a life of its own long ago. Walter Smith, the U.S. ambassador to the USSR during the Cold War’s early years, called de Custine’s book “the greatest study of the Soviet Union ever written.” (Smith’s elision of Russia, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union is a topic for another article.) Cold War-era policy wonks and USSR-watchers George Kennan and Zbigniew Brzezinski recommended using it to study Russia.

National essentialism — a slippery slope

The idea of “subservient nations” originated in Western European thought during the era of colonization. As scholars like, most famously, Edward Said have shown, European thinkers, politicians, artists, and educators spent generations conceiving and reinforcing the notion that those cultures which they saw as bearing the least resemblance to European culture were either less advanced than or naturally subordinate to Europe.

Inherent in that hierarchical conception of nations and cultures is the essentializing idea that certain groups of people have innate, immutable characteristics that distinguish them from other groups — fertile ground for the development of all sorts of stereotypes, oversimplifications, and discriminations.

Cultures sometimes apply the derogatory expression “a subservient nation” to themselves to excuse their own impotence or to justify their own power structures. It allows authoritarian leaders and elites to say, “look, these people are subservient, they’re nothing without a strong hand.”

Russia has its own complex relationship to Europe’s essentializing and orientalizing ideas — sometimes, as with the history of the “subservient nation” idea, the country has been the object of Europe’s “othering” gaze, but just as often it has adopted and turned that “othering” gaze on the non-Russian peoples and cultures — from the Baltics, to Ukraine, to the Caucasus and Central Asia — of the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has spurred some of Putin’s opponents to take Russian imperialism seriously. Scholars, writers, artists, and activists from neighboring countries have understood and critiqued Russian imperialism for far longer.

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Still, numerous studies show that Russians today share many of the same values as their neighbors. Data from the European Social Survey suggest that a majority of Russians (54 percent of those surveyed) are oriented toward individualism. That’s a greater share than in Spain (45 percent) and Germany (26 percent) and no one calls those countries “nations of slaves.”

The Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map, from the research project called the World Values Survey, shows that Russians espouse, first and foremost, secular values (and not the semi-mystical “traditional” values Putin insists on). Second most important for Russians are survival values like decent wages and working conditions. In this regard, Russian nationals are culturally closest to residents of Ukraine, Latvia, Serbia, and Albania.

Beyond that, though, Russian society is diverse, with values varying across and within different groups. Hundreds of ethnocultural groups call Russia home, and to call all of them “Russian slaves” is, in some sense, to repeat the Kremlin’s imperial narrative about the homogeneity of Russian society. 

The homogeneity narrative

Who decided on the boundaries of the ‘Russian World’? A brief history of Donbas separatism

The homogeneity narrative

Who decided on the boundaries of the ‘Russian World’? A brief history of Donbas separatism

Okay, so why don’t Russians just overthrow Putin already?

It’s complicated. But being a “subservient nation” is definitely not the reason. It’s a bad explanation because it’s an oversimplification.

The existence of authoritarian leadership in a country is not evidence of a people’s “subservience.” Still, when people call Russians a “subservient nation,” they most often mean that citizens of Russia don’t seem to desire freedom. The notion is sometimes employed to explain Russian nostalgia for Soviet dictatorship, but in that case, again, it’s too simplistic a way to describe a complex social and political phenomenon. 

Russians do protest. The problem is that the changes arising from those protests aren’t currently as far reaching as many expected they would be. Mikhail Bakunin, a theorist of anarchism, called Russian history “an unending revolt of the working classes against the state.” Examples abound of workers’ revolts and peasant uprisings, to say nothing of two revolutions, workers’ protests within the USSR, and millions of people demonstrating against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Soviet power in the late 1980s–early 1990s.

March 10, 1991, Moscow. Up to half a million people demonstrated against the government on Manezhnaya Square in the center of the city. They demanded the resignation of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and supported Boris Yeltsin. The demonstration took place on the eve of the referendum about the preservation of the USSR and organizers urged a no vote.
Dominique Mollard / AP / Scanpix / LETA

In contemporary Russia, the ranks of people protesting the Putin regime were growing steadily despite intensifying repression. There were also many Russian grassroots social movements, which citizens used to assert their rights on a local level. And they were often successful. In recent years, residents of the Arkhangelsk region managed to stave off a landfill, which was supposed to accommodate trash from Moscow, in the town Shiyes; Bashkortostan activists prevented a mining company from operating on Kushtau Hill; and Yekaterinburg residents defended one of their city’s only green spaces from being developed as the site of a new church.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, people protested both the regime and the war, although the risks of protesting in Russia have increased many times over since Putin first came to power. According to data from the human rights monitoring project OVD-Info, only 25 days in 2022 were free of politically motivated arrests. That means that people were protesting, in one way or another, essentially every day. And protest has become more radical over the past years — people are now sentenced for setting fire to military enlistment offices and sabotaging railway tracks. 

