Contemporary Russia
MOSCOW - AUGUST 10, 2016: Aerial view to Moscow-city (Moscow International Business Center) over Moskva River. Moscow-city is a modern commercial district in central Moscow. (Credit: (via: bit.ly)

Despite all the rhetoric, any objective researcher should accept that since the collapse of the USSR, Russia’s leadership in the post-Soviet period, including Vladimir Putin, has taken important, positive steps towards overcoming the ideological barricades that, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War, remain between Russia and the West.

It even adopted Western institutional, political, and anthropological values-based models that were taken, virtually un-modified, from the West. It is now becoming increasingly obvious that both sides’ naivety in splicing these straight into Russian society, without taking into account the particular local environment and Russian history, was bound to deliver disappointing, and at times simply counter-productive, results.

In purely competitive and pragmatic terms, the West had seemingly achieved not only a final ideological-political and economic victory over Russia, but also a complete civilizational triumph over the country – dragging it into a process of Western-style transformation.

Integrated into the globalized world, Russia became part of the global financial system, and influential expert lobbies agreed that international organizations such as the Warsaw Treaty Organization should be completely dissolved. Thus, Russia faced a new reality in which the ‘West’ started to draw former Eastern Bloc countries into its orbit, including former Soviet republics.

However, the problem is that the ‘West’ – or more precisely the Western political establishment – faltered, undermined by its own haste and historic legacy of anti-Russia sentiment, handicapped by their lack of real expertise on Russia and Russian society.

This ‘knowledge gap’ continues to this day. There has been a steady decline in the amount of academic research into Russia completed at US universities. Whereas in the 1970s, around 200 MA degrees were awarded annually in the US on Soviet themes, this number had fallen to just under 20 in the 2000s.

This could explain why many Western policies with respect to Russia have been misguided, and seemingly aimed at stripping the country of its political agency, its capacity for independent action. These policies have clearly stemmed from the unipolar world paradigm, which long dominated Western political thinking.

This ongoing disregard for Russia’s sovereignty and refusal to acknowledge that Russia is entitled to have its own national interests – particularly regarding security – formed the context for Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Munich Conference on Security in 2007.  On the one hand, this led to the further deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West, but it also had a negative impact on Russia’s internal political environment.

Western political elites have tried relentlessly to enforce their own neo-liberal dogmas and sense of societal values on Russia, while failing to see that even back at home the support for them was not as strong as they believed or proclaimed.  Far from it, in fact, as we can now see through the deep societal divisions that have been exposed in the West.

At the same time a deep feeling of dissatisfaction, inequality, brutality of police, rise of terrorism and insecurity, as well as social, environmental, technological and anthropological risks have further divided contemporary societies. It was these factors – not some “13 ingenious Russian hackers” – that led to Trump’s election, or Brexit, or the post-electoral crisis in Germany, or the recent result of the Italian election. These events should clearly show that the world cannot be dictated by one country, one people, or – crucially – one set of ideals. It is most important at this juncture to recognise, however unwillingly, that these ideologies must return to polity and geo-policy.

It’s time to rethink the world order, one that is truly inclusive that involves all of the world’s powers, from West to East.

Russia has always been both a deeply ethnically and religiously diverse society, and also a profoundly traditional one. Orthodox Christianity has played a crucial role in the country’s development – from state infrastructure to literature and culture. Although integration with Europe was a priority for its rulers in many key periods of its history – it was never the sole priority. Spanning the entire Eurasian continent, Russia’s interests and influences were never limited to Europe. Russia’s connections to Asian peoples and states are deeper and more organic than those of any other European country.

It’s time to rethink the world order, one that is truly inclusive that involves all of the world’s powers, from West to East.

Today as Russia’s relations with the US and Europe are strained, its ties to China, India and post-Soviet states are developing. There is every chance that its relations with Europe and the US could improve, provided the process is rooted in mutually-respectful, organic development, rather than the imposition on a subordinate of a particular concept of globalization and hierarchy.

Successful inter-cultural and inter-civilizational communication requires both mutual understanding and good will.  Yet we are living in an age of ignorance and unwillingness to learn. Prejudices, misperceptions, and myths are reinforced in online echo-chambers of our own making. People now live in an era of near instantaneous communication in which half-truths, distortion, and outright lies, have become highly consumed products. So far, the numerous technological advances have accelerated our interactions, but they have not, on the whole, opened up avenues for deeper, more meaningful dialogue.

Successful inter-cultural and inter-civilizational communication requires both mutual understanding and good will.

Added to this, there are a number of external imperatives that should provide sufficient impetus for all parties to ensure relations move to a new level of mutual benefit: threats from extremist groups, terrorism, severe environmental changes, or economic crises – to name but a few.

Despite this, the discourse around Russia in international affairs today remains heavily tinged with talk of Russia as a problem for ‘the West’ to solve. Russia seems to remain, in the eyes of a significant part of the international community, something of an errant schoolchild. It is chided repeatedly, subjected to lengthy lectures about ‘the right way’, and all too often, punished – as now – through sanctions.

