Russia and Europe: The Dance Goes On

Nearly twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia remains markedly different to its Western neighbours. There are signs, however, that the values it aspires to are increasingly European

Russia’s evolution since the fall of communism has sharply revived  some enduring questions. How does the West best deal with a country whose traditions and approach are so visibly different from our own? What are the prospects for Russia, over time, turning into a “normal European state”? Is Russia, from the European perspective, an insoluble problem?

I served in the British Embassy in Moscow twice — from 1994 to 1998 and again (as Ambassador) from 2004 to 2008. It is the changes in Russia over those 14 years that have given these questions new salience. The mid-1990s were a period of economic chaos in Russia but also of real hope. The deep fissures which had divided our continent for 40 years seemed to be a thing of the past. A system, communism, which had imprisoned and murdered millions was gone. The “End of History” was declared. Democracy and the market economy were to become universal. Central and Eastern Europe quite rapidly assimilated themselves into the West, in particular by becoming EU and Nato members. Russia would take a bit more digesting, but the widespread feeling was that this was just a matter of time. The Russians with whom I met and worked, mostly the aspiring middle class, saw themselves as well rid of communism. They were keen to enjoy the freedom and prosperity that the new dispensation offered. They wanted their country to rejoin the “European Home” from which it had for too long been cut off.

By the time I returned, in 2004, Russia was diverging from the script. One big thing had gone right — the economy was booming. Despite huge inequities and distortions, prosperity and market habits were gradually spreading across the country. But on virtually every other front, Russia, while vastly less alien than it had ever been under communism, remained a long way from the European norm. And the gap, if anything, was growing wider. Elections were manipulated, opposition parties and NGOs pressurised, the media largely docile, the security organs under imperfect control and the legal system was deeply compromised. And Russia’s relations with her Western neighbours had become much more problematic. There were serious arguments about such items as Nato expansion and missile deployment. Russia found herself facing a record number of complaints in the European Court of Human Rights. Quite regularly, one or another of Russia’s neighbours had her supply of gas or oil cut off. UK/Russian relations were a particular black spot with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, enforced closure of most of the British Council offices in Russia and a bunch of pro-government thugs trailing me (as Ambassador) around and trying to break up my meetings. The many nice Russians with whom I continued to have good relations were as keen as before on the benefits of the market and their new personal freedoms, but much more guarded about the consequences for Russia of untrammelled democratic politics. They were also much clearer that Russia should “stand up” to the West rather than try to view herself as part of it. 

So is Russia doomed to be always the part of the European jigsaw that doesn’t fit? Or, to put it another way, to what extent is Russia part of Europe? This is not a mere issue of geography but has fuelled a long debate laden with historical consequence. For 500 years, Russia has hovered uneasily at the Eastern end of the continent, now in, now out. The relationship could be pictured as one of those traditional folk dances where the two sides take a few steps towards each other, and then back — forward and back — without ever reaching a final equilibrium. 

Let’s follow the dance. How have Russia and the West viewed each other over the years? From the West, the predominant image of Russia has long been of a country on the edge of civilisation, not really “one of us”. Giles Fletcher, the first English Ambassador to record his impressions in detail, wrote for Queen Elizabeth I of “the true and strange face of a tyrannical state (most unlike your own) without true knowledge of God, without written law, without common justice”. Frederick the Great found Russia “half barbaric and barely European”. For Hegel, the Slavs were essentially “onlookers in the struggle between Christian Europe and unchristian Asia”. The Marquis de Custine, Russia’s de Tocqueville, described the country as “a society that is still young and savage, European discipline supporting Asiatic tyranny”. And finally Churchill memorably saw Russia as “a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma”. Any popular Western newspaper will supply an up-to-date version of essentially the same views.

There are exceptions to this unbroken line of mystified calumny, but on closer inspection these are observers who saw not the real Russia, but a mostly imaginary example and inspiration for the West. Fellow- travellerdom has a longer history than that with which it is generally credited. Those famous dupes of Stalin, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, had their 18th-century predecessors: Diderot and Voltaire in particular both wrote enthusiastic encomia of Catherine the Great and her supposed reforming projects. Partly this was mercenary — they wanted jobs (and Diderot got one). But what they were really talking about was not Russia but France. Their message was: “If even this semi-barbaric, semi-European country can contemplate reform, then why on earth can’t the most civilised country in Europe?” Their message fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, as if to underline how misled they had been by their supposed reforming exemplar, Catherine rather engagingly remarked: “I shall be an autocrat. That is my job. The good Lord will forgive me. That’s his.”

