Nature Abhors a Vacuum

23 september 2014

What Can a Future Russia-West Settlement Rely On?

Viacheslav Morozov is Professor of EU-Russia Studies with the Institute of Government and Politics at the University of Tartu.

Resume: As long as the fundamental restructuring of the global system is not reflected in people’s outlook (and this will take decades), the vacuum in the inner sanctum of Russian national consciousness will continue to be filled by the West.

Europe slipped unexpectedly into a new geopolitical reality in March 2014. A major conflict is brewing between Russia and the West that until recently had been regarded merely as an extremely pessimistic scenario. International tensions have reached the point where any outcome, even a catastrophic one, cannot be completely excluded. Nevertheless, it is still possible to avoid a head-on collision between NATO and Russia. Consequently, one can assume that sooner or later the acute phase of the conflict will end, the dust will settle, and all the participants in today’s battles will have to mend relations with regard to the new reality.

In this article I will consider some basic factors that may be critical for a future pan-European settlement. At this point no one can tell how exactly it will be implemented. We must wait and see what Europe’s future political landscape will be, what the borders will look like, or what balance of power will be established within each bloc and between them. However, some basic parameters will likely remain unchanged, especially those that relate to the identity of each of the players and their niche in the global capitalist system. The system is transforming slowly but surely, yet the effects of the transformation are difficult to predict.

My key argument is that in the current standoff with the West Russia has nothing to rely on but the instance of the confrontation as such. Russia’s position in the structure of the modern world is very similar to that of typical post-colonial states (for example, other BRICS countries). However, the fundamental difference is that Russian elites and an overwhelming majority of Russians are completely Europeanized. Thus, they are unable to go beyond the bounds of Eurocentric worldview. Even when Russians try to emphasize the unique nature of their identity as independent from the West, they resort to straightforward negation. The net effect is a set of “genuine Russian values,” which is a mirror reflection of the Russian people’s own perception of the West and its vices.

Importantly, Eurocentrism does not mean that Russia is friendly towards the West. On the contrary, Russia, which lacks an independent foothold for asserting political independence, is becoming mired in endless anti-Western rhetoric and policies. When national identity is formed through antagonism with a significant “other,” no solid compromise with that “other” is possible in principle. Therefore the balance of power remains the sole foreseeable model of a future European settlement. 


Boris Kagarlitsky has coined the very capacious term “peripheral empire” to describe the entire history of Russia as an independent state. Indeed, Russian history is full of parallels with the history of other periphery countries, most of which were once European colonies. By the 16th century, Russia had entered the emerging global capitalist system and had become a provider of raw materials. It has remained there ever since, except that instead of grain – the main export item up until the 1960s – Russia today is living off of its lucrative oil and gas revenues. The resource model for economic development makes the country dependent on technology imports, which results in disadvantageous trading terms: Russia exports low value-added products while importing high value-added items. The resulting structural imbalances are very difficult to eliminate even through skillful macroeconomic regulatory measures.

The problems of “catch-up development” have been extensively studied and are well known to the educated public. Of course, any such comparison implies Russia’s obvious distinction from the former European colonies: though economically dependent on the capitalist core, Russia remained a sovereign state and even managed to build its own empire. Moreover, dependence on resources even encouraged imperial expansion because with new territories Russia gained access to new resources. These resources were crucial for building up Russia’s military potential, which, in turn, helped it address various issues, from access to international trade routes to greater prestige in the international scene. However, the structural imbalance, characteristic of the global capitalist economy, created a situation in which the exploitation of Russian resources benefited mostly the core states, while Russia received a very moderate share of natural rent. In good years that rent was large enough to build up the country’s strength and allow it to participate in international affairs, but the technological lag often resulted in military disasters. The Crimean War of 1853-1856 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 are vivid examples.

Alexander Etkind maintains that the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union throughout history were busy with internal colonization (Kagarlitsky calls this “self-colonization”). Yet it is important to bear in mind that Russia colonized its own periphery not so much for its own sake as on behalf of the capitalist core. The territories conquered by the empire became integrated in a world order where this empire’s role was more than moderate.

The notion of internal colonization underscores another important aspect of Russian history; namely the estrangement between the educated class and the rest of the people. By the end of the 18th century Russian elites had firmly acquired a European outlook, which kept them apart not only from the non-Russian communities, but also from Russian plebs. As a result, the colonial model functioned not only in ethnic peripheries, but also in the empire’s heartland, where the “common folk” were forcibly herded towards “civilization.” Awareness of that alienation contributed to the emergence of the intelligentsia as a special social group contesting the role of a mediator between the state and the people.

