Modern Russia and Postmodern Europe
No. 1 2008 January/March
Boris V. Mezhuev

PhD in Philosophy
Moscow State University, Russia
Philosophy Department
Chair of History of Russian Philosophy
Associate Professor;
Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences (INION RAN), Moscow, Russia
Senior Research Fellow;
Chairman of the Editorial Board,
Russian Truth website


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The centuries-long controversy between Russia and Europe has moved to the foreground again. This can be attributed partly to the ongoing political rapprochement among European countries, which, though not entirely codified, is demonstrating its value aspect. Europe is uniting not only because of a common market and a set of common economic interests, but it is also rallying around common values, overtly or covertly put forward by its leaders and manifested in its many institutions.

Russia, too, has been displaying a certain value aspect in its policies, above all in its foreign policy. Claiming its adherence to the principles of sovereignty, Russia, no matter what its ideologists may say, has clearly been demonstrating an anti-European bent. It is trying to find the proper words to justify the use of its vast natural resources to suit its own national interests rather than some ‘common European values.’ Moreover, it is challenging European policies regarding the legalization of sexual minorities; it strongly believes that it has the right to build a political system according to its own national tradition rather than according to universal democratic principles. Russia’s leaders are irritated at attempts by various multinational players to interfere in Russian matters and pursue their own policies on its territory.

To avoid confusion, one must say that both in the case of Europe and Russia ideology often serves to camouflage or justify practices that are far from innocent. It is hardly true that Europe’s involvement in the Yugoslavian conflict could contribute in earnest to achieving claimed humanitarian objectives, or that Russia’s resource potential is being put by its civil servants and businessmen to the good of the people and not to suit corporate interests. Nevertheless, the Russia vs Europe controversy should be considered as a divergence of values rather than a clash of the individual interests of their elites.


Europe, especially Old Europe, views Russia as a more conservative state whose values do not nicely suit the values advocated by the European Union. Ivan Krastev correctly revealed the idea behind this disparity in his article “Russia as the ‘Other Europe’’ (Russia in Global Affairs, No. 4/2007). “The heart of the current crisis is not the clash between democracy and authoritarianism […], but the clash between the postmodern state embodied by the EU and the traditional modern state embodied by Russia.” Krastev believes that “the key elements of this postmodern European system include a highly developed system of mutual interference in each other’s domestic affairs and security based on openness and transparency.” In other words, the European postmodern system defies sovereignty or the separation of domestic and foreign affairs, which are priorities for Russian politics.

The author also indicates that it is exactly the postmodern principle that underlies two major European institutions – the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), “based on intrusive inspections and active monitoring.”

Russia has withdrawn from the treaty and is far from welcoming the OSCE’s claims for judging how undemocratic elections in Russia are. Russia generally considers postmodern European values to be unfit for its status as a superpower with huge natural resources and a substantial military potential. This very unique combination of strengths secures Russia a special position with respect to both Europe and the rest of the world. To enter Europe, Russia has to behave very much like Germany did when it had to abandon a substantial portion of its superpower ambitions for the sake of pan-European unity.

Observers know this all too well. What remains unclear is the exact set of values chosen by Russia and the European world. Or to be more accurate, what values form the axiological foundation for Russian modernity and European postmodernity. It should be noted that Russian policies to a large extent continue to be shaped by the pre-modern, traditionalistic mindset (specifically, by the viable quasi-monarchic approach to power), and that Europe has not yet shaken off its modernity inheritance. Yet these legacies do not refute Krastev’s rightful observation that the demarcation line between Russia and Europe lies along the modern vs postmodern paradigm. What matters here is that modern and postmodern approaches differ not so much in “what actually is,” but in “what should be.” And “what should be” as a set of value postulates often appears to be a more serious obstacle to overcome than contradictions involving pragmatic interests.


Before we dwell on European postmodern values, let us take a look at modernity. There are too many definitions of this phenomenon, of which the most popular in present-day international relations theory is reference to the Westphalian system. Modernity implies that foreign policy, in interstate relations, stays away from domestic policies, and that a single state should not make any ideological or political preconditions for its relations with other states. In other words, the international system does not prescribe any rigid ideological rules of behavior for any of its member states. This international system regulates – initially through a balance of forces and then by way of international treaties and institutions – the external behavior of the players only, fully ignoring their internal policies, which remain the domain of their sovereigns or national monarchs.

The Westphalian system has lived through several crises – beginning with the French Revolution and the Holy Alliance that emerged from the ashes of the Napoleonic Empire – and demanded that the monarchs defend the legitimate rights of other sovereigns. The French Revolution added chaos to the Westphalian peace since it left open the question of the sovereignty of the revolutionary government that was lawless by the categories of the Restoration. This question continues to be relevant today, particularly when a country finds itself split by civil war. The People’s Republic of China was recognized by the world community as the successor to Chiang Kai Shek’s China, while the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the state of the Taliban – was denied recognition on political grounds.

