Aihearkisto: Russia and the West

Russia lacks soft power

Among the wonders of world politics is the popular appeal that the western world has had during the last decades, if not some centuries. Contrary to many unfavourable scenarios and fortune tellers, Capitalism has not yet collapsed. It still attracts people in most parts of the world, nowadays even in China.

Yet bullies lack soft power. The former Communist Soviet Union had, indeed, some soft power in the 1960s and 1970s even in the Western World. The utopias of Communism attracted a group of people in the West. Furthermore, the Kremlin’s policy of peace received some positive response among the western public in general, although the practical actions of the Soviet Union destroyed much of the political liturgy.

Freedom of the people, the right to be and act as an individual, is the axiom of the political thought in the western world. Also the Communist utopias were for freedom of the people. Yet these ideas never materialised, on the contrary. In people’s mind Communism is linked with poverty, oppression and prison camps.

World politics is not only diplomacy; it is more the silent agency of soft power and sweet power that appeal to individuals everywhere.

The neighbouring countries of the former Soviet Union were afraid of the pressures directed from the Kreml in Moscow. Westerners invented the phrase Finlandization (Finlandisierung), meaning the pressure that a small country (Finland) experienced in the shadow of the Soviet Union. Of course, the October Revolution 1917, the occupation of Eastern Europe after the World War II, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, etc. caused much fear in the western countries. Yet I think the people in the Soviet Union suffered most.

Today many in Ukraine and Moldova, among others, most likely have the same fear. Their big neighbour is behaving like a bully, not like a trusted partner in mutual and productive cooperation.

As regards Ukraine, I didn’t agree with the European Union policy. In the EU bureaucracy there are too many arrogant besserwissers (with luxurious privileges) who have lost the touch with the real world. They act as the French nobility did before the French Revolution in 1789.

I’m not saying that the western world is a paradise. In politics you can’t always deliver everything that one or the other wish to have. But you can give people hope for the better. And it takes only few years to see, if life is getting better or not.

At the moment it seems that the political elite in Russia lacks the vision of reform. The country’s economic life is not getting better. The civic society doesn’t get support from the leading elite.

However, the rise of the civic society gives an entirely different picture. It contradicts the politics. Russia is developing. That Russia, of which I’ll write more later, does have the soft power and sweet power that I, personally, love much.

I can imagine that some day Russia is a trendy business among the westerners. I hope the EU will solve a couple of its own major problems by then.

Bullies lack soft power.

Why is Russia different?

As a historian I was asked what are the main factors that have made Russia different with Western Europe. And that question was followed the second one, possibly as important as the first one: can I cut the long story short?

Very briefly, I think there are four major elements explaining the different path in political and social development in Russia compared to the so-called western Europe.

First thing is that the Roman law was never adopted in the core areas of Russia or in the Russian empire. In Western Europe the principles of Roman law supported individual’s position against the overlords and powers of the state or empire. In the Middle Ages a free man could not be tortured! Even the highest authorities had to follow the legal procedures and could always be summoned to appear in court if rules were not followed. Possibly, all this never worked perfectly well but the principles got strength and authority and certainly secured the rights of individuals in many disputes with the overlords.

The second thing was that religious Reformations in the 16th century did not much or at all touch Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church was almost utterly immune to any of such ideas – like individualism – which, in my opinion, were possibly among the most important factors paving the way to the modern society. The Russian Orthodox Church is an extremely conservative force. (One should emphasise that the Catholic faith was also influenced by the new ideas that arose at that time.)

The third difference is that the Enlightenment, also one of the most influencial cultural trends in Western Europe between the Middle Ages and the 20th century, did not find much understanding in Russia. Even though Catherine II (1762—1796) favoured the Enlightenment ideas her influence was not strong enough to further the reforms throughout the society.

Possibly these three issues were the most important factors in creating the western individualism and ideas of human rights and political freedom. This is very much of what historians of the western world usually explain – even though some discord over the details prevails.

Yet, personally, as a man slightly inclined to economic history, I would like to emphasise one more aspect: the emergence of wealthy middle class people. The wealth increased enormously already at the 16th and 17th century in Europe, to say nothing about the 18th century. This heavily contributed individualism and creativeness. Wealth accelerated consumption and luxury which meant more opportunities, more status issues, more change and variety. All this strenghtened the individualistic approach to see what the life is like in a decent society.

Furthermore, it meant that wealthy people wanted to secure their possessions. They needed political sovereignty and fair legal system to protect  their fortune and their rights against tyrants. This principle, manifested in England’s Magna Carta in 1215 and soon also, for example, in some Polish-Lithuanian statutes, was the radical principle fostering the parliamentary system in which the executive power is controlled by the Parliament.

500 years of Russian Empire

Up until the late 20th century, Russia expanded some 500 years almost continuously. Even the time of troubles at the early 17th century did not change the trend, nor the revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century.

The U.S.A. still lags behind some 250 years – if we count the time. A good perspective to remember?

So far no Western European power has had that long period as a great power as Russia has. Great Britain was rather close, though, and generally the rise of Western Europe surpasses that of Russia’s. Yet Western Europe’s success has been divided by many equally strong states and empires, as in Western Europe the power position has shifted from one to another every now and then.

As a state or an empire Russia survived extremely well. Of course, the success story has a tragic history; it has had its price. Much of what you can find and see in Russia testifies that the human costs of keeping the power status have been enormous. Individuals did not count in Russian history, even less so in the Soviet period. Standard of living was poor, administration arbitrary and legal system corrupted.

People lack many nice things which made life in the western world much easier, softer and admired.

Probably that was the thing that destroyed the Soviet Union and Communism. Political legacy of the governance was questioned.