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What is behind Alexander Dugin’s “Russian world”?

The reasons behind Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine continue to be the subject of fierce debate. Though perhaps one area that should be discussed more is that of language. Renowned for its nuance, the Russian language itself offers hints as to a wider philosophical schism between Moscow and the West.

November 9, 2022 - Serghei Sadohin - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Alexander Dugin speaking in Bucharest in 2017. Photo: LCV / Shutterstock

Growing up in a bilingual Romanian and Russian-speaking family, I had the early privilege to speak, and therefore think, in two completely different languages at the same time. That is standard practice for an average Moldovan family. Russian, a Slavic language with its Cyrillic alphabet has very little to do with Romanian, a tongue belonging to the Romance group together with its cousins French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Yet, despite the stark differences, many Moldovans like myself are fluent in both.

Like many bilingual children, I swam in a linguistic river with two shores on each side without being mentally stranded in either of them. I could never imagine what it is like to speak only one language. And I still cannot to this day. You can say that “barbarism” – a term the Greeks invented to describe those unable to speak Greek by only hearing their “blah blah” (“bar bar”) – is inherently foreign to my bilingual native country (despite Russian not being an official language).

As a kid, every summer I used to go to a campsite on the River Nistru, a site bustling with wooden, colourful camp houses. One summer was different from all the others, though. A large group of Russian kids arrived from as far as Syktyvkar, a city in the Komi Republic in Northern Russia, to visit Moldova and spend some weeks with the local kids there. That was the first time I met Russians in my life, even if I always spoke their language. Despite the enormous geographical distances between our cities, our Russian was only slightly different. We quickly became friends.

“So, you are Russian?” (Ty russkiy?), they asked me after hearing my perfect Russian. “Da”, I replied. I did not really think about the meaning of that word at the time. I knew that russkiy meant a Russian speaker. So, in that regard, we were all Russian (russkie). The difference was that they were also rossiyane (Russian citizens), and I was just russkiy who lived far beyond the Russian borders.

In English, this might sound confusing. An Englishman and a Scotsman are both English “speakers”, but they are not both English. Neither are French-speaking Belgians – French, or German-speaking Swiss – Germans. In all these cases the key addition is the word “speaker”. At the very least, a Swiss person can identify as a Swiss-German, but will never say he is German, or Germanic, or Teutonic, or what have you. In Russian, there exists a common word that conceptualises such a broad category. That word is russkiy. One can easily be russkiy either in Moscow, Yerevan or Almaty. When Vladimir Putin, in his recent rant against the West clusters all the anglosaksy (Anglo-Saxons) together, he seems to come from this same boundless categorisation that russkiy gives him in his language. Putin is also responsible for popularising the term “collective West” in Russia: a term that makes no distinction between the Portuguese and the Swedes; the Greeks and the Americans. For the Russian president, as well as for many of his supporters, this mythical “collective West” is always united at least in one thing: conspiring against Russia.

In Russian, russkiy is a much broader concept than rossiyanin, even if Google translates them both as “Russian”. It is also worth noting that russkiy is bisyllabic, easier to pronounce, and therefore used much more often than the quadrisyllabic rossiyanin. At first sight, any differences between the two might seem like trivial hairsplitting and pedantism. But it is hard not to notice that virtually every country in the post-Soviet space, including my own, has had a territorial dispute with Russia based on linguistic and identity premises. The mere fact that Russia now openly pursues its Russkiy Mir (Russian world) doctrine by “officially” annexing new foreign territories, begs one to pay closer attention to the underlying meaning of the concept russkiy, to begin with. One can even suspect that the origin of much trouble lies in this one single undetermined word.

