Away From Europe!
People draw hearts with their mobile phones in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021. Photo: Pavel Golovkin/AP/TT

Away From Europe!

There’s no denying that the European Union--Russia relationship is at its nadir. Moscow has recently threatened to sever all ties with the European bloc, while its foreign minister deemed it proper to underscore his country’s resolve by quoting the famous Latin adage “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (if you want peace, prepare for war). Naturally, all eyes are on the political and economic implications of the deep rift between Moscow and Brussels. Less noticed are the ideational aspects of the Kremlin’s international conduct -- ones that involve Russian political imaginary and reflect deep-seated historical patterns, writes historian Igor Torbakov.

Publicerad: 2021-02-25

“A thick cloud lies / O’er the distant West, land of holy miracles.” 
Alexei Khomiakov (1835) 

Ever since Russia’s Crimea gambit and Eastern Ukraine debacle, a dramatic shift in Moscow elites’ political imagination and symbolic geography has been taking place. At the heart of this shift is Russia’s increasing mental distancing from Europe. No official paper better captures a sea change in the Kremlin’s attitude than the documents prepared in the process of drafting Russia’s new concept of cultural policy in 2014. “Russia should be viewed as a unique and distinct civilization that cannot be reduced to either the West (Europe) or the East,” the authors of the blueprint wrote. Then they bluntly added: “A short formulation of this position is the thesis: Russia is not Europe, confirmed by the entire history of the country and the people.”  

To be sure, over the last three or four centuries, perceptions of Europe in Russia (and of Russia in Europe) as well as interpretations of the nature of the relationship between the two have been in a state of flux because in essence “Europe” and “Russia” are social constructs that were understood differently in different historical periods and in different contexts. One of the most remarkable acts of the Russian social construction of Europe occurred in the early 18th century. During the Petrine era, Russia’s court geographers and historians were instrumental in remapping Europe’s frontiers and making the Urals a widely accepted eastern boundary of Europe, thus firmly grounding the bulk of the Russian Empire’s western territories within the Old Continent. This exercise in mental mapping served as a symbolic foundation for Peter the Great’s and Catherine the Great’s Europeanizing policies, with Catherine proudly declaring, in 1767, in her celebrated Nakaz, that “Russia is a European state.”  

Over the course of the next two centuries there was of course a good deal of zigging and zagging on the thorny issue of Russian “Europeanness,” but by the time the Soviet Union was nearing its end, the Kremlin appeared to embrace Catherine’s formula. In the late 1980s, one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s pet topics was a “common European home,” Boris Yeltsin talked of the need to “rejoin European civilization,” and as late as 2005, in his “state of the nation” address, Vladimir Putin contended that Russia is “a major European power,” which for the past three centuries has been evolving and transforming itself “hand in hand” and “together with other European nations.” 

Frosty relation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell leave a joint news conference following their talks in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP/TT

These days, however, the Kremlin leadership contends that Russia constitutes a self-sustained civilization distinct from the European one. Now Moscow’s leading political thinkers argue that Russia needs to detach itself from Europe and liberate itself from any Eurocentric outlook. “The ‘decline’ of Europe has been talked about for a century. Now the situation appears to have [truly] reached a critical stage,” argues Sergei Karaganov, Dean of the Faculty of Global Politics and Economics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Writing in the current issue of Rossiia v globalnoi politike, Russia’s leading foreign policy journal, Karaganov suggests that “Europe within the European Union is rejecting many fundamental European values ​​that [historically] have become part of Russia’s identity,” while Europe’s “new” values and ideologies – assertive democracy promotion, minorities’ rights, feminism, LGBT, Black Lives Matter, Me Too -- are “toxic.” As a result, Karaganov concludes, we can “start questioning [Russia’s] general cultural and spiritual orientation towards Europe, our European roots.”

A recent essay penned by the high-profile Moscow theatre director Konstantin Bogomolov has expressed a similar attitude using a much more colourful language. In his provocative “Manifesto,” Bogomolov characterizes Europe’s present-day ideologues as an “aggressive mix of queer activists, fem-fanatics, and eco-psychopaths.” Russians, he argues, due to their lamentable tradition of aping European ways, “have [now] ended up in the tail end of a mad train, steaming to a Hieronymus Bosch-style hell where we will be met by multicultural gender-neutral devils.” Bogomolov’s advice is straightforward: “We simply have to unhitch the wagon, cross ourselves and start building a new world.” 

