Tuesday, September 22, 2009

RE: Russia still not reconciled to loss of Empire

Eric Yost, wrote the following in response to http://www.lawrencehelm.com/2009/09/russia-still-not-reconciled-to-loss-of.html . I have a few additional comments below:

Lawrence wrote: How pathetic you [Russia] are if all that can be said w about your future is that you will continue to sell raw materials to the West and Weapons to the West's enemies.

Two strains have long been prevalent in Russian thought, and were well established in the 19th

century: one is the "Slavophile" recognition of unique Russian identity, as crossroads between Asia and Europe (Lev Tolstoy); the other, just as significant, is the European identity, that Russia is the eastern extent of Europe (Ivan Turgenev).

To my understanding, both, acting together (Pushkin), constitute the Russian identity.

Consider: Russia is traditionally Christian

(European) but uniquely so in its Eastern Orthodox tradition (Slavophile); Russian classical music is European (Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovitch) but uniquely so in its Slavophile composers (Khachaturian, Schedrin, Sviridov). For a particular example, in pianism, Russia is European, but uniquely so (the Russian school of piano technique). Another example: in the 20th century, Russia produced, as a group, the strongest chess players. Chess is itself a hybrid of an Asian game that was refined and codified by Europeans.

Historically, Russia resisted both the Teutonic knights (Nevsky) and the severe Mongol invasion.

My sense is that Russian identity, at least in its high culture, is part of both worlds yet not a complete member of either. This is a lonely place and calls for a great sense of balance. When Russians feel they are respected, I believe they can achieve this balance, as they have done throughout history. However, when they feel condescended to or belittled, Russians always veer to an extreme Slavophilism or extreme Westernism

-- depending on who is condescending or belittling them.

Granted, this is cultural analysis and has little to do with the Russian power elite, who seek crises and global political instability to drive up the price of oil. But it speaks to something deeper -- a sentiment upon which the Russian power elite rely in order to rule. Putin knows this as well as Stalin did.

All the best,


Lawrence’s Comments:

I often have something like this in mind when I write about Russia’s modern woes. I’m a great admirer of Dostoevsky, having read two of his novels (The Brothers Karamazov & Crime and Punishment) several times, and probably all of them at least once. I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina probably twice each. And I read a number of lesser Russian writers but no one quite captured my imagination as much as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy – unless it was Mikhail Sholokhov.

As to music, I’m not the aficionado that Eric is, but at one time, probably the same time I was reading Sholokhov, I was listening to Shostakovich quite a lot, and while I came to imagine he was repeating himself too much to listen to as regularly as I had been, I have never tired of Tchaikovsky.

I appreciated, perhaps still do, Wassily Kandinsky and read and appreciated (in my misguided youth) the Russian spiritualism of H. Blavatsky.

This is all to say that I agree with Eric’s argument that Russia is essentially European. I may have even suggested that in the past, but Michael Kuznetsov is supported by recent articles in rejecting that suggestion. Modern Russia believes itself to be, and wants others to recognize it as distinct from European Civilization. My own belief that it is not is weakened by Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. In the first part of that work, Huntington presents the commonly accepted conclusions of social scientists that the “Orthodox Civilization” is distinct from the “Western Civilization.”

I discussed this a bit with Kuznetsov at some point. I find it difficult to accept that the Orthodox and Latin Civilizations are “distinct” from Western Civilization. We have similar, if not the same, roots. We revere Christianity. I am not convinced that Huntington’s “clashes” need to go on amongst these three “Civilizations.”

Nevertheless, when Russia finally recovered from the after effects of the demise of the USSR, it made it known that it did not appreciate the EU swallowing up Russia’s “near abroad” neighbors. It invoked a 19th century “sphere of interest” rationale. The EU, however, believed itself to have gone way beyond such thinking. Not only could it not revert to 19th century thinking, it thought it positively dangerous to do so. Surely, they believed, that sort of thinking contributed to the disastrous wars of the 20th century.

Russia, of course has not threatened war with the EU or the US over the EU’s and NATO’s acceptance of these Near Abroad nations, but Russia has been grumbling. As the articles I’ve been quoting have indicated, Russia doesn’t like what is going on inside the Federation with its minorities, and outside with Near Abroad nations lusting after membership in the EU and NATO.

Eric mentioned the “High Culture” of the Russian intelligentsia. My first thought upon reading that (and I don’t mean this to be a criticism of Eric’s argument, merely a bit of “free association”) was that it seemed in a sense comparable to “Traditional Muslims.” That is, whenever there is a tendency to consider all Islam as being Radical, some will invoke the “Traditional Muslims.” Not all Muslims are Radical, they will argue. In fact only a few are Radical and the “vast majority” of Muslims are “Traditional,” and willing to live and let live. I have argued against that belief because the evidence for the existence of these “Traditional Muslims” is scanty. Where are they, I have on more than one occasion demanded to know? If they exist, they are either living in Europe or the US or are being very quiet.

Eric isn’t voicing an opinion on how influential or prevalent the High Culture of the Russian Intelligentsia is, but I would be interested in hearing more on that subject. I’ve been quoting Russian Journalists who in some sense may be part of that Intelligentsia, I don’t know that any of them are. And if philosophers, novelists and poets are speaking out today in Russia about Russia’s current problems, I have not encountered them.

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