Perceptions of Russia are one of the most successful myth generators that help legitimate the current Kremlin regime and build its favorable external relations. This tactic of generating fallacies about Russia has influenced the Western policy towards the Kremlin and the domestic debate in Europe on Russia and beyond. It helped the West to build its accommodationist policy toward Moscow.
One could argue that myth-building is Russia’s most successful national industry. But for the West, it has become a game of fallacy, failure and domestic conspiracy. If Russia has become a source of global misperceptions, what about other parts of the world: do they also produce their own fallacies? What if the Western interpretation of Russia is a projection of the West’s own fears, complexes, and demons?
A first part of this essay was published in the Quarterly Perspectives issue 1/2021.
The Return of Kremlastrology
The grievance racket is not just the Kremlin’s survival strategy. It has also become a lucrative career in its own right in Russia, for both politicians and analysts. One suspects that it has also become a well-paying profession for some in the West, too.
The West has produced a sizeable camp of analysts who repeat Russian misperceptions. Some openly play to Moscow’s tune, while others are more nuanced. For years, they have reproduced not only illusions and false expectations, but also introduced Russian propaganda arguments into Western discourse. In doing so, they have helped to undermine the credibility of expertise in general.
It is true that Russia often rejects attempts to understand its uncharted trajectory. The combination of imitation of democratic institutions, refined techniques, propaganda, and tactical maneuvering by the Russian establishment only serves to obscure any clear picture of the real substance. Penetrating Russia’s deepest nature is difficult even for Russians. Thus, there are good reasons for the existence of Western misperceptions, especially if one takes into account the Western habit of mistaking the apparent for the truth. Informality always trumps formal rules in Russia, which only adds to the difficulty of forming a clear assessment.
Furthermore, misperceptions stem from the Western belief that one can change one’s opponent by embracing them. Such faith in the opponent’s rationality could also explain – at least partially – the extent of Western fallacies. The world has failed to understand that, in Russia, we are dealing with a civilizational construct with its own legacy and culture that has adapted to contemporary reality by imitating and distorting democratic institutions. It astutely uses 21st-century mechanisms and tricks to preserve its 19th-century imperative, which makes it even more difficult to understand the country’s zig-zagging trajectory to nowhere.
Yet at the very least, the existing failure to understand demands an answer to the question of where and why we have been going wrong. All of us, Russia experts, have made mistakes but today, regretfully, we are not yet ready for redemption. The chicken-and-egg narrative about who is to blame for the current situation has become very popular: did the West try to cheat Russia and undermine it by means of eastwards NATO enlargement? Is it the West that wants to keep Russia down and is unable to accept Moscow’s presence in global affairs? Did the West fail to integrate Russia before Russia fell back on its arrogance? This blame game works best in combination with the German guilt complex.
Western clichés peg Russia as a hopeless case
One further popular cliché is: “Russia is not ready for democracy; Russia cannot change.” Quite a fewRussians cannot live in a rules-based world and are not yet ready to live in a state governed by the rule of law. In an open letter, six respected US foreign policy analysts wrote in 2020 that: “Ultimately, the reality is that Russia, under Vladimir Putin, operates within a strategic framework deeply rooted in nationalist traditions that resonate with elites and the public alike. An eventual successor, even one more democratically inclined, will likely operate within this same framework.”
The mantra is the same: Russia can only mean exceptionalism and non-democratic culture.
The message is clear: Russia is hopeless! Irrespective of what the West does, Russia will never become a democracy, so it makes no sense to pressure the Kremlin to respect human rights and freedoms at home, or for the West to invest more in exchanges with the Russian people. There is only one interpretation of this message: Russians carry a special gene that precludes them from living in a state governed by the rule of law and that abides by international conventions. This means that Russians are a predatory nation who can only live under subjugation by their rulers and by subjugating other nations.
This is not merely a condescending way of looking at Russians, but also a racist and colonial one, too. It is an excuse to accept Russia “as it is” (“it is different”) while rejecting any opposing interpretation or hope for Russia’s liberal transformation. Meanwhile, Russia is not a monochrome landscape. About 60 percent of Russians today want change. True, though, they expect the change to come from the top.
In 2020, about 58 percent of Russian respondents to a Levada poll agreed that “among all freedoms and rights, freedom of speech is one of the most important” (for the purposes of comparison, in 2017, only 34 percent thought so). The protest rallies that continually rocked Russia, including those in 2011/12 and again in January and April 2021, prove that Russia is not a country that prefers subjugation. Russian society is becoming more and more pluralistic, and Russians share the same demands for a better life, protection of property, and “normal,” respectful behavior from their fellow citizens.
The perception that Russia will forever “operate within the same framework” not only presents an inadequate picture, but also serves to prop up the Russian system as it limps along. The line that “we are a unique civilization” is also part of Kremlin propaganda, according to which Russia is an exceptional nation, completely unlike any other nations, and with its own historical mission. Again, this narrative seems to have been accepted by some Western analysts who cannot “unwrap” the Russian system’s ability to mix tradition and historical legacy with quasi-modern imitation and democratic symbolism.
Russia longs for confrontation with the West, some experts in Russia and the West argue. Yet in reality, 60 percent of Russians want an expansion of ties with the West.
