Next year 2017, is the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, also called in various circles as the Bolshevik Revolution or the October Revolution. This event of monumental proportion, had sweeping implications for entire humanity and the world was never the same again.
Unfortunately, during the cold war period, populist media succeeded in creating image of Soviet Union as an evil empire clad in Iron Curtain, there by is isolating October Revolution as partisan heritage of section of Global society. It is true that the then Soviet ruling class did not help the cause either.
It was only post 1989, that mainstream Russian/Slavic scholars from the western academic world could freely travel and research the Russian History and once various state archives were thrown open and official files were made available for public scrutiny that an alternate fact based research gathered momentum. Today, more up to date and panoramic view of the history is available about events before and after the Russian Revolution.
Aeschylus, the famous Greek tragic dramatist has said, “In war, truth is the first casualty”. In case of Russian Revolution it was three wars combined in one. The First World War, the War with Tsarist forces and the Civil War. This has made development of historiographical narrative of the entire Russian Revolution too daunting a task.
This paper tries to analyse one relatively small but significant event of this saga; The Kronstadt Uprising which was unsuccessful uprising against the Bolsheviks in March 1921, during the closing phase of the Civil War. Kronstadt was a municipal town located on Kotlin Island, 30 kilometres west of St. Petersburg near the head of the Gulf of Finland. The fort of Kronstadt was the seat of the Russian admiralty and the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet guarding the approaches to Saint Petersburg. (formerly Petrograd
Kronstadt sailors had an uninterrupted history of revolutionary activity. They were at the forefront to storm the winter palace, and celebrated the February Revolution of 1917 by executing their officers. In May, they established an independent commune in defiance of the Provisional Government; in July they took part in the abortive rising against Kerensky; in October they helped to bring down his government. In January 1918, they dispersed the Constituent Assembly by heckling Mensheviks and preventing their leader Martov and practically forcing he and other Mensheviks leave the meeting. An early sign of democratic deficit of Bolsheviks. The late Anarchist historian Paul Avrich, writer of an earlier history (Kronstadt 1921, Princeton University Press, 1970) in his book describes life in Kronstadt as follows
For the most part, the citizens themselves administered the social and economic life of the city, through the medium of local committees of every sort (as hallmark of) libertarian atmosphere. Kronstadt’s residents displayed a real talent for spontaneous self-organization. Apart from their various committees, men and women working in the same shop or living in the same neighbourhood formed tiny agricultural communes, each with about fifty members, which undertook to cultivate whatever arable land could be found on the empty stretches of the island. During the Civil War, says these collective vegetable gardens helped save the city from starvation.
Cherishing their local autonomy, the Kronstadt population warmly endorsed the appeal for “All power to the soviets” put forward in 1917 by Lenin and his party. They interpreted the slogan in a literal sense, to mean that each locality would run its own affairs, with little or no interference from any central authority.
Avrich considers Kronstadters as volatile champions of direct democracy.
As it is well known now, the infant Bolshevik regime had emerged with a precarious victory. Major Civil war erupted at the heels of revolution. First the former Czarist generals organized White armies and with end of first world war the allied powers, sent expeditionary forces to join white guards against the new regime.
As contingency measures, the Bolshevik government brought in a policy of ‘War Communism’ with most significantly, the requisition of peasant grain surpluses. This only added fuel to the fire as the successive years of drought and disruption to agricultural distribution had already produced famines and food shortages. War damage to the industrial infrastructure reduced production to levels at 20% of 1914 levels. Most of all, the expected imminent revolutions in the industrialized west either never materialized or were crushed – leaving the Soviets isolated to face all these problems on their own.
It is pertinent to note here, that the white Guards were not only the Tsarist Generals and Nobility or the armies of some 30 countries from all over the world. The Bolsheviks were also fighting with their former comrades like Anarchists, Left Socialists Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks who all had contributed towards realisation of October dream in their own ways but had differing plans for the future.
Under such dire circumstances, fighting every odd, it may be pertinent to ask the question; what were the pressing ideological consideration to have an all out war against every one there by dwindling resources and creating cracks even in the infantile Bolshevik citadel. After all the 5th All-Russia Congress of Soviets of July 4, 1918 had 352 the Left SR delegates as compared to 745 Bolsheviks out of 1132 total. More over the disagreement with Left SRs were about suppression of rival parties, the death penalty to fellow comrades of all colours and mainly, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
As regards Anarchists, once again I quote Paul Avrich from Russian Review, Volume 27, Issue 3 (Jul., 1968), 296-306.
