Staunton, July 25 – Russian blogger Pavel Pryanikov has performed a useful service by calling attention to the fact that the phrase “the rotting West” is not some new Moscow invention but rather a term of art invented in 1857 by Stepan Shevryov, a Slavophile specialist on Dante who worked in the Imperial foreign ministry (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5795AF24D3AD8).
What makes this recollection important is not just the delicious irony that Shevryov was forced to flee his country and died in “the rotting West” he so despised but rather that it points to an underlying continuity in Russian thought over that period, a continuity many in Russia and perhaps even more in the West continually seek to deny only then to be disappointed.
Each new twist and turn of Russian behavior is proclaimed by some in both places to be either the appearance of “a new heaven and a new earth” that will open the way to East-West cooperation of hitherto unheard of dimensions or a temporary backing away from that “bright future” that everyone should look beyond.
But beyond the obvious problems of professing to see a secular trend in one direction in a situation that for a very long time has been marked by a circular pattern of boom and bust developments, there are three aspects of this situation that should be kept in mind especially in the West.
First, while it may be true that countries do not have permanent enemies or friends but only permanent interests, it is certainly the case that those interests reflect not only geography and history but ideology. And in the case of Russia, suspicion and hostility to the West, rooted in a sense of spiritual superiority, has long played a role and shows no sign of dissipating.
Second, such continuing suspicion and hostility does not mean that Russians are not prepared to partake of the benefits of the West, just as Shevryov did by fleeing, but only that they see Russia and the West as fundamentally irreconcilable even if such partial rapprochements occasionally take place.
And third, Russian rulers have cleverly used such partial rapprochements and the expectation of many in the West that they are more than that to win concessions from other countries whose leaders increasingly focus on the short term rather than on longer term continuities.
The world is witness to this sorry spectacle once again: ever more Western experts and policy makers are calling for a new rapprochement with Moscow which in turn is promoting such notions confident that only cooperation between Russia and the West will make it possible to solve all the problems of the world or at least prevent a disaster.
Some of these appeals are no doubt genuine, but the history of the last several centuries strongly suggests that they will again lead to disappointment given that the Western parties to such accords constantly look for the good in Russia while Russian rulers continue to believe they are dealing with a “rotting” West they can exploit and defeat.