In the 1930s, the Young Russians movement of Alexander Kazem-Bek attempted to rally Russian emigres around the slogan ‘For Tsar and Soviets’. It didn’t catch on, but if Kazem-Bek were alive today, he would find his idea doing rather better. As a historian, one of the things I have found most striking about Russia in the past decade is the way that its people manage to mix together utterly contradictory symbols and beliefs, such as Tsar and Soviets. Extreme examples include a scandalous icon which briefly appeared in a St Petersburg church in 2008 and which depicted a meeting between Stalin and the blind holy woman Saint Matrona of Moscow in 1941, and another Stalin icon which was displayed in June 2015 at Prokhorovka, the site of the largest tank battle of World War II. Other less outrageous mixings of the Soviet and the Orthodox, or the Soviet and the Imperial, abound.
A lot of Russians seem not to notice the obvious inherent contradictions in mixing these things together. Rather, they appear to synthesize them in a way which somehow makes sense to them. I found it interesting, therefore, to observe Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, doing the same thing in an article he wrote last week for the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
Lavrov starts his article by saying that he perceives the debate about Russia’s role in the world ‘as an echo of the eternal dispute between pro-Western liberals and the advocates of Russia’s unique path.’ The key line in the article comes about half way through when Lavrov writes of ‘the importance of the synthesis of all the positive traditions and historical experience as the basis for making dynamic advances and upholding the rightful role of our country as a leading centre of the modern world.’ An attempt to produce such a synthesis is the core of the essay.
Lavrov uses history to make a strong case that Russia is a European country. Kievan Rus, he says, was ‘a full member of the European community. … Rus was part of the European context.’ Later, ‘the rapidly developing Moscow state naturally played an increasing role in European affairs’. ‘Not a single European issue can be resolved without Russia’s opinion’, writes Lavrov, adding that ‘any attempts to unite Europe without Russia and against it have inevitably led to grim tragedies.’ Even now, Russia remains open to ‘the dream of a common European home.’
And yet, Lavrov remarks, the ‘Russian people possessed a cultural matrix of their own and an original type of spirituality and never merged with the West.’ The Mongolian invasion created ‘a new Russian ethnos’, and Alexander Nevsky was right to ally with the Mongols, ‘who were tolerant of Christianity’, and to fight the West which wished to ‘put Russian lands under full control and to deprive Russians of their identity.’ Having earlier remarked that, Russia, ‘is essentially a part of European civilisation’, Lavrov later implies that it is a civilisation of its own by saying that, ‘long-term success can only be achieved on the basis of movement to the partnership of civilisations based on respectful interaction of diverse cultures and religions.’ Lavrov thus seems to want to have it both ways – Russia is European and is unique.
In his final paragraph, Lavrov finds a way out of this apparent contradiction by citing Ivan Ilyin, who wrote that ‘the greatness of a country is not determined by the size of its territory or the number of its inhabitants, but by the capacity of its people and its government to take on the burden of great world problems and to deal with these problems in a creative manner. A great power is the one, which asserting its existence and interest … introduces a creative and meaningful legal idea to the entire assembly of nations.’ This is a classic Slavophile position, derived from German Romanticism: nations contribute to humanity by developing what is best about their own unique identity. In this way, Russia best serves Europe and European civilization not by copying Europe but by being true to its own Russian self.
If that were all that Lavrov had to say, one could conclude that he had indeed managed to produce a successful synthesis. However, Ilyin isn’t the only source he refers to. Lavrov also makes mention of poet Alexander Pushkin, philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, ethnographer Lev Gumilev, and American politician Henry Kissinger. Elsewhere, Lavrov’s talk of ‘cultural and civilizational diversity’ carries hints of Samuel Huntington’s book Clash of Civilizations and of 19th century conservative philosopher Konstantin Leontiev. These are all strange bedfellows. The Eurasianist Gumilev and the anti-Eurasianist Ilyin, for instance, don’t fit together very easily.
Nor does Ilyin fit well with the comments Lavrov makes about the Soviet Union. The revolution of 1917 and subsequent civil war ‘were a terrible tragedy’, he says, but ‘it was a major event which impacted world history’, and it helped spread ideas of social reform into Western Europe, if only ‘to cut the ground from under the feet of the left-wing political forces.’ The influence of socialist ideas had a positive effect on the world, Lavrov maintains, and ‘the role which the Soviet Union played in decolonisation … is undeniable’. One can argue about the accuracy of these statements, but to put them side by side with a quote from Ilyin, who denied any good in Soviet communism, is very much like painting the icon of Stalin and Matrona.
Lavrov’s article makes some important points. I fully endorse his suggestions that isolating Russia does not serve Europe well and that ‘a reliable solution to the problems of the modern world can only be achieved through serious and honest cooperation between the leading states.’ But the only way one can make Lavrov’s synthesis work is to be highly selective in one’s choices of historical examples and philosophical quotations – mention the bits of Soviet history you think are positive, and ignore all the rest; and cite those phrases of Ilyin which you like, and forget the other stuff he wrote which you find uncomfortable. As long as you don’t stop to think too deeply about it, it works. But once you do start thinking, it’s not desperately convincing. Philosophically, the article is a bit of a hodge-podge.