Two sides to every chessboard

As never before since the dissolution of the USSR the very real, deep and elemental differences between the way Russia thinks and sees things, and the way the West looks at the same things and interprets them—are coming out in very vivid detail. Most of all the way Russia and the West think of and see each other.

I would like here to turn to those differences in perspective which I believe are most basic and from which all other differences follow as a consequence. Then to explore their causes and after that offer some suggested solutions.

1) Global outlook

The first and most fundamental difference in global outlook is, I would say, that Russia is willing to accept differences and diversity even extending to modes of governance and forms of government.

Fotolia_28006614_XL_845f6_lgThe world is a big place. There are lots of people who both as a nation and even as individuals are different. Their histories, traditions, cultures are different. What works in Washington won’t work in Baghdad. That is the closest thing to a universal law in politics. A diversity of approaches is necessary for a very diverse world.

And even when there are very real problematic elements, as in the Middle East, in a political or legal system (cutting hands off as a punishment for theft, stoning as a standard form of capital punishment and so on): Russia will work with the situation as it actually is, rather than trying to force it to become what we would like it to be. Russia is realistic. A lesser evil sometimes is the most moral choice.

In Mikhail Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time the officer Maxim Maximich tells how a Circassian whose horse has been stolen killed the father of the thief on the assumption that he knew about and condoned the theft. “Of course, to their way of thinking he was absolutely right,” the staff captain concludes.

The narrator goes on to marvel at the Russian ability to be realistic and adapt to (not accept or imitate) other customs. “I don’t know if that’s a quality that deserves blame or praise, but it does demonstrate an astonishing flexibility of mind, and the clear common sense that excuses evil wherever it is either manifestly necessary, or impossible to prevent.”

The United States and the EU on the other side are quite convinced that there is a one-size-fits-all system of government: Western liberal democracy. This leads them to see any other model of government as a priori inferior, wrong or even evil.

Again, even where there are genuine problems, again: as in the Middle East, this results in an inflexibility that effects far less change for the better than working with the situation as it actually is.

Trying to export Western liberal democracy to places where even in peaceful conditions it wouldn’t suit the cultural and religious context, has led only to undeniable regional instability.

2) Acceptance of what happened

The second, closely related to the first, is that while Russians will harden their eyes, tighten their jaws and accept what happened— the West (and the US particularly) will tend to blame and vilify.

masterThis is a very Russian trait. The Kiev born Russian writer and immortal genius Mikhail Bulgakov‘s greatest discovery and the truth that seems to have sustained him all of his hard life—for we find it in the beginning pages of his first novel the White Guard and on the last pages of his final novel the Master and Margarita—is: that the world has been made so that everything that happens is always as it should be and only for the best.

Holy Orthodoxy has taught us that suffering has value, meaning and purpose and that a merciful, loving Providence is at work in all, everywhere and at all times.

For the United States and Western Europe (though nuance is needed here) drawing today less and less consciously on Western Christian theology and pre-Christian Roman thought and law: everything is black and white, heroes and villains, allies and enemies.

They are right, so if anyone disagrees: they must be wrong. Actions are isolated from necessity, circumstances, intentions and even inevitable human weakness. It is the lifeless as marble justice of Caesar, not the just judgement of Christ.

3) Preservation of each other

Finally, the last difference I would like to draw out lies in the way Russia and the West see each other in particular.

The above two points obviously come into play. So, for example, the strong, single-minded leadership which is the most organic and natural form of government for Russia (to paraphrase Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov) is seen by the US and some member states of the EU as a priori inferior and wrong for no other reason than that that is not how the West does it.

But the most immediate causes for the way in which each side sees the other are the events that occurred during and immediately after the Cold War for the West and Russia respectively.

780958700The 1993 film Sny(Dreams) is a vicious and delicious satire which conveys how many Russians remember Western influence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

A countess living in 1893 sees and experiences life in Yeltsin’s Russia in her dreams. Her husband later seeing her dreams for himself cannot believe that such a world could ever be possible. Overrun by a grotesque popular culture, pop Christianity (evangelical Protestantism), rock-n-roll, fast-food and a complete abandonment of traditional sexual ethics and basic self-respect.

And reality was crueler than satire. People have not forgotten life, short and miserable, under Yeltsin. When a minority of rich private owners alone profited and everything else was outsold to foreign companies. The murders, the prostitution, the narcotics, children sleeping at train stations, empty supermarkets, hyperinflation and the uselessness of the rouble.

In the film the countess in her dreams is made Minister of Economy based on how attractive she is, so she can seduce the American diplomat to give them maximum credit at minimum interest. At the discussions, where the foreign diplomat doesn’t speak any Russian, there is an EU flag on the table.

