Russia’s Global Role and European Identity
No. 1 2008 January/March
Vladimir Lukin

Russian diplomat, politician, and international relations expert; former Ombudsman of the Russian Federation (2004–2014), Research Professor at National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

It seemed that
Russia had lost almost all of its international standing when the
twenty-first century was still approaching, but the global changes
of the past few years have opened up an opportunity for Russia to
become a power that could help shape international development in
many ways. However, will Russia be able to play a global role if it
does not abide by its civilizational self-identification? More
specifically, what is Russia outside of its European


A search for a
new identity – a “national idea” – has remained the focus of
intense public discussions in Russia. The range of opinions on the
possible paths that Russia might choose is extremely varied and
alarmingly contradictory at times – contradictory to the degree
that the search, which is called upon per se to consolidate the
nation and build up the country’s potential, may in fact produce
“mess and wobbling,” as the Russians call it. This controversy
stems from a range of fundamental misconceptions.

One of these
misconceptions suggests that cornerstone principles of social and
state life can ostensibly be formulated and introduced into
practice by coercive methods. The fact that this is a misconception
can be seen from Russia’s historical experience, especially in the
twentieth century, the greater part of which was wasted in the
struggle to implement dangerous and inhumane chimeras disguised in
slogans of equitability and happiness. The collapse of the Soviet
Union offered a graphic illustration of the dangers and perils
inherent in attempts by the government bureaucracy to monopolize
ideological and practical control over the development

A modern
efficient state has the task of establishing conditions for
long-term, and at times contradictory, interaction between various
actors of political, economic, cultural and other spheres of public
life, since a national idea can take shape only in this
environment. A genuine understanding of national specificity and
identity can encompass some revolutionary slogans; however, it is
always a product of consensus, which arises, in turn, out of a long
public dialog.

Russian society
abounds in ideas and ideological concepts of every description
today, and proponents of each of them vehemently insist that only
their views must be declared a priority for the country’s
development. Various opinions and bitter debates that range all the
way up to complete intolerance show that at present it is
impossible to design a vector of development on which the majority
of Russians would agree.

Nor does any
unification idea exist in Russian society today. Attempts to
produce a synthesized product of some kind – and the one that would
be a priori correct and mandatory for acceptance – smell of
short-run petty stratagems, all the more so that they boil down to
the motto ‘”For all things good and against all things bad,” which
has been very popular of late.

All of Russian
history literally teems with projects promulgating strong statehood
and which are based (regardless of certain ideological variations)
on the idea of turning Russians into cogs in a well-lubricated
government machinery. Many have argued that this is the only
mechanism capable of ensuring “common good,” since it functions as
an integral unity. Importantly, the bureaucratic apparatus
invariably holds a monopoly over the knowledge of criteria for
these benefits. The problem is that bureaucrats have a tendency to
ignore some “minor facts,” such as that the abstract ‘nation’ is
made up of specific people.

In the past, when
the most dangerous challenges lay in the realm of direct threats to
Russia’s interests (or aggression), the models formulated at the
top proved capable of resolving the tasks of maintaining state
sovereignty (sometimes they even boosted it), but if the threats to
national interests did not have a straightforward forceful nature
and retaliatory steps had to be flexible, prompt and offbeat, the
super-intensive loyalty to strong statehood concepts revealed its
full impotence.

Take the famous
nineteenth-century triad of “Autocracy, Orthodoxy and National
Roots” which initially pursued the goal of consolidating society
and then changed by the end of that century into an ideological
basis for southward expansion for the purpose of seizing the
Bosporus and the Dardanelles (the straits which ensure passage from
the Black Sea to the Mediterranean) and getting access to world
markets. It turned out that the straightjacket of the imperial
autocratic national idea bridled the people’s vitality and ability
for creative development. The monarchic elite did not have the
stamina to adapt the country to the realities of a galloping
industrialized era, while related military and political setbacks
paved the way to a revolutionary breakup of the state.

The Soviet Union
utilized the idea of ‘world revolution’ in lieu of the ‘national
idea.’ Over the decades of Soviet power, this idea underwent
several stages of transformation from calls for its immediate
implementation at whatever cost to reconciliatory debates on a
possible “triumph of socialism” in the process of “peaceful
competition of different social systems.”

