Westerners often consider Russia through the prism of the Soviet Union and the Second World War. But we must look further back if we wish to understand the modern nation’s fears, aims and motivations.
Russia almost didn’t survive the beginning of the 17th century. Convulsed by civil wars, peasant uprisings, foreign invasions, mass famine and repeated power struggles, it faced violence so apocalyptic that a special word was applied to embrace this blood-soaked anarchy: smuta [smoot-uh], usually translated as the ‘Time of Troubles’. It is the most terrifying word in the nation’s history, and yet today, far from just referring to one of the darkest chapters in Russia’s past, it plays a central role in the resurgence of 21st-century Russian nationalism.