When the first shots of the Russian Civil War were fired, the anarchists, in common with the other left-wing opposition parties, were faced with a serious dilemma. Which side were they to support? As staunch libertarians, they held no brief for the dictatorial policies of Lenin’s government, but the prospect of a White victory seemed even worse. Active opposition to the Soviet regime might tip the balance in favour of the counterrevolutionaries. On the other hand, support for the Bolsheviks might serve to entrench them too deeply to be ousted from power once the danger of reaction had passed. After much soul-searching and debate, the anarchists adopted a variety of positions. A majority, however, cast their lot with the beleaguered Soviet regime. By August 1919, at the climax of the Civil War, Lenin was so impressed with the zeal and courage of the “Soviet anarchists”, as their anti-Bolshevik comrades contemptuously dubbed them, that Lenin counted them among “the most dedicated supporters of Soviet power
Here, it is only natural for anyone to wonder What was the mindset of Bolshevik leadership that lump Mensheviks , left SR’s and Anarchist with the white guards and Black 100’s and other reactionaries? Would it have not been a clever strategy to pool in resources with other left parties and isolate the real counter revolutionaries with an all out attack. Such step would have conserved already overstretched resources, reduced loss of human life and restricted the magnitude of mass discontent among its own populace. Politician Lenin prevailed over the statesman in him.
As expected this all out civil war brought to the Russian society enormous hardships. In 1919 and 1920, famine, disease, cold, and infant mortality had claimed some nine million lives–apart from the military casualties of the civil war. In some, the population had been reduced by a third. The living standard of the Russian worker had sunk to less than a third of the pre-war level, industrial output to less than a sixth of 1913 production. The prices of manufactured goods skyrocketed, while paper currency dropped in value. Nearly half the industrial work force deserted the towns for the villages. The continuing crisis provoked peasant risings all over Russia.
The cornerstone of Lenin’s policy of War Communism was the forcible seizure of grains from the peasants by armed detachments from the cities. “We actually took from the peasant,” admitted Lenin, “all his surpluses and sometimes not only the surpluses but part of the grain the peasant needed for food. We took this in order to meet the requirements of the army and to sustain the workers.” Grain as well as livestock was often confiscated without payment of any kind, and there were frequent complaints that even the seed needed for the next sowing had been seized. In the face of all this, the peasantry resorted to both passive and active resistance. In 1920 it was estimated that over a third of the harvest had been hidden from the governments troops. The amount of sown acreage dropped to three-fifths of the figure for 1913, as the peasants rebelled against growing crops only to have them seized.
For urban workers the situation was even more desperate. Shortage of machinery, raw materials and especially fuel meant that many large factories could operate only part-time. Retreating White armies had destroyed many railway lines, interrupting the delivery of food to the cities. What food there was distributed according to a preferential system which favoured heavy industry and especially armament workers over less valued categories. Less important ones received only 200 grams of black bread a day.
The civil war also resulted in acute shortage of skilled labour. Those who ran factories during Tsarist period refused to cooperate with the new Government unless paid higher wages and better facilities. This led to the gradual abandonment of workers’ control in favour of management by “bourgeois specialists.” A new bureaucracy had begun to flourish. For the rank-and-file workmen, the restoration of the class enemy to a dominant place in the factory meant a betrayal of the ideals of the revolution. As they saw it, their dream of a proletarian democracy, momentarily realized in 1917, had been snatched away and replaced by the coercive and bureaucratic methods of capitalism …. Small wonder that, during the winter of I920-1921…murmurings of discontent could no longer be silenced, not even by threats of expulsion with the potential loss of rations.
At workshop meetings, where speakers angrily denounced the militarization and bureaucratization of industry, critical references to the comforts and privileges of Bolshevik officials drew indignant shouts of agreement from the listeners. The Communists, it was said, always got the best jobs, and seemed to suffer less from hunger and cold than everyone else.
Once civil war subsided and a White restoration was no longer a threat, peasant and worker resistance became violent. There were mass strikes in Petrograd.
Back in Kronstadt, when news of the Petrograd strikes reached the sailors, they immediately dispatched a delegation to investigate. The delegates reported back on February 28 to a sailors’ meeting. Mammoth crowd of 16,000 sailors, soldiers and workers heard the report and then passed a resolution, which was to become the rallying point of the rebellion: The resolution sought; new elections to Soviets by secret ballot, freedom of press and political agitation for all left leaning groups, equalization of food rations between workers and party leaders and the lifting of ban on free exchange for agricultural goods.
At this stage the sailors didn’t see themselves as being in open revolt. In fact, they sent a committee of thirty men to confer with the Petrograd Soviet for an amicable end to the strike who were promptly arrested by secret police upon their arrival in Petrograd. The military strategy of the Kronstadters was entirely defensive. They ignored the suggestions of military officers to break up the ice around the island with cannon fire, which could have prevented an assault by land.
On March 5, Trotsky issued an ultimatum in which he promised to “shoot like partridges”(birds found in Europe). On March 7, an aerial bombardment was launched against the island, which continued over several days. After the first attack on 9th March failed, on the night of March 16, the last assault began. 50,000 Communist troops were pitted against 15,000 well-¬entrenched defenders. By morning the battle raged within the city itself. Women as well as men fought ferociously to save Kronstadt, but by evening Bolshevik troops conquered Kronstadt. Had they held out much longer, a plan sanctioned by Trotsky to launch a gas attack would have been carried out.
Kronstadt fell. In all, the Bolsheviks lost about 10,000 men, the rebels about 1500; about 8000 rebels fled across the ice to Finland; another 2500 were captured and either killed or sent to labor camps.
”It was not a battle,” said the Bolshevik commander later, “it was an inferno… The sailors fought like wild beasts. I cannot understand where they found the might for such rage.”
