21 February 2017

Russia is Europe

Why it is a mistake to juxtapose Russia and Europe 

As the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine escalates, and Russia begins to resemble a monarchy run by Ivan the Terrible which allows Simeons Bekbulatoviches to occasionally jump in the driver’s seat, the word is spreading among those who are not indifferent to this country that Russia is not Europe but some kind of Asia, or Tartary, or the Horde, etc. For obvious reasons, these epithets can most frequently be heard in the Baltic States, Ukraine and the former Soviet satellite states that have not completely forgotten the charm of being under external control.

Unlike many of my compatriots, for me, such epithets do not cause offense: I can fully understand this cautious and dismissive attitude towards Russia adopted by its neighbors. The Russian authorities can, quite rightly, be accused of war crimes. They do not really deserve respect from those who abide by the rules of international law. However, it seems to me that stories of Russia’s “Asian nature” are absolutely unfounded and, more importantly, they divert attention from key issues. As a result, the understanding of the essence of contemporary Russia (and the way it should be counterbalanced) turns out to be a false one which leads to pointless delusions.

The assertion that Russia is an Asian country in terms of mentality, mindset, lifestyle or even the structure of its governance is absolutely groundless. It is not even a Eurasian country (as Vladimir Putin would like to see it). It is a European society in its own right from the point of view of the individualist mentality of the population, their culture, their perception of reality, their values and interests. Russians are not drawn to Asia by any means; they don’t send their children to study in Shanghai or Singapore nor do they purchase real estate in Beijing or Ulan Bator. The Europeanness of Russians is far more visible in Khabarovsk and Irkutsk than in Ryazan or even Kaliningrad since residents of borderland areas recognize the contrast with Asia more readily. Few Muscovites are ecstatic about the prospect of fraternization with Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan – Russia’s partners in the Eurasian Union. Even the notorious obedience Russians show to the authorities can be perceived not as a “difficult legacy” passed on down the centuries, but as the embodiment of the optimal strategy of self- preservation in the authoritarian state. I do not know of a single person, barring those who came from a former Soviet state, who has arrived in Russia and described the civilization using the word “Asian”.

When portraying Russia as an Asian country, the proponents of such a perspective employ the only logical instrument they know in order to more closely associate themselves – real, potential or imaginary victims of Russian aggression - with Europe and to appeal to Europe (and to the West, in a broader sense) for help. However, so far, Europe has shown no intention of becoming embroiled in a serious confrontation with “Asia”,  with good reason.

The most important reason is that Russia is, in fact, “true Europe” when it comes to the spheres of foreign and military policy. One only needs to change his perspective to observe proof of such, hence, let us switch from a spatial to a temporary angle. Wars and violence have not been the prerogative of “Asians” only – Europeans have been far more successful in this regard. Was it the Mongols or Islamic extremists who shot tens of thousands of innocent people in Babi Yar or who sent millions to the gas chambers in Auschwitz less than a hundred years ago? Was it Asians who partitioned Italy and Ukraine, divided up Poland and Germany among themselves and who relentlessly vied for bigger slices? Correct me if I’m wrong, but people in most parts of Asia were completely oblivious to the very notion of such religious wars, capable of wiping out entire cities overnight, in the distant past. The fires of the Inquisition were also unheard of there, I’m afraid. Was it not Europeans who created coalitions to suppress insurrections and revolutions? Was it not Europeans who organized congresses to divide spheres of influence in Europe itself as well as in Africa, India and other regions? This list of questions could go on forever.

For centuries, Europe has been the birthplace of bloody wars and misanthropic ideologies. The fate of the peoples was decided for generations to come behind their backs. In this sense, Russia is truly a European state. Its political and, regrettably, much of its intellectual class, waxes lyrical about reliving the European past: the Holy Alliance targeted at “color revolutions”; the “new Yalta” cementing the next global divide; the inviolable Westphalian sovereignty which allows a ruler to dictate which religion his subjects should follow, hold court and apply any kind of justice he sees fit. You could say that we are witnessing the regurgitation of communism in Russia, nowadays, if you like. One could even label it a fascist country. One should, nevertheless, remember that neither the doctrines of communism nor fascism took root in Asia.

Vladimir Putin’s intention is not to turn Europeans into Asians. He “only” encourages them to relive their own past, refocus on Realpolitik, discard “values” and appreciate the benefits, feel free to decide the fate of other countries and peoples who happen to be weaker than he, the leader. And his propaganda appeals to the minds of many Europeans (not Asians, mind you, no interest in Putinism has been observed there) precisely because this rhetoric is understandable and has a familiar-sounding ring to it. It belongs to the very same history books.

It is a mistake to juxtapose Russia and Europe as this constitutes mere self-deception: people try to convince themselves that Russia is weak, it is about to fall apart and that should military confrontation with “real Europe” ensue, the result will resemble that of the Battle of Omdurman. Instead, we have so far witnessed evidence quite to the contrary. Hence, I call on my colleagues from the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Central Europe to admit that this is not about the new confrontation between the East and the West but between the past and the present. And the “frontline” does not run across eastern Ukraine where the Ukrainian people strive to save Europe from Asia, as President Petro Poroshenko would have it, but in the minds of the Europeans and Americans who are increasingly hesitant about the question of whether axiological and universal values should be pursued further or if Realpolitik should finally be in deed and not in name alone.

The confrontation between old and new Europeanness is at the heart of the “New Cold War” today. This is due to the fact that axiological approaches, welcomed with enthusiasm in the 1990s and 2000s, are now past their sell-by dates. Political realism à la Putin and Trump stands a good chance of becoming the new keynote in international relations. If this is to be, the countries affected by new geopolitical divides on the European map should take steps to fit in with these paradigms of Realpolitik rather than bleat on about human rights. To achieve this, these countries need to think about how they can be of use to great superpowers rather than mulling over what kind of help they can obtain from them. They should define their own resistance strategies for confrontation with the aggressor and decide how to temporarily retreat in the face of defeat. Finally, they should come up with a way to bump the heads of the newly- emerged authoritarian leaders who dream of a new world order. All the above mentioned aspects are currently coming to the fore and the elites of the states which occupy the territory of the post-Soviet space, or are located in its vicinity, should think of the future as if they lived in the 19th century and not 21st century, at least from time to time.

If we continue to pretend that Europe is strong and united, that it is just about to rally against the aggression from “Asia”, we might eventually see that the politicians in Moscow and Washington (prospectively joined by their colleagues in Berlin and Paris) will be deciding the future of these countries with no direct involvement of their peoples. This decision might turn out to be extremely unpleasant for many parties involved. However, should this scenario transpire, it will still be a very old-fashioned but truly European one.

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