Russia’s Westernization and a New “Cold War”
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Dmitry Slapentokh

Associate Professor of History, Indiana University South Bend.

The idea that Russians were in love with the West was quite popular during the Gorbachev and early Yeltsin eras. Still, as time progressed, Western observers’ views became increasingly gloomier, especially after the Ukraine crisis. Consensus has reemerged that Russia has returned to itself in its centuries-long approach to the West, and the global community in general: Russia is an imperial power, striving for its lost empire. It is a self-centered, culturally isolated universe, in which both the masses and elite are obsessed with messianic delusions. My recent visit to Yekaterinburg, a city in the Urals, proved that the opposite trend actually prevails.

I spent 40 years in the West and during my rare visits to Russia I looked at the country mostly as an outsider; and for this reason I might see what is not clear for insiders. In my judgment, never before in the country’s recent history has Russia become so pro-Western as now; indeed, a considerable segment, if not the majority, of Russian society, not only wanted to be closer to the West, but actually wanted to be dissolved into the West.

The interest, one might say fascination, with the West, I found from the very beginning of my trip. There were critics, but their barbs were against their own country and its government, not the West.

The USA as the Land of Milk and Honey

Glamorous images of the West, especially the USA, were quite popular in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet eras. It was not surprising: very few Russians had visited the West and especially the USA. Consequently it was absolutely opposite to what these Russians saw in their homeland and often viewed the USA as an ideal society, peculiar “communism” placed not in time but in space. Surprisingly, this view in various forms survived after 25-30 years of the post-Soviet era when thousands, if not millions, of Russians visited the West. I met these people from the very beginning of my trip.

In Chicago, I met a young Russian woman. She had come to the USA as part of a peculiar exchange program. She worked in a hotel and had been promoted. Still, she was to return to Russia before her visa expired, plainly because the American side decided to terminate the program. The point here was that many young Russians who participated in the program, she told me, had decided not to return and to go underground, and become a sort of undocumented émigré. At the same time, she did not want to be undocumented, and had decided to go back, albeit reluctantly.

In the Helsinki airport, I met several Russians who had visited the USA. They were quite pleased with what they saw. In their view, Americans enjoyed extremely high living standards and in general had a trouble-free life. My objections and statements that life in the USA is not so glossy were rebuffed. All these people behaved and had the vision of the USA as if they were living in the 1980s, when the USA was terra incognita and replacement of communism in the minds of many Soviets.

The very fact that I came from the USA evoked no negative feelings. The only problem with me was that I did not share their glamorous visions of the USA.

In the Yekaterinburg airport, the female border guard was quite friendly and told me with an approving smile that “There are many Russians living abroad,” and her male counterpart tried to speak with me in English.

City Landscape: An Attempt to Imitate the West

City landscapes also demonstrate either direct or indirect desires to imitate the West. In many cases, the residents apparently want to be more Western than Westerners themselves. Some of these attempts were really funny. These attempts to be more Western than Westerners themselves I noted already in the Yekaterinburg airport. Here I visited the restroom, where I saw a box with condoms, and a description that these condoms ensured “colorful, bright and many-faceted orgasms.” The Russian designer presumably assumed that these products are advertised in the West in this peculiar way. As a matter of fact, some advertisements in the city were Russian transliteration of English words and there was confusion, at least for me, for I could not understand what language was actually used.

My host brought me to a hotel which also surprised me. The hotel, launched by an Indian some years ago, has no Russian name on its façade, only the English name. This hotel was the place for a conference of people with disabilities. There were quite a few foreigners. The desire to host the congress of disabled people in Yekaterinburg, of course, could be caused by a variety of reasons. Still, one of them was clear: the concern for disabled people is one of the characteristics of Western society and Russians want to follow this trend. Upon getting some rest, I ventured outside.

Walking in the city, I entered a local café. The café’s design and the dress of some of the women created the impression that they had all been transplanted from Montmartre, barring the fact that of course they spoke Russian, not French.

The desire to imitate the West, or at least follow Western patterns, could be easily seen in the city’s cultural life. For example, in the Museum of Culture, there are exhibitions of the works of artists from different countries: Morocco, Argentina, and the USA. The description under the pictures was in both Russian and English. English subtitles were absolutely unrelated to the needs of the majority of the visitors – all Russians. I saw only two English-speaking persons and they were escorted by an interpreter. English subtitles were not very practical but symbolic: the museum wanted to be similar to museums in the West. The most striking thing for me was the local intellectuals’ way of interpretation of Russian history. In this interpretation, Russia was essentially a Western country and what made it different from the West was artificial; the very nature of the Russian people implied their deep attachment to the West.

Russia is a Western Country and the Despotic Russian State is Foreign to Russian Society

In the view of a considerable number of Russian intellectuals, Russia is a European nation, and the strong Russian state has been an alien force for centuries, and is Russians’ major enemy. This reading of Russian history could be seen at the Yeltsin Center.

