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Russia and the West: The Myth of Russian Cultural Homogeneity and the “Siberian Paradox”

The following paper was presented at Telos in Europe: The L’Aquila Conference, held on September 7-9, 2012, in L’Aquila, Italy.

“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
—Winston Churchill

“Russia and the West” is a topic that never seems to be exhausted, and as a question, one that can never be answered satisfactorily. People and intellectuals use a staggering number of criteria to determine Russia’s suitability (or lack thereof) to be counted “Western,” ranging from the geographic and the linguistic to the political and institutional. For centuries, Russians have wondered if they are part of “Europe.” It is evident that geographically and culturally they are “Eurasians.” In any case, about three-quarters of the Russian population live west of the Urals, in what has always been considered a part of Europe. Russia has been connected to Europe for centuries. All the important movements, relevant things that Russia has made in history, have been through its connection to Europe. Russia has really been and remains an important part of Europe. But Russia is not only Europe.

In fact, 20 years after the Soviet system collapsed it is still hard for Russia to put away its Soviet past, and there are consistent and often substantial differences in values between Russians and the West. But there is a permanent risk of oversimplification. Contemporary Russia is rediscovering its civil society (which was not so underdeveloped in the nineteenth century), and above all it is not a homogeneous country.

The question whether Russia is part of the Western world is well known and has plagued Russian intellectuals and Western observers alike for the past two centuries. The question matters because where Russia “belongs” is part of a larger debate about how one differentiates between “the West” and “the Rest” given changes in the Western family of nations, and because of larger questions of alignment in contemporary international relations.

Sometimes the concern about “where Russia belongs” has little to with Russia itself. Especially the Slavophile vs. Westernizer paradigm, which suggests that throughout Russia there are two opposing camps engaged in a struggle to determine the course of the country, is too simple to reflect the true complexity of post-Soviet Russia. This debate is too old and typical of nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals in salons and philosophical journals.

Often we have fallen into the trap of pushing the Slavophile-Westernizer metaphor far beyond it useful limits to explain developments in contemporary Russia. Indeed, the question that gripped the denizens of both schools—how Russia was to be modernized—has already been answered in a meaningful manner by seventy years of Soviet rule, with its enormous influence, impact, and consequences on contemporary post-Soviet Russia. The impact of the Soviet period cannot be minimized. Nothing was left unaffected, from political culture, to economic infrastructure, language, religion, and social habits, starting from Soviet policies of industrialization and urbanization that engendered new values and conceptions of existence, significantly different from the rural rhythms of traditional Russia—the milieu of both the Slavophiles and the Westernizers. In particular, the Slavophile and Eurasianist vision of Russia as a distinct, separate civilization rested in large part on a way of life that no longer exists and cannot be recreated; certainly not when the Russian village continues to be depopulated and Russians are full participants in a globalized consumer culture. Another major difference is that Russians are travelling abroad. Every day more and more Russians want to travel. Even if only 7% of Russians is travelling, in a relatively short time, Russian people have managed to get in touch with the rest of the world in many ways (emigration, internet, and so on). As noted Marquis De Custine in his seminal work Russia in 1839, Russia will be a totally new country when Russians will start to travel abroad.

At any rate the descriptions of Russia in Slavophile, Eurasianist, or Westernizers terms are contradictory and often reflect more geopolitical aspirations (e.g., the necessity for Russia to forge a closer political, economic, and military relationship with China and India to “offset” the global dominance of the United States), rather than an interpretation of lifestyle and cultural patterns. Very few of those espousing a “Eurasian” or “eastward orientation” for Russia in foreign policy have argued that Russia’s culture or political institutions should be restructure on “Asian lines.” In Russia the opinion is quite widespread that the country is culturally closer to the Western world, while not yet “Westernized” enough economically and psychologically. Despite the usual banalities about geography, history, and culture, also in the country a “European Russia” (but not Western) means “a more modern Russia.” Even at the highest political and religious levels it is common opinion that Russia is a part of European culture and that it is totally unimaginable Russia in isolation from Europe. In any case, Russia is not a homogeneous country.

The myth of Russian Cultural Homogeneity

The historical cultural elements and traditions which influenced Russia, his kinship system, the personality and civilization of this people are quite different, contradictory, and even in sharp conflict: the nomads from the Eurasian steppes (self-oriented nomadic horsemen), the old Slavonic peasantry, the Mongol rule, the Byzantine system of the administration and of the Church-State relations, the (crucial) condition of serfdom, the imitation of Western political, administrative system ad values, the structure of the village community, the retarded growth of middle classes, the religious and political dissents, the influence of Manicheism, Slavophilism, Constitutionalism, Nihilism, Populism, Anarchism (already originated in the anarchic culture of the Old-Slavonic soil cultivators, associated to diffused social power, and lack of central political authority), and Socialism, the expansion towards East at incredibly speed in a short time, and so on. The predominant system of military theocracy-autocracy, which became characterized by a Messianic ideology and by its dominance-submission and protection-dependency relationships, was in conflict with the anarchic view of life (stateless and equalitarian values) of family and community relations held by large sections of the population. Especially in the region between Volga and Dnieper had developed a peculiar fusion of contrasting patterns of the steppe horsemen and of the tillers of the soil. Structural relations, personality traits and the religious, social, and political ideologies that resulted out of this blend of the two conflicting worlds formed the basis of Russian society.