The values that Russia’s educated class sought to make popular with the masses were rooted in European civilization. Even the search for Russia’s “unique way” followed Eurocentric paradigms, such as Romantic philosophy in the case of Khomyakov, or social Darwinism, embraced by Danilevsky. While remaining a peripheral country, Russia nevertheless firmly incorporated a European style of thought, which became the only possible means of cultural and political expression. This is why the elites feared “the Russian riot, senseless and merciless.” Popular protest, which was anti-colonial by nature, had no voice of its own and could not have one in principle, because receiving a decent education required internalizing the colonizers’ way of thinking. The radically minded intellectuals who “went to the people” sought not so much a deeper insight into the mysterious soul of the peasants as to put the “common man” on a track the urban intellectuals had already mapped out for them. In that sense it was a colonial mission. 


Between the time when Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote his Ode to Liberty and later The Captain’s Daughter, social and discourse structures emerged in Russia that would determine the nature of the national identity debate until the present day. Internal colonization remained a necessary condition for the empire’s existence, but the empire itself was essential for keeping the popular masses under control, thereby maintaining conditions for colonization. The ruling elites and the intelligentsia used the same language (remarkably, Pushkin called the Russian government “the sole European” in the country), and that language was completely alien to the uneducated peasants. The ideas of the European Enlightenment, however, implied a far greater degree of individual freedom than the empire was prepared to grant its subjects. The logic of the government’s actions was clear to the intelligentsia, but utterly unacceptable for those of its representatives who acted on behalf of “European values.”

While “European values” implied giving the people a voice in running the country, ordinary people in Russia were as alien and obscure to the intelligentsia as they were to the government. The intelligentsia as a social group always had a fragmented consciousness, torn between three mutually contradictory positions: liberal pro-Western, conservative loyalist, and nativist (pochvenniki) which sought to look into the peasant soul and combine democratic ideals with the idea of a “special path” for Russia.

The issue of modernization and, consequently, of the attitude towards the West, has always taken center stage and determined the content of socio-political discourse. The Eurocentric public mind was unable to go farther than the linear view of historical progress characteristic of the European Enlightenment. Within that paradigm progress was tantamount to catch-up modernization, or an imitation of the West. The sole alternative was to set historical time backwards and declare the “back to the roots” movement as a genuine Russian choice. In any case, the West remained the only point of reference both for the government, with its incessant flip-flopping between modernization and restoration, and the opposition-minded intelligentsia.

The three revolutions that rocked Russia in the 20th century (1905-1907, 1917, and 1989-1991) exploded that structure and brought the people into the limelight of history. However, the revolutions were unable to rid Russia of its economic and normative dependence on the West. Indeed, previous social relations and discourse were reincarnated repeatedly at another historical stage. The Bolsheviks had to build a new society at the expense of ruthless exploitation of the peasants and to purchase machines and equipment abroad with revenue from the export of grain. The democrats of the 1990s, in contrast to the Bolsheviks, were basically Westerners, and during their time in power Russia’s dependence on the capitalist core grew stronger. Nonetheless, the “excesses of democracy” were perceived as manifestations of the very same “Russian riot,” which ultimately predetermined the curtailment of democratic reforms in the 1990s.

The basic parameters of this social and discourse structure are still present in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The government sees its main task as controlling the revenue from natural resources, maintaining stability, and averting the “orange threat” – in other words, preventing people from directly participating in politics. The intelligentsia is still torn between a regime that it strongly dislikes, the condescending West, and the homespun truth that it suspects to be hiding deep inside the enigmatic soul of the Russian people. The only essential difference is that an overwhelming majority of Russians these days have at least an elementary education and, consequently, are capable of communicating with the elites using the same language. However, together with education they acquire the Eurocentric view of the world. As they speculate about the “senseless and merciless Russian riot,” most Russians usually identify themselves with Pushkin and Putin, and not the rebellious masses. In other words, the Russian people are scared of their own revolutionary potential and for that reason are prepared to entrust their future to strong-arm rule. 


At first glance the conservative course that President Putin proclaimed in his Address to the Federal Assembly in December 2012 and later explained in greater detail in his Valdai speech in September 2013 entailed a U-turn away from Eurocentrism. The outspoken refusal to recognize the universal status of liberal democracy, the search for “spiritual bonds,” the promotion of “traditional family values,” and attempts to formulate an official ideology relying on the conservative-protectionist tradition in Russian political thought was targeted at securing the spiritual sovereignty of the Russian nation and make it invulnerable to foreign influences.

