Another Original LR Translation: Lonely Russia

Not Impressed by Power: How Russia Was Humiliated

Lilia Shevtsova, Senior Associate, Carnegie Moscow Center

Novaya Gazeta

Translated from the Russian by Dave Essel

Lilia Shevtsova

Lilia Shevtsova

The following is an extract, published in Novaya Gazeta, from Shevtsova’s new book – “Lonely Power: Why Russia Didn’t Become the West and Why She Has Difficulties With It”  – about the the whys and wherefores of Russia’s foreign policies today.

Russia’s élite has managed to do the impossible – it has actually turned the chip on its collective shoulder into a survival plan and convinced society at large that its fears are their fears, giving birth to a new anti-Western consensus that supports the monopoly of power. Instead of national unity in the name of development, we have substituted status quo maintenance by toeing to the line “Who Are We Friends Against?” Strangely, a number of clever and, at first sight, liberally inclined people have come over to this cause and become defenders of the system.

What is the West guilty of in relation to Russia? That it, assert these defenders, humiliated Russia in the 1990s, forcing the country to make unilateral concessions and now a) does not want to accept it as “power centre” and b) wants to re-write the rules of the game that came into force after the collapse of the USSR. And that is why, they say, relations have taken a sudden turn for the worse.

The West should shoulder its share of the blame for the worsening of its relations with Russia. But the West is not in the least bit guilty of the accusations that Russia is making. It is not that the West has stepped on Russia’s toes and gloated over the problems the country has been having. What Western society is guilty of is of having failed to be principled, both in relation to itself and in relation to Russia and of having been unready to offer Russia the stimuli which would have aided the country’s transformation.

So what arguments do the defenders of “offended” Russia  put forward? They never cease to beat Yeltsin for his concessions to the West. Yet the actions he took – which they call “concessions” by Russia to the West in the 90s – in fact consisted of renunciations of claims that Russia did not have the resources to support. Should the country have struggled on and on to preserve a Soviet empire that Russia could not afford?

Somehow, no one wants to admit that it was Putin, during his first presidency, who constantly “conceded” one thing after another to the West. It was under him that NATO occupied Kosovo. Under him that the USA left the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Under him that the Americans began training and arming the Georgian Army. Under him that NATO’s greatest enlargement ever took place, with former Soviet republics joining the alliance. Under him and with his agreement that the USA established bases in Central Asia. If one takes the logic of the “Defenders of the Fatherland” to its end, then it was Putin who carried out policies inimical to the nation’s interests. Why do they say nothing about that and lay it all on Yeltsin? Are these critics of the Yeltsin period perhaps waiting for the Putin period to end so that they can say what they want about him too?

On the other hand, Western leaders may object that, on the contrary, it was they who constantly made concessions to the Kremlin. They refrained from making an issue with Putin of the second Chechen war and of the cruelties engaged in during it. They let the issue of right and freedoms in Russia ride in order not to upset the Kremlin. The West did not rush to bring the Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. European countries concluded bilateral agreements on energy supplies with Russia that provided for the interest of Gazprom. The Bush administration recognised Russia as a market economy, supported its entry into the World Trade Organisation, raised Russia’s status in the NATO-Russia Council, and initiated a multi-billion aid package for the country. Finally, the Americans offered Putin a long-awaited prize – the chairmanship of the G8 – and agreed to its summit being held in Petersburg. And what does the West get from Russia in return? Accusations that the West is humiliating it.

The mantra that Russia is being humiliated is useful – to the Kremlin: in order to divert the people’s attention away from internal problems, from the anti-national essence of the rentier class that rules Russia, and from the fact that the country is bring transformed into a supplier of just raw-materials. The deliberate song-and-dance about humiliation feeds Russian society’s suspiciousness of Western civilisation. At the same time, the Russian politicians and experts who constantly expound on the hurts the West has inflicted have turned this into a well-paid profession and, since they are good at nothing else, this is not something they are going to abandon easily!

