Jens Siegert: In Russia, Europe is not merely a geographical term

19 October 2021

Jens Siegert is a journalist and political scientist who has lived in Moscow since 1993. Siegert first worked as a radio correspondent, and from 1999 to 2015 he headed the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Russia office. In 2016, he took over the management of the EU project “Public Diplomacy. EU and Russia”. Siegert also advises the board of the human rights organisation Memorial. He has published numerous articles and contributions, as well as the non-fiction book 111 Gründe, Russland zu lieben [111 Reasons to Love Russia] in 2018. In May 2021, Im Prinzip Russland. Eine Begegnung in 22 Begriffen [In Principle Russia. An Encounter in 22 Terms] was published by Edition Körber.

We continue our series of essays about Russia and Europe with this extract from Jens Siegert’s new book In Principle Russia. An Encounter in 22 Terms, published in German this spring.  In his new book, with the help of 22 terms which play important roles in Russian societal, political and every-day life, Jens Siegert tries to open new insights into Russian feelings, thoughts and actions. He takes the Russians by their word in order to get closer to them. Some of these 22 terms, like borscht or dacha, are well known outside Russia, too. Others look the same, like hero or democracy, but they have different meanings and connotations. And then there are terms, like vlast or mat, which are so utterly Russian that there is no one correct translation. Not least, Russia is the country of the principle. In this literally great country in principle everything is possible and nothing at the same time. It’s the land of unlimited impossibilities.

If you hear someone in Russia announcing they will go v Evropu (to Europe), the destination will be somewhere west of Russia. The Russian understanding of Europe is the counterpart, both flirtatious and serious, to the British talk about the continent. There you have the narrative of Global Britain with the sea in the background, here is the Russian claim to being a Eurasian civilization, something that distinguishes the country from the rest of Europe. But in both cases, this is barely more than romantic self-stylization to cover what is obvious. As in Greek legend, Europe is not merely a geographical term in Russia. Russia is part of Europe, though situated on its outskirts. Russia always demands a say in Europe’s matters, but doesn’t want Europe to have a say in its own. Size plays a role, too. Until after World War II and the invention of the European Union, Germany in Europe’s centre was too big to be just one country among many others, but at the same time too small to dominate the continent. Russia’s case today is similar. It is too big to be easily integrated, but at the same time too weak and too unsure of itself to be a reliable partner for the rest.

The Russian heartland around Moscow is still and without doubt located in Europe. The Russian language is an Indo-European one. Russian culture, music, literature and fine arts have all for centuries been part of the wider European tradition. A certain tradition with its own peculiarities, of course. A tradition influenced by neighbouring cultures from outside Europe as well. But still a European tradition. Something not in question even inside Russia. At least most of the time. Location on the outskirts of Europe and certain experiences in Russian history have led to another tradition: the country sees the need to distance itself from time to time from Europe. To do so, Russian thinkers and politicians paradoxically use elements of western culture and philosophy, as the Russian-German philosopher Boris Groys writes in his book The Invention of Russia. Eastern, Asian ideas, whether from China or India, are not more than mere decoration. From time to time, as regularly as Groundhog Day arrives, the discussion whether Russia is part of Europe or not divides the country, very often accompanied by the latest wave of modernization coming from the West. Since the second half of the 19th century, these two currents have often been called those of the zapadniki (English: westerners) and the slavophiles. Today the terms liberals and patriots are more common.

Moreover, since the sixteenth century, Russia has taken part in the European project of a colonial division and exploitation of the rest of the world. As a result, the colonial enlargement of Russia, mainly to Siberia, led to a situation that even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union the largest share of Russia geographically is not a part of Europe anymore. But more than 80 percent of Russia’s inhabitants live in the European part (one seventh of the total area) and more than 80 percent consider themselves as ethnic Russians. This is the cradle of the country, in linguistic as well as in cultural terms. But Siberia has been Europeanized a long time ago, too. Anyone who crosses the Russian-Chinese border on the Amur River in the Far East is traveling from undoubtedly European cities to cities that are undoubtedly Asian.

