11.02.2007
Europe as the «Center», and Its «Outskirts»
№1 2007 January/March
Vladislav Inozemtsev

Vladislav Inozemtsev holds a PhD in Economics; he is Head of the Department of World Economy at the Faculty of Public Administration, Lomonosov Moscow State University, and Director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies.

In the
early 19th century, within a space of just eight years, two
perspicacious Frenchmen – Alexis de Tocqueville and Astolphe de
Custine – traveled to what were then two distant territories of
Europe. They shared their impressions in two books that made a
substantial impact on the educated Europeans. Until the end of the
century, Democracy in America and Russia in 1839 were regarded as
the main socio-philosophical works about the system of governance
in the United States and the Russian Empire – two European powers
outreaching the geographic boundaries of Western Europe.

At that
time, America and Russia were in fact the only outskirts of Europe.
The East was regarded as utterly alien, while the colonies were not
taken into account. At the same time, the United States was often
considered as a more perfect social system, whereas Russia was
associated with a kind of backward system. It seemed that the
“outskirts” were as different from the “center” as they could
possibly be. But the next 150 years would upset that
view.

 

In the
early 20th century, the United States made a dramatic breakthrough,
emerging as the world’s most advanced economy and a “promised land”
for millions of European immigrants. Soon after that, a revolution
took place in Russia, causing millions of people to focus their
attention on the Soviet Union. Within the space of just three
decades, America and Russia twice dragged Europe out from the
bloody wars into which it had plunged itself. As a result, the new
geopolitical rivals effectively divided the continent between
themselves. In the middle of the century, both superpowers easily
overtook the Old World in the technological sphere – first, by
creating nuclear weapons and then by traveling into outer space.
Perceptions about the “center” and the “outskirts” were changing
rapidly, and they were destined to change even more.

 

The end of
the 20th century was as rich in events as it was at the beginning.
The Soviet Union, which had laid claim to economic leadership, and
had declared the creation of a “new historical communality of
people,” succumbed to a relentless arms race that peaked just as
the prices of raw materials collapsed. The Communist empire
eventually disintegrated along the borderlines between its national
republics. As a result, the new Russia immediately lost its former
weight in international affairs, while its citizens started to
plunder the formerly “public” wealth by hook or by crook. Taking
advantage of the situation, the United States gave free rein to its
imperial aspirations, its geopolitical perceptions differing little
from those that had existed in Europe shortly before World War I.
Today, just a decade after America emerged victorious from the Cold
War, it finds itself involved in a conflict with almost the entire
Muslim world, which, incidentally, is rather characteristic of the
United States in terms of its blind religiosity and tunnel vision.
The outcome of this confrontation is far from clear yet.

 

Meanwhile,
the Europeans, unlike their neighbors, avoided any rash moves. Yet
in the 1990s their integration project produced the best possible
results: the EEC transformed into the European Union, the euro was
introduced, while the number of EU members more than doubled from
12 to 25. Europe was freed from the danger from the Soviet Union,
and, at the same time, overcame its slavish dependence on the
United States. As a result, the world of the second half of the
20th century, which was comprised of “two Europes and one West,”
became history. It was replaced by the world of the 21st century
with “one Europe and two Wests.” The Europeans looked once again at
their continent if not as a military-political powerhouse then at
least as a region that generates the boldest social innovations.
New books about an early and imminent triumph of the European Dream
over the American Dream filled bookstore shelves to
overflowing.

 

As for the
Russian Dream, it is practically invisible; the country has yet to
recover from the intellectual stupor into which it fell in the
early 1990s. Not even the radical change of the economic and
political climate at the start of the 21st century has caused any
serious changes in the mentality of the Russian political class.
Domestic thinkers continue to insist: “We must remain different
from everyone else.” Proponents of “Eurasianism” and “sobornost” [a
notion used to describe society as a body, organically gathered
around a common culture, heritage and belief – Ed.] act on the
assumption that Russia is different from all other societies,
although they would do better to prove this thesis, not take it for
granted. This postulate seems erroneous to me, while this article
is an attempt to argue that Russia is not unique, or in other
words, that as one of Europe’s outskirts it is not more unique than
its other outskirt – the United States. Today, Russia and America
are very much alike. At the same time, they dramatically differ
from Europe, which had an enormous historical impact on them. This
is a very difficult argument to prove, so I would just like to
point to some similarities, while avoiding the philosophical
rhetoric. How substantial are these similarities I will leave up to
the reader to judge.

