Streetwise Professor

October 18, 2008

Russian Interlude

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:04 pm

I take a break from clearing blogging to discuss Russia for a moment. Nothing original. Instead, I will merely be Charlie McCarthy and James H. Billington will play Edgar Bergen, as we recite an excerpt from The Icon and the Axe, Billington’s magisterial history of Russian culture. (Billington is now Librarian of Congress.) Although Billington is writing of Muscovy, and its initial contact with the West in the 15th and 16th centuries, much of what he says is very apropos to today.

Few problems have disturbed Russians more than the nature of their relationship with the West. Concern about this question did not begin either in the salons of the imperial period or in the mists of Slavic antiquity, but in Muscovy from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century. This account will attempt to suggest both that there was an over-all psychological significance for Muscovy in the rediscovery of the West in the early modern period, and that there were a number of different “Wests” with which important contact was successively established. A consideration of how the west came to Russia may throw some light not only on Russian but on general European history.

The general psychological problem posed by confrontation with the west was in many ways more important than any particular political or economic problem. It was rather like the trauma of adolescence. Muscovy had become a kind of raw youth: too big to remain in childhood surroundings yet unable to adjust to the complex world outside. Propelled by the very momentum of growth, Muscovy suddenly found itself thrust into a world it was not equipped to understand. Western Europe in the fifteenth century was far more aggressive and articulate than it had been in Kievan times, and Russia far more self-conscious and provincial. The Muscovite reaction of irritability and self-assertion was in many ways that of a typical adolescent; the Western attitude of patronizing contempt, that of the unsympathetic adult. Unable to gain understanding either from others or from its own resources, Muscovy prolonged its sullen adolescence for more than a century. The conflicts that convulsed Russia throughout the seventeenth century were part of an awkward, compulsive search for identity in an essentially European world. The Russian response to the inescapable challenge of Western Europe was split–almost schizophrenic–and this division has to some extent lasted down to the present.

Although many of the historical particulars are certainly different (Russia and the West have been in close contact since the 15th century; Europe is no longer aggressive, to name two), as Billington notes there are clear parallels between Muscovite attitudes then and now. (Stephen Blank, a UC trained historian of Russia now at the Army War College also draws parallels between Muscovy and Putin’s Russia.)

In particular, there is a psychological dimension that is more pronounced in Russia and its relations with others than is the case with most other nations I can think of. Although Russia has certainly progressed past adolescence (and, at least demographically, is well on its way to senescence), there is still today a palpable “awkward, compulsive search for identity in an essentially European world” and a schizophrenia in its reaction to the outside world. Russians, collectively, and many individually, cannot make up their minds whether they want to be Europeans or not; insiders or outsiders. The dominant tendency veers back and forth, erratically, driven by events.

There are obviously many differences between Russia and “The Wests” (plural, as Billington has it). The biggest, most enduring asymmetry, however, is that whereas Russia is always defining itself in reference to the West, the West never defines itself in reference to Russia. Europeans (and Americans) never ask if they want to be like Russians or something different. Russians often ask whether they want to be Europeans, or something different. To the West, Russia is a reality; it exists; it must be dealt with, some times more than others. But it is almost never (with the exception, perhaps, of short periods in the 20s and 30s) a role model to be emulated or rejected. Western identity is relatively secure, and its insecurities are its own. Russian identity seems more fluid, more in flux; engaged in an ongoing wrestling match between external attractions and deeply rooted cultural traditions. This contributes to a “irritability and self-assertion” as plainly evident today as during Muscovite times.

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  1. So you’ve discovered a strand of the Slavophile/Eurasianist vs Westernizing debate.

    Comment by Da Russophile — October 18, 2008 @ 11:11 pm

  2. What he’s discovered is something the Russians have yet to accept after 1,000 years of history — that they have no identity, and are recycling through the errors of the failed past ad infinitum and ad nauseam until the national collapse occurs, as it has already done at least four times in the last century alone.

    And he’s also unearthed Russophile fools like you, who seek to rationalize Russian failure rather than reform it. In doing so, you expose the fact that, as always, Russia’s worst enemies are its so-called “friends” — the prime reason why the nation wallows in failure like a hog in the mud.