Contrary to Bolshevik estimate;
The rebels were not necessarily anarchists. They were seeking alternatives within Bolshevik polity
It was in no way, White Guard sponsored conspiracy.
Kronstaders never engaged in any dialogue with outsiders or the dissident groups
Essentially the rebels are probably best defined as a coming-together of those groups alienated by the War Communism policies. Victor Serge the Russian Anarchist who reluctantly sided with Bolsheviks even claimed that the rebellion could have been averted if the government had only introduced New Economic Program a year earlier than it did. The NEP implemented only an year later, replaced War Communism and permitted small-scale private production and a degree of autonomy for the peasants.
At the Tenth Party Congress Lenin commented, “They didn’t want the White Guards, but they didn’t want us, either,” The historiography of Kronstadt offers several varying versions but the one I find most convincing is the following;
Bolsheviks had no experience with administration and no guide book to build socialist state. Under such circumstances when there was no precedence or no written laws, every decision was being taken on the basis of heated ideological debates on party forums in ad hoc manner. These debates were highly polemical and often resulted in reducing problems to polarised absolutes.
Even famous Anarchist Alexander Berman agreed that, there was no other party in Russia capable of defending revolution. Bolsheviks exploited this fear of “return of white guard should there be a deviation from Bolshevik course” to the hilt. Thus fear of deviation became the central tenet of Bolshevik political ideology. Fear of potential left or right deviation prompted Lenin in the 10th party congress to ban factionalism in the party. Increasingly the propaganda acquired universal validity that there is no middle position. You are either with proletariat or with bourgeoisie. There is no third option. The entire population was made to believe in this THEY or US dichotomy. Soon the hallmark of revolutionary mind set got cast into the mentality of absolutes. Unfortunately this had disastrous consequence not only in terms of inner party democracy but the very rise of Stalin. It made the entire ideology simplistic mechanistic decision tree paradigm, which got progressively fossilized and eventually dead. In that sense, Kronstadt was an early warning, which even great ideologue like Lenin missed out. Who knows, he may have thought of correcting this tendency later, for which he never got time. Because by then Stalin a relatively green horn in Ideological matters, had established his tentacles in the party organisation across the country. The tactical political absolutism was convenient to him to build a cadre loyal to him. Because the slogan you are either with Bolshevik or you are a counter revolutionary, was malleable enough to twist into, you are either with Stalin the chosen disciple of Lenin or you are counter revolutionary eminently worthy of elimination of being consigned to gulag.
Russian Foreign Ministry sees elements of show in “Navalny poisoning”
Russian Foreign Ministry’s press secretary Maria Zakharova has yet again dwelled with her usual sarcasm on last year’s reports about “Russia’s top opposition leader” and “the deadly Novichok”. Zakharova made the comments with her hallmark sense of humour over her Telegram channel following newly released reports on the results of an inquiry into the “poisoning of Navalny”, which appeared in the course of the 97th session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in July.
On August 20 last year, Russia’s public activist and campaigner Alexei Navalny had to be taken off his flight at Omsk and was delivered to hospital in a grave condition. Well before the final diagnosis he was flown to a Berlin hospital and there he was diagnosed with Novichok poisoning. Later on, he revealed the results of his own investigation which established the involvement in the poisoning of a group of FSB agents. The story has become the butt of a joke in Russia. Russians want to know why Novichok has not killed anyone so far and why Russian special services are unable to carry out a simple elimination operation.
Giving rise to more jokes was the publication of “an inquiry into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny” which the Russian side obtained from a report on the activities of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in implementation of its core document – the 2020-2021 Convention. Part 1.41 of the report, which was published after the session, says that “on August 20, 2020, at the request of Germany, the Secretariat dispatched a group of experts who were to render technical assistance in connection with reports about the poisoning of the Russian activist”. But August 20 was the very day of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, who suddenly felt ill on board of the plane and who told the passengers about the poisoning himself. At about 6 a.m. (4.00 CET) Moscow time the plane with Navalny on board made an emergency landing at Omsk. The news got into the media by midday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were in meeting at the time. At 18.30 CET they give a press conference signaling the need to conduct an inquiry. On the same day the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received a request from Germany and reacted. However, for an international organization that adheres to specific procedures a reaction that quick is impossible for technical reasons. Unless all this has been planned before, which is what Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova points out.
Russian representatives prepared for the 97th session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons far better than the Germans. That’s why when asked why the draft report contains the date August 20 the German side first said that it was a misprint and then “recalled” that on that day chancellor Merkel turned to the Organization with a request. In any case, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons must secure a preliminary approval from its Secretariat before it can send any experts for conducting an inquiry. Interestingly, the Organization could not explain the confusion over the dates and procedures.
This situation enabled the Russian Foreign Ministry to ‘’strike a new blow’’, accusing the United States, Britain and a number of European countries of regularly breaching the Chemical Weapons Convention. Simultaneously, many Russian media reminded their subscribers that Navalny was hospitalized after two days of noisy parties and visits to the sauna. The lifestyle of “Russia’s top opposition campaigner” causes a lot of criticism, as the anti-corruption activist lives a lavish life, which is unaffordable to most Russians and alienates potential supporters.
