I have been writing about my home country every so often on my blog. I know that I have almost never reacted to either critical or positive comments in the media on Russian politics and economy. There is a personal reason to this, on the one hand. I was growing in Moscow in 1980s-90s. I suppose I can say frankly that my childhood ended in 1991. I spent my summer holidays with my grandmother’s youngest brother in his country house; my mother had left her job before going on a holiday. When we returned, Gorbachev’s Crimea exile had already begun, and a few days later the coup happened. Later, already a history student, I realised that I finished the previous school year in one country and started a new school year in another. Call it surreal or postmodern, this was definitely an out-of-this-world moment. Even if I didn’t realise the full scope of events then, I experienced them because at the time everyone – literally, everyone – was involved in discussing politics. Add to this the fact that I started my sixth form in a Moscow school with my Russian Literature and Language teacher being absolutely ecstatic about my writing potential. She was convinced I was a journo material (she wasn’t quite wrong, as you know). I fancied the idea – my very first notebooks were mostly filled with articles and sketches on Russian politics and politicians.
This fountain of juvenile political commenting dried up for a number of reasons. There were no blogs then, and I simply got frustrated because my “brilliant” sketches were destined to be buried in the bottom drawer – surely, there were enough staff at nationwide and regional newspapers who could drag on exactly the same topics I was dragging on (and I was only be 12-13 years old at the time). The frustration of not being able to publish work immediately was alleviated by discovering such authors, as Bulgakov, Chekhov and Kuprin. I realised that I wanted to write “serious stuff”, not those short-lived satires on domestic politics. Last but not least, I also realised there was more to life than politics. Possibly, this is what also defined the choice I made later at the University when I went to study Medieval and Early Modern History.
I remember this time and again today when I am occasionally asked to comment on Russia’s current affairs. Yet another reason why I stopped spending time writing political sketches was that it was not me who voiced them. I was essentially parroting whatever I thought I agreed with. I would usually agree with my family’s point of view, but as I was growing, I was obviously getting conscious that it was theirs, and not mine, point of view. And so today when it has been nearly five years since I left Russia (which did not happen for political reasons) I avoid commenting on Russian politics because I am not there. Being professionally qualified, I am well aware of the fact that each party – be that the Russian mass-media powered by the Kremlin, or the ill-fated independent Russian agencies, or the Western media – has its own agenda in the discussion, and I don’t want to share it by way of supporting one party or another. Having worked in the media, I am equally aware of the abundance of emotion in the modern press and broadcasting media; on occasion it seems that the proverbial witch-hunting is happening somewhere in the press room rather than in the “real” world.
The reason why I now write this post is the article by Stephen F. Cohen for International Herald Tribune, “Wrong on Russia“. In a very succinct form, Cohen, who is Professor of Russian Studies at New York University, addresses the current state of affairs between the U.S. and Russia. Straight away he claims that America’s “greatest foreign policy concern” should be that of “Russia’s singular capacity to endanger or enhance our national security“:
“Despite its diminished status following the Soviet breakup in 1991, Russia alone possesses weapons that can destroy the United States, a military-industrial complex nearly America’s equal in exporting arms, vast quantities of questionably secured nuclear materials sought by terrorists, and the planet’s largest oil and natural gas reserves.”
In addition to this, Russia’s strategic position is between the West and the East, “at the crossroads of colliding civilizations, with strategic capabilities from Europe, Iran and other Middle East nations to North Korea, China, India, Afghanistan and even Latin America“. “All things considered“, Cohen concludes, “our national security may depend more on Russia than Russia’s does on us.”
If a die-hard Russian chauvinist reads the beginning of this article, they will joyfully proclaim that America is so afraid of Russia that it does not feel ashamed to admit so. Thankfully, Prof. Cohen goes beyond the typical pro-American/anti-Russian approach to the problem and defines one of the true reasons for the growth of Russian nationalism since the fall of the Soviet Union – America’s own foreign policy. This very much conforms with the paper delivered by Robert Sakva on the problems of post-Soviet European integration. Sakva pointed out directly to the problem of the West having no idea of how to accommodate Russia, for which reason the West has repeatedly been failing – strategically, intellectually, and culturally. Strategically, the West (and the U.S., in particular) did indeed take the humiliating approach to Russia, which could not and would not result in anything less than a backlash of Russian national opinion against the “westernisation”.
Intellectually and culturally – and I can speak of these two – there is a huge stereotypisation of the country and its people which serves nothing but to set in stone some existing misconceptions. The problem starts with the language. A couple of years ago at Waterstone’s I saw a book on Ivan the Terrible written without recourse to the Russian-language sources. The translated works of Russian scholars listed in the bibliography were the classic books, but well outdated. Although I did not read the book I cannot see how it could present an unbiased view of the Russian state under Ivan the Terrible. The reason why I start from this “dawn” of Russian history is because the misconceptions about the country’s “historical inclination” to tyranny and authoritarianism take their root in the linguistic and academic barrier between the student and the subject of the study. Think of it in the same way as if you were trying to write the “unbiased” history of Iran without knowing the Persian language, thus articulating only one side of an argument. The extent of the knowledge of Russian culture and literature in the West once again boils down to the access to the original sources or the availability of translations. Overall, it somehow seems to be easier for a foreigner (a Russian for this matter) to bridge the gap and learn more about the West, than the other way around.
