The West and Russia: A comparison of their cultural roots
After the end of the Soviet Union, both the pro-Western Russian elite and the vast majority of the population had the hope of becoming part of the Western community, or rather, of becoming once again part of Europe after having travelled a different path since the October Revolution. It was thought that Russia would naturally follow this route.
But after all the political toing-and-froing of the 1990s, it became clear during Putin’s second term that this course was not to be taken for granted. Europe did not want Russia. Nor did Russia want to bind itself to modern Europe and its values. Both were mutually disappointed because they had a false image of each other, and false expectations of each other.
Europe, as well as the West in general, was convinced that with victory in the Cold War the “end of history” had arrived and that the rest of the world, including Russia, would follow the Western model.
In Russia, on the contrary, the hopes of being readmitted into the circle of European states were illusory, not only because the nation was much less “European” than had been imagined, but also because Europe had changed considerably since the beginning of the 20th century.
The two main cultural currents that were brought to Russia from Europe – the workers’ movement and bourgeois culture with its humanistic education and historical consciousness – had meanwhile dissolved and been replaced by a completely different current. The transition from modernity to postmodernity, which took place in Europe and the United States between the 1960s and 1980s, arrived in Russia with perestroika. But it was quickly rejected.
Just as Russia in the 19th century was the stronghold of conservative forces in Europe, so today it is the nation that opposes the dominant ideology in the West. It is even seen as the driving force behind nationalist movements on the European continent.
At the same time, there is a marked ideological closeness to the current governments of Eastern Europe. This is surprising if one considers 20th century history in particular, but also other periods. What is the cause of all this? Can we speak of a true ideological and spiritual affinity that is historically founded?
The conflict between the West and Russia has political and geostrategic reasons, but also “a cultural dimension,” as the German philosopher Hauke Ritz wrote in an essay for the Eastern Institute at the University of Wismar. The reason for this is that Russia and Europe have different worldviews precisely because of their historical, geographical and cultural proximity.
When deviations from Western standards occur, conflicts between neighbors are triggered. This is clearly seen in the different reactions of Western elites (reflected by the media) in the United States (Trump), Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland), Turkey, Russia, or China and Saudi Arabia. If in the case of Eastern Europe it is a question of safeguarding the unity of the European Union, and this is understandable, in the case of the United States the reaction to the election of Trump shows that the slightest deviation from ideological unity is not tolerated at home. Turkey and Russia are judged according to the same criteria, however different they may be. They are not the West, and yet they must orient themselves toward Western values; if they do not, it is necessary to take action against them.
It is not like that for every country. For example, the fact that in the West there is no criticism of what is happening in Saudi Arabia – how women and religious or other minorities are treated – probably depends not only on economic interests, but also on the fact that this nation is considered as something “different,” as part of the Muslim world, which has its own laws.
Such gracious leeway, however, is not given to Russia. Yet at the same time, members of the current Russian elite – Putin in particular – consider themselves the “real Europeans” and guardians of European civilization, which today has been replaced by multiculturalism.
But is Russia truly a “real Europe”? And is Putin “a true European,” as he wants to appear in the eyes of the conservative movements in Europe? Is the Kremlin’s claim that Russia is the keeper of traditional European values only rhetoric? Is it possible that Russian economic and political elites are part of the postmodern globalized world, while patriotism and fidelity to traditional values are left to ordinary citizens?
The postmodernism of the West and the reaction in Russia
Today it is stated that in the West “modernity” has been replaced by “postmodernity,” whose values Russia, together with Turkey and many other non-Western countries, does not want to accept. The term “postmodernism” does not refer here to philosophical values, which have nothing to do with Russia, but to political and social values and their consequences. In the essay mentioned above, Ritz argues that “postmodernism” was created as a response to and an alternative to communist post-modernization. While Russia has taken from the French Revolution the values of brotherhood and equality, the West has focused on the value of freedom.
This development was intentionally carried out during the Cold War to create an alternative, non-Communist left. It is undeniable, in fact, that the development of the non-Communist left-wing movement in the West must be understood as a reaction to Communism. In 1950 the “Congress for Cultural Freedom” was established in Paris with the task of controlling cultural policy in Western Europe, in order to reduce the influence of the Eastern bloc in this area. From that Congress, networks of intellectuals and artists were born in West Germany, Great Britain and Italy. They rapidly exerted their influence on their populations.
