Russia’s modern Slavophile-Westerniser debate

Russia’s search for an identity has been its dominant issue since the early eighteenth century. Vladimir Sarkisyants argues that the Kremlin-promoted idea of the unique Orthodox civilisation could be viewed as an answer to two dilemmas. Domestically, it settles the lingering quest for identity; internationally, it is foundation for a more coherent Russian stance vis-à-vis foreign actors.


The two-headed eagle, which symbolises the Russian state, gazes simultaneously east and west, one head is seemingly oblivious to the other. Peter the Great’s efforts to build a ‘window on Europe,’ Catherine’s the Great proclamation that ‘Russia is a European State’ and Gorbachev’s more recent call for a ‘Common European Home’ left many ordinary Russians unconvinced. The two centuries-old debate between ‘Westernisers’ and Slavophiles is still relevant.[1]

Putin’s solution is to advance a peculiar type of nationalism that emphasises patriotism, stresses the distinctiveness of the ‘Russian national character,’ and portrays Russia as a unique civilisation. This logic is in line with one of defining features of Eurasianist ideology, which rejects the view of Russia as a periphery of Europe, and considers country’s history and geographic location as justifying a messianic ‘third way.’[2] Eurasianists believe in Russian imperial destiny, Russia being a core of a broader civilisational unit that is neither Western nor Asian – a ‘world unto itself’ (mir v sebe), as Petr Savitskii’s, a classic Eurasianist, described it.

These are, of course, common features of various Russian nationalist movements whose perceptions of contemporary Russia are heavily influenced by nostalgia for the great power that was the USSR or the Romanov empire. As noted by Marlene Laruelle, the belief that Russia will regain a real great power status only after it restores its imperial pride, ‘is one of the most classic clichés of Russian nationalism in general.’[3]

In contemporary realities, one of the ways to recover Russia’s political pre-eminence in the former Soviet space and beyond is by reconstructing a Moscow-led supranational entity – the Eurasian Union. The fact that even Russian ‘westernisers,’ like Anatoly Chubais, flirt with the idea of ‘liberal empire,’ indicate the extent to which the belief in Russian natural imperial destiny has permeated Russian domestic politics.[4]

Had Russia successfully ‘Europeanised’ in 1990s (a long-term aspiration of former foreign minister Kozyrev and Russian liberals) during the latest in series of such attempts, today the very idea of creation of the Eurasian Union may have been obsolete. It is Moscow’s perception of itself as being unique and different – a view that mirrors the outlook of many in the West – which leads to the Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ and shapes Russian stance within international politics.

Despite much criticism from outside, Russian society is largely receptive to Putin’s efforts to promote ‘Russian traditional (albeit ill-defined) values’ and his disapproval of Western ‘genderless and fruitless so-called tolerance,’ which he claims is tantamount to equalising ‘good and evil.’[5] This time, Moscow’s opposition to the West is in a different dimension, against the cultural dominance of the West, and a form of ‘identity politics’ that refuses to be swayed by foreign and alien ‘doctrines.’

As far as Putin is concerned, the ultimate goal behind the spread of ‘Western values’ is to undermine Russia from within. From this view-point claims that these values are ‘universal’ and ‘universally human’ are irrelevant. Such norms are considered a construction and a tool of Western neo-colonialism in yet another ‘civilising mission,’ a new phase in centuries-old Western struggle to shape the world in its image. Politically, it is in this vein, as means of resistance to Western domination through meddling in Russian internal affairs, that the Kremlin’s treatment of the Pussy Riot and anti-gay laws should be viewed. In this context, whether Putin actually believes in homosexuality being intrinsically ‘evil’ matters little. What matters is that the defence of the latter is spearheaded by the ‘lecturing West’, and this is unacceptable to a state that strives to attain and preserve its ‘complete’ sovereignty and a status of an ‘equal partner.’

[1] Roy Allison, Margot. Light and Stephen White, Putins Russia and the Enlarged Europe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 1-2.

[2] Marlene Laruelle, Russian Eurasianism: an Ideology of Empire, trans. M. Gabowitsch (Washington D.C. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008), 1.

[3] Marlene Laruelle, Russian Eurasianism: an Ideology of Empire, trans. M. Gabowitsch (Washington D.C. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008), 8.

[4] Marlene Laruelle, Russian Eurasianism: an Ideology of Empire, trans. M. Gabowitsch (Washington D.C. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008), 8-9.


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