Demonstrators march with a banner that reads “Peace for Ukraine, Freedom for Russia” in Moscow, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, on the evening of Russia’s early-morning attack on Ukraine. Hundreds of people gathered to protest in Moscow’s city center, as well as in cities across Russia, and many were arrested.
Dmitry Serebryakov / AP / Scanpix / LETA
Russian law enforcement officers detain men during an unsanctioned rally, after opposition activists called for street protests against the military mobilization by President Vladimir Putin. Moscow, September 21, 2022.
Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

But all of that has obviously not been enough to bring about regime change. For that to happen, says American sociologist and specialist in social movements Jack Goldstone, a number of factors have to coincide:

  1. Economic problems;
  2. A schism among elites;
  3. Numerous protests;
  4. A clear higher purpose that can rally both protesters and elites from the opposition;
  5. Favorable international conditions.

Those who judge protests in Russia to be unsuccessful often turn to the experiences of other post-Soviet countries for comparison — Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. If regime change worked there, the comparisons ask, why should it be impossible for Russians? The Goldstone model has its critics, but it’s helpful in answering that question. In Ukraine in 2014, there was a schism among elites, a clear idea around which society could rally, and support from the international community. 

None of those conditions exist in Russia, at least not yet. There are still relatively few protests and the costs to protesters are too high. The authorities have massive resources to spend on security forces. Harsh international sanctions so far have not brought about an economic crisis. Nor have Russian elites split into internal factions — they’re currently rallied around Putin. 

Protest under Putin

A promise unfulfilled Scholar Sasha de Vogel explains why Russia lacks massive antiwar protests

Protest under Putin

A promise unfulfilled Scholar Sasha de Vogel explains why Russia lacks massive antiwar protests

The ideas currently driving the opposition — ending the war and removing Putin from power — sound abstract to many Russians. Their memories of the chaos that followed regime change in the 1990s might make them apprehensive. Add to that the fact that many Russians are materially dependent on the state. Others really are simply apolitical. And the international community is evidently in no rush to help either opposition forces or regular people in Russia — to the contrary, sanctions that affect Russian citizens directly (in the banking sector, for example) are being tightened. Finally, there are some global trends working against the Russian opposition. Protest in general is becoming a less effective tool for people to defend their rights, in part because new technologies make it easier for dictators to distribute state propaganda and to persecute protesters.

And even if all of Goldstone’s factors do emerge in Russia, there’s still no guarantee that the Putin regime will fall. Political scientist Erica Frantz, an associate professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on authoritarian regimes, says that personalist autocracies — a category that includes Russia under Putin — are the least likely kind of authoritarian regime to transform into democracy. Under these circumstances, Frantz argues, regime change is most likely to occur only with the leader’s death.

Frantz’s research reveals another unpleasant trend: In countries, like Russia, where the personalist leader has been in power for more than 20 years, the regime survives a dictator’s death 80 percent of the time with another, similar leader carrying on his legacy. 

It’s hard to find anything encouraging to say about the near-term outlook for Russia except, perhaps, this: the presence of a dictator doesn’t prove a people’s “subservience,” just as the absence of a dictator doesn’t prove their “independence.” People and nations are neither innately subservient nor innately independent. It’s easy to throw up our hands about a dictatorship and assume its subjects are programmed for obedience and nothing can be expected of them. That stance eliminates the need to attend to a dictatorship’s origins, what supports it, how to end it, and how to deal with its legacies. “A subservient nation” is the laziest possible answer to a complex set of questions. It also plays directly into the hands of current and future dictators. After all, if you admit that there are “subservient nations” then you have to admit that the dictators are doing everything right.


In 1990, Soviet and American scholars Maxim Boyko, Vladimir Korobov, and Robert Schiller began a comparative study of the views of Muscovites and New Yorkers. They discovered that residents of Moscow and New York essentially did not differ in their views around free speech, the right to a fair trial, and other democratic social values. The findings hold, almost 25 years later.

Written by Fielding Mellish and edited by Natasha Kondrashova

English-language version by Emily Laskin

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