The breakup of
the Soviet system illustrated the haplessness of the thesis about
the total supremacy of the state over society and individuals as
the only possible form of finding solutions for national tasks. An
attempt to readjust the system to the interests, rights and
freedoms of a private person, or each specific individual, occurred
only after the Soviet Union had begun its decline. Most of the
calls for this reorientation remained unheeded to some extent and
partly could not be translated into life, as the Communist state
machinery was rolling downhill.

Finally, violent
social and political cataclysms in the post-Soviet period showed
once again that many of the Russian people’s woes arose from a lack
of self-respect and self-appreciation as a society of independent
and responsible citizens.

The current
problems can only be eliminated if the mentality of the Russian
state and society changes and when the dominance of decisions made
behind the scenes is renounced. People also need to stop blindly
following these decisions. It is not a new revolution that will
save Russia. Salvation will come when the majority of people
recognize the importance of taking persistent steps toward a
genuinely functioning democracy.

processes will speed up if welfare continues growing. Ulrich Beck,
a well-known German sociologist, rightly said that only people that
have a home and a steady job and, consequently, enjoy a materially
secured future are capable of accepting democracy and translating
it into life. In addition to this, Russia can avoid the errors and
contingencies that accompanied the formation of social consensus as
market economies matured in the West.

Advocates of a
strong state, who have an inclination for foolish calls to put
Russia into opposition with the rest of the world, usually supplant
notions, as they put an equation mark between willingness to copy
from an experience that has proved its worth and Western diktat.
Yet the case in hand has nothing to do with ceding Russia’s
interests. It presupposes fitting Russia into the time-tested model
of civilizational development, since its implementation allows the
majority of people and the state as such to blossom.

Japan, Brazil,
India, Indonesia and many other countries are following precisely
this European, path. And even if we take China, its vector of
development is obvious as well, especially if we compare its
present social state with the years of the Cultural Revolution. And
none of these countries is losing its self-identity. This is
because countries that wish to be competitive borrow from the best
of mankind’s collective experience and adapt it to their own
conditions. Europe did not turn Arab when it adopted Arabic
numerals, nor did it turn Chinese when it began to produce
porcelain, gunpowder and tea. Nor did India lose its self-identity
when it made the English language a means of national
communication. On the contrary, if it had not, it would have hardly
become a united great power within a period of 50 years.

Many swords
crossed in the early 1990s over Samuel Huntington’s theory of the
“clash of civilizations” as a counterpoint of international
policies in the twenty-first century. A common zest appeared at
that time for gleaning “hidden signals” for the start of
preparations for World War III in the thoughts of the honorable
academic. Meanwhile, his theory only stated objective changes that
had begun before the crash of the bipolar world. The planet is
becoming extremely diversified and the processes going on in
different parts of the world are so huge that not a single power,
however strong it might be, is able to control them alone. For
Russia, this means, in part, the significance of formulating its
civilizational identity and reserving a geostrategic niche for


self-identification as a European country and a part of the greater
uniting Europe seems to be the most promising.

There are a
substantial number of objective and individual difficulties along
this path. The decades of Soviet rule made the homegrown mythology
worse about this country and the people’s “particular
predestination”. Russia naturally has some major differences with
the rest of Europe, which itself is quite heterogeneous. Spain and
Greece may not look like Sweden or Finland very much, but all these
four countries are members of the same civilizational

There have been
many occasions in Russian history when the country had to decide at
the turn of a new century whether it was the easternmost country of
the West or the westernmost country of the East. What
macrostructure is more organic for revealing Russia’s
self-identity? Which format is the best for unveiling its creative
potential and for containing its destructive powers? The answer
looks obvious. Russia’s specificity, that has already had a huge
influence on global civilization, can manifest itself most
positively in the pan-European (Euro-Atlantic on a broader plane)
space rather than beyond it.

One cannot deny
that Russia’s relations with individual European countries and with
the EU on the whole are still mired in misunderstandings and mutual
suspicion, but an unbiased analysis shows that bureaucratic and
procedural differences between Moscow and Brussels on most issues
are not any sharper than conflicts between Brussels and Washington.
The same goes for Moscow’s differences with Central and East
European countries. Rabid anti-Russian carping only comes from two
or three countries that have long gained notoriety for their
obtrusive complexes and totally groundless ambitions.

