Russia & the West: Vodka vs Caviar, or the Eternal Opposition?

Russia & the West.

Pt. IV: Vodka vs Caviar, or the Eternal Opposition?

§1. Vodkaviar.

Pubama Obutin ©, 2016.

Again a tussle with Europe (oh, it’s not a war yet: they say that we – Russia, that is – are still a long way from war). Again the endless Eastern Question is in the news; and again in Europe they are looking mistrustfully at Russia…. Yet why we should go running to seek Europe’s trust? Did Europe ever trust the Russians? Can she ever trust us and stop seeing us as her enemy? …

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Writer’s Diary, My Paradox, 1876.


The West in Russia is more than just the ‘West’.

Captain Obviov,  Lost Letters & Memoirs, 1989-2009.


…Let me quote Romano Prodi once again: “Russia and the EU are united like vodka and caviar“. He tried to modify an English proverb – ‘like whiskey and soda’. But my Russian friends told me that vodka and caviar are not always perceived integrally in Russia. Perhaps, I will advise him to say like vodka and herring next time.

Richard Wright (Head of the European Commission mission to the Russian Federation), Evropa (journal of the European Union), №6(29), June, 2003, p. 2.


Vodka i Selyodka (Vodka & Herring).

Vodkaviar ©, 2016.

I will advise Mr. Wright to advise Romano Prodi to say ‘like bliny and caviar‘ next time instead. Then it will be just right. It is a pity that it looks like there will be no ‘next time’ in the near future. And if Mr. Prodi and Mr. Wright really wanted to make a funny/idiotic vodka-related analogy, they should have said ‘like vodka and beer’ due to a humorous saying popular in Russia: vodka without bear beer is a waste of money.

Imaginary Opposition

To remind you of the context of that year: it was the first Putin’s presidential term (2000-2004), talks and rumours of Russia joining WTO, EU and even NATO were relevant at that time. How do you like it now? It was the 300th anniversary of Saint Petersburg (1703-2003). where the 11th Russia-EU summit took place. The first article in this journal starts with the following words:

History repeats itself and not always as a farce.

Time shows that (un)fortunately, it does – for better or for worse.

The Northern capital of Russia – glorious Saint Petersburg – took on a life-changing mission for the country at the end of May to become the ‘window’ to Europe once again.

It is useful to read old magazines and this one is not that old actually. You can observe the grand narrative shift: from A (past narrative) to B (current narrative). There is a propaganda* gap between A and B – when it is clearly not A, yet definitely not B. [*I use the word propaganda here in a neutral way, meaning promotion of certain ideas, beliefs, etc.]. When all the dross of the current moment is dumped one can see the dross of a moment in the past, its hopes, fears and aspirations, and compare them to the present ones. This is a moment of analytical opportunity when Ali Baba’s concept cave opens up. In this context this propaganda gap would be something like Russia-is-not-a-friend-still-not-an-adversary in the West and ‘our dear Western partners’ not sounding like a running joke in Russia(n). So a ‘difficult relationship’ is not equal to ‘defective relationship’, although the former can easily turn into the latter.

I want to underline that all this is not only due to the agenda clearly pushed by the Evropa journal. [Nothing is wrong with that until the agenda and interests of a certain party are clear to their opponent(s) and in this case they are]. Russia’s post-Soviet elites (Yeltsin and Putin alike) really wanted to join the West economically and politically (WTO and, finally, EU) and militarily (NATO).

Eternal Opposition?
Shortly after Brexit
Shortly after Brexit

Apparently, the terms ‘West‘ in Russia and ‘Russia‘ in the West are not neutral ones: there is history, politics, economics and philosophy attached to them and their usage in public discourses of Russia and Western countries. The West is not homogenic and Russia is not either in terms of history, geography, etc. This type of generalization is needed just to talk about the alleged Russia-West Eternal Opposition and how it is constructed in the media, popular culture and public discourse.

Eternal Opposition is a narrative of the West and Russia as inherently confrontational entities. This involves constructing an image of a primordially hostile collective anti-Russian West in all historical periods (in Russian Westernophobic discourse), and similarly – primordially hostile anti-Western Russia in all its political forms (in Western Russophobic discourse). Clearly, the first needs the latter (and vice versa) to point fingers at each other and say: “I’ve told you!”.