Yeltsin Center, the huge, imposing museum dedicated to Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president and which cost considerable sums of money, could not have been built without the Kremlin’s encouragement and/or its financing, either direct or indirect. The Russian historical narrative presented in the museum was strikingly unusual. Most modern Russian historiography is based on praise, or at least the underlying importance, of the Russian state and empire, populated by a variety of ethnicities. One could see this praise, albeit in twisted form, even in the writings of Russian dissidents who claimed that they fought not against a marginal evil, but a cosmic monster: Russian culture, related Orthodoxy and, of course, the “mysterious Russian soul” which produced a messianic monster bound for global predominance.

Nothing of this is propagated by the museum exhibits or the narrative of the short movie, which provides a brief overview of Russian history from the early Middle Ages to the present. In this story, the Russian state had been the major, or actually only, enemy of the Russian people, who struggled for centuries to get “European” liberties. Yeltsin had finally crushed the monster and liberated the Russians. The Russian culture, national-specific, became irrelevant, for Russians had finally returned to themselves, to the European/Western culture, with democracy as the cornerstone of Russian society. The imperial heirloom became pretty much irrelevant, and not even mentioned. This Western nature of the Russian people was shared by not just a considerable segment of the elite, who sponsored the building of the Yeltsin Center, but also a considerable segment of the intelligentsia. A conference, focused on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet regime, brought together researchers from all over the country. In their narrative, not just the revolution, but changes in the Soviet regime were caused not by the despotic power of the state, but by changes from below. And from this perspective, Russia was not very different from the West.

Interpretation of the Russian Revolution

The conference dealt with the Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet regime. This was the distinct framework of the conference’s narrative and how the Bolshevik Revolution and regime were explained. Both the revolution and the regime were seen as products of change from below and from this perspective, neither the revolution nor the regime were very different from regimes in the West. The major points were as follows.

To start with, the role of the totalitarian state and terror were basically ignored. Not just revolution, but all changes in the Soviet regime were caused by trends in Russian society. The state had actually followed the wishes of the society. This vision of the Soviet state implied that the Soviet regime was not very different from the Western states. I asked why terror and its role had not been discussed. The participants in the conference told me that Russian scholars dealt with the role of terror in the past, and there was no reason to discuss the subject any more. The Soviet regime was characterized not just by the power of despotic government and terror, but also by the active use of Russian nationalism since the early 1930s.  This provided the regime with a “national-socialist” tinge. While Russian nationalism has been quite important in Soviet ideology, it makes the USSR quite different from the capitalist West. Consequently, it was completely rejected as the major ideological makeup of the regime.

There was only one exception. It was a member of a small minority. He knew my father and spoke Russian with a clear accent. He was the only one who supported my views that Russian nationalism was an essential ideological ingredient of the regime since the early 1930s. Still, he did not deliver the formal paper on the subject, and conveyed his views in private conversation. The most striking example of the pro-Western attitude I found was in the approach of the Russian Church.

The Orthodox Church: A Positive View of the West

I visited one of the local churches. Nearby was an exhibition dedicated to the 1917 Revolution. It demonstrated the kind of destruction the Revolution and the Soviet regime had wrought to the country and the city. I entered the church and saw several people praying; some were young. I remained in the church and listened to the prayers. The priest looked at me and, for some reason, or possibly intuition, understood that I was from a foreign country; possibly, a native would either pray or not stay in the church. He silently approached me and gave me the brochure in English, which dealt with Orthodox Christianity. The most striking example of the Russian Orthodox Church’s positive approach to the West I found in a drugstore. While my mother-in-law was in search of appropriate drugs, I looked at the free Orthodox-related newspapers placed on the table, together with commercial advertisements. One of the articles was related to the 500-year anniversary of Protestantism. The article also dealt with Calvinism, one of the branches of Protestantism and spiritual bedrock of Western capitalism, and especially its American version.

As a matter of fact, Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, regarded Protestantism and implicitly its Calvinist form not just as a foundation of modern capitalism but actually as the force that created modern capitalism. The Calvinist point is that accumulation of wealth has a religious/metaphysical goal. Wealth demonstrates that this person is one of the chosen, whereas in medieval Catholicism and especially Orthodoxy (and Russian culture based on Orthodoxy) money-making was the ultimate curse. One could hardly find even one positive character in classical Russian literature who is concerned with making money. Even Oblomov, in Goncharov’s classic novel, the symbol of laziness and withdrawal from all active life, is better than Stoltz, another character in the book. The ethnic German, judging by his name, is extremely active and pragmatic. Condemnation of Stoltz was actually a condemnation of Western capitalism and implicitly Calvinism. Still, his story was quite different in the quoted article. Here, Calvinism was praised as the teaching which instilled Europeans with the notion of hard work, cleanliness and family values.

