This is just a sneak peek from Morgane’s feature in SCENARIO 2:2015. If you are not a current subscriber to SCENARIO or a member of The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, then subscribe or get in touch with us here.
Relations between Russia and the West have been a constitutive element of Russian identity for centuries. It is, to name a famous example, a central motif of Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace, one of the greatest and most widely read Russian pieces of literature. It is both a passionate and contentious subject, and one that is very difficult to grasp. For Western-Russian relations, the year 2014 marked a sinister turn. The Ukraine crisis antagonized not only governments on both sides but also populations: distrust has been growing in the West, and anti-Western discourses are gathering more and more support in Russia. Former leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev warns that this might be the start of a new Cold War – although it seems a bit easy to interpret the present as a repetition of the past.
To shed some light on this difficult subject, we spoke to Professor at the Institute for Philosophy and Law in Novosibirsk, Vladimir Suprun. Apart from tending to his professoriate, Suprun is also the director of “Trends”, a futures studies think tank in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third most populous city and a vibrant metropolis. He is Doctor of Philosophy and conducts cross-cultural forecasting on society, geopolitics and power dynamics. Around the breakfast table, however, we don’t talk geopolitics. We talk about Russian identity and about the strengths, weaknesses and future of Europe’s relationship with Russia.
East or West
Russia is the largest country in the world, with nine time zones and no less than twentyseven official languages. Can there be one Russian identity? Yes, says Suprun. “There are traditional, basic Russian values like there are traditional American values – even if you cannot say that all Americans are the same. But Russian intellectuals have always been torn between their peasant roots and their attraction towards the European Enlightenment. This is essential for understanding the formation of the Russian identity’’. Vladimir Suprun believes in the existence of a specific Russian culture, which distinguishes the country from its Asian and European neighbours.
However, he says that the focus should be on what we have in common rather than what separates us. “We have a lot in common with Europe. Too many times we have turned our back on each other, but you cannot change the fundamentals: we are very close. And we are equals”. Equality is a recurring theme in the Russians’ perception of their relation to the world. They are very sensitive about it. That is why, if you want to make business in Russia, you should rather say ‘partner up’ than ‘offshore’. Already in the early 2010s, some observers predicted that, in case of a clash with the West, Russia would turn east and build a stronger cultural bond with Asia. Suprun is sceptical: “The Russians do share some attitudes with the Asians, like patience and the capacity to bear”, he says. “But still, we are not Asian. I think that ‘Eurasia’ [a Russian-lead Economic Union] will never be more than an economic project”.
‘Complex of inferiority’ is a leitmotiv in narratives of Russian identity, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol to the post-Soviet downgrading of Russia’s international status. “But there is also a complex of superiority”, Suprun adds, as the other side of the coin inseparable from the first. We turn the clocks a few centuries back: ”In the eighteenth and the nineteenth century, the so-called Slavophiles were attached to the specificity of the Russian ‘soul’ and rejected the ’corrupting’ European influence. On the other hand, most intellectuals at the time admired and envied ’civilized and enlightened’ Europe. But still they did not want to reject their ‘peasant roots’, so they were torn”.
Today the context is a bit different, but not so much the result. “Not that the Russians are proud of their Soviet past, but at least then they had recognition. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many felt like we lost that recognition”. This, argues Suprun, is the mix of shame and humiliation that Putin has taken advantage of. He has also played with what Suprun calls the ‘complex of danger’. “It comes from our history, from the two big invasions from the West. You can feel it if you read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Napoleon lost almost half a million men in the 1812 campaign but no one understood what he was looking for in Russia.” History repeated itself with Hitler, and huge losses on the Russian side. ”Both conflicts felt absurd. They were formative for the Russian collective identity”.
SCENARIO: In the West, the idea that the Russians are uncritically falling for Putin’s propaganda is widespread. We hear very little about any public opposition to Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict, and this has caused some observers to say that there is no such thing in Russia as a civil society.
“It depends on how you define civil society,” Suprun says. Typically a vibrant civil society is expected to have interest groups, non-profit organizations, foundations, nonpartisan think tanks and other institutions independent from the state and designed to promote citizens’ interests in a framework of liberty of expression. But some scholars, like Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam, also include and emphasise informal structures such as social capital, trust and solidarity networks. This is also Suprun’s angle. “It could seem like the Russian state controls everything including civil society because there are no free political institutions. But the state does not control people’s way of life, it never has. Russian civil society is resilient and silent, and the state is weak in a way, because its reach does not extend beyond, precisely, the state”. That is why, says Suprun quite provocatively, total control over the masses by the state never existed in Russia, even when it looked like it did. Putin may control the state, the military, and even the media, he says, but he does not control the Russians. Russia cannot be held together by totalitarianism, but only by a deeper, more authentic level of inclusion. “It’s a question of meeting and communicating, society to society, and of accepting to join”. Inclusion of the kind that Suprun describes is what has kept Russia together from Murmansk to Vladivostok.
We went on to talk about behavioural differences between Russians and Europeans. One anecdote was brought up: every summer in a suburb of Moscow, the supply of warm water is interrupted for two weeks because the underground pipes have to be prepared for winter frost. The pipes are from the Soviet times. It would be cheaper to change them once and for all. But ask Elena, a respectable middleaged lady who lives there, and she shrugs: “In Soviet times, it was two months of cold water, so now I won’t complain”. Suprun laughs but qualifies: “I think we are more bearing – and perhaps less disciplined than you. So we repair and repair instead of replacing, even if it takes more energy in the end. But you must take into account that we suffered too many changes, and a lot of damage. So as long as it works, we repair”. Indeed the Russians are notoriously…