Streetwise Professor

July 7, 2018

No, Putin is Not a Genghis Wannabe Pinin’ for the Hordes. это Россия.

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 9:42 pm

The WSJ embarrasses itself with this silly Yarosov Trofimov “think piece”  titled “Russia’s Turn to Its Asian Past.”  I say “think piece” in quotes because that’s what it pretends to be, but there really isn’t a lot of thought in it.  It is a farrago of random quotes and facts about Russian history that actually betrays little actual knowledge of Russian history.

Trofimov’s basic thesis is that spurned by the West, Russia is increasingly looking east, and moreover, “some Russians” (how many, out of a population of ~140 million he doesn’t say) look favorably on the Golden Horde.  Indeed, the piece is illustrated with a drawing of Putin as Genghis Khan–and even though Trofimov didn’t choose the illustration, he did speak approvingly of it on Twitter.

Trofimov’s “evidence”?  Well, Putin laments Russia’s lost empire, for one thing.  This is hardly a new phenomenon: Gaidar wrote a book about a decade ago titled “Collapse of Empire” which starts out discussing the lost empire syndrome and how it has haunted Russian consciousness since 1991, and which argues that Russia won’t progress until it gets over that loss.  Gaidar noted that this was accompanied by widespread resentment of the West, and ambivalence–or worse–about where Russia fit in.

For another, “Now Russia is increasingly looking East, toward an uneasy alliance with an illiberal and much more powerful China, and—in recognition of the country’s increasingly Muslim makeup—with nations such as Turkey and Iran.”  This is just great power politics.  In what represents continuity, rather than change, a leadership that believes in multipolarity, rejects globalism, has a decidedly Westphalian worldview, and views the US as its primary rival is looking for like-minded allies, who happen not to be in the West.  Go figure.  This doesn’t make Putin a Genghis wannabe pinin’ for the Hordes.

Trofimov assembles quotes from assorted people who claim Russia is rejecting the West due to various slights, real and perceived.  Again, in a nation of 140+ million people, you can find people–even well-known ones–who can express all sorts of views.  Moreover, again, it’s a long way from saying that Russians generally think that they’ve been making a huge mistake for the past, oh, several centuries blaming Russia’s relative backwardness on the “Mongol (or Tatar) Yoke.”

Trofimov’s lack of seriousness is best illustrated by his treating seriously one person in particular–Aleksandr Dugin, whom Trofimov describes as “the leading voice of this Eurasianist movement in Russia today.”  OK: I dare you to name the second leading voice.  One would probably be very hard-pressed to do so, which indicates just how marginal this movement is.

Dugin is a fringe figure to whom Putin paid some attention years ago, but his fifteen minutes of fame is long over.  He is now basically an outcast, having been fired from Moscow State University in 2014 for saying “kill them all” when asked what should be done with Ukrainians.  Giving Dugin any credence would be akin to emphasizing the importance to American contemporary thought of some Neoconfederate who once was a professor until he was driven from the academy for his lunatic ravings.

And oh, it’s not like Eurasianism is a new thing.  The current strain is sometimes referred to as “Neo-Eurasianism”, to distinguish it from the earlier version that flourished for a time in the emigre community after the Revolution (of which Nikolai Trubetzkoy was probably the most well-known advocate).  There are differences, of course, but the key commonality is that Eurasianism old and new emphasize Russia’s apartness from the West, and attribute it largely to its unique geographic position.

Having seen Dugin portrayed as some Svengali-like figure to Putin by those who view the Russian president as a bogey man, I have learned that anyone who gives him any importance whatsoever is unlikely to have anything insightful, or even interesting, to say.

The most amusing piece of “evidence” Trofimov presents is “a small theme park reconstruction of Sarai Batu”, “the Horde’s razed 15th century capital.” Whatever!

