Renaissance and crisis of the ‘Russian world’
Tensions in the post-Soviet space have revived a concept that is more than a simplification about language and space. Its universal claim is rooted in Kievan Rus' and is embodied in Moscow's current ambition to “see far”. However, at present, it is confronted more and more by the reactions of “fraternal” peoples.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – The events of recent years, not to mention recent days, have put the spotlight on many territories of the former Soviet Union, whose existence ended 30 years ago.
Political and social crises have turned into unrest, uprisings and conflicts within and between former Soviet republics, in Europe (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova), the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan) and Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and most recently, Kazakhstan). This has tested the power of post-Soviet states, above “Big Brother” in Moscow, enforcer of stability and security within the Russian World (Russkiy Mir).
Only the three Baltic nations (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) have avoided the crises shaking the former Soviet empire. Over the centuries, they have looked more towards Europe than Eurasia. By contrast, the other former republics are still closely connected to the Russian-speaking homeland by cultural, linguistic, religious, as well as social, economic and political ties.
But they are not alone. Other countries depend on Russia, above all Syria torn by the wars of the Islamic State, known as the 16th Soviet republic in the 20th century and now partially controlled by Russian troops, which challenge Turkey’s neo-Ottoman dream in the Middle East and Asia.
The Russian World is more than a simplification about language and space. It reflects an ideology and a programme for action that go beyond the borders of the countries involved, with a claim to be universal in scope, which in the minds of Russians is destined to mark the destinies of all peoples, not only those who use the Cyrillic alphabet.
The term Russian World has no legal definition, and so allows authors to understand it as they wish: a process of integration, a diasporic strategy, a civilisational core, a political technology, an ideology and more.
Since the early 2000s, the concept has been used mainly by the government of the Russian Federation to define its foreign policy doctrine. Outside of Russia, it is often associated with Moscow’ actions at the international level.
In fact, the term Russian World is seemingly rooted in ancient history. According to medieval sources, it was used to define the civilisation of Kievan Rus', which developed between the 9th and 15th centuries, surviving the long night of the “Tatar yoke” (1240-1480).
The dominant historical factors in the process of formation of the Russian World as a civilisation were the set of spiritual and moral values of the Russian Orthodox Church, starting with the Baptism imposed on the Kievan people by Prince Vladimir in 988 AD.
The oldest use of the term dates back to A word for the renewal of the Church of the Tithes[*] (11th century), a monument of ancient Russian literature. The laudatio of the Grand Prince of Kiev Izyaslav (grandson of Vladimir) to mark the martyrdom of Pope Clement of Rome says: “. . . not only in Rome, but everywhere; also in Chersonesus, and in the Russian world,” a reference to the deportation of Clement to Crimea at the end of the first century of the Christian era.
After the Mongol invasion, Rus' split into territories that became today’s nations of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, along with several regions that now belong to other states.
Since the early 1990s, the Russian World is often presented as a historical-cultural idea that underscores an international, interstate and intercontinental community whose aim is to unite all dispersed Russian-speaking compatriots, “a reticular structure of large and small societies, which think and speak in the Russian language” to quote historian Efim Ostrovsky.
For Vladislav Surkov, a politician and one of Putin's ideologues, “the Russian world exists in every country that places its hopes in Russia for defence and protection; many of these countries are in Asia, Europe, Africa and all over the world.”
According to Surkov, the most striking feature of the Russian character is its ability to “see far”. “This led us even into space, when still half of our population lived in shacks and did not have indoor plumbing. Russian expansion is not dictated by interest . . . We are not a trading empire; this is what distinguishes us from the Anglo-Saxons.”
The Russian diaspora has two faces, an old and a recent one. After the revolution of 1917, Russian aristocrats and intellectuals formed communities in the West. In the 20th century, Russians living abroad (zarubezhnyye[†]) set up cultural centres and research institutes, church jurisdictions and monasteries, sports, military and educational associations, often enlivening the cultural life in Paris, London, Rome and New York.
