Eyes on Russia


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TOKYO (2 p.m.)

Russia was formally readmitted by the International Olympic Committee after the Pyeongchang Games and restrictions on its roster will be relaxed next year compared to the last Summer Olympics. Dozens of Russians have passed vetting from the IAAF and are now allowed to compete internationally in track. Russia will only be able to send one male and one female weightlifter to Tokyo under new rules restricting quotas for countries with a history of doping in that sport.

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China, India and Iran are among 16 other countries hit by the weightlifting rule change. I can say that we'll be competitive in 20 sports," Kolobkov said. The five new sports on the Olympic program for Tokyo, including skateboarding, baseball and surfing, generally don't play to Russia's traditional strengths. Yet how valid is this "essentialist" perception of Russian history? And how real is the cultural determinism underlying it?

In other words, is the antithesis of Russia and the West a given of history? Or is it itself relative to historical circumstances? In reality, the West's sense of difference from Russia has rarely attained the acute pitch of the Cold War years. Instead, from the time Russia entered the modern European world under Peter, this sense of difference has registered dramatic fluctuations in intensity.


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And during considerable periods, and for important segments of Western opinion, it has faded away entirely, to be replaced by a sentiment of kinship, even of adulation. Much less obvious is the fact that these fluctuations do not coincide, in any simple or commonsense pattern, with the real trends of divergence or convergence between the practical interests of Russia and Western nations. A heightened sense of hostility toward Russia is not inevitably caused by aggressiveness on her part; nor are periods of Russian reasonableness invariably rewarded by more kindly sentiments on the part of the West.

A case in point is, again, Voltaire's apologias for Catherine's voracious expansionism in contrast to the panicked reaction of a later Left to the great status quo sovereign of his day, Nicholas I. It is thus an illusion to suppose either that the West's attitude toward Russia has always represented a rational response to real conflicts of interest, or that Europe's periodic bouts of Russophobia can be accounted for by the objective threat of Russian power.

Quite to the contrary, the West is not necessarily most alarmed when Russia is in reality most alarming, nor most reassured when Russia is in fact most reassuring.

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Because Russia's behavior offers only a partial explanation for the uneven response to her presence in Europe since Peter, the full explanation must be sought in forces acting within the body politic of the West. Russia has at different times been demonized or divinized by Western opinion less because of her real role in Europe than because of the fears and frustrations, or the hopes and aspirations, generated within European society by its own domestic problems. The prime example of Russia refracted through the prism of Western crises and contradictions is, of course, the combined attraction-repulsion of the Red Spectre in the twentieth century.

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Yet is it even possible to speak of the "West" in the singular? Or are the fluctuating European images of Russia the reflection of a number of contending "Wests"? Indeed, we find that the Left and the Right, the rationalists and the romantics, or in another sphere, the English, the French, the Germans and the Poles, have simultaneously perceived the same Russia in different ways.

In the eyes of one Western nation or ideological camp, Russia's international actions have seemed menacing; yet in a different period, or in the eyes of another Western social or political constellation, essentially similar actions have inspired indifference or even admiration. Thus, during the Cold War the Western Left and Right had very different perceptions of the Soviet system and its international intentions; nor was the relative weight of the two ideological camps the same in vulnerable Europe and imperial America.

The present study, therefore, is concerned only secondarily with questions of Realpolitik , that is, with the "rational" responses of the various European powers to concrete conflicts of interest between them and Russia. The primary concern here, rather, is the cultural and social context, the affective and intellectual climate, in which Europe's political relations with Russia have been conducted, an ambiance which more often than not produced "irrational" international results.

Our subject thus is the West's judgments about Russia as a power, to be sure, but even more as a civilization. A central task of this discussion is to contrast the fluctuations of these less rational Western reactions to Russia with the quite different pattern of conflict or concordance in the real interests of both parties. In sum, any judgment of Russia's position in Europe must begin with recognition of the great weight of subjectivity that has always governed it.

The necessary emphasis given here to this fact, however, entails nothing so recondite as claiming Russia to be a "construct" of the Western mind.

