Island Russia revisited
August 24, 2022
  • Mikhail Suslov
    Associate professor, University of Copenhagen 
Mikhail Suslov writes about the powerful isolationist trend gaining momentum in today’s Russia. The problem, however, is that while it cuts ties with the West, Russia lacks a language for communicating with the rest of the world and is thus bound to wind up talking to itself. 
A worker removes the sign from Gazprom's office in Vienna in March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Since August 18, Russian citizens with Estonian Schengen visas can no longer enter Estonia. A number of other EU member states, including the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland, have suspended issuing visas for Russians and are considering similarly barring Russians already with visas from entering. If we consider that Russia is by now the most sanctioned country in the world, that it has no regular transport connections with 38 Western nations and that more than 1,000 international companies have left Russia since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, we can understand what it means to be isolated.

In interpersonal, as well as in international relations, the words “isolated” and “isolation” aren’t free from negative associations with social awkwardness, haplessness, stagnation and ungrounded conceit. However, even if it is not always called by its proper name, striving for a greater degree of isolation is often positively evaluated by intellectuals and policy makers. In today’s Russia, isolationism has certainly become a trendy and central component of the regime’s ideology, which is at pains to turn the problem into an asset.

“Good fences make good neighbors?”

Today, after a period of infatuation with the ideas of the global world and endless connectivity, the opposite trend is gathering momentum, both in the center of the world system and on its periphery. Some experts recall the old saying that good fences make good neighbors and propose reevaluating the importance of maintaining some distance between countries and cultures, lest excessive interconnectedness spirals into endless conflicts, heated up by envy, resentment, unforgotten offences and so on.

Mark Leonard recently voiced these ideas with a reference to René Girard’s observation that rivalry and conflict are rooted in sameness rather than difference in human relations (The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict, page 43). Interestingly, on the eve of the war in Ukraine, his book was reverentially discussed at the Russian Council for Foreign and Defense Policy and the Russian International Affairs Council. Popularity of this kind of thinking in the West is powered by the surge of populism, which also calls for “taking power back” from corrupt cosmopolitan elites, transnational businesses and “Brussels bureaucrats.” On top of this, the “discontents” of globalization see some degree of isolation as the ultimate weapon for preserving national identity, culture and sovereignty against the global hegemon (see Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents Revisited: Anti-Globalization in the Era of Trump). Today, especially after the experience of lockdowns during the pandemic, this trend seems to be so tightly embedded into globalism itself that we can legitimately speak about “globalisolation” as a single phenomenon. 
"In Russia, the idea of isolationism has not only a rich historical legacy but also important cultural and intellectual resonance."
The medieval legend of the city of Kitezh, an island in a forest lake that disappeared under water when a hostile army approached, expresses an extreme form of insularity. Russia as an island is the most improbable (if we look at a map) and nevertheless popular geopolitical metaphor, which is expressed as Russia as a land of genuine holiness and salvation surrounded by the sinful and wrongdoing world. Pavel Lungin’s film The Island (2006) can be interpreted in this vein, as well as the recent state-sponsored film The Territory (Alexander Melnik, 2014), which juxtaposes the wilderness of Russian Siberia with the emasculated and corrupt “continent.” In the film, the “territory” is represented as a space of authenticity of passion, male camaraderie and loyalty to the state.
Surkov giving a speech during the Fifth Congress of the Nashi Youth Movement, 2010. Source: Wiki Commons
Loyalist Russian thinkers in search of an isolationist framework 

Back in the 1920s, the classic Eurasianist Pavel Savitsky argued that continentality (that is, location characterized by extremely long distances from littorals) doomed Eurasian countries to eternal poverty, simply because transportation over land had always been more expensive than shipping by sea. What follows from this observation is that a continental country has to prioritize its domestic and intraregional trade over trading internationally, which is naturally disadvantageous for it. Two experts of the Valdai discussion club, Yaroslav Lisovolik and Viacheslav Sutyrin, refer to Savitsky’s analysis in their report, which proposes a certain degree of economic autarky. Savitsky’s ideas also reverberate in the call for “selective autarky” pushed by Sergei Karaganov, an intellectual whose ideas all too often echo in Putin’s speeches. The whole project of the Eurasian Economic Union seems to be at least partially based on the Russian and German geopolitical tradition of taking a positive view on an autarkic Grossraum.  

Former Duma deputy Mikhail Yuriev (1959-2019) propagated a cultural ideology of isolationism. In his utopian novel The Third Empire (2006), Russia’s geopolitical victories end with the division of the world into five state-civilizations. He emphasized that these new states were so vast, self-sufficient and different from one another that their peoples nurtured neither interest in, nor warm feelings for their neighbors: the principle “I don’t care about you, you don’t care about me” was established as the foundation of international relations. These ideas found fertile soil in the political writings of Boris Mezhuev. He has recently advanced the idea that Russia has to learn how to feel “civilizational indifference” to the West. Elsewhere he insists on the need to develop a “philosophy of indifference“ that would demonstrate “the less integration, the better relations.”

The geopolitical line in isolationist arguments was developed primarily by political theorist Vadim Tsymbursky (1957-2009), who came up with the concept of the “abduction of Europe” in Russian history. In his view, Russia’s mimetic desire to become European inescapably translated into a policy of intervening in European affairs and dominating them, which in turn led to an anti-Russian consolidation of Europe and a boomerang effect in which Europe marched on the East, pressing Russia out. After a short period of engagement with Asia, Russia starts a new cycle of “abducting Europe” by moving westward. Tsymbursky saw the post-Soviet period of geographical shrinking as an advantage and a historical chance, when Russia could escape this vicious cycle and reinvent itself as an “island,” bordered by seas and non-Russian but also not fully European nations to its West. His theory sounded in unison with Solzhenitsyn’s call to Soviet leaders to stop the disastrous practice of overstretching Russia’s capabilities and resources globally and concentrate on cultivating Russia’s own lands, especially Siberia. More recently, the retired ideologist of Putinism Vladislav Surkov pursued Tsymbursky’s ideas in his prominent article “The Loneliness of the Half-Breed” (2018), in which he argued that after centuries of being enthralled with all things Western, Russia has to become self-aware about its uniqueness: it is neither East, nor West, but a special animal, “charismatic, talented, beautiful and lonely.”  
"This set of ideas about economic self-sufficiency, a culture of indifference to the 'other' and insular geopolitics has laid the groundwork for the isolationist ideology of Putin’s Russia."
Evoking the example of classic utopias – which located their ideal society on an island – today’s Russia positions itself as a utopian alternative to the model of Western-led globalization and secularism. The insular imagery fits well with the concept of Russia’s radical differentness and self-sufficiency, cultivated by years of propaganda, which represented the country as both a state and civilization striving for “cultural and spiritual sovereignty.” For example, Mezhuev’s ideas have been continued by, among others, Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, and Yuri Solozobov, director of the Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. In June 2022, Dmitri Peskov, the presidential special representative on issues of technological and digital development (not to be confused with Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov), said the most likely scenario for Russia’s future was “insularization,” meaning “technological sovereignty.” His article was predictably entitled “The Island of Russia.” Vladimir Khomyakov, a columnist for the Orthodox TV channel Tsargrad, summed up the “theory” of isolationism: the bottom line is that a certain degree of disengagement from world affairs is good, but at the end of the day it was the “West” which isolated itself from Russia, not the other way around. 

Although “globalisolation” is not a uniquely Russian phenomenon, it seems that the ideology of “civilizational indifference,” disengagement and distance has flourished in Russia in recent years, facilitated both by its own ideological traditions and not-always-prudent decisions of European countries. “Isolationism” is a forbidden word in political discourses, and the regime is indeed trying to represent Russia as a leader of the “rest” rather than an outcast of the “West;” however, the reality is that Russians lack a language for communicating with the “rest.” Trading oil and gas is not the same as engaging in meaningful dialogue, which has continued between Russia and Western countries for centuries. Thus, it is most likely that if Russia stops talking with the “West,” it will be talking to itself. Talking to oneself is a psychotic disorder, which bodes ill for the prospects of both the political regime and neighboring countries.  
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