    Comment by La Russophobe — October 19, 2008 @ 7:52 am

  3. No, I discovered it some time ago. Indeed, in my Russophobia post and what followed I discussed it at some length. One reason that I am somewhat surprised that ardent Russophiles objected to my analysis in that piece is that those with Slavophile or Eurasianist tendencies should actually agree with the essence of my analysis that Russia is a distinct culture, and a distinct polity, and that anti-liberalism and authoritarianism/autocracy are features, not bugs. Dugin and I could probably get along quite famously, as we both would understand that he completely rejects my values and premises, and I his, and what’s more, we would be quite comfortable being adversarial. Or put differently, he would agree with me that there are fundamental differences between Russia and the US, or Europe, and add a hearty “and thank God for that!”

    Things get bizarre when people (not naming names here;-) endeavor to defend Putin and the current trajectory of Russian politics on basically Western terms. One can defend Putin/Putinism quite readily on the basis of “Muscovite ideology” (as Billington calls it.) It requires pretzel logic to defend him/it on Westernizer grounds (especially post-2003.)

    I have also mentioned Eurasianism more than once–I think I’ve been more aware of Eurasianism in its old (e.g., Trubetskoy) and new (e.g., Dugin) incarnations than most non-specialists.

    I quote Billington at length primarily because he states the point rather well, and upon reading it some nights ago it struck me as to how well it applies to much of what I read coming out of Russia today. Even though that the Slavophile-Westernizer debate is well known to those at least moderately cognizant of Russian history, what is important is that the debate is not a historical curiosity from the 1840s, but is relevant today. And indeed, it is important to recognize that Slavophile descendants have the upper hand. I think that’s indisputable, and it is also relevant in understanding Russia, its current political trajectory, and how to deal with it going forward. It’s less of a value judgment, and more of a fact, the implications of which need to be understood to make sense of Russia, engage it in conversation and diplomacy, and craft a strategy for interacting with it in the years to come.

    Finally, the very fact that there is/was a Slavophile-Westernizer debate is the most evidence in favor of the basic point of the post: namely, the great asymmetry between the West and Russia is that Russia’s identity is defined either in opposition to or sympathy with the West, whereas the West’s identity is defined completely independently of Russia. I think that asymmetry is a fact, and is essential to understanding the dynamics of the interaction between the West and Russia.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 19, 2008 @ 9:20 am

  4. The citation provided is interesting, but one must look at the bigger global picture. One of the marking events in European history was the expansion of Western Europe outwards. As the Portuguese were pushing down the African continent and from there to Asia in the 15th century, Spain’s Christopher Columbus would sail westwards all the way to the Americas. Spain would be enriched by the creation of an Empire in the Americas wherby tons of gold and silver would be shipped over the centuries from Central and South America to Europe. Other European states would push outwards to establish their own colonies, looking for gold, silver and a trade route to China.

    How did Muscovy respond to Western Europe’s growing prosperity in the 16th century? Central to Russian history IMHO is the conquest of the Khanate of Sibir in the 1580’s. Once Sibir was conquered, Muscovy rapidly pushed Eastwards driven by the fur trade. Muscovy conquered what is now Siberia and the Russian Far East to ensure a supply of sable furs that provided a valued trading commodity that could be sold to Western Europe. In its quest, the Russian forces crushed the indigenous population, forcing them to hunt and trap the sable to satisfy the needs of greedy government representatives and traders. When one region was exhausted of its sable furs, Muscovy pushed eastwards to find new sources of fur to satisfy its need for this raw material that was filling the coffers of Moscow with money from the Western kingdoms and principalities.

    What is interesting to note is that the push for reform usually came when Russia came to understand that it was falling behind economically and that this would hurt its imperial and military standing. Peter’s reforms came after he understood that Russia would be threatened if it could not catch up militarily. One of his greatest achievements: founding the Russian Navy. Likewise, by the end of the 19th century, it was clear that Russia was falling behind because of the slow pace of its industrialization. Modernization was necessary to keep up with the West. Agrarian Russia had become the sole superpower with the defeat of Napoleon at the dawn of the 19th century, but it could not even defeat the rising power of Japan by the start of the 20th century. This obsession would push the Soviet State under Stalin to industrialize, no matter the cost to the population.

