Over the past few weeks surrounding the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, some former Soviet satellites raised a big stink demanding an apology from Russia for the "occupation" after WWII. Russia should really apologize for one mistake. They shouldn’t have extended an invitation to the likes of Latvia and Estonia in the first place. What’s the point of having these little Nazi stooges at the Moscow parade anyway?
Russian officials engaged in rather tortuous and silly rhetoric denying the "occupation." Frankly, it’s a pointless argument. If you’re a small, piddling principality in the vicinity of big serious powers, you get stomped, period. You can call it "occupation," "domination," "vassalage." It does not change things much. You’re just a freaking doormat. You’re told what to do, and are obliged to lick the big boots that rule over you.
They say there is no greater fury than a woman scorned. There is a corollary to this statement, based on the same logic of a weaker party. There is no greater hatred than a little vassal country which spits on its former master whose power has waned. This hatred’s flip-side is an even greater zeal with which they proceed to grovel and lick the boots of their new masters. It has happened so many times in history and, no doubt, will continue.
There is one memorable line from an otherwise forgettable Stallone movie Cliffhanger, when the hero, his back to the wall, provokes the bad guy: "In a minute I may be dead, but you’ll always be an asshole." Russia may be down or out—proven by history to be a rather temporary condition—but you’ll always be small, utterly insignificant ass-lickers, extending wet and willing tongues before your masters, whoever they may be.
Yes, building a large empire often required a lot of blood. But pipsqueak nations are no less bloodthirsty—just small, with a limited capability. When they have their chance for rape and pillage, they usually jump at it with greater zeal than bigger predators, who can often afford to be more lazy and forgiving.
In many countries the locals collaborated in the Nazi racial "purification" policy. But only in Latvia and Estonia did they exterminate nearly all their Jews and other minorities even before Nazis set up their administrations in 1941—and with the most gleeful enthusiasm they bragged to their German masters how efficiently they solved the "Jewish question." For many of them it was their proudest moment in history—that Nazis regarded them as the second-grade suckers, to be subjugated, unlike others, of the third-grade stock, to be exterminated completely.
Let’s review how and why some countries become great, some—just big, and others—neither big nor great. There is a lot of silly bullshit in this respect. Some think it is usually a matter of geography, like when a country occupies a separate island, or is bounded by rivers and mountain ranges. This is certainly wrong. A great nation can begin with a small island, but it would outgrow small confines if it has a will to do so. Ancient Greece—one of the greatest civilizations in history—began with just a motley collection of rocky islands and mountain valleys. You’d never guess looking at today’s Brit brats, but they used to be genuinely great country in the 19th century. And the most remarkable example, Venice, had its core territory a small swampy island, which Romans ignored completely in all their 1000-year history. And yet it had been a truly great, magnificent empire for a time, in the late 15th-early 16th century.
Basically, some countries remain small, pathetic nobodies for the same reason some soccer teams are stuck in a third league, while others compete in the premier league championship. Can you spell l-o-s-e-r? Surely, even if you’re in the third league, there will be some passionate fans around your village, getting drunk toasting your little victories and declaring your team the greatest thing on Earth. Occasionally even a glamorous big city magazine will mention your team, tickling your little engorged ego. But, damn… this is still a third echelon, and many spend their entire lives there.
History is a long affair. Over time, some people simply exhibit more drive and enterprising than others. Some decide to wake up earlier, explore new horizons, discover new lands, and fight for new possessions. Others decide to stay home and brag about how their beer is so much better than in the neighboring village. And even while in conquest, after a spell of pillage and slaughter, some decide to stay and commit to a long-term development of conquered lands. Others just steal some trophies, rape some local maidens, and hurry back to their villages, bragging about their exploits.
For example, Lithuania had its moment of greatness, back in 15th century. It was far larger in size than Russia at the time. Up to the middle of 17th century Russians had to defend themselves from Lithuanian and Polish incursions more often than attack these lands. In the 17th century the whole huge territory comprising today’s Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia was still up for grabs. There weren’t sharp ethnic or religious boundaries. These lands switched sides and passed from one hand to another many times. Why was it that Russia eventually became the biggest Eurasian power ever, and Lithuania (and Poland) ended up in a damp little corner of the Baltic Sea? In short—over a period of time Russian conquerors proved a little less corrupt, a little more tolerant and inclusive, a little more amenable to the long-term development of the occupied territories than the "democratic" thieving plutocracy of Polish magnates and stupid pretensions of its squabbling petty aristocracy, the szlachta.
When Ukraine was under Lithuanian and Polish control, the latter could not care less that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were captured and sold into brutal slavery in the Ottoman-allied Crimea, the biggest slave market still existing in Europe in the 18th century. In fact, Poles and Lithuanians were more likely to team up with Crimean Khans to raid Russian lands. Russia, in contrast to that, starting with Peter the Great, got serious about fighting slave-mongering khans, and kicked their asses for good. No wonder Ukraine ended up allied with Russia, and today (the Orange revolution notwithstanding) is incomparably closer to Russia in a cultural sense than to Poland or Lithuania.
Lithuania and Poland at least had their passing moments of greatness. Ever heard of a Great Latvia or Great Estonia? They were always just village hicks ruled by German barons, and later by Russians. The most famous Estonian (albeit ethnic German) I can think of, before the 20th century at least, was Fabian von Bellinghausen, the discoverer of Antarctica in 1820 as a co-commander of a Russian expedition. Had Estonia been a small independent country back then, his biggest expedition would probably have been to Stockholm, where he would have just bragged about how much cheaper beer was in Tallinn. And when they actually became independent and sailed to Stockholm, they mismanaged it so badly that their ship "Estonia" sank in 1994 with some nine hundred passengers, making it the biggest peace-time disaster in the open sea since the Titanic.
So you guys from that little corner of the Baltic, maybe you should have your own parade, proudly displaying your long wet tongues, so skilled in licking the boots of your masters. If history is any indication, you’ll need those skills for a long time to come.