Why you should not be naïve about Russian culture
Philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko gives a brief look into the history of ideas to help us reflect on what is happening now.
He advocates a critical approach to Russian culture which, according to him, has played an important role in the Russian expansion policy.
Volodymyr Yermolenko (born 1980) is a Ukrainian philosopher, journalist and writer. He is analytics director at Internews Ukraine, one of the largest and oldest Ukrainian media organizations, and editor-in-chief of UkraineWorld.org, a multimedia project in English about Ukraine. Yermolenko is the winner of the Myroslav Popovych Prize (2021), Petro Mohyla Prize (2021), Yurii Sheveliov Prize (2018) and Book of the Year in Ukraine (2018, 2015). He is published in The Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, New York Times and Newsweek.
In 1709, near Poltava, the Swedish army led by Charles XII, lost the battle to the Russian army led by the tsar Peter I. The battle significantly undermined Swedish positions in Central and Eastern Europe, and instead opened the way for the future Russian imperial expansionism. In this battle, there was one important Ukrainian element.
Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s decision to take the side of the Swedish king against the Russian tsar had deep historical causes. Educated in a “republican monarchy” of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, Ukrainian Cossacks had a contractual vision of politics. The Ukrainian political tradition repeatedly stressed that when in the mid-17th century the Ukrainian Cossacks, led by hetman Bohdan Khmelnyckyi, decided to make a deal with the Muscovy tsar, this was a contract with mutual obligations, including those by the tsar. The Muscovite / Russian tradition stressed, instead, that the tsar is an autocrat, i.e. he holds his powers alone, and can never have any obligations to anybody. The Mazepa rebellion against Peter I, was a continuation of this essential contradiction about the essence and methods of the political life.
The conflict between Ukrainian and Russian political visions was a reflection of the longer conflict between tyrannical and republican visions of politics, which has existed throughout the European history. In the republican vision, politics is seen as a matter of free citizens entering into agreement with each other, each having certain rights and duties; in the autocratic vision, politics is seen as a hierarchy of domination, in which there is an autocrat who is beyond obligations, and whose unrestricted use of power imposes obligations on others.
Swedish and Cossack defeat under Poltava had broad consequences for the whole of Europe. It ended the prospects of a republican model of politics to prevail in Eastern Europe. It also opened the way for the Russian imperial expansion in the 18thcentury. By the end of the century, Russian empire erased Ukrainian Cossack autonomy, accomplished the division of Poland and put an end to the Crimean Khanate, committing the peninsula’s first annexation. Poles, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars lost their autonomies or sovereignties in the 1770s, one by one. In the 19th century, especially after the Vienna congress of 1815, when the Russian empire took the major part of today’s Poland, “Eastern Europe” essentially meant “Russia” – a uniform space where all cultures were swallowed by the empire. This tyrannical unification started with Peter I, and substantially with the Poltava battle.
When today Putin sees Peter I as his role model, he knows exactly what he is talking about: Peter ensured the domination of the Russian autocratic model in Eastern Europe, and the destruction and oblivion of the republican model of politics in this part of the world. The Poltava battle constituted a point at which the republican spirit significantly weakened in Eastern Europe.
It was also an episode showing an example of Russian cruelty. After Mazepa decided to take sides with Charles XII, Russians took the hetman’s capital, Baturyn, and burnt it to the ground, killing over 10 thousand people in one day. By this act they made manifest that they will not tolerate any alternative to their domination in this part of the world, and that they would use any possible cruelty to prove it.
Alexander Pushkin, whom Russians consider to be the founder of their modern literature, had something important to say about this story. Poltava, his poem published in 1829, was meant to present the Russian version of the story of Ivan Mazepa. Pushkin had powerful competitors: Byron and Victor Hugo in literature, Delacroix and Gericault in painting were creating a “romantic” image of young Mazepa (or Mazeppa, as they spelled his name): a character challenging both political and erotic laws of the time. In Byron’s poem, Mazeppa was a mixture of Child Harold and Don Juan.
Pushkin wanted to deconstruct this European admiration for a Ukrainian hetman; he depicted Mazepa as an old traitor, an erotic and political pervert, who betrayed both his friends and his tsar. The diagnosis went further: Ukrainian Cossacks were depicted as essentially blood-thirsty brigands, whose time should be overcome and forgotten: “the friends of old and bloody times”.