If one takes into account the aggressive anti-Western propaganda in Russia, more recent polls are almost unbelievable. Only 3 percent of Russians view the West as an enemy, 16 percent view it as a rival, while 67 percent (!) view the West as a partner, and 11 percent regard it as a friend.
This means that three quarters of the Russian population are tired of living in a war paradigm. There is no driving popular demand to be an exceptional nation with a historical imperative; instead, people just want a better life. Neither is the majority of the elite ready for confrontation. True, the Kremlin continues its war rhetoric and escalation blackmail, since it has no other means of consolidation or mobilization at its disposal. However, this is a policy of barking, not biting. It is more of a wink and a nudge intended to deter its opponents from launching tougher responses.
Pragmatism as the new norm
Recently, Russian pragmatists and their Western colleagues have invented a new refrain: they call for a “less emotional approach” to Russia, which means that “analytical truth” should be detached from “normative preferences.” This is a further technique with which to reject the approach based on value-based judgements. But is “analytical truth” possible without normative standards? How can one understand that one is seeing the truth when one has no criteria? Furthermore, Europe is no longer a model and will become less important in the new world, the new pessimists say. In other words, Russia can therefore ignore European demands for sticking to the rules.
There exist some other ideas that should have been discarded a long time ago. Among them is the idea of “multipolarity,” which posits and endorses the existence of galaxies around great powers. However, even Russian pragmatists have started to doubt the feasibility of this model. With China playing around in post-Soviet space and Turkey entering the South Caucasus, one can only guess how long Russia would be able to preserve its “areas of influence” there. There is no balance of power between the major actors any longer. On the contrary, there is much more asymmetry!
Some have tried to replace “multipolarity” with calls for an “equilibrium” to be reached in relations between Russia and the West. “Equilibrium” means a balance between opposing forces. Is this state of affairs even possible between actors with hugely asymmetrical resources and mutually hostile agendas? Moreover, how can equilibrium exist when one actor tries to demonstrate power by creating endless suspense and uncertainty? One has the distinct impression that this “game of terms” is merely an attempt to fill the analytical vacuum with notions that have no substance.
Russian “mythology” is both a test for the shrewdness of political thinking, and also based on current state policy. In a situation of crisis and intellectual paralysis, one tries to escape by building situational clichés and defining temporary situations as the dominant trend, or playing with artificial formulas. But such intellectual games could lead to distorted or even suicidal politics. In the Russian context, mythology strengthens the personalized system so it can limp on, forever evading change. However, here is the trap: postponing change makes the whole dynamic even more risky and dramatic.
For the West, fallacies not only prevent it from understanding the true nature of Russia’s state-civilization, but also contribute to providing a beneficial external environment that helps the Russian system survive. This is survival in a state of decay. It’s no wonder that suspicion towards and frustration with the West have dominated the mood of Russian liberals. Here is a paradox that only reflects the increasingly gloomy situation: both sides are now suspicious of liberal democracy – the Kremlin and segments loyal to it, as well as groups that oppose the Kremlin.
Apparently, the majority of Western analytical and political actors are not yet ready to face the Russia challenge, and prefer to postpone the problem for the future. The analytical minority that does understand Russia’s drama has, so far, not been able change the predominant trend. The usual Western axioms that justify either containment or cooperation with Russia have successfully “vaccinated” the Russian system, which has meanwhile found a way to adapt to the Western “dual track.”
The truth is: the Western policy of evading reassessment and deliberation on developments and complex trends only renders the problem more potentially disastrous for the future. In the meantime, the Western community continues to create an external environment that accommodates and even stimulates Russia’s decay. Moreover, the West is undermining its own normative platform with its “Russia policy.” One might have the impression that the Soviet Union could strike back in its post-Soviet incarnation at any time!
We now see one of the most pathetic paradoxes: the West has failed to help Russia transform. Instead, the Russian personalized system has turned the West, together with its intellectual community, into an instrument of the Russian system’s continued existence. Today, the crisis of the Western model even helps the Russian system sustain its temporary reinvigoration. Russian kleptocracy has successfully exported its mechanisms of corruption and informal rules into the West. This success story of “Russian norm transfer” renders the allegedly successful Western democratization policy through “color revolutions” just the latest in a series of mirages. Although the Kremlin constantly speaks about the West as interfering in Russian domestic issues, it has been far more successful in muddling the West’s domestic sphere.
Russia mythology is not only about the ability of the Russian regime to find ways of survival by manipulating Western civilization. This phenomenon also demands the urgent reassessment of many theories regarding Russia’s transition, as well as Russian authoritarian decay. Russian mythology as it is reproduced by the West is about the West itself, its intellectual capacities, its fears, and its ability to leave its comfort zone – and see the world not in terms of wishful thinking, but how it actually is.
The essay is part of a joint publication series on political misperceptions together with the Washington-based magazine American Purpose, where a dialogue between Stefan Meister and Lilia Shevtsova has been published previously.
Stefan Meister is Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
Lilia Shevtsova is a Russian political scientist and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy. She is member of the Andrei Sakharov Center on Democratic Development, the Liberal Mission Foundation as well as a member of the editorial boards of “American Purpose,” “Journal of Democracy” and “New Eastern Europe.”