Such tactics have proven effective as a political instrument. The public at large has welcomed this policy, while discontent with “instances of excessive zeal” is casual and rare. Moreover, as the Ukrainian crisis indicates, Russia and its new ideology have a far greater “soft power” potential not only in relation to “compatriots abroad,” but also to other anti-Western forces, from Latin American populists to the extreme right-wingers in the European Union and the United States. Yet it is too early to postulate that Russia has ultimately shrugged off its normative dependence on the West and has broken away from a Eurocentric mindset.

There is abundant evidence that Western standards still prevail in the Russian normative space. Even measures expected to protect Russians from harmful Western influences and prevent the erosion of national unity were legitimated by references to Western precedents. For instance, normative acts restricting freedom of assembly were presented as consonant with “common European rules;” the law requiring non-profit organizations to register as “foreign agents” was described as a replica of its U.S. counterpart; attempts to introduce criminal punishment for “insulting the religious feelings of believers” were supported by references to Austrian and German legislation; and the ban on the “falsification of history” was explained by the existence of similar laws in Western Europe and Latvia.

What makes such arguments noteworthy is not whether they are sincere or reasonable, but the very fact that the architects of the proposed measures could not but legitimize their initiatives precisely in this fashion. This normative dependence was observed even in relation to the Ukrainian revolution. Accusing the radicals of hatred towards Russia appeared insufficient, so the entire protest movement was labeled as fascist, thus embedding the allegations in a wider, pan-European context. The very way national interests were identified from the beginning indicates the degree Russian political thought is taken up with confrontation with the West. Preventing the expansion of the Western sphere of influence to Ukraine and, in the final count, to Russia turned out to be the key priority. Subsequently, all economic considerations or values were subordinated to it.

Yet there is another, more significant aspect of Putin’s turn towards conservatism. Taking a closer look, the happily regained “traditional values” are purely abstract, and any attempts to specify and put them into practice result in repressive measures. Practical policies based on “conservative values” are made up almost exclusively of bans and punishments: the restrictions already in place concern the financing of NGOs from abroad, propaganda of ‘non-traditional sexual orientation’ among minors, and the distortion of truth about World War II. Proposals have been voiced to limit the immigration of non-ethnic Russians, forbid adoption by same-sex couples; tax childless people, sharply raise divorce fees, etc. A positive and meaningful agenda is difficult to find. All incentives either were introduced before the “conservative turn” (for example, “maternity capital”) or do not go further than openly provocative proposals (such as the idea of a “multi-generation family” that would live in one household).

The negative traits of Russian conservatism provide for several mutually complementing explanations. Firstly, negativity is characteristic of politics as such – at least if it is to be understood in line with Carl Schmitt’s tradition, in which politics is defined through antagonism. Secondly, excessive detailization can split the electorate loyal to the regime. Having made the choice in favor of traditional values, Putin alienated the liberals. He does not care about their opinion any more. Indeed, he regards the winter protests of 2011-2012 as an act of betrayal of Russia’s national interests. The paternalistically minded part of Russian society eagerly rallied around traditional values, but excessive concretization may upset this balance. These dissimilar groups can be easily united around a standard set of phobias, but it is practically impossible to make them move towards a common goal.

Whatever the case, it is a hard fact that the set of “traditional values” Russia is now trying to use to build its identity is entirely determined by the confrontation with the West. While defending its “independence” in the face of Western hegemony, Russia is forced to operate within the normative space created by the European Enlightenment. The Russian elites just know no other language, and it looks like they have no resources to devise such a language in the future.

Russia is too Europeanized to counter the West with an alternative authentic historical experience that would not continue the linear historical experience of the Enlightenment. There is nothing on Russia’s social horizon that would be equivalent to the figure of “the peasant”, the guardian of anti-historical memories, which is central to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s project of “provincializing Europe.” This is precisely the reason why Russia is unable to follow in the footsteps of Bolivia or Ecuador, for which the inclusion of the indigenous population in the political process has become not just a crucial political task, but a resource necessary to devise a policy resisting neo-liberal globalization.

