Russia’s struggle to keep up and about debatable myths

By Matteo Incisa • 17 Mar 2009 • Un commento

Coat of Arms of the Russian FederationAt school we are commonly taught that, at the time of the Roman Empires, Byzantium was considered ‘the east’ of the world – or, at least, the eastern capital of its part worth knowing.
It is not often stressed that, around a thousand years later, such title probably shifted to Moscow.
We learn the sad story of the definitive death of the Eastern Roman Empire (indeed, not much Roman since quite a while) and the lost of the first seat of Orthodoxy (by that time re-baptized ‘Costantinopolis’) by the hands of the bad-Muslim-guys (whose preference for the ‘Istanbul’ name will be shortly after formalized), yet we don’t get much learning on where the boundaries of Europe (and Christianity) shifted up afterwards.
The impasse persists today, the eastern official frontier of the European continent still edging on the rather hazy Ural hills.

A consistent contribution to such geographical mistiness lays right in the genetic and the history of the Russian people and their capital. In fact, even if placed way eastern than the ex-Roman-Imperial-seat, Moscow always considered itself part of the European space and culture – thanks also to the vast chunks of territory held eastward (and south) of it. Not far from its sight, ethnic traits may vary and believes change, yet the Russian capital was European (and Christian), those further east being eventually not much more than inferiors to be subjugated*.
Placed somewhere the idea of Europe had not yet arrived and that one of Asia was probably better to be left in nomadic remembers, Moscow and the Russians decided to be part of the ‘west’ of the world**, their reference being from that moment the old Roman capitals as well as the ‘new’ European tigers (namely, Paris and Vienna).
In turn, eastward of Moscow European maps symbolically placed a dispassionate hic sunt leones label for many centuries, not really caring of what there could be east out there (probably assumed too cold anyway).

The stretch between western choice and eastern geography and origin consequently determined the development of an authentic frame of mind and culture of unmatched complexity – sometimes apparently schizophrenic.
Take the language, for instance. Too far from an effective influence of old Latin linguistic rules and declinations, these have been processed in a way similar to the German language. Yet, rather than German-style sticking with the rules, here rules have been taken as simple references for words which – all – became exceptions, written in a different and more extensive alphabet whose canons of pronunciations are rather obscure – to a good share of natives, too.
It does not surprise (too much) that such impressively sophisticated minds, despite numerically insignificant, have been able – case unique in the history – to achieve and retain control of over one/eight of the world’s surface.

Indeed, hardly deniable elements such as distinctive chauvinism, marked xenophobia, a certain inclination for quite drastic methods of disputes resolution and the inner desire of supremacy that still today characterize the Russian society at many different levels played their part in this success, essentially contributing to the progressive subjugation of cultures and populations rather modest (where not nomadic), while trying to achieve the dream of a single dominion spanning from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea – and eventually dipping in the Indian Ocean, too.

How to explain such a contradictory picture within a society that has already centuries of history on his back – and thus would be supposed to have processed and diluted (whether not resolved) its opposing elements? How to reconcile Muscovite nowadays lust and hyper development or Saint Petersburg’s luxury with, say, roads that just outside Moscow’s 10 lanes drives need a solid old-style Land Rover to be crossed? Or what about the disastrous living conditions that bond a stunning majority of the Russian population, from Moscow’s suburbs to the Pacific coast? And how to describe what happened just a few months ago, when the world assisted to something a large part of it probably assumed as definitely buried in books of history*** – a war on the European soil?

Mostly because of its polyedric facets, to western minds Russia keeps appearing a sort of permanently drunk and ill-fat bear. An edgy creature able of occasional good gestures – normally flooded in paternalistic sauce – as shocking turnarounds whose rationale can perhaps be found more easily in a nursery than in studies of international relations.
Too big, too rich - and simultaneously too poor -, too prone to machinations and, when these don’t work, too aggressive in its reactions, Russia’s behavior may often look not far from that of a clumsy elephant in the western crystal-equilibriums of relations and power.

Today, the old Russian giant, despite ‘minimized’ in its territorial ambitions with the collapse of its last Empire in communist sauce, after a decade of world-derision while struggling not to fall into bankruptcy, not to lose more pieces and not to explode at some point – given the ruinous conditions of part of its nuclear arsenal –, it looks having decided to follow the last chance destiny provided it to ransom its debatable history after Catherina the Great by not spreading the wealth given by its immense and inestimable resources. Astoundingly, instead, it seems concentrated in the effort to restore the -supposed- magnificence of its Great Power.

Dressing melons with dijonnaise, the new recipe aims to reconcile the irreconcilable, through ambiguous recalls to those ‘great’ remembers whose only merit is to have shaped Russia’s nowadays clay feet. By one side we thus have a new magnificat of the worst imperial ‘autocracy’ (terms per se outlandish enough) that ever touched Europe, by the other the unbury of the myth of the Soviet Power – in the rest of the world cynically considered less disastrous than Nazism just because it has never troubled or invaded any State that really mattered in Europe. Happy synthesis of the previous is then the sudden glorification of this Putin-guy, Magnus Artifex of Russia’s new dignity.

