Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continued their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Some hypothetical but fateful questions are rarely, if ever, discussed. Cohen argues that one such question is this: As the long-established “world order” collapses and a new one struggles to emerge, where will Russia, still the world’s largest territorial country, end up politically? The outcome will be fateful, for better or worse.
Geographically, of course, Russia cannot leave the West. Its expanses include vast Far Eastern territories and peoples and a long border with China, but they also include major European cities such as St. Petersburg. For that reason alone, Russia has long been, to varying degrees at various times, both a European and non-European country. Geography, it is said, is destiny, but Cohen makes the following historical points:
§ The profound divide in Russia’s political and intellectual elites between Slavophiles, who saw Russia’s true destiny apart from the West, and Westernizers, who saw it with the West, originally debated passionately in the 19th century, has never ended. Arguably, it was only exacerbated by the country’s subsequent political history.
§ It was evident in the Soviet Communist Party in the 1920s, when rival factions debated and fought over the nature and future of the 1917 Revolution.
§ The long Stalin era, from 1929 to 1953, imposed aspects of Western modernization on the country, such as literacy, industrialization, and urbanization, but also elements of what some observers called “Oriental Despotism.” These conflicting elements of the West and the East underlay the struggle, mostly inside the Communist Party, but not only, between anti-Stalinist reformers and neo-Stalinist conservatives during subsequent decades.
§ Even during the 40-year “Iron Curtain” Cold War, Soviet Russia, for all its elements of isolation, remained linked to the West. For example, the official Communist ideology, however formal, was inherently Western and internationalist. Still more, the European nations entrapped in the Soviet Bloc (East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and others) retained their Western currents, which flowed from their own Communist parties into the Soviet Russian political establishment. Not surprisingly, many of Mikhail Gorbachev’s close advisers who influenced his program for a Westernizing reformation of the Soviet system, called perestroika, had themselves been strongly influenced by ideological trends and developments in Soviet Bloc countries in Europe.
Indeed, when the Soviet Union ended in 1991, due largely to Gorbachev’s democratizing reforms, it was widely assumed—in Washington, Europe, and by pro-Western factions in Moscow—that Russia was now or would soon be, after a short “transition,” an integral part of the US-led West. And yet today, just over 25 years later, Russia is reviled in Washington and parts of Europe as the “No. 1 threat to the West,” a determined enemy that seeks to disrupt if not destroy Western democracy, from America to Europe. Even though, Cohen argues, this widespread, virtually orthodox, perception is without factual basis, we must ask, what went wrong?