The Kremlin never fails to remind Western society as well about Russia’s humiliating treatment. It has to be admitted that this tune plays quite well to impressionable Western circles which start to feel pangs of guilt and act still more considerately towards the Kremlin, soothing Moscow each time its whines “Do you respect me?”

Yet the Russia-defenders, even as they go on about the West offending or threatening Russia,  prefer to keep pretty quiet about the real dangers Russia is up against: demographic catastrophe, social divisions, nationalist waves, turmoil in the Caucasus, instabilities on the Southern frontiers. The Russia-defenders can hardly be so naive that they do not understand that they are turning people’s minds away from the real challenges Russia faces. If that is the case, what is the proper term for such activities?

Furthermore, the Russia-defenders keep falling into logic traps. They have a major problem with how to connect their “humiliated Russia” thesis with their “Russia is a great power” thesis. How to explain where one finishes and the other starts? How can Russia find itself in two mutually exclusive dimensions? Usually, the “times of humiliation” are seen as being in the 1990s. The Putin period is the time of “Russia rising from her knees” and becoming a global power. If, however, that is the case, then why is Rising Russia moaning all all the time about past humiliations. Seems she likes scratching its old wounds… By R-D logic, the West’s recognition of Kosovo, American anti-missile defences, and support for the Ukraine and Georgia are at the very least snubs to Russia. But in that case, if Russia is now a “centre of power”, how could the country have allowed itself to be snubbed so repeatedly?

How does the assertion that Russia is a “centre of power” sit with the state in which the country is now in as a result of the world financial crisis? Reconcile this: the people who only yesterday were asserting that Russia is perhaps the only sovereign state in the world are today trying to convince us that the reasons for Russia’s economic crisis lie in America! Russia cannot be that sovereign if its foundations can be rocked by happenings in America or if Russia’s extricating itself from the crisis depends on how well America manages the problem. What does it say about Russia’s sovereignty that the country’s economic stability depends also and as much on China becoming a global power? That can only be called yet another humiliation for Russia. Understanding the inevitability of China’s rise should make our “strategists” pause to think about how to build the foundations for Russia’s “greatness” and meanwhile go on feeding Russian phobias and complexes. There are no two ways about it: a “centre of power” can have no fears, otherwise it’s not really… Let us wait and see how they deal with this intellectual conundrum.

One further R-D thesis – the “threat of de-sovereignisation of Russia” – should also not be forgotten, in particular the part of it about the threat of “outside control” of Russian resources that Putin likes to talk about.  In reality, we can see the opposite happening as Western and private Russian investors too are elbowed out of such fields as the exploitation of mineral resources while the state expands into them. However, this state expansion has not prevented Russia from becoming a raw materials appendage to the developed countries. That side of Russian “de-sovereignisation” is something the Russia defenders choose not to see. One might even suspect that the more Russia becomes a raw materials appendage whose stability depends absolutely on energy exports, the louder the Russian defenders of “Russia’s honour” cry their warnings about the West “de-sovereigning” our country. It is difficult to escape the impression that a conscious cause-and-effect connection is being put into play here, albeit not the one that is being shouted from the rooftops.

The Kremlin keeps inventing new arguments in its search for ways to stoke feelings of hurt and suspicion. Where, for example, is the logic in the following: President Medvedev signs a new Foreign Policy Concept in which it is stated that the West, as it loses its “monopoly on globalisation” is moving towards “containing” Russia. But if the West is losing its leading positions, why should we be worrying about any attempts it makes to “contain” Russia? It is further not clear how one is to reconcile the following April 2009 statement by the president: “Our choice in no way differs from that of other European countries. We are on the same track.” If we are on the same track, does this mean Medvedev is disavowing his own Foreign Policy Concept or is he recognising that Russia is one the wane along with the West?

