Neo-imperial Russia: a self-hating western country
Moscow’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine is speciously presented as a “clash of civilisations.” While Putin continues to stress Russia’s apparent uniqueness in relation to the “collective West”, it is ultimately western ideas that are powering his neo-imperial project.
April 7, 2023 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary
Russia’s uneasy “westernness”
During the past half millennium, Russia has been firmly moulded into a western state. But beginning in the 19th century, many Russian elites and governing circles began portraying their country as the moral and civilisational antithesis of the supposedly “corrupted West”. Yet, Russian citizens in their tastes, aspirations and travels continue flocking to Europe and North America, not to China or India. At present (that is, in 2022-23), Kremlin propagandists paint Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine in the eschatological terms of an end-of-time general confrontation against the “collective West”. Vaingloriously, they see this stand-off of their febrile imagination as history’s final struggle between good and evil. This is merely geopolitical warmongering misinformed by the biblical book of Apocalypse.
In reality, what is now unfolding is resurgent Russia’s war against itself. Russia has become a self-hating country tied in a struggle against its own western character. But due to a renewed imperialism that saps Russia’s limited human and financial resources, the country’s emulation of the West is still lacking after all the centuries of self-imposed westernisation. The situation is infuriating, especially when this Russian underachievement is directly contrasted with Ukraine’s institutional and economic successes attained during the still brief post-communist period. Hence, in Moscow’s view, Ukraine is the guilty one, because the mirror of the Ukrainian example shows what Russia could become if Moscow resigned itself from the empire and returned freedom to the colonies. Decolonisation is the prerequisite for progress.
The European (that is, western) success of Ukraine nullifies all the propaganda-fuelled, but essentially empty, promises of Russian neo-imperialism. That is why, for the preservation of the revived Russian neo-imperial (rashist) project, the Kremlin deems it necessary to conquer and absorb Ukraine and its inhabitants, or to wipe the country off the face of the Earth. The existence of Ukraine is a slap in rashist (neo-imperial) Russia’s face. However, when scratched, under the veneer of Russia’s westernness, no Asian or some other primordially non-western values show up. Only imperfect and mistaken adoptions of western models can be found there, which angers the Kremlin dictator the more.
He still dreams of the past militarised “grandeur” of the Soviet Union that, at times, used to be able to confront the United States successfully. During the Cold War, the Soviet ideology of Marxism-Leninism promised the appearance of some communist paradise on Earth, and thus, the end of history. However, all the hallmarks of anti-western (or modern non-western) values, such as communism, a single party system, a party state (etatism), totalitarianism and concentration camps ultimately originated in the West. From this perspective, even communist China is more western than Beijing would care to admit.
Russia’s non-western values?
Today’s theoreticians and propagandists of Russia’s exceptionalism, or even of a Russian civilisation, often point to the country’s Orthodox faith, Cyrillic alphabet and Russian language. They see these examples as proof of Russia’s “unique and non-western” values.
In the tenth century, Slavophone missionaries from the Eastern Roman Empire (“Byzantium”) brought Christianity to Rus’ (or today’s Ukraine and Belarus). At that time, Constantinople was hailed as the “Second Rome”, especially after the fall of the last Western Roman emperor in the late sixth century. Following the Ottoman (Muslim) conquest of Constantinople, in the 16th century a theological-cum-political theory arose that Moscow is the “Third Rome”. The Christian empire would subsequently “move” from the Eastern Mediterranean littoral to Muscovy. It seemed that Moscow would surely become the ultimate Rome of the Graeco-Roman (western) world. Ex oriente lux?
It was during the 14th and 15th centuries that Muscovy originated in the Finno-Ugric-speaking lands east of Rus’. Muscovy’s rulers successfully conquered adjacent Rus’ principalities to the west and north, alongside successor khanates of the Mongolian Empire in the east and south. The idea of the Third Rome lent a sheen of Graeco-Roman legitimacy to the budding imperial project. In the mid-16th century, Muscovy claimed for itself the legacy of the late medieval polity of Rus’ by adopting its name. Yet, this name was altered through the lens of the then main Orthodox language of Greek into Ros(s)iia, as it was typically rendered in Church Slavonic. This second language remained Muscovy’s main written language until the 18th century.
The adoption of the name Rossiia for Muscovy was not accepted by the country’s neighbours. Until the turn of the 18th century, autonomous and periodically independent Ukrainian polities continued to refer to themselves as Rus(s)ia. Furthermore, until the erasure of the realm from the political map of Europe in the late 18th century, the vast southwestern corner of Poland-Lithuania tended to be known as “Ruthenia”, which is a Latin rendering of Rus’.