On the other hand, from the Western viewpoint one can identify visible features of Russian political institutions and practices which are considered to be at least obsolete in the West. They include the absence of clear distinctions, checks and balances between different powers, Russian attempts to present itself as a self-identified separate civilization with its own unique set of values, or strong inter-connection between State and Orthodox Church, to name but a few.

Politicians must realise that this dangerous brinkmanship leaves the rest of us facing a precarious situation in which there is an escalating risk that the worst-case scenario will play out – not in their rhetoric, but on our streets. Nothing is to be gained from playing ‘Russian roulette’ with war at this, potentially even nuclear, scale. Reason must prevail.

Perhaps because of the isolation of the Cold War, within Russia there is a greater understanding of the importance of those periods during which Russia was a weighty European and Asian power. There is also a significant reservoir of goodwill – even today – towards even those countries that display hostility to Russia.

Some in Russia argue that the country was almost set-up to fail in the years following the collapse of the USSR, in that it was presented with constantly moving goalposts, and fictional reassurances over key ‘red-line’ issues. Scant recognition was given to achievements in institutional development where they were successful, while failures or aberrations were writ large.

The decades of economic stability that Western Europe, the UK, Scandinavia, and the US experienced were very different from what people across the former USSR and Eastern Bloc countries went through in those years. These memories are very raw for people across the post-Soviet space. Even the younger generations – born after the fall of the USSR – were profoundly affected by what they saw and experienced during those difficult years.

Yet today, across Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, the picture is different. Living standards have risen since those dark years, as have birth rates and life expectancy. People’s sense of their own security and the extent to which they are in control of their own destiny has also risen. International standards are now commonly applied to infrastructure and building projects in the country’s many urban centres.

Despite this, today, when Russia’s state governance institutions – although far from perfect – are in better shape than they were 20-25 years ago, Russia is treated as more of a failure, as more of a problem, than it was then.

There is similarly scarce recognition of the extent of Russia’s diversity – or of the fact that as home to numerous different faiths and ethnicities, inter-civilisational dialogue is not a politically correct fad, it is fundamental to the state’s ability to govern.

The blinkered approach outlined above cannot but hinder meaningful cooperation with Russia on international issues of major concern. Unless a pathway to dialogue is found, these states will remain weighed down by historical and ideological concerns, and therefore, regrettably, unable to fully cooperate in efforts to respond to current threats.

As with any process of communication, the fault for ongoing misunderstanding does not exclusively lie with one side. Russia could have been more successful at voicing its position, at explaining its conceptual framework. It could have adopted a clearer, more open approach.

In working to improve relations, both sides would benefit from the addition of light and shade in their understanding of each other. This would no doubt helped them move away from deleterious and hostile caricatures of each other’s positions, and would help rhetoric and policy be more closely aligned with reality.

In working to improve relations, both sides would benefit from the addition of light and shade in their understanding of each other.

Taking the US and Russia as a particular example. Those two countries do not only share this inherited hostility. They also share a number of powerful examples of times they were able to work together: WW2, the aftermath of the Spitak earthquake in Armenia in 1998, and cooperation in the fight against global terrorism after the horrific 9/11 attack.

For all the many differences, Russia and the US nonetheless have more affinities than perhaps they would care to admit. These are some of the issues that I explore in my book, The Treacherous Path, which is due out in English later this spring.

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Vladimir Yakunin

, RU

Wladimir I. Jakunin, Ph.D., war bis 2015 CEO der staatlichen Russischen Eisenbahngesellschaft. Er ist Leiter der Abteilung Staatspolitik an der Fakultät für Politikwissenschaften der Moskauer Lomonossow-Universität, Gastprofessor an der Handelshochschule Stockholm, Ehrendoktor der Diplomatischen Akademie des russischen Außenministeriums und Mitglied der Russischen Akademie für Sozialwissenschaften. Jakunin schloss sein Studium 1972 am Leningrader Institut für Maschinenbau ab. Nach dem Militärdienst arbeitete er für das Staatskomitee für Außenhandel beim Ministerrat der UdSSR und leitete eine Abteilung am Physikalisch-Technischen Joffe-Institut der Russischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. 1985-1991 war er in der Ständigen Vertretung der UdSSR bei den Vereinten Nationen tätig, später Vorstandsvorsitzender des „Internationalen Zentrums für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit“ und Leiter der Nord-West-Regionalinspektion beim Präsidialamt der Russischen Föderation. Im Oktober 2000 wurde er stellvertretender Verkehrsminister, 2002 Erster Stellvertreter des Eisenbahnministers, 2003 Vizepräsident der Russischen Eisenbahngesellschaft und 2005 deren Präsident. Er ist Kuratoriumsvorsitzender der russischen St.-Andreas-Stiftung und des Center of National Glory, Gründungspräsident des WPF Dialogue of Civilizations sowie Co-Präsident der Gesellschaft für französisch-russischen Dialog.