Russian identity has always been caught up in the relationship with Europe. It seems that the idea of “a separate civilisation” also has become a kind of an intellectual trap for Russia.
When Vladimir Putin speaks of Russia as a “separate civilisation” and “not just another country”, he echoes the ideas of many Russian politicians and intellectuals before him. The doctrine of Russia as a civilisation that is distinct from the West is an old one, and it has even had sympathisers across Central Europe, too.
For the Russians themselves, however, it has been somewhat of an intellectual trap, which prevented them from successfully completing their post-communist transition in the direction of a liberal democratic country.
A historic mission
Last month Putin suddenly decided to bring up the evergreen topic of Russian politics again by saying that Russia was “not just a country”, but “really a separate civilisation”. To anyone even casually observing this great country the idea behind the statement is anything but new.
The discourse on Russia as a distinct civilisation has been around since the nineteenth century. Russian Slavophiles saw their country as entrusted with a historic mission of saving the West from decay and spiritual “ossification”, and Nikolai Danilevsky anticipated Huntington when he spoke of different, non-Western “cultural-historical types”.
In the twentieth century, Russian Eurasianists succeeded this tradition, using geographical arguments to make their point.
One way or another, the idea of a separate civilisation always came back to one obsessive thought: Russia is not the West. The irony of it, of course, is that the West has remained a subject that Russian minds have always been very much preoccupied with.
The most recent illustration is the hyper excitement and anxiety over the fate of the Western civilisation that the Russian TV and social media express as they observe the BLM protests and ‘monument lynching’.
Central European outreach
These evergreen ideas about a “distinct civilisation” have had some outreach also in Central Europe. In the nineteenth century, in Austria-Hungary, leader of the Slovak national revivalists Ľudovít Štúr praised Tsarist Russia as the leader of the Slavic world to which the future of humanity would belong, while the morally decaying West clearly seemed to him a chariot rushing to the precipice.
Rulers of the multinational Kingdom of Hungary, in which Slovak revivalists had to operate, deeply resented pan-Slavism which they believed to be a Russian backed plot directed against Hungarian statehood.
In the twenty-first century, history made an ironic flip. While Slovakia styled itself as “a pro-European island” in Central Europe, Moscow’s best friend in the region turned out to be none other than the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. When it comes to that, there are interesting parallels between the two countries.
Hungary, as Péter Balogh‘s recent study demonstrates in detail, has combined the myth of a bulwark of the Christian West with its own form of Eurasianism and the search for Hungary’s Oriental, non-European roots. Orbán’s foreign policy doctrine of the “Eastern opening” promoted increased contacts with Eurasian authoritarian powers, including Russia, who are presented as an economic and political alternative to the liberal democratic West.
In Russia, conservative intellectuals eagerly pick up on Putin’s statements to claim that their country is a civilisation in its own right because it possesses a kind of a soft power they dub “civilisational charm”.
As Boris Mezhuev argues, Russia has the power “to attract some CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) members, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Donbas and even some Central European countries who, if it were not for the European Union and NATO, could form some sort of a civilisational bloc with us”.
More united and more divided
As per “civilisational charm”, this presented list of impoverished breakaway territories ruled by authoritarians does not look particularly impressive. Central European countries, on the other hand, chose “to return to the West” after the fall of Communism. And although quarrels do happen in the big European family, they remain very closely linked to Western Europe.
Today’s EU, as Jaroslav Šimov puts it, “is simultaneously more united and more divided”. In the thirty years since 1989, “the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Europe have created a tight web of economic, political, cultural and personal connections”.
So, even if Hungarian leaders experiment with Eurasianism and admire the great Russian civilisation, they do it under the protection of NATO and the EU as well as – much like the Slovak Russophiles – from a safe distance.
Apparently, Orbán is well aware of that himself. When he instructed his diplomatic corps in 2015 on the issue of Ukrainian territorial integrity, he admonished them that “there must always be something between Russia and Hungary. We do not want a common border; there must be something there: a sovereign state, the bigger the better”.
