Sunday, February 25, 2018

Like Germans in 20th Century, Russians Now View Their Country’s Sonderweg Alternatively as Positive and Negative, Scholars Say

 Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 25 – As with the Germans in the 20th century, Russian views on their country’s “special path” oscillate between the notion they are particularly good and should promote their approach and a sign that they are especially bad and must repent before God and the world, according to a new book by two Higher School of Economics scholars.

            This sets Germany and Russia apart from the many countries which view themselves as having “a special path,” Timur Atnashev and Mikhail Velizhev say in Special Path: From Ideology to Method (in Russian, Moscow, 2018) (

            It contributes to a certain apocalypticism and uncertainty about the future, they argue in the course of an interview with Taisiya Bekbulatova of the Meduza news agency in which they focus in particular on the ways in which ideas about a special path for Russia both shape and are exploited by the country’s political elite.

            The book, which consists of six papers presented at a Moscow conference seven years ago and six at another in Oxford six years ago, they argue, is extremely topical because “it helps us understand ceretain important processes which are taking place with us today,” including the new notions about “the state and national elect status of Russia” the Kremlin is pushing.

            Russians have been talking about a special path, either positive or negative, since Napoleonic times, they say, viewing Russia’s distinctiveness as given by God or history and therefore to be celebrated or as a curse self-inflicted or otherwise that has left Russia behind and that must be overcome.

            During perestroika, they argue, such “historiosophic language” became “one of the main means for understanding and discussing things in the public space that was coming into existence. This language forms political philosophy as a special instrument of public reflection and polemic.”

            It was all about comparing Russia with others and concluding that it was either better or worse than they, Atnashev and Velizhev say. And “crudely speaking,” the two suggest, such a metaphor enjoys enormous popularity when politics passes from a closed circle of people to a broader one, especially if the country has as Russia does a tradition of defining itself this way.

            For Orthodox Christians, “Russia is the only remaining Orthodox empire, and therefore it has a special fate, a special path and a special historical mission.” For others, “the Soviet empire” played the same role, albeit sometimes in a positive sense and sometimes otherwise, because “there never was and never will be anything like it in the world.”

              In both cases, a certain religious habit of mind plays a role; and that is why today, some support a special path for Russia based on the restoration of traditional values “because if suddenly and it will always come suddenly, there is the Final Judgment and history ends, we” but not others “will be saved.”

            This can serve as “a compensation mechanism” that explains and even celebrates Russia’s backwardness compared to other states in economic terms.  Indeed, for some Russians, “the worse things are in a certain sense for us, the better.” And it feeds into another widely held metaphor about the nation.

            The idea of a special course implies that Russia is a young nation rather than an older one and that its time of flourishing is ahead rather than behind as is the case with the West, the two scholars say.  And it can be used to justify focusing on morality rather than on economic modernization and development. Those are secondary issues.

            Moreover, the idea of a special path for Russia feeds off popular “resentment” about the end of the Soviet empire. “We have returned to a pre-revolutionary situation,” they argue, one in which there is no other clear way to “justify and calm” ourselves except for insisting that we are different.

            For many Russians, the metaphor of a special path is above all “a means for preserving a positive image of the self,” even when it flips and suggests that the special path is a negative one, as happened in Germany after 1945 and for some Russians after the death of Stalin and the end of the Soviet system.

            Over time, they suggest, considering these commonalities can help Russians escape from the constant oscilation between a harsh negative and a strictly positive special course and “come to an understanding of themselves in the world as having a choice of many paths, not one of which is completely unique in either a good or bad way.

            And such research may lead to an even deeper understanding that using the term “path” as a metaphor invariably excludes using other metaphors medical, biological or otherwise that may prove to be more useful for Russia or any other country as it passes through various historical stages.

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