If anyone wants to understand why Russia has always been a mortal threat against the West, it is essential to examine the historical development of the Russian state. With the exception of the Central European peoples, westerners often consider Russia through the sphere of the Soviet Union and the Second World War. But we must look further back if we wish to understand the Russian nation and Kremlin’s long-term imperialistic aims and motivations.
A Byzantine-Asiatic culture
A simple explanation of the historically cultural elements and traditions that have influenced Russia and its civilization is much needed here. The confrontation between Russia and the Free World is often portrayed as a clash between East and West; and since the rise of Russia as a world power, the country has always been considered a representative of Asianism. Historical analysis, however, has revealed that Russia has a complex identity, a Byzantine-Asiatic one, which stands in sharp contrast with the values of the Western civilization.
The Byzantine Empire, indeed, contributed to the shaping of the country’s political culture and social organization by providing Russians with the gift of Orthodoxy. The millennium-old strong and unbroken presence of the Orthodox faith in Russia resulted in an ultra-conservative, anti-intellectual, anti-democratic, and xenophobic worldview that kept Russia isolated from the West for a number of centuries.
But one should remember that Mongols and Tatars ruled Russia from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. These warriors of the steppe brought despotism, backwardness and ignorance to Russia. And it was this painful experience that caused Russia’s traditional adherence to the curbing of freedom and also Kremlin’s hostile attitude towards neighboring states.
The effects of the Mongol rule over Russian lands were profound and it influenced greatly the political, social, and religious facets of Russia. The very Mongolian cultural impacts are still evident today in Russia from on the language to on the form of the government. Had the chance been given to experience the Renaissance, as had the other European states, the political, religious and social thought structure of Russia would presumably differ greatly today than it really is now. However, despite the fact that the Russians became a more Asiatic nation in political and cultural terms as the result of the Mongol oppression, their deep Christian roots helped them maintain a link to Europe.
The Mongol yoke contributed to the course that Russian culture, political geography, history, and national identity would take. Nevertheless, the negative anti-western aspects of Russian political culture come not only from the Mongol Empire but also from the Byzantine world. Therefore, Byzantinism and Orthodoxy became deeply integrated with Asianism. This all-embracing Byzantinism-Asianism, a system of military theocracy-autocracy characterized by a Messianic imperialistic ideology, led to tragic results for the Russian people: a despotic state that subjugated the unfortunate Russians a long time ago and is continuing to do so. It is no wonder why the Tsarist Russia and Soviet Union were called “the prison of the peoples” and “the prison of the nations.”
To sum up, many analysts have wondered if Russians are a part of Europe. Undoubtedly, Russia has been connected to Europe for centuries. It is evident that geographically and culturally, the Russian people are actually “Eurasians” with a unique Byzantine-Asiatic mentality, not found elsewhere. However, the desperate effort of Russia to portray itself as a pure European did not prevent Russians to be hostile to the West in cultural, social and political dimensions, despite the admirable efforts of Peter the Great, actually a ruthless despot, to transform his semi-Asiatic barbaric nation into a completely modern westernized and European one.
Russia’s imperialistic ambitions
The most important idea for Russians from the fall of Byzantium until today is the idea of empire and they think they are an imperial nation with a holy mission to realize. Russian history is an unbroken chain of endless territorial expansion, bloody annexation, suffering and tragedies of conquered ethnic groups. The idea of empire has been always one of the most precious ones in Russian ideological lore and it is this that Russians proudly proclaim to other nations, especially their European and Caucasian neighbors, who had suffered for a long time under the Kremlin’s totalitarian rule.
The history of Russian imperialism began in the sixteenth century. From its very beginning, Russian expansion was steeped in the religious doctrine of the “Third Rome,” which was borrowed from the Byzantine tradition. However, the holy mission to “liberate” Constantinople, the Dardanelles, and the Balkans had to be postponed for the future. All of the Russian state’s aggressive wars of invasion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were against its numerous neighbors – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, Livonia, the Khanates of Crimea, Kazan, Astrakhan, and the nomadic tribes of Siberia.
The territories which Russia acquired through her imperialistic wars from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century (and during the Soviet period), such as Poland, Baltic States, Central Asia, Caucasus, Crimea and Finland, had no common aspects with the rest of Russian territory. These conquered regions were so different from the Russian authoritarian state in all conceivable aspects such as nationality, culture, traditions, and religion. For that reason, several cases of enforced Russification took place in most of the occupied areas, including the Eastern-Central European ones at the same time as the fact that tribes such as the Uralic and Volga-Finnic peoples were completely assimilated and their cultures disappeared.