As Ritz writes, “the left-wing speeches and debates of that time have been analyzed in detail.” Some themes that could be borrowed from Communism have been developed: the criticism of racism, the emancipation of women, the struggle for minority rights, the protest against environmental destruction, sexual freedom. The German philosopher states: “In the 1980s, the non-Communist left in Europe had become so strong that it created a new leading culture. At the same time there was a weakening and finally the collapse of the labor movement. The more it lost its traditional role, the more the Soviet Union lost its opportunities to culturally influence Western Europe.”
If we admit that, at least in part, it is true that the emergence of cultural postmodernity is linked to the battle against Communism, we can understand how it does not have a universal appeal and how outside of Western culture it is rejected. This happens in the countries of the former Eastern bloc, but also in the Islamic world. Ritz argues that it was much more difficult to transfer the values of postmodernity to other cultures, “since postmodernity was born during the Cold War, the unique reference to the values of the French Revolution has become fundamental to its value system.”
The Cold War led the West to develop a culture based only on a relatively small part of the European tradition, abandoning all those aspects of the Enlightenment that had been claimed by socialism.
European culture and Russia in history
If we consider history, it seems that, starting with Peter the Great, Russia has been part of the European cultural space. The peak of this development was reached in the period from the reign of Catherine the Great until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In the 19th century there seemed to be a unity of the European continent that also included Russia. It cannot be denied that Russian artists, writers and scientists played an important role in the development of European art, literature, music and science in that century. And the influence of European culture on Russia was also considerable then. It can be said that almost all spiritual currents, from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th, have found an echo in Russia. And yet this echo has resonated in this country in a different way than in other parts of the world, in particular compared to Western Europe.
Even more important is the fact that the apparent unity of the European continent, if we speak of Russia, existed only at the level of the elite. The ideas that came from Europe never reached the Russian peasants, the workers, or even the bourgeoisie.
An example of the cultural unity of the European continent at the beginning of the 20th century is described by Thomas Mann in his novel The Magic Mountain (1924), where the action takes place in the international environment of a Swiss sanatorium. Only a small number of Russians participated in European culture. When we talk about a health resort in Switzerland or in the south of France, we can still think today, as in the time of Thomas Mann, that the unity of Europe has never been lost. It must be borne in mind, however, that only a few can participate in this unity – today, like more than 100 years ago – at least as far as the Russian population is concerned.
The October Revolution and the subsequent civil war eliminated the thin layer of European elites that served as a bridge between the Western and Russian worlds, two worlds that were very different from each other. But the Communists did not want to distance Russia from Europe. They wanted the nation to participate in European development, but according to Marxist ideology. They wanted to achieve by force what Peter the Great had tried to achieve with the mass of Russians who were not Europeans, wanting to make them become so. At that time, Germany and the United States were used as models. However, the only result they achieved was to destroy traditional Russia.
Already in the 1920s, the Russians tried to carry out what is known in Europe as the “deconstruction” of culture, i.e. to replace traditional culture with a completely new one. They came to power in an agricultural environment rich in potential, but backward. The difference between the cities and villages in Russia at the time – as in many places still today – could be compared to that between the commercial cities and the inland areas of China. Before the Revolution, Russia’s cities, from both a cultural and an economic point of view, were an expression of a modern industrial society, but in the countryside – where more than 70 percent of the population lived – archaic conditions often prevailed.
Even more serious was the fact that, at the beginning of the 1920s as a result of the civil war, in Russia the city had practically disappeared: industry had been destroyed, workers had returned to the villages, the bourgeoisie and the nobility, as well as the old intelligentsia, had been eliminated. Now, in a land of peasants, the Bolsheviks had the task of building socialism, which, according to Marxist theory, can only develop in a modern industrial society. They were only able to achieve the modernization they needed for their own purposes through violence. With Stalinist collectivization and industrialization, the old Russian world of the village was destroyed along with its values.
After the October Revolution, Russia anticipated in many ways what would happen in Europe after the Second World War. Decolonization progressed, along with the claim that the former dominant Russian culture was reactionary and obsolete. The Church was removed from the public space. Women were given full rights.
However, unlike Europe, a clearly defined ideology was imposed on society in the Soviet Union. Traditional values were replaced by new values, but only a few took them seriously. Communist ideology succeeded in unifying society only for a short time and in a superficial way, but then it was destroyed during the period of perestroika and in the 1990s.
