When I was a student in college, my Russian history professor, James Simms, argued that Russian history could be generally understood according to a three-step political process that formed a theme that recurred throughout modern Russian history. There are undoubtedly a number of other ways to view Russian history, and there are disadvantages to interpreting a country’s history in terms of its foreign relations, but I remembered this theme as I was reflecting on the year’s events in and around Russia. The theme was very straightforward and likely applicable to a number of other countries: Russia would be confronted with an international challenge, political mobilisation would follow and this would lead to a series of political changes.
Inasmuch as Russians have become accustomed to perceiving foreigners as encroaching upon or invading Russia (because for much of Russian history, except for the expansionist 19th century, this is what was happening) international challenges, especially from ‘Western’ countries, have taken on a particular importance for Russians in ways similar to Russia’s spiritual and cultural ancestor of Byzantium. It is all the more intense in Russia because of the internal cultural changes foreign influences inspired in Russia to a degree unseen in Byzantium.
As the conventional histories tell it, the basic choice for Byzantium was a clear one and one that was given to easy valorisation later: compromise the Faith and the Orthodox identity of the empire, and receive temporal assistance against the Ottomans, or preserve the Faith in the face of certain military disaster. The dissenting majority, opposed to compromising the strict Orthodox identity of Byzantium, assumed the mantle of the authentic Byzantine inheritance after the authorities had been seen as departing from it. The Byzantines never had to wrestle nearly as much with the question of whether Byzantium should become more like Latin Europe as Russia did in its relations with the culture of modern Europe.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the thoughtful, intellectual nationalism of the early Slavophiles was the Russian concern to save western Europe from itself. Even the Slavophiles, such as Alexei Khomyakov, who were convinced of the moral and spiritual decrepitude of the West (and were not at all wrong in their observations) were profoundly anxious to save Europe by making it over in the image of a paternalistic, Orthodox Muscovy. (Needless to say, the Romanovs, whose rule coincided in the minds of the Slavophiles with the last gasps of the authentic Russian polity, were not admirers of the group.) The technical, scientific, philosophical and political successes of modern Europe were there for all to see in the mid-nineteenth century, and it was the peculiar genius of Khomyakov to see a way to incorporate them together.
The remarkable thing is that Khomyakov was a Russian and Orthodox supremacist, in his way, who saw a great deal worth preserving in modern Europe, based in the fundamental conviction that Russia and Europe belonged to a common civilisation divorced by alternative routes of development. Western Europe had much to recommend it, only it took a number of wrong turns down through its history (fortunately, most of them are the same wrong turns that the conservatives of Chronicles magazine have been diagnosing for many years).
Yet, as things developed, the Slavophile desire to save Europe, which continued on in Dostoevsky, based out of a respect and sympathy for the potential of European genius and culture, gradually became the Pan-Slavist and imperialist desire to dominate eastern Europe in opposition to western European powers. This was a Russian supremacism born out of the notion that Europeans (or at least non-Slavic Europeans) and Russians were so fundamentally different as to be naturally opposed civilisations. It is the perpetuation of this falsehood that has exacerbated the tendency of Russian governments to become inreasingly defensive when challenged by Western powers.
In the wake of the Soviet collapse, the vulnerability of Russia was already severe and was compounded by a decade of corporate pillage and foreign missionary invasions (the latter are still ongoing). Now, instead of encouraging the idea that Russia and Europe are part of the same European and Christian civilisation, founded on basically the same inheritance of Greek wisdom, Christianity and Roman law through different sources, we see the same encroachment by powers trying consciously to ‘Westernise’ Russia and Russia retreating more and more into a Russian identity opposed to being European and Western. The more that ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’ have been identified with the oligarch crooks and mismanagement of the 1990s, the more Russians have become convinced that such liberalism and democracy is not fit for Russia, or is simply not workable; the more these terms are bandied about as the slogans for anti-Russian political actions, such as Yushchenko’s staged win, NATO expansion or pro-Chechen terrorist activism in the West, the more Russians become convinced that Russia and the West are irreconcilably opposed and the more people in the West come to see Russia as alien and hostile (again).
Anyone who wants gradual, internal political reform in Russia away from such lopsided popular authoritarianism as now exists can only be scandalised and horrified at the blatant, constant and provocative pressure being put on Russia at the moment by the United States and European Union, as Russia has not been a place of gradual change where political forms are concerned. External meddling and foreign influences have tended to lead to great swings of the pendulum in one direction or another, but these have rarely been in the direction desired by those genuinely interested in the strengthened development of a constitutional Russian democracy.
Right now, all trends point toward greater and greater consolidation of power in the hands of whoever presides from the Kremlin and the rise of an undifferentiated, inchoate nationalist consensus that will come to see Western powers as attackers hemming Russia in on all sides (which, in all fairness, is exactly what the neocons and friends are doing and what they want to be doing). The last time a serious European power brimming with nationalism was intentionally encircled and hemmed in led to the development of extreme doctrines of “Weltmacht oder Niedergang” (world power or defeat) which did not bode well for the country in question or anyone else around them. Isolating and encircling Russia cannot be a serious option for the future. Just as Britain had no quarrel with Germany in 1914, America has no quarrel whatever with Russia and much to gain from cooperation. Mr. Putin is just the sort of Russian leader, however, who will not take our continued disrespect and interference lying down and he will pick up any gauntlet that is thrown down by the War Party. This would be extraordinarily dangerous and ruinous for both our countries.
As Latin powers once did with Byzantium, if western powers believe that they can prey upon a weakened Russia to their own temporary advantage, they may wreck Russia and then find the latter-day equivalent of the Turk besieging a future Vienna all too soon. In our current fight, we would have to be mad to allow fanatics and ideologues to push us into conflict with a solid bulwark against our main enemies, the Islamists.