11 responses to “Another Original LR Translation: Lonely Russia

  1. My favorite comment is her mention of Russsia being unable to reconcile “World Power” vs. “Humiliation by the West.” Yes, which is it? It can’t be both. And as she states, it cannot be a chronological answer, Yeltsin and Putin respectively. The dichotomy lives now more than ever.

    It was also fascinating to hear the list of the biggest items where Russia “caved” to the West. The big ‘uns were under Putin. Don’t know how that one slipped under my nose. Very interesting point.

  2. She also pretty much gave the whole laundry list of missed opportunities by the Bush Administration.

    I do have a problem with this comment of hers….” What Western society is guilty of is of having failed to be principled, both in relation to itself and in relation to Russia and of having been unready to offer Russia the stimuli which would have aided the country’s transformation.”

    Sorry, but, throwing money in the early 90’s down the Russian financial and corruption rat hole would have been stupid and US taxpayers wouldn’t have stood for it. The rest of Eastern Europe managed a way up and out of the Soviet sewer with the same small resources at the start.

    It wasn’t and isn’t our responsibility to save Russians from themselves. They dropped all effort towards a civil society during Yeltsin’s economic downturn. Putin promised them economic stability and over the years as he shredded their constitution they have approved in large poll numbers.

    You can’t fix stupidity.

  3. Russian xenophobia and hatred of the West is a very old drum successive Russian (and Soviet) governments have beaten. Tsarist authorities in the 19th century decried Russia’s sinking economic and political fortunes then by blaming everything on the West, and the few Russians who had access to information about the outside world were told that while the West may be materially more advanced, Russians had a superior soul with values like honesty, piety and a hard-working ethic; all things that the West supposedly lacked. The problem for us today is that six-to-ten generations of Russians were raised on this primitive crap, and so by today it is deeply embedded in the Russian national consciousness. It is a ready and convenient button for any Russian government to push whenever the latest corrupt tyrant achieves power and wants to divert attention from the government’s incompetence and general thuggish nature. It’s the West’s fault! They did this to you! Really, read Dostojevsky’s or Gogol’s descriptions of this wondrous Russian soul; it’ll make you throw up.

    • Nothing has changed. Find your average Russian living in an crumbling apartment or decaying wooden house sinking in the mud, and they will still insist that Russia is a “великая держава.” There is an amazing disconnect between the reality that most Russians live and their estimation of Russia.

  4. Russians had a superior soul with values like honesty, piety and a hard-working ethic; all things that the West supposedly lacked

    Tomek, a good observation, dead on, and the irony is that Russians are some of the laziest, most dishonest and unpious people on the planet. Their cultural flaws made them an easy mark for the Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Their perception of themselves as “superior” souls, but ironically complicit in the cruelty of the rat on your neighbor and Gulag era doesn’t match reality.

    AA is the most successful recovery program because it makes people admit their transgressions. I doubt as a nation Russia will ever get that far.

  5. Brilliant article; thank you, LR, for publishing it.

    Paradoxes like those noted by Shevtsova actually go back way into Soviet times – as expressed in the famous joke:

    “What will happen when the great Soviet Union catches up with, and overtakes, the accursed Western imperialists who stand on the verge of the precipice?”

    “Что будет, когда великий Советский Союз догонит и перегонит проклятых западных империалистов, стоящих на краю пропасти?”

  6. @Tomek

    Yulia Latynina some time ago:

    As everyone who watches Channel One and Rossia television knows, the West does not have a lot of warm feelings for Russia and is definitely out to get us. The West wants to create a unipolar world — one that would like Russia to become its permanent appendage. In response, Moscow is trying to create its own unipolar world, recruiting countries like Venezuela, Libya, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Cuba to its anti-West axis.

    Despite its deep dislike of the West, Russia’s patriotic elite drive Mercedes cars, educate their children in London, buy villas in Nice and keep their money in Swiss bank accounts. Its stores sell Finnish toilets, Western designer clothes and German refrigerators. Unfortunately, there is not much worth buying from Syria or North Korea. The only thing they can produce is a lot of anti-Western rhetoric, and unfortunately, you can’t package this bluster and sell it in stores.

