Russia – heir to the Asian slavery tradition: or why are they different?

Moscow DELFI (V.Stašaitytė Photo)

Historians agree that Russia is a different country, a civilisation that does not belong to and is not understood by Ukrainians or people of other nations. It is true that the Russians themselves, their historians, see their country only as a great empire, they interpret history as they see fit, and they steal and rework historical narratives, Jūratė Važgauskaitė writing at news portal.

There was little optimism in the discussion about the possibility of creating democracy in Russia; according to specialists in history and philosophy, a dull, Leonid Brezhnev-like leader would now be a real salvation for the Russian nomenklatura, and it is not worth hoping for a democratic government, which has never been a success in Russia. 

The Russians are stealing history

Historian Alfredas Bumblauskas told a Centre for East European Studies discussion that Vladimir Putin was not lying when he talked about the “common” fate of Russia and Ukraine. This is what has been written in Russian history books, said to children in schools, and lied about in history and fiction books for centuries. 

“It is not that Putin was lying or joking because that is how history has been written, that Kyiv is the mother and Moscow inherits everything. The three sisters create the Soviet Union, and they are the backbone that creates the foundation of history. Everything else is shadows, marginalia. The historical lies began long ago. The development of capitalism in Russia in, say, the 17th-18th centuries is a lie; capitalism cannot develop under serfdom.

This was so obvious that there was no way to argue about it. Part of the history is tricky because, at the same time as there was repression in Lithuania, with the Daraktor schools and the ban on the press, Russia was ruled by Alexander II. He was the real window-cutter to Europe. I think that Abraham Lincoln seriously wrote ‘we are both against slavery. With this in mind, Russia’s 50th anniversary after the reforms of Alexander II is a tool for creating a whole Russianism, which was reinforced by the emergence of the Duma, the Stolypym reform”, the historian said.

According to him, those whom the Russians own and call the bearers of Russian culture, such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and others, are not Russian culture but Russian culture. Some of them were not even Russian, and Tchaikovsky’s surname, for example, betrays his Cossack origin. 

“But Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov are distinctly anti-Western. So we had some hopes of democracy in Russia, but in evaluating history, there are always important questions to which history has ambiguous answers. For example, in Boris Yeltsin’s time, it was asked whether democracy was possible in Russia, and Russian historians have always answered this with the example of Novgorod.

Novgorod was an alternative to Moscow and an exciting alternative reminiscent of the Republic of Venice. It was a place of wealthy townspeople until it lost the war to Moscow. So that democratic alternative collapsed in the 15th century. Moscow “sucked up” the lands that did not belong to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from Kyiv. And after all, the main lands of Kyiv Rus were part of the GDL. Only Peter the Great would later steal the name of Rus, and Russia’s history would sit on such a pile of thefts. He stole the idea of Ruthenia, the idea of the monarchy (the Riurikaičius),” explained Bumblauskas. 

Democracy is not what they need?

He also asked how to build democracy in Russia? According to the historian, what is frightening is that in 1990 the Russians, who were moving towards democracy, and believed in the idea, still looked us in the eye and said, “How would you do without us?

“In 1968, only eight people went to Red Square to protest against Soviet tanks in Prague. Those eight people are repeated throughout Russian history, and they are a minority. Therefore, there was no need to be silent when the masses in Russia came out in support of Yeltsin and the freedom of other countries. There are eight real democrats there, not 8% or 80 million. And Russian historians are convinced that there is no Ukraine, that there is another Russia or Rusia.

There is a term in Russia, imperialists, who explain to historians of other countries how they misunderstand or misinterpret history. According to them, ‘we will draw the borders’ because supposedly, Russia does not want to be an apprentice. And this is coming from a historian, an erudite historian who goes around Europe and explains it to everyone. They are still the ones who are based on the narrative of a great Russia, who do not see a different Russian history.

There was a time when Vilnius was the only opponent to Moscow. Not Riga, not Tallinn, and Warsaw did not exist. Kraków was too far away. We were the ones who opposed Moscow, we were with Kyiv then, and we must be now. We should support the Ukrainians as a possibility for another Russia that is closely linked to Europe, ” said the Vilnius University professor. 

And the philosopher, Professor Gintautas Mažeikis, asked why Russian democrats, individuals who protest in Russia, never succeed? Well, he said, because thinking structures depend on overall social communication.

“You can have whatever opinion you want, but if you get into specific environments where communication is grinding, you will be forced to adapt to the common field of communication. There are certain mechanisms of imitation there, and there is a common way of talking, an agreement on how to talk.

Everything else requires huge investments and enlightenment. And not in the sense that going to school to study history books is not enlightenment. What has happened in Russia now is that the civilisational identity of the country is linked to the power vertical. The second thing is that the power vertical must also be justified and can be justified in several ways. One of them is the Orthodox Church and its values. The other is the Communist Party, which has essentially copied the Golden Horde and its mechanisms.

The power vertical cannot be just a symbol; it is a mechanism, institutions in Soviet times were linked to the nomenclature class. For some time, many authors have been discussing how authoritarian power can be reconciled with the interests of the nomenklatura, and it has been a dramatic alignment of these two approaches with one another. The tsars did not always reconcile with the nomenclature. Alexander II was one of the first to do so, and in the Soviet era, only Brezhnev succeeded because Stalin was never able to reconcile his own interests with those of the ruling class. Because the nomenklatura was not happy with Stalin,” said the philosopher. 