Denouncing interference in each other’s affairs, the Westphalian states made an unspoken agreement against non-state or interstate entities claiming political influence or legitimacy. The agreement was aimed, above all, against the Roman Catholic Church and its Orders spread across the globe.

By systemically excluding all non-state players from the international arena, the Westphalian system was able to establish a certain order across Europe: loyalty to the state was declared supreme above all other forms of loyalty that existentially were even more significant – loyalties to ideology, church, race, etc. A man in the army could fight against his co-religionist (as in the war between Austria and Italy) or against his kin (as in the Austro-Prussian war).

Today many social scientists speak about the end of modernity as a result of globalization, the free flow of capital and the activity of transnational corporations. However, the new facts of life leading to the erosion of the nation-state do not spell the end of modernity as a specific social age and the emergence of a new postmodern society in the same way as the Time of Trials did not mean the end of Monarchy. Modernity is not just a time in history characterized by certain features given in observation or empirical description. It is an ethic and political system, and no systemic failure or erosion of a nation-state would be capable of bringing about its self-destruction unless an alternative system of values emerged.

Therefore, putting aside the positivistic description of modernity that is typical of social and political sciences, let us try to define the value component of this phenomenon.
What does the man of modernity choose as his supreme political value? For what does he sacrifice his life, ideology, class, sometimes his family, and – very often – his faith?

The first answer that comes to mind is the grandeur of the state. Yet this is the wrong answer. In spite of the central position of the state in the Westphalian system, the dominant ideology of modernity has nothing to do with etatism. The strict obedience of an individual to the state can in no way be considered as the supreme political virtue of modern times. An individual is neither a slave of the state nor of his sovereign. He submits to the state because it performs certain extremely important functions.

Thus, the state – or its abstract grandeur and prestige – cannot be considered the supreme value of modernity. The state is merely a tool for the protection of a man’s freedom from encroachments of external powers. As one man is unable to ensure his safety on his own, he delegates a set of his individual rights to the state. Since protection from external powers requires a team effort, the idea of nation as a “union of people jointly defending their freedoms” appears to be a bond between a man and the state. The nation transfers part of its rights to the state and it does so not just to maintain order when “everybody is fighting everyone else.” If, in its effort to maintain order, the state becomes dependent on some alien power, this would immediately be considered by the nation as immoral. The nation makes the state legitimate because the latter defends the freedom of its citizens against the incursions of any external power that does not have an agreement with them.

Furthermore, the moral rules of modernity allow for certain degree of self-alienation of the nation. The nation may go as far as to allow the state to usurp a portion of individual rights and freedoms which – in accordance with an unspoken social agreement – it promised to defend. The state may require more rights for itself, to free itself from “feedback” with the nation by stripping public control over executive power. But this might take place with the sole purpose of ensuring national security, or freedom from any external threats.

True, the elites of any country may use a threat to national security as a pretext for curbing freedom and democracy, and one can often see the selfish interests of the powers-that-be behind actions that are purposefully provoking an external conflict in a bid to strengthen their authoritarian power. However, in the age of modernity, the usurpation of individual rights by the state is legitimate only when the freedom of an individual is threatened internally or externally. Even Stalin – known for his monstrous mass repressions – had to justify his toughening of the regime by threats emanating from fascism and “international bourgeois imperialism.” Western leaders, too, have resorted to similar arguments: Roosevelt used such nonliberal measures as the internment of Japanese-born Americans during World War II.

Thus the foundation value of modernity is freedom which, according to John Stuart Mill, is understood as a guaranteed non-interference of the power in the affairs of an individual, rather than a guaranteed interference of an individual in the affairs of the power. A nation-state – the sovereignty of which is being undermined by postmodernity – and liberal democracy are in fact the two institutions devised to protect an individual’s freedom the way it is defined by modernity. It is true that the state, in order to perform this function, must be economically and militarily powerful enough to ward off any external threat. Therefore, from the viewpoint of modernity, the state cannot abandon its power potential, because by losing its positions in the world arena it will lose its capability to protect its citizens from external threats. In this context it is clear why a modernity state is so sensitive to any interference in its internal affairs: by agreeing to such interference the state admits its inability to perform the main function that makes it legitimate in the eyes of the nation.

