Russia’s scorning of Europe

May 1, 2014

After a quarter of a century of claiming to be a part of Europe, Russia has ceased to regard it as a goal. As tension over Ukraine remains taut, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has confirmed a new line. He no longer wants Russia to be thought of as “European.” Europe and Russia, he now says, are in separate moral spheres.

When I first began visiting Russia in the Soviet Union in the eighties and eventually lived there, it marked itself as a different political, economic and social world system. What struck the Western visitor most was that it wasn’t a consumer society. There were no advertisements; the shops, largely empty of goods, were overstaffed by women who ignored you or were rude; the restaurants sold greasy, lukewarm and sometimes uneatable food. Hotel rooms were bare, with tepid water, cracked ceramics and bad smells. Most people — even young women — were dowdy. And that was Moscow. Outside the capital, it was often worse.

One could say — as I did — that these things were superficial. Soviets may have argued that they aimed for modesty of living; they were attempting to make citizens more or less equal in plainness, directing them to political or intellectual interests and satisfying the mind rather than the tastes for comfort.

To be sure, Soviet Russia was a reading society. Metro passengers were accompanied by books, magazines and newspapers. The books were often the Russian classics. Once I had some language and could make friends, a world of warmth, curiosity and hospitality opened. It was demanding but rewarding.

The eternal conversation that Westerners had about Russia was: Are Russians Europeans? I would have said: Of course they are.

Russian artists were a large part of the European cultural wealth of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In literature, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky and Pasternak; in music, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich; in art, Repin, Serov, Kandinsky, Malevich and Chagall. Once on a trip to Khabarovsk, on the eastern edge of the Russian landmass — eight hours flying time from Moscow — I saw a play by the nineteenth-century French dramatist Edmond Rostand, whom I knew nothing of.

The whole issue seemed settled when, from 1987 onwards, the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev began talking of “the common European home.” In Strasbourg in 1989, he said that the logic of sharing a common home ruled out “the very possibility of the use of force or threat of force.”

The Soviet Union collapsed, Boris Yeltsin became president of Russia, and in 1997, again in Strasbourg, he told the Council of Europe that “we are now poised to begin building together new greater Europe without dividing lines, a Europe within which no single state will be able to impose its will on any other.”

At first, Putin did not seem different. He told the Federal Assembly in Moscow in April 2005, five years after succeeding Yeltsin, that “we have always been an integral part of Europe and share all its values and the ideals of freedom and democracy.”

Well, he’s changed.

In Putin’s marathon “Direct line to Vladimir Putin” conversation with pre-selected callers on April 17, he talked of Europe with some contempt, saying that “Europe has been left by the wayside… Europe doesn’t like solving problems because it has grown used to living in peace. This is between us and the U.S.”

A front-page story in last week’s Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Journal) reprinted Putin answer to a question about the values of the Russian people. He said that “it seems to me that a Russian… before everything else thinks of a higher moral destiny …Western values consist of a person being only for himself, measuring success by his own, private success, and that’s recognized by the society. That’s not enough for us. Even very rich people will say — I’ve earned millions and billions, and what else is there? Only our people have the saying: ‘For peace, death is fine’…that means, death for his own kind, for the sake of one’s own people…for the fatherland.”

It was a rich and frightening response. Putin is certainly scorning what had been “the common home” and saying that Russians have a higher moral sensibility than Westerners. He’s also saying that Europe is “left by the wayside” because it’s floundering in a flabby, post-military bog, unable to solve problems which, by implication, only the still-warlike nations of Russia and the U.S. can settle. He’s also saying that Russia is Russia: a separate, still great, power.

In Moscow I heard a talk by Arseny Roginsky, the founder and director of the Memorial organization, which was set up in the last years of the Soviet Union to catalogue and honor the memories of the millions who died in camps and prisons and starved in their homes in the Stalin years. He passed around a map of Moscow, showing the interrogation centers, torture chambers and killing yards of the secret police, in the heart of the capital.

Russians think and talk about the soul more than Westerners. They use it as a mix of conscience, of sensitivity to others and to nature and of cultural discrimination. But most have abandoned any effort to grapple with a past that is still well within living memory. If, as Putin says, Russians are keepers of a higher moral destiny, isn’t the first task at home, amid Russia’s own history?