So if, apart from a few fellow-travellers, the Western view of Russia has been pretty condemnatory, how has it looked from the other side? How have the Russians viewed us? 

This is a much more complicated story and starts with the emergence of Russia from the “Tatar Yoke” (1240-1480) and the final fall of Byzantium (1453), leaving Moscow as the leading city of Orthodox Christianity. For Russians, Moscow was now the capital of the one true faith and Russia the nation destined to lead the world to redemption. 

This eschatological role was most famously set out in the panegyric addressed in 1510 by the monk Philotheus to the Tsar Basil III: “The Tsar is on earth the sole emperor of the Christians, the leader of the Apostolic Church, which stands no longer in Rome or Constantinople, but in the blessed city of Moscow. She alone shines in the whole world brighter than the sun. Two Romes have fallen. But the Third stands. And a Fourth there shall not be.”

This image of Holy Russia as the “Third Rome” — chosen in some way to lead mankind — will recur as our story progresses and it carries with it deep suspicion of foreigners. Thus the Russian Patriarch Ioachim at the end of the 17th century: 

“May our sovereigns never allow any orthodox Christians in their realm to entertain any close friendly relations with heretics and dissenters — with the Latins, Lutherans and godless Tatars (whom our Lord abominates and the church of God condemns for their abhorrent guile), but let them be avoided as enemies of God and defamers of the church.”

This was all very well as long as Russia was proud and isolated. But trade, communication and, more brutally, war have brought Russia into steadily closer contact with the Western end of its continent. A key part of the Russian historical experience has been, at roughly 100-year intervals, huge, potentially exterminatory, invasions from the West. The first of these, by the Poles at the end of the 16th century, brought the “Time of Troubles”, 20 years of anarchy, the arrival of the Romanov dynasty and the growing recognition inside Russia that even the “Third Rome” needed to modernise if it was to survive. Ideologically despicable though the West might be, it had technologies and skills from which Russia had to learn.

The supreme exponent of this view was Peter the Great. At the end of the 17th century, while dealing with the second great invasion from Europe (by the Swedes), Peter set about comprehensively Europeanising Russia. The army, the fleet, the civil service were all reorganised along European lines. He was no longer “Tsar” but “Emperor”. His aristocrats had to pass examinations in Western mathematics before being allowed to marry. Their beards — symbolic of the country’s biblical provenance — were cut off. He moved the capital from “holy” Moscow to a new “window on the West”, St Petersburg. The Orthodox Church ceased to be a source of divine truth and guardian of Muscovite tradition and became a mere department of state — a sort of Church of England on the Volga.

But even Peter didn’t see Russia as part of Europe. With characteristic directness he said: “Europe is necessary for us for a few decades. Then we can turn our backside to her.” And he certainly wasn’t about sharing his autocratic power more widely. He moulded the whole subsequent tradition of Russian governance around the core objective of order, directed from the centre, to hold the nation together and make it strong against its (usually European) enemies. It is impossible to overstate the centrality of this approach to subsequent Russian political history.

Peter was the beginning of a great cleavage in Russian society. He created an essentially Westernised government and elite ruling over a deeply traditional Russian narod — the eternally unchanging, ordinary Russian people. The narod viewed the elite as an alien ruling power (while clinging to a mystical link to the Tsar himself). In their minds, “Holy Russia” lived on. Russia was in effect a colony — a mass of “natives” under a (for the most part not even Russian-speaking) European ruling class. It was this deep division that made social, cultural and economic reform so difficult. Serfdom, gone by the 13th century in most European states, lasted in Russia until 1861. Karamzin, the great 18th-century Russian historian, said of the Petrine revolution: “We [i.e., Russia’s elite] became citizens of the world but ceased in certain respects to be citizens of Russia. The fault is Peter’s.”

For the subsequent century or so, Russia at the elite and political level functioned as part and parcel of baroque Europe. The high point was Catherine the Great who, even while maintaining the autocratic traditions of her great predecessor, Peter, famously launched her 1767 reform of the Russian legal system with an “Instruction” whose article 6 baldly decreed: “Russia is a European state.”