According to Mažeikis, from time to time, we can see that in Russia, there is a so-called “good environment” where the authoritarian government gets along well with the nomenclature. <…> The big question was about White Russia and Little Russia, aka Ukraine. Here arose a controversy that Russian scholars may have written down by Samuel Huntington in his book on the clash of civilisations. There he clearly defines the region where the war is now taking place. The scholar says that the turning point of civilisation is the Donetsk region towards Kharkiv, Mariupol and Odesa. That belt is the bright boundary of the fault line, according to Mr Huntington. He made this determination based on the voting results.

“I was discussing this with Ukrainian intellectuals just recently, and they are angry at this distinction made by Mr Huntington. According to them, he has crossed the line and has not understood what is happening in Ukraine. Although the election results have changed over the years, it was down to the number of educated people in the region. The Ukrainians themselves were beginning to realise that they were not Russians.

This is defined as a horizontal, anarchic, Zaporizhian Cossack culture that has nothing to do with the power vertical. It means that a leader must be elected and serve his country. According to Huntington’s theory, there must have been civil unrest at some point in the region where the war is now taking place because that is where the civilisational divide runs. According to his theory, different civilisations cannot coexist. This theory has undoubtedly served the Putin government well. However, the Ukrainians themselves say and have said that after 1996, the year of Huntington’s book, there has been a dramatic change in opinion and consciousness”, said the philosopher. 

The Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, who influenced Putin very strongly around 2000, although this is no longer the case, wrote 20 years ago that there was an urgent need to go to war with Ukraine because Ukraine would go the way of Lithuania and Poland, which would be disastrous for Russia because it is “anti-Russia”.

“According to Mr Dugin, these different civilisations are, in principle, mutually incompatible. Interestingly, the children of the Russian nomenklatura study in the best Western universities, but their consciousness is not changed in the slightest. It is just like Pol Pot, who studied in France, but that did not prevent him from committing genocide in Cambodia.

However, if a person is not a member of the nomenclature but has studied in the West and has lived elsewhere, he begins to speak, think, and read differently. These people will, at some point, become involved in the democratic process. Some Russians can be recycled, although others suggest simply denazification. However, our history shows that the neighbour must be changed. Small islands are being created where people are slowly getting involved and working with us,” he reflected.

Is Russia’s history rooted in the tradition of Asian slavery?

Bumblauskas says that the West is still “stuck” on the Russian rake because the image of the world is a motley one and that Huntington shredded the image of the world like a Jew butchers a cat in a butcher shop.

“It may not be the right image, or there may be too many or too few pieces, but this scholar has made a model by which we decide who is who. He has drawn a line through Ukraine and divided it into western and eastern. But how can we accept that? Because Ukraine has been part of the GDL for longer than it has been in the Russian embrace, and therefore it cannot and should not be written off to the Russian side. Therefore, even Russian-speaking Ukrainians make a very clear distinction between what is what during the war. Russian history is rooted in the principles of Asian slavery, which then passed into the traditions of the zone,” the historian reflected. 

According to him, what else Ukrainians can be angry at Western scientists for is their predictions about the break-up of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sovietological predictions were indeed a fiasco here.

“There is a dynamic change going on. Back in 1996 in Ukraine, they didn’t have a decent history book of their own, but ten years later, there were good history books, and the Cossack theme was being developed. Russia and the Russians are the inheritors of Asian society, and they desperately need the Six Seas, the gigantic display of Eastern despotism. The Ukrainians know that they do not belong to that space and that mentality. We should get used to the Russians being like that. We should put them in a separate jar and put a lid on it”, Bumblauskas suggested. 

Mažeikis agreed and suggested looking at the cultural environment in which Russians live, and the Russian authorities grow up.

“Here, Aleksandr Sorokin and Viktor Palevin, who partly represent the new Russian literature, talk a lot about what is happening in the country. For example, Sorokin uses the name of the security police from the time of Tsar Ivan the Terrible – oprichnina. He says that if one wants to live well in Russia, one has to get along with the ‘gangs’.

When it comes to the question of the ‘refrigerator’, one must understand that there will only be something in it if you get on well with the gangs. But that option does not satisfy the nomenklatura. And the other option for survival is to get along with the nomenklatura, also known as the cream. Even if you wash their car, you can put something in the fridge. They always ask what I must do to keep my fridge full in Russia. There is a third option, the free market, but it is not widespread there and quickly moves into its own variant.

I do not believe that Alexei Navalny, Mikhail Khodorkovsky or other democrats will ever be able to change anything in Russia. Neither have the people before them, the Western politicians. They were prevented from doing so, except for brief episodes in history when situations demanded short reforms”, said Professor Mažeikis. 

A new grey Brezhnev is the best way out

According to him, if we look at the Russian change of despots and nomenclature, the only way out is for the nomenklatura to come back to power in Russia. This is not democracy, but it would be a solution. If we are talking about the nomenklatura, it should be led by a grey man, even greyer than Brezhnev. That would be the best thing to happen, at least for the nomenclature.

Mr Mažeikis says that the structures of consciousness are not changed by information. How many tanks exploded or how many people died has no bearing on the structure of our consciousness. But we must look at the dreams, the narratives we remember. It is possible to talk to a person for a longer period of time and hear references to books, films and the stories of their parents, which form the structure of their consciousness. All the other information only adds to this matrix, so, for example, Putin’s ideals have always been clear: Lermontov and Soviet films about spies. This is not to say that the structure of consciousness is unchanging, but it does not change randomly.

“Let’s say the Russian film Brat 2 told us more about Russia, people’s value orientation and other things than the media. The question is, why that film and not another? Let’s say not The Needle with Victor Tsoi. Maybe because that film was perceived as dirty, while Brat 2 was seen as a positive film,” Mažeikis reflected.

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