After a brief fling with democracy and post-9/11 solidarity with the United States, Russia seems to be slipping back onto more familiar ground. The present leadership has reinstated government-controlled mass media and de facto one-party rule, announced a new super bomb, inserted more spies into the U.S., and played bad cop with the Ukrainians in their recent election. Democratic and capitalistic reforms genuinely frighten many conservative Russians, who worry about losing their distinctive thousand-year-old culture. Indeed, both Americans and Russians have treasured and emphasized our differences so often that we have difficulty believing that we have anything in common. While enormous dissimilarities between us continue to strain our relations and cannot be dismissed, we do share a surprising number of common features in history, foreign relations, attitudes toward each other, and contemporary challenges. Reviewing a few of them provides grounds for dialogue that is sorely needed by both sides.
Mutual Viking Heritage
One of the first significant parallels is our common Viking heritage. Most Russians know the legend of how Slavic and Finnish tribes in a.d. 862 tired of their constant fighting and asked Varangians (Vikings) from a tribe known as Rus to govern them. In its early years, Russia was closely connected with Europe through the Hanseatic league, was prosperous, and was astonishingly democratic, having powerful town councils that could hire or fire the local princes. Tragically, Russia’s integration with western Europe and its fledgling democracy were brutally crushed by the thirteenth-century Mongol/Tatar invasion and has never fully recovered.
All Americans, even those not directly descended from Scandinavians, share in the Viking legacy. Vikings from Denmark began invading England late in the eighth century, occupied a large territory called the Danelaw in the ninth century, and by a.d. 1016 the Danish King Canute ruled all England. Americans should know that Normans under William the Conquerer invaded England from northern France in a.d. 1066. But most do not realize that these invaders included the descendants of Scandinavian Norsemen, who had invaded and settled northern France a century earlier, about the time that the Rus were settling into the Slavic heartlands. Like Russia, England was brought closer to the rest of Europe by these energetic warrior Vikings.
From this mix of Scandinavian, French, and Anglo-Saxon cultures eventually evolved the English Parliament, its limited monarchy, and constitutional democracy, which heavily influenced American political life. The Normans also significantly affected Americans’ language: English vocabulary is roughly 50 percent derived from French, which the Norman ruling class spoke.