Russia & the West, again…..

Making the same mistake repeatedly and expecting a different outcome is a popular definition of insanity.  Can the condition apply to an entire professional group? In the most recent issue of Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasion History, I highlight how many prominent US thinkers about Russia have maintained a naivete in regard to Russia’s ultimate political development for much of the past 70 years. Even during the height of the Cold War, leading members of the US establishment assumed that Russia would ultimately adopt classical liberalism and join the Western community of nations as a fully paid-up member.  It was just a matter of when, how, and who. But the Fukuyama-esque outcome was never in doubt.  (The embrace of Russian political norms by the Trump administration was a striking but short-lived exception.)

Originally published in 1843, the Marquis de Custine’s famous travelogue, Russia in 1839, was a bitter indictment of Russia’s political culture. A best seller at the time, the book has unexpectedly lived on as an evergreen political tract in the 20th and 21st centuries. Despite its remote origin, each new print edition of Custine over the past seven decades has highlighted the Western expectation that Russia will inevitably come around, to meaningful limitations of executive power, to the genuine protection of individual rights, to the actual institutions of classical liberalism rather than a trompe l’oeil gloss.  While an academic review of Custine’s publishing history is not the place to make an explicit argument about US-Russian relations circa 2021, a web-blog is.

The policy implication of my review is straightforward: the common US attitude that assumes liberal leaders can eventually emerge in Russia with broad popular support and that Russian institutions could easily become “Western” is naive and potentially dangerous. However sympathetic Gorbachev, or Yeltsin or Nemtsov might have seemed and genuinely were at certain points in time, or N@valn5y is at present, it was and would be a mistake to see them as a well-formed template for a classically liberal future.  Rooting for the underdog “good guys” is a peculiarly American political past-time. Cue the Jimmy Stewart film of your choice. But building a foreign policy on the assumption that the underdog supposedly sympathetic to our values will naturally prevail is another matter entirely.  We struggle to promote like-minded polities in our own political backyard –think Haiti or the countries of Central America–or for important geopolitical partners such as Saudi Arabia. If we are unable to prevail in these venues, it is folly to assume we can make it work in a much larger and more complex Russia.

The American challenge is one of sustained naivete, and the assumption that our relatively young experiment in classical liberalism is or should be the natural order elsewhere, including in locations with deeply rooted political cultures profoundly different from our own. A more realpolitik and less risky approach is to assume the status quo, and manage it in the best interests of this country. That means define, delimit, demarcate, parry and thrust, in the best traditions of 19th century international political chess.  In 21st century terms, that means a much more robust effort at digital containment. The main threat now is not armed divisions led by T-72 tanks rolling through the Fulda Gap. It is the global digital activity of the Russian state and its affiliates. Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has recently called for a new containment, echoing George Kennan’s design of US policy toward the Soviet Union in the years after World War II.  McFaul properly emphasizes the need for digital defense to complement more traditional policy forms (How to Contain Putin’s Russia | Foreign Affairs) In short, deal with Russia as it is today, not as you think it ought to be or even will be one day.

The Russian side of the equation is far more interesting, from a psychological perspective and a practical one. The Russians have a similar bias, but in reverse. In decades of following Russia, I have found their self-defined relationship to the “West” to be one the most intriguing elements of their political culture. It started for me in the autumn of 1984 when I first arrived there as a student and was asked repeatedly why the West didn’t treat the Soviet Union with the respect it deserved. That line of questioning has continued in one form or another for nearly forty years, with only a name change to mark the end of the Soviet Union.

The question dates back to the early modern period in European history when the Russian state and the West European powers first encountered one another. The narrative is complex, not least because the notion of the West has itself changed dramatically over the centuries. We talk a classically liberal game now, but that was certainly not the case in the 17th century. Despite a rough start, by the 19th century, Russia was one of the Great Powers. Its elite knew French as well as they spoke Russian; the military leadership leaned ethnically German; the last Tsar was a grandchild of Queen Victoria; and Russia had a role in every major geo-political event on the continent.  Russia had achieved the status of a fully vested European power.

But even by that time, troubling contradictions were evident. Why the need to adopt French language and culture in a context so remote from the original? Why rely on Baltic Germans for military prowess?  Why take such offense at concerns voiced in the West about the Tsar’s authoritarianism. Why care? When Custine’s account of despotism in Russia came out in 1843, the Tsarist government commissioned all sorts of rebuttals to be published in the Western media. Rather than silencing Custine, they gave greater credence to his assertions.

There is a simple explanation. Russia is on the periphery of Europe and forever agonizing about it. I get the periphery. I don’t get the three centuries of agonizing about it. That agonizing has taken elaborate forms. Russia has all the trappings of the Western order. It has full-length constitutions, elaborate local, regional and national elections and referenda, and a system characterized by at least nominal checks and balances. Yet, that formalism is in direct contradiction with the authoritarian “we privilege order over chaos [individual freedom]” ethos that Russian political culture has evinced so consistently over time. Example one: The 1936 Soviet constitution that guaranteed a wide range of individual rights and democratic processes was promulgated during one of the most brutal periods of modern Russian history, which is saying a lot. Example two: Why bother with the recent kabuki theatre constitutional change allowing Putin to remain in power indefinitely? Why go through the exercise?  Domestic legitimacy is certainly not the issue; the appearance to the West is.