The result of those failures, however, is the possibility of yet another Cold War that both Cohen and Sakva admit. Cohen does not hesitate to say:
“Such [humiliating – JS] U.S. behavior was bound to produce a Russian backlash. It came under Putin, but it would have been the reaction of any strong Kremlin leader. Those U.S. policies – widely viewed in Moscow as an “encirclement” designed to keep Russia weak and to control its resources – have helped revive an assertive Russian nationalism, destroy the once strong pro-American lobby, and inspire widespread charges that concessions to Washington are “appeasement,” even “capitulationism.” The Kremlin may have overreacted, but the cause and effect threatening a new cold war are clear.”
And this is interesting, for Sakva, speaking about the problems of integration, says precisely the following:
“In a strange way the notion of the Cold War has returned to haunt us once again. … the mere fact is that if you look at the newspapers, if you google the word “Cold War in modern debates”, in journalism, and so on, you’ll see it’s a huge guise in the way that we’re now once again, it seems, instead of transcending the conflicts of the past, we’re reinforcing and re-instituting them in new ways. That sets about an empirical question: are we entering into the new Cold War? And there is also a far more interesting one …: the understanding of why this notion of conflict – we can use “Cold War” or we can use other words – is so deeply embedded in contemporary international politics?”
This is a valid and important question to answer. The answer, surprisingly, may assert the view that Realism is still the leading International Relations theory. As defined, realism “is a particular view of the world, defined by the following assumptions: the international realm is anarchic and consists of independent political units, called states; states are the primary actors and inherently possess some offensive military capability or power which makes them potentially dangerous to each other; states can never be sure about the intentions of other states; the basic motive driving states is survival or maintenance of sovereignty; states are instrumentally rational and think strategically how to survive“. There are many ways in which one can look at Russia, its culture, democracy and intentions these days, and not once have I heard the jokes about Russians who still believe in some “conspiracy theories”. But when articles, like the one by Prof. Cohen, appear, one cannot help wondering if a particular part of the world is indeed driving itself to survival and is attempting to maintain its sovereignty by instigating a conflict at any (assumed) instance of a potential danger.
I think I was able to distance myself sufficiently from all the parties involved, and there are things about Russia’s contemporary mentality, culture and sociopolitical discourse that I do not like. But as one of the problems the West (and the U.S., in particular) repeatedly encounters is the Russian take (or mis-take, in some observers’ opinion) on democracy, I cannot avoid making one important point. Having once written a long essay exactly on the definition of democracy in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville (who devoted four volumes to describing and analysing The Democracy in America), I can only agree with the Frenchman (who, as a matter of fact, was a monarchist) in his explanation for why in his time only two states, namely Switzerland and America, were able to build what could be described as “democracy”. Switzerland – because it conformed ideally with the Greek political philosophy’s view of a democratic state: it was small in size. America was able to build her democracy because it had very little historical, political and cultural baggage to deal with. The cultural (and ethical, to an extent) clash the West inevitably experiences in its advances on Russia and the East was out of question. The novelty of the land allowed for the novelty of a political regime where the latest developments in the European ethical and political thought could be applied without much resistance from the native population. To put it simply, back in the 18th c. America as a state that we now know had no solid political tradition. Unlike England, France and Russia, it was a tabula rasa, whereas the Old World countries had (and still have) to take into account centuries of political tradition and the sense of national pride tied to this.
Fortunately for today’s world, Russians are not the Native Indians. And, as I said, there are certain things about the current state of Russian thought that I observe through the LiveJournal blogs that, quite frankly, repel me. I still think Tocqueville’s work can be important and enlightening to us, provided we care to read it thoroughly, starting with the Preface. In the Preface he states clearly that he did not compose his treatise in order to provide France with a blueprint of a democratic state or society. He embarked on his work in order to show that democracy could be achieved, but that ultimately, it would have to be a French, and not American, democracy:
“It appears to me beyond a doubt that, sooner or later, we shall arrive, like the Americans, at an almost complete equality of condition. But I do not conclude from this that we shall ever be necessarily led to draw the same political consequences which the Americans have derived from a similar social organization. I am far from supposing that they have chosen the only form of government which a democracy may adopt; but as the generating cause of laws and manners in the two countries is the same, it is of immense interest for us to know what it has produced in each of them“.
I dare say Russia has taken and learnt more from the West than either Russia or the West care to admit. If Russia is given space, while within the country itself people stop clinging on to a dream about the “glorious past”, either Tsarist or Communist (again, as Tocqueville wisely underlined elsewhere in his treatise, the old political regime is always better than the new one, and it is easy to see, why: because we already know what was good and bad about it, and so can make a choice to extol the better and to ignore or defy the worse traits of the old regime), then the worst thing that can happen is that we will end up with yet another, Russian, type of democracy. It may sound scary, but this is the only way to go for Russia and for the West, if indeed we want to avoid a new Cold War.