After this second “deconstruction,” Russian society found itself spiritually facing the abyss. This explains the current paradox: the fact that Russia is closer to post-modern Europe than it ever was, and certainly much closer to Europe than before the 1917 Revolution.
Two “deconstructions” in a century were enough to dismantle the belief that there could be a “real” ideology in Russian society. All the authorities went missing. Instead, selfishness and self-pity took over, even to a greater extent than self-realization. The country risked imploding.
The immediate consequences of this total loss of values were a severe economic crisis and the sale of state assets to a select few who declared themselves “new elites,” feeling more at home in New York or London than in their home country.
After the collapse of the communist ideology, which was an attempt to artificially replace meaninglessness in modern society, Russia remained without any dominant ideal. The characteristic of postmodernism, that is, the lack of a coherent system of values and beliefs, has become reality. The consequences have been a hedonistic ethic of unlimited self-realization and the profession of faith in personal freedom.
From a pro-Western orientation to traditional values
As early as the 1990s, attempts were made to stop this process. But neither the Orthodox Church nor the patriotic nationalist movements have been energetic enough. However, they created in the country the atmosphere that led in 2003-2004 to the re-election of Putin and the victory of the United Russia party, which presented itself as a patriotic and traditional party. Thanks to this President Putin gained strong support in Parliament and there was a shift in politics from a pro-Western orientation to traditional values. This was not only the result of political tensions with the West, but above all the conscious decision to create a new state ideology based more on patriotism than on individual freedom, liberalism and individualism.
This new ideology of the state lives on patriotism and “traditional values” that are also represented by the Orthodox Church. But it has only partially managed to permeate society. The Church currently enjoys great trust: according to a survey by the Levada Center in 2016, 60 percent of respondents recognized that state policy is influenced by the Church, and only 31 percent said they live in a secular state.
However, this conviction remains only theoretical when it comes to decisions that people have to make for their lives. How little the real influence of the Church has can be seen in relation to the question of abortion. The Orthodox Church strives to prevent it from being paid for with public money, but these attempts are constantly rejected by Parliament. The Ministry of Health said that if the state stopped reimbursing abortion costs, this would lead to discrimination. At the same time, the government is trying – in vain – to increase the birth rate with economic subsidies, with the expansion of childcare and so on, but does not want to limit abortions: in 2017 there were 648,000.
The family as an institution is still very weak; the number of divorces is enormous: in 2017, compared with one million marriages, there were 600,000 divorces. Rampant corruption is also a sign that, despite the rhetoric, many citizens consider their own interests much more important than those of the state and the people. The same goes for consumerism – luxury cars, expensive holidays in exotic countries and the like – which is an expression of individualism rather than collectivism and solidarity with the many less well-off citizens.
Russia resists the cultural influence of the post-modern West and rejects its values, not because it is so different from the West; on the contrary, in many ways it is much more similar to the modern West than the Russian political and religious elites would like.
But, as has already been said, the country has followed this process from the pre-modern period to postmodern dismemberment and to the individualization of society in a different way from the West. The nation has never fully accepted the modern, and some levels of what was still an archaic society were forced to accept what is now called “postmodernism”: first, violently by the Bolsheviks, and then, in the period of perestroika, by the powerful who wanted to reshape the country on the Western model.
Glasnost was nothing more than socialist postmodernism, the deconstruction of the socialism that really existed. Individualism and loss of identity have occurred in Russia much more dramatically than in the West. At the end of the last century Russia was faced with an abyss, and only the instinct for self-preservation prevented it from taking the final step over the precipice. An effort was made to stop the process and restore traditional values and structures, such as family, religion, the Church and social solidarity.
That is why Russia is allergic to any attempt to promote “postmodern values.” This is seen in the contrast, with regard to the problem of homosexuality, between the right of the Church to determine, at least in its own space, how to behave (see the case of the all-woman collective “Pussy Riot”) and the sovereignty of the state, which rejects attempts to place it under the influence of supra-state structures. The memory of the last phase of Soviet Union, which degraded Russia to a “territory” on a par with the other Soviet republics, is still too vivid (the Russian Federation was the only one of the republics of the USSR not to have had its own communist party, which at the time meant not having its own government).