Zakharova’s harsh and sarcastic statements, made via her Telegram channel and picked up by the Russian media, de facto demonstrate that Moscow views the entire “poisoning” story as poorly fabricated and will not accept whatever results the West’s inquiry may present. We can see that the “Navalny case” does have a lot of flaws and that the Kremlin had clearly pointed them out. Even the ardent opponents to the Russian government refrain from mentioning “poisoning”, saying that “Alexei” went over the line and that the story about “the Novichok-soaked underpants” sounds implausible.
Russia and the West: Are Values the Problem?
The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation approved by the President of Russia will go down in history as a document that sharpened the issue of the country’s traditional spiritual and moral values. Values were also featured in in its predecessor, Strategy 2015. However, Strategy 2021 has new accents. The source of the threat is the “Westernisation” of culture. Russian values, according to the document, are being attacked by the United States and its allies, transnational corporations, as well as foreign non-profit, non-governmental, religious, extremist and terrorist organisations. If earlier terrorism and extremism, in one way or another, were separated from the “Western” theme, now they are considered threats of the same order. The transition of confrontation with the West to the realm of values is a new stage in Russian strategic thinking. Earlier such a confrontation was perceived more in terms of material categories (defence, economics), but now it has clearly shifted to an ideological level. Why did this transition take place? What problems will Russia face in the new paradigm, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
Let’s start with the premises. Russian foreign policy has been deviating from the value dimension for quite a long time. A certain surge occurred in the early 1990s with the idea that Russia’s values were converging with those of the West. But by the second half of the 1990s, there was a clear departure from liberal idealism towards pragmatic realism. In the early 2000s, realism finally took root in Russian doctrines. We viewed security and foreign policy in terms of specific material threats. On this basis, interaction with external forces, including the West, was built. The realism of Russian thinking was determined, on the one hand, by fatigue from the excessive ideologisation of Soviet foreign policy, and, on the other hand, by quick disappointment in political rapprochement with the West and the understanding that declarations of common values do not necessarily mean avoiding competition.
Western foreign policy, on the other hand, retained its ideological burden. Russia quickly returned to the ranks of the “significant others”. That is, it again became a reference point against which the Western identity was built. New residents of the “Western House” from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe played a role here. For them, the formation of a new identity was a particularly important task, and opposing the former “empire” was a convenient political technology. This process began long before the events in Crimea in 2014. Voices about Russian authoritarianism, expansionism, etc. began to be heard back in the early 2000s, paradoxically adjacent to statements about the inevitable extinction of the once-mighty power. Identity games have also become a political technology in the post-Soviet space. The notorious “colour revolutions” unfolded, among other things, on the basis of the opposition’s concept of “modern West vs. backward Russia”.
In Russia itself, positioning the West as a “significant other” was initially the lot of the opposition. In the 1990s, both the left and the right built their election campaigns on it. The former exploited nostalgia for Soviet times, the latter exploited the demand for “geopolitical” revenge. In the 2000s, such a narrative partly moved to the level of state policy, although it did not reach the level of open opposition between value models. The process accelerated after 2014, but even then, the value component of the Russian approach to the West was noticeably less significant in comparison with the narratives of individual Western countries and organisations. In 2021, the value load of Russian strategic thinking approached the Western one. What used to sound veiled and had remained between the lines is now called by its proper names. At the same time, the core values proposed by the new Strategy will face several conceptual problems.
The first problem is related to the fact that the values that are proclaimed in the Strategy: Russian spiritual and moral guidelines as opposed to “Westernisation”, are either of Western origin, or, at least, are not alien to the West. Among them, the document notes life, dignity, human rights and freedoms, patriotism, citizenship, service to the Fatherland, high moral ideals, a strong family, creative work, the priority of the spiritual over the material, humanism, mercy, collectivism, mutual assistance and mutual respect, historical memory and the continuity of generations.
Rights and freedoms are the values of the Enlightenment, the cradle of which is Western Europe. The same goes for patriotism and citizenship. The English Revolution, the French Revolution, and then a series of other revolutions in Europe opened the way for them. The revolutions in Russia itself also took place under the same slogans, although the Russian imperial government managed to organically integrate patriotism into its system of values. Life and dignity are rather universal values and are certainly shared by many in North America and Europe. In the West, it is difficult to find a society that would abandon the high moral ideals and values of the family, in spite of several waves of “sexual revolution” and emancipation. Creative labour is at the core of Western economic ethics. Here is the combination of the spiritual and the material. To regard the capitalist West as an adherent of the primacy of the material would be an exaggeration. Suffice it to recall the Protestant ethics and the “spirit of capitalism”, or the high religiosity in a number of societies. Inglehart’s large-scale studies have shown that the choice between conditionally spiritual and conditionally material priorities changes cyclically. That is, one generation can be driven by materialists, the next idealists, and the next materialists once again.
