NEW YORK – Vladimir Putin’s aggressive foray into Eurasia, and the possibility of a new cold war with the West, has actually enhanced rather than lessened his popularity in Russia. The Economist despairs that “the chances of Russia’s becoming a modern, civilized country, open to the world and respectful of its citizens, are diminishing with every outburst of war hysteria on Russian television.”
Last week in Germany, amid much discussion of Russia’s aims in Ukraine, an acquaintance of mine from Leipzig seemed equally pessimistic: “The Russians need another century,” she said, “before they are ready to join European civilization.”
She spoke with the long and bitter experience of having lived under the shadow of Russian imperialism in the German Democratic Republic. She also had the confidence of an East German who, despite many difficulties, had assimilated into modern Europe. Still, a century doesn’t seem long enough. For Russia’s own journey to the West has not reached its destination since Peter the Great started it in the 18th century.
The collapse of communism in 1989 seemed at first an opportunity to reset Russia’s direction. But any such move was pre-empted by the disasters of Boris Yeltsin’s rule and the consequent rise of Putin. Today, Russia’s political elites seem far from willing to undertake a makeover in the image of the West. Indeed, they appear to be engaged in a menacingly different geopolitical and cultural attempt at self-definition as they seek close alliances with China and other Asian countries.
As Japan has shown, a superficial Westernization, indicated by integration into the global economy, can easily conceal atavistic fantasies of national redemption and glory.
Early in the 20th century, Japanese philosophers such as Kitaro Nishida and Tetsuro Watsuji sought to establish Japan’s radical spiritual and cultural difference from the West — a project that eventually lent itself to Japan’s militarist Pan-Asianism in the 1930s and 1940s.
Feelings of inadequacy and resentment have marked even Japan’s very close relationship with the U.S. since 1945. Japan remains the most successful example of a non-Western country catching up with and resembling the modern West. Yet chauvinistic notions about Japan’s role and mission in Asia lurk not far below the evidently Westernized surface of a politician such as Shinzo Abe.
The advocates of a Greater Russia can claim to have an even longer intellectual and political pedigree, and a broader range of supporters: from Dostoevsky, who denounced the West almost as fervidly as the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, to Alexander Herzen, the radical critic of Russian autocracy who said Istanbul was the true capital of the Russian Empire.
An intriguing variation on this Russia-centric outlook was Eurasianism — the notion that Russia belonged to neither East nor West but was a state with Mongol roots, its society a synthesis of various ethnic communities supervised by Great Russian Nationalism. Its ideological and intellectual basis was established by anti-communist Russian emigres in the 1920s and ’30s, who, though critical of the Bolsheviks, hailed the strong Russian state that the latter’s despotism had helped create.
The Eurasians foresaw “post-Bolshevik” Russia as retaining a monolithic economy and one-party rule. They also wrote incessantly about the necessity of a religious revival across Russia. In their vision, the cunning of history was to reveal Russians as Eurasians rather than Westernized communists or liberals.
Eurasianism is presently articulated by the political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, the son of a KGB officer, who reportedly has many attentive listeners in the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church. Dugin and his acolytes acknowledge that centuries after Tamerlane’s conquests, which redrew the map of the world, Eurasia remains, as U.S. policymaker Zbigniew Brzezinski put it in 1997, “the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played.” Accordingly, Dugin has advocated a new anti-Western alliance between Russia and Asian countries.
Revanchists such as Dugin have enjoyed a fresh legitimacy in the post-Yeltsin era, when the empire created by Soviet Communists fragmented and a struggling Russia appeared to have been deceived and undermined by a resurgent and triumphalist West.
This sense of injury and humiliation helps confirm the theory of one of the more eloquent and influential Eurasianists, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, a respected linguist, who argued in his essay “Europe and Man” that the very project of Europeanization was an ideological trick, designed to achieve permanent Western dominance over the non-West.
True Europeanization, in his view, could only be achieved through the racial mixing of peoples. Without it, Europeanization created rootless elites suffering from low self-esteem. Furthermore, the economic attempt to catch up with the West misdirected the scarce resources of an undeveloped nation and created greater backwardness rather than modernity.
Trubetzkoy was no Eurasian imperialist. He found Pan-Slavism and other forms of Russian nationalism to be distractions from the fundamental fact of culture that separates the West from the Rest. But the feelings of wounded pride, anger, frustration and inferiority he articulated remain crucial to understanding the ostensibly blithe anti-Westernism in Russia today.
Putin himself rose to high office on a wave of support from the Russian masses, which had been exposed to some terrible suffering caused by Russia’s Westernization through economic “shock therapy.” Bending Crimea to his will, or calling for a religious revival, Putin seems to be realizing the old Eurasian fantasy of a strong ideological state dedicated to restoring Russia’s distinctive national and civilizational “otherness.”
Few commentators were more shocked on Sept. 11 than those who assumed that history had ended in 1989, and the universal dissemination of Western-style capitalism and democracy was the main geopolitical reality.
They now confront the eruption of a long-repressed ideology — an expansionist Neo-Eurasianism, which, incarnated by a nuclear-armed country, makes even Islamic fundamentalism seem toothless.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist.