“Wind(s) of Change”: Russia’s European Identity Complex

, by Adi Horesh

“Wind(s) of Change”: Russia's European Identity Complex
The Monument to Peter the Great at Museon Park in Moscow, Russia

“I follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park Listening to the wind of change An August summer night, soldiers passing by Listening to the wind of change”

The above paragraph is so well-known, that its music begins playing in our eardrums whether we want it to or not. The verse is taken from the (West) German band, The Scorpion’s most number-one single “Wind of Change”. Written after a visit to the USSR’s capital, Moscow, when the Iron Curtain began to crumble and allowed Western music through the cracks, the song symbolised the closeness established between West and East during and after decades of mental and physical distance. The song was released right after the fall of the Soviet Union and painted a romantic tableau of Moscow, embodying the yearning for peace, freedom, and a newfound unity between Russia and the Western world. Remarkably, in 2022, The Scorpions reshaped the opening verse, offering a new perspective on their timeless message:

“Now listen to my heart It says Ukrainia Waiting for the wind To change”

Might be a small alteration to some, but for others who grew up during the Cold War (1945-1991), the closeness and hope established between the two sides were evident symbols of Russia’s return to the Western world’s embrace. Yet, as Klaus Meine, The Scorpions’ lead singer declared: “It is not the time to romanticise Russia”. Symbols, by their nature, embody acts, deeds, and epochs—thus, the lyrical revision serves as a poignant reflection of our present reality. The conflict in Ukraine has ruptured any lingering trust in Russia’s capacity to align with the community of nations sharing common liberal values, culminating a process that commenced with Putin’s ascent to power in 1999. However, Russia’s historical pendulum—oscillating between integration with the West and estrangement from it is traceable across centuries of historical records. This article endeavours to chart the pivotal shifts and perceptions of Russia’s European identity (or ’Western’ identity, as the European sphere extended beyond the continent’s borders), enabling an exploration of identity as a dynamic, evolving entity shaped by historical, economic, and political currents, deftly wielded by governing elites to shape desired national identities.

The Byzantine Dawn and the Mongol Yoke (9th-15th centuries)

Ironically born in what is today the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, the Rus people who came from Scandinvia, established their nucleus in the realm of Kievan Rus (“Lands of the Rus of Kiev”). A prosperous state, the Rus people wove themselves successfully into the fabric of the Byzantine Empire, then capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (330-1453), forging cultural and religious links to the centre of Orthodox and Eastern Christendom. Naturally, during this time, the evolving Russian entity gravitated towards Eastern Europe and the Byzantine culture. However, the initial isolation from the rest of Europe was forced upon it, as Kievan Rus had to succumb to the Golden Horde forces, led by the Mongol leader, Batu Khan (1205-1255). The isolation, which dismantled the entity of Kievan Rus into historical dust, severed Russian ties with Western Europe, which at the time experienced the Renaissance and early Enlightenment, thus progressed into new realms of intellectual and cultural phases. Nevertheless, by end of the Mongol rule, the first proclaimed Tsar, Ivan III (1440-1505) emerged and openly resisted the Mongol rule by refusing to pay tributes, ultimately securing autonomy for the growing Russian entity. Seeking to assert Russia as a European power, Ivan III designated Moscow, which grew to be a significant city, to be the “Third Rome”, with Russian Orthodox Christianity at its core.

The Tsar’s Renaissance (17th-18th centuries)

