Staunton, December 3 – “In order to weaken the internal discomfort and sense of national incompleteness” they feel at an unconscious level, Russians “project on the West all the negative ideas about themselves which they refuse to openly recognize in themselves,” according to Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center.
In today’s “Novaya gazeta” and in a related article for Kyiv’s “Novoye vremya,” the pioneering sociologist discusses the ways in which Russian attitudes toward the West reflect and shape Russian understandings about their own possibilities and shortcomings as a nation (novayagazeta.ru/politics/70997.html and nv.ua/opinion/gudkov/rossijane-nenavidjat-zapad-no-hotjat-zhit-tak-zhe-83512.html).
“The ‘West’,” he says, “turns out to be not only a utopia of the fullness of cultural values and an ideal of social well-being but also a measure of the national or cultural independence (or the illusion of same) achieved by Russia, an idea of that which some would like Russian society to be but which it has not become for many reasons.”
Because of that, Gudkov continues, “the idealization of Europe and deference to it very easily passes over into criticism of ‘kowtowing to the West,’ ‘the struggle with cosmopolitanism’ under Stalin,, and to a relationship toward Europe or European culture as something alien, hostile and threatening to Russia’s national existence and incompatible with its culture.”
“Each period of Russian history characterized by accelerated development, economic growth and a rising level of the standard of living has been accompanied by ‘an opening to the world’ and a change in the regime within the country. A positive view of the West made possible the rapid acquisition of Western ideas and technologies, trade and cultural cooperation.”
But, “on the contrary,” Gudkov writes, “periods of stagnation and terror are distinguished by isolationism, xenophobia, and the impoverished state of everyday life.”
These periods have alternated. In the early 1990s, Russia turned to the West and was open to European ideas, but “people poorly understood what democratic and a legal state were” and when they became disappointed that they were not living as well as the Europeans, there was a swing in the other direction.
By the mid-1990s, that swing began, with “the revenge of the nomenklatura” being accompanied by a rise of nationalism, isolationist attitudes and accusations” against democracy. “With the coming to power of representatives of the special services, there took place a revival of anti-Western propaganda” – and that has accelerated the process.
Gudkov then surveys the data showing how fast and how far Russians have turned from identifying with Europe to viewing Europe in a negative way and seeing themselves as set apart. He argues that what is important in this is “the asymmetrical quality” of how Russians view themselves and Europeans.
Russian view themselves as “peaceful people” and think the West should not be afraid of Russia, but the West itself represents a threat to Russia. Russia therefore should fear Western countries … The West [in this view] is thus guilty in the worsening of relations between Russia and the EU … and its criticism of the violations of international law, freedoms and human rights in Russia itself is hypocritical and unjustified [and] not objective.”
The paradox here, Gudkov says, is that “the absolute majority of Russians despite all their skepticism relative to the possibility of change of this policy under the current authorities all the same would like to see cooperation and the normalization of relations with European countries. More than that, in secret, they hope for this.”
And this understanding is based, he says, “on the hidden understanding among a relative majority that as a result of the end of the cold war and the ceasing of confrontation with the West, Russians all the same won more than they lost.”
In his “Novoye vremya” comment, Gudkov extends some of these ideas. As he has pointed out on numerous occasions, Russians are anti-Western today largely as a result of propaganda, and “the word ‘western’ has become sharply negative,” although Russians do not know precisely what they mean by this.
“As before, the West remains an internal guide, a model of a desired way of life, a model of utopian society in which there is a high standard of living, social defense, an independent court, and correspondingly the possibility of legal defense from administrative arbitrariness, a developed infrastructure, and a favorable ecology.”
“When we ask about particular issues,” Gudkov says, “people of course say that the state of these spheres in the West is better than in Russia” and even say that they would rather life in a small and comfortable European country than in a state with a strong military, but nonetheless they articulate anti-European views when speaking about the situation as a whole.
At present, “the place of European identity is occupied by the idea of ‘a special path’ which in general earlier never entirely disappeared. This is a sense of specialness and separateness from the world which existed already in Soviet times.” What people mean by this unfortunately is “impossible to understand” because it has no clear content.
The “main function” of such declarations is the erection of “a defensive barrier.” “To the extent that we cannot live like in Europe and the West, there is a striving to remove the source of dissonance, tension and feelings of one’s own incompleteness.” In short, this is a way of coping with cognitive dissonance and a reflection of a weak ego.
And to make his point, Gudkov refers to Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes. When the fox tries to reach the grapes but cannot grasp them, he tells himself rather than admitting defeat they are green and not worth eating. “Approximately the same psychological mechanism is at work among Russians when they are asked about the phrase ‘the Western way of life.’”