April 22, 2022

Russia: In Between The West And The East


An excerpt from, "Russia between East and West: Perceptions and Reality" by Alexander Lukin, Brookings, March 28, 2003:

The East and West have been symbols in Russian culture for centuries and have served as reference points for Russians in their search of cultural and geopolitical identity. They continue playing this role in contemporary Russia. The political position and practical policy agenda of a contemporary Russian politician or any other member of the educated elite still depends largely on where he or she positions Russia on the East-West axis of the geopolitical compass and where he or she wants to see the needle point in the future. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Russian policy, both foreign and domestic, changed its orientation several times. During the first years of President Yel’tsin’s rule, it was lopsidedly Western, with all things Western enthusiastically accepted and promoted by the government often at the expense of the feelings of the population. In foreign policy it meant voluntary subjection to Western, mainly US foreign policy, a course that was enthusiastically pursued by foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev. This course eventually ran into growing opposition from public opinion, and a large part of the academic, political and business elite. This led to a change of policy to a more balanced one under foreign minister Yevgeniy Primakov. Primakov took steps to strengthen relations with the countries of the CIS, the Muslim world, China and India and even attempted to use the latter two countries as a counterbalance to growing US influence. After some hesitation, President Putin adopted a pro-Western and US stance post-September 11 as well as full integration with the Western world. However, the mistakes of Kozyrev’s diplomacy have been learnt as can be seen from Moscow’s position during the Iraq crisis. Putin has not given all his support to one power or power center, balancing instead between the US and Europe and adopting a position which in his view serves Russia’s interests. Moscow has also carefully avoided any steps that could be seen by its population as humiliating or disrespectful of other countries. Development of relations with the West under Putin has been accompanied by maintaining good relations with Asian countries important to Russia including the Central Asian states, Iran, China, both Koreas and India. While the majority of the population and the greater part of the elite support this policy for the time being, it is still criticized by some experts and opposition politician as being lopsidedly pro-Western. An analysis of the attitudes of Russian elites and the population as a whole shows that this policy will continue to be supported only if it is perceived by society as balanced and fruitful in terms of growing living standards. If this is not the case it will come under sharp criticism just as Kozyrev’s policy did. The difference in this case is that its obvious promoter, President Putin, will take all the blame.

An excerpt from, "Finding the West Part 4" by Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers, InternationalResearches.com: 

Russia was (and is) both outside and inside Europe. Geographically, it spans two continents, Europe and Asia, despite the fact that these belong to one Eurasian landmass. Although Russia was part of Christendom, it never seemed completely European to the Europeans, and although most of its territory was in Asia, it was never completely Asian to Asians. Although a Christian power, Russia contained a number of minorities belonging to different faiths, and as an Orthodox power, it considered the Roman Catholic Church schismatic. According to most nineteenth-century scholarship, the Russian language was Indo-European, and Russians were racially Aryan or white. Yet Russians were somehow not fully Aryan; on the racial scale, Slavs were lower than Germans. Culturally, Russia's educated elite were Europeanized, and French was the language of the nobility. Politically, it became a European power under the guidance of Peter the Great's successors, notably Catherine. Like later anti-colonial theorists, Russian nationalists believed that European culture was alien and imposed. Yet unlike them, they had to acknowledge that the source of this imposition was their own monarch rather than a foreign power. In the nineteenth century, Russia was becoming technologically and commercially modern, as was the rest of Europe. But it continued to be economically and politically backward, having a massive agrarian population which consisted of bonded labor until the 1860s.

Even if one accepts the imaginary geography of the Eurasian landmass which divides it into two continents, Russia was both European and not quite European. Given the constant disputes over the boundary between Europe and Asia, and that, wherever located, Russia belonged to them both, Europe was not a term that could merely exclude Russia, although it often was used as a distinguishing term nonetheless. The West, in contrast, proposes an essential difference in the western part of Europe, thereby making western Europe the real Europe, and Eastern Europe less real. According to Oskar Halecki, "those who call European civilization Western are inclined to decide in advance one of the most difficult and controversial questions in European history. They accept the  idea of a fundamental dualism in Europe and consider only its western part really European".

Yet Russian national identity could never rest in the simple dichotomies between the European West and itself as East. European Russophobes might well believe that Russia was, despite everything, Asiatic; they feared that Russia was a land of seething barbarian hordes ready to flow in from the steppes. But Russians identified with Europe because European knowledge had allowed them finally to contain the "barbarians" still threatening Russia's borders. Traditionally, Russians distinguished between themselves, the settled Slavs of the north, and the nomadic steppe peoples of the south. According to Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, the invasion of the Mongols was "the most traumatic historical experience of the Russian people". Even after the end of Mongol rule, Russia had to defend itself against Tartar incursions until the eighteenth century. Russia felt secure enough to start expanding eastwards only after the implementing the westernizing reforms initiated by Peter. The older terror of peoples from the south and east was replaced the newly adopted European view of superiority over backward tribes. So, while Europeans might have thought of Russians as Asiatic hordes, Russian identity was first based on countering Asiatic hordes, and later, on dominating them, in the Russians' new role as good European imperialists and members of the white race. Manuel Sarkisyanz argues in his 1972 "Russian Conquest in Central Asia" that "it was Russia's claim to forming a part of Europe and to being Europe's shield against the onslaughts of Asia that constituted, in a manner of speaking, her credentials for admission into the Concert of European Powers". From this point of view, Russia deeply identified with Europe.

This sense of commonality with civilized Europe to the west, and opposition to Asiatic barbarians to the east and south, was complicated by a number of countervailing tendencies: the Russian religious heritage in the Byzantine East rather than the Catholic West; the scholarly interest in Asia promoted by the Russian tsars in order to justify the expansion of their sphere of influence eastward and to foster a patriotism that would be resistant to European revolutionary tendencies; and the Romantic admiration expressed by certain educated Russians in the nineteenth century for the free life of the wild men of the Caucasus, which played a role, as Russia's frontier, analogous to America's West. Russia's imaginary geography on the EastlWest axis was thus quite complex.

Video Title: Russia on the Oval: "Between East and West: The Question of Identity in Russian History." Source: University of Montana. Date Published: January 14, 2014. Description:

Part one of the 2013 Community Lecture Series, Associate Professor and History Department Chair Robert Greene presents "Between East and West: The Question of Identity in Russian History." The lecture series is presented by the UM Office of Alumni Relations and the Alumni Association.