 

“SENSE OF
A NATION”

 

The first
thing that strikes the eye when making a comparison between the
United States and Russia is their remarkable similarity as very
special people – “chosen” and “messianic.” Of course, the majority
of European nations also have their own perceptions of their
historic role and mission, which are not always very modest or even
tenable. But there is good reason to say that all great European
nations base their unique identity on their history and tradition,
drawing on them as a source of inspiration and confidence in the
future. The European concept of the nation, built on a common
history, ethnic origin and language traditions, evolved as early as
the 18th-19th centuries. To date, it remains an undisputed concept
in the Old World.

 

Ideological or religious views bear no relation to
“Europeanness.” Winston Churchill was among the first people to
formulate this idea in a pointedly polemical form. Addressing the
House of Commons in 1940, he slammed a move to ban the Communist
Party of Great Britain, stressing that there were no convictions
that could make a Briton “un-British.” European tolerance, which
sometimes appears excessive, arises from this orientation toward
past and present values, but not toward the illusions of the
future. And that is unlikely to change any time soon.

 

The United
States is organized differently. Ever since the 17th century, when
the first European settlers started to conceive of themselves as a
nation, they have regarded themselves as the “best,” “God’s
chosen,” who are destined to build a “new Promised Land” across the
ocean, a “City upon a hill,” and a second Jerusalem, from where the
light of the divine truth would spread throughout the
world.

 

This is
hardly surprising. The new nation could not have looked for its own
unique identity in history (which did not exist), nor could it
avoid to set ambitious goals (because such goals were set by all
individuals it was comprised of). Throughout the first 150 years of
its history, the United States remained a settler society that was
in a constant state of mobilization, which also created a sense of
mission and chosenness. At the same time, America successfully
played on its “opposition” to Europe. Whereas the Europeans sought
to “civilize” the world, wasting substantial resources in the
effort, the Americans were disingenuously “cleansing” vast tracts
of land on their continent from the natives and using them to their
own ends. Whereas the Europeans were losing hundreds of thousands
of their fellow citizens in colonial wars or emigration, the
Americans were evolving as a powerful nation with a massive inflow
of new colonists. This path of development  topped out in the 20th century, when by the end
of World War I the United States had emerged as the world’s biggest
economic powerhouse, and after World War II as the world’s sole
military superpower. All of this strengthened the Americans’ belief
in their nation’s mission.

 

While
recognizing the outstanding qualities of the Americans as a nation,
it is difficult to shake off the impression that they owe their
main successes to the others’ faults rather than to their own
achievements.

 

America
forgot that it was not the one to invent the universal principles
that it was supposed to bring to the world. Rather, it was a bare
offshoot of European civilization. Over time the Americans
developed a strong “natural” sense of responsibility for the world:
today this is all the more surprising considering that the United
States has for 30 years been dependent on the willingness of other
countries to invest substantial resources into its economy and
supply it with goods in exchange for cheapening greenbacks. The
path the country is following is extremely dangerous, but it arises
from the Americans’ confidence that they will succeed.

 

Russia
also represents an offshoot of European civilization. Its history
is no less remarkable than American history, but at the same time
is quite similar to it. Russia was twice Europeanized. This
happened first in the 9th-11th centuries, when the eastern version
of Christianity was adopted as a dominant religion (which put the
Russians into the Byzantine “zone of influence”). In the 13th
century, Byzantium and Rus (ancient Russia) almost simultaneously
underwent trying ordeals (which started in 1204 and 1237,
respectively). Importantly, Byzantium did not survive the ordeals,
whereas Muscovy, which had acquired the Byzantine tradition of a
secular power’s  domination over
religious authority, identified itself as a “third Rome” – that is,
almost a direct successor to the ancient civilization.

