Thursday, August 4, 2016

Moscow’s Treatment of Regions as Provincial Makes Russia Provincial for Everyone Else, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 4 – The propensity of Muscovites from those in the government to its most liberal opponents, to treat the rest of Russia as their “provinces” is playing an evil trick on them, Vadim Shtepa says. It is transforming Moscow and Russia more generally into a province of the rest of the world.

            In a commentary on the Rufabula portal, the Russian regionalist and federalist from Karelia who has been forced to emigrate to Estonia, says that “the imperial tradition of dividing the country into a capital and its provinces arose centuries ago when Muscovy defeated Novgorod and viewed it as its natural patrimony (

            Vladimir Putin thus has not invented anything but only made an existing situation worse, he continues, noting that “in this case, ‘the Third Rome’ has completely followed ‘the first’ where the word ‘province’ appeared as a designation for conquered lands ruled by Roman representatives.”

            That attitude and approach among Muscovites stands as a completely opposite to federalism in which “”this capital hyper-centralism does not exist,” Shtepa writes, adding that “it is impossible to imagine that a Washingtonian would call a Chicagoan or a Los Angelos resident ‘provincials.’” 

            But in Russia, the idea that all the regions beyond the ring road are “the provinces” has only intensified after it appeared in the 19th century. Earlier, residents of St. Petersburg never thought of calling Muscovites or Kyivans ‘provincials.’”  But under the Soviet regime, that is exactly what happened with Muscovites viewing everyone else as that.

            And in the minds of many Muscovites and not only they, the dualism of capital and province had deep consequences for social and political thought.  “’The capital’ is associated with progress and innovations while ‘the provinces’ are viewed as backward and secondary” to the country as a whole.

            Muscovites in particular and Russians in general are often not aware of how out of step this puts them with the rest of the world.  Europe and the West generally consist of federal states with real power and taxation sharing, and regional parties are part of their landscapes, something not allowed in Russia since 2003.

            And Russians seldom recognize that in European countries, there is no belief that everything has to be concentrated in the capital cities.  Great scholars like Kant, Nietzsche, and Heidigger worked in small cities, while other scholars in the capitals of their countries studied them – exactly the reverse of what Russians expect and Moscow promotes.

            Muscovites have told themselves that their way is justified because Moscow is “a donor region.”  But it is only a donor region, Shtepa says, because it takes so much from the regions rather than produces anything but political decisions on its own.  Were the regions able to retain the money they produce, Moscow wouldn’t be a donor any more.

            One manifestation of this “imperial tradition,” he writes, is that “Moscow politicians consider themselves completely justified in going to ‘the provinces’ and taking part in regional elections, even putting their names at the top of the lists on the ballots.” That doesn’t happen in the West, but it does in Russia with both pro-Kremlin and anti-Kremlin groups.

                Muscovites justify what they are doing by “considering themselves to be not ‘Muscovites’ but ‘federal’” representatives – even though if Russia were a federation, something it is not, that would mean that each region would have the right to run its own affairs, the exiled regionalist says.

            But perhaps the most important consequence of this Muscovite division of Russia into “the capital” and “the provinces is elsewhere, Shtepa suggests.  “Imperial centralization inevitably gives rise to a view abroad” of Russia as a whole as a kind of provincial phenomenon relative to other countries.

            Muscovites and indeed all Russians should thus stop using the word “province” and instead employ the more neutral term “region.” That does not immediately presuppose the existence of a capital beyond its borders. Unfortunately, Russians typically view regionalism as something suspicious, even as the first stage to secession, even though it is not.

            By way of conclusion, Shtepa cites the observation of Mikhail Epshteyn in the latter’s book, “The New Sectarians: Types of Religious and Philosophical Proclivities in Russia.”  That book from the 1990s described some imaginary “sects” of the late Soviet period but it was written in such realistic language that many accepted it as factual.

            Among the sects Epshteyn described, the regionalist says, were “the provs,” an abbreviation for “the provincials.” He wrote that Russia is “an enormous province,” from whichever end you approach it Europe or Asia.  “The only thing that we have given the world is the worldview of the provincial.”

            What is “paradoxical” about this, this provincialism was “created by residents of the capital,” Epshteyn wrote. But he shouldn’t have been surprised, Shtepa says, because “if within the country is preserved the ‘capital-province’ model of consciousness, it inevitably will be extrapolated outside as well.”

            And therefore, Shtepa says, “all Russia together with Moscow, and perhaps Moscow above all remains a secondary and dependent ‘province’ of the developed world.”

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