For much of the West in the middle of the 19th century, the idea of Russia and how to approach its people diplomatically was a matter of differentiating them as Europeans or Asians. The prevailing view at the time was a belief that Russians belonged to the latter group, and could not be considered part of Europe. The absolute role of the Russian Monarchy was an increasingly alien concept to the people of the West, a generation that was no stranger to popular upheavals and calls for political reform. Marx created the concepts of the “asiatic mode of production” and “oriental despotism” with reference to the Russian Empire, believing that their path to communistic development was different than the industrialized nations of the Atlantic. Still, the intellectual body of these same nations was divided, some believing that the people of Russia were indeed Europeans, but comparatively primitive to the rest of the continent and lacking in the necessary Enlightenment values of modern statehood. Through one form or another, this way of thought has survived to our time, and its continued existence gives credence to the vast differences between the Western and Russian cultures. Indeed, history repeats itself.
The earliest Western understandings of Russia come from second-hand accounts of German historians. The relative distance and lack of interaction with the heart of Europe meant that any view of Russia would be inevitably flawed, and it is this continued misunderstanding of our culture that drives modern relations with Russia. Almost formulaically, we see in all of the last three periods of Russian history an interest by foreigners to change or redefine Russia as well as an engagement of those foreigners by activists that were exiled by the Russian government or who found no support for their ideas back home.
For the American people, the first widely-read exposition of how the Russian people lived was from the explorer George Kennan, who took on work from the Russian-American Company to help lay telegraph cables in the Far East to reach Alaska. Shortly after, his interest in Russia led him to return as a correspondent for the Associated Press, at which time he observed the outer reaches of Russian society, from its labor camps to its rural villages. After befriending several political radicals in exile, ranging from Siberian separatists to Anarchists, Kennan devoted himself to the cause of revolution in Russia, going on to lecture and write about the political state of the Russian Empire upon his return to America. Even as a man of a relatively different time, Kennan’s rhetoric echoes similar misunderstandings and personal interests found in modern critics of Russia.
For one, Kennan’s understanding of the Russian Empire outside of his travels was skewed as he was almost exclusively informed by political activists on the fringe of Russian society (literally and figuratively). He believed that Russians suffered under autocratic rule and the authority of a superstitious church, both things that offended his democratic and pluralistic sentiment. Around the same time in the cultural centers of Russia, in the midst of a renewed interest in Occidentalism, the imperial administration of Nicholas I put forth the idea of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”, which necessitated a loyalty to the Russian faith, government, and people. To the chagrin of Western observers, this move was supported by a broad number of public intellectuals at the time, including the writer Nikolai Gogol. As a result of this, a rejection of European rationalism followed, and gave way for an emphasis on mysticism and Slavophilia, and a belief of Russian civilization as an entity fundamentally different from Europe. One of the most prominent philosophical circles of Russian conservative thought, the Society of the Widsom-lovers, was created around this time, of which Ivan Kireyevsky was a member. To my knowledge, these developments were not noted in Kennan’s writings at all. Whether willfully or unknowingly, modern critics of the Russian government also ignore the large amount of popular conservative philosophy that influences Kremlin policy today.
Rather unfairly, these philosophers remain untranslated in the West despite their great contributions to Russian thought. Instead, it was the socialists and anarchists who fled Russia to live in London, Paris, and America that defined Russian philosophy to an audience much more hospitable to their ideas. Figures such as Herzen, Bakunin, and Kropotkin used resources in their adopted homelands to print political material to send back to Russia while Lenin and Trotsky ingratiated themselves with potential financiers and ideologues of revolution. In 1874, the socialist revolutionary Nikolai Chaikovsky avoided opposition from former classmates and authority in Russia by leaving the country to start a commune in Kansas. In 1906, he invited the writer Maxim Gorky to come to New York and give a lecture on the need to bring democracy to Russia through revolution, an event organized by the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, with Mark Twain among the prominent Americans selected to be on the society’s head committee.
Unbeknownst to Western audiences who were swayed to support a popular upheaval, many of these Russian revolutionaries visiting or living abroad had done so to escape arrest for criminal activities against the government (Gorky himself spent much of his time at an estate in Italy). This trend was exacerbated during the mass immigration of Jews from the Russian Empire into the United States. During this time, many members of the newly-arrived Jewish migration were responsible for terrorist attacks inside the country and others became the founding members of some of the most radical left-wing groups in America. Ultimately, these radicals were opposed to authority in general, whether it was in Russia or America. We see this trend repeat itself in our time with the Tsarnaev brothers and other Islamic radicals who immigrated out of Russia and continued their criminal actions abroad.
Other radicals found more sophisticated supporters in American society. Leon Trotsky noted his extensive interaction with unnamed benefactors in his personal writings, and he was later documented to possess $10,000 dollars and an American passport on his way back to Russia during a brief detainment by the Canadian government in Halifax. Beyond politics, there was a great interest by businessmen in both preventing Russia from entering western markets as well as developing Russian land in the interest of extracting potential resources, the latter of which was often impeded by Russian authorities. As such, there was an even greater interest in manipulating various political factions to destabilize the country and create a ‘democratic’ republic, perhaps one more easily controlled by outside elements (this situation has already happened in Ukraine). Jacob Schiff, long known as one of the key financial contributors to Russian revolutionaries, first paid for arms to be given to the Japanese and for Marxist leaflets to be dispersed to their captive Russian prisoners during the Russo-Japanese war. Later on, he promoted the Zionist movement in Russia and provided mass funding to the revolutionaries of 1917, even congratulating a crowd of Russian revolutionaries in New York at the time of the revolution, sending a telegraph in which he described the events as “what we had hoped and striven for these long years.” William Boyce Thompson, another American billionaire, personally financed Kerensky’s government and then Lenin as well.