 

Russia
turned to Europe for a second time when it was clearly lagging
behind the main centers of Western civilization, paradoxically
attempting to use European practices to defend itself against the
Europeans. The results were quite impressive: Russia emerged as the
leading power in the Old World, strengthening its “Eurasian”
identity through eastward expansion and once again seeing itself as
the divine “savior” of Europe – this time not only from the fierce
Mongolian hordes but also from Bonaparte the usurper.

 

By the
late 19th century, Russia had become formally a European country,
but remained “outside” Europe in terms of its territory and
population. Its people were affected by their self-perception as
unique (“Eurasian”) and “God’s chosen” – a perception that, just
like in America, obviously had a religious basis. Russia, just like
the United States, was a European and at the same time non-European
country. Looking back over the years, one is amazed to see that our
two countries abolished serfdom and slavery almost simultaneously
(but retained social inequality for a long time) and that their
search for identity and a role in the world was also very similar
(consider the lively debate between the Slavophiles and Westerners
in Russia, and the isolationists and expansionists in the U.S.).
Everything changed, however, after World War I. At that time, the
United States and Russia, which emerged from the 1917-22 upheavals
as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, showed their global
historic aims and prospects.

 

For the
greater part of the 20th century, the essential similarities
between the Soviet Union and the United States were not yet clearly
understood. The two great ideological powers, resolved to
accomplish their historic missions, were the only countries in the
world whose names did not contain the slightest indication as to
their historical and ethnic roots (the U.S.S.R even surpassed the
U.S. in that respect by removing any reference to geographic
identity, although we may recall Leon Trotsky’s proposal that the
new Communist state should be called the “Union of Soviet Republics
of Europe and Asia”). Both powers were equally obsessed with the
ideas of a classless and supra-national society (the concept of the
middle class in the United States and ‘elimination of class-based
differences’ in the Soviet Union; the ‘melting pot’ in the United
States and the ‘new historical communality’ in the Soviet Union).
They were more or less equally attracted by the power of universal
ideas (freedom and democracy in the United States and the
elimination of exploitation and the assertion of social justice in
the Soviet Union). They were almost equally enthralled by the
opportunities opened by technological progress, as well as by the
potentialities of their vast territories. By emerging as winners in
World War II, they proved – to themselves, as well as to everyone
else – the power of their ideologies and social foundations, and
the broad horizons that they had for further
development.

 

Nevertheless, the historical outcome of the 20th century
turned out to be a totally different experience for the United
States and the Soviet Union. This statement is not in conflict with
the postulate concerning the similarities between these two states,
suggesting, rather, that they manifested themselves at different
periods. The United States, being less etatist (in other words,
more “European” than the Soviet Union), had no (nor did it seek
any) opportunities to mobilize and overstrain its internal
resources – it was partly for that reason that it not so much
defeated as outlived the Soviet Union. Presently, it is difficult
to predict what is going to happen with Russia in the 21st century.
Its territory and population has decreased considerably, while the
Communist idea, central to the Soviet Union, collapsed completely
with nothing to replace it. Meanwhile, Russia has preserved its
“Eurasian identity;” the Europeans do not see it as a natural part
of Europe, nor do many Russians for that matter. At the same time,
the Russian system of state governance and its instruments have
changed little compared with what they were before.

 

These
days, Russia – like the United States but unlike the European
countries – does not cast itself as “one of many” states in a
diverse world, nor does it search for normalcy in its European
sense.

 

ATTITUDES
TO THE WORLD

 

There is
also a remarkable similarity in the attitudes to the world that are
typical of the United States and Russia. This seems to be based on
the history of the two European outskirts combining, first,
prolonged periods of expansion; second, a predetermined space over
which these countries could spread their influence; and third,
their political influence, which sometimes substantially exceeded
their economic power.

 

The
striving for territorial expansion is a characteristic feature of
almost all European states. Their territorial gains can only be
compared with the nomadic invasions of the 4th-13th centuries.
Furthermore, as Asian expansion subsided (the last military
expeditions by the Arabs occurred in the 7th-10th centuries and by
the Turks in the 15th-17th centuries), European empires continued
to gain momentum.