Europe remains the main point of reference, the benchmark for Russia. At the latest, Peter I made the country a European Great Power at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In ordering Italian and Swiss architects to build St Petersburg, the new capital of his country, on the Finnish swamps at the delta of the Neva River, he literally carved Russia’s belonging to Europe in stone. Thus, he put an end to the long period of self-isolation of the emerging Muscovy Princedom. His aim was to overcome the technological backwardness vis-à-vis the countries in the West, a backwardness which had developed not least because of this self-isolation. Despite this effort, the main structure of trading relations remained the same till this day: Western technology for Russian commodities. But Peter’s efforts did not have only economic and military aims. On his famous trip to Europe he acknowledged, too, that the necessary progress to become a Great Power in modern times was not only a matter of catching up in terms of technology. It would demand social change as well.  To attain that aim, Peter forced his elite to literally cut off their beards. A very practical and highly symbolic measure. Russians should not only behave like Europeans, but they should also look like Europeans.

Peter’s successors, all of whom were so closely linked to the ruling European dynasties that from time to time there was much grumbling about ‘all these Germans’, continued this course. After the Napoleonic Wars Russia became the bulwark against new revolutions and earned the name of the Gendarme of Europe. At the beginning of the twentieth century the second great European revolution after the French Revolution took place in Russia of all countries, despite the prediction of the famous German theorists of revolution Marx and Engels, who had expected revolution to happen in much more industrialized countries like Germany or the UK instead. These days Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and of a countless number of other European organizations. Russian sportswomen and men take part in European championships and the country revels in the Eurovision Song Contest.

But Russia is even more deeply a part of Europe. The Russian Orthodox Church sees itself as the protector of the true Christian faith. It was an Orthodox monk who, after the conquest of the second Rome, Constantinople, by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, came up with the idea that Moscow is the Third Rome and thus has the vocation and duty to protect the original Christian faith. This claim was based on a conviction of universality similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church, which the Orthodox believe left the righteous path after the schism in the eleventh century. But this means that Russia is not an alternative to Europe or an adversary, but the real, the better Europe. Russia is Europe as it is meant to be. 

Even the radical negation of Christendom by communist ideology embodies this Russian-style sense of mission. Again, it was a European idea that Europe, the West, failed to follow. Therefore, Russia was obliged to adopt it and implement it in a proper way, for Europe’s sake, too. In a way Russia shows Europe itself, as if in a mirror, how insincere Europe is, how its words and deeds don’t match, how unreliable it is. 

This dialectic of admiration and contempt for the West is not something new in Europe. Germany once had a very similar approach, as the famous German writer Thomas Mann demonstrated in his tremendous essay Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man about one hundred years ago. The West back then consisted mainly of France and the UK (and to some extent the USA, already). In World War I Germany, according to Mann, had to protect its culture and profundity against Western civilization and profit seeking. Many arguments of Russian intellectuals, in discussing Russia’s relations with Europe, sound very similar. 

Nonetheless, and perhaps even because of this attitude, Russia is obsessive in matching itself with Europe and the West as a whole. Europe, and after World War II the USA, remained even in Soviet times the paramount standard. The main Soviet aim was to catch up with the West in terms of technology and economic progress. The Soviet Union did not really succeed in this. During Nikita Khrushchev’s rule in the late 1950s and early 1960s people joked that their state would soon overtake the West without ever having caught up with it in the first place.  

The experiment named the Soviet Union lasted more than 70 years, but finally failed so profoundly that, for many, Europe took on the role of a saviour and redeemer. At the latest by the 1970s almost nobody in the Soviet Union still believed in communist ideology. Most people turned away from politics. The only thing they strived for was just to live a good life. The wish to live like in Europe grew ever stronger. In this way the term in Europe came to combine material and nonmaterial values like capitalism and democracy. This desire contributed a great deal to the end of the Soviet Union. Europe, as many Soviet citizens saw it, simply coped better with life than their own country.

In its final stage the Soviet state was morally worn out and almost in a state of economic collapse. There was almost no trust in the Soviet leadership left. And it was not least because this leadership decried Europe at every turn that for many people this very Europe turned into something just short of a paradise on earth. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost were the last attempt by the Soviet leadership to counter this desire. The growing gap in material wealth between the Soviet Union and the West since the 1970s played an important role in this development. Most people in the Soviet Union not only wanted to live as freely as people in the West (though perhaps this was not even their primary aspiration), but they wanted to consume as much as people did in the West. 