The second wave in the diaspora followed the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, and over the past thirty years has set up its own colonies in various countries everywhere. After the initial flight of those who wanted to put Soviet totalitarianism behind them as soon as possible, not trusting the reforms of Gorbachev and then Yeltsin, the “new Russians” began to arrive everywhere, taking advantage of Russia’s abrupt transition to a market economy to amass huge fortunes.
Whilst these Russian “nouveaux riches" got used to the comforts and styles of capitalist countries, they always carried in their hearts an intimate sense of moral and “prophetic” superiority, showing the world the proud and impetuous face of Russia.
Today however, the Russian world appears more like a chimera, torn apart and reviled within the homeland itself by oppositions that since 2012, the year of Putin’s “return” to the presidency, periodically express their dissent and impatience towards the ruling caste.
Outbursts from youth groups and the poorest strata of the population have sparked greater and more systematic crackdowns. In 2021, Memorial, Russia’s oldest dissident group, was shut down while leading protest figures like anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny are languishing in camps not that much better than the gulag of the Stalin era.
Repression is only one of the consequences of the crisis of the “Russian idea”. The main challenge comes from the reactions among “fraternal” peoples, those expected to naturally fall in line with the Russian World.
The first ones are the “little Russians” of Ukraine, where the conflict that began with the Euromaidan uprising in Kyiv in the winter 2013-14 now threatens to drag Europe and the whole world into a new catastrophe of unpredictable proportions.
Even the “White Russians” in Belarus let their impatience explode in 2020 against the brazen rule of “Godfather” Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power in Minsk since the 1990s.
This year, 2022, began with crowds in Kazakhstan, another country considered by Putin “naturally Russian”, shouting "Get out, old man!” against Nazarbayev, the country’s strongman.
And the same mood has been reported in almost every former Soviet republic, with “European” variants in Moldova, Armenia and Georgia and “Central Asian” variants on the other side of the Urals.
The Orthodox Church has played a role in the rise as well as the crisis of the Russian World as an idea; indeed, it can be viewed as the main source of inspiration for this universal ideal.
Established in the late 16th century to extol exclusively the Orthodox Christian kingdom freed from Ottoman yoke, the Patriarchate of Moscow has always considered itself called by history to save the world from the demonic assault of heretics, infidels and perverts, in accordance with the political-religious theory of Moscow as the Third Rome that prevailed during the reign of the first tsar, Ivan the Terrible.
In the Jubilee Synod of 2000, which also marked the start of Putin’s reign, the Russian Church consecrated its new “social doctrine”, outlining precisely the traits of the Russian World realised through the union of Church and State. That text was drafted by then Metropolitan Kirill (Gundyayev), patriarch since 2009, who tried to show the “ecclesiastical” way of Russia’s expansion in the world.
The conflict with the Ukrainians even led to a break with Constantinople, which makes Kirill's plan even clearer. Today the Moscow Patriarchate exercises its authority everywhere, with exarchates in Europe, Asia, Africa and even the Americas, where it can rely on an autocephalous Russian Church in the United States set up during the Soviet era.
The Russian Church seeks to impose a “post-ecumenical” ecclesial model, in which no time is wasted in dogmatic discussions. Instead, the focus is on defending and promoting everywhere the great moral, cultural and humanitarian ideals of historical Christianity, leaving to each Church its own tradition, its own canonical definition, and its own role in the world, starting with harmony between the First and Third Rome, with no room for the Second.
In fact, Moscow has never recognised the See in Constantinople as its "Mother Church". After the city was conquered by Muslims at the end of the Middle Ages, the ecumenical see has come to be seen today in Russia as a “Turkish patriarchate” under the domination of Erdogan's new imperialism, and as a "Western agent”.
What is more, Turkey is one of the Russian World’s great rivals, past and present, as it seeks to create a great Turkic union from the Bosporus to the Altai Mountains. “War game” between Russia and the United States also fall under the same classic template.
Meanwhile, the real great obstacle to the realisation of the dream of the Russian World is becoming increasingly visible, namely Xi Jinping's China, both a friend and a rival, whose economic, ethnic and geopolitical proportions far outclass Russia’s.
Great emperors in ancient times dreamt up world conquests; perhaps, we are now finally moving into a new medieval age.
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[*] Слово на обновление Десятинной церкви