Russia & the West.
Pt. VII: The Retrospective Foresight Saga (The Eternal Return of Russia Analysis)
A simple study of names and dates will prove that between the policy of Ivan III and that of modern Russia there exists not similarity, but sameness. […] At length Peter the Great coupled the political craft of the Mongol slave with the proud aspiration of the Mongol master to whom Genghis Khan had, by will, bequeathed his conquest of the earth.
Karl Marx, Revelations on the Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century (1857).
When I first went to Russia it was in 1991, I caught the last couple of months of the Soviet Union before it came crumbling down, and I was in Moscow during the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, or the coup attempts, I should say, when there was this great optimism right after, that Russia would soon join the international community and would be sharing in Western prosperity, and so on and so forth. And it became quickly evident, in fact, it was evident already before then that the Soviet Union didn’t entirely crumble and leave a ruin on which to build a new shining capitalist democratic society but it still had many structures in place and many behaviors that continued. Nevertheless, I think it could have fundamentally changed, it was fundamentally changing in some ways in the 1990s, that is, I don’t believe Russia’s faded to remain a corrupt authoritarian country.
Gregory Feifer on Putin’s Russia (2015).
Of course, confrontation can’t last forever. When Russia emerges from its current course in the coming years or decades, it will be nearly as shell-shocked as after the Soviet collapse in 1991. The people will be confronted with the same massive task of reforming not merely the economy and government but also some of their cherished attitudes and thoughts. For now, however, they will no doubt dismiss the suspicion that will naturally fall on Russian Olympic medals in Rio, failing to see just what the Russian revelations have exposed about their country’s real place in the world.
Gregory Feifer, Russian Envy (2016).
The concept of Russia’s eternal sameness appears in a plethora of Western Russia narratives. By this ‘sameness’ I mean the continuity of Russia’s identical essence during all (or at least several) historical periods and forms of Russian statehood.
The full vicious circle of Russia’s eternal sameness can be shown in the following simple succession (some of the links of this logical chain can be omitted or changed):
- Russian Federation = Soviet Union;
- Soviet Union = Russian Empire;
- Russian Empire = Tsardom of Russia;
- Tsardom of Russia = Muscovy (Grand Duchy of Moscow);
- Muscovy = Golden Horde.
De Custine can be seen as one of the forefathers of this tradition. He drew comparisons between the Imperial Russia of his times and ‘Russia’ after the Mongol invasion and even the Golden Horde itself.
Such view of Russia is obviously an essentialist one with primordialist overtones (added to the overall construct in the last link). By the way, the serpent-eating-its-own-tale moment, i.e. Russian Federation as the modern avatar of the Golden Horde, is also a favourite mantra of Russia’s ultraliberals and Ukrainian nationalists.
This mythological model strips Russia of any real change let alone progress: in this narrative Russia essentially stays the same, crawling on its ‘barbaric’, ‘uncivilized’, ‘totalitarian’ path as the West develops and evolves. According to this approach, changes in Russia happen only at the surface – still waters run deep. The corresponding attitude gives a sense of civilizational superiority over the ‘backward’ country.
Thus, the eternal sameness of Russia is the point of eternal return for Russia analysts. This idea came to my mind today: what if the souls of Kremlinologists of the past were reborn in the bodies of Russia watchers of today, continuing to compare their perceptions of nowadays Russia to the ones of their previous incarnations? I think this hypothesis is rather valid, especially keeping in mind tons of contemporary ‘highbrow’ Russia-related ‘analytics’.
P.S. By the way, I am not against the idea of sameness per se, when it’s not used for advancing certain political agendas. I think it is appropriate to discuss the alleged Russia’s sameness as a Russian cultural, linguistic and biological continuum that survived the Bolshevik coup and the collapse of the state institutions in the 1990s. This is one of the few real Russian mysteries out there.