This desire left its mark in everyday language. Most clearly this may be seen in the use of the term inomarka, which means cars manufactured abroad. Its components are the prefix ino for outside and the noun marka, for brand or trade name. Despite all the pride to have their own car manufacturers, an inomarka was the top-notch, the dream of all car enthusiasts, e.g. for almost all men in the Soviet Union. It was a car that started running in the morning. A car without a boot that needed to be full of spare parts and instruments, because the risk of a breakdown was so high. A car that the dealer, once having obtained it from the factory, didn’t have to make ready for sale prior to selling it. Russian even has its own word for this: the predprodazhnaya podgotovka.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union the prefix evro became an omnipresent mark of quality. Many who wanted to advertise producing or selling goods or services of high quality now announced that these goods were of evrokatschestwo or Euro-quality.  Flats at the higher end of the real estate market were advertised as having undergone evroremont, Euro-renovation. Dry cleaners put out signs saying evro-khimchistka, Euro-dry-cleaning. Technical devices, TV sets or washing machines had to be produced in Europe (the US, Japan) to gain the trust of potential buyers. The biggest Russian producer of cement is still named evrotsement

In the 2000s many western car manufacturers began to assemble their cars in Russia. They were forced to do so by the clever customs and tax policy of the Russian government. Potential buyers began to inquire of the dealers where the car on sale had been assembled. For some time, even used cars assembled in Europe were more expensive than brand-new versions of the same model assembled in Russia.    

However, this excessive Euro-euphoria, sometimes taken to fantastic heights, flattened out in parallel with the political estrangement of Russia from the West that began in the second half of the first decade of the new century. One reason for this development was the growing disappointment of many Russians with democracy in particular and with the actually existing capitalism in their country in general. In Russian public opinion both were closely entangled with the economic downturn and the general crisis of the Russian state in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

At the same time President Vladimir Putin saw the political possibilities to be found in the deep sense of insult many people in Russia felt because of the decline of their country from being one of two superpowers to what the then US-President Barack Obama lightheartedly described as a regional power. The intensity of the recent political rejection of the West, the powerful desire not to do (anymore) as Washington or Brussels say can be compared to the former admiration. But when it comes to the material world things change. The deep distrust of many Russians in the abilities of their own consumer goods industry is backed by longtime experience. This does not apply to the reputation of Russian homegrown groceries. Despite the dominance of a few big agro-holdings, Russian foods are widely perceived as pristine, cleaner and just more tasty. This longstanding trend was once again reinforced through the Russian counter-sanctions, adopted after the annexation of the Crimea peninsula, which ban many groceries from the EU from the Russian market. 

Moreover, the Russian state and Vladimir Putin are much smarter today in a political sense than their Soviet predecessors. Government propaganda doesn’t draw a simplistically dark picture of the West from the very start (which would be not very trustworthy), but tells people in Russia that the once promised land is just not as promised at all and as many believed at the end of Soviet rule. That life there is not worse, but not better either than at home. For many people that makes sense today. 

Despite everything said above, the opinion of many people in Russia about Europe or, better, about the European Union has not changed very much over time, as regular polls by the Levada Center over the last 30 years show. About 50 to 60 percent of Russian citizens today declare that they have a positive or somewhat positive view of their western, European neighbours. Only during times of enhanced political tensions between Russia and the West, as in 2014 right after the annexation of the Crimea and the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine, does this change temporarily. When government propaganda geared up to take a more negative line, approval of the EU fell to 40 percent, only to swing back to the long-term average once the level of propaganda was reduced again.

However, the narrative about the moral and material decay of Europe has not disappeared. It reappears nowadays in a narrative about the rise of Asia as the new power centre of the world, together with an attempt to move Russia’s fate and belonging to the East. This flirtation with the East generates the illusion that Russia would be able to dissociate itself from Europe and thus escape the destiny of this allegedly ageing and declining continent. But it is questionable whether this trick can succeed. In almost every aspect of social affairs, Russia faces the same problems, sometimes on an even bigger scale, as the rest of Europe, as, for example, even a brief look at the demographic developments in Russia and in almost all parts of the rest of Europe clearly shows. 

True, the East and the great Asian civilisations are geographically much closer to Russia than to the European Union. But despite this fact, they remain alien to the mainstream of Russian society. In one of the most popular Soviet films, the White Sun of the Desert (1969), the hero, a red army soldier named Comrade Sukhov, fighting desert bandits and enemies of the revolution somewhere in Central Asia, admits that ‘vostok – delo tonkoe’, the Orient is a delicate matter. Many contemporary and, moreover, many wealthy and powerful Russians share Sukhov’s opinion. They own mansions or flats in Italy, on the Côte d’Azur or in the German Alps, keep their money in British banks and send their children to Swiss boarding schools and English colleges. 

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