AFTER almost a year in Russia, I’m back in the Midlands. I hadn’t intended to stay so long, but a few border closures made the decision for me. Anyway, the extended sojourn behind the Iron Curtain has given me plenty of time to get better acquainted with the Russian bear.
My biggest gripe is not with Russia itself, but with the status it has taken in our culture wars. It seems the country can only be caricatured.
To the liberal chatterer, it is an authoritarian state ruled by an iron fist, its populace in poverty, swilling vodka and dancing with bears that roam freely through every town. To the conservative, it is the last bastion of Christian civilisation standing defiantly on the edge of a Europe which has willingly stoked the fires of its own destruction. Mother Russia: the great torch bearer of Orthodox Christianity.
A large proportion of Russians identify with Russian Orthodoxy. Churches are springing up across the country. Look across any town – even a small village with the omnipresent wooden shacks and Soviet-era tower blocks – and the gleaming dome of a newly restored Orthodox church will dazzle you. This is in marked contrast to the UK, where our churches are reduced to becoming a Tesco, or perhaps a mosque, all with the encouragement of the woke and ineffectual Church of England. It’s hard not to feel a smidgen jealous.
Certainly, Russia’s political system is imperfect. The ever-charitable Leftie will condemn the country for not having a copy of the ‘liberal democracy’ he or she has come to fetishise unquestioningly. However, this same system is at present in full retreat across the Anglo-Saxon world. Confronted with our talking-shop Parliament, the totalitarian tendencies of our Antipodean cousins and a senile old codger in the White House, it is harder than ever to maintain this notion of exceptionalism.
The Russians are a proud people. They do not universally like Putin, although a great many do. From my observations it is the middle-aged and older who are most affectionate. Hearing ‘у нас такой хороший президент!‘ (‘What a great president we have!’) is not uncommon. Unlike in the UK, where such fawning praise of Al Johnson would only be sarcastic, they mean it. Having gone through years of instability after the fall of the USSR, Putin’s rule provides them with a degree of certainty.
As our various disasters across the Middle East might inform us – only if we oh-so-enlightened Westerners would listen – applying our standards to countries across the world is a fool’s errand. Russia is not Britain. A vast landmass stretching across Eurasia, it is its own world with its own mindset and culture. Critics of Russia will generally avoid such an inconvenient fact.
The amount of condemnation reserved for Russia is many multiples greater than that directed to Islamic theocracies or the communists of Peking. Ruskis are considered fairer game than most others; no doubt in large part due to the skin colour of ethnic Russians. In being white and not on-board with the self-destructive tendencies of the modern enlightened European, they are viewed as somehow letting the side down.
This, however, ignores the fact that Russia is, although I hate to use the word, ‘diverse’. We in Britain like to pat ourselves on the back for having the distinction between civic (British) and ethnic (eg English – although this is forever under assault; cf David Lammy) identities. Such a distinction exists too in Russia.
While everyone living in Russia may not be русский (Russkiy – ‘Russian’ in ethnicity), they are a россиянин (Rossiyanin — ‘Russian‘ in the civic sense). Go to any Russian town and you will see plenty of Central Asians, as well as a smattering of Africans in the bigger cities too. Go to Kazan and half of the town’s population are Muslim Tartars. According to what you might read online such minorities automatically get their heads stoved in by the ever-present Russian skinhead the second they leave their homes. Open racial animus is something, however, that I didn’t see once during my time there; although no doubt certain areas are best avoided at certain times if you’re not white. I do not make the claim that it is the most racially tolerant society on earth. Yet I must confess to feeling much safer on the streets of Russia than England. Of course, there will be parts of Saint Petersburg where you probably shouldn’t venture at night, but who wouldn’t say the same about London with its knife crime and scooter-mounted thieves hunting for mobile phones? During a year in Russia, I didn’t once feel at risk.
Many believe the Russians to be an unfriendly bunch. Their reputation for being cold and surly appears justified upon first glance. They are, generally, reserved at the start. However, ask a question to break the ice and the floodgates of gregariousness will open. Formerly frosty babushkas will fall over themselves to help you find the way to the underground station – though this is a luxury often reserved for those speaking a bit of the local tongue.
What has astounded me most is the lack of knowledge we in the West have of Russia. To most it’s far enough away to be weird, but not different enough to be of interest. In the darkness of such unfamiliarity, suspicion breeds. Yet historically the Russians have been our allies when the proverbial hit the fan. Strategically placed at either side of Europe, we have good geopolitical reasons to be on better terms.
This is truer now more than ever. Yet in the face of the ceaseless hysterical Russophobia that has permeated the West in recent years, Russia has been pushed closer into the embrace of an unnatural ally: China.
China and Russia are unlikely to be long-term pals. History has shown them to have a decidedly ambivalent relationship. Yet, in the face of a world order set on marginalising Russia, Russians perceive short-term interest in opposing the Western world. However, with a resurgent China set on correcting perceived past humiliations, Russia will look towards its under-populated eastern extremities with concern. They have been under Russian control only since the 1860s after being taken from a weak and distracted Qing Empire.
Any discussion of becoming more pally with the Ruskis is in effect verboten after they annexed the Crimea in 2014. In doing so, Russia broke treaties it signed after the fall of the USSR recognising Ukraine’s borders. Ask any Russian though, and they’ll tell you that Crimea is a part of Russia and always has been: Khrushchev gifting it to Ukraine in the 1950s didn’t change that. If you disagree, good luck trying to convince a Russian otherwise.
You don’t have to love Russia. You don’t even have to like it. But what do we stand to gain from making it an enemy? They are not our primary geopolitical rival. That title goes to China. In upcoming decades, it will become clear that not having Russia on our side during that struggle will be a colossal strategic mistake.
Besides the Realpolitik, we have far more in common with the Russians than our leaders would like us to imagine. Caricatured and demonised, the stereotypes bear little resemblance to reality. The Russians I have met have been almost without exception generous and kind. Show an interest in their country and within a few moments you’ll be commanded: ‘Stay here! Become Russian!’ It’s all a far cry from what you might imagine.
Is the place perfect? No. But nor are we. As our starry-eyed dreams of creating a global liberal world order crumble before our eyes, perhaps we’ll recognise that fact more keenly.