 

From this
perspective, there are two similarities between Russia and the U.S.
that set them apart from West European countries. On the one hand,
their expansion did not occur at the expense of European
possessions. Russia smashed the Ottoman Empire, defeated Sweden and
Prussia, vanquished Napoleon, and took control of the Caucasus and
Central Asia only in the “European,” post-Petrine period of its
history. The United States was essentially a European country,
asserting its domination in North America by using European
experience and immigrants from the Old World.

 

On the
other hand, unlike European countries – Spain, France, and Great
Britain – neither Russia nor the United States established global
empires in the European meaning of the term. By constantly
expanding their own territories, they evolved as continental
powers, seeking little control over territories lying far beyond
their borders. This predetermines one of their most fundamental
differences from Europe: Old World countries have already passed
the peak of their expansionist drive, whereas many in Russia
believe (while in the United States they are even convinced) that
they have yet to reach their zenith. The opposition between the
European and “periphery” approaches is reflected in current
political rhetoric.

 

Unlike the
European countries, Russia and the United States throughout the
19th century and during the first half of the 20th century had an
insignificant
global presence.
Until World War II, they remained continental powers with no
experience in building overseas empires. It is noteworthy that as
soon as the Soviet Union and the United States strengthened
militarily, their rivalry sparked serious armed conflicts in the
global periphery – from the Korean Peninsula and Indochina to
Mozambique and Congo, and from Egypt and Syria to Cuba and Chile
(it is equally noteworthy that the European countries had not been
involved in colonial wars with each other since the late 18th
century). They built their policy primarily on their geopolitical
interests and ideological goals, whereas the Europeans were looking
for economic advantages, and when the latter disappeared,
colonialist practices swiftly discontinued in the 1960s-80s.
Neither the maintenance nor the loss of colonies caused economic
upheavals in Europe. On the other hand, the striving for global
leadership bled the Soviet Union dry, thus leading to its collapse,
while today the United States continues to enthusiastically follow
this path.

 

Such a
historical legacy seriously distorts Russia’s and America’s
attitude toward the world. Both tend to exaggerate the role of
force in modern international relations and the possibility of
defeating an adversary with state-of-the-art weapons. Russian and
U.S. strategists act on the premise that the enemy must be
destroyed, not put under control. Both Russia and the United States
consider themselves to be centers of global politics, treating the
rest of the world as an area where they can find allies but not any
models to replicate. They are often plagued by the question: “Who
are our allies?” but never ask themselves: “Whose allies could we
become?”

 

The modern
European countries have none of this arrogance, and this fact makes
them far more adaptable to the political realities of the 21st
century. Both Russia and the U.S. regard the outside world above
all as a source of threats; the rhetoric of their incumbent leaders
makes this abundantly evident. The Europeans, on the contrary,
regard the world, rather, as a source of challenges than threats,
and are acting accordingly.

 

Finally,
unlike the United States, which is attempting to impose its values
on the world, and Russia, which since the Soviet times has been
laying claim to a unique vision of the future, the Europeans have
no interest in exporting their model of development to the rest of
the world.

 

It is also
important to note that the economic development not only of Russia
but also of the United States is lagging behind their political
aspirations. During the imperial era, Great Britain and France were
the largest net exporters of industrial goods and capital, while
the European continent was the world’s largest exporter of people.
Today, Russia and the U.S. are far away from these trends. It is
also important that the Europeans (it is essential to remember in
this context that Russia shared all of their hardships) rebuilt
their continent twice after the two world wars, so the claims that
the U.S. showed higher economic growth in the 20th century have
little relation to reality. The fate of the Soviet Union shows how
dangerous the gap between political and economic capabilities can
be. The U.S. is also beginning to appreciate the danger.

 

INDIVIDUAL
AND SOCIETY;
CITIZEN AND THE
STATE

 

Indicative
of the similarities between the outskirts and their difference from
the center are specific problems – e.g., the social structure,
relationships between the individual and society and the citizen
and the state, and the level of socialization – although they can
be less pronounced than in the geopolitical realm.