The concept of Eternal Opposition in the West is rooted in the idea that Russia always represents an existential threat to the West (and vice versa in Russia – the West represents…). So there are historical, political, economical, military, cultural and philosophical (ideological) dimensions of this opposition, which are interconnected. The historical part here is a precursor to other directions: Russia in such different forms like the Russian Empire, Soviet Union and Russian Federation is seen as promoting antagonistic ideas and beliefs, incompatible with what the West stands for. Military dimension focuses on past wars between Russia and [other] Western countries, Cold War I and recently hypothetical (?) Cold War II, as well as various proxy conflicts around the world.

There is a cultural and philosophical background to the political, economical, and military spheres: the essentialist view of Russia and the West as different civilizations or, using the term by Russian philosopher and panslavist Nikolay Danilevsky, cultural-historical type (культурно-исторический тип). In his book titled “Russia and Europe” published in 1869 he argued that Russia as the leader of the Slavic world represents a separate from Europe cultural-historical type.

From Russia with lurve

The topic is even more complicated because the ‘West’ plays an important role in the sphere of identity building, self-concept and worldview of Russians. This role is bigger than that of ‘Russia‘ in the West. The latter is often limited to a ‘scarecrow from the East’: “don’t do this because it’s exactly what Russia wants you to do”.

The longing  for acceptance in the West was crucial in the decision-making of the late Soviet / post-Soviet nomenklatura. The jeans & bubblegum  ‘cargo cult’ was practiced by many common Soviet citizens and nomenklatura alike. The Western goods raised social status of a person possessing them and had a taste of a forbidden fruit. Of course, they were seen as cool and hip and their owner became cool and hip by association. Rock’n’roll – seen as a manifestation of Western/capitalist society and its lifestyle – turned into a rebellious dogma for the younger generation of the USSR (the communist imagery was used by their American and European agemates in a similar way). It was a perfectly fitting message from the Ideal Other of their mothers and fathers.

John Snow coming back home from Pyaterochka.
John Snow coming back home from the “Pyaterochka” chain store. Klyukva on snow, 2015. Klyukvification Gallery, Russian Universe.

There is something good and healthy about the current crisis in the relations between Russia and the West: Russia is starting to regain its subjectness in terms of worldview. The pat on the back from the West is loosing its magical powers in the eyes of ordinary Russians, although the inertia of (post-)Soviet mindset is still there. While building his/her identity, a Russian needs to separate the ‘ideal West‘ (the West as an idea or symbol) from the ‘imagined West‘ (the West as a collective image or set of images). It should be clearly understood that Russian Westerness will not be widely accepted in the West as such because we as Russians are generally positioned and pinned as the Other. This duality is behind the ambivalency of Russian cultural identity and love-hate relationship with the ‘West‘.

Imagined Russia.
“Lenin est mort! Vive Lenin!”
Lenin est mort! Vive Lenin!

From time to time I read interesting articles or watch high-brow discussions, some of which are pretty persuasive, stating that Russia is:

  • crypto-communist;
  • (neo-)imperial (as in ‘The Russian Empire’);
  • colonized/colonial (‘raw material appendage to the West’);
  • fascist (h/t to Paul Robinson);
  • fundamental Christian Orthodox;
  • Eurasianist (Dugin the Overlord aka Putin’s Rasputin),

and all mixtures of the above: communazi, etc.

There might be some truth behind some of these statements (the 3rd one, for example) but exaggeration and/or decontextualization devaluates the better part of the analysis (if there was any) turning the whole perspective into another kremlinologist snowball crystal gazing.

Soviet cosplay

Russia‘ has been playing the role of empty form for Western dreams at least for decades, if not centuries. It is a common practice for people from the ultraleft to ultraright parts of the political spectrum to project their views and perceptions (regarding Russia or politics in general) into ‘Russia‘ and find ‘confirmations‘ necessary to prove their pont. [Again, same for the ‘West‘ in Russia].

Eternal Opposition is in fact an Imagined Opposition, or to be more precise, Imagined Eternal Opposition. The myth of the eternal eschatological battle between the idealized West vs demonized Russia or vice versa.

It does not mean that there are no real political differences between Russia and the West but they are not equal with cultural opposition, let alone the ‘clash of civilizations‘. The interests, views and perceptions may differ and even contradict each other. It is normal. You can think that I drink vodka with caviar and herring when in reality it is not my cup of tea.

To be continued.


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