Under Ivan III’s leadership and subsequent rulers, Russia expanded its territory, enhanced its centralised power, and sought to assert its status as a European power, a momentum that intensified starkly under Ivan IV (1530-1584), often remembered as “Ivan the Terrible” for his fiery personality. Peter the Great’s (1672-1725) reforms in the late 17th and early 18th centuries aimed to modernise Russia by adopting Western European practices, fostering cultural exchange, and expanding Russia’s presence in Europe thus making its first impactful “Europeanisation” process, materialised in the form of a new European-inspired capital, St. Petersburg. All the while Catherine the Great’s (1729-1796) reign, saw a renaissance of arts and culture, drawing inspiration from European Enlightenment ideals. Her era also marked significant territorial expansion and revolutionary educational reforms aimed at providing education and skills to all segments of society. The Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century further influenced Russia’s relationship with Europe during the Tsarist era, as Napoleon Boneparte’s (1769-1821) ambitious expansionist agenda posed a direct threat to Russia’s security and sovereignty, leading to a confrontation that would profoundly impact Russia’s relationship with Europe. The Russian victory over Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812 not only safeguarded Russia’s territorial integrity but also elevated its status as a European power, with the Congress of Vienna in 1815 further solidifying Russia’s position as one of the continent’s key players. Despite tensions with Western powers wary of Russia’s expanding influence, the Napoleonic Wars underscored Russia’s integral role in European affairs and contributed to its evolving European identity as a major political and military force on the continent.

The Red Symphony (20th century)

The Soviet era, spanning from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was a complex chapter in Russia’s relationship with Europe, deeply influencing its European identity. Beginning with the execution of the Romanovs, a prominent European royal family, the Soviet era marked Russia’s initial true divergence from European norms and deliberate attempt by its leaders to forge a distinct path and identity from its Western neighbours. The USSR’s founder, Vladimir Lenin’s (1870-1924) leadership prioritised internationalism and the global spread of socialist revolution, advocating for a worldwide communist society and supporting revolutionary movements beyond Russia’s borders. His economic programmes allowed for limited market reforms while attempting to export communist ideology, notably during the Soviet-Polish War of 1920. In contrast, his infamous successor, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), shifted towards “socialism in one country,” focusing on consolidating socialist rule within the Soviet Union. Under his iron fist, the country was forced into collectivisation and rapid industrialisation as the central processes towards modernising the economy and bolstering military strength, which were aimed at surpassing Western European powers. The USSR at first kept maintaining political and economic ties with Eastern European countries, but its ideological stance and authoritarian governance set it apart from the evolving liberal democracies of Western Europe, where more rights and skills were provided to the citizens. Under Stalin’s rule, policies of isolation and self-sufficiency characterised the early years of the Soviet regime, fostering estrangement from the capitalist nations of the West. After the Second World War (1939-1945), the Cold War (1945-1991) rivalry further deepened divisions within Europe, with the establishment of two ideological blocs—the Western bloc led by the United States and the Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union—creating hostility and estrangement. Despite these tensions, cultural, scientific, and diplomatic exchanges with Western Europe persisted, fostering occasional cooperation and dialogue. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked a turning point, prompting Russia to redefine its European identity in the post-Soviet era, grappling with the legacy of totalitarianism while seeking (re)integration with Europe.

New Horizons (1995-1999)

Mikhail Gorbachev’s (1931-2022) political and economic reforms, known as “Perestroika”, allowed more cooperation and global openness for Russia, eventually led to the unavoidable and welcome collapse of the USSR. This change brought massive and positive changes throughout the world, especially in the emergence of new nations in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, and within Russia itself as a reconstituted entity. While trying to embrace a deep democratic and capitalistic transition from autocracy and communism, pre-Putin’s Russia tried to establish itself more closely with European values, diverging from the Soviets’ alienation policy against Europe and its values while also grappling with its Asian identity, leading to identity complex that exists and persists until these days. However, prior to Putin’s ascent, political reforms laid the ground for a multi-party system, promotion of civil society and the establishment of democratic institutions, while economic liberalisation and integration into the global economy marked efforts to modernise and revitalise Russia’s economy. Culturally, Russia engaged in dialogue and exchange with European countries, fostering mutual understanding and cooperation and began participating in cooperative bodies like the Council of Europe. However, challenges such as economic instability, political corruption, and social inequality hindered progress, while geopolitical tensions strained Russia’s relationship with Europe. Nonetheless, this period represented a critical juncture in Russia’s history, characterised by aspirations for democratic reform, European integration, and the promotion of shared values of freedom, democracy, and human rights. That process, which in alternative histories could see Russia as a liberal world power, halted when Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current aspiring Tsar, rose from the KGB’s ruins to power.