    It is also interesting that the oil-trading company Gunvor, owned in part by Gennady Timchenko, who has close ties to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is not registered in Venezuela, Syria or in its own native Russia, but in bourgeois Switzerland.

    We all know why the West didn’t care much for the Soviet Union. After all, it built a progressive, democratic and affluent communist society that the Western bourgeoisie envied with a passion.

    But I can’t understand why the West dislikes the current ideology of post-Soviet Russia. After all, it abandoned communism a long time ago, and it sells its precious oil to the West through Gunvor and gas through RosUkrEnergo at fair market prices.

    If you take a closer look at the essence of the Kremlin’s ideology, you will be shocked. You shouldn’t believe all of the terrible stuff the West says about Russia. As it turns out, Russia is building a genuine democracy, not the sham democracy like in the West. Moreover, it is not seizing private property and nationalizing it to enrich high-ranking state officials; it is building a true market economy, not the kind found in the West. Finally, it did not initiate a war against Georgia as a result of Putin’s personal vendetta against President Mikheil Saakashvili. It carried out a peacekeeping operation in accordance with international law, and it enforced a genuine peace, not the pseudo-peace you see in the West.

    Anthropologists have written a great deal about the 20th-century “cargo cults” that arose in Melanesia. Adherents of those primitive faiths believed that all the amazing Western goods (or cargo) such as automobiles, guns and clothing were originally created by spiritual means by their ancestors. These modern goods had been intended for the Melanesian people, but the cursed white people stole everything before the goods could be delivered to the Melanesians. After seeing real airplanes for the first time, the Melanesians built one from sand, thinking it would fly.

    The Kremlin has taken a page from cargo cults. It is trying to build democracy, a market economy, and it is attempting to enforce peace. But the only problem is that all of these institutions are also made of sand. Like the Melanesian airplane, none of them can fly very well.

    The Melanesian people were certain that those infernal white people didn’t like them, and they had two ironclad arguments to prove it. First, the whites had seized all of the wonderful goods that the Melanesians’ ancestors had intended for them. Second, their airplane of sand couldn’t get off the ground — probably because the white people had cast a spell on it.

    There are two basic ways to approach life. In one, you build a real airplane and fly it. In the other, you build an airplane of sand and then blame the evil West and its insidious plots and machinations for the fact that it won’t fly.

  7. Shevtsova’s new book – “Lonely Power: “Why Russia Didn’t Become the West and Why She Has Difficulties With It” – about the whys and wherefores of Russia’s foreign policies today.”

    I think for that same reason why Africa didn’t become South America and why she has Difficulties With It.

    Shevtsova – You’ve made an idiot of yourself with such a title meant for even bigger idiots fit for nothing but to chew good ol’ russophobic rag for decades to come.

  8. Yeah, rts, we know, we know, it’s all a big conspiracy, the truth is the Martians are behind everything, they want to conquer Russia. That’s why they send so many UFOs there, don’t you know anything, silly? Lots of UFOs there. It’s obviously an American-Martian plot.

    Penny, I have to disagree on one point. I do think the West could have done a lot more to help Russia along the transition; it missed a historical opportunity to become as important to it as the US were to Western Europe after WWII (and these countries did need help them, too). You compare them to other Eastern European countries, but you forget many of these countries spent only half the time under Communism that Russia spent — and still many of them have serious problems to solve of precisely the same kind as Russia (look at Latvia).

    The taxpayers didn’t like the Marshall plan that much either, and they probably disliked the amount of money they had to spend on Japan. But both were money very well spent. If Russia’s transition had gone better, if the West had taken a more active role in helping it and making it work — we’d have a very different international situation now. The willingness of Yeltsin’s government to collaborte with the West would have borne fruit. The resulting stability would, in my opinion, be very much worth the money — just as was the case with post-WWII Western Europe.

    After all, it’s only one world.

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