 

The only
point on which there seems to be no direct similarity between
Russia and America is the relationship between the individual and
the state. In the U.S., government and political authority appear
to be forces that are separate from society, although not hostile
toward it. A political career is less prestigious than a business
career, while politicians do not enjoy much public credibility.
This is partly due to the dual attitude toward government on the
part of the American people: on the one hand, the country was built
as a model of self-governance, while political authority was
limited until the early 20th century; on the other, the present
status of the United States, and the status of the decisions made
in Washington require strong governing authority with broad powers.
The right balance has normally been struck via judicial rulings;
this is why modern America is rather a country of courts and
precedents than of laws. The ruling authorities are so concerned by
domestic security that the U.S. could be described as a land of
criminals (2.09 million individuals are behind bars in prisons and
jails, which makes 715 people per 100,000 – that is to say, 600
percent higher than in the EU with 103 per 100,000).

 

In Russia,
the state is a kind of an antipode to society – “a society within
society,” which is effectively separated from it. The governing
authority has never been perceived as originating from the will of
the people or as representing it. Although the prestige of the
civil service is high, bureaucracy has minimal public credibility.
The system of governance is not balanced with either the individual
economic autonomy or an independent judiciary; at the same time,
there is little opposition to “strong government” on the grassroots
level. As is well known, strict Russian laws are counterbalanced by
their loose observance. This reality is somewhat similar to the
American practice of optional law enforcement through well-debugged
system of defense counseling. But just as in the U.S., the ruling
authorities in Russia are not particularly concerned with assisting
its citizens. Instead, they readily seize on the opportunity of
shifting the focus from economic to security problems (as in the
U.S., 0.53 percent of Russia’s population is in prison, while up to
15 percent of the working-age population are employed in the Armed
Forces, state security organizations, law enforcement or private
security agencies).

 

Unlike the
U.S. and Russia, the state in the EU countries plays a different
role in society’s life, performing different functions. First, the
share of GDP re-distributed through the budgets of the 25 EU
countries stands at 47.8 percent, as compared with 28 percent in
the U.S. and 29 percent in Russia. Second, the share of spending on
external and internal security programs in the EU is 3-4 percent of
GDP, whereas in Russia and America it is close to 10 percent.
Third, the Europeans tend to respond more aggressively to any
attempts by the state to infringe upon their rights (in Europe,
participation in demonstrations, strikes and other protest actions
is 14 times higher than in the United States, while there is no way
this indicator can be reasonably compared with the situation in
Russia). Fourth, EU governments are more socially oriented than in
the U.S. or Russia: fifteen EU countries spend up to 60 percent of
their budgets on social programs, as compared with 38 percent in
the United States and a mere 18 percent in Russia. Over the
centuries, the Europeans have developed a respect for the law,
treating their rulers as community’s servants. In the United States
(to a lesser degree) and in Russia (to a greater degree), the state
is separated from society, telling it how to act. The majority of
the people in those countries do not expect any help from the
state, seeking to reduce the scale of their obligations to it by
any means.

 

The place
of the state in society is predetermined above all by the nature of
relations between the people, and here the differences between the
center and the outskirts become increasingly pronounced. Reality
belies the purported collectivism and communality of the
Russians/Eurasians. What does collectivism have to do with a
society where fences are built not only around luxury country
homes, but also around poor men’s graves at village cemeteries? A
society that has long lost the ability to formulate its interests
unless being prompted by the state-controlled media? A society
where glaring social inequality arouses no protests? A society
whose members are almost not involved in any forms of social
activism except for purely formal membership in officially allowed
political parties? Probably the most reliable communality indicator
is known as the Gini coefficient [a measure of inequality of wealth
distribution], which is virtually the same in Russia and the United
States. Today, according to official statistics, 10 percent of
Russia’s wealthy possesses 16 times as much national wealth as the
poorest 10 percent (in the United States, it is 14.8 times higher,
while in the EU-15 it is 7.6).

 

America
and Russia are rigid individualistic societies going through – for
different reasons – a phase that Europe passed if not in the late
19th century, then soon after World War II (this is not to suggest
that France or Italy are model collectivist societies, but rather
that Europe, where the state has assumed the role of a social
protector, has found a counterweight to wild
individualism).

