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All Russian Collapse Narratives Collapse in Time

Vladislav Zubok wrote an article on Foreign Affairs making a historical comparison with the Time of Troubles, Russia’s major civil war of the early 1600s, and the political situation in Russia today.

It has the flaws of many historical articles penned this week. A fleet of historians were set out on the ocean of uncertainty to make the Prigozhin Affair into a portent of Russian collapse and the dark, violent ‘Russian soul’. But the mutiny fizzled so fast that the facts fell before the drafting was finished.

Zubok is the author of Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union. He would have seemed to the editors of Foreign Affairs the perfect historian Zubok to demonstrate the imminent collapse of the Russian Federation and the “autocrat, Putin.” So Zubok obliged with a big prediction probably penned before the domestic siege was resolved. Zubok wrote:

the Prigozhin affair has irreversibly changed the situation in Russia. … What is taking place in Russia right now bears less resemblance to the events of 1917 than to those of an earlier era: the so-called Time of Troubles, or Smuta, which lasted from 1604 to 1613. During this period, the Russian dynasty of the Rurikids came to a violent end, and it took a decade of war and civil upheaval before the Romanov dynasty consolidated monarchical authority. In the meantime, Russia almost ceased to exist as a sovereign entity—a fate that could befall Russia again today because Putin’s personalized autocratic rule has made it hard to imagine an orderly succession.

Zubok, “Russia’s New Time of Troubles: It’s Not 1917 in Moscow—It’s 1604,” Foreign Affairs (2023)

Zubok is a more honest historian than some I have highlighted this week in my post, The 30-hour Prigozhin Protest: insurrection, protest, psy-op or breakdown?. His book, Collapse is brilliant, complex, and full of insight into the real fall of a political order. However, I wonder how his commentary on Russian affairs is influenced by his status as a long term emigre from Russia, dependent on the American academic-intelligence complex. Still, he must have gulped when events did not follow the plan of the editorial line. At least he was honest enough to admit this flaw about 500 words into the article:

What had seemed to be a drama that might culminate in Putin’s demise suddenly looked more like a farce.

Zubok, “Russia’s New Time of Troubles” (2023)

Still he persisted despite the “uncertainty” of what was then certain fact, and presented the collapsing new buildings of the latest Western theory of Russian Collapse.

As it happens I know quite a lot about the Time of Troubles, and enough to see the faults in Zubok’s comparisons. You can listen to my podcast account of the history of this exceptional time in Episode 74, Russia’s First Civil War – The Time of Troubles and Two Murder Mysteries (November 2022.) The episode description is shown below.

In the early 1600’s Russia suffered a traumatic civil war, political instability and social chaos. This period is known as the Time of Troubles. It left a mark on Russian political institutions and historical culture. But most of all it featured remarkable characters – the self-made Tsar, Boris Godunov; his sister, the first female ruler of Russia, Irina Godunova; and, most enigmatically of all, the claimant to the throne, known to history as False Dmitri. This story can only be fully understood, however, by investigating two murder mysteries, both involving the sons of Ivan the Terrible.

In preparing this episode, I used Chester Dunning, Russia’s First Civil War: the Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty, and Mark B. Smith The Russia Anxiety, and how history can resolve it. They are brilliant books, do check them out.

Music – brief excerpts from Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov, Vienna Philharmonic

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