Russia, too, has its own indigenous peoples, and part of the Russian population apparently has certain historical experience incomprehensible within the framework of the Eurocentric paradigm. I will not dare to speculate as to what extent these peripheral communities have been able to avoid assimilation by the imperial center, which all along pushed ahead with Europeanization of the periphery, particularly in the Soviet era. Nor do I claim that such experience, if it does exist, is of any universal value and that Europeanization would not have been the best way out, even for the custodians of that experience. The question is not the objective existence of alternatives to European modernity, but about Russia’s emphatic refusal to even try to find and make use of these alternatives. They are dismissed offhandedly with typical Eurocentric arrogance as a manifestation of backwardness or even a threat to the comfortable lifestyle. The explosion of xenophobia over the past few years is the but the most obvious illustration of this.

The “special way for Russia” is understood by Russian conservatives as a life like that in Europe but much better – without immigrants, gay communities, the European Court of Human Rights, and other annoying attributes of European civilization. 


The all-out Europeanization of the Russian public mind does not only rest in the awareness that Russia’s uniqueness is formed through antagonism with the West. In reality, the conservative-nationalist project relies on a vacuum, an illusory reflection of Western reality devoid of any genuine material or ideal foundation, except for the desire to retain Russia’s own “singularity.” The lack of an independent foundation merely exacerbates political antagonism. If Russians continue to exist as a nation only as long as they can find traits of their uniqueness in the Western mirror, no long-term compromise with the West is possible.

An alternative to antagonism might come from an economic breakthrough and creation of a national identity based on economic growth, which is what happened in many countries in East and Southeast Asia. However, this would require ending economic dependence on the capitalist core – a task hardly achievable for a country with a very low quality of institutions and governance. Reforming both spheres without employing Western liberal-democratic models is possible, but so far no one seems to have a clear idea of how to go about this. Another alternative is full Europeanization and integration with the Euro-Atlantic community, political reform, and greater transparency of all social structures. This scenario would require a regime change, which does not look like a near-term possibility at all. Even if this happens, overcoming the imperial legacy – which requires continuous self-assertion in the geopolitical space – would be a daunting task.

It appears that in the foreseeable future Russia will continue to identify itself through confrontation with the West. This antagonism will inevitably spill over from the sphere of identity politics to the geopolitical sphere, and result in ever more risky confrontation, which already has a clear power-political dimension. Apparently, it will proceed in the same fashion as long as a new balance of power between “up-from-its-knees Russia” and “bourgeoisified” Euro-Atlantic has been achieved.

The search for a new balance of power is fraught with certain risks, for it has to be made blindly, in a game with too many unknowns. The combined military strength of the EU and the United States far exceeds Russia’s, yet these two actors are unable to make use of their potential without inconveniencing their middle class. As it turns out, the Western man in the street is emphatically against such prospects and surprisingly starts shouting “Hands off Putin!” In Russia, over the past few years the president has managed to garner popular support, and at times it seems that Russians are actually prepared to sacrifice a lot for the sake of their country’s greatness.

However, the rules of the game can suddenly change. It remains unclear how Russians, accustomed to relative bourgeois comfort, will react if geopolitical successes have to be paid for not with patriotic posts in social networks, but with a real decline in living standards, let alone with blood. It cannot be ruled out that the European middle class may eventually get scared of Russian expansion and demand that their governments take resolute action, even if they suffer economic losses. The Russian economy could collapse at any moment under pressure from geopolitical adventures. Or it may not. Skillful manipulation with the resource rent may keep the current model running for quite some time. Also, one should not disregard the possibility of the Kremlin’s success in creating a self-sufficient mobilization economy with reliance on its own natural resources, a radically simpler lifestyle, and a return to the technologies of twenty to thirty years ago in all spheres except for national defense.

Lastly, one should not forget that the global system is increasingly becoming less Eurocentric. Asia’s outpacing growth is capable of completely changing the alignment of forces in both the material and spiritual spheres. Asia has already emerged as a major “other” on Russia’s discourse horizon, but for the time being the region is unable to compete with the West in that capacity. It is obvious that a major change is due in this field, but no one today will dare predict its time or content.

Yet another crusade for genuine Russian values is likely to fail. As long as the fundamental restructuring of the global system is not reflected in people’s outlook (and this will take decades), the vacuum in the inner sanctum of Russian national consciousness will continue to be filled by the West. To be more precise, it will be filled by the West’s “double,” which the Russians themselves invented about two centuries ago and which is still coordinating Russia’s historical development. Most likely this will mean that when the current stage of Russia’s isolation is over, another round of catch-up modernization will begin when the Western myth gains the upper hand over the Slavophile one. And we can only hope that before we begin to regard ourselves as an “integral part of one world civilization” again, the mess we create will not be too huge.

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