In the coming centuries after Poltava, Russians experienced wars which they interpreted as “invasions” from the West. The Swedish campaign in the early 18th century was followed by the Napoleonic war in the early 19th century; and by a German challenge in the 20th century’s world wars. This created one of the basic Russian myths of being always “threatened” by the West. In this myth, a powerful Western “aggressor” is accompanied by “traitors” and “collaborators”: Ukrainian Cossacks helping the Swedish king, Poles helping Napoleon, and again Ukrainian nationalists helping Germans in the 20th century.
But this “invasion” myth was a mask used by the Russian ideology to cover up its own expansionism. Each Russian success against the foreign “invader” was followed by its own imperial onslaught.
The victory over Charles XII opened the way for the Russians to conquer Eastern Europe. The victory over Napoleon made Russia a leading pillar of autocracy in Europe, the hope of the European anti-democratic conservatives. By 1848, the Springtime of the peoples, its role was strong enough to let Fiodor Tiutchev, a Russian conservative poet, to write that “for a long time, there is no real powers in Europe: Revolution and Russia”. According to his narrative, despite repeating “crusades against Russia” the Russian empire will prevail against the decadent revolutionary (read: democratic) West, and make the Russian empire “even more immense”, plus immense encore. Finally, the victory of the Russian/Soviet imperial project over the German imperial project in the 20th century led to the Soviet occupation of half of Europe and the imposing of the puppet autocratic regimes from Berlin to Bratislava.
All these acts were accompanied by immense cruelty, yes.
In all this expansionism, culture played an important role. Pushkin had a lot to say not only about Ukrainians, but also about the Poles: his “To the slanderers of Russia” was a response to the Polish uprising of 1830-31 and a suggestion to Europe not to intervene into the “Slavic” affair. This was a kindly advice to Western Europe not to put obstacles into the Russian desire to crush the Polish striving for liberty. This was also a reminder that Russians will beat Europeans whenever they want to. 19th century’s Russian empire’s irritation with Polish uprisings has an interesting parallel in Russian current hatred towards “colour revolutions” in the countries earlier colonized – including Ukraine.
The pattern went on: the 19th century was marked in the Russian literature by the struggle between Slavophiles (traditionalists and conservatives) and Westernizers (mostly leftist radicals). But the paradox is that even the Westernizers, in their vision of Russia and Europe, cultivated the mythology of Russian exceptionalism and a dramatic mistrust (or even hate) for the “bourgeois” Europe. This led Dostoyevsky to say one day that “Russian European socialists and communists are primarily not Europeans” and “will end in becoming […] true Russian[s]”. He was right: the Marxist “Westernizers”, after winning this century-long battle in the bolshevik coup of 1917, finally transformed Russia into the even more horrible autocratic empire in the 20th century.
This was a leitmotiv of the classical Russian culture: even Westernizers here were actually against the West, and the common denominator of the Russian culture was essentially anti-European.
In this context, it is important to see Ukrainian and Russian traditions of thinking about politics as remarkably different. In Ukraine, conservatives and liberals have mostly agreed that Ukraine belongs to Europe and its political traditions. In Russia, this debate often has an opposing common ground: the feeling that Russia is an alternative to Europe.
Take the socialist idea. In the late 19th century, Ukrainians and Russians were thinking about “anarchism” and socialism in a remarkably different way. Ukrainian Drahomanov, who was forced to leave the Russian empire and who established himself in Geneva, thought of “anarchism” as a decentralized approach to politics and economics, which supports the grassroots initiative and which denies the “top-down” autocratic approach to political relations. In his vision, “anarchy” meant the absence of the sole centre of power, arche.
Contrary to him, Russian anarchists and communists, from Bakunin to Plekhanov, sought primarily the demolition of the tsarism and the establishment of another source of a vertical power. While for a Ukrainian Drahomanov socialism was a path towards decentralization, the Russians were heading towards another form of a centralized state, which would turn the hierarchy upside down.
This discrepancy continued in the early 20th century. While Ukrainian socialists like Vynnychenko saw socialism as a grassroots movement of cooperation between workers and their co-ownership of the means of production, the Russian socialists wanted “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, which they established after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. They replaced one autocracy with another one.
Or take another example: the discovery of Asia. The fashion for Asia emerged in the early 20th century which led intellectuals and writers in the Russian empire to look into Asian history with great interest. Ukrainian historian (with Crimean Tatar origin) Agathangel Krymskyi did substantive work of connecting European and Asian heritage into a one organic system of ideas and cultures. For the Ukrainian leftist writer Mykola Khvyliovyi, who launched a slogan “Asian Renaissance”, this interest to Asia meant taking the Eastern Asian cultural energy and enriching it with the European form.
