The Russian writer Pyotr Chaadayev said of his country that “we have never advanced along with other people; we are not related to any of the great human families; we belong neither to the West nor to the East, and we possess the traditions of neither. Placed, as it were, outside of the times,” he wrote, “we have not been affected by the universal education of mankind.”
That was in 1829. The “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill described Russia more than a century later, is no closer to being solved today. The philosopher John Gray recently wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is the face of a world the contemporary Western mind does not comprehend. In this world, war remains a permanent part of human experience; lethal struggles over territory and resources can erupt at any time; human beings kill and die for the sake of mystical visions.” That is why Western commentators and liberal Russians are baffled by Putin’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Personality-based explanations for Putin’s actions are the easiest to advance – and the most facile. Putin is neither acting like an expert chess player, calculating every move, nor like a ruler unhinged by power or steroids.
Rather, Putin has a distorted, or at least one-sided, view of Russian history, and of what constitutes Russia’s special virtue. But this does not explain the widespread popular and intellectual support in Russia for his justificatory narrative regarding Ukraine. We are all to some extent captives of our national myths. It is just that Russian mythology is out of step with “the universal education of mankind.”
We expect Russia to behave more or less like a modern, or even postmodern, European nation-state, but forget that it missed out on three crucial ingredients of European modernization. First, as Yuri Senokosov has written, Russia never went through the Reformation or had its age of Enlightenment. This, Senokosov argues, is because “serfdom was abolished only in 1861 and the system of Russian autocracy collapsed only in 1917 […] It was then swiftly restored.” As a result, Russia never experienced the period of bourgeois civilization which, in Europe, established the outlines of the constitutional state.
Second, Russia was always an empire, never a nation-state. Autocracy is its natural form of rule. To its current czar, the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a violation of Russian history.
The third missing ingredient, related to the absence of the first two, was liberal capitalism, of which Russia had only brief and limited experience. Marx insisted that the capitalist phase of economic development had to precede socialism, because any attempt to build an industrial economy on the archaic soil of peasant primitivism was bound to lead to despotism.
Yet, this is exactly what Lenin’s revolutionary formula of “Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” amounted to. Lenin, a brilliant opportunist, was following in the tradition of the great reforming czars who tried to westernize Russian society from the top. Peter the Great demanded that Russian men shave their beards and instructed his boyars: “Don’t gorge like a pig; don’t clean your teeth with a knife; don’t hold bread to your chest while cutting it.”
In the nineteenth century, Russia’s relationship with Europe took on a new dimension with the idea of the New Man – a Western type inextricably linked to Enlightenment philosophy and enthusiastic about science, positivism, and rationality. He appears as Stoltz in Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov. In Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862), he is the nihilist “son” Bazarov, who champions science and rails against his family’s irrational traditions. Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done? (1863), which strongly influenced Lenin, imagines a society of glass and steel built on scientific reason.
Because of their shallow roots in Russian culture, these futuristic projections incited a literary peasants’ revolt. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, published in 1864, not only became one of the canonical texts of Christian Slavophilia, but also raised profound questions about modernity itself.
The Bolsheviks made the greatest collective attempt to bring the New Man out of literature and into the world. They, like Peter the Great, understood that transforming a society required transforming the people in it. They launched a concerted effort, with the participation of the foremost avant-garde artists of the time, to modernize people’s mindsets and nurture their revolutionary consciousness. Russians would become the scientifically and collectively minded New Men who would help build the Communist Utopia.
This was perhaps the biggest failure of all. With Stalin deeming socialism achieved in 1936, and state-mandated socialist realist literature and art exalting mysticism over science, Soviet dreams of a New Man remained just that. The retreat from science and logic survived the Soviet Union’s collapse and now is the animating tendency of Putin’s rule. His own faith-based mythology, unusual symbiotic relationship with the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, warping of history, and denial of facts, underscore the extent of Russia’s withdrawal from contemporary Europe.
In his 2003 book The Breaking of Nations, the former European Union diplomat Robert Cooper thought Russia’s future was still open. The signing of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and later Russian moves to join NATO indicated that “postmodern elements” were “trying to get out.” Whether the rapprochement was foiled by Western arrogance or Russian incompatibility will long be debated. By 2004, Putin had shed most of his liberalizing tendencies and began embracing traditionalism. In Cooper’s classification, Russia is a modern pre-modern state.
Following the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Czech writer Milan Kundera refused to adapt Dostoevsky’s The Idiot for the stage. “Dostoevsky’s universe of overblown gestures, murky depths, and aggressive sentimentality repelled me,” Kundera said. It is in these murky depths, behind the rational façade, that we can glimpse Putin’s war.
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