Humanism is a Western concept. By and large, it underlies liberal political theory with its assumption of the creative nature of man and human life as the highest value. Mercy, mutual assistance and mutual respect are universal values. The same goes for justice. Moreover, it is in Western political thought that the theory of justice has been the subject of reflection for centuries and even millennia — from Plato’s just state to John Rawls’s theory of justice. Finally, collectivism is also present in the Western value matrix. Here are both ideas of the common good and theories of the political community. Within the West itself, there are societies that are more “collectivist”, or conversely, more “individualistic”.
The second problem is related to the fact that the West itself is extremely heterogeneous. It consists of many ways and cultures. Yes, there is a common narrative promoted by security organisations (NATO), those promoting economic and political integration (the EU), and individual nation states. But under this surface there is a great degree of variety, which simply cannot be reduced to a common denominator. Conservative Poland, with its restrained attitude towards migrants, high religiosity and the prohibition of abortions, coexists with a multicultural Germany, which has much wider boundaries of tolerance. Within Italy, there are at least two subcultures: of the North and South. Moreover, they differ radically in the peculiarities of the organization of society, in labour ethics, and in electoral preferences. The United States is also distinguished by its significant level of diversity, even though it is often mistakenly regarded as a kind of homogeneous organism, transmitting values of the same order abroad. Internal differences are sometimes colossal. What are the informal rifts between the North and the South that have been preserved since the Civil War? In America, we will also find polar views on the theme of sexual minorities, which Russian critics love. Those of tolerant California will be very different, for example, from those of “the Cotton Belt”. The occasional murder of members of sexual minorities is a part of American life. They can happen anywhere. You can recall the historical experience. The well-known McCarthyism of the 1950s coexisted with the activities of John Peurifoy, the Deputy Undersecretary of State for Administration. He “exposed” the “homosexual underground” in his department, firing 91 employees. True, at that time, representatives of minorities were also considered to be clandestine communists.
In short, by declaring that the West is a force that promotes “broad views of life”, we can find, to put it mildly, misunderstandings among large segments of the population in Western countries who hold completely opposite views. Any generalisation here requires careful calculation and elaboration.
Finally, the third problematic aspect is the specificity of the Russian society itself. Since at least the 17th century, we have been under the powerful cultural and civilisational influence of the West. Moreover, the openness to such influence was a deliberate decision of the political elites. The Westernisation of Russia began at the top and was actively promoted by the Russian leaders with certain fluctuations for more than three centuries. We tried to borrow the core of the Western experience — the rationalisation of key political institutions, their transformation into a smoothly working efficient machine. Here we are primarily talking about the army, bureaucracy and instruments of disciplinary power. Without this borrowing, Russia, apparently, would have suffered the same fate as China in the 19th century, which was literally torn to pieces by more advanced opponents. Instead, the modernisation of the army and the political apparatus in accordance with Western models brought Russia the status of a great power.
Throughout the 19th century, battles between Westernisers and Slavophiles were fought in Russia. Both camps were not satisfied with the half-heartedness of modernisation and relations with the West. The Slavophiles, as you know, called for “returning to the roots”, believing that borrowing only distorted and disfigured the Russian historical path. The Westernisers, on the contrary, urged to complete the process, not to be limited by the army and the apparatus of coercion, and to modernise all social and political institutions.
The revolution of 1917 and the victory of Soviet power can hardly be considered a victory for the Westernisers or Slavophiles. But the form of Westernisation which is familiar to us has been preserved and even intensified. Socialist (communist) ideology itself was of Western origin. Yes, the Russian Marxists have made their notable and original contributions to it. But the basic principles remained those of Enlightenment and rationalism — that is, Western. Here is the belief in the creativity of man (anthropological optimism and humanism), and emancipation in all spheres, including, incidentally, family and sexual relations, and the primacy of human rights and freedoms. Of course, it all turned out a little differently. In fact, the usual imperial model of modernisation was reproduced: the development of the army, the apparatus of disciplinary power, as well as all the industrial and scientific potential necessary for a modernisation breakthrough. At the same time came the preservation and sharp strengthening of the space of non-freedom. The mixture of modernisation of the institutions of coercion with the mass character of modernisation according to the Western model, among other things, gave rise to specific forms of totalitarian being set up within society, which, however, became softer over time. The eternal half-heartedness of our Westernisation, its exaggeration in some areas, and sublimation in others, became one of the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet state.
Is the dispute between conventional Westernisers and Slavophiles relevant now? Unlikely so. In the nineteenth century, Russia really did have a cultural base of bearers of “traditional” values. We are talking about the village and large masses of people who were not involved in modern forms of organisation of the economy and society. The deepest rupture and at the same time the inextricable connection between them and the elite of the time is perfectly described in classical Russian literature. However, in the twentieth century, this base was largely destroyed. The Soviet modernisation project melted agrarian Russia into an industrial and urbanised country with a completely different way of life. Religious institutions were simply trampled underfoot. In terms of secularisation, we are far ahead of the West.
In terms of urbanisation and lifestyle, late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia were and are a Western society with all its attendant problems. Society has lost its traditional landmarks.
Our family institution is a typical Western model with a small number of children and a high divorce rate. Moreover, this trend was entrenched back in the 1960s. The collapse of the USSR and the collapse of the economy only exacerbated all the typical problems of an urban and modernised society. There is a high level of murders and suicides, alcoholism, and the atomisation of society.
