Slavophiles and Westernizers in Russia

Many Russians, including some in the government, possibly even President Medvedev himself, would like to see Russia become a more Western country. The neo-Slavophiles do have quite a lot in common with Communists, who emphasize that Russia is different from Western civilizations.

Geoffrey Hosking, Professor Emeritus of Russian History, School of Slavonic & East European Studies, University College London in an interview for the website of the Valdai Discussion Club dwells upon the differences between Westernizers and Slavophiles and their counterparts in the modern Russia.

Why did such a trend emerge in Russia? What were the main differences between Westernizers and Slavophiles in XIX century?

In the 18th century, Russia had become a great European power, but its political system was very different from that of most European powers. Most European powers were moving towards becoming constitutional political systems and nation-states. Obviously that's not really true of Austria-Hungary, but it is true of most European countries: Germany, France, Italy, Spain and so on. Russia, of course, was much larger than any other European country, so it was regarded with fear and misgiving by European countries.

Many Russians believed that the best way for Russia to strengthen itself as a great power was to become more like European countries -- that is to say, to move towards a constitutional and parliamentary regime, either a republic, or more likely in Russia's case, a monarchy; to move towards becoming an industrialized nation-state, like France, Germany and Britain. So that was the Westerner's point of view. The Slavophiles reacted by saying, "Well, no, Russia is not like any European state. It has its own distinctive political system, which is based on autocracy and the Orthodox Church, and Russia is an empire, it's not a nation-state. And it shouldn't try to become one, because half of its population is non-Russian."

So those were the two positions prevalent in the 19th century, particularly during the second half of the 19th century.

And does such a dispute exist today? Who are the advocates and opponents of westernization?

Well, it does exist today, because the Russian economy is still not very satisfactory. Unlike most powers with such a relatively high level of economic development, Russia exports mainly raw materials, fuel and armaments. It doesn't export modern industrial goods and advanced technology like most European countries do. And so the advocates of westernization, again, would like to see Russia become more like other European countries, and to have a more diverse and modern industry.

Of course, this question has become a little more complicated in the last two or three years, because the European economies themselves are in a serious crisis. But I think that doesn't alter the fact that many Russians, including some in the government, possibly even President Medvedev himself, would like to see Russia become a more Western country, and to apply, therefore, genuine rule of law in its law courts, to set up a genuine parliamentary system with genuine free elections, whereas at the moment it seems that the elections are distorted, and in many ways to become more like a Western country.

So that, as it seems to me, is the position as it is today. And the results of the recent election suggest that the westernizing tendency in the country is growing. And this is natural enough, since many Russians now have the experience of living in other European countries.

Is it possible to westernize Russia and to move it towards a more liberal economy and rule of law, etc.?

Yes, I think it is, although it will not be easy. But it should be done both from the top and from below. A strong westernizing leader, I think, would gain a lot of support, especially amongst younger professional people and younger businessmen who have experience of Western life. On the other hand, there are also a lot of Russians who believe that Russia is, again, not like a European country, that it's more a Eurasian country – that is to say, that its roots in Asia are as strong as those in Europe, and that it should continue to be an authoritarian system, with a strong Orthodox Church. And they warn that the adoption of a Western-style political system would destabilize Russia, and weaken it and possibly even break it down.

So again you have the two parties. They're not exactly the same as they were in the 19th century, but there are similarities. However, the neo-Slavophiles do have quite a lot in common with Communists, who also emphasize that Russia is different from Western civilizations. But the communists themselves are rather split. After all, Zyuganov recommends rapprochement between the Communist Party and the Orthodox Church, and Russian nationalists in general, whereas quite a lot of communists still believe that the Orthodox Church is an evil force. That is to say, quite a lot of communists remain staunch atheists and would like to see a much stronger role for workers in the Russian economy. And it's not easy for the two wings of the Communist Party to work together.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.