 

This of
course is rooted in the attitude to religion where the Europeans
are heading into one direction whereas the Americans and Russians
are moving in the opposite. Before World War I, the level of
religiosity of all three societies was quite comparable. Today,
people in the majority of European countries (except perhaps for
Poland) who describe themselves as religious are clearly in the
minority. However, in America and Russia, the share of citizens
saying religion occupies an important or very important place in
their life is steadily growing. In contrast with Europe, the ruling
elites inside Russia and the U.S. are increasingly using religion
as a means for reaching their political goals. 

 

It will
never occur to any head of state in a European country to explain
his foreign policy decisions by directives received straight from
God (as does George W. Bush). Nowhere in Europe will a pontiff
consider it fitting (as does Patriarch Alexy II of Russia) to thank
his president obsequiously for the wonderful life that his flock
enjoys under his wise leadership. The United States and Russia are
far ahead of the rest of the world according to the scale on which
religious sermons and services are broadcast live, as well as in
the frequency and duration of presentations by religious figures on
the radio and television (in this respect, only Islamic states can
compete with them). Both countries are seeing the vigorous
development of “nationally specific” trends of Christianity
(Orthodoxy in Russia and Protestantism and Christian sectarianism
in the United States). Finally, both the U.S. and Russia are
effectively competing in invoking and tapping the supreme forces to
deal with economic problems: the Americans remind every bearer of
U.S. dollars that “In God We Trust,” while top corporate executives
in Russia sincerely hope that the domestic automotive industry will
perform better since St. John the Baptist’s relics were brought to
the AvtoVAZ car-making plant.

 

One can
argue about the specifics of American and Russian religiosity, but
it is clear that while the population of Europe is becoming
increasingly indifferent to religion, both outskirts rely on
religious-messianic rhetoric to strengthen their
identities.

 

In closing
this section, I would venture to suggest that Europe is gradually
turning into a kind of a community of personalities, whereas the
United States and Russia are not only preserving but are also
consolidating a society of citizens (or even subjects). The
cohesiveness of the Europeans is built on natural social
solidarity, whereas the cohesiveness of the Russians and Americans
is based on extolling their not entirely indisputable values, as
well as on the mobilization of efforts to attain some equally
dubious goals. Without suggesting that one model is better than the
other, I only attempt to show the differences between
them.

 

ECONOMIC
REALITIES

 

Money as a
measure of economic success is perhaps one of the most notable
things that the two outskirts have in common, setting them apart
from Europe. In America (and nowadays also in Russia), money is an
object of worship, a yardstick of personal success, and a basic
criterion of social value. The effect of such an attitude is, on
the one hand, growing social stratification and, on the other, an
economy that is oriented toward the immediate pocketing of profits
as opposed to the maximization of public benefit. It would be
appropriate in this context to recall, for instance, the lack of
any effort to make a more effective use of resources in the United
States or managerial decisions in Russia that are reckless from the
standpoint of social benefit but “useful” for individual
businessmen and government officials. Unlike Europe, where the
incomes of corporate executives rarely exceed those of their
employees by more than 30 times, in the United States executives at
major corporations can make 160 to 250 times (some experts argue
this ratio exceeds 400 times) as much as their employees, while in
Russia the gap is even more glaring.

 

The
formation of narrow groups of individuals receiving excessive
incomes leads to the merging of business and political elites,
which is less pronounced in Europe. In the United States, a country
with longer and more stable entrepreneurial traditions, the general
movement is from business to politics: for example, many officials
in the Bush administration formerly held positions in businesses
whose interests they openly lobbied for in government. In Russia,
the trend is rather the reverse: government officials use every
opportunity not only to enrich themselves, but also to acquire
effective control over commercial structures. In Europe – unlike
America and Russia – access to society’s upper levels depends not
so much on one’s financial status as on one’s social, cultural or
intellectual proximity to members within these elite. The merging
of corporate and state governance functions is rare and usually
purely formal, without much real control.

 

Such
differences between the economic priorities of the outskirts and
the center have manifested themselves in the imbalance and
ineffectiveness of the Russian and American economic systems.
Today, the EU produces 10 percent more cars than the U.S., 60
percent more chemical products, 75 percent more pharmaceuticals,
and 100 percent more steel, while in the textile and light
industries the disparity is even wider.

