RUSSIA IS NOT EUROPEAN

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

A considerable amount of baggage has become attached to the word “European” over the half-millennium that Europe has dominated the world. There’s the geographical meaning – from the Atlantic to the Urals – but, because Europe is a peninsula on the western end of Asia, the frontier is subject to debate. Diplomats sometimes use the word to mean members of the European Union. But the most important meaning is the value-laden one – to be “European” is to be modern, civilised, rational, to hold “values”, to be successful. To be powerful. Not to be “European” is to be none of these things, perhaps even their opposites. Europeans are rulers and exemplars; the others are subjects and inferiors. Throughout the period of European domination, to be considered “European” was favoured and to adopt European habits, dress styles, education and appearance was desirable. Not to be “European”, on the other hand, was an insult: your culture didn’t make the grade. This meaning is commonly found today, especially in the smug phrase “European values“.

I have been considering writing this essay for some years but have put off doing so because I know that for many readers “Europe” means “best” and to say Russia is not European is to say that it’s not good enough. But at last President Putin has given me the opening: “Россия – это не просто страна, это действительно отдельная цивилизация“. “Russia, it’s not simply a country it is certainly a separate civilisation”. And who would dare disagree with him?

I have always regarded Russia, to quote Macron’s term, as a civilisation-state. It is its own thing – not European not Asiatic, it’s Russian. If we use Toynbee’s nomenclature it, like Western Christendom, is a daughter society of the Hellenic society.

To make my argument I will use Toynbee’s methodology in his Study of History to determine what he calls a “society” – a distinct, self-contained entity about which history in the largest scale can be studied. Is Britain one of these? is it, as many Britons thought in his day, a stand-alone culture? His argument was to imagine a history of Britain in a series of chapters. Let us start the book with a first chapter: Celtic Britain. Immediately there is a problem because a huge footnote has to be inserted to explain who the Celts were and where they came from because they didn’t originate in Britain; they arrived there fully-formed, so to speak. Then Chapter 2 might be Roman Britain. Again a huge footnote to explain their non-British origins and history. Then Chapter 3 about the Saxons and again a big footnote. Chapter 4 The Normans and so on. In short each chapter of British history leads one to huge digressions outside of Britain; therefore, Toynbee argued, Britain must be a part of some other society which has a more-or-less self-contained story – Celts, Romans, Saxons and Normans all originate in Europe; no footnotes are needed. This seems to me to be a powerful argument.

Let us apply it to Russia and Europe. We’ll start our European history – you have to start somewhere – with Chapter 1 The Roman Empire. We’d speak about its origin, its conquests, its decay, its legacy. There’s no similar chapter in our Russian book: Russia wasn’t part of the Roman Empire and, in fact, there isn’t much history of Russia up until the 800s. Chapter 2 of our Europe history book would probably be Christianity; Russia and Europe share that but again there’s a big difference. The Roman Empire became officially Christian in the early 300s and the religion spread throughout the Empire. Missionaries from Europe spread the word out to and past the limits of the Empire to Germany and Ireland. The Russian experience is both later and different: Grand Duke Vladimir made a conscious, top-down decision to Christianise and adopted the Christianity of Byzantium; European Christianity was Rome-centred from the start. Chapter 3 of our European history book would cover Charlemagne and the re-creation – independently of Constantinople – of a Christian Roman Empire centred on the formerly pagan and barbarian invaders; nothing like that in Russia which still has two centuries to go before it’s Christianised. Chapter 4 might be the Empire-Papacy struggle – nothing like that in Russia. Chapter 5 is The Renaissance and again there no equivalent in Russia. In fact, you could write most of the European history book without ever mentioning the word “Russia” up until the 1700s.

What of the Russian history book? Its Chapter 1 would probably be about the Varangians and the creation of a region of loosely connected city states at least nominally Orthodox; much of this story would be somewhat mythical or archaeological. Chapter 2 would cover the development of what is now called Kievan Rus, the trade with Byzantium and the many contacts with Europe – a Russian became Queen of France. At this point one could argue (leaving aside the growing importance of the difference of religion particularly after the Great Schism of 1054) that Russia and Europe might have become so entwined as to become one. But our Russian Chapter 3 brings the difference that is all the difference: The Mongols. In a series of lightning campaigns the Mongol forces overran the Russias, destroyed Kiev and forced all the Russian principalities to submit to Mongol rule and to give tribute. Nothing like this happened in Europe, although it might have: the Mongol forces retreated from Hungary in 1242 and never returned. This is another Great If of history; had the Mongols continued to the Atlantic, a second possible entwining of Russia and Europe might have happened. But they departed Europe and remained in Russia.

