Is Russia Asian or European?

The perpetual question of Russian foreign policy is where the country fits within Eurasia: Is it a European or an Asian state? This question began to be asked at the time of the Mongol invasions, when Russian princes such as Alexander Nevsky had to choose allegiances between western (Germanic) and eastern (Mongol) realms. Nevsky generally chose the Mongols over the Germans, but he also was an independent-minded ruler who was trying to tread a middle ground. The question again came to the forefront at the time of Peter the Great's Western-style reforms in the early 1700s, and then in a debate between “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles” in post-Napoleon 19th-century Russia. The Westernizers saw Russia as a fundamentally European country, albeit with a backward political system in need of reform. The Slavophiles, in contrast, saw Russia as a Eurasian entity with its own destiny.

In 1915 V. P. Semenov-Tian-Shansky, the most influential Russian geographer of his time, published a monograph on the political geography of Russia. His main thesis was that Russia was more similar to the United States and Canada than to any European or Asian country, in that it represented a “coast-to-coast” system rather than a “Heartland” or a “Rimland.” He saw Russia's biggest challenge as developing sufficiently dense settlements in the distant Far East, and he advocated major population shifts toward the empty middle of the country in Siberia as a line of defense against possible invasions from the outside. In the 1930s, the ?migr? community of exiled Russian philosophers continued debating the question of Russia's “Eurasianness.” The geopolitical role of Russia (and of Northern Eurasia generally) in the world has been much debated in the Western political-geographical literature as well, especially in the works of British, German, and U.S. geographers.

Broadly, there are three main viewpoints (I am simplifying them a bit):

  1. Russia is part of Western civilization. Its elite is Western-thinking; its society is mostly European in its culture; and its economic patterns of production follow those of Europe, albeit with some variation and usually with a considerable time lag. It is gradually embracing Western democratic ideals and is becoming a more and more fully realized member of the larger European community and the North Atlantic world. This is the view of Westernizers, from Peter the Great to Mikhail Gorbachev.
  2. Russia is part of the East (Asia) more than of the West (Europe). It is a politically backward society prone to violence, corruption, political oppression, and heavy top-down control by monarchical, maniacal tyrants. It is not a true democracy and can never become one, because democracy is contrary to its very nature. It will forever be antagonistic to Europe, North America, and the rest of the “free” world. Or, for those who prefer a more positive “spin” on things, Russia is a beacon of moral sanity to the decadent, corrupt West. In one version or the other, this is the view of some Russian ultranationalists, Soviet-period Communists, American presidential advisors since World War II (e.g., Zbigniew Brzezinski), conservative U.S. talk show hosts, some right-wing politicians in Europe, and conservative economists and political scientists on both sides of the Atlantic (especially in Britain).
  3. Russia is neither part of the West nor part of the East, but is its own distinctly “Eurasian” civilization. This is the view of most Russian nationalists, most 19th-century Slavophiles, and a few influential 20th-century Russian thinkers, and it seems to be enjoying the endorsement of the current Putin–Medvedev administration as well. According to this more middle-of-the-road view, Russia has both Western and Eastern traits. More significantly, it has many fused elements and should be recognized as a separate political entity, with a unique identity and interests. Some of these thinkers tend to emphasize the uniqueness of Russian religion, specifically the Orthodox Church, as distinct from both Western Christianity and the Asian religions. To a certain extent, Ukraine and Kazakhstan would also fit this “mixed model.” Both are similar to Russia in the fusion of European and Asiatic elements in their cultures, although these elements are not expressed uniformly across the three countries.

This third viewpoint has been particularly popularized in the West by Samuel P. Huntington's book (1996) The Clash of Civilizations. His main thesis is that

the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future. (1996, p. 45)

A conservative thinker, Huntington has influenced U.S. foreign policy for the last 15 years. This is significant for Russia for two reasons. First, it vindicates the current posturing of the Kremlin administration vis-?-vis Europeans and Americans in global affairs: “We are equal partners, but not one of you. Even famous Western scientists are saying so.” Second, Russia has a “battle line of the future” passing right along its southern border, where the Islamic world meets the Orthodox realm. It is noteworthy that Huntington picked religion as a defining trait of culture. In a largely secularized Western world, this may seem na?ve and outdated. However, in all the other civilizations defined by Huntington except the Chinese/Sinic world, religion continues to play an important role in nation building, national identity, and social cohesion. In the post-Communist societies and Islamic countries of Eurasia, it is actually playing an increasingly important political role.

Huntington's model has been much criticized and is, of course, a one-sided and fairly narrow view. Nevertheless, it provides a convenient conceptual map of the world for us to use as we try to understand the present-day political behavior of Russia and other FSU countries. The zone of contact between (Western) Europe and Russia has been contested for centuries and has seen several major wars, including the Napoleonic wars and the two world wars of the 20th century. Cohen (2009) calls this area the “Eurasian Convergence Zone” to indicate its position at the crossroads. He is more optimistic than Huntington that the zone may become the site of a genuine convergence, rather than competition, of world interests. For example, Russia, the United States, NATO, and some Central Asian states are involved as partners in the current efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

It is interesting to note that while Ukraine and Georgia are Orthodox, they are actually less pro-Russian than nominally Muslim Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, in a contradiction to Huntington's model. The first two countries are geographically on the doorstep of European civilization (the zone of contact between Western and Eastern Christianity); the latter two are in Eurasian hinterlands equally distant from Moscow and Mecca, and clearly in no position even to contemplate a membership in various European alliances. Thus Ukraine and Georgia are justified in their efforts to seek greater rapport with Europe. However, Islamic influences in Central Asia are not particularly strong (because of both 70 years of Soviet atheism and the current rulers' emphatically secular politics), so it could be argued that an alliance with Moscow makes a lot of practical sense for them. Other important zones of contact to watch around Russia are those in the Far East, with the Sinic and Japanese civilizations. Although relationships here are pragmatic and trade-oriented at the moment, these zones of contact are likely to become more contested in the future, as world energy resources become farther depleted.