Russia and Europe: The Splendour of Money and the Misery of Philosophy
Bribing Western intellectuals and exporting Russia’s peculiar ideology have long been a favourite diversion of Russian rulers
Big conquests require big concepts and a powerful ideology with slogans appealing to millions. Even totalitarian regimes cannot exist for very long relying on physical force alone. They need not only terror but also dogmas, miracles and some kind of mass doctrine to answer a multitude of questions, stake a claim to the ultimate truth and offer a lofty dream for everyone. Former prisoners of the socialist camp, after experiencing the complete collapse of a forced communist utopia, flocked to the West to embrace the ideals of human rights, freedom, rule-of-law state, civil society, etc. that were actually implemented in practice. Understandably, from the “standpoint of eternity” the Western implementation is far from ideal, but it is still exceedingly educative in comparison to what the totalitarian systems have accomplished and, most important, the price paid for these accomplishments.
No physical force, if it aspires to regional or worldwide domination, can afford to keep silent. It always needs a certain programme, a manifestation of its senses and proposals – urbi et orbi, as the saying goes. After all, the objective is not only tojustify one’s actions before others but also to provide self-justification and to explain to oneself for the sake of what things are being done in a particular way.
Given grand geopolitical plans, a state cannot do without a certain political philosophy with which to appeal to allies and opponents, supporters and enemies alike. Under certain circumstances, thanks to its theoretical and propagandist virtues this kind of philosophy can foster expansion. Conversely, an insufficiently competitive philosophy can have a detrimental effect.
There were several stages in the history of Russia when it tried to theoretically justify its expansionist itch and its insatiable desire to grab more lands and rule the world, dictating its own notions of the political norm and the proper global order.
When Moscow was just formed and started to come out of its remote northeast corner of Europe, monk Philotheus outlined its action plan: “Two Romes have fallen. The third one stands. And there will be no fourth. Moscow is the Third Rome!” This referred to Moscow’s ambition to become the hegemon of the entire eastern Christian world after the fall of Byzantium under Turkish attacks. This involves an intention to fiercely fight against western Christianity and Islam, while aspiring to be a superpower. This programmatic statement was a guideline for Moscow’s elites for nearly two centuries.
In the early 19th century, there was a need to reflect on the internal ideological foundations of the empire to secure its strength and thus enable it to achieve its geopolitical goals. A proposal came from Count Sergey Uvarov, Minister of Education, in his famous triad: “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality”. This tripartite foundation cemented the empire more or less successfully and justified its conquests until 1917.
And then came the great international social utopia in the form of “Proletarians of all countries unite!” It was appropriated by Russia, which eagerly put itself in the centre of a worldwide revolutionary movement as the self-proclaimed capital of progressive mankind. The utopia did not in any way contradict the Russian imperial tradition. As Karl Radel, a Bolshevik leader and international adventurist, quipped: “The Third Rome didn’t work out, but the Third International will!” Indeed, the propaganda of social justice, power for workers, a kind of God’s kingdom on earth and a homeland for proletarians across the world gave Moscow millions of sincere “useful idiots”, to quote from Lenin, in many foreign countries. The Soviet intelligence services – the KGB and its predecessors – embraced thousands of enthusiastic agents who considered the totalitarian USSR an embodiment of mankind’s best dreams. Suffice it to mention that Kim Philby, a famous KGB agent of noble origin, made contact with the Soviet intelligence agency because he was a fanatic of communist Moscow, just like his friends from the so-called Cambridge Five.
For several decades, the Kremlin was able to manipulate, at will, many Western left-leaning intellectuals, including the likes of Bernard Shaw, Lion Feuchtwanger, Henri Barbusse, Louis Aragon, Romain Rolland and others. Disappointment began to creep up in these circles only after Soviet tanks suppressed the Prague Spring of 1968. However, “useful idiots” (not necessarily left-leaning) are in large supply even now, but this is no longer the mass phenomenon it used to be in Soviet times.
The collapse of the communist utopia was also the collapse of the Kremlin’s global leverage. There is now a perceptible vacuum of ideas, critical for Russia, which cannot be filled even by the Kremlin’s “court lunatics” like the ideologue of the International Eurasian Movement, Aleksandr Dugin, or writer Aleksandr Prokhanov with their ideological shamanism. The most they have been able to come up with is the poor, provincial and narrowly nationalistic concept of the “Russian World” which is not persuasive for all ethnic Russians, to say nothing of the Baltic States, Central Asia, Transcaucasia and Ukraine. It is not potent enough to stake a claim to domination in the post-Soviet territory and even less so worldwide. For still some time, Moscow can continue to exploit the West which keeps its eyes closed on the dictatorship of special services and Putin’s Führer-like autocracy and considers Russia a democratic state. (Its attitude is, however, already shifting towards a more critical stance.)Nevertheless, the only things left in Moscow’s arsenal today are banal violence devoid of any ideology and no less banal bribery. However, these things work in the West today as they did hundreds of years ago. The KGB’s experience, enriched with the accomplishments of Russian imperialism and anti-Western attitudes, is brought to bear.Following the example of the Russian Empire, Putin is quite successfully exporting corruption to the West, and the West is eagerly succumbing.
Official Saint Petersburg bribed foreign public, political and cultural leaders since the early 18th century. (Muscovy was not above these methods even earlier.) Volkov, the tsar’s ambassador in Paris, suggested that Peter I change the negative perception of Russia in French society by bribing newspaper editors. For positive coverage, a dozen leading journalists and writers were hired to write laudatory articles. For example, Fontenelle, a classical French writer, wrote “Eulogy to Peter!”. Even Voltaire was not above cashing in on adulation and himself admitted that he was a “perfect flatterer” in his writings on Russian topics. His countryman Jean d’Alambertthus evaluated his oeuvre: “My Lord, Voltaire’s eighth volume (which contains “A History of Peter I”) is repugnant in the baseness and despicability of its praise. To have the annual rent of 10,000 livres, live in a free country and write such a history!” The French suspected that censors from Petersburgwere involved in the process. The great philosopher and writer showed himself as a very cynical man, because he did not have any illusions regarding Russia and said in 1760: “The customs there are as difficult as the climate; envy of foreigners is extreme, despotism boundless and society worthless.”
In order to have French encyclopaedists promote her interests, Catherine II bought Denis Diderot’s library for 15,000 livres and appointed him its curator for life with the annual salary of 1,000livres. It was Diderot himself! And we now speak about ex-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder… Voltaire wrote that Catherine II turned into “Europe’s veritable benefactor”. Ukrainian émigré researcher Pavlo Holubenko noted: “The secret Russian police, or ‘the Third Department of the Emperor’s Chancellery’, kept its special agents abroad. Their task was to publish propaganda pieces about Russia in the foreign press and bribe newspaper and magazine editors for this purpose.” One of such agents, Yakov Tolstoy, was described by the Russian ambassador to France in a letter to the gendarmerie’s chief Benkendorf: “He would then be able to work the press, so to speak, on the quiet, and the connections he would forge by virtue of his official position would greatly help him in gaining influence in the literary circles.” Tolstoy himself believed that, in dealing with French journalists and editors, one had to “go the way of promising rewards and immediately giving them to some of those who have helped our cause”. Saint Petersburg wanted to utilize even Honoré de Balzac for the purposes of its propaganda but did not risk it after a fiasco with Marquise deCustine.
More than 200 years later, what changed in Russia and in Europe? Perhaps only the prices and sums of rewards… Just like before, Eurasian prices beat European values. And this is the biggest challenge of modern mankind.