Much has been written about the effect of Mongol rule on Russia’s development but all agree that it shaped its future very strongly. The two and a half centuries of what the Russians call the “Tatar yoke” cover a time in contemporary Europe that begins when Thomas Aquinas is a boy and ends when Columbus is a young man – a period of enormous change in European civilisation. But in Russia they are years of compliance, endurance and resistance. The recovery of the “Russian Lands” was led by Muscovy, formerly a not very important part of Russia. The textbook date for the end of the “Tatar yoke” was the withdrawal of Mongol forces in the face of a Russian army at the Ugra River in 1480 but it was actually only with Catherine’s regathering of Crimea and “New Russia” in the late 1700s that the very last Mongol ruler of Russian Lands was displaced.

So, our hypothetical European and Russian history books have quite different chapters and that means that they have quite different histories; we’re talking about two things, not one thing.

Europe became immensely powerful in the 1500s, conquered the rest of the world and minor European players like Belgium snatched a pierce for themselves. Even mighty China was subjugated – its “century of humiliation”. Russia was one of the very few exceptions; despite several tries, Europe never conquered it. Peter the Great Europeanised Russia, built a navy, founded the gun factories at Tula, shaved beards, eliminated caftans and required the upper classes to dress like French dancing masters. He did it in order to better prepare Russia to fight Sweden, at that time the dominant power in the area. When Charles XII was defeated by Peter at Poltava in 1709 Russia arrived on the European scene as a great power that had to be taken into account. A century later, Emperor Alexander was one of the five people who redesigned Europe.

Europeans underestimate the importance of their skill at war, preferring to think that it was their values or their political skills or their modernity or their science that made them pre-eminent for five centuries. But their killing power (and their killing diseases) were mighty allies: “Whatever happens we have got The Maxim Gun, and they have not“. Peter, facing attack from Europe, learned European killing ways and so Russia remained independent. Many resisted Western aggression and failed – Tecumseh, Túpac Amaru, Cetshwayo, the Rani of Jhansi – but Peter succeeded. In short, Russia’s (and Japan’s) voluntary Europeanisation was motivated by the desire to learn the European way of war so as to keep independence. At Poltava in 1709, at Vienna in 1814, at Berlin in 1945, an independent Russia became a major force in Europe.

The realities that Europe was never able to conquer it, that Russians look and sound like Europeans on the surface, that in the European constellation Russia is a Great Power have caused no little confusion. Many people have come to believe that Russia is a part of European civilisation but a defective part: a European country, but a bad one. But, once one realises that Russia is not a European country and has a quite different history that moved in parallel with little contact for centuries, one can see past these illusions. Different forces shaped it and different results happened.

Not inferior, not “Asiatic”, not uncivilised, not uncultured; different. A “civilisation state”. As is China.

RUSSIA IS FINISHED QUOTATIONS

I publish this, partly for fun, but also because it gives an idea of what people expected from all the sanctions. Once again, Putin & Co thought longer and better.

Here are the first two things I could find that I wrote at the time saying Russia was surviving quite well: Sitreps 20160519 and 20160623. Another illustration of the fact that we, on our side of the divide, are less often surprised that the others are.

U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros has predicted that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime will face bankruptcy in 2017, when the nation’s economic troubles erode its leader’s domestic approval ratings, according to a column Soros published this week.

“Putin’s popularity, which remains high, rests on a social compact requiring the government to deliver financial stability and a slowly but steadily rising standard of living,” Soros wrote in his column on the Project Syndicate website on Wednesday. “Western sanctions, coupled with the sharp decline in the price of oil, will force the regime to fail on both counts.”