In other words, it is difficult for us to offer the world and ourselves an alternative to “traditional culture”, since during the 20th century its social base was lost as a result of unprecedented modernisation. It made it possible to achieve large-scale results and turn the Soviet Union into a superpower. But it also had a price. In comparison with Russia, the countries of, for example, the Middle East region have had a much more significant potential for constructing a “traditional” identity, if only because of the decisive role of religion in political public life. Is all of Russia ready for such an experience? Obviously not, especially given the fact that our country itself is rather heterogeneous. The post-Soviet period has intensified this heterogeneity. The outstripping modernisation of large cities was accompanied by an equally tangible demodernisation in a number of regions and segments of Russian society. Moreover, the experience of modernisation and demodernisation is intricately intertwined.
Does it mean that tradition in such a society is generally impossible? Of course not. But this is a different type of tradition. A tradition based on patriotism, citizenship and the preservation of historical memory is not much different in structure from similar patterns in many Western countries. This means that the opposition to the West here will also be very notional.
Whether we like it or not, our ties with the West are not going anywhere. Political contradictions and a military threat will force us, at least, to take into account the Western experience of organising the army, industry and science.
Value impulses from various Western countries will come to us even if we strictly censor information and the public space. In Russian society, social groups persist with a demand for the modernisation of the economy, institutions and society, including those which reflect the Western model. The fact that such groups are a minority is unlikely to be directly correlated with their influence. The Russian elite itself is Westernised. There are also numerous cadres in economics, science and other critical areas that cannot exist in a closed society. Cleansing these spheres and even mass repressions will not solve the problem in principle, because these spheres themselves work or should work in the frame of reference of a modern, modernised society.
Finally, the most important thing. Values alone do not prevent political conflicts from arising. The peoples of Russia and Ukraine, for example, are close in terms of their respective value spheres. But politically Moscow and Kiev are opponents. There are a lot of similar examples. The modern West is literally built on bones. For several centuries, wars between members of the “united Christian community” have been an almost-daily routine in international relations. The long-lasting peace of the last 76 years is historically an anomalous exception. One should not be afraid of values as such, but of political conflicts that can exploit these values. Russia needs modernisation, which, in turn, is impossible without interaction with Western societies. Just like 300 years ago, borrowing foreign experience and combining it with one’s own vision and strategic objectives can become the key to the country’s survival.
From our partner RIAC
Russia’s “Ummah Pivot”: Opportunities & Narrative Engagement
(This is the second and final part of the author’s article series on this topic. The first one can be read here, and it is recommended to review it before the present piece).
Russia’s “Ummah Pivot”, or its post-2014 comprehensive engagement with the many Muslim-majority countries along its southern periphery and beyond, comprises one of the most important pillars of its contemporary grand strategic balancing act between East and West. The Southern vector of its diplomacy prevents any zero-sum choice between East and West by presenting the Eurasian Great Power with a much-needed third option, which in turn can be leveraged to improve its negotiating potential with those aforementioned two regions of Eurasia. The first part of the article series elaborated on the geostrategic situation in North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf, the South Caucasus, Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia, while the present piece is more focused on Russia’s opportunities in these regions and narrative engagement with them. Although they can be read separately, it is recommended that they are reviewed together in order to obtain a better understanding of everything.
North Africa: Becoming the Libyan Power Broker
In North Africa, Libya is the scene of intense competition between Turkey on the one hand and Russia, Egypt, the UAE, and France on the other. Russia must therefore seek a compromise solution that prevents either side from becoming dominant, with Russia playing the kingmaker role if possible (perhaps through a mix of creative diplomacy, energy partnerships and PMCs). The victory of either side over the other might unbalance the region, creating more opportunities for American or other meddling with unpredictable consequences. Libya is also the gateway to parts of West and Central Africa, so whoever fully controls it could expand more confidently into Africa with time, thus complicating Russian interests there too (which are beyond the scope of the present analysis despite some of the countries being Muslim-majority ones). If pressed to choose, Russia should side more with Egypt and the UAE, especially since the latter can open doors for Russia in other regions if their partnership reaches the strategic level through cooperation here and elsewhere.
Levant: Resolving the War in Syria
Russia must somehow resolve the Syrian dilemma, ideally by pairing an Iranian withdrawal with the nuclear deal, sanctions relief for Syria, and some form of decentralization that is acceptable to Damascus. Moscow must also ensure that Turkish influence is balanced by Emirati influence and that the Muslim Brotherhood is contained. In addition, comprehensively strengthening ties with Israel is a must, but Russia has to articulate the reasons behind this balanced policy to Arab civil society to avoid losing soft power by having its rivals (i.e. America) exploit the narrative void to portray Russia as “pro-Zionist”, etc. As for Iraqi Kurdistan, Russia has to maintain balanced influence there which does not infringe on its neighbors, all the while expanding its role over that region via its springboard of energy diplomacy. The Kurdish card can also help Russia balance those same countries, but it must be played very carefully to avoid possibly irreparable blowback to Russian interests.