In the West and in the Ottoman Empire, Russia used to be dubbed “Muscovy” until the conclusion of the Great Northern War in 1721. Tsar Peter demanded that the defeated parties, namely, Prussia and Sweden, should recognise Muscovy under the Latinate name of Imperium Rossicum (Russian Empire). But many European countries and the Ottoman Empire stuck to the traditional western name of Muscovy for Russia until the turn of the 19th century.
Westernising Russia’s Cyrillic
Under Peter’s speed-track westernisation programme, the new western-looking capital, executed in classicist architecture, was built in the inhospitable Baltic marshes of Ingria. This was a former Swedish province that the Russians had just seized. St. Petersburg was constructed in a mere nine years. It was a Dubai of the early modern times, erected in a wasteland with the slave-like labour of dispensable serfs. In 1712, Muscovy’s capital was moved to this brand-new port city from landlocked Moscow. In emulation of the western separation of state and church, the East Roman (Byzantine) tradition of “caesaropapism” was largely abandoned. The post of patriarch was abolished and the Orthodox Church in Russia was de facto subjected to the tsar, who was typically equated with the state. And to draw a clear line between ecclesiastical and secular books, Church (Old) Cyrillic was replaced with a new form of Cyrillic, commissioned by the tsar from engravers in the Low Countries.
The new form of Cyrillic became known as Grazhdanka, or “civil (secular) script”. The form of Grazhdanka letters was modelled on the “Antiqua” type of the Latin alphabet, commonly used nowadays for writing and publishing across the West. That is why, at first glance, Cyrillic is so eerily like the Latin alphabet on the printed page. Another source of this similarity is the fact that both the Latin and Cyrillic scripts were derived from the Greek alphabet. Obviously, the first emerged in deep antiquity (seventh century BCE), while Cyrillic was invented in the Bulgarian Empire during the late ninth century. With his own script for the local vernacular Slavic, the Bulgarian tsar wanted to underline the ecclesiastical (ideological) independence of his realm from the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire.
This rich cross-pollination of influences emphasises the western character and origin of today’s Cyrillic in its Russian form. The example of Russia, as Europe’s then only Orthodox power of note, convinced the Romanians and Orthodox Slavophones in the Ottoman Balkans (Bulgarians and Serbs) to swap Church Cyrillic for Grazhdanka in the first half of the 19th century.
After adopting the western-style script of Grazhdanka, the question of Russia’s official language had to be addressed. Church Slavonic could not serve this purpose because it remained too much entwined with the Orthodox Church and, thus, wed to the pre-modern and somewhat non-western past. In 1724, on the model of the Académie Française, a St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences was founded as the fledgling empire’s first-ever research university. Immediately, a quarrel arose, when professors, mostly stemming from Russia’s post-Swedish Protestant Baltic provinces, proposed German become the institution’s official language. Ethnically Russian and confessionally Orthodox colleagues proposed Church Slavonic, instead. The second choice was impractical, given the paucity of secular publications in this language, while the first was unacceptable on political and ideological grounds.
The compromise came in the form of Latin, despite, or maybe because of, the Russian Orthodox Church’s customary branding of it as a “devil’s language”. However, the empire’s multi-ethnic and multi-confessional nobility soon adopted French as their language of everyday communication and cultural pursuits. This choice emphasised that the Russian nobility was part of Europe’s nobility and its pan-European (all-western) culture. Fittingly, the aforementioned academy became widely known in French as the “Académie des sciences de Saint-Pétersbourg”. French remained its main language of research and administration through to the Bolshevik revolution, while the use of Latin was limited to ceremonial functions. Russia’s annexations of Finland, most of Poland-Lithuania (or present-day Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, eastern Poland and Ukraine) and Bessarabia (today’s Moldova) brought a multitude of French-speaking nobles into the expanding empire, alongside their western-style educational institutions with French, German, Latin, Polish and Swedish as languages of instruction.
The stop-gap solution of employing Latin and French in secular education worked well, so inventing a Russian language on the western model did not appear to be an urgent task. In the mid-18th century, the tsarina entrusted polymath Mikhail Lomonosov with the founding of a western-style university in Moscow. Two decades earlier he had pursued education at the University of Marburg in Hessen, Holy Roman Empire. At this university, Lomonosov had observed that instead of using Latin as the compulsory medium of education it was possible to teach in the local vernacular, or German in this case. On this basis, the polymath proposed that Russian should become the language of instruction at Moscow University.
The problem was that no one yet knew how such a western-style Russian language should look like. To the Slavophone literati in Moscow, who wrote in Church Slavonic, the Muscovian vernacular appeared “vulgar”. In non-theological (secular) works they allowed for some vernacular terms of commerce and various trades, resulting in the emergence of “Slaveno-Russian”. It was a mixture of varying proportions between Church Slavonic and the Muscovian vernacular. Drawing on the ancient Roman poet Cicero’s literary theory of three styles, Lomonosov proposed that a future Russian language should be built from Church Slavonic, Slaveno-Russian and Muscovian. According to the polymath, “serious” genres of the “high style” should be composed in the first two language varieties, while the “unimportant” ones of the “low style” in the last two. In addition, the “middle style” would be appropriate for the general literate audience and could combine all three language varieties. Subsequently, by the turn of the 19th century, a single variety of Russian emerged. Slaveno-Russian was made into today’s Russian, because it helpfully occurred in all of Lomonosov’s three styles.
Lomonosov expounded his ideas on how to construct a Russian language in his 1755 grammar of Russian, written in Slaveno-Russian. In this work, he drew on the model of the first-ever modern (that is, emulating western examples) grammar of Church Slavonic, published in Poland-Lithuanian (or today’s Lithuania) in 1619. This grammar’s author, Meletius Smotrytsky, was an Orthodox Ruthenian (Ukrainian) ecclesiast, who converted to (Greek) Catholicism. In Poland-Lithuania, the Cyrillic-based vernacular Ruthenian language (the forerunner of present-day Ukrainian and Belarusian) was used in administration and education across the eastern half of this realm (or in present-day Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine). Ruthenian remained an official language in Poland-Lithuania until the turn of the 18th century. Because Ruthenian was relatively close to Muscovian, it was a popular foreign language taught in Muscovy. Hence, Ruthenian afforded a useful channel through which many western ideas entered Muscovy.
Yet, for a Russian language to be equal to other European (western) languages and useful in the same way, it had to be supplied with a fitting dictionary. No one knew how the western model of a normative dictionary could be applied for the description and standardisation of Russian, which itself was still a tentative work-in-progress. However, western lexicographic and grammatical models had already been applied to the Cyrillic-based Slavic vernacular language of Ruthenian in this manner. So, in their efforts to create a Russian language, Russian scholars first drew on Pamva Berynda’s famous Church Slavonic-Ruthenian dictionary (1627) published in Kijów (nowadays, the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv), Poland-Lithuania. Berynda’s dictionary usefully showed how to distinguish between Church Slavonic and vernacular words.
In the 18th century, French came to be seen as the “most developed” and even “universal” language of (the western) civilisation. Across Europe, scholars and readers deemed Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française to be a towering achievement of western lexicography. So, Russian academicians decided to translate this authoritative French dictionary into the fledgling Russian (that is, mostly, Slaveno-Russian). Their effort produced an extensive French-Russian dictionary (1786), which was published in St. Petersburg. Subsequently, on the model of the aforementioned French dictionary, a six-volume monolingual dictionary of the Russian Academy came off the press between 1789 and 1794. Curiously, it did not mention the name of the language described and veered more into the direction of Church Slavonic than the then typical Slaveno-Russian usage permitted. This Church Slavonic “deviation” was corrected in the subsequent translation of this academic dictionary of Russian into French, which spawned a five-volume Russian-French dictionary (1799-1802).
Between 1803 and 1832, the Russian Empire’s largest university was located in Wilno (today, the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius). Polish served as its language of instruction, and also of administration across the lands that St. Petersburg had seized from Poland-Lithuania in the late 18th century. The empire’s second largest university, which educated students in the medium of German, was active in Dorpat (present-day Tartu in Estonia). German and Polish were better attuned to the demands of western-style modernity than the still coalescing Russian language. At this time, both universities produced three quarters of Russia’s university graduates. As a result, until the mid-19th century, first a majority and then a plurality of Russia’s university graduates wrote and did research through the medium of Polish and German.
What is in the name?
The Polish-Lithuanian nobility’s uprising against the tsar in 1830-31 led to the closure of Wilno University and the replacement of Polish as the region’s language of administration with Russian in 1832. In order to give a sheen of legality to this essentially punitive decision imposed from above, the authorities drew on the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s 16th-century statute (or law code). In Russian the name of the Russian language was then Rossiiskii and it corresponded directly to the country’s Russian-language name, that is, Rossiia. Yet, the Lithuanian Statute designated Ruthenian (or present-day Ukrainian and Belarusian) as the grand duchy’s official language, or Rusky in Ruthenian.
Decision-makers and local literati knew that Rossiiskii and Rusky were two different languages, despite the visible similarity between their names. For instance, the names of Slovenian (Slovenski) and Slovak (Slovenský) are even more similar, but no one has any doubts that the first is the official language in Slovenia, while the second is spoken in Slovakia. Nevertheless, the specious equation of Rossiiskii with Rusky was enforced for the sake of legalising the swap in official languages. This manipulation also led to the subsequent change in the Russian name of the Russian language from Rossiiskii to Russkii. This development also distanced the Russian language’s name from that of Russia in Russian, namely, Rossiia.
At the same time, the Russian elite borrowed the western ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism for homogenising the European section of the Russian Empire rather on a linguistic than religious basis. The empire’s polyglot and multi-confessional population appeared more ready to adopt Russian as their language of administration and education than abandon their different religions and denominations.
In the late 18th century, revolutionary France overhauled itself from a kingdom of unequal estates to a nation-state of equal citizens. Nationalism turned out to be a runaway success as the ideology of statehood legitimation and warfare, with no need to refer to a deity. The supposed “divine right of kings” to rule became a thing of the past. France’s expansion to the east led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. This development left the area’s German speakers divided among numerous polities, which were too small to successfully oppose imperial(ist) France. So, in 1813, an idea appeared that the German nation should be defined as consisting of all speakers of the German language. The German speech community was equated with the German nation. In this moment, an ethnolinguistic type of nationalism was invented.
After another failed uprising of Polish-Lithuanian nobles against the tsar in 1863-64, the Russian authorities decided to adopt the western ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism for their country’s ideological needs. On this basis, they banned publishing in Ruthenian (Belarusian and Ukrainian) and enforced the use of Cyrillic instead of Latin letters for any publications in Latvian and Lithuanian. What is more, at the close of the 19th century, German was replaced with Russian in the Baltic governorates (gubernias) of Courland, Livonia and Estland (or present-day Latvia and Estonia). At the turn of the 20th century, tsarist governors began replacing Finland’s official languages of Finnish and Swedish with Russian. The Revolution of 1905 stopped this effort and in places slightly reversed the policy of Russification.
Rashism, or Russia’s western imperialism
Yet, prior to the First World War, the imposition of Russian as the language of administration and education across the European section of the Russian Empire was practically complete. It was possible to formulate and implement this policy only thanks to western intellectual technologies, namely, those of standard language and ethnolinguistic nationalism. Both were painstakingly adopted in Russia and honed for effective action.
Nowadays, Russia is attacking Ukraine on a 19th-century-style premise that neither the Ukrainian language nor nation exist, because the first is a dialect of Russian while the second is made up of none other than dialect-speaking Russophones, and as such members of the Russian nation. Obviously, it does not matter for Moscow what the Ukrainians themselves may think and want. Empires do not negotiate with subjected peoples but impose. Although Russian propagandists define Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine as a struggle against the degenerate collective West, the Kremlin is using again the old-fashioned western tools of standard language and ethnolinguistic nationalism to justify its intended conquest of Ukraine.
The Kremlin in its self-proclaimed millennial fight against the West is struggling mainly against itself. Russia is at war with itself. This strange and essentially pointless conflict threatens with mass death and destruction Russia and the neighbouring polities, all of them painstakingly constructed in the likeness of the West. The toxic “logic” of Moscow’s onslaught against Ukraine is steeped in unrepentant and unthinking imperialism. Imperialism is yet another western invention, which the West already abandoned in the wake of the Second World War. Economically and on the grounds of morality, empires ceased to make sense after the mid-20th century. It was deemed wrong to subjugate and exploit other peoples. For the sake of a better and more equitable future and in line with basic human rights, decolonisation became the norm of the day.
By the 1970s the remnants of the western empires had vanished into thin air. Despite strenuously denying its imperial character and logic, the Soviet Union was the last remaining western empire. It plodded on for two decades more before it imploded under its own weight in 1991. The breakup of the Soviet Union produced 15 new postcolonial nation-states. The hope was that Russia would become a normal European country. Now we know that it was not to be. Despite its promising official name, the Russian Federation quickly morphed back into a Soviet-like empire.
Russia prefers to live in the “glorious” past, which Moscow tries to retroactively “de-westernise” by embarking again on the outdated western-style policies of Russification and imperial expansion. This oxymoronic de-westernisation through an earlier type of westernisation is illogical but for now serves the purpose of legitimising and perpetuating the renewed system of totalitarian imperialism (rashism) in present-day Russia. As the Romans already saw it, divide et impera. To exist empires must expand by hook or by crook. This is the existential danger that neo-imperial Russia now faces. A policy that could work two centuries ago, has no place in the present-day world, where all the habitable landmass is divided among the extant nation-states.
Under the UN Charter all of the world’s states are equal. Their territorial integrity is the cornerstone of international law upon which the peace, stability and prosperity of the globe rest. Singlehandedly, the Kremlin wants to undermine the world order so that to fulfil its delusional rashist desire to return to the Soviet “golden age”, which never was. Gulag concentration camps, imperial conquests, mass repressions, total control, mass killing, ethnic cleansing and genocide constituted the hallmarks of high Sovietism. Who needs a rashist-style repeat of this on a global scale? Who would want this horror and outrage apart from a handful of sadistic tyrants?
Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His recent monographs include Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War (Routledge 2018), Politics and Slavic Languages (Routledge 2021) and Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia (Routledge 2021). His reference Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe is available as an open access publication.
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