Moscow Times 12 February 2016

THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE, SAYING THE UNSAYABLE

(First published at Strategic Culture Foundation, picked up by JRL/2019/155/16, ZeroHedge, Hedge Accordingly, Out of Mind,

We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.

The Showa Emperor, August 1945

A couple of months ago Putin observed that the time of modern day liberalism had passed.

There is also the so-called liberal idea, which has outlived its purpose. Our Western partners have admitted that some elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable.

Liberalism, in its current manifestation, he suggested, was failing its people. The remarks were happily seized on to bolster the meme that Putin is the enemy. We were assured that liberalism was just fine and criticism was just what you’d expect from “a bloody dictator“. No, Mr. Putin, liberalism is not dead. Martin Wolf: why Vladimir Putin is wrong to claim liberalism is dead. Putin is wrong. Liberalism is more important than ever. So there the issue sat: Putin had been slapped down and any deviations from happy complacency – maillots jaunes, Brexit, Trump – were his fault. His attempts to wreck us would fail because “Defences have proven stronger; citizens are getting wiser“. In any case, Russia won’t be around much longer; the end was coming soon in 2001, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2014, 2019. Well… someday soon.

And then, out of the blue, appears this (my emphases):

We experience this world all together and you know that better than I, but the international order is being disrupted in an unprecedented way, with massive upheaval, probably for the first time in our history, in almost all areas and on a historic scale. Above all, a transformation, a geopolitical and strategic reconfiguration. We are probably in the process of experiencing the end of Western hegemony over the world. We were used to an international order that had been based on Western hegemony since the 18th century… Things change. And they have been deeply affected by the mistakes made by Westerners in certain crises, by American decisions over the last several years which did not start with this administration, but have led us to re-examine certain involvements in conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, and to re-think fundamental diplomatic and military strategy and on occasion elements of solidarity which we thought were forever inalienable… And it is also the emergence of new powers whose impact we have probably underestimated for far too long. China first and foremost as well as Russia’s strategy that has, let’s face it, been pursued with greater success over the last few years.

 

Putin’s gone over the top here: End of Western hegemony? Mistakes? Reconsider? Russia’s success? Well isn’t that just what he would want you to think? The sower of divisions, doubts and chaos just wants us to give up.

Except that the speaker is French President Emmanuel Macron

Video, English. Macron understands that things have got worse for many in the West and says so – maybe the maillots jaunes have got their message though. The market economy, that used to work well, today produces serious inequalities:

When the middle classes, which form the basis of our democracies, no longer have a fair share in it, they start to express doubts and are legitimately tempted by authoritarian regimes or illiberal democracies, or are tempted to question this economic system.

if we continue as before, then we will definitely lose control. And that would mean obliteration. (l’effacement).

He even (!) has a kind word for Orbán in Hungary.

(I don’t think he’s fully thought it out: if, as he thinks, the proper role for France and Europe is to balance between the USA and China, then that will require an independent position: Beijing could never regard an ally of Washington as a “balancer”. So… out of NATO. But he hasn’t got there yet.)

But what he says about Russia is more interesting: the West made mistakes (no counterfeit modesty of allowing that, perhaps, we’re in there for one or two percent of the blame):

We are part of Europe; so is Russia. And if we are unable to accomplish anything useful with Russia at any given time, we will remain in a state of deeply unproductive tension. We will continue to be stuck in conflicts throughout Europe. Europe will continue to be the theatre of a strategic battle between the United States and Russia, with the consequences of the Cold War still visible on our soil. And we will not lay the groundwork for the profound re-creation of European civilization that I mentioned earlier. Because we cannot do that without reassessing in depth, in great depth, our relationship with Russia. I also think that pushing Russia away from Europe is a major strategic error, because we are pushing it either toward isolation, which heightens tensions, or toward alliances with other great powers such as China, which would not at all be in our interest. At the same time, it must be said that while our relations have been based on mistrust, there are documented reasons for it. We’ve witnessed cyber-attacks, the destabilization of democracies, and a Russian project that is deeply conservative and opposed to the EU project. And all that basically developed in the 1990s and 2000s when a series of misunderstandings took place, and when Europe no doubt did not enact its own strategy [l’Europe n’a pas joué une stratégie propre] and gave the impression of being a Trojan Horse for the West, whose final aim was to destroy Russia, and when Russia built a fantasy around the destruction of the West and the weakening of the EU. That is the situation. We can deplore it, we can continue to jockey for position, but it is not in our best interest to do so. Nor is it in our interest to show a guilty weakness toward Russia and to believe that we should forget all the disagreements and past conflicts, and fall into each other’s arms. No. But I believe we must very carefully rethink the fundamentals. I believe we must build a new architecture based on trust and security in Europe, because the European continent will never be stable, will never be secure, if we do not ease and clarify our relations with Russia. That is not in the interest of some of our allies, let’s be clear about that. Some of them will urge us to impose more sanctions on Russia because it is in their interest.

