Getting Russia Right

What is really going on with Russia? The fact that one leader can take an entire country in a mad journey begs even more discussion.

Faced with uncertainty or lack of information or when leadership lacks clearly defined preferences for the outcome of a crisis, historical experience is likely to play a role in the formulation of foreign policy.”

This arises from a “constructivist” understanding of nationalism, in which there is nothing truly innate within a nation that serves to define it as a great power, but instead it is an interplay of “cultural signs and symbols” that operate within a national discourse and are subject to “continuous political redefinition.” Rich’s account of this in “Russia as a Great Power” specifically goes a step further and claims that throughout the Cold War, Russia “postured as a superpower” and that even throughout its Tsarist history, it was seen as operating on a different understanding of power than the West was, being more akin to the Ottoman Empire in its nature. While this does not mean that Russia was necessarily inferior militarily, there has been a certain distinctness to Russian power which has had trouble fitting in with the Western understanding. Indeed, the 2008 Russian-Georgian war has stood out as a notable problem for proponents of the democratic peace theory.

Rich’s view can be seen to be related to the notion of “national messianism” or the “Third Rome” mentality that defines Russian thinking. This messianism can be both religious Slavophilism as well as secular and revolutionary. It is defined by a focus on the fact that Russia has a unique history in being neither fully European nor fully Asian and having a “peculiar historical development” compared to the rest of the world, as noted by Janko Lavrin in “Populists and Slavophiles.” Curiously, there does seem to be a spiritual link between the peasant commune revered by nineteenth-century authors and the post-1918 socialism that can be attributed to some distinctly Russian character, as Vatro Murvar explains in “Messianism in Russia: religious and revolutionary.” Murvar quotes Konstantin Leontiev, who outlined his vision of the Russian historical niche as:

“I believed before and still believe that the Russia which is to head some new Eastern realm will give to the world also a new culture, so that the Slav-Oriental civilization may replace the passing civilization of Latin-Germanic Europe.”

Via Why No One Gets Russia in the Diplomat


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