The next big step in Russia’s back and forth dance with the West resulted from the third big European invasion — by Napoleon in 1812. Napoleon was an exporter of nationalism throughout Europe, including to Russia. And as he retreated from Russia, he left behind him the feeling that he had been defeated not by the Westernised aristocracy but by the hitherto despised and neglected narod. It was the stubborn, long-suffering, Russian serf who had seen off the French, not his German-speaking generals. The emblematic figure in Tolstoy’s picture of Russia’s 1812 army is Platon Karataev — the ordinary peasant soldier whose straightforward commitment and self-sufficiency stand in compelling contrast to the squabbling officers above him.

What followed was the indigenisation of Russian intellectual and cultural life — the elite turning back to the people. This was launched by Pushkin (1799-1837) who, as was usual in his class and time, was brought up in French. He learnt Russian from his household serfs. But by his decision to write in the hitherto despised medium of Russian and to use Russian folk motifs, he created the basis for a whole new literature — and a flood of Russianness in all areas of culture. This was the Russian golden age that gave us most of the giants we still revere — Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. It was perhaps Tolstoy who best caught the idea that there is something special and deep about being Russian. The passage from War and Peace which gave Orlando Figes the title for his book Natasha’s Dance tells of the Muscovite aristocrat, Natasha Rostova, staying overnight in the country with her uncle. He strikes up a folk tune on his guitar, and she, contrary to her entire cosmopolitan upbringing, cannot resist the will to dance: “Here was a young countess, educated by a French émigrée governess. Where, when and how had she imbibed the spirit of that peasant dance along with the Russian air she breathed, and those movements which the French style should have squeezed out of her long ago? But her movements and the spirit of them were truly Russian, inimitable, unteachable.”

This revived feeling of Russian specialness did not go uncontested. The mid-19th century saw a furious debate between Slavophiles (supporters of the “Russian Idea”) and Westernisers (who continued to argue that Russia must learn from the West). Perhaps the key symbolic moment in this debate was the huge row in 1867 in Baden-Baden between Turgenev, the careful, precise Westerniser who could see all that was wrong with autocratic, backward Russia, and Dostoyevsky, the huge, passionate, frenzied Slavophile. It was Dostoyevsky who captured the whole mood of the movement when he said: “In general, all the moral concepts and goals of the Russians are higher than those of the European world. A great restoration through Russian thought is being prepared for the whole world.”

But through all the polemical sound and fury it is important to note that there was a brief moment at the end of the 19th century when it looked as if the two movements might be reconciled and Russia’s eternal to and fro dance with the rest of Europe be brought to a close. As the century reached its end Russia, while still economically backward and firmly autocratic, was beginning to merge into the European mainstream. The serfs had been freed. All across Europe the “first globalisation” was under way. The capitalist economy, like the railways, was spreading. The St Petersburg artistic “silver age” — with Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Diaghilev, Kandinsky, Bakst — was part of a Europe-wide phenomenon and much less distinctively Russian than the artistic generation which had preceded it. After the 1905 demonstrations, there was a Russian parliament. The clock seemed to be ticking even for autocracy. Maybe Russia wasn’t so special after all.

But then came the series of hammer blows which shaped the 20th century: the First World War, the 1917 revolution, communism. And the most massive Western assault Russia has ever experienced, by Hitler, in 1941.

And here we come to a huge paradox. An utterly Western ideology, communism, devised for goodness sake by a German economist, in some very real sense revived in Russia all of the self-perceptions of the “Third Rome”. Once again Moscow was not the mere capital city of just another country but at the head of a new messianic creed destined to save humanity. Through the Stalin years it was led by a new Tsar — even more all-powerful and all-knowing than the old — with his own mystical link to the narod: hundreds of despairing mourners were crushed to death at his funeral. And just as before, there were the Western fellow-travellers. Indeed, to our shame, the best quotation I have been able to find to express the messianism of the moment is by an Englishwoman, Beatrice Webb, who, unbelievably, in 1932 in the midst of repression, collectivisation and famine, wrote: “Soviet Russia represents a new civilisation and a new culture with a new outlook on life, involving a new pattern of behaviour alike in personal conduct and in the relation of the individual to the community, all of which I believe is destined to spread owing to its superior intellectual and ethical fitness.” 

But of course it didn’t work, and it certainly wasn’t fitter either intellectually or ethically. Just as Holy Russia had to adapt to Western technological superiority so communism had to adapt to the superiority of democracy and the market economy, and collapsed totally in the attempt.