The end of the INF Treaty requires us to have this dialogue [with Russia], because the missiles would return to our territory.

He’s not entirely free from delusion:

that great power [Russia], which invests a great deal in arming itself and frightens us so much, has the gross domestic product of Spain, a declining demographic, an ageing population and growing political tension.

(If it were declining it wouldn’t be as successful as he said it was earlier, would it? And the GDP argument is nonsense.) And “cyber-attacks, the destabilization of democracies, and a Russian project that is deeply conservative and opposed to the EU project” is the usual unexamined twaddle. And if Russia dreamed of destroying an entity which was giving “the impression” that its “final aim” was to “destroy” it, it would just have been defending itself, wouldn’t it? But every journey begins with a single step and this is very far from the usual “if Russia would behave ‘like a normal country‘ we might let it back into the club on probation”.

What really struck me was this:

Take India, Russia and China for example. They have a lot more political inspiration than Europeans today. They take a logical approach to the world, they have a genuine philosophy, a resourcefulness that we have to a certain extent lost.

So the West is not “logical”, has a “shallow philosophy” and no ingenuity. (You know it’s true, don’t you?)

One of the major players in the Western World’s ancien régime is saying:

Our day is coming to an end

and the other guys have a better take on things than we do.

We at Strategic Culture Foundation and other alternative outlets may take pleasure that when we said the world was changing, that the Western establishment was dangerously unaware, when we said that Russia and China were stronger and more resilient than complacent op-ed writers thought they were, that the West was fragile, that Western leaders had failed their people, we were not just crazy people shouting at lamp-posts: a principal of the ancien régime agrees with us. Maybe they do read us in the Elysée.

(Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, they haven’t got the memo:

We don’t always get it right. Not always perfect. But our efforts are noble and important, and we try to make America secure and at the same time [improve] the lives of people in every country … to improve their capacity for freedom and liberty in their own nation.)

But, when all is said and done, it’s just a speech. Will we see actions that prove intent? Suggestions: Crimea is Russian; the fighting in Ukraine is a civil war; Assad’s future is up to Syrians; Maduro’s of Venezuelans; everybody out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria ASAP; stop arming the killers in Yemen. Lots to admit to; lots to stop doing.

We may have a clue soon: a Normandy Format meeting on Ukraine to which Macron has invited Putin. If it’s more claptrap about how Moscow must honour its commitments under the Minsk agreement (there are none – the word “Russia” does not appear) then we’ll know that it was just words.

Western media coverage will be interesting to watch – not much at the moment in the Anglophone world and what there is misses the big points; several times it’s presented as just a “turn away” from Trump (which it is – more evidence for my Gordian Knot theory). But what he’s saying is hard to take in if you’ve been cruising along, confident that what is “really obsolete” is not liberalism but “authoritarianism, personality cults and the rule of oligarchs”; it will take time before it sinks in that one of the prominent figures of the Western establishment is pretty close to agreement with Putin.

THE WAR – AGAIN

(First published at Strategic Culture Foundation,

The USSR, with significant help from the rest of us, defeated Hitler and changed the world away from that dark and horrible future. At enormous cost.

Patrick Armstrong

I don’t usually waste my time taking apart run-of-the-mill anti-Russian stuff: there’s too much of it and it usually takes more effort to tear apart than it took the author to write. Fools and wise men, as the saying goes. But we have just had a number of pieces on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in Western news outlets. For example, the Washington Times, RFE/RL, The Guardian the Globe and Mail and Bloomberg. Governments have issued condemnations. The gist of them is that the pact showed that Hitler and Stalin were soul-mates and conspired to start the war and rip apart their neighbours. In most cases the authors try to tie this to today’s Russia: enemy then, enemy now.

