I’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.