It also has to be mentioned that the control of the Polish and Lithuanian lands by the Tsarist Russia (and later by the USSR) always threatened the fragile European balance of power and it proved disastrous for the West on several occasions since the nineteenth century. Poland, the heart of Europe, was not called Antemurale Christianitatis (Bulwark of Christendom) without a reason. The Poles did not only defend the values of the Western civilization from the Ottomans, but also from the Russian Empire’s anti-western holy divine mission (or the USSR’s anti-western mission of global Communist revolution) to expand itself against the Latin heretics and pluralism of the West.
The most important characteristic of the Russian and Soviet imperialism has always been the maximization of territorial expansion for the realization of economic, cultural and political interests as it has been one of the important principles of state policy. Moreover, it is not an exaggeration to say that the despotic states of Tsarist Russia and the USSR were built on the corpses of the non-Russian conquered peoples, who suffered for centuries under the yoke of the Kremlin’s imperialistic domination.
Russian paranoid mentality
Apart from the Russian expansionist agenda, a paranoid “besieged by the West” mentality has characterized the foreign policy and strategic thinking of the Kremlin for centuries. This anti-western dimension of Russia has a deeper layer. We have to keep in mind that Russia’s national identity has historically been shaped in opposition to its traditional military enemies – its European neighbors. The specific root of this phenomenon is linked to Catholicism that was historically perceived by the Russians as an obstacle to their Orthodox Messianic mission.
However, Russia did not only invade, but also was invaded a few times. The Russians saw all foreign invaders – Polish and Lithuanian forces, Napoleon and Hitler – as hateful symbols of Western civilization that tried to destroy the last bastion of Orthodoxy. The Kremlin’s manipulation efforts of public opinion always try to emphasize those invasions, repeating ad nauseam for decades that the West is plotting to encircle Russia and invade and destroy the Russian “exceptional soul.”
So what is the main objective of Russian deceptive propaganda? It is the method of the aggressor playing the victim by using the classic “the West wants to dismember Russia and control her resources” motto. And such methods are enough to turn the tables by turning the invaders into victims in the eyes of the public. This kind of rhetoric enables effectively the Russian elites to officially justify their aggressive foreign policy by presenting it as defense-through-attack.
Another problem for the West is that Russia has established an image of being a champion of conservative values. Since the West is in decline, where political correctness, ultra-progressivism, unlimited materialism and globalization threaten the moral and traditional values of the Western civilization, Russia follows the steps of militant Islam by taking advantage of the West’s moral decay. To achieve its purposes, Russia seeks to be a great ally for European conservatives and right-wing political parties on issues like defending the values of family and religion against a tide of liberal “pro-gay” progressive way of life without limits.
Clearly, the Kremlin’s ambitious – but unrealistic – aim is to control several European countries, marking an end to American hegemony over Europe and also the end of the dominant power of the Free World. Nevertheless, Russia’s target audience is not only the right-wing fringes of western politics but also people in what was once called the Soviet sphere of influence in the ex-Eastern Bloc, the Middle East and even Africa. Russian academics, diplomats and journalists with the assistance of several dangerous European apologists or fifth columnists have taken an active role, building a powerful coalition of pro-Russian conservative circles. No need to analyze further why these Moscow’s European influential “agents” (who can be found in Central European countries as well) are the Russia’s Trojan Horse into the West.
Ultra-conservative values, international diplomacy, effective propaganda and “information aggression” by Moscow’s great-in-size trolling armies and western fifth columnists with a political or academic voice are apparently the main fields where the Kremlin is exercising its international influence.
Unfortunately for the Free World, Russia is decisively back as a dangerous major global player, glorifying nationalism and militarism that once again threaten peace and stability in Europe. No matter how hard the European apologists of Kremlin try to excuse Russia’s imperialistic foreign policy, History is not on their side; for History tells us that since the sixteenth century, the Tsarist Russia, the USSR and post-Soviet Russia, traditional enemies of the values of democracy and freedom have been responsible for nearly sixty wars of aggression against its neighbors.
In its nature, Russian civilization is anti-western and it is based on antagonism towards foreign civilizations and especially towards values such as democracy, civil liberties, individualism, and humanism. Undoubtedly, Russian identity belongs to a non-western civilization “code” as a successor of the Byzantine Empire. Russia will only be able to move forward and become a successful member of the new world of the twenty-first century by embracing completely western values, thus abandoning Byzantine-Asiatic totalitarianism and the “Third Rome” expansionist ideology. But what price Europe will have to pay for that almost impossible transformation is entirely another matter.
Miltiades Varvounis is a prominent Greek-Polish historian and freelance writer, with a thorough knowledge of the history of Central Europe. He has written several books in Greek and English, including “Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe.”