This suggests
that angry philippics against “highbrowed European bureaucrats” and
“ungrateful” former members of the Soviet bloc who dare bark at
their former patron will not help Russia resolve any problems with
the Europeans, all the more so because many of these problems are
rooted in Russia’s own political tunnel vision and

For instance,
there are many Russians that view Europe’s stepping up its policies
in the post-Soviet space as an outright huge threat. The EU has
really begun to take steps toward expanding its sphere of influence
in the past ten to fifteen years, but still, let us not put
everything indiscriminately into one basket. Smaller countries,
including former Soviet republics, have an objective craving for
rapprochement with more powerful and richer neighbors, and that is
why “thrashing air” about this is a senseless waste of

The only way that
Russia can preserve – and all the more so expand – its zone of
influence is to speed up the development of the national economy.
Russia should have a diversified model aimed at stimulating
structural reforms and stop its narrow focus on the export of raw
materials. Otherwise Russia will simply be unable to serve as an
example for most countries that do not have huge natural resources
in such supply (there is not a single instance in modern history of
a successful authoritarian modernization in economies pegged to
natural resources). Russia would hardly like to once again
demonstrate to the world “how things should not be

The Europeans are
not interested in a confrontation with Russia, even though they are
a strong competitor. They, too, are ready to see Russia as a
competitor – an aggressive and intractable one. Yet vigor and
intransigence should not take the form of militarization, primitive
threats to block gas pipelines, restoration of sole-command methods
in all spheres of life and sniffing at human rights and

It is not
Russia’s hypothetical ability to restore the empire that scares the
Europeans (they do understand that restoration is impossible) –
Russia’s neighbors fear the proneness of a strong government to
make many new blunders. Only downright Russophobes in Europe (who
have existed throughout Russian history) act according to the
principle “the worse the better.” They hope that Russia will
succumb to emotions and will again slide into confrontation,
self-isolation and the Juche Idea, which is on its last legs. I am
sure though that the majority of Russians do not accept the ideas
of “reviving Russia” simultaneously with restoring the derelict
samples of the Soviet/Russian imperial model either. It is also
true, however, that a certain growth in the Russian standard of
living over the past few years, combined with the impact of
government media propaganda, makes some in certain categories of
the population forget about the negative sides of Soviet life and
intoxicates the youth who did not live through the Soviet


A combination of
competence and flexibility is the strength of any modern state to a
large degree. A competitive state mechanism should have the
function of a moderator (a go-between leader) of the vital
processes in a nation’s life. It must govern derivative processes
rather than the main ones. In the optimal situation, it controls
“secondary derivatives,” as mathematicians put it. But if Russia’s
ruling elite clings to the old stereotypes of traditional strong
statehood, it runs the risk of wasting the remainder of resources
in order to preserve the phantoms of historical memory. The
“mobilization of the elite” with the aid of defunct Soviet methods
will only lead to the ossifying of the state structure and drive
political and economic processes into a stupor. When this happens,
Russia will really turn into easy meat for the much-spoken-of
external forces. Nobody will take the trouble of “seizing” us – we
will either fall apart ourselves or will turn into objects of
influence exerted by post-industrial powers.

The only
efficient way for development presupposes the emancipation of
opportunities for forming a competent, viable and
nationally-oriented elite. An efficient and stable ruling class is
only attainable if it obtains a high vertical and horizontal
mobility and becomes capable of recruiting subjects that have the
skills of adapting easily to the swiftly changing conditions and
challenges of the internal and external environment. Democratic
procedures offer the only possible efficient mechanism for a
regular ventilation of the elite and historical experience proves
that they also offer the best means for protecting society against
mob rule.

Meanwhile, the
‘vertical of state power’ cannot be flexible or efficient by virtue
of its ‘architectural specifics.’ Current international practice
shows the advantages of network or shared structures of government
(with the law enforcement system, the armed forces and the
judiciary being the only exceptions). Meanwhile, the exterior
monolithic image of the ‘power vertical’ is an illusion to a large
extent, since the current system consists of patchy subjects. Some
groups experience discrepancies in the interests and approaches to
resolving tasks, while other groups display their ideological and
political spinelessness; all this completely blues the elite’s
policy line.

