Alexei Bayer: Russia as a distinct civilization

Pronouncements by Russian President Vladimir Putin tend to be either painfully obvious or outright ridiculous. The internet is still laughing at Putin’s appeal to Russian “spiritual bonds” — or staples, as some have translated it— as well as his more recent declaration about medieval Russia — or rather, Kyivan Rus — defeating the Pechenegs and the Cumans.

And now his latest pearl of wisdom — describing Russia is a distinct civilization — manages to be both self-evident and preposterous.

Preposterous because it was accompanied by a prescription to preserve that distinct civilization by fostering high-tech industries such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, biotech, etc. In other words, this distinct civilization should be preserved by relying on the achievements of the mainstream global civilization.

But his statement was also self-evident because Russia is indeed different from other countries on the globe, and it has been at pains to preserve the two interconnected features that make it different.

I have pointed out elsewhere that Russia’s national idea is territorial expansion. It is the largest contiguous empire in history. Someone has calculated that over a period of over four centuries the Grand Duchy of Muscovy expanded at a rate of nearly three square kilometers per hour — for 3.5 million hours.

While all those new lands were being acquired, little time or effort was spent on improving conditions on existing territories and the Russian people were treated by their rulers as a homogenous mass with no rights and no value. As a result, Russians, the purported masters of a massive empire, were often its poorest, least educated, and most expendable subjects.

The rapacious desire for further expansion was a key reason why Russia found itself not only a combatant in World War I but one of the conflict’s chief instigators. The tsars had long cherished the dream of conquering Istanbul and thus become heirs to the Eastern Roman Empire and heads of the fractious Eastern Christianity — while also gaining unimpeded access to the Mediterranean.

Successive wars with the Ottoman Turks were steadily advancing that goal — until Britain and France intervened to curb Nicholas I’s ambitions in the Crimean War (1855-56). Then, in 1878, with Russian troops within sight of Constantinople, the prize was snatched from its grasp by a new continental power, Kaiser’s Germany. Some historians believe that this was the turning point in European history, when Russia broke with Germany and started to drift toward the Western Powers.

Of course, the ensuing war became a disaster for the entire continent, not just for Russia. But when the Bolsheviks took over in November 1917, they rejected territorial expansion for the first time in Russian history and proclaimed the principle of self-determination for all nations living under the imperial rule.

The Soviet government duly lost Poland (after the Poles fought off the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw), Finland, Moldova, and the three Baltic nations. But the non-expansionist stage didn’t last long. The Bolsheviks promptly reverted to form and fought to return Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia to the Russian fold. Under Stalin, not only a portion of the lost territories was regained, but Russia’s sway eventually spread over half of Europe as well — even though the countries of the so-called Socialist camp weren’t annexed outright.

After the collapse of communism the principle of self-determination was proclaimed for the second time, and 14 former Soviet republics took advantage of it to go their own way. But once again, the period when Russia tried to become like any other country and not a distinct civilization lasted for only a brief spell.

]The two Chechen wars, the ongoing situation in Moldova’s Transdniester, and the Russian military umbrella for Armenia should all be classified colonial conflicts. Now, in the new century, Putin has returned Russia to its traditional pastime, de facto expanding Russian borders into Georgia and Ukraine.

The occupation of Crimea has cost the Russian people dearly but enthusiasm for expansion has not evaporated. There’s still a broadly based support in the “Russian world” for the annexation, and even hope that “Kyiv, too, will someday be ours once again.”

In the early days of Muscovy’s territorial growth it was spreading into sparsely populated lands and came into conflict with less developed nations. However, in the 18th century, when Peter I pushed Russia into the European arena, fighting wars against more advanced foes required advanced military technologies and a modern industrial base. Peter began by importing foreigners, a practice that continued throughout the first imperial century. By the start of the 19th-century efforts to create an indigenous educated class started to bear fruit.

This is why Russian arts and literature first began to flower only 200 years ago. But along with the (desirable) industrial and military applications of education came things such as free-thinking and demands for more rights and liberties. In other words, starting with the attempted Decembrist revolt in 1825, pressure began to slowly build for turning Russia into a constitutional monarchy and for transforming a distinct Russian civilization into a basic European one.

The monarchy resisted those pressures to the last and ended up losing everything. The protest movement against tsarism was spearheaded by the better educated. But in the end, the spoils of its victory went to the masses, who were more conservative and were apparently pining away for the monarchy.

The same process took place in France after the French Revolution, where restoration came in the form of Napoleon and then the Bourbons. In the Soviet Union, it took the far uglier shape of Stalinism. Even the modest rights formerly afforded to the subjects of the tsar were cruelly taken away, slavery was recreated in the Gulag, serfdom was reintroduced and the tyrant was worshipped like an Egyptian pharaoh. The old monarchy was replaced by a new, far more despotic kind.

Stalinism was rejected by his successors but the system didn’t quite change. Yet it was inevitable that the educated classes, still used extensively by the military establishment and industrial complex, would eventually demand greater rights and freedoms. It is telling that the greatest human rights campaigner of the Soviet era, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, was also a brilliant physicist highly decorated by Stalin for his work on the Soviet hydrogen bomb.

Some people believe that if Sakharov lived, he could have become a Russian president on the model of Vaclav Havel, who would have saved Russia from itself.

In the event, Russia never truly embarked on the path toward normalcy. Its first president Boris Yeltsin will probably enter history as the first and only freely and fairly elected Russian leader when he won his first term. But the yearning for an absolute monarch resurfaced very soon thereafter and now Russia is once more governed without any conventional checks or balances.

While Stalin was a true villain, Putin, as if to supply another example of Marx’s observation about tragedies in history repeating as farce, is a colorless, undistinguished, banal kleptocrat.

The problem with his call for developing high-tech industries in order to preserve Russia’s distinct civilization is that it requires an educated entrepreneurial class. Such people will surely want to live in a normal civilized country, not in a distinct civilization. But of course, this problem will never arise in the first place: precisely because Russia is a distinct civilization, the funds allocated for the development of such industries will be promptly pilfered.

(c) KyivPost


  1. Good article, except for the downplaying of putler’s evil.
    Lord Palmerston in 1855 wanted to consolidate the allies’ occupation of Crimea. He took a hard line; he wanted to expand the war, foment unrest inside the Russian Empire, and permanently reduce the Russian threat to Europe. As usual, France and Austria sued for peace and gave it back to them in the Treaty of Paris. A great pity that Palmerston did not get his way. Catastrophic in fact.

    • I’ve often asked myself why the biggest nation in the world would be hell bent on getting bigger at the expense of a better life for the people. Other nations like China and Israel have expansionist ideologies but at least for the time being its geared toward education, technology and prosperity for the nation. Moskali seem to be ok with being stupid and starving as long as they can say they are the biggest. Lest they forget the fact that nobody will attack Moskovia not because they are the biggest but because nobody wants it!

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