Rise of the Bear (1999-today)

Vladimir Putin’s demeanour is famously captured in the following anecdote: Putin and (George W.) Bush are fishing on the Volga River. After half an hour, Bush complains, “Vladimir, I’m getting bitten like crazy by mosquitoes, but I haven’t seen a single one bothering you.” Putin: “They know better than that.”

Vladimir Putin, arguably one of the most consequential figures of the 21st century, needs no introduction as Russia’s current leader. Often dubbed ’Tsar’ by admirers and critics alike, he embodies a blend of familiarity and enigma, with his past in Russia’s secretive intelligence apparatus, the KGB, adding to the intrigue surrounding him. Ruling Russia for over three decades, Putin epitomises the essence of modern Russia—expansionist, militaristic, and nationalistic. Ascending to power after his predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s endorsement, Putin assumed the role of prime minister in 1999, swiftly transitioning to Acting President following Yeltsin’s unexpected resignation. On the same day, a legislation was passed which protected himself from being prosecuted for corruption claims, signifying what’s to come in the future. In March 2000, Putin won the first presidential elections with 53%, much thanks to his hardline stance against the Chechen separatism and terrorist which rocked Russia since the fall of the USSR, in what will be known the Second Chechen War (1999-2009). Putin’s handling of the Chechen issue reflected his authoritarian tendencies and his willingness to use force to maintain control and suppress dissent. His administration implemented stringent security measures in Chechnya, including military operations, curfews, and restrictions on civil liberties, in an effort to quell the insurgency and restore Russian authority. Moreover, the conflict in Chechnya provided a pretext for Putin to consolidate power and centralise authority in the Kremlin. He used the narrative of the Chechen threat to justify the erosion of democratic norms, including restrictions on media freedom, crackdowns on political opposition, and the concentration of power in the hands of the executive branch. This war facilitated the centralisation of authority in the Kremlin and cemented his global image as a strong and decisive leader. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 served as a bold assertion of Russia’s influence in the region, strategically securing access to key military assets and appealing to Russian nationalist sentiment and answering to Putin’s grandiose Tsaristic dreams of a resurgent Russian empire. Meanwhile, the ongoing war in Ukraine, fuelled by Russian support for separatist movements, reflects broader geopolitical objectives aimed at maintaining influence in Eastern Europe and countering Western expansion. Together, these events signify modern Russia’s drift from its European identity and values, which the post-USSR leaders and citizens hoped to achieve. Moreover, Putin’s efforts to cultivate ties with certain radical and Eurosceptic entities further complicate Russia’s relationship with Europe, highlighting his active push towards divisions within the continent. Overall, Putin’s leadership has tested Europe’s unity and its perception of Russia’s place in Europe, underscoring the complexities of Russia’s European identity in the modern era.

The Future

Iver B. Neumann’s assertion in his book “Russia and the Idea of Europe” (1995) that “...the idea of Europe is the main ‘Other” in relation to which the idea of Russia is defined.” Neumann’s claim echoes through this article. It’s undeniable that Russia’s identity has historically been intertwined with its perception as ’the Other’ in relation to Europe, and vice versa. This pattern suggests a hopeful prospect: the likelihood that, in the future, under a more open, liberal, and perhaps more tolerant regime, Russia will once again align with Western values. However, recent events, such as the murder of Alexander Navalny , Putin’s biggest political nemesis and the escalating war in Ukraine, cast a huge shadow on that prospect. Additionally, the rise of extreme right-wing parties globally, many of which are supported and funded by the Kremlin, suggests a troubling trend wherein once-liberal nations may emulate Putin’s Russia, thereby bolstering the current regime’s grip on power and stifling liberal aspirations. While the current outlook may seem bleak, it’s crucial to remember that political transformations can occur suddenly and dramatically, altering the course of history. A positive political shift in Russia could pave the way for a brighter future in Europe and beyond, offering hope for renewed cooperation and progress. Ultimately, the dream of a more liberal Russia, aligned with Western values, remains a beacon of possibility, reminding us of the potential for positive change and that maybe in the not-so-far future we will once again sing of the beauty of Moscow.

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