Russia is usually considered part of Europe. (I certainly do so, and categorize this post accordingly on this blog.) It borders other European countries, shares a Christian culture and European language with them, is mostly settled with white people, and mimics Western European culture (which is also influenced by Russia in turn). But throughout its history, Russia has suffered an identity crisis and considers itself a realm apart. It has never fully accepted itself as part of Europe and even views the lands to its west with suspicion.
This is a complex subject worthy of a whole book, but it continues to play out in Russia’s behavior to the present day. That’s why it’s worth a closer look, even in abbreviated form, on this blog.
Russia coalesced in the 800s as Slavic tribes pushed northward and eastward from the Balkans and built a kingdom in what is now Ukraine (which is significant in itself, although that’s a subject for another post). It was a big country, even then, but it has numerous drawbacks: it’s on the edge of Europe and borders mostly empty steppe to the east. To the north is the frigid, ice-bound Arctic; to the south is the Black Sea, which is warm, but cut off from the outside world by the Bosphorus, the narrow passageway between Europe and Asia (in Turkey). It’s crossed by several major rivers which made for convenient trade routes (the Dnepr, the Don, the Volga, etc.), but early Russia was isolated from the cultural and social influences of western Europe. Instead, it imbibed Greek culture from the Byzantine Empire, the nearest major power. Even then, its kings didn’t convert to Christianity until 989 — long after the rest of Europe.
Russia’s quasi-European status was confirmed in 1240, when its capital, Kyiv, was conquered by the Mongol Empire. It was now part of an entity that stretched across Asia, and once again it was peripheral since the center of Mongol power was China. It became even more isolated from events in Europe, and grew used to absolute power thanks partly to Byzantine influence and partly to Mongol rule. Its reputation as a mysterious, barbarian country also grew.
Russia eventually asserted itself as an independent duchy again in 1480, this time with a new capital (Moscow), and it gained recognition as a major European country. But it was still very behind the times, and it missed the crucial trends sweeping through Europe: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution. The emperor (czar) was all-powerful; the nobility had considerable influence; most Russians were poor, uneducated serfs. The Russian Orthodox Church dominated national art, architecture and learning. It remained unknown to most Europeans. It mostly concentrated on expanding further east and diminishing Mongol power, putting it out of the concern of French or Germans, although it did fight with the Livonians (Estonia/Latvia) and Poles.
But Russia knew that Europe was more advanced than itself. Czars hungered for a portal to the Mediterranean or at least the Baltic. European literature, theater, and philosophy began to trickle in in the 1600s. Russians grew interested in European ideas beyond religious ones. The notion that Westerners were misguided, dangerous infidels seemed more and more hokey.
Pyotr the Great (1682-1725) finally knocked down the barriers between Russia and Europe. He undertook an 18-month study trip in the Netherlands, England, Germany and Austria to learn European technical skills, political institutions, and military innovations. He encouraged commerce and urbanization. Western-style education was brought to Russia and the Church’s monopoly on learning (and a lot of its influence on the state) was broken. Even Western cultural influences like smoking, coffee and shaving became trendy in society’s upper echelons. And of course, Pyotr beat Poland and Sweden, annexed Livonia and built Russia a new capital on the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg. Not only was Russia now a Great Power, it was oriented firmly westward.
Over the next 2 centuries, Russia’s westward orientation continued. Math and science was imported and by the 1800s Russia was producing important scientists like Dmitriy Mendeleyev. Russian choral music was supplemented with classical music that could hold its own against Germany’s. The Bolshoi and Mariinsky Ballets competed with dance companies in France. Literature by the likes of Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevskiy introduced Russian life to the West. The Russian military became a force to be reckoned with in European wars (and in Asia, too). Serfdom was abolished in 1863; contact with Western nations became regular. The upper classes learned French and German, which influenced the Russian language’s vocabulary, syntax and diction. Some intellectuals even grew to loathe their own country; as the philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev wrote, “Alone in the world, we have given nothing to the world, learned nothing from the world and bestowed not a single idea upon the fund of human ideas… we have not contributed in any way to the progress of the human spirit and whatever has come to us from that progress we have disfigured.”
On the other hand, the vast bulk of Russians continued to live in poverty, ignorance and far away from cities. It can be hard to modernize a country with as much territory as Russia has; by the 1800s, it stretched to the Pacific and deep into Central Asia. Foreigners were regarded with suspicion as infidels and invaders (a perception not helped by the French invasion of 1812). The emperor’s power remained absolute; although the Enlightenment ideas of liberty and self-determination had influence in Russia, any political dissent was crushed before it bloomed. Some intellectuals looked back longingly to the pre-Pyotr days. Although Russia was accepted as a European power, most Westerners didn’t really accept it, and its size and intimidating power made it feared by the West. Britain, France and Austria ganged up on Russia in the Crimean War (1854-1856) and most Europeans cheered on the Osmanli Empire and Japan in their wars with Russia.
Complicating the situation, Russia has an affinity with most of Eastern Europe, which is dominated by Slavs (Poles, Serbs, Bulgarians, etc.). Sharing an attachment to medieval Greek culture, similar languages, and (in the Balkans) a script and Orthodox faith, Russia became interested in promoting Slavs with smaller populations, territories and political clout than itself. This led to Russian support for anti-Osmanli rebels in Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. It dovetailed nicely with Russia’s antagonism against Turkey and fired up “Slavophile” intellectuals, who countered conservative nationalists by arguing that Russia could safely look to Europe for inspiration — just not Western Europe. In the end, Russia’s policy of supporting weaker Slavs led to World War I.