Most of these pieces take it for granted Putin has some sort of approval of Stalin. But is it “approval” to call communism a road to a dead end – said earlier but most recently last December? What about his statement at the Butovo execution ground?

Those who were executed, sent to camps, shot and tortured number in the thousands and millions of people. Along with this, as a rule these were people with their own opinions. These were people who were not afraid to speak their mind. They were the most capable people. They are the pride of the nation.

Or about what he said when he unveiled the memorial in the centre of Moscow?

This horrific past must not be stricken from the national memory — let alone justified in any way — by any so-called higher good of the people.

One of Putin’s advisory councils speaks against statues to Stalin quoting a government resolution that it’s “unacceptable” to “justify the repressions” or deny that they happened. Paul Robinson has demonstrated the falsity of the “Stalin is back” here. It’s nonsense.

Another theme is that Moscow is distorting or whitewashing history. But the truth is that the articles are the ones distorting history. History is not supposed to be a box from which convenient accusations are selected, ignoring the rest: historians are supposed to try to figure out what happened and explain how it came to be. Most Western accounts of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact are selective briefs for the prosecution. Although I very much suspect that the authors don’t know any better and their outrage is founded on their ignorance.

23 August was the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement and its secret protocol for carving up Poland and other countries. An occasion to hammer Russia which was too good to pass up. But their argument – assertions really – collapse because none of them knows that what Stalin really wanted was an alliance with the Western powers to stop Hitler: the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement was Plan B, not Plan A.

When I was in university in the 1960s a text in one of my courses was AJP Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War. It mentioned the British-French mission sent to Moscow upon Stalin’s invitation to form a USSR-UK-France alliance to stop Hitler. This event has mostly slipped down the memory hole but periodically makes a reappearance as, for example, in 2008 “Stalin ‘planned to send a million troops to stop Hitler if Britain and France agreed pact’“. Stalin’s anti-Hitler pact failed and, knowing that the USSR was on Hitler’s target list, he bought time with the pact and started grabbing territory so as to gain a buffer.

In other words, all these pieces, in their prosecutorial enthusiasm, leave out the context (or in the case of the Guardian, present the Russian view as mere – and, you’re supposed to understand, unwarranted – assertion). As I said, I was generally aware that Stalin had made an overture to Paris and London and therefore understood that the pact with Germany was his Plan B, but it wasn’t until I read this piece by Michael Jabara Carley that I understood just how comprehensive and long-lasting Stalin’s attempts to form an effective anti-Hitler coalition had been. I strongly recommend reading Carley’s essay in full but in summary Moscow understood the threat immediately and spent five or six years trying to get the Europeans to join with it in an anti-Hitler agreement. A weak mutual assistance pact with Paris appeared in 1935, approaches to London that year collapsed when it made a deal with Berlin, approaches to Bucharest and Prague failed, Warsaw was hopeless because of its early pact with Berlin and baked-in animosity. The Munich agreement of 1938 and (memory hole again) Warsaw’s collaboration with Berlin in eating Czechoslovakia just about ended Moscow’s hope but it tried one last time in late 1939. (The discussion here has some more details, particularly Chamberlain’s view and the British military’s warning that the Poles, alone, would last two weeks).

There were plenty of reasons why Stalin’s approaches were rejected by Western politicians: they didn’t see the threat, Chamberlain’s “most profound distrust of Russia”, no one liked communism, few trusted Stalin, many questioned the effectiveness of the Red Army, some hoped that the nazis and the communists would fight each other to the death, some preferred the nazis. Poland, whose territory was essential for an effective Soviet threat to Germany, was the decisive obstacle: Warsaw doubted that the Soviets, once in, would ever leave and believed, with its pact and collaboration with Berlin, that it was safe. So, Stalin’s Plan A never happened. Carley: “The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the result of the failure of nearly six years of Soviet effort to form an anti-Nazi alliance with the western powers”. Yes, the pact included a carve-up of several countries but Stalin was looking to the security of the USSR. (And, à la Fawlty Towers, don’t mention the Czechoslovakia carve up, it will spoil the morally superior position the West likes to take.) In the end Stalin miscalculated the timing: Hitler invaded before he’d knocked out Britain and its empire/commonwealth and before the Soviets had properly fortified their new borders.

