Russia and Europe: the problem with being family, not just neighbours

RussiaEuropeI’ve just transferred from Moscow to London on the next leg of my travels, and have been catching up on podcasts. In a recent one from the Sean’s Russia Blog SRB Podcasts series, Andrei Tsygankov from SFSU was discussing Russian foreign policy. I agreed with some of his views, disagreed with others, but what struck when he very vigorously made the case that Russia considers itself part of Europe, even if sometimes it finds itself strongly arguing with the ‘rest’ of the continent. I think this is absolutely right; regardless of talk of ‘Eurasianism’ and the like amongst the chattering and governing classes, in my experience Russians of every political complexion and socio-economic status look westwards and consider themselves part of a wider European civilisation. Of course, this leads to problems and miscommunications. I have lost count how many times in the past couple of years Russians have felt the need to tell me, almost invariably in sorrow rather than anger, that the West is treating Russia badly, almost invariably couched in terms of not just common interests but common identity. The very reason for the splenetic way that Moscow responds to what it sees as slights and insults from its neighbours is precisely because they are not neighbours but family. The most savage rows are always with family, after all.

But I’d add that this goes both ways, in a rather different fashion. I would suggest that the West does treat Russia differently from other inconvenient, authoritarian, even insurgent powers. It is not just that Putin is Putin, or that Russia a nuclear power, or even a legacy of the Cold War. The standards for democracy, transparency and rule of law that we expect from Russia — loudly complaining when they are not met, and funding NGOs and the like to uphold — are not the same as those we look for in Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, in Azerbaijan, in Thailand, even in China.

I’m sure there are many reasons (beyond that Russia doesn’t buy our weapons, make our iPhones, or cozy up to us), but one is, I suspect, a kind of reverse Orientalism. In the main, Russian cities look like “our” cities; in the main, Russians look like “us”; in the main, Russian institutions at least appear to be based on the same premises as “ours.”

On some level, I imagine, we look at countries with clearly different ethnic, religious, cultural, historical, political foundations as the West’s and don’t really expect them to be wholly like us. In the modern Whig historical trajectory that places us as the pinnacle of human socio-political evolution, we give them a pass for being further down the road. But the Russians are enough like “us” that somehow we feel their — in our eyes — backwardness and even wilful wandering from the proper path as being all the more poignant and infuriating.

I am ultimately an optimist about Russia of a very European sort; I think they are genuinely embarked at last on a journey that, once the national traumas Putin represents have been worked through, will bring them squarely into a European democratic, liberal, rule of law cultural fold. But it won’t be immediate, it won’t be easy, and we need, without in any way condoning abuses, to accept that Russia cannot and will not be like “us” tomorrow. And if we do want to critique Moscow (as we ought), then we should apply the same standards across the board, and not single Russia out for specially critical scrutiny. That kind of familiar “tough love” does no one any favours.

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  1. I agree and disagree. The Hungarians and the Poles look like us and are family. They too have strayed from the path of liberal democracy but we get much more worked up about Putin than we do about his friend Viktor Orban or about the current Polish regime.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  April 27, 2016

      True, but apart from the embarrassment of admitting we have such folk inside the EU, I also wonder how far they get something of a pass because the shadow of Putin obscures all else…

      • Maybe because Russia’s is Europe’s Other – an ever-present reminder of Europe’s unhally past that has been overcome?

  2. Russian literature, music and art make them seem European too.

  3. It’s Russian problem lack of freedom,democracy,human rights but armed aggressions,threats,military build up,hating propaganda and finance of European disunity and disorder are our problems and only naive person can believe that Russia will become respectful country. It is evil empire led exclusively by KGB cadres with population infected by imperialism and militarism. This is simple truth. All other ideas are just unrealistic wishes.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  April 28, 2016

      This is a ridiculously stereotyped perspective of Russia and the Russian people. No doubt people said similar things about Germany in 1938, but look at it now…

  4. Christopher Hades

     /  April 27, 2016

    Hi Mr. Galeotti,

    Russia had made a new vehicle to deliver its nuclear torpedoes. Is this something to be concerned about?

  5. This is a very good point, which reminds me of something a former Western adviser to the Shah of Iran told the last Iranian monarch in the latter days of his rule. The Shah complained about how the Western media kept harping on his human rights abuses while ignoring those of Saddam Hussein. The adviser told him that the West expects more from Iran because they saw it as a modernizing, Western country whereas Saddam was a backward thug.

    But at the end of the day those who believe in Russia’s ability to be a thriving, successful democratic state have far more faith in Russia than its leadership or many of the people, unfortunately. The Kremlin has long sown the idea that Russians are incapable of survival without exchanging their freedom to a despot for “stability.” Truly they are the Russophobes.