What was most interesting is that many of the individuals providing financial and legal support to the revolutionaries did so through connections with the International Red Cross and other diplomatically immune organizations, Thompson was himself a member of its relief mission and was able to use his position of neutrality as a means to get his resources through to Russian revolutionaries. There were other connections to financiers in Germany and England, some of these connections were formed in the interest of manipulating the outcome of WWI and others to ensure that Russian land would be made available for foreign economic development. But most importantly, the rapid political changes in the country meant that formerly exiled revolutionaries would be allowed back in to spread their ideology. After Kerensky signed an order of amnesty to these exiles, it was estimated that at as many as 250,000 revolutionaries returned to Russia, where they were once prevented from doing political work. In our time, suspicion has been raised against the intentions of ‘human rights’ groups such as Memorial, who are among 60 others who receive funding from foreign entities, including USAID, as well as from individual benefactors outside of Russia.
In Soviet times, there was a much larger role by foreign states and their intelligence agencies in attempting to foment change in Russia, this role continues today. Former backers of the revolution looked upon people like Trotsky in advancing their interests against the hardline policies of Stalin. Much of the influence against the Soviet government was now being exerted by former members of the imperial government, who were previously the enemy of those who wished ‘democracy’ upon Russia. Throughout the Soviet era, the constant intrigues between foreign governments and the Socialist establishment led to a bad impression of both by the Russian public, invigorating the call to return to traditional values.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we see the same processes repeating themselves. Once again, we see political figures that failed to acquire power through legitimate means turn to audiences abroad to spread their message. An Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University, David S. Foglesong has studied this historical phenomenon himself, identifying three characteristic tendencies in the American approach towards Russia in the last 130 years:
1. “A messianic faith that America could inspire sweeping overnight transformation from autocracy to democracy.”
2. “A notion that despite historic differences, Russia and America are very much akin, so that Russia, more than any other country, is America’s “dark double;””
3. “An extreme antipathy to “evil” leaders who Americans blame for thwarting what they believe to be the natural triumph of the American mission. These expectations and emotions continue to affect how American journalists and politicians write and talk about Russia.”
One of the most blatant examples of the myth of an oppressive Russia is in the insistence by independent commentators and members of western governments alike that there is a lack of ‘civil society’ in Russia. In a general sense, civil society refers to the ability of individuals to express their will through independent organizations and other means outside of the government. The media will commonly cite the unpopularity of the Russian opposition as an example that there is no political freedom in the country, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Civil society, by definition, exists in Russia but does not fit the western political narrative of Russia.
Plenty of patriotic service groups have been created since the fall of the Soviet Union, where sport and healthy living is promoted by independent citizens, to fill what was once a function of the state. Groups such as the Youth Anti-Narcotics Special Forces and StopKham have taken to the internet to publicly shame drug dealers and excessively rude drivers (among others), all with visible public support. Furthermore, plenty of headway in restoring religious sites, preventing domestic abuse, and providing humanitarian relief to southeastern Ukraine has been done through the collective action of Russia’s citizens. The major delusion in presenting Russia’s opposition to the rest of the world lies in the assumption that Russians interested in social change either necessarily support the pro-western opposition in any way or that they simply lack the resources to do so. In criticizing Russians, the critics often take their own sensibilities into consideration other than our own, even mocking suggestions that the current opposition to Putin has assistance from outside, despite plenty of evidence to prove that to be true.
One of the most damning examples of this was a video taken around the time of the anti-Putin protests in 2012, showing some of the most prominent Kremlin critics entering and leaving the US consulate in Moscow, among them was the slain lawyer Boris Nemstov. Another man in the video, former parliament member Iliya Ponomarev, now resides in San Jose. Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia wrote in a paper titled ‘American Efforts at Promoting Regime Change in the Soviet Union and then Russia: Lessons Learned’ that
“at certain moments regarding specific issues, the United States government and various non-governmental American actors (many of which were and are funded by the American government) have been able to nudge the course of Soviet and Russian democratization in a positive way. At critical moments, senior American government officials were able to engage directly with Russian elites to help prevent autocratic moves or reverse authoritarian actions.”
What of the opposition themselves? It is said that the modern Russian liberal movement died as soon as it allied with the people who stole from Russia in the 1990’s, namely Khodorkovsky, who now lives in Zurich. In 1992, Khodorkovsky and banker Leonid Nevzlin (who now resides in Israel) co-authored a book titled ‘Man with a Ruble’ which was essentially a manifesto of their love of money, writing that “our idol is His Financial Majesty Capital.” The reprehensible actions and beliefs of this man, including attaining his wealth through embezzlement, are the true reasons for his exile and imprisonment, despite being called a “prisoner of conscience” by the western human rights group Amnesty International. Even without the support of the people, it is claimed that Khodorkovsky has already drafted a post-Putin constitution and has announced he is intent on exerting influence on the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2016.
Most of the Russian opposition now engages its audience from other countries, following a trend of ideological defeat, one such example is the fall of the mainstream liberal Yabloko party from 45 seats in parliament during 1995 to zero in 2015. Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia society, founded with the blessings of the Chevron Corporation, is based in Prague while Meduza, an English-language news site representing the Russian opposition is based in Riga. Certainly, these attempts are no longer anything totally unprecedented, and this process shows no signs of letting up. However, it’s important to view the atmosphere of antipathy towards the Russian world in a historical context and see that this was not a feud brought about during the last twenty years or even as a result of the cold war. Ultimately, Western disappointment with Russian society hardly lies with unjust government, but rather its refusal to be dominated by outside values – a struggle between individualism and humanism on one side and organic identity and spiritual heritage on the other.
For more thoughts and essays, visit Evgeniy Filimonov’s blog Read What you Sow.