The failure of Moscow’s long effort to put together an alliance to stop Hitler is the reason for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, not Stalin’s all-round nastiness and sense of fellowship with Hitler. Nasty the pact was, in a nasty period, but it was Stalin’s second choice. Those are the historical realities. Another historical reality (almost down the memory hole) is the fact that, if we’re talking about agreements with Hitler, Moscow was late to the party. Lots of leaders were fooled by Hitler but Stalin probably least of all.

Now, I suspect that the average Western newspaper consumer doesn’t know this background and – speaking for myself – I only found out about the Warsaw-Berlin pact a year or two ago. In fact, had it not been for remembering Taylor’s book, I would probably have been ignorant of Stalin’s Plan A too. The memory hole has swallowed much and most of the authors of these pieces seem quite unaware of that fact and are very offended when, for example, the Russians point out that Warsaw – officially the victim par excellence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – took its pound of flesh from Czechoslovakia.

Many of these pieces, after falsely establishing what they imagine to be a Stalin-Hitler common purpose, can’t resist trying to make a connection between what they imagine to have been Stalin’s motives then and Putin’s today. But it’s hard to see it. Yes, the effects of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact endure but, surely, the biggest “deadly result” of Stalin’s failed Plan A is the war itself. There are at least two ways to look at the Soviet occupation/control of most of the territories it liberated from the nazis: 1) the behaviour of an aggressive expansionist power, 2) that of a power determined that its neighbours would never again be assembly areas for another attack and had learned that it would be on its own if it happened again. We all know which conclusion the Western Allies came to. Elsewhere I have speculated on the cause of that choice but that’s another bit of past living on in the present.

In short, the basic premise of these pieces is quite simply wrong: Stalin didn’t feel an affinity to Hitler and cheerfully join him to rip things apart. And when the Russian talk about the Western European share of responsibility for Hitler’s war, it’s not “odious sophistry” or “rewriting history” or “propaganda”, it’s because they know about Stalin’s failed anti-Hitler coalition and most Western commentators don’t. It is very plausible that a coalition of the USSR, France and Britain and the smaller threatened countries would have prevented the war altogether. We do know that one conspiracy to overthrow Hitler was aborted by Chamberlain’s appeasement. Perhaps when one truly understands that Stalin’s Plan A might have prevented the war altogether, one can understand how irritated the Russians are when they’re blamed for starting it.

While the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the starter’s gun for Hitler’s attack on Poland it is historical nonsense to present the pact as Stalin’s preferred option. And more nonsense to somehow tie it all to Putin.

And what of Poland? Alone, it did last only a few weeks, the nazis killed about 20% of the population and in the end the USSR occupied it anyway. (A bit reminiscent, come to think of it, of Poland, Napoleon and Russia.)

(There is, however, an unforced parallel which doesn’t occur to anybody: both Putin and Stalin looked first to the West for partners; both were disappointed. Stalin probably realised with Munich that his alliance idea was impossible and I believe that for Putin the moment came with Libya. They decided that the West was недоговороспособниы. That complicated Russian word contains within it the meaning that you cannot make an agreement with them and, even if you do, they will not keep it. So, there is some connection, after all, but it’s not what these people think.)

 

TODAY’S PUTIN QUOTATION

Question at 2018 press conference: do you think that a restoration of socialism is possible in Russia?

Vladimir Putin: I think this is impossible. I believe that the deep changes that have taken place in our society make restoring socialism in the sense you mean impossible. There can be social elements in the economy and the social sector, but expenses will always exceed profits, and as a result, the economy would be at a dead end.

(…Возможны элементы социализации экономики, социальной сферы, но это всегда связано с расходами больше доходов, и, в конечном итоге, с тупиком в экономике.)

(My emphasis. Note that he called communism a road to a dead end in 1999.)

Putin annual press conference, 20 December 2018.