It’s Time to Update Old Categories
Karel Schwarzenberg 9 November 2015

I do think that when we are discussing about Russia, we have to realize one thing that applies not only to Russia: that we are living in a moment when different nations and different people live in different times. This has held true for the world’s entire history. As long as we were separated by seas or deserts, this was not such a terrible problem. The world of the Spaniards when they conquered Mexico, and the world of Montezuma were different even then. But now we find ourselves in the strange situation where the world is globalized, and people who are interconnected are living in different times. The Islamic State, which is a cruel reality, is an institution that would fit perfectly into—and whose existence would not be overly surprising in—the 14th and 15th centuries. Actually, in those times, we in Europe also killed and burned the Cathars and others who ‘deviated’ from Catholic orthodoxy. We burned monasteries; we killed nuns and monks for various religious reasons. This spirit lasted in Europe well into the 17th century. For many reasons, the people of the Islamic State are still in that state of mind that was ours five hundred years ago.

One of many (and by far not the only) problems in Russia is that Russian political ideas are still expressed in the concepts, formulations and categories of the 19th century. For instance, if you follow the idea of a ‘sphere of influence’, whether you call it the “near abroad” or “sphere of influence” is not so important; self-evidently, any European politician during the first half of the 20th century would have understood the Russian politics of today perfectly. Because, to tell the truth, neither the Brits nor the French or Italians acted very differently. Presently we have many problems with Libya, as we know, but how was Libya created? There were three Ottoman provinces, which the Italians conquered in 1911, united under one colonial empire, and gave the antique name of ‘Libya’—and so “Libya” was created, but of course the three provinces have not changed so much and therefore Libya is still not really a state in our view.

Because there was only the Great Russian Revolution, and no other revolutions that formed our thinking in Europe (not even the ‘68 revolution), it was understandable that Russian political thinking today is similar to the thinking of our grandfathers. For this among many other reasons (as I realized with amusement), an old friend of mine, Henry Kissinger, who is a great student and really knows a lot about 19th century politics, understands Putin perfectly: because Putin behaves like the politicians of the nineteenth century.

Second: we know that the schools and the universities where Western politicians studied formed their ways of thinking.  Now we have to realize that the Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky Academy of the Soviet Secret Service, which was the school where Putin studied and received his degree, is slightly different from the London School of Economics or the Harvard Business School. Therefore, to argue with Putin using arguments that one uses in discussions in London or at Harvard does not make a lot of sense.

Third: The Russian elite is in a difficult situation. But as we are now in Berlin, we should not forget that less than 95 years ago, similar things happened in Germany and Russia. German troops were occupying Odessa, a great part of Belgium, and a sizeable piece of France. Nevertheless, suddenly, the German Imperial Army was forced to capitulate and the whole German Reich was finished. There was a revolution in Berlin; the Emperor was toppled; Germany lost a lot of territories, to Poland, to France and so forth. For the generation of politicians and officers who grew up in the old German Empire before World War I, it was an incredibly unjust catastrophe that a well-led, well-industrialized, well-educated nation like Germany should lose a war and some one-third of its territory as of 1914. The army was still in enemy countries, which must have been the reason for the famous German Dolchstosslegende that brought the Nazis to power: that is, that there must have been a conspiracy to bring down Germany”.

The same thing happened in Russia. The Soviet regime broke down at the moment when Soviet troops were in Erfurt, when most of Central Asia—all these “Stans” (Turkestan, Kazakhstan, Kirgistan. . .), were very much under Soviet-rule with a Soviet army… “we had mighty nuclear armed forces, everything. And suddenly, the Soviet Union imploded.” For the people of Putin’s generation, this was—and is, of course—an awful experience, just as 1918 was an awful experience for German officers and politicians. Putin is honest: he says himself that for him the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century is neither one of the two world wars but rather the break-up of the Soviet empire.  For us, this was not such a terrible event; after all, very few people died as a result.  But for Putin, it was the most terrible thing.  And of course, he has a natural instinct to repair as much as possible what happened to Russia. And given Russian thinking as it has developed throughout the centuries, it is quite clear to Putin that the first task is to unite Rus—which means not only present-day Russia, but also Ukraine and Belarus.  Naturally he does not recognize that a Ukrainian nation exists.  For him Ukraine was, is and will always be a part of Russia and therefore must be subordinated to and ruled by Moscow.

I will give you one example. Three years ago, Putin was on visit to Bratislava.  It was a normal state visit concerning problems of oil and gas supply and extending the rail route from Russia to Bratislava and Vienna or further.  The visit was going perfectly.  Then, in the evening, Putin had to fly back to Moscow and a Slovak friend of mine was required by protocol to accompany him to the airport.  There they realized that there were some technical difficulties with Putin’s aircraft and the flight had to be postponed for two hours.  So they sat in the waiting room, and my poor friend thought: what should I talk to Putin about now?  Then he remembered that Putin, like himself, was a great ice hockey fan.  So they began to talk about ice hockey, a topic about which Putin is very knowledgeable.