    The Russian model of development was built upon exploiting the resources of the margins of the Empire to pay for the needs of the center. Reform was generally instituted only when the center felt threatened and understood that if it did not reform, its military standing would be threatened. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

    Comment by Michel — October 19, 2008 @ 11:28 am

  5. Michel–I agree with your analysis. I don’t–and didn’t–consider the Billington analysis the alpha and omega. It just struck me upon reading it that many of the characteristics that I had noticed about current Russian attitudes and outlooks are quite similar to those Billington attributes to Muscovy.

    Material, economic, military, political and geopolitical factors certainly have been important in affecting Russian relations with the West. In particular, I believe that military factors have played a major role in shaping the political evolutions of not just Russia, but Europe as well. Ironically, my paper in the Russian Civ class at Chicago that I took from the great Russian scholar/scholar of Russia Arcadius Kahan was about the decisive role of military imperatives in shaping Petrine “reforms.”

    In brief, since I have begun to pay close attention to Russia again in recent years, I have often been struck at the love/hate-attraction/repulsion aspects of Russian attitudes towards the West, and (to use that word again) the asymmetry between the one has in shaping the identity of the other. It was just interesting to see a renowned scholar claiming that these things date from the very beginnings of the relationship between the Renaissance West and Russia. Given its enduring nature, it is something that must be considered when thinking about the relationship going forward.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 19, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

  6. I did say “a strand” of the debate, not the debate itself (I am aware of you posting about it in previous posts). Although in retrospect I probably shouldn’t have posted then since I was short on time and didn’t want to write anything lengthy. 🙂

    In my opinion to some extent all civilizations, especially after the Industrial Revolution, have been forced to define themselves in relation to the West. This is because of Western military, economic and cultural primacy. This is the crux of the modernization vs Westernization debate (whether modernization should occur within a civilization’s initial cultural parameters or whether it should be accompanied by imitation of Western political and social forms). Cultural flows since 1500 have been mostly one way between the West and all the rest and Russia in not an exception.

    The specific Russian debate is just a subset of this, but also probably the oldest (since Muscovite civilization was the first to come into contact with the new West) and most acute (as Huntington remarked, the fact that Orthodox civilization is the closest to the Western (i.e. more so than China, India, Dar al-Islam, etc) means that it has typically veered between a fragile, defensive independence and between veering towards the West, and as such has produced the greatest passions).

    Putin is firmly in the Westernizing camp. He tries to steer Russia into Western organizations and the main obstacle has been actually Western rebuffs, which have resulted in greater tendencies towards Eurasianism. Nonetheless they have been much more style than substance, meant to satiate domestic radical elements. Russia is far more interconnected into Western institutions that it was even 10 years ago, and the continued courting of countries like Germany, Italy and France speaks more of a rational desire to benefit economically, with modernization, security, etc, but within an equal partnership – instead of the subordination expected of it by Washington (and this of course also questions whether yours, and mine, usage of the extremely wide term “West”, which implies a monolithic structure to it, is justified – and which we spent a lot of time discussing in the Russophobia posts). The restoration of a strong state under Putin (and I use that term loosely, because as you probably know I don’t consider it properly authoritarian) is not incompatible with modernization, as the Petrine modernization model illustrates.

    Comment by Da Russophile — October 19, 2008 @ 6:03 pm

  7. When it comes to Russian culture, the Western roots go quite deep. Let’s take the case of Russia’s “national” poet. His first spoken language was French: parents of the Russian elite at that time wanted their children to learn languages such as French and English. In Pushkin’s case, that language was French. Pushkin’s love of the French language and culture was such that he was nicknamed “Француз” or “Frenchman” in school. His poetry was influenced to a greater degree by French and English poetry from this period than Russian nationalists would ever care to admit. The desire to emulate European culture shaped not only the political and economic elite, but the cultural elite as well.

    And, let us not forget the influence of the West on the early Communists. Marx and Engels were of course from Germany and Lenin spent much time in exile in Europe prior to the Revolution. The early Soviet were much like the intelligentsia of the early 19th century: though they decried Western Bourgeoisie, they strived to imitate the best of Western culture. If anything, the Soviets tried to be more Western than the West.

