Russia without Westernism?
September 1, 2022
  • Maria Lipman
    Co-editor of Russia.Post
Putin’s Russia is taking an abrupt isolationist turn, seemingly breaking with over three centuries of Russian history when the West was a constant presence domestically. Maria Lipman considers the possibility of a self-contained Russia.
Russia’s new anti-Western isolationism sounds more radical than at any time since the late 17th century. Сombined with Western sanctions, the stated rejection of any western imports – whether material, ideological or cultural – appears to throw 21st century Russia back to pre-Petrine times. Vladimir Putin admires Peter the Great for “taking back” Russian lands and compares himself to the czar. Yet he completely ignores Peter’s trailblazing policy of modernizing the country by inviting skilled Westerners and relying on models and technologies borrowed from the West.
Cool Cola - Russian analog of Coca Cola, 2022. Source: VK
“Shall we awaken from the power of alien fashions”

Throughout the 19th century, the West – mostly France and Germany – represented a cultural and intellectual model for the Russian nobility and educated classes. The former generally preferred to speak French, not Russian, and the latter commonly attended German universities and drew inspiration from European thinkers. The main character of the early 19th century Russian classic Woe from Wit laments the nobilities’ “blind, slavish imitation” of European ways: “Shall we awaken from the power of alien fashions/So that our wise and cheerful Russians/Might never think us to be Germans?”

Ever since Peter the Great there has been – or should we now say was? – a chronic ambiguity about Russia’s relation to the West. Russian imperial rulers were closely related by birth to European monarchs, and 19th-century Russia was a full-fledged member of political Europe. But the czars, anxious to secure Russian absolutism, maintained censorship to shield their subjects from pernicious ideas emanating from the West.

Eventually it was Western ideas that inspired Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution that destroyed the Russian ancient régime. Marxist materialism remained the holy creed professed by the Soviet communist state until its collapse at the end of the 20th century.

Soviet leaders kept their citizens securely behind the Iron Curtain, lest the Western capitalist spirit deprave them. But the promotion of education based on Western materialistic principles, as well as the inculcation of high culture – much of it of Western origin – was an inherent part of the Bolshevik cultural revolution “You can become a Communist only when you enrich your mind with a knowledge of all the treasures created by mankind,” Lenin insisted. As a Soviet high-school student in the 1960s, I was once assigned this famous quote as an essay topic.

Stalin, the most isolationist of the Soviet rulers, worshipped Western technology, "imported" American engineers and engaged in intense, mutually beneficial cooperation with Germany in the military-industrial sphere up until the Nazi invasion in 1941. “Reichswehr assistance played a critical… role in the early development of Soviet military industry in key fields, particularly aviation and chemistry,” Ian Ona Johnson writes in his recent book Faustian Bargain.

In the post-war years, Stalin presided over a campaign to eradicate so-called “kowtowing before the West” and its proponents, but after his death in 1953 the regime grew softer. Although borders were still closed and censorship remained strict, it was during these decades that infatuation with the West took on enormous proportions. Soviet propaganda continued to preach the superiority of communism over capitalism, but Soviet people coveted all things Western, from the proverbial jeans and rock music to Western radio broadcasts, which millions listened to as the “voice of truth.”
"Foreign travel was a precious privilege, and a job in the West as a diplomat or trade representative was the most longed-for career among the children of the communist elite, the Soviet 'golden youth'."
People in early post-Communist Russia yearned for their country to become “normal”, which implied “as in the West.” The West was proclaimed a political role model. For the first time in its history, Russia was emulating not just Western culture or technology, but the Western political system. The framers of the post-communist Russian constitution drew inspiration from Western charters. No more shielding Russian citizens from the West: censorship was abolished, borders open, foreign travel unlimited and foreign trade no longer the exclusive domain of the state.
McDonald's restaurants reopened in Russia under the name “Vkusno & tochka” (“Tasty & that's it”), 2022. Source: VK
Putin’s modernization 

Not unexpectedly, the emulation of the West failed to deliver Western living standards. The first post-Soviet decade brought political turmoil, the collapse of the accustomed safety net, deep insecurity and profound disillusionment. Many Russians believed that the West had intentionally lured them into the trap of emulation to weaken their country. 

Vladimir Putin tapped into such popular resentment as soon as he became Russia’s leader. He acted with deliberation, however. He promoted “patriotism” and eliminated Western influence in politically sensitive spheres, but otherwise his policies were not at all isolationist. Russia grew more prosperous in the 2000s. Moscow was turning into a modern and globalized megalopolis. Other large urban centers were also rapidly modernizing. Imported goods and culture were abundant, and the quality of domestic products and services also improved, so at least in large urban centers, life in Russia grew not much different from other parts of the globalized and modernized world.  

Gone were the days when imports were forbidden fruit or coveted items of shortage. McDonald’s, Starbucks, Reebok and countless other brands were readily available. American blockbusters and videogames, as well as Google and Facebook, were now part of everyday life, not elements of alien culture. 