After an hour, my friend was running out of things to say, so he suggested that an additional hockey league be created just for those nations that are really strong in ice hockey, like Canada, Sweden, the United States, Finland and Ukraine. . . “No, not Ukraine, that is not a nation,” was Putin’s response.  And that is his view: that Ukraine is not a nation. That the country has no right to be independent.  Of course, Putin did not realize two things: first, throughout European history new nations have developed.  What is the English word for the people of the Netherlands?  The Dutch.  “Dutch,” of course, is a variation on “Deutsche,” because six or eight hundred years ago, these people were Germans.  It was only due to the history of the 15th and 16th century that they became independent; today no Dutch citizen considers himself German.  That is only one of many examples.  A similar development happened in Switzerland.  Moreover, Putin was convinced that the decolonization of the twentieth century, in the course of which the great European powers—Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, France—all lost their colonies, would stop at the Russian frontier.  The only difference is that West European powers had to go to a port and sail by ship to South America or Asia or Africa to create their colonies.  Russians had it simpler: they sent to Siberia or Central Asia some Cossacks who conquered and occupied those places; they did not need a ship but very soon some Russian peasants came walking, they didn’t need a ship, and colonized it. That is a Russian way of colonisation Therefore, there are a lot of Russians everywhere from Vladivostok to Kazakhstan.

But of course all these territories were developed the same sense of independence as purely English colonies in the 18th century developed in what was later the United States and that this process would go on in Russia too was long time not accepted. The Russian argument was: “We have no colonies. It’s a part of Russia.”

Of course older people like myself remember that sixty years ago, Algeria was a part of France. It was not a colony. It was a part of the French Republic. So this process of decolonization began with Russia, too. The greatest nation which was subdued by Moscow rather late is Ukraine; this actually happened only in the 18th 19th centuries. Until then—at least until the battle of Poltava where the Swedes lost to Russia—Ukraine was independent from Moscow. Russia and Ukraine shared the same Orthodox Christianity, but that was about all—Ukraine had not been a territory of Russia.  After Poltava there was only one power in Eastern Europe, and that was Russia. Poland was experiencing a time of decay, which meant that Russia could conquer Ukraine. But of course, Russia didn’t stop there. People always remember that only one generation after the Russian Empire swallowed Ukraine, the first partition of Poland took place—and yet they still believe the Russian claim heard so often in the past two years that Crimea was always Russian.  In fact, Crimea became part of Russia only seven years after the United States declared its dependence from Great Britain, in the late 18th century.  Previously, Crimea had been a country of the Crimean Tatars and then a state of the Ottoman Empire—yet we still believe believe that it had been Russian for ages.  This is nonsense.  And so we believe present-day Russia’s mythology ourselves, which is, of course, a great error.

We see that there are several elements comprising this Russian “Sonderweg.” But this is not something mystical, but several elements that come together.  The most important is that in Russia’s long history, neither the Renaissance nor the Reformation nor the Enlightenment nor a bourgeois revolution took place in Russia.  There was only one revolution—the October Revolution, which was very particular. Russia did not have the experience of the revolution of 1968 in Europe, which altered political behavior in the whole of western Europe.

If I were to be polemical, I would say that Russia is backwards, that it developed in a way different from that of Europe because some influences, some key Western experiences were missing.  But I am optimistic: I am quite sure that this regime will not remain for long.  In history even fifty years is a short time, so perhaps we do have to prepare ourselves to spend a longer time with Putin and his successors. Yet if we look at the many Russian students, and other Russian citizens, living around the world, collecting new experiences, then it seems that Russia can never be as it was still in 1989: a totally closed country.  In Russian history, during the Campagne de France of 1814-1815 Russian officers came to Paris, saw what was possible in Europe, returned to Petersburg and began the Decembrist Revolt—because they wanted to achieve some of the same things Europeans had.  The Decembrist Revolt was put down.  Nevertheless, it very much marked Russian history.

I am quite sure that Russian thinking is changing more rapidly than we observe because, of course, we observe above all Putin’s official messages and very well constructed propaganda.  In the first years of the twentieth century, superficial observers of Russia perceived an enormous empire, with an enormous army, an almighty tsar and so forth.  They did not realize that beneath the shiny exterior and the appearance of power Russians had already begun to think in a different day.  The tsar realized this too late.  So I’m quite sure that Russians are not stupidier than other Europeans.  They will develop a way of thinking similar to ours.  Their way of thinking will always be a bit different—just like the ways of thinking of the Swedes and Spaniards are different—but still, I think that liberalizing ideas will come.

Of course Russians have one disadvantage, and this is where I would like to finish.  All democratic revolutions, if they are to succeed, need a state where the administration at least half works, and where the judiciary is at least half independent.  You need an independent judiciary; this is how the development of Europe began: when the Black Prince was sentenced by a simple English judge. That was the turning point of European history. That the judge is above the king’s oldest son—this is where the history turns. Russian judges are waiting for a telephone call to tell them what to decide. So these are the difficulties of introducing democracy in Russia.

* Prince Karel Schwarzenberg was born in Prague in 1937. He moved with his family to Austria in 1943. In 1965 he assumed the inheritance of his uncle Henry. On the death of his uncle Joseph he becomes the internal head of the Schwarzenberg family uniting the two lines of the family (primogeniture and secundogeniture) in his person. From early on he is an international human rights activist. Among other positions held, from 1984 to 1991 President of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. After the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the election of Vaclav Havel as president, he became the latter’s chancellor from 1990 to 1992. Schwarzenberg was foreign minister of Czechoslovakia from 2007 to 2009 and from 2010 to 2013. He is one of the Czech Republic’s most popular politicians. Schwarzenberg is married with two grown-up children.


Between June 22nd and 25th 2015, Reset-Dalogues on Civilizations organized an international workshop and a roundtable on The Evolution of Russian Political Thought After 1991. The conference, held in Berlin at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, included a roundtable focused on The Political Culture of Today’s Russia.




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