 

As for
Russia, in the 1990s it ceased to exist as an industrial power,
becoming instead a “pipeline economy.” Needless to say, this
scenario has little in common with the United States, but it has to
be recognized that in the late 20th century both outskirts
effectively dismantled their industrial facilities.

 

Today,
U.S. imports exceed exports by $800 billion a year, while Russia’s
trade surplus is based on high prices for raw materials, which will
be shaved off if the price of oil falls to $37 per barrel. There
are growing signs of parasitism: the rapid increase in immigration
as the primary source of a workforce has been equally
characteristic of the United States since the late 1980s and of
Russia since the early 2000s. The governments of both countries
strive to control not the production of goods, but rather the
transport, information, and financial infrastructures. In the
United States, this manifests itself in the increasing role of
financial, banking and brokerage services in the economic realm, as
well as in control over global information networks. Russia,
following the strategy of an “economic superpower,” positions
itself as a network of oil and gas pipelines, and is obsessed with
the idea of becoming a “bridge” between Europe and Asia in the new
century. However, historical practice shows that not a single great
nation has ever managed to retain its political influence amid a
lack of competitiveness and declining production.

 

This does
not mean that the outskirts are now lagging behind the center that
is far in the lead. But the fact remains that Europe’s economic
development today seems to be more balanced than that of Russia or
the United States. This is apparent by Europe’s greater focus on
intensive economic growth, steady reduction of working hours,
tighter environmental standards, and the balance of trade, as well
as, e.g., the degree to which high-tech products, initially
developed in the U.S., penetrate American and European consumer
markets. It is an open secret that the percentage of people who use
mobile communication technology in the United States is about 56
percent, as compared with almost 100 percent in the EU. Meanwhile,
only 19 percent of new American cars are equipped with GPS systems,
as compared with Europe’s 65 percent. The U.S. maintains a lead
only in the use of the Internet (which is regularly used by 56.7
percent of the Americans, as compared to 44.2 percent of the
Europeans). As for Russian inventions that gained recognition in
the West while being ignored in Russia, it is impossible to make
even a rough estimate here.

 

In other
words, although the Europeans’ creative potential may be inferior
to America’s or Russia’s, the Europeans are unrivaled in
implementing technological achievements to improve the quality of
their daily life.

 

CONSUMER
PREFERENCES

 

Many
social, economic and even political processes in the modern world
are reflected in consumer preferences and behavior stereotypes.
There are also some differences between Europe and its outskirts
that have evolved over decades.

 

In the
United States and in Russia, the individual is perceived (and
perceives himself) above all as a consumer. His principal
preoccupation is to buy more and buy cheaper and, if possible, of
better quality. This process has assumed the most exaggerated forms
in America. Suffice it to consider the main idea of most
advertising campaigns: now the consumer can get more for the same
price (a second hamburger, 30 percent more of coca cola, 50 percent
more of detergent, etc.)! When a consumer boom runs out of steam,
large-scale lending programs feed it; the principal message is that
there will always be enough money. Meanwhile, the greatest threat
for the consumer is “pleasure denied.”

 

In Russia,
almost all of these trends are reproduced in those social groups
that are approaching Western consumption standards. Today, Russia
is the most lucrative and dynamic market for Western retail chains
and supermarkets. Sales on credit are growing 30-40 percent each
year, and sales of luxury cars are growing at the same rate. At the
same time, wealth in Russia has acquired cult status, regardless of
its source. Print and electronic media are promoting this image:
“New Russians” are the masters of life, whereas all other people –
those who cannot afford such a lifestyle – are just a gray mass
slavishly following the new elite. Spiritual poverty is even
becoming an object of pride. A middle-aged Russian woman who
visited Paris on a very cheap bus tour described the French capital
as “nothing special – in Moscow, the cars are much cooler.” It does
not even occur to people that those “cool cars” were bought with
money that was stolen from them. Many Americans, too, do not
realize that America’s “grandeur” is a peculiar trait that the
people in a majority of countries do not want to
reproduce.