The most annoying thing about Trofimov’s article is its utter lack of historical perspective.  He acts as if Russian ambivalence and hostility towards the West is a new thing.  As if Russian questioning of its relationship to the West is something that has developed in the second half of the Putin era.  As if it is a novelty for some parts of the Russian intelligentsia and political class to reject the West and insist that Russia carve out a distinct place in the world and develop its distinct–and superior–society.

Hardly.  It is in fact a very old thing, and represents a major theme in Russian history.  Trofimov says that what is happening now is “an attempt to undo the westernizing approach that has dominated the Russian state going back all the way to Czar Peter the Great, three centuries ago.”  In fact, there have been such attempts ever since, well, the time of Peter the Great (e.g., the Old Believers who rejected Peter’s changes to bring the Russian Orthodox Church’s rituals in line with those of the Greek).  The subsequent centuries have seen see-sawing debates between Slavophiles and Westernizers.  Virtually everything that Trofimov cites as indicating some great new reversal of Russia’s progressive arc to the West in fact has echoes in the writings of the Slavophiles in the mid-19th century, and in those of their successors over the years.  They have never gone away.

Indeed, a Russian much admired in the West for his stand against the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was essentially a Slavophile who was hardly a lover of the West.  Ironically, one of the criticisms leveled against Solzhenitsyn when he returned from exile in 1994 is that he had nothing new to say about Russia, but was merely recycling old Slavophile thinking:

WHEN Alexander Solzhenitsyn set foot on Moscow soil July 21 after 20 years of forced exile, the influential Russian literary journal, Novy Mir, was already preparing to publish his programmatic tract, “The Russian Question at the End of the 20th Century.”

The lengthy article, which examines Russian history since the 17th century and sums up the writer’s historio-philosophical views, is “as significant as his celebrated 1990 essay ‘How to Rebuild Russia,’ ” Novy Mir editor Sergei Zalygin excitedly told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

But what new ideas does Mr. Solzhenitsyn truly bring to his Russian brethren? Surprisingly few. In fact, the man acclaimed as Russia’s greatest living writer presents almost nothing that hasn’t been heard before, either from him or the host of Russian nationalist Slavophiles dating back to the 19th century. Indeed, the 40-page essay is permeated with familiar principles such as “healthy isolationism,” antidemocratism, nationalism, and xenophobia.

Thus, to the extent that there are anti-Western intellectual currents in Russia, and that some in Russia (particularly among the intelligentsia) are advocating Russia turn its back on the West, this represents historical continuity, rather than discontinuity.

And it is particularly important to emphasize that this is now, and has always been, much more of a parlor game for intellectuals than something that has affected Russian government, policy, or statecraft.  Indeed, if anything–now and in the past–the direction of causation has been from international setbacks to intellectual ferment, than it has been from intellectuals’ ideas to Russian policy, whether under tsars, commissars, or presidents.

Trofimov actually acknowledges this, but then throws it aside:

It’s not clear to what extent the Kremlin believes its own propaganda. While resentment over Russia’s diminished stature is a key motivator of Mr. Putin’s behavior, so far Russia’s decision-making has been driven largely by opportunism rather than by a grandiose civilizational shift. “I don’t think Putin is thinking in terms of historical mythologies,” said Mr. Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council. “I don’t think he needs an ideological grounding for his policies.”

Actually, it’s quite clear: it doesn’t believe it at all.

In sum, all this chin pulling over “who lost Russia?” or “is Putin a new Stalin/Genghis?” is vapid.  It is an offshoot of the End of History fantasies that accompanied the end of the Cold War, and which posited that the entire world would converge to the liberal Western model, particularly that epitomized by the US.  The competing Clash of Civilizations view made much more sense at the time and has certainly stood the test of events much better.  No one lost Russia because Russia was never the West’s to lose.  It has always been a self-consciously distinct civilization that has constantly struggled to define its relationship to the West.  The current intellectual debates within Russia, and the nature of Russian policy towards the West and the rest of the world, are continuations, not departures.  History rhyming, as it were.

