When the West did not exist

The hundredth anniversary of the First World War has produced an outpouring of fresh literature on the subject of a conflict whose legacy continues to shape the world today. With a few notable exceptions (Josh Sanborn’s Imperial Apocalypse, the Russia’s Great War and Revolution project and, of course, my own August 2014 book on Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich), this torrent of commemoration has passed Russia by. Despite the fact that by summer 1915, the majority of the divisions of the Central Powers were fighting on the Eastern and not the Western Front, so much more has been written about the latter than about the former that one might be excused for believing that the British Empire had won the war entirely by itself.

This past weekend I attended a conference about the First World War at the beautiful Château Lake Louise near Banff, Alberta. Of almost 100 papers delivered at the conference, only three were about Russia. This is a shame, not merely because it distorts our understanding of the past, but because it erases from history a time when Russia was fully integrated into the international politics of Europe.

By way of illustration, here is a photograph taken at the Russian Supreme Headquarters (Stavka) early in 1915 showing the Supreme Commander Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich with a group of Cossacks. The decidedly Francophile Grand Duke took two flags with him to Stavka: the first was the standard which his father had flown when commanding the Russian Army in the Russo-Turkish War nearly 40 years previously; the other was a French tricolour given to the Grand Duke by General Joffre in 1912. You can see both flags in the photograph. There is no Russian flag. Extraordinarily, the Russian Supreme Headquarters fought the First World War not under the flag of Russia, but under the flag of France.

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As this example shows, one hundred years ago the West, as a collective entity juxtaposed to Russia, did not exist. France and Germany were fighting each other, but Russian and French interests were seen as identical. In today’s world too, there is no inherent reason why on any given subject the interests of France and Russia should not be closer together than, for instance, the interests of France and Germany. The same applies to all European and North American countries. Canada and Russia, for instance, do not have to be further apart than, say, Canada and Slovakia. In fact there are very good reasons for suggesting that Canada might have rather more in common with Russia than with Slovakia. Canada and Russia are, after all, polar neighbours whose economies are both reliant on natural resource extraction.

Seen this way, the West as the opposite of Russia is not a natural phenomenon but rather the product of institutions set up after the Second World War, most notably NATO and the European Union. These institutions have their advantages:  they help to prevent divisions of the sort that ignited the two World Wars. But they also have disadvantages:  their existence encourages their members to regard getting on with other members as more important than pursuing their own interests. Groupthink trumps rationality, and good relations with Russia are sacrificed as a result.

So too does the obsession with ‘Western values’ trump national interest.  A hundred years ago, Imperial Russia and Republican France had profoundly different forms of government. This did not preclude them from getting on. Nor should it prevent Russia and the West today, when the differences are so much smaller.

 

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