Of course, no one contends Russia’s right to (try to) draw a coherent picture of its own history.
What generates perplexities is that, after the communist-block-parenthesis, Russia still maintains towards the West an unnatural opposition, in the new try to prove itself something that is not east, nor west, but just something big enough to be self-sufficient. Such self-portrait, of course, convince only Russia’s establishment, leaving the ‘West’ appalled, the ‘East’ (i.e., China) eager to take advantage of such an illusion and the ‘South’ (i.e., the ex-Soviet satellites) rather scared, being the only area Russia can still effectively bossy.

You really don’t have to be Napoleon to realize that to fulfill such an ‘alternative’ project you might need the troops to do that.
Tightened between a Union of 500millions people and a new Empire of 1.3billion, in semi-permanent crisis with the 300millions Super-Power, Russia’s scarce 135millions inhabitants - who practically all live in its western portion - dwindle at the amazing rate of -500.000 Russians per year. Beyond the Urals – where more than two/thirds of Russia’s territory lays – you can find barely six millions of Russians today. If -by uneventful chance- you get lost in Siberia, you are most likely to get information by a Chinese (entrepreneur) than a Russian (miner).
Of course power over there still belongs to a bunch of Russian post-perestroika foxes, but the question is: for how long?

With this question in mind, the first main -and supposedly secret- reaction the Russian Government has been able to imagine is an atomic war plan with a -realistic- retreat of Russia’s Might back to the Urals’ line, with the Chinese nowadays ‘ally’ taking over the area. It is true that, after all, history proved China - the engine behind two-thirds of Russia’s amazing growth - quite a problematic counterpart already. Chinese capitals are the most welcome (they’re not tied to annoying EU standards of transparency), Chinese people are necessary (since there’s no one else around), but here fears for a Chinese invasion go well beyond their metaphorical meaning.
Indeed, the other main reaction is instead more immediate and concrete: in the last years a very convincing birth-incentive plan has been put in place. Still, it is hard to expect a few million people to quickly level the ground where just over the border a few hundred millions are potentially ready to resettle.

Russia’s bent toward the West is depicted by its internal migration much more effectively than its official foreign politic. The brand new SCO military alliance will probably work just until Russia will prove to be useful and second China’s interests.
Let’s hope in Confucius wisdom.

* this consideration may lead to the conclusion that the gradual extension of the Russian control over regions of Asia formerly held by populations of different ethnic origin, culture and religion was rather a form of colonization than the progressive formation of the Russian state-entity. In fact, an average time of 400 years of ‘Russification’ of these areas should have been sufficient to promote a sense of national identity which, though, today shows to be quite weak right out of the main urban centers and lacks manifestly alongside most of the Russian borders.

**this besides the communist-era parenthesis, which anyway produced an internal division between ‘the wests’ more than creating an autonomous ‘east’ – which is instead represented by cultures like China, Indochina and Japan.

***besides the Chechen’s chronic crisis

Matteo Incisa

Matteo Incisa is an odd creature believing simplest things the most dangerous, simplistic solutions the less effective and simple people incredibly tedious. More than a decade spent desolately between Florence and Genoa was preceded by a sparkling short infancy in Paris, breached by a year in dreamy-LA and buried by the civilized-Milanese-age. A couple of degrees later here he goes back to hell, stuck in Geneva, preposterous Alpine village with more version of its name than the inhabitants it gets. Worked for the European Commission, and astonished by how an apple cannot be apple if its diameter measures more than 14.5 centimeters. When personal assistant of an LA studios manager met a couple of guys everyone-want-to-meet, and thought make up can do miracles. When co-hosting a talk show on some TV got the prove make up can do miracles – but your ignorance can do more. Practicing as a lawyer let him loose his sense of justice. At least, of that you can find in court. Writing is a passion. If on international politics, a deep passion. Travelling is a basic need. Los Angeles, Paris, Belgrade, Toronto, Valencia, Edinburgh are places where he left a piece of heart - and keeps coming back.
| All the articles by Matteo Incisa

Comments: 1 »

  1. Interesting piece.
    I like the sarcastic demolition of the CNN-style characterisations of Russia as an unfortunate, inebriated bear.
    Delightful that such stereotypes still persist and resonate in the collective irrationale.
    The news-nibbling public need to understand quickly and easily why Russia flexes its muscles (over Georgia, Serbia, Chechnya, etc.) in terms that are distinct from Our military expeditions.
    So it is easier to portray Russia’s foreign policy as qualitatively different in motivation.
    What better way than to cite geography?
    “They do things differently Over There…”

    This is reminiscent of a strange claim Gerhard Schroder made some years back:
    By recognising its culpability in the Nazi Holocaust and explicitly turning its back on extremism, Germany has “finally completed its long journey to the West”.
    This is because we Westerners would never do anything as beastly as genocide.
    Therefore, the Nazis cannot have really been Westerners.

    Who says that Africans have the monopoly on tribalism?

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