Andis Kudors: The “Russian world” as a vacuum-cleaner


24. 04. 2014.

“Our country absorbed a variety of representatives of ethnic groups, nations and nationalities like a vacuum cleaner” these words were spoken by Vladimir Putin on April 17th during “a direct TV communication line” with the society when he was explaining the emergence of Russia as a multinational country. One can wonder if the vacuum-cleaner similarity was the best as the vacuum cleaner does not ask “the dust” for a permission to suck it in… Russia as well as its predecessor – the Soviet Union has been trying to be a magnet that attracts others, but it hasn’t succeeded neither in the past nor nowadays. Also in Ukraine it was using force and deceit, because Russia knew that without its military presence Crimea would not fall into its hands. At the end of the abovementioned “direct communication” Putin spoke of the “Russian world” which brought together people who believed that the meaning of human existence was based in moral beginnings; therefor according to Putin Russians and the people of the “Russian world” were not so focused on gratification of their own ego.

The idea of the “Russian world”

Let us ask what Putin’s “Russian world” actually is. The concept was brought to an official policy-level discourse by Putin himself in 2001when he addressed the congress of Russia’s compatriots living abroad. Putin stated: “Compatriot is certainly not just a legal category. Furthermore, it isn’t a matter of a status or some special privileges. First of all, this is the matter of a personal choice. I would say, mental self-determination. [..] Because since olden times the concept of Russian World has exceeded Russia’s geographic boundaries and even the boundary of the Russian ethnos”.

The concept of the “Russian world” had been developed by several authors; each of whom highlighted one or more of its building blocks. Peter Shchedrovitsky emphasized Russian diaspora’s role in bringing economic benefits to Russia. Tatiana Poloskova and Vitaly Skrinnik have written about the “logistics of the Russian world” that employs NGOs, the internet and other means of communication to consolidate the “Russian world” into a supranational formation, which should influence international policy processes. Natalia Narochnickaya highlighted Orthodoxy as the main component of the “Russian World”; while Valery Tishkov, the leading ethnologist in Russia’s Academy of Sciences, emphasized that the ethnic characteristic was too narrow to determine if a person belonged to the “Russian world”. Also the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) Kirill has repeatedly mentioned the “Russian world” as a component of the Orthodox civilization. Despite the minor differences, all of the abovementioned authors agree that the “Russian World” is a supranational structure that consists of Russia, the Russian diaspora living abroad and other so-called Russian-speaking communities, which consider Russia as their cultural and spiritual centre. Notably, the “Russian World” theorists emphasize that not only the Russian language, but also the Russian-specific mind-set is the metaphysical unifier of the “Russian world”. As Putin stated on April 17th: this has been determined already at the gene level.

Until the end of the previous century ideas about the “Russian world” lived only in the minds of thinkers and some written publications; jet along with Putin’s rise to power those were embodied in Russia’s policy towards compatriots living abroad (the so-called Compatriots’ policy). U.S. researcher Marlene Laruelle pointed out that at first Russia’s policy-makers were unable to find a legal definition for “the compatriots living abroad”. The concept of the “Russian world” as a manifestation of cultural identity helped to bring together all historical Russian emigration waves into one ideological commonality. An example of the new approach was the establishment of “Russkiy mir” foundation (“the Russian World”) in 2007 and appointment of Kremlin-linked political scientist Vyachelsav Nikonov as its head. The Russian Orthodox Church has been actively involved in Russia’s Compatriots’ policy and it has put significant effort within the ideological discourse about Ukraine’s affiliation with the Western civilization or the Orthodox civilization.

Ukraine on the borders of civilizations

“Historically the “Russian world” has been a geographically single space, but, nowadays, it is split across national borders of various countries. However, the people who live in the historical territory of Rus should have a sense of belonging to a single civilization and should see the “Russian world” as a trans-national project”; with these words the ROC Patriarch Kirill opened the 3rd Russian World Assembly in Moscow in 2009. In addition, he presented a proposal to use the term “countries of the Russian world” to refer to the lands that historically had been within Russia’s territory. Kirill explained that those lands were unified in the “Russian world” by the use of Russian language, common culture and historical memory. In the same speech Kirill quoted Lavrenti Chernigovsky: “Russia, Ukraine, Belarus – it is also the Holy Rus “.