In addition to the ease in pronunciation, the other difference between rossiyanin and russkiy, is that the first derives from Rossiya (the nation state), while the second is rooted in Rus’ – the old historic Russia, the borderless, spiritual homeland of the Kievan Rus’. The borders for a rossiyanin are agreed by the international community and by the concert of nations. But as Putin sees it, these are easily prone to historical error. Hence, the Russian leader decided to reassess the entire existence of Ukrainian statehood, by blaming Lenin for that “error” and “injustice”. Nothing of the sort applies to Rus’. The true borders of Russia, for Putin, are not the modern Rossiya, but the older Rus’. Kyiv, of course, is the birthplace of this older culture. When Putin says that Russia is “a 1000-year-old culture”, he means Rus’, not Rossiya. As opposed to the passport holding rossiyanin, a russkiy is not bound by geography or international agreements. Rus’ does not exist on a map. Russkiy is what is in the heart, not on paper. In short, Mother Russia can be anywhere where its mother tongue is widely spoken. Here lies the subtle, yet important difference between merely speaking and being Russian. One does not only speak russkiy; one simply is russkiy. Language and identity silently merge into one.

In the music video for Ya Russkiy (“I am Russian”), the Kremlin’s pro-war propaganda poster child Shaman walks in a yellow grain field under a blue sky (the symbols of the Ukrainian flag). If Ukraine is fighting for anything in this war, then it is to have their right to remain Russian speakers, but not necessarily be citizens of the Russian state. Ukrainian resistance says it loud and clear: not all russkie are rossiyane.

There is truth and there is truth

In fact, the Russian language is notorious for its larger-than-life categories and lack of linguistic precision on important concepts. See, for example, my earlier piece on the mystical notion of vlast’ (power). Such broad and boundless use of language can often bring problems in conceptualising international relations and cross-cultural understanding. As Francis Bacon was quoted as saying: “nothing is vaster than empty things.”

One such important ambiguity in Russian concerns the notion of truth itself. In Russian, there are not one, but two words for truth: pravda and istina. At the same time, there are as many as four words for lies: nepravda, lozh, vranyo and obman. While pravda can be easily twisted around to simply become its opposite: nepravda; istina, however, is closer to the “one single truth” familiar to English speakers. This is a truth that cannot be touched or argued against in any way. Istina has more of a philosophical and literary connotation, and therefore the word is rarely used in everyday speech, as opposed to pravda, which you can easily find in a daily newspaper headline (the famous Soviet propaganda newspaper was called Pravda, while everyone knew there was nothing truthful in it). But the differences go deeper than that.

The metaphysical aspect of istina is related to the old Slavonic adjective istyi (истый) (truthful) and is rooted in the common word “yest”, meaning “to be” or “being”. Istina is therefore not an external truth, but an inner one. It is not objective, but rather subjective. Unlike pravda, one cannot really prove or disprove it, scientifically demonstrate it, or refute it. Istina can only be reached through some metaphysical epiphany or enlightenment, but not necessarily by empirical evidence.

The German existentialist thinker Martin Heidegger, who profoundly influenced the Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin – an ardent proponent of the Russkiy mir doctrine – argued that there is only one ultimate truth: the truth of being. “The human is the place of the truth of being,” Heidegger says in his characteristically poetic, and sometimes obscure, way. Dugin found in Heidegger the philosopher who speaks to him about istina, but in a German way. “We have our special Russian truth,” he once told a baffled BBC journalist. Truth for Dugin is relative. As it was for Heidegger, who relativised truth to being, before anything else. Even Nietzsche before him said that “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

In his critique of modern technology, Heidegger writes that technology is “correct, but not true”. This almost reminds us of the distinction between pravda and istina. Something can be mathematically, or technologically exact and correct, but stop short of being true as to what constitutes the essence of human existence. “Science”, Heidegger famously claimed, “does not think”. It does not think about what essentially needs to be thought: being. Only the artist, and especially the poet is a true thinker. Like the German philosopher, who thought that western rational thought seeks its ultimate answers in technological “correctness” by forgetting the essential truth of being, Dugin pursues a similar agenda in Russia in his crusade against western influence and his search for the “true” Russian soul. For Dugin, Heidegger is the foremost western philosopher who questions western thought starting from as far back as Plato. One can hardly find a better intellectual ally for an anti-western stance, especially if one twists a notoriously inaccessible thinker to his personal liking.

