Russia’s Global Role and European Identity

2 march 2008

Vladimir Lukin is a 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.

Resume: 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 it is impossible to design a vector of development on which the majority of Russians would agree.

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 identity?


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 processes.

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.

Democratic 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 itself.


Russia’s 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 family.

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 infantilism.

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 time.

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 done.”

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 freedoms.

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 system.


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 exist.

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 together.

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 term.

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 forms.

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 integration.

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?

Last updated 2 march 2008, 13:58

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