Russia and the Rest

In an earlier post, The “Foreigner”, I wrote about my fascination with finding what looked like a Russian critique of an especially Russian view of outsiders. Much has been made in the Western media recently about attempts by the Putin government to blame domestic political unrest on foreign influence; Notably, the signing of a law in July labeling Russian NGO’s that receive money from abroad as “foreign agents”, and the expulsion in October of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). These actions are described in the West as efforts by the Putin government to curb protests against alleged fraud in recent elections, and to repress dissent generally. I will argue that this reporting is somewhat unbalanced, but first I would like to briefly examine the history of Russia’s approach to the outside world, highlighting some of those things that have contributed to Russia’s reputation in the West as xenophobic and inherently distrusting of foreigners.

This element of the Western narrative of Russian society and politics goes back at least as far as the early 19th century when, especially after the Decembrist Revolt in 1825, the Russian leadership was seen as determined to preserve its autocratic traditions and prevent the spread to Russia of the new, Western, ideas of republicanism and democracy. Evidence of how this was exhibited in the behavior of the Russian state in regards foreigners can be seen in the correspondence of Andrew Jackson’s Minister to Russia, James Buchanan (later elected President), who served in St. Petersburg for two years—1832 to ’33. While there he complained, privately, about being constantly followed, and about the fact that all mail, official and personal, that came to him had been opened and read by officials of the Tsar’s administration. He wrote to his friend John Reynolds during this time: “When you write, do not say anything which would be offensive to the Government. They are not delicate about opening letters here. You had better perhaps give this caution to my other friends… We can send out what we please by American Captains, but everything which comes in must pass through the Post Office.”

The highest priority for Buchanan during this year spent in Russia was to negotiate a trade agreement, and he succeeding in completing the first such agreement between the U.S. and Russia. But Buchanan seems to suspect that one important reason that Russian officials wanted his mail read was so that they would not be taken advantage of in the negotiations for a treaty. This would indicate a degree of insecurity on the part of the Russian government in regards the intentions of other states. The question of whether or not Russian leadership had, or has, good reasons to be suspicious of the designs of other governments is an important one, but will have to be left for another time.

This insecurity, and the attendant need to ensure that foreign visitors kept no secrets, were integral parts of the Cold War narrative of the U.S.S.R. throughout most of the 20th century. The responsibilities of the Russian domestic security agencies—the NKVD and its successor, the KGB—included constant surveillance of all visitors to Russia. This was commented on in the best selling book, The Russians, by American journalist Hedrick Smith, who described the reluctance of Russians to speak to foreigners for fear of drawing the attention of the feared security organizations.

This also points to what is described as the suspicion of Russian governments, whether they be Tsarist, Soviet or post-Soviet, of their own citizens who had either spent time abroad or were in close contact with foreigners. This concern for preventing the spread of infectious foreign ideas and values seems related to what is described as the response of Russian society to the rapid modernization and industrialization of the West, and the challenges this poses for the security of Russia.

For centuries the political and intellectual elites of Russia struggled with this question of how to react to the growing power of their Western neighbors. By the eighteenth century this had crystallized into a debate between two camps—Westernizers and Slavophiles. Westernizers believed that the best answer was for Russia to become more like the West. Peter the Great was the famous progenitor of this approach, and the best example of its potential for success. Slavophiles on the other hand, espoused the view that the best, possibly the only, path to success for Russia was through devotion to the principles and values that were uniquely Russian: those inherent in the people of Russia, the peasants, and in the Russian Orthodox Church. An important component of this outlook is that Russianness is by its nature ethically and morally superior to the character of Western societies; that the West is essentially corrupt and morally bankrupt. Among the most famous of the Slavophiles was Leo Tolstoy. In a future post I will discuss the Westernizer-Slavophile debate as manifested in some of the great literature of the late 19th century.

