Russian Messianism

I recently spoke to a long-time friend, who is a ‘Putin sympathiser’. He argued that NATO was threatening Russia and that Putin had no choice but to occupy Crimea. At the end, to top it all off, he said, “If I were in his place, I would do the same thing”.

I admit that it took me by complete surprise. He’s an intelligent and kind man. The truth is, he is very critical of the West; in the conflicts that are taking place, he always seems to blame the United States and Europe.

Two recent events involving show that the Russian fifth column is not taken too seriously here, and that the majority of Czechs are not ‘Putin sympathisers. The first was the recent trip of the American military convoy from Bavaria through the Czech Republic to the Baltic States (the event was predicted to lead to substantial anti US/NATO protests, which it did not –ed.), and the trip of Putin’s “Night Wolves” from Russia to Berlin (a pro-Putin motorcycle gang, which was predicted to stir up trouble but did not –ed.).

Nevertheless, it’s necessary to repeat truth, even though it’s more difficult than repeating a lie. I apologize to those who believe that in the following text I am only repeating a well-known, infamous, banality.

True, NATO has expanded to the East. But let’s ask why. Was it because Europe or the United States wanted to invade Russia or isolate it? Or was it because those states that wanted to join were finally able to join? I believe the latter to be true. So we can therefore ask: why then did these states feel threatened by Russia, and why did they feel that NATO could offer them more security? The answer is obvious: they recognized Russia’s domination, and they didn’t like it. This applies to all countries except for three: Slovenia, Croatia and Albania. Finally, we can ask if these countries joined NATO because the United States or Western European countries somehow forced them to, or was it the other way round, in that these states had to fulfil certain criteria in order to be accepted? And let’s not forget the question: do these states have the right to decide their fate? The answer is yes.

But Russia doesn’t think so. President Putin and those who agree with him are convinced that Russia has the right to decide the security and foreign policy of her neighbouring states. Russia has never supported the fact that these states are free, competent and have the right to decide their own fate. And ‘Putin sympathisers’ understand this. I don’t. .

‘Putin sympathisers’ also say that Russia is justly concerned about the possibility of a NATO attack. First, none of the new NATO members have any desire to attack anyone – all of them joined NATO for security purposes, and not so that they could attack someone. Moreover, NATO’s military spending and size of its armies as a whole since the end of the Cold War has constantly declined. The problem is not that NATO wants to attack Russia, but rather, that today, it can’t defend itself against Russia.

I’m sure that all European countries would prefer that Russia be a normal state. That’s what the majority of Europeans wished for, and Europe was willing to help Russia in this regard. But why does Russia not want to be a normal state? Why does it insist on special considerations, that other countries don’t have?

Politics won’t give the answer, so let’s look at the cultural aspect. Russians – and not just politicians, but also nearly all intellectuals – are convinced of their exceptional historical mission. They consider themselves an exceptional nation, which is why they demand exclusive rights, which other states deny them. This is called ‘Messianism’. Such Messianism can be found in various forms among most of the Russian elite – politicians, philosophers, writers and other artists.

Russia has constantly compared itself against Europe: historically, it continues to vacillate between adoring and then despising Europe. But no matter what, Russia always insists on special treatment and on recognition that it has the right to decide on issues concerning its neighbours. The more Russia does this, the more it spreads fear among its neighbours. It would be interesting if Russia could present Europe with some proof of its ‘global’ mission –on how it intends to save the world.

True, the Slavs (with the exception of the Croats, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Poles, who had the worst experiences with Russia) do have a tendency to look up to Russia and expect something from it. For the Czechs, Slovaks, Yugoslavs, and Bulgarians, this respect goes back to the Napoleonic wars. But if these nations were met with the Russian reality of today, they would quickly sober up.

In Europe, Russia has as an example several nations that had to come to terms with the fact that they would not be a world power: Spain, Britain, France and Germany. All of them eventually discovered that the loss of superpower status would not signal the end of the world, but rather, that they could re-build themselves.

Translated by Natalie Rybová, shortened from the original by TNP.

published: 17. 8. 2015