There are three independent Orthodox Churches in Ukraine: the Patriarchate of Kiev, the Autocephalous Church and the Patriarchate of Moscow. Ukrainian authorities want to reduce Russia’s influence on these organizations; whereas official Russia would prefer to see all Orthodox-believers as a part of the unified “Russian world”.

In recent years Russia’s compatriots’ organizations have been actively disseminating similar ideas about ethnic Ukrainians as mentally indistinguishable from Russians. Also the Russian media had been cultivating this idea for several years to prepare the soil for what we just saw in Crimea. Ideas about the clash of civilizations were intensively spread in the Russian media immediately after the Ukrainian Orange Revolution in 2004. Back then Russia viewed Viktor Juschenko’s victory as a defeat in the battle between certain values within the information space. This was followed by changes in Russia’s media policy and an activation of the Compatriots’ policy. In 2006 Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow and an active implementer of Compatriots’ policy, published an article “We and the West”; he wrote that in order to stand against the West Russia had to integrate the world around it, beginning with the post-Soviet space and the “compatriot world”. Russia’s propaganda project portrays Ukraine as a place for the clash of civilizations, where “the evil West” is trying to distract Ukrainians from its fraternal nation – the Russians.

In the shadow of the “elder brother”

Russia with Moscow in the centre can’t really be regarded as the elder brother in relations with Kiev; nonetheless Moscow behaves as the dominant brother who demands obedience from the youngest. Russian politicians regularly use the phrase “brotherly nations”; but in practice Russia’s foreign policy shows that this “fraternity” is meant as a strict hierarchy, where Ukrainian self-determination is despised and ignored. Even popular culture shows on Russian TV channels portray Ukrainians in the role of caricatured juggins, whose language is not really a language, rather a humorous dialect. Such a paternalistic attitude is humiliating for an independent country that wants to go its own way and not in Moscow’s direction. Christian psychologist Henry Cloud in his book Changes That Heal: How to Understand Your Past to Ensure a Healthier Future pointed out that each normal personality had to be able to say “no” without any liability for potentially negative reaction from the surrounding people. Only such an individual, conscious of inviolable limits of one’s personality, later may voluntarily decide to serve God and/or people. In societies dominated by collectivist ideas such “no’s” usually create a stir, because that is perceived as a manifestation of an “evil selfishness”. Transferring this principle from an individual to a nation it is obvious that Russia so far hasn’t respected the Ukrainian “no”. Even if it had done it at some point, such moves had been guided by tactical calculus to achieve some major strategic goals. Russia’s strategic objectives are related to the old story of Ukraine as Russia’s exclusive sphere of interest where others (including Ukrainians themselves) don’t have a significant saying.

In place of conclusions

Although representatives of the Russian authorities have stated that there had been no previous plans for the annexation of Crimea, it is clear that as a part of aggression against Ukraine Russia’s propagandists are using messages that have already been distributed in Ukraine for several years using Russian television and Compatriots’ policy. It is important to note that the stereotype of Western-Ukrainian people as the Nazi-likes, cultivation of so-called threats against Russia’s compatriots, dispute of legitimacy of the Ukrainian statehood, poaching Ukraine into the “Russian world ” as well as other ideas that Kremlin used as a justification for annexation of Crimea did not just show up just before the Crimean referendum or even before the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius last year, but they were deliberately spread since Putin came to power in Russia. It is noteworthy, that Vladimir Putin himself has sent signals to a wide audience about the indivisibility of Ukraine and Russia using mass-media already in the summer of 2009. During a meeting with Tichon, a representative of an Orthodox monastery, taking place at General Denikin’s grave Putin praised Denikin; he pointed out that the General had always been against the separation of Ukraine from Russia. Putin recalled that Denikin used to call Ukraine as “the little Russia”.

Russia purposefully and systematically has presented its message about the Ukrainian state as a part of the Russian story. This paternalistic attitude towards its neighbours is not a new occurrence in Russia’s political culture. In the late 19th century Nikolai Danilevsky, the founder of pan-Slavism ideas, explained that the Finns and the Poles would be better off under the auspices of Russia, because these people were not capable of up-keeping their own statehood… Back then, the neo-Slavophil Danilevsky was wrong about Finns and Poles; nowadays we have to hope that the contemporary Russian statesmen will also be wrong about Ukrainians.