In a lengthy article by a Finnish intelligence officer who spent much time in the former Soviet Union and Russia, we find that there are many layers in the latter country, and many answers to that question. It's a fascinating look at a nation that Winston Churchill once described as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma". Here's an excerpt.
We kind of have many layers of Russia. Different historical layers still influence the thinking of the Russians about how the Russians work today. If we start from that very first movement, that is, Slavic Russia. Language and entity and Russianness were born there. Also the belief that all Slavic people, as it were, are one was created there. And the Russian people, the largest of the Slavic peoples, have the duty of keeping them all in check and protecting them.
When we go further in history. With the fall of Constantinople, the traditions of Eastern Rome were transferred to Moscow. Moscow uses the term “Third and Eternal Rome” for itself. The Russians are, as it were, followers of the Eastern Roman tradition. Religion, conservatism, and the relationship to authority came from there. It means that one does not challenge authority. Authority is obtained from God. He who leads us has received authority from God to lead us. He is infallible. Authority will not be challenged under any circumstances. This idea comes from Byzantine Russia.
The third era that influenced Russian thought in a great manner is Mongol Russia. In the 1200s, the Mongols conquered Russia. They held Russia for years. That time was cruel. There are a lot of words in Russian, related to torture, taxation, and corruption that come from the Mongol language. Dominance under personal authority was rooted in the administrative culture of the Mongols. That is, there is only one khan that leads. It is he who leads, no one else. Others are passive followers. That one guy leads and takes responsibility and the initiative. When the belief of divine legitimacy to lead is attached to this, the leader will appear fairly tough in their worldview.
The corruption and cruelty also come from the Mongol era. During Mongol rule, the only ways to survive were lying, corruption, and violence. This still lives very deep in Russia’s strategic culture. When Mongol rule ended, the Mongols did not just pack their bags and disappear from Russia. Instead, they mixed with the locals. So the traditions also stayed with the people. In particular, to the leading caste. The Mongols who had previously ruled the country merged into the ruling layers, which is still visible today. When looking at genetic inheritance, they are pretty dark; dark eyes, for example. There are not many blondes in Russia.
Then came this era of turmoil. Although it was a short period of time, it had great importance to the Russians. Because then both external and internal enemies roared. The Poles who conquered Moscow and Russia did not have a strong leader. Romanov was then elected Tsar and the Russians realized that a strong leader was better than chaos.
In addition to all this, the authority comes from God and the autocrat is indeed a leader. It was stated there that only sovereignty will save Russia. It has been several hundred years in their genetic inheritance that autocracy is the only right solution. That is, autocracy is better than chaos and mayhem.
Then we came to European Russia. Peter the Great founded the city of St. Petersburg in the early 18th century on the Finnish swamp of the Neva estuary. After that, the Russians began to clash whether they were in the West or in the East. The Westernizers (Západniki) favored the West and the Slavophiles favored the East. This struggle is still going on.
Russia began to rise into a great power. As Russia modernized, they also started to mystify themselves. That is, Russia itself began to mystify itself through authors for example. They kind of built a smokescreen between us and them, consciously mystifying Russia.
Then came the great power of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. The power politics and the sphere of influence of Russia come from the Cold War era. World War II taught them that it is better to fight not in their own territory but on the territories of others. The Soviet Union lost more than 27 million people during World War II.
Authoritarian rule has followed Russian rule since the Mongol era. It hasn’t changed since then. The name of the leader has changed but authoritarian rule itself has always remained the same. Russia sees itself as the heir to the Soviet Union, as it is in some respects.
So these are the six layers of Russia.
There's much more at the link, going into detail about how those "layers" have translated into a uniquely Russian psyche and outlook on the rest of the world. The background it provides helps us to understand how the current situation in Ukraine became what it is, and what might develop there.
The article is fascinating reading. Highly recommended.