Unlocking Russian identity: European or Asian?

Drawing by Andrew  Tkalenko

Drawing by Andrew Tkalenko

Is Russia a European or an Asiatic country? Or, is it a blend of both continents? The decades-old debate is still at the heart of Russia’s quest for an identity in the 21st century globalised world.

In 1939, frustrated at his inability to predict Russia’s actions, British leader Winston Churchill famously said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Less well remembered was what he said next: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Seven decades later, Russians are still trying to unlock the enigma of their future by figuring out where their interests are. Indeed, for centuries they have faced a conundrum – whether to build closer links with Europe or pursue their destiny in Asia.

This East versus West faceoff is in the backdrop of the reality of geography – Russia is among a handful of countries such as Turkey and Egypt that straddle two continents. Incredibly, until 1867 the Russian Empire extended across three continents, including North America, where it had colonies in Alaska and Northern California.

It is this split across two continents that has shaped Russian identity and politics. Over the centuries, the balance of power in Moscow has constantly shifted between the Europhiles and those who wish to chart an independent course.

This was most famously played out during the reign of Peter the Great, that most European of Russians. So obsessed was the czar with modernising his country that he taxed Russians wearing beards because European men usually were clean shaven.

Peter gave the country an unmistakably European flavour. Most Russians appreciate his huge efforts in making Russia unlearn its bear-like qualities and become more of a fox by acquiring some cold Western calculating thinking.

And yet nearly three centuries later, it seems nothing much has changed. Europe continues to hold a perennial fascination for some Russians, who want to see their country firmly anchored in the West. As proponents of Big Europe, they see Russia as a bulwark against the hordes from the East, and have kept up a steady refrain demanding membership of the European Union and NATO.

But despite the ardency of Russia’s wooing, Europe has been rather cold to it. Back in the 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev propounded his “Common European Home”, sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf was among those who quickly shot down that idea. In his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, he writes: “If there is a common European house or home to aim for, it is not Gorbachev’s but one to the West of his and his successors’ crumbling empire. Europe ends at the Soviet border, wherever that may be.”

Dahrendorf defined Europe as a political community where “small and medium-sized countries try to determine their destiny together. A superpower has no place in their midst, even if it is not an economic and perhaps no longer a political giant.”

However, such cold shouldering hasn’t lessened the ardour of the Europhiles like President Dmitry Medvedev, who belongs to a new generation of Russian leaders that flog the Common European Home theme.

On the other hand, his mentor Vladimir Putin belongs to the more nationalist school; the prime minister seems more comfortable at Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS meetings than he is at the nearly lily-white and Western-dominated G-8. “The West treats us like we just came down from the trees,” Putin once remarked.

These contrary pulls suggest Russia has never quite decided if it is a European or an Asian country. East and West co-exist starkly in a country that may have been founded by the Vikings; is 80% European by race; whose patron St Andrew is as much Russia’s as he’s Scotland’s; and yet the Kremlin’s multi-coloured onion domes that dominate Red Square are reminders that the country was once part of an Eastern empire.

In fact, the controversy over whether the Vikings participated in the origin of the first Russian state has split Russian nationalists and the Europhiles for over 300 years. (Called the Norman Problem, it is eerily similar to the now discredited Aryan Invasion Theory of India which has pitted Indian nationalists against a nexus of leftists and Anglophiles.)

This confusion has led to some serious foreign policy setbacks, such as the loss of its East European buffer and a major client in Iraq. Here Russian interests were sacrificed because the pro-West elements mistakenly believed they could buy America’s goodwill. The nationalists are also aghast at what they see as Moscow’s abandoning of Libya and Syria.

Go East

Nikita Khrushchev, not exactly famous for uttering profound statements, did make at least one memorable remark. During a state visit to India in 1955, he said, “Our country is both European and Asiatic – the largest part of our territory lies on the Asian continent.” It was a statement that reverberated across a newly independent Asia. Khrushchev was only iterating what his former boss, Joseph Stalin, once told a Japanese diplomat: “Russia is an Asiatic country, and I myself am an Asiatic.”

Such hardsell may have only limited impact in modern times. Still, at a meeting on Hainan Island in southern China earlier this year, Medvedev said: “Russia's future, the modernisation of our Siberia and the Far East are inseparably connected with the Asia-Pacific region.” He admitted Moscow had no choice but to strengthen and develop its relations with countries across the region.

Russia’s advantage in Asia is its history of benign colonisation. The Russian empire was not essentially exploitative, but instead greatly benefitted the conquered peoples of Central Asia and Siberia. For instance, it prised the Turkic nations of Central Asia out of the Ottoman Empire’s grip and modernised them. Without Russia there would be no cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppes without diluting Kazakhstan’s culture, language and religion.

In the modern era, a Mongolian became the first Asian to travel to space solely because of Mongolia’s ties with Russia. Now detractors might quibble that Mongolia was a client state, but wasn’t Pakistan America’s client for over six decades? Despite the strong military partnership between the two countries, how many Pakistanis travelled to space in an American shuttle?

Russia’s benign colonization finds a parallel only in another Asian country, India, which also conquered and upgraded the civilizations of Southeast Asia by bringing in cultural, spiritual, philosophical and, most important, financial gains to them. These similarities can’t be overlooked as they are too apparent.

Geopolitics in purely Western terms means cold calculations with no emotional strings attached. The over three-month bombing of Libya with scarce concern for the Libyan people is the most recent example of that. In contrast, Russians showed amazing restraint in the 2008 Georgia war and even in 1945 when Marshall Zhukov’s soldiers did not indulge in retaliatory killings in Berlin. Indeed, it can be argued that Moscow’s foreign policy is influenced by a sense of ethics, which is uniquely Russian.

Russians may belong in the West, but they are Westerners with an emotional bent. With half of Europe and half of Asia within its boundaries, Russia will always be a goulash of both ingredients.


Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based writer. He has previously worked with leading Indian publications like Businessworld, India Today and Hindustan Times.

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