Bill Bowring: Is Russia a European country?

6 September 2021

by Bill Bowring, Professor of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London, where he teaches public international law, human rights and minority rights.

It is too often asserted that Russia is not a “European” country: not necessarily by the Brexiteers who are certain that Britain is not European either, but “global”. 

True, from 1237 to 1480, with the battle known as the Great Stand on the Ugra River, what is now Russia paid tribute to the Mongol-Tatar Horde. For a graphic depiction of what this meant, see Tarkovsky’s great film Andrei Rublev. The tribute was paid with regular visits to the Tatar capital in the steppe (better for horses), and Russian rulers intermarried with the Tatar elite. To this day the Russian language has many Turkic – the Tatar language, the historic tongue of 5 million Tatars in Russia, is Turkic – words, for important things, especially in the 13th to 15th centuries, like horse (loshad), kazak, guard (karaul), treasury (kazna), money (denga), brick (kirpich), watermelon  (arbuz), shoe (bashmak), etc 

For the rise of Moscow, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible cannot be bettered. Only 50 years after the defeat of the Tatars, Ivan IV became ruler of Moscow in 1533, of Russia in 1547 and in 1552 conquered Kazan, now the capital of Tatarstan, razed the Qul Sharif Mosque (now splendidly rebuilt) to the ground, and constructed St Basil’s cathedral in Red Square to celebrate. 

However, Ivan did not only look eastwards. In 1570 he was furious (the letter is on the internet) when Queen Elizabeth I rebuffed his offer of a strategic marriage: England was building a maritime empire, Moscow a continental empire. Serious trade between England and Russia had begun with the Muscovy Company in 1551.

Indeed, Britain and Russia have been on the same side of every serious war – Napoleon, WWI, WWII – since then. Alexander I marched all the way to Paris in 1814, defeating Napoleon on the way, with generals named Barclay de Tolly (Scots/German) and Wittgenstein. The exception is the Crimean War (1853-1856), and no student, English or Russian, can tell me what this war was about. Britain and Russia did not even come to blows in Central Asia, and both failed to conquer Afghanistan. Britain lost a whole army at Kabul in 1842. 

The greatest Tsar of Russia was Catherine I, a German princess, there are even more German family names than Scots and Welsh. Many Russians have the family names Gordon, Hughes, Williams – Scots and Welsh who built the railways, married Russians and stayed. 

I’m a lawyer. The founder of law as an academic discipline in Russia, Semeon Desnitsky, spent six years in Glasgow, studying constitutional law under Adam Smith, and becoming Catherine’s chief legal adviser. In the mid 19th century Russian civil law was based on German law, and restored in the NEP period after 1917; Alexander II initiated jury trial on the English model, an independent bar, and “justices of the peace” in 1864, all restored since 1991; the present Civil Code was drafted with Dutch experts, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation is based on the German Verfassungsgericht in Karlsruhe. Russia is a member of the Council of Europe since 1996 and party to the ECHR since 1998.

Russia is not European? Then neither is Britain, the latter suggestion being more convincing.

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