However, such a system of values based on the supremacy of individual freedom has a deficiency – it is only freedom from power and nothing else. If we regard such freedom as supreme (as is done by modernity), particular claims by various class, ethnic and cultural minorities to protect their narrow interests would immediately be made secondary and potentially illegitimate. All these interests are to be set aside in the face of the priority – and genuinely national – task, which only the state can cope with. Russian ideologists often say that a ‘political nation’ is something absolutely politically correct and is fully compatible with European values. In fact, the priority of political issues means only that individual – including class and ethnical – interests are to be sacrificed for the general political task of ensuring “national freedom.” This freedom may require the sacrifice of all cosmopolitan links if they are found to be detrimental to solidarity between people within a single nation.

In addition to politics, the idea of freedom has one more dimension – an individual striving to liberate oneself from power and from the enslaving forces of nature. Therefore, as the German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer correctly put it, rational science, alongside the liberal-democratic system, forms the second aspect of modernity, or Enlightenment. It aims at both gaining theoretical understanding of the environment and instrumental subjugation of Nature to the will of Man.

This brings us to the conclusion – apparently obvious but somewhat surprising in this context – that it is modernity itself that makes Europe, or the West, a universal civilization that gave birth to two phenomena – rational science and rational law, the significance of which lies in the potential universality of freedom as a supreme and unconditional value. It was modernity that created an international political system that gave legal recognition to the sovereignty of the nation and the equality of all human beings regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity. In fact, these are the values that post-Communist Russia has declared as priority for its politics. Surprisingly enough, this declaration has been opposed by Europe.


There is a popular opinion expressed by the U.S. political scientist Robert Kagan that the so-called ‘postmodernity’ of European civilization is merely the result of Europe’s living for a long time without any military conflicts. Europe feels comfortable living untroubled and does not want to lose the wellbeing and peace it gained as a reward for its sacrifices in both World War I and World War II. As a system of values, postmodernity is merely a naпve attempt to hide oneself from history behind police checkpoints that restrict entry into the Schengen zone. Europe is reluctant to see the horrible realities of the world, or to mobilize itself in the face of global threats to freedom and democracy. It seems that many representatives of the Russian elite assess European postmodernity in much the same way.

It is true that a striving for peace and wellbeing is very important for shaping a new – counter-modernity – approach. Yet a situation without any war itself does not explain why the nation-state in Europe is eroding – physically, morally and politically. One thing is clear, however – unlike the U.S., Europe is reluctant to become entangled in any full-scale conflicts motivated by pure ideology. At the same time, European military contingents have taken an active part in humanitarian interventions in Africa; most European nations supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and an overwhelming majority of Europeans supported NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. To put it another way, no matter how attractive pacifism may look for many left-wing Europeans, it cannot be considered a value foundation for postmodernist Europe.

It would be more accurate to say that, unlike modernity aimed at individual and national freedoms, postmodernity opts for rehabilitating the rights of various minorities. Postmodernity is a critical response to the universality of modernity. Postmodernist philosophers maintain that Western liberal democracy and Western science are not universal by nature; rather, they are a product of the domination of a certain class, race or gender. All claims of modernity for the right to suppress other identities – ethnical, gender, racial – for the sake of a single nation-state identity are groundless.

The origins of postmodernity lie not in the realities of post-war Europe, but in the value system of early Marxism. The tragedy of modernity is that its emergence chronologically coincided with the birth and maturity of a capitalist society in Europe. There is a persistent belief that modernity as a system of values – so brilliantly disclosed in Hegel’s philosophy – is nothing but an ideological cover for capitalist exploitation. European modernity broke apart over the social issue. The demand of a significant part of the population – the proletariat – for a place in Western society and recognition by other classes resulted in a revolution in morals and politics. In this situation, the working minority had to abandon universalism in treating social society and position itself as a class alienated to society’s phantom values. This signified a tragic shift in Western society (which Karl Polanyi, who had a profound understanding of that radical change, called the Great Transformation) and ultimately resulted in a transition from modernity to postmodernity.

The rebellious proletariat eventually found its way into Western society, while its political leaders traded Communist internationalism for Social-Democratic patriotism (which fact-loving radicals from the East hastened to dub “social betrayal”). In fact, the proletariat created a visible breach in the harmonious system of liberal modernity that was immediately used by other – first ethnic and then gender and sexual – minorities. Finally, there arose the problem of immigrants who also wished to accommodate themselves in Western society while at the same time preserving their traditions and way of life. This process has already led to a complete transformation of the system of values in Europe, and to ethical and – subsequently in the future – legal delegitimization of its institutions.

Indeed, if national sovereignty provides freedom for only a privileged part of its citizens – the well-to-do, white, heterosexual, male, adult, psychically sane majority, while the remaining population – the poor, non-white, homosexual, mentally insane and all other small groups are de facto excluded from the national unity, there is no sense for the latter in rallying with the other members of the political community to defend their freedom and thereby credit the sovereignty of nation-state.