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In the present context, "subjectivity" has only the ordinary meaning of an inner predisposition to view the world through the feelings and temperament of the subject rather than the attributes of the object observed. It is by such all-too-human subjectivity that we have, to a significant degree, produced our images of Russia out of ourselves. This narrative commences with Russia's dramatic impact on Europe following Peter's victory over Sweden at the Battle of Poltava in , and it unfolds in four phases. The first extends from Poltava to the Congress of Vienna in 15, a period when Russia presents, in the guise of the "enlightened despotism" of Peter I, Catherine II, and the young Alexander I, the most benign visage she has ever displayed to the West.

soilstones.com/wp-content/2020-09-03/203.php The second, begun in by Alexander's Holy Alliance and brought to its climax by the most unbending autocrat of the century, Nicholas I, offers the antithesis of the first, with Russia plunging to the nadir of her fortunes under Western eyes in her role as the "gendarme of Europe. The last chapter of the story, begun with the October Revolution, defies all clear characterization, for it offers the starkest antitheses of white and black, reproducing simultaneously the idealization of the eighteenth century and the denigration of the early nineteenth, yet, despite a constantly shifting balance, never fusing these extremes into a coherent image, capable of dominating Western opinion.

The method to be followed here can only be as eclectic as the subject matter itself is varied. This method is, in the first instance, comparative. For tracing the West's evolving perceptions of Russia inevitably entails assessing the West's own evolution. And, since the West is no monolith, defining it means contrasting the national evolutions of its components, for example distinguishing Germany from France as sharply as Russia is usually distinguished from the two together.

And this exercise, in turn, means posing the question of the nature, or the essence, of European civilization as such, as well as of the modern world it produced.

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For modernity, if no longer Eurocentric, was indubitably born in Europe before going on to revolutionize the rest of the planet. A second point of method relates to the already mentioned fact that in Western-Russian relations the cultural climate has often translated into political power. For it is this level of discourse that has governed the West's representations of Russia. The relevant constellations of ideas are such classical cultural currents as the Enlightenment and Romanticism and, later, positivism, Marxism, and symbolism.

They are discussed first in their own right, as an exercise in Begriffsgeschichte , or the history of concepts, to clarify which of the meanings they have accumulated over time is relevant here. Yet, since ideas assume full significance for this study only when they become forms of power, in the second stage they are explored at their intersection with politics, where they are transformed into ideologies capable of acting on the world. Culture, then, is ultimately examined here in the form of those great sociopolitical ideologies of modernity: liberalism, nationalism, socialism, and fascism.

Moreover, since ideas and ideologies in modern Europe clearly vary from one institutional or national situation to another J.

Mill could hardly have been Russian or Fedor Dostoevsky English , they must be treated in concrete historical context. This approach, however, is not meant to privilege social environment, of which ideas would in some sense be the "superstructure"; nor is the looser, but still reductionist, framework of a hypothetical "sociology of knowledge" appropriate. The relevant historical context, rather, is a multifaceted one: political, social, economic, and indeed geographic, all at once.

Given so extensive an agenda, and so varied a methodology, a selective sampling of European opinion regarding Russia is unavoidable; yet if the catalog offered can hardly pretend to be comprehensive, it may at least hope to be representative. Subjective and diverse though Western images of Russia have been, their mutations are not arbitrary nor is their sequence accidental, since all may be grounded in one basic perspective which gives us a third point of method.

That perspective is furnished by the degree to which institutions and culture evolve in similar, or in different, ways at the western and eastern ends of Europe. During times when internal developments at these two poles converge, the West's evaluation of Russia tends toward the positive; when these evolutionary paths diverge, Europe's judgment veers to the negative.

Too centralized

Now the term "convergence," when applied to Soviet Russia and the West, requires circumspect definition. This "convergence theory," as it was called, was of course resoundingly refuted by events, and nothing like it is intended here. The failure of Soviet-Western convergence, however, does not mean that Russian-Western convergence was not underway before , or that it is impossible in the post-Soviet present.

Indeed, the thesis advanced here is that Russian Russia since Peter the Great has generally moved toward convergence, however halting, with the West, and that it is Marxist-Leninist, Soviet Russia that represents both maximal divergence from European norms and the great aberration in Russia's own development.

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