Russia’s scorning of Europe
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