Though I never believed the Soviet Union to be an unmitigated evil full of Commie robots ready to destroy all that we in the West stood for, it was impossible to grow up in the 1980s and not have a sense that Russia and Russians were weird. The world was getting smaller, but was still large enough for young people to believe that colliding worldviews and great power bombast would push Moscow to sacrifice millions of Russians in the service of the Motherland. TV and movies did nothing to diminish the mystery of the Russian people or their government, and even sitcoms or episodic dramas with defector storylines usually had the defector as a one-off, a free spirit, not like the rest of his/her troupe.
Of course, the old joke was that the only difference between Americans and Russians was that Russians weren’t fool enough to believe their own propaganda. Still, Russia seemed a little bit “off” to me as a child, and as it has moved fitfully from Communism to democracy to kleptocratic capitalism to whatever Putinism is, analysts are eager to resort to national stereotyping about “the Russian way” as if there is something in the Russian soul that makes it immune from the laws of history.
If “national character” as a substitute for knowledge thrives anywhere, it is in professional observers of Russia.
For game designers, the problem isn’t nearly so acute. There are basically two Russias that gamers are interested in, and both have common threads that be drawn on, partly because Russia itself has always embraced and rewritten national myths so readily.
There is Imperial Russia, the empire of the Tsars, especially in the 18th to early 19th century. A land of great size and resources is finally coming into its own as it modernizes, kicks butt and stands on the very frontier of civilized society. And then, there is Soviet Russia from WW2 to the Space Race; again rapidly modernizing, technocratic, a little scary and punching above its weight. These are the periods of Russian history that captivate the imagination because both are about increasing in power, facing down powerful invaders and Russia establishing itself as one of the central players in the world system.
Even though China is the nation we usually associate with large populations, in historical strategy games the Russians are equally often the ones you can count on to pump out hordes of units. In the first Europa Universalis, Russia paid less for its soldiers, so it could amass the large armies it would need to survive sieges in the bitter winters. Age of Empires 3 allowed the Russians to build settlers and infantry in larger groups for lower cost – their unique but craptastic Strelets were therefore great early game units for swarming, but would always lose a near even fight. Empires: Dawn of the Modern World gave Russia a big population cap bonus and a tech that let you churn out conscript infantry at a very rapid pace.
In short, Russia is the land of expendables. This is clearly a reference to the mass infantry tactics employed by an outgunned Soviet army early in World War 2, but is retrofitted to all Russian history. Armies are large, cheap and easily replaced. Empire: Total War captures this Russia almost perfectly; quality wise, Russia can take on the Turks and Poles. But Sweden, Germany and Austria have better men. The Motherland will rely on its ability to just keep the armies full. Every wargame about the Eastern Front in WW2 presents the same classic tactical problem of quantity trying to survive against quality. The Russian Nation has become the epitome “junk army”, with a few elite units to reflect specific strengths in horse (the Cossack) or armor.
Then there’s the winter, which is what I think about when I am facing Russia in a game. Though attrition seems more manageable in the later games in the series, I remember losing thousands of men to the blizzards of the Ukraine in Europa Universalis. Succeeding at War in the East is all about knowing when to stop moving so you are never too far from supplies when the storm hits. And Rise of Nations had the reverse Mongol power; enemy attrition was greater inside your territory, so if you could take out their supply wagons then you could destroy an army many times more powerful than your own. Fortunately, Cossack units made hitting the supply train a pretty safe gamble.
Russia itself, then, becomes a character as much as the Russians. It’s a great insult to call the land of Tolstoy and Shostakovich nothing but an endless wilderness of scattered outposts on the steppe, but that’s the impression you get from facing down Russia in a strategy game. Cities are too far apart, there are too many people around to cause you trouble and all the forests and river valleys pale beside the grand Belorussian plain that sucks you in and then devours you in January.
The combination of a harsh winter and the expendable troops play into the common idea of Russian fatalism, the idea that these are a people that have come to terms with the futility of life, where government and the land are never on your side. Having suffered much, they accept unreason and tyranny because life is cruel, and Russian history is full of these cruelties (and would visit these cruelties on neighbors and minorities within her borders). Remember that Russia was the only major absolutist power at the beginning of the 20th century, as if modernism and the Enlightenment had decided to just skip a hundred million people. So we have a history colored by the image of mass infantry charging inexorably across the snow into the muskets or machine guns of better equipped armies, and all in the service of The Motherland, a personification of Russia and Russians as something familial.
And like all families, it only really makes sense to people on the inside.
Russia is easy to stereotype, but even simplifying Russia doesn’t make the nation any more comprehensible.
Next up, the final nation in the original Civ list, the Zulu.