Recently, I conducted a little teaching experiment in several of my classes. I simply pulled up a map of the world and asked my students which countries were part of the West. In almost all cases, we found out that many more countries are actually culturally “Western” – whatever that means – than typically thought. It was easy to make an argument that somehow, “Western” has to do with Europe, and of course with US. If the US is part of the West, then why not Argentina? After initial hesitation, I prodded that a lot of Germans after World War II felt very comfortable there, and that seemed to have won the argument. Eventually, we learned that the “West” really is not a geographical idea after all, but something strangely murky, somehow je-ne-sais-quoi, but that if you were generous, the list of countries would be very expansive, and could even include all of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, all of Europe, some parts of Africa and Asia, but with one key exception: Russia.
The idea that Russia is culturally Western was too hard a sell. I found that deeply confusing. Let me say that I grew up in Communist East Germany, which de facto was a Soviet colony, and that I am definitely biased against the Soviet Union while simultaneously accustomed to Russian culture. I had to learn Russian at school, even picked it up at university again, but still somehow can’t speak or read it well. My bias is against dictatorships, but not against Russian culture.
The list of Russian cultural contributions is long. Western music – just to consider one example – would not be the same without Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Shostakovich. Literature would not be complete without Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn (although I am less of an expert there). History – and I am not judging morality here – would be less colorful without Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Lenin, Stalin, certainly Khrushchev, and both Rasputin and Putin. Democracy will forever be thankful to Gorbachev for demonstrating that dictatorships are incompatible with glasnost – with openness, truth and free debate. Food would not be complete without Pierogi, Borscht, Syrniki, and probably Vodka (although I personally draw a line there…). What would film be without Eisenstein? Art without Kandinsky, Chagall, Pasternak and Repin? Also, without Sergey Brin (and Larry Page) there would be no Google…
Contemporary Russia sees itself again somewhat in continuity to being the Third Rome, as testified by the reintroduction of the double-headed eagle into its coat of arms, and the rising role of the Orthodox Church. Even the Soviet Union was based on a combination of theories from German and Russian authors.
If we do not realize that our cultural attitudes with regards to Russia are severely mistaken, we cannot build common ground. That does not mean that we have to agree with Putin’s politics (and I don’t). But politics is politics, and people are people.
I would propose that the current quagmire with a potential for a worldwide conflict is partially the result of an ignorant rejection by the West of Russia as the cultural “other.” Certainly, it is naïve to cater to Putin’s every whim, but there needs to be more of a sense of wanting to work together. Even during the height of the Cold War, the West was culturally more interested in Russia than now.
With a bit more of recognition of Russia’s contributions to our own culture and history, maybe its political leadership would be less obsessed with paranoid concerns over territory and security, and more interested in co-creating a better world in cooperation with the rest of Europe and the wider West. Contrary to what Obama said, Russia is not merely a regional power. Let’s be firm on our security interests, let’s stay firm on issues pertaining to human rights and democracy, but let’s take some steps towards a recognition of common interests, a common culture, and a shared vision for the planet, for peace, not war.