In the categorical rejections of Putin, in his evident scorn, we seem fated to see Russia as a civilization much further from us than the forbidding Communist monolith that I first encountered.

PHOTO: Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) talks to Government Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin during a meeting on the development of local self-government in Pskov’s Kremlin, some 650 km (404 miles) northwest of Moscow May 23, 2011. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Pool


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Said one of the facists representative in the media.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Excerpt – a higher moral destiny …Western values consist of a person being only for himself, measuring success by his own, private success, and that’s recognized by the society. That’s not enough for us.

That sounds very socialist and religious to me and it is to be expected. Religious values are a foundation for many of our differences and our wars and that will never change.As just one example of religious difference, America’s tolerance of Gays and Gay marriage is the opposite to Russia. America’s well known worship of the $ is another.

excerpt -Europe doesn’t like solving problems because it has grown used to living in peace. (Perhaps he means that Europe simply acquiesces to America’s wishes).

The crisis in Ukraine has this foundation. America is the supreme hegemon of the late 20th and early 21st century. One need only count America’s hundreds of foreign military bases to realize that fact. It is likely that American hegemony in Asia will bring about a confrontation with China. American hegemony created the crisis in Ukraine. Russia only reacted to it. China will react also.

What is the difference between America & EU putting NATO and its’ weapons on Russia’s doorstep in Eastern Europe, and Russia putting troops and weapons on America’s doorstep in Cuba or Central America. None in principle, so why in this instance should we expect the response from Russia to be different than America’s was for Cuba?

The Western world, that shares a common religious heritage with America, gives it support and turns a blind eye toward all of America’s moral shortcomings. The American image is built on myths about life there. The signs of that are everywhere, if you are receptive.

Posted by whoisit | Report as abusive

@whoisit…..great post. Thought provoking.

I do wonder what dissident Snowden thinks of Russia.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

Yes, Putin is VERY moral… LOLOLOL… Just ask his mistress of how many years – the one giving birth to his illegitimate Putinis – Alina (find her semi-nude photos on Foto Galeri Anasayfa). See his ‘moral’ divorce (also against his religion) but he wanted a young hottie first lady, so to heck with religious rules.

Putini has no rules – what he wants he takes, by force if necessary. After all, it’s not his life at stake.

Posted by CdnLady4 | Report as abusive

@whoisit, so well said. Your comments are more insightful than the authors!!!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

The basic mistake of pundits who talk about Putin is they put him on the same level of leaders from the West. Putin is nothing like leaders in the West for several reasons. First, he has no constituency to listen to, no polls, no party leaders or Parliament to leaven his ideas or rein in his gambits. Second, he has no need to tell the truth, in fact Russian Government statements are so slanted they are almost all inversely true. I often put a ‘NOT’ in front of what they say and it becomes the truth, for example, we are massing troops near Ukraine but we will not invade. Reverse that, they intend to invade. Recently they said they were moving troops away from the Ukraine border, Western spy satellites show, no movement. Third, Putin is not operating like a rational player. Much like Hitler’s obsession with Lebensraum, Putin’s concept of Greater Russia has no economic benefit, in fact, like all psychotic dreams, it is creating a vast economic decline that will persist for many years, forcing the Russian economy back on its oil revenues and very little else. More and more these days Russia is becoming another Mexico, ridden with corrupt politicians, huge criminal syndicates parasitically draining broad swathes of the economy, dependent on a narrow economic base stiffened by oil revenues that must eventually decline, a poorly developed infrastructure and a vast underclass with few skills and no hope for a better life. If we shared a border with Russia, they’d show up on the corner at Home Depot, alongside the Mexicans and Central Americans. Their nukes make this current madness in Russia’s leader troubling. Psychotics have no compunction about bringing the world down around them like Hitler did, if they can’t have their way. Nothing this man says is true and he laughs at anyone or any news source that takes his statements seriously. His only truth is force and his special forces in Ukraine speak the only truth in this situation, everything else is merely words. History is repeating itself and a careful reading of WWII books about the run up to Poland’s conquest is very very informative.

Posted by AvidHistorian | Report as abusive

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