Those who want to claim Russia as western ignore her deep historic ambivalence towards liberalismby Lesley Chamberlain / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
In my last few months of renewed Russia-watching, I have come across two assumptions that seem quite wrong—both of which were expressed in these pages last month by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser in the late 1970s. One is the claim that Russia is no longer driven by ideology, only money. The other is that Russia’s heritage is incontestably western. The story of Russia does not support either contention.
Modern Russian ideology has been driven by Russia’s sense of its place in the world. This ideology has no more gone away with the end of communism than has the need to define Russian identity. It is ingrained in the culture that Russia owes itself a clear self-definition, and that the rest of the world should take notice. The problem that defines Russian intellectual history is the degree to which the country is, or should be, western; and if not, what?
Every student of Russian history knows some funny or tragic story illustrating Russia’s ambivalence towards the west. German-born Catherine the Great was torn between the more civilised norms of her native background and the needs of the powerful outsider whose empress she became. Hence her ambivalence towards the Enlightenment—while flirting with its luminaries, she quashed any signs of liberal thinking in Russia.
In every Russian generation since the late 18th century, instances can be found of thoughtful individuals in more or less high places who, once confronted by some western idea perceived as hostile to Russia, have ditched their liberalism and behaved as the state required them to do. A typical figure in the 19th century was Sergei Uvarov (pictured, below right), who as minister of public enlightenment regulated the degree of Russia’s openness to the west in the 1830s and 1840s. Edward Lucas, in The New Cold War, his new call to the west to wake up to the rebirth of totalitarian Russia, quotes Uvarov as the first codifier of a Russian state ideology which, with its central tenets of orthodoxy, autocracy and nationalism, has survived to the present day.
What changed Uvarov from a European liberal into a Russian policeman? He was, after all, the man who founded St Petersburg University and quasi-democratic modern Russian education. Salient events in his capitulation to Russian political realism included the prospect of a ruined career and a genuine…