Slavophiles vs. Westernizers

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Recently, I took part in a discussion about Russia's economic crisis on BBC Radio's Russian Service. The other two panelists, prominent Russian economists, debated each other about squandered opportunities during the years of plentiful petrodollars. One, who works in the private sector, decried the creation of enormous state corporations in natural resources and industry. Those inefficient behemoths, he claimed, amassed huge foreign debts during the good times and became a dead weight on the economy, exacerbating the crisis.

His opponent, who represented a government institution, on the contrary, lamented that the government had not done enough in this direction -- that is, revive various Soviet-era industries, such as aircraft manufacturing, and reorient the economy toward self-sufficiency by relying less on exporting commodities and importing Western goods.

Actually, their argument pitted two schools of thought prevalent in 19th-century Russia, Slavophiles and Westernizers; the only difference was that it was updated for the modern world and focused on economic policy. Slavophiles believed that Russia was a separate civilization that should guard against corrupting foreign influences and limit outside contacts. Westernizers, on the other hand, wanted Russia to throw its lot with Western Europe, adopt democratic institutions, open up and modernize.

The foundations of these two competing visions had been laid even earlier, when Peter the Great imported European technology and institutions and thrust Russia westward by conquering the eastern Baltic. For more than 300 years, the question of whether Russia is a European country or a civilization all its own has been a central dilemma in Russia's intellectual circles and a dividing line in every major political debate.

The Soviet period confused matters further. It started with Russia not only adopting a Western ideology, Marxism, but claiming to be a global pioneer. Based on Marx's theories, developed industrial nations were supposed to follow Russia in building communism. The Bolsheviks brutally turned on Russia's past, extirpating the Orthodox faith and physically eliminating most of the aristocracy and peasantry.

But when the world revolution failed to occur, Russia turned inward, becoming rabidly xenophobic. The Soviet system became a strange hybrid: it competed with the West as an industrial nation and a modern military power, while it also pursued its unique path behind the self-imposed Iron Curtain.

Curiously, the Slavophile-Westernizer argument was carried on in Soviet dissident circles, as well. It was symbolized by two Nobel laureates in the movement, writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and physicist Andrei Sakharov.

The post-Soviet history followed the same contorted trajectory. Disgusted by their dysfunctional society, Russians rejected communism and initially expressed a willingness to embrace Western democratic values and to join the global economy. But a series of economic disasters in the 1990s, followed by a period of unprecedented wealth in the 2000s, rekindled anti-Western sentiment and stoked renewed belief in Russia's exclusive path.

Russia's imperial eagle, cast down in 1917, was reestablished as the coat of arms in 1993. It can be argued, however, that it never entirely disappeared from the Russian flag. The Soviet hammer and sickle can be viewed as a stripped-down, constructivist version of the same two-headed eagle.

National crises tend to revive the ideological battles between the Slavophiles and Westernizers. The current economic crisis is likely to result in yet another lurch. It may push a chastised Russia toward the West or an angry Russia toward autarchy. Whatever the direction, it is likely to be temporary, since neither course is a panacea and each presents its own set of problems. Like a medieval knight at a crossroads in a famous painting by Viktor Vasnetsov in the Tretyakov Gallery, Russia finds itself once more pondering a signpost that promises dangers and pitfalls whichever road it takes. A state capitalist model could make Russia self-sufficient and immune from imported global economic debacles, but it will bring back such Soviet sins as stagnation, technological backwardness, corruption, poverty and authoritarianism.

But embracing the West will require humility, introspection and fundamental reform of the political system. Throughout its history, Russia has never shown enough patience to pursue this rational course for long. The country and its people soon tired of the small steps and routine work, finding refuge instead in the flight of political and economic fancy, grandiose plans and millenarian visions.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.