How we see Russia

Daniel Treisman, an ‘area studies’ scholar on Russia, wrote of two methods that people use to write about Russia.

The first approach is to focus on the country’s dark side, to present Russia as a land of deformity. … From sixteenth century European travelogues, one learns that Russian peasants at that time were drunks, idolaters, and sodomites. Seventheeth century travellers report that the country’s northern forests were a breeding ground for witches. Then come the famous denunciations of the Marquis de Custine, along with the jeremiads of Chaadaev – a homegrown convert to the idiom – who, just as Pushkin was publishing Eugene Onevin , chastised Russia for failing to contribute anything to human civilisation. Russia, he charged, was a “blank” page in the intellectual order,” which existed only to “teach the world some great lesson.” Much journalism and historical writing shares this preoccupation with the country’s dismal side.

… Most of the sinister features that upset the critics are, sadly, typical of countries at similar levels of economic development. Russia is unique, but in the way that Belgium, Argentina, and Malaysia are unique – no more, no less.

Illustration from an article in the Financial Times; titled

Illustration from an article in the Financial Times; titled “Russia takes a step backwards”

The second approach is:

to turn mystical when Russia is mentioned, to exult in paradoxes and wallow in the exotic. Russia, it is said, is unique and unknowable. It hides its secrets from social scientists and statisticians. … Its roads are Möbius strips; its parallel lines cross many times. Such talk usually progresses to speculation about the Russian soul, itself conceived as a jumble of contradictions. Russians, wrote the philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev,a re Dionysian yet ascetic, violent yet gentle, ritualistic yet hungry for truth: “In the Russian soul there is a sort of immensity, a vagueness, a predilection for the infinite, such as is suggested by the great plain of Russia.” In short, an easy place to get lost.

Whilst mystification and vilification are no way to study a country, Treisman goes on to say:

a generation of work by social scientists from both Russia and the West has shown that the country’s economic and politics are perfectly susceptible to careful observation, measurement, and reasoned interpretation. The apparently chaotic surfaces of political and economic life often turn out to conceal quite intelligible patterns that are in many ways similar to those found elsewhere.

Furthermore, there are patterns of foreign policy that are reasonably unique to Russia. The obsession with the ‘near abroad’ (bordering countries that were former parts of the Soviet Union/Russian empire) and ‘great power’ status, as well as Russia’s independence from foreign powers are obvious, and there have been attempts within the field to explain them as political narratives/myths unique to a country’s identity.

Postcolonialism – Key Terms

Since these terms can often be hard to pin down, I’m giving some quick definitions of words I may use every so often. Note that this is me writing from my phone, so I apologise for any mistakes made.

Alterity

The ‘alternate’, someone/or a group of peoples that are in a state of being different. This is usually in contrast with the West, or colonial powers; the ‘Other’ is defined by its outsider status.

Ambivalence

How the colonised, and coloniser view each other. The colonised is often seen as inferior yet exotic, and uncivilised (see noble/ignoble savage), ideas used to justify colonialism. The colonised often saw the coloniser as an invasive and destructive force.

Essentialism

The practice of groups deciding upon identities, which can often be used as a means of maintaining the status quo or gaining further influence. Often used through race, culture, religion, or ethnicity. Differences are overlooked. Essentialism can also be used by the colonised, as a means of fighting coloniser discourse.

Hybridity

A contested term, it can often simply mean ‘cross-cultural exchange’. Some writers, such as Bhabha, highlight the interdependence between master and subject in colonial power relations, which is important in the development of hybridity.

Post colonialism

The study of the effects of colonisation felt by cultures and societies. Post-colonial states are best seen as ‘post-independence’, from their colonial masters.