Dugin sees himself as the defender of the Russian “truth” against western interference in it. In one of his Heidegger lectures, he says that the “Russian Dasein” (a Heideggerian term for “existence”) is predicated on a very distinct socio-political system compared to the West. He outrightly rejects individualism, pluralism and “exclusivity” as western concepts that are foreign to Russia. The Russian (russkiy) people, he argues, is not “exclusive”, but “inclusive” – it incorporates in itself all other nations and ethnicities by turning them into russkie. Every rossiyanin living in Russia, be they from Tatarstan or even from China, has to inevitably and inherently be russkiy to play a part in society. There does not seem to be much room for cultural manoeuvre. One can interpret this by saying that Russian tolerance lies precisely in its intolerance. At least that is how Dugin sees it.

The western model, Dugin argues, is the exact opposite. The European social system is based on individuality and exclusivity and not on sameness and inclusivity. As opposed to Russia’s “openness”, the West includes by excluding. The EU’s motto “united in diversity” would be anathema for Dugin, who even outrightly claims that westerners are inherently “racist”. Not necessarily because they hate other cultures and peoples that live amongst them, but because they do not love them enough to fully incorporate them into their own dominant cultures. Therefore, cultural “exclusivity” for Dugin is not a positive, but a negative term. This is not even to mention territorial exclusivity, as we see it with Ukraine.

The main point should be stated again: for someone like Dugin, one does not simply speak russkiy, one is russkiy. The truth (istina) is in being russkiy, whether in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus or Kazakhstan. The international borders and the different passports that a russkiy person can hold, are merely the lower pravda but not yet the higher istina.

The schism

In his existentialist novel Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky punishes the murderous deed of his protagonist Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov not through the rule of law (pravda), but through an inner, metaphysical punishment (istina) which Raskolnikov deliriously undergoes throughout the novel. He eventually reaches an unbearable breaking point and finally turns himself in to the authorities by his own will.

Already in the prison cell, Raskolnikov realises that no amount of external legal punishment can be harsher than the inner torment that human beings face by committing the most hideous crime: murder.

““Why does my action strike them as so horrible?” he said to himself. “Is it because it was a crime? What is meant by crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course, it was a legal crime, of course, the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed. Well, punish me for the letter of the law… and that’s enough.

The inner istina, Dostoyevsky argues, is higher and more important than any external pravda can be. No punishment based on the rule of law that we happen to collectively agree upon through our courts and legal systems can ever be stronger than the inner, spiritual (Christian) guilt one endures no matter how well one hides it to the outside world. Eventually one is responsible towards one’s own inner self and that already means towards everyone else at once: that is, towards being itself. Dostoyevsky’s existentialism, therefore, argues that what ultimately binds humanity are not courts but spiritual, unspoken agreements: what we simply call being a human being. And that is the inner istina: the ultimate truth of human existence. By the way, legend has it that Heidegger kept a portrait of Dostoyevsky on his desk.

The Russian writer gives us a hint as to the main message he is conveying in the novel. The protagonist’s name Raskolnikov carries a deeper symbolic meaning: “raskol” in Russian means a “split”, “schism” or “fracture”. A fracture between the inner and the outer worlds. Between the agreed Pravda (and “pravo” – rule of law) and the unspoken istina. And maybe even between western rational and rules-based philosophy and its Russian inner, spiritual counterpart.

Like Raskolnikov, Putin is ready to risk breaking the letter of international law (pravda) in the name of istina: to “save” the russkie in Ukraine and bring them back to their spiritual homeland of Rus’. Thus, creating an even bigger schism (raskol) between Russia and the West. But unlike Raskolnikov, Putin does not seem to be tormented by the most important existential truth: that one cannot achieve istina through murder or warfare. A “half-istina” is as far from either pravda or istina, as it can be. In fact, Putin’s murderous actions, as well as Dugin’s endorsements of them, are nothing but nepravda, lozh, vranyo and obman, all joined together in one infinite lie.

Yes, Raskolnikov thought that only great leaders such as Napoleon, can commit great crimes. But one particular thought of Heidegger’s comes to mind here: “He who thinks greatly, must err greatly.”

Serghei Sadohin is a public affairs and communication professional working in Brussels. He is interested in exploring the intersection between philosophy and politics.

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