Post-Soviet Globalism – continuities and change

The unease concerning the integration of post-soviet Russia into the Western sphere has always thrown the West into confusion since the collapse of the Soviets. Tragic events in Georgia, then in Crimea, plunged many into the desperate conclusion that integration of Russia, even after the ideological shift of the country, was an impossible mission. The most outrageous violation of the international order, the war on Ukraine, was to cap it all. That said, unlike what the growing pessimism leads us to think, this might be only a transitory period that can culminate in Russia’s transformation into a Western nation with amiable attitudes. To this end, the perishment of the Soviet legacy is an indispensable precondition. 

Alexander Dugin, the leading Eurasianist, declares that the Russian Federation is entitled to consolidate its military presence beyond its legitimate confines as the supreme representative of “the Heartland civilization”. His worldview does not recognize the most fundamental principles of the modern state system, presupposing that the territorial integrity of an independent state means nothing to Russia. No matter if it is the founding principle of the modern state system, the sovereign state does not exist as far as it goes against the self-ascribed mission of the Russian civilization, which is to be the bastion of the Heartland Civilization. 

Worldviews of this kind are still popular in Russia, but, in fact, it would be delusional to anticipate the disappearance of these fantasies in a timeframe as short as three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The mindset that the Soviets had sought to instill almost for a century has taken deep roots in the country. As notorious American diplomat George Kennan who woke up Americans to the reality of the Soviet regime first elaborated in the Long Telegram, “the Soviet conduct” yielded a never-ending propaganda about “evil, hostile and menacing” outside world. However, it would be untrue to call it a totally intentional choice. As Kennan observed, even the inner circles of the Communist Party were living in a reality distorted by the imagined hostilities and ongoing conspiracies. This persistent unease, to which even the highest echelons succumbed, served the continuance of the ideological hold that the Party enjoyed over the society. The more fear the machine aroused, the more powerful the state became. Expectedly, this state-sponsored anomaly reproduced by fear left durable traces in Russia. Speaking of the current governing elite, it mainly consists of old school statesmen whose ideas and aspirations were initially, and often irreversibly, shaped by the Soviet way of perceiving the world and making politics. Not to mention Vladimir Putin himself, for all of them, the sudden collapse of the Soviet Empire defined the most calamitous event of their lifetimes. As Alexander Gabuev stressed with an exceptional sharp mindedness in an article he recently wrote for the Economist, the average age of the war cabinet that is at the wheel of Russia is 68; on top of that, four of the five statesmen in this cabinet came from the echelons of KGB where “the Soviet ethos” chillingly embraced its purest form. Nothing can explain the continuity of the hawkish Soviet foreign policy better than the remaining presence of these old comrades in the stateroom.

For the ordinary people as well, who lived under the very powerful “Soviet ethos” for a long time, the world did not change instantly after the collapse. Almost for a century, their lives had been exposed to the doctrines of the Soviet propaganda machine bent on demonizing the great unknown beyond the wall. The iron curtain ruled out all possibilities of permeability and mutual interaction. Isolation sparked a perilous alienation. At the time post-war globalization started to knit nations together, Russia stayed outside the scope of this interconnecting process, resulting in their perception of the world remaining centered around Soviet teachings, which alleged their messianic role. Russian society was living in this alternate reality when the collapse of the Soviet Union left them dazzled before the Western world that was now revealed to their eyes. 

However, this initial encounter which took place following the collapse did not bring an immediate change in perceptions, the way human beings perceive others does not change at the pace many expect it to. Nor does this change occur smoothly, as Alexander Wendt, an American political scientist who notoriously adapted the constructivist theory to the discipline of international relations has lucidly shown. Therefore, the Russian Federation has been more of a continuance of a specific set of emotions and logical conclusions rather than a split. 

Russia’s Victory Day celebration. Photo by Gatchinakuprin on Pixabay.        