The pro-Western attitudes, or at least the desire to be similar to the West, were not universal and were full of contradictions. The pro-Western feelings are often combined with a peculiar nostalgia for the Soviet era, manifested by excursions organized for participants in the conference, with an emphasis on Soviet architecture.

There were also people with contradictory visions of past and present. This was, for example, the case with one conference participant. It was a woman in her 50s or 60s. She had a strange mixture of pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet views. On the one hand, she praised the Soviet regime for civilizing Russia and pulling the country along the road of technological progress. At the same time, she had a vicious hatred of the anti-Yeltsin, pro-Soviet opposition. She regarded them as a symbol of anarchy, and she told about her hatred of the participants in the 1993 fall anti-Yeltsin uprising, who used a room at Mossovet, Moscow City Council, as a restroom. She praised Yeltsin, who had crushed the anarchical revolt.

While the views of the people were often contradictory, most of those whom I met were more critical of Russian society and government than the West. Quite a few complained about the rise in prices and unemployment. Some were concerned with the increasing power of the state. This was, for example, the case with a group in the Museum from some “closed towns” (zakrytyi gorod). The people were unaware of where I came from, and regarded me as just a local with whom they could be reasonably open. They blasted the socio-economic conditions in the country. In their view, Russia is totally criminalized and is hardly capitalist. In their view, it is not capitalism, because in capitalist societies, there is production. Russia has produced nothing. One of the members of the group also complained that the FSB (Federal Security Service) had become increasingly nosy and reminded him of Soviet times. Some locals are also scornful of all rulers who managed the country in the last century or so. At the same time, I found no visible anti-Western feelings or critics of the West; it appeared to be irrelevant to people’s lives, hopes and fears.

What could be concluded from these observations? Both Moscow and Washington justify their conflict on the basis of civilizational and cultural differences. It is hardly the case. There is no conflict of “unique” Russian civilization and the West. Moreover, despite the increasing conflict between Moscow and Washington, the Westernization of Russian society not only has not been halted, but has actually intensified. It is purely a geopolitical conflict, and cultural and civilizational differences could not play even the role of a fig leaf. Still, it does not mean that the conflict would not continue. The conflict, which could well proceed in the future, would weaken both Russia and the West, preparing the world for the emergence of a global future true hegemon—China, which had no interest in the West as cultural/civilizational entity.

China’s Rise and the Fate of the West

China’s rise could be seen thousands of miles from China’s borders. Chinese are everywhere. In Helsinki, I saw a huge billboard with Chinese characters. There were several Chinese women who worked in the airport. Several years ago, I was at Disneyland. Here I also saw many Chinese women who worked there as tour guides. I saw Chinese women at the prestigious Brown University. There were quite a few Chinese in Florence, thousands of them. One could state that Russian tourists, students and workers could also be seen all over the world. Still, the Chinese approach to the West is quite different from that of Russians, and I felt this clearly when I visited Florence.

After departing Yekaterinburg, I visited Florence, the location of the conference also dedicated to the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The tourists come to the capital of the Italian Renaissance from all over the world. There were quite a few Russian-speaking people from Russia and republics of the former USSR, and émigré communities from Germany to Spain. Many Russians were people of modest means and provincials. Some, such as a nurse I met, hardly had much knowledge about history and even less about the Renaissance. There were also many Chinese in Florence. There were so many of them in some of the hotels that in the lobbies there were only two types of newspapers: Chinese and Italian. Still, there was a clear difference in the behavior of these two groups of tourists. The Chinese had flocked to expensive, fashionable stores. Still, very few of them were seen in museums. The story was different with Russian-speaking tourists. I saw quite a few of them in museums, despite the steep ticket prices, and clearly limited knowledge of history. What is the reason for such a difference in behavior?

For the Chinese, Florence, its Renaissance treasures and Italy were exotic lands and basically a land of foreign culture. In the thousands of years of Chinese history, they had their own Leonardos, Michelangelos, and Raphaels. The Western cultural artifacts were curious, but not exciting; it is not something that touches their cultural subconscious. Their approach to Florence was in a way similar to their approach to the West, using the term broadly: the West is a place of advanced technology and consumer goods. Knowledge of the West and its culture and history is needed for only one reason: it is the way to get all of these material benefits. Western culture and history have no value in themselves. China approaches the West in the same way the West approached the Orient in the beginning of the era of exploration and colonial expansion. Europeans studied Asia and its culture and history, but only because they wanted Eastern riches and land. Now China has discovered its “Eurasian” destiny and engages in the study of the language, culture and history of the object of China’s geopolitical expansion.

The story with Russian tourists is different. They come to Europe as their “sacred stones,” as Dostoevsky pointed out more than a century ago. Still, it is not much understood by many politicians in the West, and Russia would have few options but to move closer to China. It would be an alliance from which China would benefit most.