N@Va1n4’s current trials and tribulations in Russia offer another example. His documentation of massive corruption is unlikely to lead to profound political change. Too much of the population cares too little about the graft endemic to Russia’s elites. And yet, the regime produces all the legalistic paperwork, as if it matters, to get rid of a critic: an indictment, an arraignment, a trial, a verdict, rejected appeals, incarceration, and even an official central government comment that it is all being handled by an independent judiciary. Is this the way that an authoritarian government confident in its authoritarianism would operate?  Would China bother with such formalities? Moreover, N@Va1n3′ is far better at playing the on-line media game than the Russian government is. His high-visibility activities highlight Russia’s ambivalence about Western mores. The more he pushes the official Russian political culture to demonstrate those values, the greater the shortfall and the embarrassment. What are we to make of this persistent internal tension?

There is a vast academic literature on the topic of “Russia and the West.” It mostly consists of Western writers mulling over Russia’s position. In general, they conclude that Russia is “Western” and will eventually manifest the appropriate institutional and political commonalities. Liberal observers of Russia are supported in their belief because that is what they want to see happen.  Neo-conservatives often come to the same conclusion because it validates their conviction about the proper socio-political order. The “Russia is forever ‘despotic'” is from a much smaller and very dated community, but can be found in the remote-storage stacks of your local university library.

But what about Russians opining on the topic?  What is their explanation for the continued self-flagellation? It is worth calling out their major schools of thought, so that Westerners dealing with Russia have at least some perspective.  And to be clear the issue is not the straightforward Russian nationalism ever-present in this narrative. Rather than a natural or even extreme patriotism, the issue is that of Russia’s relationship to the Western community and its supposedly shared values and structures. (We will ignore the periodic wars within the West….)

I inadvertently started on this project at the same time as my first visit to the Soviet Union. My undergraduate thesis reviewed the mid-19th century debate between the Slavophiles and Westerners in Russia occurring at the same time when Custine made his assessment.  Slavophilism and the plight of the Russian intelligentsia in the second quarter of the nineteenth century (Book, 1986) [])   That round of debates in the 19th century was explicitly about Russia’s proper path vis a vis the West. In its mid-19th century form, the question of Russian Orthodoxy (versus Roman Catholicism or Protestantism) loomed large.

The Russian revolution created another opportunity to hash out these issues. While the Bolsheviks were engaged in other debates, a group of Russian emigres saw the collapse of the old system as an opportunity to define and develop a uniquely Russian role between East and West under the name of Eurasianism.  They championed this view of Russia as a distinct and morally superior civilization that took Russia’s periphery status as a gift, not a shortcoming.  An updated version of Eurasianism was popularized in the very late Soviet period by Anna Akhmatova’s son, Lev Gumilev, to fill an intellectual void created as the Soviet Union crumbled. A more toxic version is currently advocated by Alexander Dugin. Look him up. Whatever Dugin’s many shortcomings, ambivalence about the West is not one of them. He rejects it lock, stock, and barrel.

But what about Putin? Having been in power for two decades–“elected,” I should note–his views matter.  Initially, he appeared to care about the Western playbook. We can see that in regard to Russia’s political structure. As long as the Soviet Union existed, the specific relationship to “democracy” did not matter. After the early 1990s, it was no longer moot and the list of discomforts lengthened by one. Would Russia become a “proper” Western polity, with a legitimate franchise, independent parties, etc. Early in his presidency, Putin stated that “Only a democratic state is capable of ensuring a balance of interests of the individual and society, combining private initiative with national goals.”  That was then. He has been steadily moving away from that position.  In a speech in 2005, Putin tried to have it both ways: “Russia is a country that has chosen democracy through the will of its own people. It chose this road of its own accord and it will decide itself how best to ensure that the principles of freedom and democracy are realised here, taking into account our historic, geopolitical and other particularities and respecting all fundamental democratic norms. As a sovereign nation, Russia can and will decide for itself the timeframe and conditions for its progress along this road.” [Address to the Federal Assembly April 25, 2005] This notion has come to be called “sovereign democracy,” with an increasing emphasis on the former and de-emphasis of the latter.

In more recent years, the ambiguity has been replaced by a more explicit rejection of the classically liberal model, even as the forms of Western governance remain in place.  Putin no longer discusses democracy and in 2019 declared the Western experiment in liberalism dead with a capital D. As an alternative, Putin has positioned himself, as one Western observer put it, as the “torchbearer of an anti-liberal Europe”.  Western, but not Western. For all of Putin’s assertion of a new paradigm, the formalism, the discomfort, and the internal tension remain.

Custine’s work is filled with memorable aphorisms. From the perspective of the “Russia and the West” debate, one stands out: “I do not blame the Russians for being what they are; I blame them for pretending to be what we are.” Nearly two centuries later, I certainly don’t blame them. I just wonder why they bother. It seems a Zenon paradox that brings only frustration to them and confusion to us.  Perhaps the clouds will eventually clear. The Levada Center recently reported that in 2008, more than half of the Russians polled felt their country was European. In their most recent survey, less than 1/3 did. [As reported by RFE/RL, on April 11, 2021]. So perhaps Putin is resolving Russia’s internal ambivalence. But I rather doubt it.