 

While
developing as consumer societies, America and Russia are similar in
their bigotry for luxury, which oftentimes becomes the only thing
that distinguishes the “elite” from the “masses,” which otherwise
are like two peas in a pod. In the United States, the word “luxury”
is applied to makeshift houses in Florida, giant gas-guzzling SUVs,
the seats of which look more like couches from the past century,
any clothes except blue jeans, and almost all hotels except those
located along major highways. In Russia, “luxury” became equated
with “elitism” (which emphasizes the importance of wealth and
status in the public eye). “Elitist” is applied to everything from
gold-plated jewelry to cosmetics, from restaurants to cars, and
from apartments to country homes. There are even advertisements for
the wholesale shipment of “elite toilet paper.” It seems that
almost everyone, except for the really poor, can partake of this
“elitism” without even stopping to think about the real meaning of
the word.

 

All of
this is at odds with the European approach, where the word
“elitist” is never used in advertising, while the word “luxury” is
used very rarely (being substituted with “upscale” and “private” –
e.g. for advertising nightclubs).

 

Yet
another distinguishing feature of the United States and Russia that
is alien to Europe is the level of deception, large and small, that
confronts any first-time visitor to either of the two countries.
For example, in the U.S., all prices are indicated without taxes,
so real price of an item may be up to 25 percent higher. “Suggested
gratuity,” which adds up to 20 percent to a restaurant bill, can be
especially baffling. And then a cab passenger who pays $5 on top of
the $15 shown on the meter is asked for a tip; this scenario has
become rather commonplace. Given that the sphere of the services
industry (where a consumer comes into direct contact with a service
provider) generates about two-fifths of American GDP, the volume of
unregistered financial transactions can in fact account for as much
as 8-10 percent of GDP.

 

In Russia,
the role of American cab drivers and bartenders is played by clerks
and civil servants: it is an open secret that in addition to the
official price, the cost of services provided by the so-called
‘state unitary enterprises’ also includes kickbacks, gratuities,
and so on. According to some estimates, this low-level corruption
in Russia is put at 10-15 percent of GDP.

 

Whenever I
visit the United States after traveling in Europe, I have a sense
of provincialism clumsily hidden by beautiful packaging. Foreign
visitors coming to Russia also get this feeling – not immediately
though, but as they start judging it beyond the appearance of the
store shelves.

 

*   *   *

 

In
conclusion, I would like to point to yet another circumstance that
speaks volumes about America and Russia. There is a common belief
that the United States was made into a great country by people who
were driven by the American Dream. The popularity of this dream
explains why America has been unaffected by public movements that
are so typical in Europe: the Americans in their majority eschew
the European tradition of striving for income equality in favor of
the equality of opportunities. It is noteworthy that Russia (except
for the late 19th-early 20th centuries, when it built the closest
rapprochement with Europe) also has not seen egalitarian movements.
Can it be that this passivism stems from the same illusion that so
successfully immobilizes public movements in the United States? It
seems to me that some parallels could be drawn between the American
and Russian dreams insofar as it concerns the principles underlying
the organization of their societies.

 

The
American Dream glorifies success much more than those who have
achieved it. At the same time, the Americans praise the capitalist
system based on personal liberties, economic independence and
freedom – as the core element of their society. Does the Russian
Dream resemble the American one? Yes and no. As distinct from the
Americans, the Russians perceive society as centered around the
state, rather than the market. It is indicative that nothing
arouses so much contempt and hostility in Russian society as
corrupt and inefficient state and government officials, but at the
same time the president, who appointed many of them and effectively
placed them above the law, has huge public credibility as a symbol
of the state. Is this not reminiscent of the Americans’ attitude
toward successful capitalists and capitalism in general?

 

So, up to a
certain point, the Russian approach is similar to the American one:
yes, the governing authorities in Russia are indifferent to their
citizens, but a substantial part of these citizens also naively
believe that they can eventually join them, just like a street
vendor in a provincial American town hopes to become a millionaire.
Even the Russian democrats in the early 1990s drafted an
essentially authoritarian Constitution – in part because they wrote
it to suit themselves, not the country as a whole. It is this
harboring of rosy illusions, as opposed to a degree of normalcy,
that characterizes both the Russians and the Americans, and
establishes the striking difference between themselves and the
Europeans.