Russia grew on a permanent internal clash of ideologies, different cultural roots and patterns of behavior. For “Westernizers,” as they became known, Russia had always been a part of the wider Europe—or at least should aspire towards it.

The Internal Differences of Contemporary Russia

Despite the homogeneous language of Russians, from Smolensk to Vladivostok (including only some differences in the accent), Russians are not homogeneous in mentality and in their history. Russian communities are not homogeneous as well. Moreover, Russians are very familiar with diversity. Different parts of contemporary Russia are, literally, worlds apart. For example, the city of Moscow, a great world city, represents nowadays an island in the country and is totally different from the rest of Russia. Cities such as Murmansk in the Arctic, Vladivostok on the Pacific, Volgograd and Samara on the Volga River, Rostov or Krasnodar with the Black Sea nearby, the cities of Siberia—all these offer their inhabitants totally different horizons. Differences between and within regions are huge. The main aspect of Russia is the enormous size of the country. It has a unique geographical location, from the Arctic to Central Asia and from East Asia to the borders of the European Union. Within this space there is great diversity of people, cultures, traditions, and history. Space and distance have shaped those living in Russia. Trying to characterize any people is never easy, even more so in an immense country which is marked by numerous internal contrasts. Moscow is not Siberia, and Siberia is not the Kuban.

The “Siberian paradox”

Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilizations” considers the civilizations as unitary actors. In fact, even the states are not unitary actor, due to their internal “geocultural” differences that are very prominent in the Russian case. The cultural basis of Russia is far from being uniform. It is not true that going to Eastern Russia we can find a sort of civilization much more “Slavic-orthodox” or even “Asiatic.” The reality of Russian Siberian mentality is quite different from the stereotypes of Europeans of Western Europe and from these of “Euroasianists” or Slavophiles. Studies on Siberia were impossible for more than 70 years.

Siberian cities are much more “Europeans” than Nizhny Novgorod or Samara. In Siberia it is not difficult to find widespread western intellectual and cultural characteristics (much more than in Western, European part of Russia), depending on the historical formation of the region. It is necessary to take into account the enormous influence of the long process of expulsion towards the region of dissidents—political and religious—exiles, ethnic minorities, bearers of western values (especially individual rights, and religious, economical liberties), cultural and political. They have left there a very consistent imprint in Russian Siberian culture. It has been a process of “soft westernization,” totally spontaneous.

What impact has Russia’s size had on its peoples? It is easy to find, especially in Siberia, people to be pretty pragmatic. Conditioned by geography, they have learned how to survive in “islands” far from the center. Moreover, Siberia has never been under the condition of slavery as the Western part of Russia. This important historical character is absent in, e.g., the seminal work of Richard Pipes, Property and Freedom.

In Siberia, dominated the merchant mentality, the sense of freedom from the autocracy, the perception of the distance from the political center and consequently the perception of freedom of thinking. Since the Revolution of 1917 Irkutsk has been a cosmopolitan center of western type, totally open to the western culture. The same happens today in the Siberian main cities. During the czarism in Siberian cities there was an open-minded bourgeoisie of merchants, of Western style. Even the lower class of peripheral bureaucrats was characterized by an independent mentality, cultural interests, and attraction for the political and social reforms of western kind. In Siberia it was practically impossible for bureaucrats to control the free political literature circulating among intellectuals. The flow of Western European ideas created in Siberia an environment totally different from that of Western part of Russia. Often in Russian literature one can find many writings about the characteristics of Russian Siberian people, considered quite similar to American pioneers in their habits and in the way of life. Practically in Siberia never existed dvorianstvo (nobility), aristocracy (Herzen), and the merchants often despised chinovniki (bureaucrats of high level). There was not “patrimonialism,” described by Richard Pipes, in the strict sense of the word. The land property of the crown became very fast ineffective and practically only nominal. There was a sort of homesteading as in the American West. In fact, there was an empirical distinction from land property de facto and political power: a typical characteristic of Western word. The Siberian mentality derived from a different history and from a way of life different from that prevalent in Central Russia. The same happened in the Russian Far East. There is some kind of a “psychology of frontier” in Siberia too. Moreover, during the Czarism, the contacts between Siberian people and Americans were frequent (Laserson). Even during the Soviet period the research centers of Novosibirsk were full of free thinkers, in fact dissenters, free from ideological control. Many Western values, especially individual freedom and self-government have been quite widespread in Siberia.

In my opinion it is possible to say that a certain kind of “Siberian Russian culture” and of mentality depends on the distance from the political center. The Russian government was careful not to allow Siberian self-governing political institutions to arise. Often tsarist regime has suppressed the Siberian autonomist movements, and put strong constraints in any expression of Siberian identity and refuse of political centralization. In any case the “westernization” (Toynbee) has been in Siberia a continuous, spontaneous process. In this case Toynbee was wrong. According to his line of reasoning, Russia’s westernization ought to be interpreted only as a compulsory process and a means to preserve her oriental heritage against the advancing Western foe, rather than as an independently chosen way of life. According to Toynbee, there is nothing genuinely western in Russian history, and the thin veneer of Western culture is nothing but a shield to protect the oriental core. But in this case the “westernization” has been an inevitable, totally spontaneous phenomenon. Therefore it is possible to say—and this is the “Siberian paradox”—that Siberia in many ways is much more “European” and full of Western characteristics than the European part of Russia.

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