Staunton, March 23 – In the first years after the end of the USSR, Russians wanted to be Europeans but increasingly felt they were so far behind that they could never achieve that status. By suggesting they need not pursue that goal because they are separate and superior, the Kremlin leader has played to those fears and won support, Andrey Sinitsyn says.
The chief editor of Mneniy draws that conclusion on the basis of an analysis of Putin’s response to US President Joe Biden’s agreeing that he is a murderer and the moves Putin has made in the past toward insisting that Russia is not Europe and Russians are not Europeans (republic.ru/posts/99903).
Most of Putin’s recent remarks were unremarkable, Sinitsyn argues, but one phrase is instructive. That he is where he insists that “even though [people in the West] think we are like them, we are not; we have a different genetic and cultural-moral code but we will be able to defend out own interests.”
Putin has been talking about a distinctive Russian “code” for some years and since 2014 has linked it with culture or even genetic.” Last year, for example, he suggested that Russians had been helped in their fight against the pandemic by their “genetic code,” and his references to Russia’s youth shows that “Putin believes in [Lev Gumilyev’s] theory of passionary cycles.”
It is of course clear that “theses like ‘we are other’ and ‘we have own genetic code’ are simply PR constructs and instruments of propaganda for Russia’s ‘special path,’” something Putin has been talking about for some time. “This is quite typical for totalitarian regimes, and there have been a large number of ‘special paths’ in history.”
This and Putin’s messianism are important indicators of his habit of mind and rule. What is important, however, is that “Russians are responding to the president in a reciprocal way,” telling pollsters that they feel themselves and their country less European than they did (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/03/share-of-russians-who-think-russia-is.html).
Russian public opinion is swayed by government propaganda campaigns, Sinitsyn says; but in regard to issues of identity, the situation is more complicated. “Even if we at a certain instant relate to Europe well, we all the same recognize our radical differences with those who live there.”
“We can be friendly or hostile to Europe, but a majority of us will always consider that we are not Europeans,” he says. There are compelling reasons for this. “For the Soviet individual, Europe and the West in general were a utopia and for most they have remained that” but that is only because most have never travelled there.
Those who have visited Europe recognize just how large a gap there is between European life and Russian life and understand that “the European way of life was formed over the course of centuries” that attaining a similar way of life instantly “by the waving of a wand” is absolutely “impossible.”
“Recognizing that the Western utopia is unachievable [for Russia]. we have learned to be proud of our own ‘special path,’ the foundation of which in recent times has become ‘spirituality,’ ‘traditional values,’ ‘a genetic code’ or whatever the Putin speechwriters think up to propagandize the unchangeability of the powers that be.”
In short, Sinitsyn suggests, Russians wanted to be Europeans overnight; but when that didn’t happen, they decided that it would never happen because they and their country were fundamentally different. As a result, “the majority of Russian agree” that “Russia has ‘a special path.’” The only divide is between those who are ashamed of it and those who are proud.
Polls about the Europeanness or non-Europeanness of Russia are common, the analyst says. But there haven’t been many about whether Russians consider themselves Asiatics. Asia is too diverse for that, and surveys show that “Russians in general have a low level of association with the continent on which they live.”
In this article, Sinitsyn does not address what may be the greatest benefit to the Putin regime from asserting Russia is not European. Those who accept that idea are inclined to believe that the country’s spirituality is its most important feature are less likely to demand the kind of petty economic and political changes those who don’t would.
Window on Eurasia — New Series