  6. Russia’s “Europeanism” isn’t really the issue. Its present mentality certainly does reflect the way Austria, Germany and even Britain saw the world in about 1900–in terms of imperialism, balance of power and spheres of interest. But all of those countries have gone through the painful process of accepting that Real Politik and imperialism don’t really answer to most of humanity’s needs. Bismarck’s “realism” led to the near-destruction of the Germans.

    Russia is arguably the last classic imperial power. Putin has no other alternative way of dealing with the world than though the lens of past Russian/Soviet imperial history. His regime is a mid-way point in the process of dismantling the old Russian/Soviet empire and replacing it with a viable alternative.

    The problem is, Putin seems no more capable of doing this than Gorbachev was. Until Russia gets a leader of the stature of De Gaulle–who can sweep away the old ways of thinking and create new ones–both Russia and the West are in for some very tough times indeed.

  7. ckgaparajita

     /  May 5, 2016

    We in the West forget that democracy and the human rights did not spring up overnight in our countries. It took many generations of progressive political thought, a functioning judiciary, the rule of law with enshrined freedoms, and parliamentary opposition politics. Contrary to what many Americans think, democracy is not some kind of magic pixie dust that you can sprinkle on a country and have it blossom.

    Russia is emerging from 400 years of tsarist oppression, followed by 70 years of Communist oppression. It has only been one generation since then. Although the outer form of government may have changed, the mentality of the society in many ways remains the same. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.”

    How long? Multiple generations. To quote Jefferson again:

    “More than a generation will be requisite [for an unprepared people], under the administration of reasonable laws favoring the progress of knowledge in the general mass of the people, and their habituation to an independent security of person and property, before they will be capable of estimating the value of freedom, and the necessity of a sacred adherence to the principles on which it rests for preservation.”

    In their entire history, Russia has had neither of these prerequisites: the administration of reasonable laws favoring the progress of knowledge, nor independent security of person and property. Once these prerequisites are achieved — which will not happen any time soon — it will still be more than a generation until they are habituated to it.

    According to the English ambassador to the USSR in its final years, Gorbachev knew that the process of democratization he began would take several generations to complete. Mark is absolutely correct when he says that “it won’t be immediate, it won’t be easy, and we need, without in any way condoning abuses, to accept that Russia cannot and will not be like “us” tomorrow.”

    Two more quotes from Jefferson give us a good perspective on the process Russia is going through:

    “A first attempt to recover the right of self-government may fail, so may a second, a third, etc. But as a younger and more instructed race comes on, the sentiment becomes more and more intuitive, and a fourth, a fifth, or some subsequent one of the ever renewed attempts will ultimately succeed… To attain all this, however, rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over; yet the object is worth rivers of blood and years of desolation.”

    “The generation which commences a revolution rarely complete it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified when called on to think and provide for themselves; and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides to defeat their own rights and purposes.”

    • Americans are still trying to come to terms with Slavery.

      • ckgaparajita

         /  May 7, 2016

        Americans are still trying to come to terms with what democracy is. We are no shining example of a functioning political system; ours is quite dysfunctional at the moment. And it is more of an oligarchy than a democracy (

        Society changes slowly. It was 100 years from the Emancipation Proclamation until African-Americans were guaranteed equal rights under the law. And 50 years later many of the same attitudes remain. Parents pass their attitudes to their children, and so on like a chain. We can be sure that future generations will look down on many things that we accept as normal.

  8. Excellent point that rings even more true for having spent most of my time with ethnic Russians in Central Asia. There, being European is obvious and I never heard of anyone mention Eurasianism even as a intellectual concept.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  May 7, 2016

      No, Eurasianism is something only really discussed by a small semi-insider Muscovite nationalist intelligentsia fraction and, at length, Westerners who think they’ve suddenly uncovered the key to understanding Putin. (And they’re wrong.)

  9. On the question of understanding Putin and Russians in general, I am a novice, which is why I once read a book by a western university teacher, whose name escapes me, about the ‘Russian mind’, which may have been the title of the book. I remember a story from the book in which the author is running a course, at a London college I think, in Russian, in which ‘real Russians’ are involved as teachers. The author finds the Russian teachers lazy about turning up on time for their lessons. In a gentlemanly way he waits for things to improve but finally has to put his foot down with them, after which he has no problem at all. In other words, they were trying it on to see what they could get away with. This is an international activity, no doubt, but I’m reminded of the way the Kremlin behaves. All the time at the moment it seems they are testing to see what they can get away with, even in sport re the doping issue. Any comments from anyone?
    I’m also interested in the prevalence of ‘babushki’ in Belarus, old women who behaves like Sybils, dispensing advice and primitive medicine. I imagine the same hold true in Russia. They function owing to the credulity of a part of the population. My wife is Belarusian and she was involved in the most extraordinary ritual, at the request of the wife of her godson, to ensure the health of a child. I expect this applies to all peasant communities but I wonder about Russia and mysticism in general. The term ‘Rasputinisation’ come to mind, though I’m no sure how to use it, especially as it includes the letters ‘putin’.


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