The war destroyed the Russian Empire, and out of its shell grew a new, even more frightening Russia: the Communist Soviet Union. But the process was long, arduous and bloody; civil war raged until 1922, forcing Russia to turn inward, especially in its deep interior, where most of the White (conservative) armies were. The capital reverted back to Moscow, originally as insurance against German attack. Even after this period, the new Russia was isolated from the outside world, devoted primarily to a complete reconstruction of its society to conform to Marxist ideals. Stalin’s massive purges and collectivization campaigns ensured that Russia was in no state to engage with the outside world. Not that the outside world wanted it to; aside from a friendship with Germany and the occupation of Mongolia, Russia was spurned by foreign lands. Indeed, Poland took advantage of Russia’s weakness by invading it in 1920, and contingents of British, French, American and Japanese soldiers landed in Russia to support the Whites.
But the world wouldn’t let Russia stay isolated for long. World War II brought it back onto the international stage, and with the defeat of Germany and the exhaustion of Britain and France, it was a superpower. As an insurance policy against another German invasion, the USSR occupied most of Eastern Europe. Stalin also revived Lenin’s old dream of spreading Communism around the world, encouraging Communist parties in Europe and Latin America and guerrilla movements in Africa and Asia. Moscow became the educational destination of choice for Czechs, East Germans, Ethiopians, North Koreans, Vietnamese, Cubans, and random radical leftists everywhere. Russia thought of itself as at the forefront again — in science and technology, with wonders like the atomic bomb and artificial satellite, and in art, with the very modern Socialist Realist style.
Yet this Russia was still very isolated. It regarded the outside world with suspicion, either because it feared attack or because its ideas were dangerously attractive (or both). Information was strictly limited; travel was heavily restricted. Russian language and culture was promoted over the multitudes of minorities in the Union. Foreign writings and film had to be smuggled in. Censorship disguised Russia’s lag behind the West.
As I’m sure you know, this state of affairs did not last. The Communist edifice crumbled in a few short years (1989-91); the Marxist model had failed. Once again Russia turned to the outside world for help and guidance. The “Washington consensus” of trade liberalization, monetary austerity, and mass privatization was used as shock therapy to cure the post-Communist hangover; it failed, leading to a sharp drop in real income and credit and a steep rise in life expectancy and alcoholism. The IMF had to bail Russia out in 1998. On the other hand, the victorious West extended a hand of friendship to its defeated adversary, welcoming it into the G-8 (a club of major democracies that holds summits yearly), the Council of Europe (a pan-European organization devoted to protecting human rights and the rule of law), and the World Trade Organization. The antagonism of the Cold War era ebbed, and Russia was treated as a partner — if an inferior one — by America, Britain, France, Germany, and so on.
This treatment only fed into Russia’s inferiority complex, however. After a lifetime of being told that they are a superpower destined to rule the world, begging for help from capitalist overlords was a bitter pill to swallow for Russians. It couldn’t even do much to support its old client, Serbia, in its wars of the 1990s. It also grew exasperated at Western hypocrisy in human rights and democracy, pointing to interventions in Iraq and Libya as evidence that the West wasn’t purely dedicated to high moral standards, whatever it might claim.
This brings us to the present day, when Russia, under its dictator Vladimir Putin, has finally decided (as of 2014) not to bother with pretending to be Western anymore (although it remains part of the Council of Europe). In open defiance of Western norms, it has annexed Crimea and harassed Ukraine by sponsoring an insurgency in its eastern region. It regularly denounces the West, and America in particular, for its quest for world domination, punitive economic sanctions, lack of regard for human rights, and general arrogance and hypocrisy. Putin has promoted a new ideology and sense of Russian identity to replace discredited Communism; it draws a lot from Old Russia, following what would be considered conservative Christianity in the West and frowning on what are perceived as immoral, perverse and dangerous customs. Although nowhere near as harsh as the police states of the czars and Communists, dictatorship is back, with political opposition quelled and secret police keeping a stern watch on society.
As this overview of Russian history should make clear, Russian identity is a complex issue. Even after a millennium, Russians haven’t quite figured it out. Russia’s European heritage should be indisputable; besides all that Mongol history, a substantial Muslim population, and all those Russians living along the Chinese border, Russians are culturally part of Europe. As before, Western cultural forms like Hollywood movies and rock music are trendy; Western thinkers are widely read. Russians look much like their white brethren. Slovaks, Croats and Ukrainians can understand a lot of what Russians say.
But Russia still has an uneasy relationship with its western neighbors. Getting invaded over and over again by Mongols, Poles, Swedes, French and Germans (and menaced by Turkey, Japan, America, etc.) doesn’t help. A tough climate and brutal history has encouraged a might-makes-right mentality. Democracy never really took root in Russia; Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s only unarguably democratically elected president*, is remembered today as a clownish, ineffectual loser. Whatever the failures and horrors that Communism wrought, Russians never really got over the loss of their empire. Superpower status is not conceded easily.
And so it is hardly surprising for those with a long view that Russia is currently engaged in a propaganda war and covert campaign against the West and its allies. From its perspective, the slow encroachment of the EU and NATO eastward seem like a gradual takeover threatening national identity. But a long view also shows that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that Russia has a history of accommodating Western values and accepting Western norms too. Putin, after all, once welcomed the spread of the EU and NATO early in his presidency. It probably helps to be patient with Russia. Some day the tide will again turn.
There was also Aleksandr Kerenskiy, leader of a short-lived provisional government in 1917 that ran on liberal principles.