The current reaction of the Russians is an attempt to find their own identity and protect it. The disintegration of collective identities, as postmodernism seeks, has been rejected by Russia, which has cultivated at least some of those identities. For example, the national one, with the military parade that takes place every year on May 9 in Red Square. The collective identity of belonging to the Church also plays an important role in Russia today, and is publicly supported. Rather than individual rights, Russian cultural policy today is based on the rights of the family, thus striving to overcome the country’s demographic problems. Finally, Russia tries to remain faithful to its 19th century cultural heritage. Art, literature and philosophy play a much more significant role in public life in Russia than in the European Union or the United States. On the contrary, in Russian universities courses on postmodern themes – such as gender studies – are practically non-existent.
All this is the result of a state policy supported by a large part of the population that tries to overcome the consequences of the two “deconstructions” of the 20th century. It is a conscious policy, but will it succeed? This is an open question.
As for Russia’s relations with the countries of Eastern Europe, one can recognize a certain spiritual closeness between them, which is based on the fact that both Eastern Europe and Russia must elaborate the legacy of communist “deconstruction,” which sought to destroy their traditional societies.
The perspective we have outlined on the development of Russia is open to question: is it not inappropriate to try to explain what is happening in Russia with concepts – “postmodern” or “deconstruction” – that come from the West and that can be applied to the West? It is possible. At the same time, however, it cannot be denied that the entire evolutionary process of Russia from the time of Peter the Great has been characterized by having borrowed Western ideas. This process has been discontinuous, fragile and imposed from above by elites who have been inspired by Western ideas, including the Bolsheviks and Gorbachev. These attempts at modernization, as well as the structures and ideas to which traditional Russian society was in fact forced to conform, have led to the consequences that we have described.
Not having integrated the heritage of Western ideas, Russia lived in a constrained way under the influence of the West, with all the consequences that followed. Today’s Russian policy is a reaction to all this and also reflects the suffering of Russian society throughout history. “The modernization of Russia did not happen as a process that involved the whole of society, as in the West, but in an alternation of prolonged periods of stability and short drives towards modernization that did not present themselves as natural, evolutionary developments, but as radical, revolutionary breaks.”
And if today the Russian elite in government highlights differences with the West, with the aim of maintaining power, this claim to Russia’s “special path” as a sort of opposite reaction only shows how strongly the country has suffered, and continues to suffer, the cultural influence of the West.
Communism took up and transformed many ideas that already existed in Russia before the October Revolution – the concept of a powerful empire, collectivity, nationalism – and re-proposed them using new, modern ideas borrowed from abroad. Now Russia is trying to remain tied to its tradition and wants only what corresponds to the old Russian tradition of Soviet heritage. The dominance of politics over economics, that of the state over society, and that of political will over economic interests can be traced back to that heritage rather than to Western influence. But those in power prefer to ignore this.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that Russia has many things in common with the West: the crisis of the family, the demographic crisis, the crisis of values and religion. The attempt of the Russian elite – unlike the more liberal ones int he West – to overcome these crises by strengthening the “traditional values” of the family, religion and patriotism makes the country a sort of counterpoint to the modern system of values of the West. This must be taken into account if we are to understand the contradictions in Russia itself and in its relations with the West.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 8, art. 2, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1908.2
 On this subject, see also V. Pachkov, https://laciviltacattolica.com/russia-between-europe-and-asia-looking-east-in-search-of-itself
 Cfr H. Ritz, “Besitzt der gegenwärtige Konflikt mit Russland eine kulturelle Dimension?”, in www.ostinstitut.de/documents/Besitzt_der_gegenwartige_Konflikt_mit_Russland_eine_kulturelle_Dimension.pdf
 Cfr F. S. Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the cultural Cold War, London, Granta, 1999.
 Of course, postmodernism can also be seen as a natural continuation and development of the modern world, but Ritz’s interpretation, while only partly explaining the causes of the formation of the culture of postmodernism, offers an interesting interpretation of why it is rejected in Eastern Europe, as well as in other parts of the world.
 Cfr C. Christova, Zwischen Totalitarismus, Moderne und Postmoderne. Zum Wandel der Interpretation der Sowjetsystems mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Poststatalinismus, Sofia, Sofia University “St Kliment Ohridski,” 2005.
 See www.gazeta.ru/business/2017/08/10/10826804.shtml
 H. Ritz, “ Besitzt der gegenwärtige Konflikt mit Russland eine kulturelle Dimension?”, op. cit.
 C. Ebert, “Einleitung” in Id. (ed.), Kulturauffassungen in der literarischen Welt Russlands, Berlin, Berlin Verlag – Arno Spitz GmbH, 1995, 11.