Monday, March 19, 2018

‘Does Russia Exist?’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 17 – In 1986, American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein wrote a seminal article in which he asked “Does India Exist?”  He was not suggesting that India does not appear on maps but rather that its development as the product of British imperial rule could have taken that land and its people in entirely different directions if London had decided otherwise.

            A similar question can be asked of Russia, Dmitry Travin of St. Petersburg’s European University says, because what is called Russia today could have been an entirely different country or countries had leaders in Moscow made different decisions or achieved or not achieved their aims (

                “Just imagine,” he suggests, what would have been the case if Ivan III “had not been able to conquer the free city of Novgorod and unite it to the Muscovite state.” In that case, Novgorod now “would not be only one of numerous provincial Russian cities which means nothing in comparison with the Moscow powers” but something incomparably more.

            In the 15th century, “Novgorod was a state comparable in power with Muscovy,” with enormous natural resources, links to the West, and a more participatory culture. “Consequently,” Travin says, if the tsars had not conquered it and not repressed it, Moscow wouldn’t have had the resources to pay off its own boyars and build its own wealth and power.

            Muscovy in that event would not have been able to advance to the south or to the east and thus would not have become an enormous empire. Instead, Travin says, “it would have remained lost in the forests and swamps where Ivan Kalita formed it. It might have been able to avoid being attacked but it would have sat quietly and not shown its nose elsewhere.”

            Obviously, the St. Petersburg writer says, coming up with such a scenario is not without problems: too many factors are involved. But what is important is this: Russia has gone through many such turning points where if things had gone differently, it would have turned out to be a fundamentally different place.

            “Present-day Russia is the result of a long historical path on which the country was affected by many accidents and turning points which were not pre-ordained” however much some want to present things otherwise. It was not preordained that people would identify as Russians or be imperial or Orthodoxy or economically backward.

            Travin devotes much of his article to a discussion of how the region and indeed the world might have looked had Muscovy failed to conquer Novgorod, from the European Union to Siberia to the Islamic world.  But he stresses that what is important in engaging in such “alternative histories’ is something other than the fantasies these things may support.

            And that is this: what millions today imagine as someone eternal and even God-given is “only the product of a definite historical development.” Had things gone even slightly differently at one point, then everything thereafter would have been different as well.  And that is true not only of the past but of the present.

            “Life even now constantly changes us. and even the most respected culture is the object of constant transformations. The most warlike peoples transform themselves into working one as for example the Swedes. Imperial centers into comfortable small corners of civilization as for example Vienna.”

            And “conquered ethnoses having liberated themselves build national cultures on the language of the conquerors as for example the Irish.”  In short, “national culture is a great thing, but life is greater than culture, and the individual is greater than the nation” however great the one appears and however small the other appears at any one date.

            “Those who understand this achieve success,” Travin says. “But those who don’t struggle their entire lives with specters of the past and inevitably lose.”

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