A mental illness called Russia

Russia under Western Eyes
March 3, 2000

Western attitudes to Russia says John Erickson, reflect our own neuroses.

How firm is our grasp on the reality of Russia? In view of the mountains of books, scholarly, less scholarly, impressionistic, the accumulation of data, raw, digested, undigested, the machinations of spies, legions of Kremlin watchers, the ramifications of "Sovietology", this could seem to be a wholly superfluous question. Indeed, it should confirm unequivocally that we fully comprehend this reality. Yet something seems amiss. In the course of a 1999 BBC programme discussing Victor Pelevin's post-Soviet, postmodern novel The Clay Machine-Gun , one critic observed that "our" Russia is not real, it is rather a dimension of the West's own subconscious, projecting its morbid fears, suppressed phobias and febrile imaginings to a safe remove. Those persistent images of Russia, the so-called verities of "eternal Russia", the antithesis of "Russia and the West", civilisation versus a barbarism deeply rooted in oriental despotism, a sense of Russia's ineradicably alien "otherness", have been to some measurable degree generated out of ourselves.

It is to the implications of this "western gaze" upon Russia, a variety of illumination, distortion, self-deception, that Martin Malia devotes his exhilarating and erudite volume, charting what he describes as "the uneven response to her (Russia's) presence in Europe" since Peter the Great. Not only was it uneven, the fluctuations hide an intriguing paradox defying a "commonsense pattern", namely, that the West is not necessarily most alarmed when Russia is "really alarming" and conversely not "most reassured" when Russia itself is at its most reassuring. In addition to chronicling this persistent, often irrational divergence between western reaction and Russian reality, Malia is also concerned to contrast such wayward fluctuations with the patterns of conflict or concordance engaging the real interests of both parties.

The narrative structure follows four specific phases of western assessments of Russia. The first extends from the Russian victory at Poltava in 1709 to the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, Russia as "enlightened despotism" turning its most benign face ever to the West. What followed after 1815 was horrified western reaction to "the gendarme of Europe", mollified in turn during the years 1854-1917 when opinion had almost turned back on itself, once more countenancing Russia as an integral part of Europe, though one no longer idealised. The final phase, devoid of "clear characterisation", opens with the October revolution, a period of extremes veering wildly between idealisation and denigration, unable to form that coherency of a single image that could fully inform western opinion.

Diverse and divergent though these attitudes may seem, they are not arbitrary shifts nor is their sequence accidental. Congruence and regularity emerge by examining the manner in which Euro-Russian institutions and culture evolve in either similar or different ways. Similarity promotes positive evaluation of Russia, divergence negative. What does predominate, however, is that which can be observed from the days of Peter the Great: Russia's unsteady but nonetheless marked progress towards convergence with the West. By way of demonstration Malia cites that most "un-Russian" of all the Russias, Marxist-Leninist Soviet Russia, a gross deviant both in respect of European norms and innate Russian development, a real threat to the West in this minimalist Russian guise. Notions of convergence based on fusing western political democracy with Soviet socialism proved to be a snare and delusion, its momentary revival during the days of perestroika equally illusory.

That experience, however, does not negate the pre-1917 trend towards Russian-western convergence nor exclude it entirely for post-Soviet Russia. Convergence is not a matter of placing Europe and Russia cheek by jowl, rather of identifying those "European cultural and institutional coordinates" governing Russia's relations with the West, specifically the processes of the transition to modernity. Here, oft-quoted Russian "backwardness" might bespeak sustaining the "presumed polarity between Russia and Europe" (Malia's emphasis). His quest is rather for a definition of "Russia's place within Europe".

Peter's brute intrusiveness and Catherine's voracious expansionism notwithstanding, 18th-century Europe clasped Russia to its dynastic bosom. Both "co-ordinates", institutional and cultural, were conjoined, the European polity embracing an accomplice in aggrandisement, the "enlightened of the West" providing Catherine with moral cover. Difference was recognised as one of degree not of kind, the "golden legend" of the Russian Enlightenment soon to end, overtaken by a leaden legend of "inveterate Russian autocracy".

Ironically, it was the progressive westernisation of the Russian elite that forced Russian autocracy on to the defensive, internally and externally. To compound the irony western liberals feared tsarism most when it was least empowered, as the Crimean war dramatically demonstrated. Russia's alienation from Europe on account of its "cultural" deficit ended by the turn of the century, recognised increasingly as one national culture within a common European civilisation, though culturally Russia's status had been inverted. No longer the rationalist utopia for the philosophes, Russia and its "soul" had now become a utopia for those disenchanted with and dissenting from rational philosophy. Soviet Russia presented the West with a relationship of a wholly different order of historical magnitude from that which pertained to the West's relationship with the Russian dynastic state, not least because of the Soviet impact on the West faced with a "Soviet party-state" with global reach. Western attempts from left and right to understand this new phenomenon were hampered or befuddled because until the late 1930s the Soviet regime was unsure of its own direction and subject to "zigzag improvisations".

"The reign of illusion regarding Soviet Russia", involving the European left and right, generated a perplexing ambiguity of admiration and abhorrence. A reinvigorated Germany found the once-attractive Russian vigour the source of growing danger, the "Asiatic, Jewish-Communist" beast from the abyss, wholly alien to Europe, fit only to be destroyed. Contending with what Malia calls the "Soviet phantasmagoria" occupied decades and then suddenly, calamitously for some, it was no more. Europe again faces the "real Russia", Russia resuming that laborious "convergence" with the West inaugurated by Peter, or conceivably recidivist Russia sufficiently maladjusted to resurrect long-standing western frights? As for real convergence with the West, none can predict when this will materialise, but it can be confidently asserted that "real Russia" has nowhere else to go.

Can Europe ever make a rational appraisal of Russia and what follows if and when it does not? Those who dogmatically aver that Russia is not a part of Europe frequently do so to maintain the integrity of Europe's own identity, however that is construed. Viewing Russia through European eyes, as Malia does, discloses much about Russia but reveals more of Europe and that conglomerate, "the West". Not a little is disquieting, a proclivity to self-serving self-delusion, a certain smug conviction of the rightness of our judgement, a propensity to exclusivity. Malia's book, scholarly in form and substance, eminently readable, intriguing, imaginative, controversial, has substantial lessons for Europeans and their sense of their world.

John Erickson is emeritus professor of defence studies, University of Edinburgh.

Russia under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum

Author - Martin Malia
ISBN - 0 674 78120 1
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £21.95
Pages - 514

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