Which brings us back to where we started: 1989 and the end of the Cold War; 1991 and the final collapse of the Soviet Union; Russia, after this extended historical process of convergence and divergence with Europe, shorn of its superpower status and its messianic pretensions, with a broken-down economy, rampant criminality, deep corruption, real threats to national integrity and an entirely discredited political class. What happens next? 

In retrospect, what happened next was no huge surprise. Other parts of the former Soviet sphere could slip snugly into Nato and the EU where they could be held on their reformist path. Russia is too big, proud and independent to surrender sovereignty in that way. There was a brief flirtation with Western methods of doing things (recall Gorbachev’s optimistic phrase, the “Common European Home”, which in his mind certainly included Russia). But under Yeltsin what resulted was a hugely botched economic reform, vast social polarisation and immiseration, deeply flawed politics, international humiliation in Kosovo and near collapse of the state.

Russia accordingly reverted to some very traditional instincts. The demand of the Russian people for order and national pride, together with deep suspicion of the West, reasserted themselves. And — as with Peter, Catherine and Stalin — a strong ruler, Vladimir Putin, emerged to supply those wants. The press and internal opposition were tamed, troublesome oligarchs exiled or jailed, the rebellious Chechens crushed, and the West was reminded of the limits of its power in Georgia. Difficult and alien as many of the actions of the Putin and Putin/Medvedev governments may look to us, there is no doubt they are immensely popular in Russia. Even in the midst of deep recession Russia has the strong government it wants.

So, do I conclude that the Russia/Europe problem is indeed insoluble? Was Hegel right that the only thing we learn from history is that no one learns anything from history? No I don’t. Current Western antipathy to Russia, as I have noted, reflects a long tradition. And, as often in the past, it is overdone. While we are no doubt in for a difficult ride over the next few years with the sensitive, prickly, resentful Russia we now have, the long-term outlook is much more positive than most commentators allow.

There are two strong reasons for believing this. First, economic. As the “First Globalisation” showed, Russian economic convergence with Europe brings convergence in other ways too. And that convergence is undoubtedly under way. Despite ingrained traditions (not unique to Russia) of corruption and state interference the market economy continues inexorably to spread, and the associated middle class to grow. More than half of Russia’s trade is with Western Europe. Russia is heavily dependent on the West for outside investment and technology. 

The Russian authorities know, after the experience of the 2008 crash, that their country’s economic fate is indissolubly bound to that of the West. These links can only grow stronger and carry with them other links — travel, education, culture. As the ties grow tighter, so the space for serious political or other divergence diminishes.

I should perhaps mention the obvious alternative economic pole of attraction — China. Russia’s trade with China will certainly grow at least as fast as that with the West (Russia’s vast natural resources mesh very naturally with China’s breakneck industrialisation). Senior Russians note wistfully that China has (so far) managed the move to market without the political turmoil Russia has gone through. They talk from time to time of Russia’s “Eurasian character”, and have found various ways of co-operating with China (such as in the UN Security Council) which ostentatiously sideline the West. But the Russia/China relationship also contains deep tensions (not least those created by vast, empty, resource-rich Siberia’s adjacency to overpopulated, booming north China) and masks a huge gap between the two cultures. 

For the second strong reason for confidence in an eventual Russian/European convergence lies in what might grandiloquently be called “Russia’s European vocation”. Russia is still in an acutely post-imperial phase of its history. Her empire, her superpower status, her messianic role, all fell together less than 20 years ago. Those of us who remember Britain in the 1960s and ’70s know how difficult and delusional countries can be just after they are shorn of their empires. But sooner or later Russia, like the UK and other former European great powers, is going to have to settle down in a world dominated by the US, China and perhaps India to being just another big country. It has neither the population nor the ideological standing nor wealth to do anything else. And the company into which it almost inevitably will fall will be that of Europe. Its people and elite overwhelmingly think of themselves as Europeans. Its culture, even with the distinctive Russian flavour, is European. Its history is essentially part of European history. The values it aspires to, the books it reads, are European. Its least troubled border, at last, is its Western one.

This is not going to happen instantly. Russia still has a lot of adapting to do, and, as we are already seeing, the process is not an easy one, either for them or for us. But the direction of travel is inescapable. We are back where we were a century ago with good reason to hope that Russia’s dance with Europe — forward and back, forward and back — may at last be approaching its close. 

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"