Monday, December 5, 2011

Why Russia Doesn't Understand The West

In a class at my college the other day, I was talking about the Arab Spring (in particular, the fall of Gaddafi), and one of my Russian-speaking students pointed out that, as he was told by the media in his country, Gaddafi had provided cheap petrol and no taxes for his subjects. The reason he was removed, as he had understood, was because of Western imperialism.

In another class at my college the other week, I was talking about climate change, and the Russian-speaking students in the class were quick to talk up the climate change sceptics, and the many scientists who had questioned the validity of the generally-accepted consensus view. To counter this, I showed them a clip from Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" (though I forgot to show them the part where Al G0re explains the inspriration for the title - the Soviet way of dealing with facts that didn't fit the "party line").

These two anecdotes exemplify a common thread in Russian thinking to Western thought and Western actions: instinctive suspicion and a liking for conspiracy theories.

From a Western point of view, the likes of Europe and the USA often are baffled by Russia's cold shoulder. To Western eyes, Russia is not so much different from the rest of Western civilisation: ethnically European, Christian, educated, a large drinking culture, sexually free-thinking, and so on.
What, then, is the problem? Two factors that decide a national culture are geography and history.
It's best to go back through a brief history to put things into perspective. The culture of "conspiracy theories" goes back a long way on Russian history, long before the Soviet Union made them almost official government policy. Even the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, originated in Russia, encouraged by the ultra-conservative Orthodox church, even infecting the psychology of the Tsar and his family. A famous inflammatory pamphlet, "The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion", fed paranoia about the Jews, then very successfully exported to a politically-fragile Germany after the fall of Tsarist Russia to the Bolsheviks. The rest is history.
The "conspiracy theory" tendency is long in Russian culture, and can be directly traced back to the legacy left by the Byzantines on Russia.
It is no coincidence that Moscow calls itself the "Third Rome" (although some call Washington DC the same these days, the original title, goes back centuries); called this after the "Second Rome", the Byzantine capital Constantinople, had been overrun by the Ottoman Turks.
The rise of Russia as a European power mirrors the decline and fall of the once-great empire of Byzantine Constantiople, which had been for nearly a thousand years the richest, largest and most important metropolis in Christian Europe. The national emblem of Russia is the double-headed eagle; the same that was that for the Byzantines. After the fall of Constantinople, the Greek Emperor's neice married the Russian prince; therefore saving the blood line of the Byzantines, and giving inspiration to the Russians to continue the torch of the Greek's legacy. Russia grew from a minor power at that time, over the centuries to become the largest land empire in the world; as it still remains, in effect, today.
So Russian culture, and in particular, high culture, was originally (in spite of Peter The Great's efforts, and the later use of French as the language of the Russian court) influenced by Greek (Byzantine) thought and temperament.

This leads, more longwindedly, to where the real suspicion of the West comes from, and the long-used claims of "imperialism". The Byzantines themselves were, for nearly a thousand years, the dominant Christian power in Europe, who had continued the direct culture of the Roman Empire (to the extent that they always called themselves "Romans", and called their empire the "Roman Empire" - the term "Byzantine" only having came about a few centuries after the fall of Constantinople); as a result they considered Western Europe to be inhabited by uncouth "barbarians"; Christan, yes, but uncultured and illiterate compared to them.
The Crusades caused the real crisis for the Greeks, as the Byzantine empire, due to its geography, was a large buffer between the (Muslim) Middle East and (Christian) Europe. Consequently, distrust was endemic between the Western Crusaders and the Orthodox Greeks, because both sides wanted different outcomes: the Greeks wanted the Crusaders to help restore lands that had been occupied by Muslims; the Crusaders wanted the very same lands for their own glory, and be damned to the "Orthodox" Greeks.

So as the geography of the Byzantine empire resulted often necessitated in a more pragmatic approach to its eastern and southern neighbours in the Middle East (to the bafflement and consternation of the West), the same can be said of Russia and its relationship to its southern neighbours (with the West these days feeling much the same way).
There had been times when the Byzantines and the West co-operated; but these were always brief, against the grain, and always unpopular on the streets of Constantinople, who were proud of their ancient culture, and would rather hang than be pawns to the "barbarians" of the West.
There have been times when the Russians and West co-operated; but the most recent example was this was during the time of Boris Yeltsin (when joining NATO was, briefly, seriously considered by Russia); but these were days when Russia was politically and economically weak, and very much a real pawn in a wider geo-political game of chess at the time. Since that time, Russia has been ruled by a real geo-political Grand Master, Vladimir Putin, and Russia has regained its world status.

So Russia will probably never understand the West, and vice versa, because, for all their similarities, the long history and simple geography give Russia different priorities. It will likely continue to scupper plans for the West to have regime change in Iran, because it causes them very real geo-politial concerns of encirclement; likewise, it will continue to quietly support "rogue regimes" like Syria because Russia's own press is effectively state-censored and Russia's ruling elite is terrified that Russians might get the idea to create their own "democratic revolution" - another idea being exported from the 21st-century Crusaders of the West.

As Russia sees it, they don't need "democracy" - code for Western interference; somewhat like how the Byzantines didn't need "church union" with the Catholic pope in Rome - code for being pawns to Western barbarians.

The irony of the Crusades was that it was originally a Byzantine idea; in the end, though, they got more than they bargained for. The First Crusade was in 1097 and "liberated" Jerusalem from Muslim rule; the Fourth Crusade of 1203 saw the Crusaders pillage, burn and loot Constantinople itself, leaving the Byzantine empire a ruined shadow of its former self.
The irony of the "democracy" project is that Russia was one of the first European powers to have a "democratic revolution", in 1917 (although it only lasted for less than nine months, before the Bolsheviks took over); no wonder the current Russian administration is looking at the goings on in the Middle East with continuing anxiety - how long before its own population picks up the "democratic revolution" virus?

As it happens, as we speak, there are increasing numbers of ordinary Russians, like those in the Middle East, losing their fear, out of frustration at a corrupt and ineffective state. No wonder then, that the Russian intelligensia are so keen to curse the West.
The Greeks probably know exactly how they feel.

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