The myth of the West and Russia
22nd April 2022
The embassy in Tehran was besieged by the local population, was overrun, and the ambassador killed in 1829. He was Alexander Griboedov (1795-1829), one of the chief Russian writers whose analysis of the relation between East and West in his play, Woe from Wit (1823), is still central and a key to the Russian view. The main character looks bewildered as a Frenchman from Bordeaux is lionized by Russian society and elevated to a pedestal, which he somehow does not deserve. The same observer famously claimed that Russia should imitate the Chinese, who in their complete isolation from the outside world, had preserved their integrity. “If we could only take something from the Chinese: their contempt for the intellect of foreigners. When will we rise above the fashion of imitating foreigners?” (act 3 scene 22).
Every Russian school child has read these lines: they are central to their culture. The tension between idealizing the West and rejecting it. This idolized West is the one which only they understand. Catherine the Great (1762-1796) bought the libraries of Diderot, Voltaire and the old master paintings of Sir Robert Walpole which are now in St. Petersburg, neglected and sold by the West. The Russian feels alone in preserving this culture which is now no longer central either to France or the UK. The past shapes the future for the Russian while we are living in an eternal present without past or future. Western diplomats must grin and bear long historical lectures from Russians, whose relevance escapes them.
The West and Russia are speaking different languages. Their aims are possibly the same, but their means of expression are so different, that incomprehension is the key feature. It is the deaf who will not listen. Each side is blind to the other’s priorities. Griboedov paid with his life for his ability to step back from his own society as well as defending its interests in writing the treatise of Turkmenchay, which defined the relations between Persia and Russia in 1828. He was almost a revolutionary, and his friends were arrested as Decembrists in 1825, but his focus was solitary: distant yet engaged. The West and China, no longer offer a model of culture or isolation, as in the day of Griboedov.
That is the question for Russians today: who are our friends? who do we admire? Such questions are the ones each country should ask itself before providing clear-cut judgements. Diplomacy is the art of communication, but if no one is listening, and no one is speaking, war should not be the answer.
Frederick Lauritzen, Method in Madness: Geopolitics in a changing world. Analysis and predictions, Venice 2023. ISBN: 9781738456499