While Russia has been living in a Eurocentric world for at least 300 years, Russian pundits assert, Europe has viewed Moscow as the “Other” -- either as the “barbarian at the gate” or the “eternal apprentice” – for several centuries. At the same time, Russia has gone through the same phases of fascination, expectation, disillusionment and outright confrontation over the past 30 years as it had previously from the early 18th to the early 20th century. Now, Fyodor Lukyanov and Alexei Miller contend in a report issued under the aegis of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, “Europe will have to admit that the structure of the dialogue with Russia will have to be changed. Not because the apprentice did (or did not) learn the master’s skills. This is no longer important. The thing is that the apprentice is simply no longer there due to the fact that he no longer aspires to be a member of the guild and to achieve its recognition.” 

The question of how Russia’s historical experience relates to that of “Europe” is of course at the heart of one of the most heated and protracted intellectual debates, and its comprehensive analysis is far beyond the scope of this essay. My position on this highly controversial issue is informed by two helpful concepts. One is the notion of the West-East “cultural gradient” introduced and developed by the late Martin Malia. This vision rejects the existence of a sharp dividing line separating “East” from “West” and refers instead to the image of a softer gradation and unity as one moves across the Eurasian continent. The other is the idea of “relative synchronicity within a longue duréedevelopment” advanced by Maria Todorova. Struggling to come up with a conceptual antidote to the discourse of backwardness, Todorova argues for the relative synchronicity of Western and Eastern Europe within a long-term framework. By analyzing various European nationalisms within the unified structure of modernity, she redefines the “East” – Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia – as part of a common European space.  

Yet such a vision, while affirming Russia’s basic Europeanness, does not deny the fact of its peripheral position within European civilization. Russia’s relative subalternity vis-à-vis Europe appears inevitable simply because historically it did not generate its own vision of modernity but rather adopted a European one. This situation produced a painful dilemma that has long tormented Russian intellectuals – a specific stratum that came to be known as intelligentsia – over the last 200 years. First, as the American historian Alan Pollard pointed out, “The elements which created [Russian intellectuals’] consciousness tended to be products of the West, so that the very qualities which endowed the intelligentsia with understanding, and thus with its very essence, also alienated it from national life, to represent which was its vital function.”

A different era. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, right, and Russia's president Boris Yeltsin are seen in 1991, location unknown. Both stressed Russia's attachment to Europe. Photo: AP/TT

Second, with regard to Russia’s external relations, awareness of the derivative nature of the modern Russian intellectual tradition and of the country’s cultural dependence on Europe clashed with the grand idea of Russian greatness. In the imagination of Russian ruling elites, throughout most of its history Russia constituted an alternative center of power essentially pursuing a global, universal “project” -- be it the Orthodox empire of the Romanovs or the Communist empire of the Soviets. The idea of Russia as a learner who would have to go to school with Europe seemed to belittle it and made Russia appear to be a junior partner in the European Concert of great powers. Yet as Iver Neumann has wryly noted, “Great Powers do not go to school. On the contrary, they lay down the line and teach others.”  

It was the intellectual struggle with this double-barreled dilemma that animated the intelligentsia’s discourses of nation and of Russia’s international identity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries: from the famous Westernizer-Slavophile debate to the pan-Slavist vision of Russia as a distinct “cultural-historical type” to the imagining of Russia as the “Middle World” to, finally, the classical Eurasianism’s reinvention of Russia as “Eurasia” – a self-contained world unto itself. Underlying all of these exercises in symbolic geography was an intent shared by several generations of Russian national-minded thinkers to challenge the pervasive Eurocentric outlook and assert Russia’s status as an autonomous civilization, fully sovereign and on par with (or even superior to) any other major European power.  

It is from this rich reservoir of metaphors, meanings, images, and tropes created over the past 200 years by Russian conservative and nationalist thinkers that Kremlin-connected ideologues are currently drawing. However, contemporary Russian detractors of Europe appear to completely ignore (or are simply oblivious of) the fact that, while providing copious evidence of the imminent Untergang des Abendlandes, their 19th-century Russian precursors were drawing heavily on the vigorous intra-European debate. As a result, their intellectual constructs were to a large extent products of the European mind. In his The Icon and the Axe, James Billington pointed to an “important phenomenon” that played a formative role in Russian intellectual history: “the Western prophet who looks to Russia for the realization of ideas not given a proper hearing in the West.” Throughout the 19th century, such European mystics, Romantic thinkers, utopians, reactionaries, and conservative Christians as François-René de Chateaubriand in France, Joseph-Marie de Maistre in Piedmont-SardiniaKarl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel and Franz Xaver von Baader in Germany, and Juan Donoso Cortés in Spain (as well as many other intellectuals) had been these “Western prophets” who were conducting intense intellectual dialog with their Russian spiritual brethren and in the process feeding them with apocalyptic images of Europe’s decline.  

