Is Russia Europe or Asia?

Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, Permanent Secretary of the French Academy and a historian of Russia by trade, has written an article in Le Figaro, lamenting that Russia now sees herself as mainly an Asian power.

Her take on history is that Russia has always been like a pendulum swinging between Europe and Asia, and only the West’s bloody-mindedness has kept her from settling at the European end where she belongs.

To drag Russia back into the European fold, Mme Carrère d’Encausse calls for “searching for paths towards real dialogue”, meaning lifting all sanctions against Russia.

The article is so inane and so ignorant on so many levels that it’s tedious trying to comment on them all. Yet the columnist Igor Yakovenko undertakes just that task in one of those on-line journals that are blocked inside Russia because the great leader doesn’t like them.

Writing with his characteristic brilliance and, alas, equally characteristic shallowness (especially when venturing outside Russia), Mr Yakovenko points out that no such thing as a homogeneous Asia exists, although he believes, incorrectly, that a homogeneous Europe does.

“The civilisational barrier between India and China,” he writes, “is no smaller than that between either country and any country in Europe.

“There are different Asias. Towards which does the Figaro writer think Russia gravitates?

“Europe does exist as a whole. In spite of all the differences among European countries, they all rest on the same foundations of values and culture: Christianity, Greco-Roman heritage and the Latin alphabet. Yet no Asia as a whole exists: different religions, cultures and alphabets.”

It pains me to say this about a writer I hold in high regard, but Mr Yakovenko here displays a characteristic Russian reluctance to hold what he writes to rigorous tests of fact and logic.

(Such intellectual standards were firmly established by the most influential Russian thinker ever, Leo Tolstoy. In addition to novels of unmatched genius, he produced 25 volumes of unmitigated rubbish on every conceivable subject: religion, philosophy, morality, politics, agriculture, education, economics, art. I’d refer you to my book on the subject, God and Man According to Tolstoy, but MacMillan published it as an academic volume and charges astronomical amounts for it.)

The unqualified point about the common European alphabet is bizarre, and Mr Yakovenko wouldn’t have made it had he given it a moment’s thought. For many European countries eschew the Latin script either partially (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia use both Latin and Cyrillic) or wholly (Bulgaria uses Cyrillic; Greece and Cyprus, Greek).

It’s reasonably clear that to Mr Yakovenko the Europe to which Russia belongs is Western Europe, not Bulgaria and Cyprus. Russia to him, and to most of the Russian intelligentsia, is unquestionably Western European culturally, which means unquestionably European tout court. I wish it were as simple as that.

Actually, the question in the title above has been asked for the better part of four centuries, and most persistently since the reign of Peter I (1682-1725). Every theoretically possible answer has been flogged to death: a) Europe, b) Asia, c) both, d) neither.

Yet even most Russians, and Westerners this side of L’Académie française, still struggle with the answer. So perhaps history should offer a clue.

The accounts of Elizabethan travellers to Russia, such as Giles Fletcher, show they didn’t for a second see the Russians as fellow Europeans. In fact, the territory that’s now Russia was identified on the contemporaneous maps as either Muscovy or, more usually, Tartary.

Peter I set out to change that situation in one fell swoop by, as he put it, “chopping a window into Europe”. Chopping is a rapid, violent action, and that’s how it turned out. For example, at least 300,000 died building Peter’s European capital on a Finnish swamp – his window was chopped through human flesh.

Peter’s turn of phrase was unfortunate in other respects as well. For windows are only used by burglars or Peeping Toms. The phrase “opening a door to Europe” would have been nicer, if probably less accurate.

Peter’s idea was that Russia should learn from Europe the better to dominate it – the way he himself had learned from the Swedish generals he later routed at Poltava.

Yet, like most tyrants, he was a man in a hurry. What had taken Europe millennia to accomplish he wanted to compress into his own lifetime.

Hence saplings of the West were imported wholesale and planted in a Russian soil all too ready to reject them. However, in the arts if not much else, the saplings did grow into luxuriant trees. A century after Peter’s death, Russia took her place side by side with other great European cultures, especially literatures.

Yet there’s more to culture, and infinitely more to civilisation, than just the arts. In fact, I’d say that artistic pursuits are perhaps the least important, if most enjoyable. Sweden, for example, is undeniably a European country even though she has made a rather understated contribution to European arts.

Civilisations differ from one another mainly in the way they see God, man and the world the former created and the latter inhabits. This underlying vision, typically based on the founding religion, determines everything else – and certainly the relationship between the state and the people.

Russia got her Christianity not from the West but from Byzantium, and she got it later than Western European countries did. Now the differences between Western and Eastern confessions may seem trivial to a modern observer, but the doctrinal disagreements begat two civilisations going their divergent ways.

One key disagreement, over filioque, seems to be recondite and trivial. In 1054 the West, as represented by Rome, had declared that the Holy Spirit proceeds equally from the Father and the Son. In turn the East, as represented by Constantinople, insisted that the procession was not double but single, from the Father through the Son.

Yet it’s largely (though far from solely) this seemingly inconsequential difference that explains why political liberty found its natural home in the west, and tyranny in the east.

After all, expressed geometrically, double procession would look like an equilateral triangle. The Father and the Son have true equality underpinned by the Holy Spirit. The three hypostases thus possess what today we call equal rights. Translated to a civilisation based on this concept, the triangular Trinity is likely to be reflected in pluralism.

Conversely, single procession from the Father through the Son implies a straight line, an immutable vertical hierarchy, with the Father sitting at the top. The implications of this went beyond theology.

What was at stake was the kind of kingdom Christians wished to build in this world. Hence the schism of 1054 directly led to the violence of 1204.

That clash between Western and Eastern Christians was linked to the disagreement over filioque, although not just to the face value of the matter. The issue of filioque highlighted the growing chasm between the West and the East, even though the two ostensibly shared the same religion.

In any case, Eastern Christianity had always been under a great influence of other Eastern religions, and consequently of the way of life that sprang from Eastern religiosity. For example it was largely for this reason that Eastern Christianity tended to gravitate towards mysticism, a direct sensory link with God that more or less excluded reason.

It’s also largely because of Eastern influences that various deadly heresies were much more prevalent in the East than in the West. Many of those sprang from the Manichean tendency to regard the physical world as evil.

While a Christian has at his fingertips an immediate link between the absolute grandeur of God and the relativity of earthly life, an exponent of an Eastern religion hasn’t. If for a Christian the absolute is unknowable completely, for, say, a Buddhist the absolute is completely unknowable.

Inextricably linked to the Eastern view of the physical world was relative indifference to tyranny – after all, hard as people tried, there was no getting away from evil on earth anyway. Introspection offered the only escape route, and that road could be taken in any social and political environment.

On the other hand, the West, while obviously accepting that Christ’s kingdom was not of this world, still couldn’t be contemptuous about this world. Christianity sought salvation of the world, not from the world.

The notion of a sovereign individual, intrinsically valuable because of his humanity rather than any particular achievement, is uniquely Western, which is to say European. While compromised in Eastern Christianity by both outside influences and Byzantine Caesarism, this notion is alien to all civilisations that actually are Eastern .

In this, regardless of the many significant differences astutely observed by Mr Yakovenko, they are similar, not to say identical.

Eastern mystical, introspective agnosticism, not to mention straightforward Confucian materialism, are as different from Western individualism as the Buddhist transmutation of souls is different from Christian resurrection.

All this determined the core differences in the relationship between man and state. In the West, with minor glitches here and there, that relationship has always been based on inchoate liberties and at least some pluralism.

In the East, tyranny is the congenitally natural form of government. Hence it’s rather facile to cite, as Mr Yakovenko does elsewhere, the example of Japan and the Asian Tigers as paragons of former Eastern tyrannies that saw the light of Western democracy.

Those countries might have borrowed some Western models for purely economic reasons (or else have been forced to do so by a victorious America), but underneath it all their national character survives very nicely. An essential part of it is subjugating the individual to the collective, and the collective to the leader.

Now, just as Russia got her religion from Byzantium, she got her statehood from the Mongols led at the time by Genghis Khan’s grandson. The rule of the Golden Horde continued for centuries, and even Ivan III (d. 1505), nicknamed ‘the gatherer of the Russian lands’ for his attempts to bring all  principalities together under Moscow, continued to pay tributes to the Mongol khan.

If the ideal (alas, no longer the practice) of Western politics is subsidiarity, the devolution of power to the lowest sensible level, Eastern – and therefore Russian – politics is vectored in the opposite direction. Because this is coded into the country’s DNA, Western-style democracy can never succeed there, nor has ever succeeded.

This isn’t to say that Russia can never acquire a veneer of pluralism – Mr Yakovenko is right in saying “If Taiwan and Singapore can do it, why can’t we?” No reason at all, though I for one would be pleasantly surprised if Russia progressed that far.

But veneer is all that could possibly be on offer. Russia can no more adopt the essence of the West (especially at a time when the West itself is destroying it) than a man can change the colour of his eyes.

So, to answer the question in the title above, Russia is Asian in every sense that should count to Mme Carrère d’Encausse – in ways the country interacts with Europe. Russia’s politics, legality, philosophy, view of life, existential instincts, relationship between the state and the people are all, mutatis mutandis, Asian.

But yes, Mr Yakovenko – Pushkin, Tchaikovsky and Repin are definitely part of European culture. No one can deny that.

4 thoughts on “Is Russia Europe or Asia?”

  1. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. And great blog, by the way. I regret it took me so long to find it.

    I wish you a quick recovery, and a good health ever after.

  2. The Thais have a charming custom of not telling you bad news because they do not want to upset you. However, the problem is all yours when you eventually learn of it. In some other countries, talking is something you do before the trouble starts and habitual lying is the normal strategy to delay that evil hour. Thus by negotiating with folks such as Kim or Vlad, you are heading for disappointment or worse. Dante invented a special place in Hell for those who go back on their word. However, most political scoundrels, whether in East or West never actually give their word because the words they use have no substance so even written agreements are in terms of ‘aspirations’ and cannot be taken to court. ‘Tory rebels’ of either stripe in the UK government merely prevent any decisive action because when put to the test, they retreat from their stated positions like a squid in a cloud of ink.

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