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Roots of Russia’s catastrophes lie in its history, says Zubov

From Wednesday 19 October, the famous Russian historian Andrey Borisovich Zubov teaches a six-week course at Masaryk University titled Reasons for the Russian catastrophe of the 20th century and possibilities to overcome it. Over 100 MU students have signed up for the limited special series of lectures and nearly 4,000 others have already watched the lectures online.

According to Zubov, Russia has diverged markedly from other post-communist countries.

“I am very happy to have been given the opportunity by Masaryk University to present the historical context that made Russia into what it is today. Especially these days, it is necessary for the outside world – including the Czech Republic, where people used to have rather positive attitudes towards Russia – to understand the truth behind the reason why Russia got into this situation,” said the Russian historian.

According to Zubov, the reason lies not – as some people claim – in Russia being an inherently totalitarian state, nor in Russians having barbarism, cruelty or ‘Asian values’ disregarding human rights in their genetic code. The main cause, he believes, lies in the string of bad decisions and actions taken by previous rulers and other leaders who shaped Russian society into its present form.

Europe and Russia diverged as early as the 15th century

Zubov argues that the historical trajectories of Europe and Russia began to perceptibly diverge already in the 15th century when the Renaissance was in full swing and the whole of Europe flourished, whereas Russia at that time was part of the Byzantine cultural sphere. Consequently, a gap had begun to open between Renaissance Europe, which was building on the ancient Greek and Roman ideals of education, knowledge and liberty, and the Byzantine Empire.

This was gradually accentuated in the following centuries by other circumstances, such as the establishment of the absolute monarchy known as the Tsarist samoderzhaviye (autocracy) and the later formation of the Russian Empire. Wars, serfdom as well as the generally low level of education heavily impacted the lives of ordinary Russians.

“In the 18th and 19th centuries, the situation in Russia was completely different from that in Europe – Russian commoners had no personal freedom, no human rights and no possibility to own property. Moreover, they were quite ignorant and lacked any moral understanding of reality. In all these adverse circumstances, we can see the answers to why Russia is still so politically enigmatic today,” the historian explains.

In his first two lectures, Zubov spoke about the mistakes as well as liberal reforms in the 18th and 19th centuries that influenced the development of pre-revolutionary Russia. The next two lectures then focused on the nature of the Russian totalitarian state and the “spirit of inhumanity” prevailing in Soviet society. In the other two lectures in November, the Russian historian talked about the failed reforms introduced by Gorbachev and Yeltsin and the possibilities of putting an end to autocracy and unifying and transforming Russia into a modern civilized country.

“The tragedies of the 20th century in Russia did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but continue to this day. Although Russia has pretended to be a standard European country for the last 30 years, the events of February 2022 fully demonstrated that Russia has diverged markedly from other post-communist countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Estonia. There is no clear and complete answer to why Russia is the way it is today, but I hope my lectures will help people achieve a somewhat better understanding,” says Zubov.