The Russian political and business elites routinely split time between Russia and Western countries, where they sent their children to school, did business and bought real estate. To them this lifestyle did not appear to be in conflict with the high-pitched patriotic tenor or anti-Western propaganda on state TV. They readily took up patriotic rhetoric themselves when the circumstances called for it. 

After 2014, when the West levied economic sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea, Putin embarked on a policy of reducing reliance on the West with a range of isolationist measures. They included the introduction of Russia’s own electronic payment system Mir, the adoption of “sovereign internet” legislation aimed at isolating the RuNet from the global Internet, and the launch of a state program for import substitution. But just as most industries continued to stuff their ostensibly Russian-made products with Western parts, the import-substitution priorities notwithstanding, so did Russia’s globalized constituencies refuse to abandon their Western lifestyles. 
Russian version of Starbucks, 2022. Source: VK
War in Ukraine and Russia’s abrupt isolationist turn 

Russian government media and official rhetoric portray the war in Ukraine as Russia’s war against the West, and this perception appears to be readily shared by a majority of Russians. The perception of the West as Russia’s enemy, which was already fairly broad (ever since 2014, around 70% have identified the US as a hostile nation, up from 30-40% before then), has expectedly deepened amid the torrent of sanctions in recent months. Eighty percent of Russians said in May that Russia should make no concessions to the West. Almost 60% said in August that they see no use in Western civilization, democracy and culture, with over 30% considering them inappropriate for Russia and over a quarter believing they are “destructive.”

Given the rabid anti-Western propaganda, rapidly shrinking cooperation and trade with the West, and rejection of Western values by a majority of Russians, Russia’s perception of the West seems to be finally rid of its perennial ambiguity. Is Russia finally breaking from its habit of emulation? Is it truly on its own now, fulfilling the dreams of Russian isolationist thinkers of various times and paying heed to the bitter admonition of the above-cited Woe from Wit character: “We'd better learn a little from Chinese/Their ignorance of foreign lands?”

In a sense, Putin and his government have rolled back more than the globalization and modernization of the post-Soviet decades. They’re attempting to break from the centuries-old tradition of the West being a constant domestic presence. 
"And yet the Russian leadership hasn’t offered as much as a hint of what this new, self-contained Russia stands for, besides a passionate rejection of Westernism and hatred for the West."
By waging an improbable murderous war with its neighbor and shifting to an unprecedentedly isolationist path, Russia has dramatically changed its course – albeit with the same leader and the same elites. Moreover, Putin paradoxically seeks to maintain in Russia a sense of “business as usual” to keep the broad public undisturbed or because he has no new vision to offer, or both. “Putin has an irrational disaffection for the word ‘new’,” a long-term Kremlin observer said recently. 

Clinging to the (rapidly changing) status quo is indeed comforting. As Western brands leave Russia, they are replaced by Russian substitutes that boast to be indistinguishable from their Western models, not something authentically Russian. The former McDonald’s restaurants are still highly popular among Russian customers and serve the same burgers; Coca-Cola has become CoolCola and Starbuckshas become Star Coffee. 

Substituting cultural brands, however, is a challenge. Without American blockbusters Russian movie theaters are on the verge of bankruptcy. Russian movies are failing to attract enough viewers and generate enough revenues, meaning theaters have to rent their premises for business and private events. 

The Russian Book Chamber reports that in 2022, the year of the “war with the West,” Stephen King remains by far the most read writer; the total run of his books amounted to over 1 mln copies. 

Zakhar Prilepin, a renowned writer and belligerent nationalist politician, laments his countrymen’s unpatriotic literary tastes and condemns those Russian cultural figures who don’t publicly support Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Prilepin has many supporters who are anxious to punish “unpatriotic” Russian writers and filmmakers. But even here the habit of emulation is hard to break: “we need our Russian, Soviet McCarthyism,” one of Prilepin’s sympathizers suggested.
Mir headquarters in Moscow, 2020. Source: Wiki Commons
Struggling to imagine a self-contained Russia 

Amid the current global disorder, growing discontent with globalization, broadly discussed decline of the West and rise of China, Russia’s Westernism, as we’ve known it since Peter the Great, and especially in recent decades, is bound to weaken. What kind of Russia can be expected to emerge from the current disorder? 

Some observers suggest that because Russia and Europe are very closely tied historically and culturally, mutual cultural and economic exchange between them will likely be restored at some remote point in the future, yet “without a political or value-based component.” It sounds reassuring, but too vague. 

At this point of deep uncertainty, literary fantasy seems better suited to the task of imagining what Russia will look like without a Western role model. Back in the mid-2000s, Vladimir Sorokin, one of Russia’s most brilliant contemporary writers, portrayed the Russia of 2028 in his dystopian The Day of the Oprichnik. It is securely shielded from the West by a Great Wall and is back to its traditional roots: absolute monarchy, universal Orthodox faith, authentic Russian clothes and food. The czar relies on his brutal henchmen to keep the elites in fear. But with Western influence fully eradicated, it is China that captures the Russian imagination: Russians fly Chinese-manufactured Boeings, use Chinese-made super-sophisticated gadgets, get high on drugs smuggled from China and intersperse their speech with Chinese words. 
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