In the Russian context, these ideas took a different perspective: the birth of “Eurasianism” in the 1920s meant another variation of the topic “Russia vs Europe”, in which this opposition was formulated in the fashionable vocabulary of the “multiple civilizations”. According to the “Eurasianists” (like prince Trubetskoy), Russia is a separate civilization which has to challenge the European one and limit its claims for universal validity.
We can see these topics revived today. Russian neo-Eurasianism (Alexander Dugin and others) recreates an openly far-right and radically conservative vision of the world, in which Russia is opposed to the West. Latently or openly, this ideology prevails in Putinism. In Ukraine, on the contrary, we see a remarkable dialogue between, say, Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures, to unite under the same set of values of dignity.
These are the examples of the different paths chosen by the Ukrainian and the Russian political traditions. While the Russian one has repeatedly been reproducing its opposition to Europe, values of liberty, decentralization, plurality and democracy, the Ukrainian one has been stressing them as its foundation, its basis and its inspiration.
This brief look into the history of ideas might lead us to think more broadlyabout what is happening now.
Russia is the last empire in Europe. Moreover, it is an empire, which has never repented crimes of its imperialism. Contrary to most other European nations, which once in history had built empires, Russia has been reluctant to analyze its own imperial history critically.
“Never again” has been a slogan in which Europe declared its commitment to do everything possible to avoid the repetition of the crimes of the past. Russia has different slogans: “We can do it again”, “We can repeat” – these are the widespread slogans in the Russian society, hinting that they can repeat the 1945 victory over “the West”, and that they can revive the Russia of 1945, the Russia of Stalin.
The problem is that Russian crimes were never properly condemned. Western democracies condemned the crimes of Nazism; but they took a dangerous tendency of seeing the Holocaust as “the” crime, compared to which all other crimes, including those of Stalinism, were “too soft” and therefore not deserving a radical condemnation. But the crime which is not condemned, repeats itself. It comes back, over and over again, it becomes a revenant, a ghost of the dead. It turns into a vicious circle of evil. Today, with Russia’s inhumane and madly cruel invasion of Ukraine, we are experiencing the new return of this circle, again.
Europe became very critical towards its own culture. It is a common place to seek for “imperialist” and “orientalist” topics in Flaubert, Kipling, Joseph Conrad and dozens of other 19th century or 20th century writers and painters; and to remark that the American founding fathers were usually slave owners. But we are still far away from applying the same attitude to the Russian culture. Do we analyze the imperialist and “orientalist” texts of Russian poets about Caucasus or Ukraine – like we do with regard to the European authors? Do we ask the question why there is a striking parallel between how Pushkin portrayed Ukrainian Cossacks (as “the friends of old and bloody times”), and how Putin portrays Ukrainians now, as violent Nazis? Isn’t it the same tactics of presenting a victim as a murderer – and thus to legitimize cruelty against him/her? Is it not the same tactics to label somebody as a genocider in order to justify the genocide over him/her? Do we ask a question why practically all the Russian “big thinkers”, from Dostoyevsky and Soloviov up until Solzhenitsyn were so remarkably anti-European and were presenting Europe as a rotten continent, in which cold rationality has won over the pretended “spirituality” of the Russian soul? Was it really a genuine criticism of Europe? Or was it just the inability to recognize and acknowledge the key values of the European civilization: balance, proportion, law, reason, critical thinking, multiplicity?
Europe should stop looking at Russia as an “alternative”, but ask why Russia is so reluctant to accept any critical vision of itself. It is good to look critically at the European imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries, but it would be wise to recognize that the Russian imperialism was at least as bad – and in many cases even worse. Its key problem is that it is still an imperialism proud of its criminal past. An imperialism which has never repented its crimes, and which dreams of repeating them. Something which it is doing right now.
What we need, is a critical approach to the Russian culture. It was sometimes an alternative to the cruel Russian politics – but it has often been its accomplice. To understand how this happened, and why, we should stop being naïve.
Coming back to the episode we have started with: the Poltava battle was one of the chances to stop the expansion of the new Russian autocracy in Eastern Europe. This chance failed. And Russian poets like Pushkin praised this failure and depicted Ukrainian Cossacks, who tried to stop this imperial expansion, as violent and cruel creatures that should be forgotten as soon as possible. As the “Nazis” of the 19th century.
The critical approach towards the Russian culture is one of our obligations today. This approach should analyze what is wrong with the Russian social and political traditions, and which are the healthy elements from which a new anti-tyrannical society can be born to replace dreams of the Russian empire. This critical approach is a healthy way for Russia itself – a possible way out of the current madness.