    One fascinating element of this sense of cultural/political inferiority is the constant need to be “great.” Yuri Stoyanov has a fascinating opinion piece in Argumenty i Fakty. He questions the Russian trait of living in the past or the future, while ignoring the present. He writes in comparing the Russian mentality with that of Finland: “Мы опираемся либо на своё славное прошлое, либо надеемся на какое-то удивительное будущее. У финнов нет Гагарина, Суворова, Чайковского. Один Сибелиус, больше никого не могу вспомнить. Но они живут сегодняшним днём. Их национальная идея – пусть будет хорошо сегодня, современному человеку. Потому что жизнь одна, и она очень короткая. А если всё время опираться на великое прошлое и только мечтать о счастливом будущем, то можно пропустить настоящее.”

    Rough translation: “We live either in our glorious past or look forward to some amazing future. The Finns do not have Gagarin, Suvorov, Tchaikovsky. One Sibelius, more than anyone can remember. But they live today. Their national idea: let today be a good day for the contemporary people, because we only have one life to live, and it is very short. If you are always focused on a great past and only dream about a happy future, you can overlook the present.”

    Russian politicians want Russians to focus on the future: it is easy to have the population forget about the present, when you promise them a wonderful future at some near, but always distant, future.

    Comment by Michel — October 19, 2008 @ 7:55 pm

  8. Well, I find Stoyanov’s statement rather interesting because it feels more like it was written in the Communist era than today. I actually live in Russia, and among people I know (mostly Muscovite middle class) the whole focus is indeed “living for today,” as the Finns supposedly do. The glorious past and future are mostly playthings for certain intellectuals and politicians.

    Bear in mind Russia suffered two complete systemic collapses in the last century. Each collapse left the foundations of the old system totally discredited. What’s left is pragmatism, the striving for success and the good life. This is especially noticeable when one is talking to young people.

    And just a sidenote on Pushkin:

    “His poetry was influenced to a greater degree by French and English poetry from this period than Russian nationalists would ever care to admit.”

    I don’t know about “Russian nationalists” particularly, but every respectable Russian literary critic knows this. There was not much high-quality secular Russian literature to be influenced by in Pushkin’s time, so naturally his models were mostly French and English.

    Comment by Tristan da Cunha — October 20, 2008 @ 2:05 am

  9. Well, the Muscovite middle class (defined as anybody earning over $500 per month by the Russian state) represents 30-40% of the population and a much smaller proportion of the total Russian population. The others have seen things improving somewhat, but they still far from prosperous. Don’t forget that the disparities between Moscow and the rest of Russia can be quite stark. Some regions have done much better than others (mainly the larger regional capitals and oil producing regions), and even within prosperous regions there is great disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

    I still see this propensity for the “светлого будушего” in the pronouncements made by Putin and now Medvedev. I have noticed that the year 2020 has assumed almost magical properties. In that year, Russia will be a leader in nanotechnology, 60% and more of the population will be in the middle class, Russia will be in the top five, nay top two, leading economies, etc… The year 2020 is close enough to be within reach, yet far enough to explain why Russia still has much to do before then, and of course under the guidance of the right leadership. I would argue that the year 2020 plays the same role in contemporary Russian political life as Communism did in the Soviet Union. True Communism was always promised, but always just a bit beyond reach to Soviet citizens.

    As for Pushkin, I agree that literary critics may be more knowledgeable of the “real” history of Pushkin, but there is also the myth of Pushkin that was (and is) cultivated in Russia. Izvestia has two interesting articles on this: “Миф побеждает Пушкина” (source: and “Гений и Безруков – две вещи несовместные?” (source: The second film is critical of a film that was made about the life and death of Pushkin and will presumably be used in schools. The author Yuri Gladilshchikov writes:

    “Вышел фильм Натальи Бондарчук “Пушкин. Последняя дуэль”. Его уже показали правительству – того гляди, при наших прогрессивных тенденциях назначат обязательным для просмотра в школах. Между тем, это чистой воды идеологическая провокация. Хотите устраивать провокации? Ради бога! Но зачем же брать при этом в приспешники величайшего русского гения и спекулировать на великой национальной трагедии?”