The peculiar dynamic of this Russo-European dialog was spotted and commented on as early as the 1850s. “Where did we get…the idea, or, better, not the idea but the melodramatic phrase that the West is a decrepit old man who has already taken from life all he can take, who is running out of life, and so forth?” asked Russian literary critic Nikolai Chernyshevskii -- and promptly answered his own query: “From those vapid and thick-witted Western books and articles, that’s where.” Remarkably, this time-honored intellectual exchange between Europe’s “West” and “East” seems to persist. Contemporary Russian “conservatives” are wont to pontificate on “tyranny of the minorities” in Europe, “Western ideocracy” or, most recently, the EU’s “new ethical Reich.” However, their disquisitions are often only pale imitations of the works by such paleoconservative philosophers and Nouvelle Droite intellectuals as Paul Gottfried, Alain de Benoist or Guillaume Faye.    

Yet, there is a stark contrast between emotional impulses that drove the critical writings of 19th-century Russian intellectuals and those behind the philippics of their 21st –century epigones. Most of the former genuinely loved Europe – that famed “land of holy miracles” -- and suffered as they observed its supposed “fall.” The latter appear to be largely motivated by their ressentiment and animus towards the “West” – emotions born of the unhealthy combination of arrogance and inferiority complex.     

A municipal worker washes a statue of Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Moscow. The current leadership does not, however, dust off the famous Russian writer's strong feelings for Europe. Photo:Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/TT

The thinkers such as Alexei Khomiakov, the intellectual leader of the Slavophiles, and, later, Fyodor Dostoevsky were deeply upset by what they saw across Russia’s western border. Following the late 18th- and 19th-century revolutionary upheavals, Europe has gone awry, they said with a sigh of grief, and Russia is destined to heal its wounds by the power of her spirit. “We Russians have two homelands: our own Russia and Europe, even if we call ourselves Slavophiles,” Dostoevsky noted in his Writer’s Diary for 1876. “Europe—but it’s a terrible and sacred thing, Europe!” he wrote in his diary next year. “Oh, gentlemen, do you know how dear Europe is to us... Europe, this ‘land of holy miracles’! Do you know how dear these ‘miracles’ are to us and how we love and revere, with more than brotherly love and reverence, those great tribes that populate it, together with all the grand and beautiful things they have accomplished? Do you know how many tears we shed and the pangs of heart we suffer at the fate of this dear and native country, and how frightened we are by the storm clouds that are ever gathering on her horizon?” 

This kind of emotional attachment and empathy is totally missing in the writings of Kremlin-friendly public intellectuals. For Dmitry Trenin, director of Carnegie Moscow Center, Europe has clearly ceased to be either “sacred” or “native” or even friendly land. For contemporary Russia, he says unsentimentally, it is now “just another neighbor, part of a Greater Eurasia stretching from Ireland to Japan.” The strategic goal of close cooperation and political alliance with Europe – an idea that agitated the minds of Russian liberal intellectuals and policymakers in the 1990s – is now deemed impractical and even harmful. Russia’s further progress is no longer associated with its European ties.

Moreover, argues Timofei Bordachev, a high-profile Moscow political commentator, “moving forward is impossible without repudiation of a significant part of [our] own heritage, including, perhaps, its central core: the European character of Russian statehood.” Europe as source of innovation has been declared useless and written off as a spent force. We have already received from Europe everything we needed,” Karaganov and other like-minded political analysts note in a dispassionate business-like manner. “Everything else,” they argue, we either already have or it’s simply out of reach because we cannot master ithistorically, Russia is an authoritarian state It’s time to stop being ashamed of the fact that we are historically committed to an authoritarian system of government, not to liberal democracy. 

That’s precisely the crux of the matter. What bothers the grim men in the Kremlin is not “Gayropa – a phoney bogeyman manufactured for domestic consumption. In reality, they are seriously troubled by the EU’s fundamental political ideals and values – human dignity and freedom, rule of law, democracy, and tolerance. It is these aspects of European heritage that the Kremlin rulers, presiding over the increasingly repressive authoritarian regime, cannot masterThe thing is, though, that these “European values” are universal and cannot be reduced to a concrete historical or cultural tradition. Younger generations who take to the streets across Russia’s vast expanse and challenge the country’s governing elites understand this. The Kremlin rulers appear to understand this too. However, ever ready to resort to obfuscation, they are now keen to cast all European heritage as “toxic.” From their perspective, the best way for Russia to proceed is indeed to unhitch its “wagon” from the European “mad train.” This of course is nothing more than reactionary utopia.


Igor Torbakov
Senior Fellow at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University and Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.