The current obsession with Putin in the West obscures that fundamental fact.  Putin could get killed by a falling house tomorrow and very little would change.  It wouldn’t be like the death of the Wicked Witch of the East leading to the liberation of the Munchkins. Russia would be Russia.  The changes in Russian policy and mindset would be superficial, at best.  Russia would continue its centuries-long attractive-repulsive relationship with the West.  Russia would continue to have strong authoritarian tendencies and an abiding suspicion of its neighbors.

Unfortunately, the Trofimov piece, like so many others, completely lacks this historical context, and leaves one with the impression that what is happening now in Russia is something extraordinary.  It’s not: it’s very ordinary, in the Russian scheme of things.  But by giving the opposite impression, articles like this create false perceptions about current events, and false expectations about how things may change in the future, or how American or European policies could materially impact how things evolve.

There’s an old expression: это Россия.  That’s Russia.  Often said with a shrug, indicating resignation about things that have always been so, and are unlikely to change.  Yaroslav Trofimov hasn’t identified something new.  He’s basically described something quite old: это Россия.  Would more people understand that was the case.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. There is a more insightful old expression about Russia:

    – Как там в России?
    – Воруют…

    This is what defines the Russian “civilization” from a to z. The whole pro-Western v. Eurasian guff is a rather trivial disagreement over the appropriate portion of the loot to be spent in Paris (more recently, London/Miami).

    Solzhenitsyn’s grand idea in “How to Rebuild Russia” was “steal from Ukrainians/Kazakhs/…” – same as Lenin’s who he ostensibly disagreed with. And same as Putin’s, who otherwise could not give a fuck about both. It’s not ideological, it’s existential.

    The Western civilization is defined by freedom to earn, it must largely suppress theft to maintain its homeostasis and is doomed if it fails to do so.

    The Russian anticivilization is defined by freedom to steal, it must largely suppress any opposition to theft and is doomed if it fails to do so.

    Comment by Ivan — July 8, 2018 @ 3:32 am

  2. Trofimov was taking rather a risk writing that piece for the WSJ. Americans are famous for their mastery of history, geography, and the nuances of foreign cultures. How could he have hoped to pull the wool over their eyes?

    Comment by dearieme — July 8, 2018 @ 7:26 am

  3. Europhile / Slavophile was a defining theme of nineteenth century Russia. Not just Turgenev v Tolstoy, but also in music.
    I know very little about early Russia, but at the time when Russia adopted Christianity Islam was already on offer. So the ambivalence towards Europe and Asia can be said to be millenial.

    Comment by poolsider — July 8, 2018 @ 10:38 am

  4. I believe it was Robert K. Massie’s book “Peter the Great” where it said that despite his reach to the West, those Germans, Dutch, etc. that came to Russia to help build ships and provide western influence were cordoned off from Russian society. Russians were largely forbidden to socialize with them lest they become contaminated by them. (and not in the medical sense). No this is not new. The Soviet Union was a modern manifestation of this by not letting citizens travel outside the country. Today, they still require visas to visit and require you to register everywhere you go. They’re unable to keep their mitts,off Ukraine so that they can add to their buffer to shield them from the outside. On and on it goes.

    Let’s face it, in historical terms, they have existed so far away geographically from the rest of Europe, that it was inevitable that they would formulate their own path. We have to deal with these differences no matter how stupid they look from our side. I don’t know whether they’ll keep pushing themselves away or not, but it is very plausible. It is sad, but it can’t be seen as shocking or a failure on our part. Nobody lost them, it’s just history marching on.

    Comment by Howard Roark — July 9, 2018 @ 7:43 am

  5. “Putin could get killed by a falling house tomorrow”

    As the Prof has noted before, what replaces him could be far more destabilising. Granted, his replacement might also be fantastic, but it’s not a risk that I, personally, would be looking forward to. From the results of the last vote, it seems that neither are the Russians…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — July 10, 2018 @ 3:15 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress