Hailing difference, yet racing to imitate
Without “foreign agents” Russia would not be Russia, starting with the metropolitans sent by Constantinople to Christianise Kievan Rus'. Perhaps no country can truly be itself without influences from near and far.
Among the many paradoxes of Russia’s history and character, one that is particularly striking at a time of catastrophes and conflicts with the rest of the universe, is its claim that it is fighting to defend its own specific identity, one that is unlike that of any other country in the world, while at the same time, pointing at the actions and traits of others in order to justifying its own, pretending that they are nobler and more credible.
The main glaring contradiction is the charge of imperialism against the Americans and their European “vassals”, which is forcing Moscow to extend Greater Russia. This is a classic trope from Soviet times, then comforted by a clear ideological opposition; now, however, the comparison is decidedly a stretch, based on “distinct” moral, pseudo-religious and anthropological “values”, more grotesque than the tired rhetoric of the struggle of communism vs capitalism or the disputes in ancient Byzantium over the minutiae of Christian dogma.
Next Tuesday, the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Federal Assembly (parliament), will meet for its fall session, after its members were called back several times during the summer to vote on pre-packaged emergency anti-sanction measures.
Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin is expected to table an omnibus bill that includes a wide range of penalties and measures against the "implementation of anti-Russian sanctions", a proposal first introduced in April. According to Volodin, Duma Members “are studying the experience of Western countries" in such matters.
The speaker will also propose to look at others to deal with “media responsibility” in connection with offences against the established order.
In 2019, another Putin loyalist, Valentina Matveenko, speaker of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament, criticised Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov, for being “obsessed with international assessments of the quality of education in Russia,” and insisted that Russian schools “live on intellect”.
Putin himself in December 2021, during his annual TV programme Direct Line with Vladimir Putin, spoke about the much-reviled law against "foreign agents", saying that “we did not come up with this law; it was drafted by a state that everyone considers the beacon of democracy,” namely the United States.
Putin and others often refer especially to unspecified “international ways” to denigrate parliamentary democracy and show the superiority of authoritarian and “illiberal” democracy.
In any case, democracy is more often than not disqualified by its various “imitations”, not only in Russia, which has never digested it in its history, but also in many other countries, both East and West, or because it was established under unstable circumstances such as the collapse of the Soviet empire or imposed as an unwanted gift or as a form of Western colonialism, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
Imperial Russia is living proof of how dubious importing foreign ideas can be, as evinced by Peter the Great’s opening of Russia to the West in the 18th century, when he even got one of the Fathers of the Enlightenment, German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, to explain the nature of the new institutions.
Peter's ministers were styled Ober-prokuror (from the German Ober-Prokurator), i.e. chief procurator, and even Peter’s capital restored its quite un-Russian-sounding, German name of Sankt-Petersburg in lieu of the dreary Leningrad and the Russified Petrograd. Shortened by locals as Piter, and pronounced with a Dutch lilt that goes back to its early days, the city is very much Russian in the way the Russians have been able to successfully imitate other European capitals.
In fact, even Moscow’s fortress, the Kremlin, was built by the Italian masters who built Milan’s Castello Sforzesco, which inspired the Bologna-born architect-engineer Aristotele Fioravanti, brought in by Grand Prince Ivan III, grandfather of Ivan the Terrible.
Without such “foreign agents” Russia would not be Russia, starting with the metropolitans sent by Constantinople to Christianise Kievan Rus'. And perhaps no country can truly be itself without influences from near and far.
Russia’s tsars constantly sent specialists, diplomats, and spies to the countries they considered most developed in order to take from them the best in technology, culture, art, as well as their social and economic ideas.
As Peter himself said, "We will take the best from the West and then turn our back on it,” a prophecy fulfilled over a century later, as a reaction to Napoleon’s invasion.
The war in Ukraine and the anti-Western reaction follow precisely this pattern. After 30 years of imitating and assimilating the progress and good things from the “historical enemy”, Putin's Russia is now “turning its back”, imagining that it can do it alone. The mutual threats of recent days, gas price cap vs supply cut off, put the spotlight on this contradiction.
While the Soviet system could at least boast about the special traits of a collectivist economy, however defective and ultimately historically defeated, what could be the true spirit of Putin's “purity”?
Repression and propaganda notwithstanding, the impression one gets so far is that of a general economic slowdown and stagnant social life, the price paid for trying to impose one’s views through war, a move that is not gaining Russia anything, even on the home front.
Every country can achieve goals that can be useful to others. Just to name a few examples: Estonia is considered a world leader in the digitalisation of public services, the United Kingdom has reduced the number of smokers considerably, Singapore has one of the best health systems in the world, and Austria has been better than others in providing social housing. The best that Putin's Russia has been able to borrow is the United States Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
In the United States, this law is applied to a limited group of people, first of all, to lobbyists and lawyers who represent the interests of foreign nationals and organisations; no one would think of suing for example, Noam Chomsky, a left-wing intellectual who is more often in agreement with Putin than with his compatriots.
In Russia instead, any citizen can be sent to jail, turning a US law into an extreme imitation yet very Russian piece of legislation, certainly not in a positive way – more like they did in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Ethiopia, which have had a law on "foreign agents" for decades.
If anything, a country very close to Russia, which on this point has long been a model, is Nazarbayev's Kazakhstan. The country, which is undergoing major changes, has had for some time strict limits on any support, material or other, local associations can receive from abroad.
Although the formal definition of “foreign agent” was never included in Kazakh legislation, all such groups or organisations have to file extremely detailed reports. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have followed Kazakhstan’s lead, and now, for better or worse, they are looking at the Russian example to avoid mistakes and catastrophes.
The West would do well to pay close attention at Russia, not only to defend itself against its interference in its domestic politics and more or less explicit support for various sovereigntist parties and leaders. Bad parroting, aggrieved and proud resentment, and claims to superiority are not feelings found only in Moscow.
In the late 1800s, Emperor Meiji of Japan (Mutsuhito) appointed his right-hand man, Minister Iwakura Tomomi, as head of a mission that went abroad for two years, to the United States, Great Britain, and other European countries, to study them.
Iwakura modelled it on Peter the Great’s 1698 “Grand Embassy” and even kept a portrait of the Russian tsar next to that of the Japanese emperor. But he was not interested only in learning foreign ways as such, but also in the ways foreigners assimilated foreign ways.