    I will have to watch this film and see how the life of Pushkin is presented. Especially since the film according to Gladilshchikov presents foreigners as a threat that wanted to kill Russia’s premier genius. He writes: “Гадостность фильма Натальи Бондарчук, однако, в том, что Пушкин погибает в нем в результате продуманного заговора иностранцев — против России и лучших русских умов. Что Пушкин предстает в нем примитивным патриотом в духе подзабытой “Памяти” — он и правда был патриотом, но не глупым. Что фильм о гибели Пушкина сделан с целью породить очередную волну ксенофобии и антизападничества.”

    I definitely have to watch this film.

    Comment by Michel — October 20, 2008 @ 9:11 am

  10. “I would argue that the year 2020 plays the same role in contemporary Russian political life as Communism did in the Soviet Union. True Communism was always promised, but always just a bit beyond reach to Soviet citizens.”

    I have to dispute this. There may be a superficial similarity, but it’s like comparing a canoe with a battleship. Every Soviet citizen who didn’t live in a cave knew that Communism was the goal of society (whether they agreed with it or not) because the government screamed this fact at them in 100 different ways from birth to death, and society was mobilized to that end. The various pronouncements about “2020” don’t even come close in their social ubiquity or ideological certitude. And they can be safely ignored, laughed at, or disagreed with.

    Thanks for the info on the Pushkin film. I wonder if this is the same Natalia Bondarchuk who was so good in Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” back in 1972?

    Comment by Tristan da Cunha — October 20, 2008 @ 10:35 am

  11. Well, we can agree to disagree on the 2020. I have talked to many Russians who firmly believe in the pronouncements of the Kremlin and they believe what the television tells them that there is not crisis and that Russia is exempt from the problems sweeping from the rest of the world.

    Comment by Michel — October 20, 2008 @ 11:16 am

  12. 1. Keep it up guys. I’m enjoying following along.
    2. I think that there is no necessary inconsistency between Tristan and Michel re living in the past/future/present. The apolitical orientation of many (and arguably most) Russians is well known (and may be a feature from the perspective of the government). The word “apathy” is commonly used in this context. (Several Russian friends have lamented this apathy in conversations/correspondence with me.) They are focused on the present and their material circumstances, rather than on political matters. This is consistent with Tristan’s observation. In contrast, Michel’s comments are relate primarily to the political/social attitudes of the politically active, and, arguably, of most Russians on those occasions when they shake loose from their apathy and express their political views. The Russo-Georgian War, for instance, most of the “man on the street” reporting captured views quite in line with what Michel/Stoyanov described. The public pronouncements of various officials are also in line with Stoyanov’s characterization. For those of us in the US, or elsewhere outside Russia, these views are probably disproportionately represented because they are what is reported in the news. They are also particularly relevant in trying to divine the future course of Russian policy b/c they reflect the views of the politically active populace which will disproportionately impact the course of this policy.
    3. The “presentism” and materialism that Tristan cites is also consistent with the high rate of personal consumption/low rate of personal savings I remarked on in an earlier exchange with DR.
    4. So, tho not wanting to sound like a middle child;-) (which I’m not), I agree with both of you.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 20, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  13. As they say in the United States, it is always a question of the “base.” As is the case when Palin does her “golly-shuck I love my six-pack Joe’s” routine, I can picture many of my educated friends in the United States rolling their eyes, she does not really care about the un-American city folk of Manhattan, but rather is speaking to the Republican base. The same is true for Russia: Putin and other Russian politicians address different clienteles with their speeches. Putin is addressing the Russian “Ivan” or “Sveta” that pines for the good-old Soviet Union and blames the United States for their downfall. Reminds me of a conversation whereby, I was accused of bringing down the Soviet Union (did not matter that I was Canadian and quite young when the Soviet Union fell :)) When Putin and Medvedev talk about the coming greatness of Russia (i.e. what Russia will be in 2020), he is not addressing the cynical Muscovite, but rather the older Russian, who is not middle-class and felt that his or her standard of living fell with the Soviet Union and did not recover.

    Comment by Michel — October 20, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

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