11 September 2021
A response to Professor Bowring’s article
For many years Professor Bowring has been doing more than, or at least as much as, any other foreigner to move Russia closer to being a law-governed state. I hope he will be able to continue his invaluable activities for many years to come. Paradoxically, perhaps, he has been helped as well as hindered by President Putin (he, like Lenin, was a law student at university) and some of Putin’s colleagues, whose open, cynical and perverse contempt for the law has made many more Russians realise now how vital a well functioning legal system is in their and any society.
I’m writing this Note on 9/11, shortly after reading Professor Bowring’s article in the previous edition of RiR, and I’m glad, on this sombre day, to be able to start by passing on some good news. Yesterday’s report from the Levada polling agency (more reliable than any of its Russian rivals) suggests, i.a., that the percentage of respondents who think their country must/should be a great power which other countries respect and fear has fallen to a mere 32%, the lowest since 2003, while in contrast 66% want their homeland to be [merely] ‘a country with a high standard of living, albeit not one of the most powerful countries in the world’. What is happening to Russian messianism?! Does this help to explain why the forthcoming elections will be so demonstratively flawed?
Professor Bowring is, however, not entirely correct when he mentions that a significant part of Russia, despite having a large part of its population, is entirely located in what is conventionally regarded as Europe (a noun that is often used as a synonym of ‘the West’). Japan now is considered by some as, in at least a few respects, part of the West, despite being in Asia, and is still having trouble with Russia over the future of a few small islands quite a long time after the end of WWII. To me, ‘Europe’ is not only a geographical concept, and much broader than the ‘European Union’. I don’t think that Germany was part of the metaphysical Europe between the mid-1930s and mid-1940s. And I also think, perhaps like Professor Bowring, that the UK was not being very European when a majority voted five years ago to leave the EU, thereby weakening both itself and the EU, something which ‘the Kremlin’ very much wanted it to do. Why?
I take Russia still to be not only in Europe, and I assume that Putin takes neo-Eurasianism seriously.
He and his Defence Minister have recently been visiting and talking about increasing investments in the Russian Far East (a lot of whose inhabitants, both russkiye and rossiyane, I admit, are far more ‘European’ than many Russians who live West of the Urals). And none other than the Russian Foreign Minister recently praised Alexander Nevsky for preferring to cooperate (collaborate?) with the Mongols and Tatars, rather than with the Western Catholics. Just imagine if he had taken up the other option!
I’m surprised that Professor Bowring makes so little mention of Kyivan (note the spelling!) Rus’, which was indeed a part of Europe at that time. Moreover, he makes no mention of the completely illegal annexation (I refrain from using a German word which begins with a capital A) in 2014 and – even more significant – the overwhelming support of the Russian people for this land-grab. Even without it and a few bits of other nearby states, Russia would still easily be the biggest country in the world. But is size all that important to the real Europe? Why would almost all Crimean Tatars prefer to live in Ukraine than in Russia?
I end by suggesting that readers interested in this subject might acquaint themselves with the following works:
1. Vladimir Sorokin, The Day of the Oprichnik, 2006, a novella, available in English, and almost as good and terrifying as 1984.
2. Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A history of Ukraine, 2015. Where does Europe begin/end?
3. Leviathan, a film directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014). The role of the State in Putin’s Russia.
4. Chatham House, Myths and misconceptions in the debate on Russia, 2021. Three of the alleged myths are ‘Russia and the West want the same thing’, ‘Russia is not in a conflict with the West’ and ‘Crimea was always Russian’. [Only 109 pages, and available for free from Chatham House if you apply there. If you’re too busy to read it, I’ll forward my just published two-page review: send your email address to me via martin dot dewhirst at gmail dot com]
P.S. And now for a drink, prefaced by the traditional toast of some of the most intelligent (anti-)Soviet dissidents in the 20th century: ‘To the success of our hopeless cause!’