Russia is
continuing to experiment amid a mass of internal and external
challenges. Now Russia is “seating people in the right order” and
pursuing a policy of keeping oligarchs at an equal distance. Russia
is also manipulating ideological concepts for internal and external
consumption. In fact, the struggle continues between the paradigms
of a free market economy and expanding government interference in
economic life – not without enticement by the authorities. The
worst examples of Soviet managerial traditions are seeing a
rebirth. Vital governmental decisions are made in private at a time
when constitutional establishments called upon to work out state
policy are regularly ignored. The forces and institutions
disinterested in changes or simply espousing a hostile approach to
them are frequently chosen as pillars for the implementation of
government decisions, and this cannot but cause unease.

This situation
makes a deepening of relations with the EU useful from another
point of view – that of studying and assimilating modern mechanisms
and technologies of state governance, especially in view of the
fact that this huge country comprises constituent territories with
various levels of development.

The EU has
amassed impressive experience in regional and sectoral development
amid conditions of tough international competition. Moreover, the
Europeans have done an impressive job in the field of economic
protectionism. Russia can copy a lot from the EU, avoid the
mistakes it made and the need to start from scratch in the areas
where the algorithms of successful problem solving already

Last but not
least, Russia cannot lose its civilizational specificity if it
integrates deeper into Europe. Russia has always been part of the
Old World, experiencing its influence and exerting its own
influences that have had a straightforward impact on European
affairs. Christian values that make up the essence of European
civilization are as organic for Russians as for the majority of
European nations (even the most ardent adepts of Russocentric
doctrines will scarcely dare claim that Russia lost its specificity
with the adoption of Christianity). Along with its continuing
unification, the Old World remains ‘a Europe of fatherlands,’
including the Russian fatherland. Russia must not reject the
elements that make up the inalienable part of the Russian identity.
Russia will only withstand the pressures of Asia, America and other
powerfull civilizational magnets if we all stand

The most serious
and influential European countries generally show an understanding
that a more or less clear-cut policy is impossible without a due
account of the Russia factor, and many significant global factors
(like the situation in Iraq and the Middle East or the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction) prove that actions
taken by Russia and the EU jointly have a greater international
impact as a rule than if they act unilaterally.

It is very
important for Russia that the rest of the world sees it as part of
an integral European system. Russia’s European identification would
eliminate a sizable portion of political uncertainty that is still
present in the way Europeans see the country. Uncertainty breeds
doubts and even concerns, while the positioning of Russia as a
European power could help bring into balance its relations with new
independent states, including Ukraine, Belarus, and Central and
Eastern European countries, and make them more dynamic in the long

Discussions have
again surged in Europe that more or less clear-cut policies are
possible without accounting for the Russia factor. It is very
dangerous to provide – voluntarily or not – help to those who would
like to draw a final boundary between Europe and non-Europe
somewhat west of Smolensk and Belgorod. History will decide where
this boundary will lie and what it will be like. This history is
taking shape already now – in the rivalry between the two major
European approaches to contemporary Russia.

One of the trends
proceeds from the assumption that Russia should remain an “external
factor” for the integrated Europe, play the role of its resource
and energy base and do auxiliary jobs in terms of ensuring Europe’s
security. As for the rest, Europe should meter out the degree of
Russia’s involvement and limit it to purely ornamental, superficial

Supporters of the
other tendency admit that a Europe that de facto unites all
countries from Lisbon to Vladivostok has a much better chance for
keeping its leading role in a globalized world. The Old World will
need to concentrate all economic, technological, geopolitical and
cultural resources to gain a leading position in the international
arena by the middle of this century. The supporters of this trend
put the Russian-European situation into a less utilitarian context
and do not reject outright the strategic prospects for turning
Russia into an internal factor of the pan-European

We, on our part,
hear people more and more frequently voicing doubts about the
strategic feasibility of European development for Russia and its
political institutions. Remarkably, their doubts leave out the
economy. There is a clear inclination in Russia for a neo-Byzantine
strategy of some kind. It is well known, however, that the
Byzantine Empire failed to come to terms with Europe and fell apart
because it was unable to cope with the challenges of the new times.
Do we want the same?