Let us now imagine a postmodernist system in which the demands of minorities would be placed higher than the claims of nation-states for civil unity and loyalty. Of course, it is hard to imagine a society capable of putting some above the whole. However, one can admit the existence of a super-society raising above a multitude of lesser societies and – in a bid to consolidate its higher position – doing its utmost to differentiate and even set them apart. Such a super-society would be capable of military interference when the rights of ethnic and other minorities in individual countries are infringed on, and, on the other hand, of stopping the suppression of any revolt of such minorities by the state power of these countries. However, such a society would not have any right to demand that its people mobilize for the sake of some all-national task, and therefore, it would exclude as unfit such economic strategies as tough market reforms hitting the working population and the unemployed, and any forced mobilizations by the state. Such a society would gravitate toward European-style social democracy. Finally, such a society would proceed toward the lifting of taboos placed by religion and other foundations – the social denial of sexual deviants would be seen as unacceptable.

This does not mean, however, that this hypothetical postmodernist social entity will have to agree with all possible deviations from traditional morality. It is only required that it treat as illegitimate any attempts by nation-states to forcefully put down social revolts of any such minority. In other words, a nation-state is deprived of the right to cultural or political suppression of minorities. A mandate for the legitimate use of coercion against rioting minorities is delegated to supra-national entities which are believed to protect such minorities from being treated in an unjust manner.

In what way is this supra-national power legitimized? This is very simple. Whereas the power of a nation-state under modernity is justified in the eyes of its people by its capability to safeguard individual freedoms, postmodernist supra-national society is believed to secure wellbeing and prosperity. Freedom under modernity is exclusively negative, whereas freedom under postmodernity is positive. Modernity promises to provide independence from any alien power first and only then independence from its own power. Postmodernity does not promise such independence, instead it offers safeguards to most of its citizens against poverty and the turmoil caused by potential involvement in protracted military conflicts, as well as from problems caused by the state’s use of coercion against minorities.

This is what present-day Europe has been attempting to build and these are the values it is trying hard to graft on modernizing Russia.


The reader may suspect that the author is under some illusions about present-day realities in Russia. Let me dispel such doubts. This country can in no way be considered a model of modern – that is, a properly modernized – social entity. There are strong traditionalist sentiments in Russia rooted in an unchallenged trust in the supreme power. This is glaringly apparent in an inadequate understanding of the role of public representation in state governance. One can often hear advocates of the present regime in Russia saying: “Why should we have a parliament if we have a president in whom we trust, whom we love and whom we have elected?” The well-known saying “Trust but verify” has not yet developed into a political maxima.

However, this is not the core of the problem. What really matters is that Russia is seeking self-determination in the international arena and is being guided by a modernistic perception of sovereignty. This is what causes resentment and irritation from European elites who have developed a new way of thinking. Europe has justly pointed out to Russia that, in order to belong to a new European civilization, Russia should go far beyond the fundamental moral and political transformation that it has dared to perform during its transition from Communism to a market-oriented economic system.

What is required from Russia is more than its adherence to democracy. It is very unlikely that Europe’s attitude toward Russia will dramatically change if the Russian state power is elected through a genuine political competition, and, say, if the Russian government is formed by a parliamentary majority. Majority and the rights of majority are important, yet the critical issue is the inadmissibility of the majority’s cultural or political domination over regional, ethnical or sexual minorities. To speak in earnest, Russia is required to abandon its political independence for the sake of an all-European peace and wellbeing.

Russia has found itself in an odd situation. It is undergoing – with delays – a transition from a traditional society based on trust in power to a society of modernity at a time when Europe has already said good-bye to modernity to enjoy a new, thus far undeveloped, social system. And Russia should realize that its integration into the European world will require that it radically restructure its system of values, a thing that it is unable to do right now.

That is why Russia and Europe should delineate their civilization preferences. Let them continue their friendly intercourse, but let them be free from any illusion that they can develop a similar understanding of things in the near future. Russia is not likely to understand that it has no right to suppress separatism using armed force within its borders. Europe is not likely to accept into its family a state ready to protect its territorial integrity by resorting to a full-scale war. It is hard to believe that in the near future Russia will agree that its natural resources should belong not only to its citizens, but to all of Europe, if it wishes to become a full-fledged member of the European community. Finally, Russia is not prepared to equally treat the norm and deviations from the norm, especially in regard to sexual relations.

There is hope that the upcoming years will see Russia emerge into a fairly democratic country, but this will not make it a postmodernist nation. Russia and Europe have to learn how to live and cooperate without understanding each other. To some extent, the right to remain different and misunderstood is the starting point for moving our value coordinates closer together. This right must be recognized by both modernists and postmodernists. This requires that we abandon our claims to be judges and prosecutors for each other. Russia and Europe are not fated to live under one roof, or unite into a single family in the current century, and what is therefore expected from us is to live as friendly and hospitable neighbors.