Evidence of this debate can be seen even today. A report in The New York Times speculates on the possibility that an orthodox monk—Father Tikhon—is Putin’s “spiritual advisor”. It cites criticisms of a documentary written and narrated by Tikhon “as pandering to Mr. Putin’s worldview of a virtuous Russia under threat from foreign forces.” This one phrase brings together the most important elements of what has also been the Slavophile worldview since nearly two centuries ago: the importance of Russian orthodox Christianity, Russia as “virtuous” and the “threat of foreign forces.” With these principles, and the efforts over the last dozen years to centralize power in the person of the President of the Russian Federation, the words of Tsar Nicolas I, proclaimed in the early 1830’s on the occasion of uprisings in the Empire’s Polish provinces, could reasonably be applied to the Putin regime—“Orthodoxy, autocracy and national unity!”

Tsar Vladimir I of RussiaPutin’s attack on Russian organizations, especially those advocating for democracy and human rights, calling them foreign agents and forcing them to register contributions from foreign sources, also puts me in mind of the decidedly unorthodox approach of Vladimir I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In January of 1918, days after its convening, the first All Russian Constituent Assembly, a democratically elected Parliament that was to serve as the legislature for Russia after the revolutions of 1917, was ordered dissolved by order of the Bolsheviks. The front page of Pravda justified the dissolution of the Assembly by calling its members, “Hirelings of Bankers, Capitalists and Landlords… Slaves of the American Dollar… Enemies of the People.” As this kind of rhetoric continued for the more than seventy years of Communist Party rule, it is easy to see how Russians might feel that being labeled “foreign agent” is tantamount to being called “enemy of the people”.

But my problem with the Western focus on these new laws and policies is that I have not found any discussion of whether or not foreign entities use their contributions to Russian organizations to influence social and political developments in Russia. There seems to be an attitude of, “well, there isn’t really any need to talk about whether Western governments are using money to change the course of Russian history because even if they are, it is for the Russians’ own good, and they should appreciate it!” In the case of the expulsion of USAID, for example, there is no mention of the fact that USAID was originally set up in the early 1960’s specifically to help fight the Cold War. Working with essentially the same assumptions that inspired the Marshall Plan, policy makers decided that by actively directing the development of ‘Third World’ societies, they could establish liberal, democratic institutions and values and so undercut the appeal of socialism. With this legacy then, USAID could easily be seen as actively directing the development of post-Soviet Russian society according to a U.S., rather than a Russian, model. I think it is complicated. While on one hand I believe that Russian governments consistently use the fear of “foreign threats” to legitimize their own power, on the other hand I think that some investigation into the reality of Russian claims that money from abroad is used to promote in Russia the agendas of foreign states, and thereby a violating Russian sovereignty, is sorely needed.

And in the end I like to step back and recognize that what I’ve been talking about here is the behaviors of “states”, “governments” and “elites”. This is from stuff I’ve been reading about, and listening to at University lectures, for decades. But being in Russia and meeting Russians is also part of my experience. And that experience tells me that Russian people are extremely friendly toward foreigners, and don’t seem to fear or distrust them. My memories of Russians from my time living and studying there in 1992 is of people who would invite me into theirs homes, or dorm rooms, and share with me their food, and their hot water for a shower if they had it (we had none in our dorm from September through December). They were more than happy to help out if they could, and seemed determined to make my time in Russia comfortable and enjoyable. From 2002 I remember the man who shared my cabin for a few nights on the Trans-Siberian railway who every time he took out the food he had packed for his meals would insist that I have some—smoked fish, pine nuts and bread. I was not well enough prepared to be able to return the favor, so his sharing was welcome indeed (but as I knew he was a smoker, I bought him a couple of packs of cigarettes on the platform at a stop we made). And from a visit this year I remember the random stranger on the street who I stopped and asked for help finding our way to a restaurant. He went into his office to find a map, and not only walked us more than half-way to our destination, but made suggestions of other places he knew of where we could find good food and service.

I love learning about Russia from books, professors, news media and documentaries. And I love meeting, talking to, and getting to know Russians, but I’ve learned that one occasionally leaves to the other an element of surprise. Russia, like most other societies, exhibits both cultural insecurities and great openness and appreciation of other peoples in the world. And Russia is now a member of the World Trade Organization. Globalization is changing every society in the world, and Russia is not immune.

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