The Gulf: Investing in Vision 2030 & Engaging with (South) Yemen
Unlike the other “Ummah Pivot” regions, Russia has no serious risks in the Gulf, but plenty of opportunities. It should continue its military and energy diplomacy with all partners to expand its influence over their elite. This can help open up real-sector economic opportunities related to Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 model of socio-economic development for example. Still, the UAE should be Russia’s priority partner because it is obviously more influential than Saudi Arabia is right now even if Riyadh commands more power over the global energy markets than Abu Dhabi does. Russia should seriously consider diplomatically involving itself more in resolving the long-running and highly disastrous war in Yemen by attempting to replicate its regrettably unsuccessful but nevertheless principled approach to the Syrian one by encouraging decentralization. This necessitates closer ties with the UAE and its South Yemeni partners, but must not be pursued too enthusiastically lest Saudi Arabia and Iran grow suspicious of Russia’s long-term strategic intentions.
South Caucasus: Managing the New Regional Reality
Russia’s interests here are three-fold and interlinked: it must manage Turkey’s growing influence over Azerbaijan, ensure Armenia’s compliance with last year’s ceasefire agreement mandating the unblocking of all regional economic and transport corridors, and effectively utilize the aforementioned to bring about tangible economic dividends related to improving trade with all concerned countries (most importantly Turkey and Iran). This requires a tricky diplomatic balancing act, but there are still certain reasons to be optimistic about its success. Azerbaijan seems increasingly conscious of Turkey’s creeping influence over it and might move closer to Russia in order to balance this. Armenia, while more nationalistic than ever, can’t realistically refuse to unblock the corridors in perpetuity, so eventually it’ll be compelled to comply. As for trade, Russian companies are already active in the South Caucasus and can expand their businesses into Turkey and Iran with time.
Iran: Bolstering the Islamic Republic’s Balancing Act
With or without resolving their strategic dilemma in Syria that was earlier explained, the future of the Russian-Iranian relations seems bright, but it mustn’t be overhyped due to the difficulties that Moscow might face in making significant economic inroads in the real-sector of Tehran’s economy given Beijing’s newfound role. Russia should work more closely with India by reviving the NSTC as soon as possible, though New Delhi might not be too interested unless Washington’s sanctions are eased or removed. This severely limits Russia’s economic diplomacy but does not outright exclude its possible effectiveness. Russia should seek to expand upon its existing strategic economic partnerships to reach new commercial and other ones, taking advantage of its closer location to Iran vis-a-vis China and realizing that it might take time for China to optimize its overland trade routes to the Islamic Republic via Central Asia and W-CPEC+.
Central Asia: Retaining Strategic Influence
Russia risks losing the most out of this portion of its “Ummah Pivot” given growing Chinese, Turkish, and perhaps soon even American influence through a variety of spheres as was previously explained. The most effective solution rests in more confidently engaging civil society to retain the appeal of Russian soft power, continue cultivating regional elite including through MGIMO’s new Tashkent branch campus, and relying upon military diplomacy related to countering Afghan-emanating threats to secure privileged economic partnerships in exchange. Cynically speaking, while Russia in no way supports growing Sinophobic sentiments in the region, this terrible trend helps keep Chinese influence in check to Russia’s benefit, though China’s said influence might then just as easily be replaced by Turkey’s, especially considering some locals’ recently revived interest in the brand of political Islam that Ankara unofficially exports. Russia might not be able to stop some loss of its influence, nor the gradual establishment of a larger Muslim bloc like was earlier discussed, but it can still manage this process if it better understands exactly what is happening and why.
South Asia: Containing Afghan Threats & Pioneering Trans-Regional Connectivity
The post-withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan is the greatest uncertainty in this region, as is the strategic significance of N-CPEC+/CEC, the latter of which can either strengthen Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) vision and/or serve as an entry point for American balancing influence in Central Asia. Moscow must see to it that Afghanistan does not fester with ISIS threats that can subsequently spread throughout the broader region in parallel with maintaining a pragmatic balance between Islamabad and New Delhi. With the latter in mind, Russia should seek utilize its historic partnership with India to draw New Delhi further away from the Quad and therefore stabilize the strategic situation with all five related nuclear powers, though without compromising on its rapid rapprochement with Pakistan. Ideally, Russia will restore stability in this highly strategic space and tangibly profit from it through economic means, including new trade routes like N-CPEC+/CEC and the VCMC.
North Africa: Keeping the Spotlight on Turkish Activity
Russia should emphasize the need for a pragmatic compromise to the Libyan Civil War, while also highlighting the trends of Arab unity and growing Turkish influence through political Islam. Egypt’s role should be afforded particular attention in order to improve Russia’s appeal in its society by showing its people that Moscow deeply respects their country’s regional power status. As for the Turkish dimension, it should be critical, but fair, though not propagandistic and overly anti-Turkish in order to avoid worsening very sensitive ties with Ankara. Another idea is to also talk about the UAE’s growing power as well, focusing on its extra-regional engagements in North Africa so as to provide positive informational support which enhances bilateral relations.
