Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has behaved much like a loose cannon, causing nasty surprises, not to say mystification, not only in the West but also in China and elsewhere. (Photo by Kenzaburo Fukuhara - Pool/Getty Images)
If every nation, like every language, has its grammar, what is the grammar that might help us understand Russia today?
Even the least observant foreign visitors to Russia these days are likely quickly to discover the first rule of that metaphorical grammar: the unity of opposites. On one side, we have a Russia that is attached almost obsessively to its "otherness". On the other, we have a Russia that craves after "sameness" as a member of the family of Western nations.
This "otherness-sameness" duality is not new in Russian history.
Initially, Russia built its identity around its claim of "otherness" by casting itself as "The Third Rome", after Rome and Constantinople, the last standard-bearer of Christ in a rapidly de-Christianized Europe. Two centuries of wars against the Muslim powers of the time, notably the Ottoman Empire and Iran, added over 12 million square kilometers to Christendom as the Tsarist Empire expanded into Central Asia, Siberia, the Caspian Basin, and the Caucasus.
Caught between a supposedly de-Christianized Europe and a supposedly revanchist Islam, some Russian writers, poets, and philosophers developed Slavophilia, the idea that the Slavic peoples constitute a distinct, and subtly superior, a segment of humanity, as the national ideology. Basil the Blind's refusal in 1439 to bring Russia into the fold of European nations under the Latin Church formed the root of that ideology. In time, philosophers like Alexei Khomiakov and Konstantin Aksakov, and writers such as Nikolai Gogol, gave that new identity a secular expression.
Over time, Slavophilia, as Russia's national ideology, was criticized and opposed by a variety of figures including Boris Godunov, Peter the Great, Pyotr Chaadayev, van Krieviski and Aleksandr Herzen, who fostered the idea of an alternative identity for the emerging nation. They came to be labeled "Occidentalists" because they saw Russia as a European modernizing nation, not as the "Saint Russia" of Slavophiles, who behaved as if time had frozen in the 15th century.
Vladimir Putin has been a symbol of that duality at the highest level of Russian politics. He behaves as a Slavophile when he needs to justify his authoritarian style of government when compared with modern European democracies. One of his favorite phrases is: Russia is different!
Putin has succeeded in co-opting the Russian Orthodox Church by persuading his bishops that his regime is their ally and protector against atheism and infiltration by Western churches and American bible-pushing movements. Putin takes pride in recalling his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he is supposed to have had mystical experiences, and cultivates a reputation as a collector of icons and relics.
At the same time, however, Putin wants to cast himself as the arch-Westernizer modeled on Peter the Great because he knows that the rapidly expanding Russian middle classes with bank accounts in London and Zurich are more interested in trips to the French Riviera than the disputed Holy Land in Israel-Palestine.
After the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia as a punishment for annexing the Crimean Peninsula, Putin launched a campaign to persuade his people to spend their holidays in Turkey and the Islamic Republic in Iran, both of which agreed to visa-free travel for Russians. Two years later, the number of Russians taking up the offer remains insignificant. Latest estimates show that around 100,000 Russians visit Turkey while the number going to Iran remains stuck at below 5,000. In contrast, in 2018, France attracted 3.2 million Russian visitors.
Geopolitical gurus in the West might try to sell the idea of Putin forming an alliance with Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, the truth is that Putin, and even more much of his electoral base, crave closer ties with people like Emmanuel Macron and Donald J Trump.
Russia may be talking in Slavophile tones but deep in its heart, desires to be readmitted into the Western camp. This is seen in the way Russians dress, the kind of food they eat, the beverages they drink, the music they listen to, the TV shows and the films they watch, and the books they read. Queues in front of McDonald's joints may be a vulgar sign of creeping Westernization. Moreover, the fact that millions of Russians have bank accounts in the West, including in Cyprus or even in dicey Greece, cannot be dismissed as mere aberrations.
In conversations with Russian intellectuals, a visitor quickly detects a concern that Russia may find itself isolated in the face of a rising China's economic and military power on the one hand and Islamist extremism, spearheaded by both Iran and Turkey, on the other.
The results of this month's municipal elections, declared last week, show a clear setback for Putinism in its Slavophile version. The president's United Russia party lost more than a third of its seats in Moscow that, as in other metro-centric countries, has set the tone for national politics at least since the 1920s.
Russia is dreaming of a returning to an Occidentalist aspect of its identity. Some analysts in the West dismiss that as a feigned dream; Putin wants to fool the Western democracies into helping negotiate a bad patch before he returns to his old shenanigans. President Macron's call for reintegrating Russia into the G7 summit last month was dismissed by other participants even before it made it onto the agenda. Other analysts, however, argue that even if one thinks beyond Putin, that thinking must start before Tsar Vladimir attains his sell-by date.
Under Putin, Russia has behaved much like a loose cannon, causing nasty surprises, not to say mystification, not only in the West but also in China and elsewhere. Thus stabilizing Russia, by defining its proper place in the emerging world order, or world chaos if you like, must be a major concern for policy-makers and strategists in all key capitals. That such a re-definition cannot be done solely through anathema and interdict, or their modern version that is economic and diplomatic sanctions, is as evident today as it was in the Council of Florence of the 15th century.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.