Not unlike Hungary, Russia has long lived in a geopolitical ambiguity, with rivalling geopolitical images of oneself. The traditional Russian cleavage into the “Westernisers” and those who claim a distinct civilisational identity (Slavic, Eurasianist or other) for Russia, persists to this day.
Following the end of the Cold War, many expected that the “Westerniser” approach would triumph. Russia would finally become a “normal European country”, having said farewell to its imperial ambitions. However, the 2014 Ukraine crisis showed that these expectations were premature.
What exactly went wrong with that plan, and why does the topic of a “separate civilisation” prove to be evergreen?
No existence as objective reality
This is because Russia is, indeed, a civilisation, some would argue. In the words of Molotov’s grandson, it is “too big and too Russian” to become another Western country. But civilisations, in all likelihood, do not exist as objective reality.
Huntington’s thesis about their ‘clash’ is very popular with journalists and some politicians (especially in Russia and East-Central Europe). Its popularity is not surprising: it is simple, catchy and seems to explain everything quickly.
However, it has received very little support from fellow political scientists. In practice, the idea that civilisations are objectively existing entities with clear borders simply does not hold water.
Civilisations were supposed to be defined by ethnicity and religion. But if one civilisation – presumably led by Russia – is supposed to unite all Orthodox people or all Slavs, then why thirty-eight million Poland is Catholic and a happy member of the EU and NATO – together with Orthodox Greece, Slavic-Orthodox Montenegro and Bulgaria as well as other odd examples?
No, it does not seem that civilisations or borders between them exist objectively. Much more likely, these are ideological constructs, produced by politicians and intellectuals. And the contemporary rhetoric about “a separate civilisation” in Russia is a product of its rulers’ disenchantment with what came after Communism.
Traumatised by the turmoil of the transition, disappointed by the loss of the superpower status, they quickly abandoned the “Westerniser” approach of integrating Russia into the West in favour of the old ideas which proclaimed Russia’s exceptional status.
Being a ‘civilisation-state’ (a term used Putin has used in his campaigns) – rather than just another nation-state – implies having special rights and privileges, among other, the right to have a ‘sphere of influence’ in East-Central Europe, and to ignore the West, if it happens to disapprove of how Russia treats its neighbours.
Building up Russia’s exceptional status
In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and organised an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, it finally became clear that its post-Communist transition to a “normal” country had failed.
However, the ideas about Russia’s exceptional status as a “separate civilisation”, which had led to these events, had been building up for many years prior to that. By bringing back old civilisational ideas in a new form, Russians had convinced themselves, once again, that they were exceptional and entitled to a special status in the international community.
In the long-term perspective, 2014 left Russia in a deadlock. The annexation of Crimea further alienated it both from its neighbours and from the West and made future re-engagement immensely more difficult.
Six years later, the ageing Putin decided to change the constitution in order to be able to rule indefinitely, leaving the future of Russia, once again, uncertain and precarious. Some now wonder whether the inevitable collapse of the authoritarian regime in the future would also lead to an implosion of the Russian state – as it did in 1917 and 1991 when chaos ruled Russia, and territories were lost.
How did we get here? Historical explanations are likely to be multiple and complex. But part of this will certainly have to do with ideas, more precisely, with Russia’s inability to resist the temptation of seeing itself not as “just another country” but as a “distinct civilisation” that enjoys special rights and privileges.
Iver Neumann once wrote that Russian identity has always been “caught up in the relationship with Europe”. It seems, the idea of “a separate civilisation” also became a kind of an intellectual trap for Russia. It has visibly prevented it from dealing with its exceptionalist past and moving on to a better, post-imperial future.
To find out more about how Putin’s Russia convinced itself that it is a separate civilisation read: Kazharski A. Eurasian Integration and the Russian World. Regionalism as an Identitary Enterprise. CEUPress, 2019.