Levant: Articulating Russia’s Complex Balancing Act
Russia must urgently articulate the driving forces behind its multi-sided balancing act, especially with Israel, Turkey, and the Kurds, in order to dispel suspicions about its grand strategic intentions due to the visible narrative void that’s characterized the past few years as a result of lackluster efforts in this respect. When it comes to Syria, Russia must begin floating pragmatic compromise solutions to provoke wider discussion about them in order to discover whether they are acceptable for all stakeholders. As for Turkey, Russia did indeed unofficially legitimize its sphere of influence in Syria, but should begin talking more about how destabilizing it is become and how counterproductive Ankara’s unrealistically recalcitrant stance on compromising on President Assad’s political future is for the peace process. Concerning Iran, Russia should applaud its anti-terrorist contributions but consider highlighting its regionally destabilizing role vis-a-vis Israel, though in a sensitive and fair manner. Finally, the Kurdish card must be played very carefully because the risks might easily and far outweigh the rewards, but this outpost of Russian influence should not be forgotten either and should receive more attention when it comes to the Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Gulf: Encouraging the Region’s Socio-Economic Transformation
While appreciating the UAE’s aspiring regional hegemon status, Russia should be careful not to offend Saudi Arabia’s sensitivities. It should concentrate on multilateral security solutions, such as its existing Gulf one while pioneering a decentralized compromise solution to the war in Yemen. Furthermore, Russia should applaud MBS’ socio-economic reforms and begin engaging more closely with the country’s youthful society. Turkey’s military base in Qatar can largely be ignored for the time being since it does not do much, but if it becomes troublesome, Russia has to consider how to respond to it in the narrative sense, though once again without risking a worsening of very sensitive Russian-Turkish ties. Generally speaking, the Gulf should not present too many narrative challenges for Russia as the opportunities far outweigh the risks.
South Caucasus: Promoting Regional Reconciliation
Russia has to balance its sympathy for Armenia’s reactive nationalist outcry to losing last year’s war with its newfound partnership with victorious Azerbaijan. It also must gently encourage Armenia to abide by last year’s ceasefire agreement when it comes to unblocking all regional economic and transport corridors. The key challenge is how to respectfully respond to Turkish influence, especially if it becomes visibly pernicious. As a rule of thumb, being softer is better than being harder because of the sensitivities at play. More than that, Azerbaijan seems to naturally realize the risks of becoming too dependent on Turkey. Russian media possibly drawing attention to this too conspicuously might elicit a negative reaction though and make many suspect Moscow’s motives, though this might still be possible to strike a fair balance and/or employ other means to this end.
Iran: Recalibrating Russia’s Balancing Act
First and foremost, the strategic dilemma with Iran in Syria must be publicly clarified at the elite and civil society levels. Secondly, Russia has to re-engage Iran more enthusiastically than ever before, with or without the removal of U.S. sanctions. It also must bring India on board as well, taking advantage of recently troubled U.S.-Indian relations. Without India, Russia’s outreaches with Iran will remain limited, and Moscow will become a junior partner to Beijing. Speaking of which, the People’s Republic should not be criticized, but Russia can still gently and very generally speak about the risks of disproportionate dependence on any single partner. Iran must come to realize that Russia is an irreplaceable balancing partner for it, one which can fulfill a very strategic role, but it must also carry tangible economic and political benefits too.
Central Asia: Cultivating Regional Elite & Promote Secularism
More elite cultivation and media engagement is needed otherwise Russia will lose out to other powers in its own “backyard”. Russia should not ever support Sinophobia, but it could draw attention to some objective economic consequences of reportedly lopsided deals and their impact on the locals, though perhaps via indirect means to avoid angering China. Secularism must also be supported to counteract rising Islamist tendencies which could lay the seeds for non-state threats, especially via Western/U.S. and ISIS ideological infiltration of those societies. Those threats can be emphasized quite a lot to remind everyone of Russia’s stabilizing military role, which could in turn justify the privileged economic deals that it receives unlike some of those other countries’ partners in exchange for its indispensable security services.
South Asia: Pragmatically Engaging with the Taliban & Constructing a New Regional Paradigm
Engagement with Afghan society is extremely limited so Russia should concentrate on retaining cordial relations with Kabul while expanding pragmatic ties with the resurgent Taliban. It needs to formulate a narrative means through which the entrance of Russian mineral extraction companies won’t cause the same level of controversy as any of its competitors, especially Western and Chinese ones. It also needs to focus on the socio-economic benefits of N-CPEC+/CEC, especially with respect to how more Russian trade and investment can help the Afghan people. It could also, however, warn about the U.S. using N-CPEC+ as a Trojan Horse for slyly expanding influence there and beyond to reduce its appeal among the populace and preemptively thwart a prospective economic diplomacy plot. The historic partnership with India must be celebrated at every opportunity to continue courting it back to Russia’s side after recent years of allying with America. Russian experts can also take the lead in discussing pragmatic balancing solutions for the region’s nuclear powers, including Pakistan, while paying more attention to Pakistan’s legitimate interests so as to continue strengthening their ongoing rapprochement, perhaps by drawing more attention the strategic balancing motives behind their country’s CPEC+ vision.
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