The Russian Federation’s experience of unequal economic partnership with the West is in large measure what has made Russia so interested in Ukraine’s Association Agreement. Russia does not want to see Ukrainians wandering distractedly into insurmountable debt buying Big Macs with Eurobonds.

This is also part of the reasoning behind the Eurasian Customs Union. Ukraine on its own can’t work with the EU as an economic equal. Neither can any other candidate country or existing member of the Customs Union except the Russian Federation. But taken together—they would have a market of 250 million people. Although that is not equal to the EU market of 400 million, the difference would be made up by the superior natural resources of the Eurasian countries.

And it is not only the EU. Together they could talk on equal terms with China and other possible trading partners further East, impossible for a country like Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan taken by themselves.

But to return to the point, very many Russians feel immediately after the end of the USSR that the West exploited Russia. That then as Russia was coming to itself again, the West excluded Russia. And that now the West is attempting to prevent Russia from realizing it’s potential independently.

The Western view on Russia is so distorted that even the evident garbling is usually not sensed as false.

To Russians the West seems to be decadent and hypocritical. Moralizing and yet relativizing morality.

For the West, it is what happened before the dissolution of the USSR that colors their perception of Russia. Very many Westerners look at Russia through dark red rose-colored star shaped glasses. Through those lenses—a democratic referendum with international observers present becomes an invasion and an aid convoy a weapon.

There is an undeniable carry over from the Cold War mentality in the Western attitude toward the Russian Federation. Sometimes not so explicit in the last few years, but now open and vitriolic. Russia is seen as something to be contained. Anything Russia does is somehow hostile.

Take the Eurasian Customs Union itself. To Russia, the initiative is intended to promote fair international trade in the post-Soviet space. To the EU it was interpreted as nothing else than an unequivocal challenge. Any desire to foster closer cooperation between former Soviet Republics is forever seen as somehow diabolical and unacceptable.

Or take the development of the Northern Sea Route via the Arctic Ocean. A project that is meant to make shipping from China to Europe easier and so increase trade was taken as a direct attack to American hegemony in international shipping on the sea.

The Russian Federation is trying to do economically what it does geographically—unite East and West. To the benefit of all involved, including developing powers. The latter together with the importance this would see Russia assuming seems to be the real reason behind Western opposition.

And it is not just governments, foreign diplomats and analysts.

In a newspaper I read recently here in Australia there was an Op-ed piece full of chest-beating rhetoric about the need to contain the Russian bear.

On the back there was a cartoon depicting the self-defense fighters in Donetsk as drunken child-murderers.

In the letters to the editor a comment was published where a reader reminded everyone of an old proverb from the Soviet era: not to trust the bears on hind legs. Russians not even being human beings apparently, but bipedal bears.

Fort Scratchley, Newcastle, Australia
Fort Scratchley, Newcastle, Australia

A local attraction near where I am living is an inactive artillery battery called Fort Scratchley. It was originally built in 1882 in case of a Russian attack. Cute as it is. But during the tour you’re shown a newspaper clipping from the Cold War meant to make you smile, a sensationalist piece on the danger of a possibly imminent Soviet invasion.

Under it is a notice stating that of course we know now that there was never any intention on the part of the USSR to invade Australia. But the tone and mentality of the framed old newspaper clipping meant to make you giggle, is indistinguishable from that of the newspaper my roommate brought home to me…


First, the past has to be allowed to be the past. For our part we can explain when any occasion arises that the Russian Federation today is not the USSR and least of all the Cold War era crude media caricature of it.

Second, we should not expect people to be what we know they are not. We can’t expect Americans to understand or accept the referendum in Crimea any more than we can expect Iranians to suddenly stop stoning people in accordance with sharia law. And it would very idiotic to let either affect our personal or national relations with them.

Third, we can actively reach out both by promoting our own values and by familiarizing ourselves with theirs.

This year is the UK-Russia Year of Culture and I wish them all the best. Maybe when we’re finished re-reading Village Evenings Near Dikanka we can pick up Poe? Or lend a copy of Devils to a friend from university. Maybe take an Austrian girl (of the unbearded variety…) to a Russian ballet. Or drink Absolut vodka this weekend…

And last of all—even though we don’t agree, we can still understand. When we understand, that makes it possible to respect. If we respect each other and our different national interests—from Syria to Crimea—then we can cooperate in those things we do have in common.

It is after all better to look a respected partner in the eyes and honestly disagree, than to forever talk at or past each other.

There are two sides to every chessboard. You can see things from the other side, without forgetting which side you’re on. You can still be friendly with the other player, and still play to win.

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