Even though this undeniable continuance has been the overriding phenomenon since then, Russia has indeed not stayed the same. A steady transformation has taken place in the country over three decades, a transformation to which globalism, slowly sneaking into the new Russia, gave rise. Globalism and its protagonists, namely the communication and mass culture, have started to recreate Russian society, with capitalism finally breaking into Russia and consolidating its place. McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Levi’s, and other icons which spread the American way of life have enjoyed important triumphs over the old forms. The country did not miss the second wave of communicational globalization, either. Social networks, arguably the ultimate phase of the world’s transformation into a “global village”, started to be used by Russians simultaneously with the rest of the world in the beginning of the new millenium. Removal of tormenting bureaucratic barriers before international travel allowed touristic exchange that played a vital role in proliferating cultural permeability. From worldviews to clothing styles, anything that has been exposed to the wave of change has been lured away from the sway of old habits and thoughts. 

Along with the spread of Western-origined mass culture, strengthening bilateral ties between two former “foes” have fostered an interconnected high-culture through revolutionary institutions. Higher School of Economics (HSE), a university founded in Moscow in 1992 with a mission to pioneer a new higher education system, became the sanctuary of the new Russian intellectual and, in three decades, the university turned into a prestigious institution able to set exchange agreements with its long-established Western counterparts like Sciences Po. The foundation and the rapid rise of the HSE were also symbolic in the sense that the institution appeared against a background of conservative higher education dominated by the Moscow State University, commonly known as Lomonosov. A stronghold of liberal and cosmopolitan worldviews in the country, it flourished not thanks to the Kremlin but despite the Kremlin

That said, this wide-scale transformation under the influence of global culture did not occur as an egalitarian process that equally affected each social stratum; as could be expected, young Russians have been the main subject to this cultural renovation. Consequently, they diverged from older generations in terms of their perception of the world. Although the very human resistance to change, that emerges with the aging, held their parents from absorbing this new culture, young Russians became increasingly more prone to internalize Western values. This generational gap is observable in numerous surveys reflecting large differences in political preferences, as well as in the public support that Putin, so popular among the elders, hardly finds when it comes to younger generations. So, compared to adults who have lived through the isolated island of the Soviet identity and, thus, developed a chronic anti-western sentiment, young Russians became far more inclined to establish friendly relations with the Western world. They are just like a groundswell yet to reform the traditional order in Russia. 

The hidden catch here is “time”. Although Russian society has undergone an epistemic transformation in such a way as to slowly shatter “the old Soviet universe of beliefs”, such a transformation normally requires a substantial amount of time to finalize. As said, many in Russia, including top politicians, still live in an intersubjective realm animated by the canonized idea of “the struggle against the west”. The soviets do not wane easily, apparently; but, if complex cultural and communicational networks deliberately established in the past three decades are preserved, the Soviet ethos is going to perish whilst the cultural teaching of globalism that rejects archaic animosities in its unificatory character replaces it. Such a total transformation, that has already taken important milestones, sure will take more time; but the important point is that it is just a matter of time if this process is allowed to continue its transformative effect on Russia. In these circumstances, even if the governing elite tries to stave it off to keep the country’s positioning as an anti-western reactionist power, their efforts cannot hold ground. It also cannot be said that they are not trying. In mainland Russia, one of the first steps they took in the wake of the invasion, indicating the concerns about “national security”, was to shut down giant platforms of social media, which is a vital vein in the evolution of Russia. Also on the international scene, just like the Soviets sought to advance their ideological hold all over Europe through the Komintern, Putin’s Russia backs up protectionist demagogues whose raison-d’etre is to contain cosmopolitan values whatever it takes. They are aware of the groundswell and try to forestall it before it is too late.  

Given this perspective, nothing serves the West in making Russia “a friendly nation” better than an insistence on the inclusive mentality of globalism with its enormous power of liquidating cultural barriers and reconstructing new local imaginaries. It is to say that the bonds the Western capitalism knitted between Russia and the West are valuable not because of their economic benefits but because of their cultural and epistemic returns which no other tool in the hands of the West could bring. Any move that could put its development in Russia at risk also endangers “new Russian perceptions” which are under construction. It is exciting to envisage a future where the new reality, made up of these novel perceptions, makes a durable peace possible in mainland Europe. Such a new perception will be taking for granted that, far from standing as the opposite sides of a zero-sum game,  European and Russian interests thoroughly correlate.

Tarik Mert
Tarik Mert is a senior-year Political Science&International Relations student at Bogaziçi University, Istanbul.
He is currently doing an internship at the Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies where he carries out analyses regarding the AfPak region, as well as Russia.