Rakesh Krishnan Simha
The 23rd Economic Forum in Poland was a unique opportunity to understand the nature and causes of Russian influence around the world.
Is the "Russian World” a global cultural and social phenomenon? Does it unite people, who regardless of their nationality, consider themselves Russian, identify with its language, culture, history, its presence and past? How is the Russian World perceived by others?
I was one of the guest speakers at the 23rd Economic Forum held from September 3-5, 2013 in the fairytale setting of Krynica-Zdroy in Poland, where these issues were discussed. The annual conference is known as the "Eastern Davos”, and the US ambassador to Poland, Stephen Mull, says with just a touch of hyperbole that the "atmosphere is better” than Davos.
I was invited to take part in the panel discussion – Russian World: Space of a Difficult Dialogue. I was a bit surprised to be invited to speak on Russia in Poland because the two countries are mostly suspicious of each other, with Poland firmly in the American camp.
To be sure, the organisers were also surprised – pleasantly of course – when I accepted the invitation because doing the Auckland-Hong Kong-Frankfurt-Krakow-Krynica return trip within a space of seven days isn’t exactly a pleasure cruise.
But I’m glad I did. It is not very often in the life of a journalist that an epiphany occurs and Europe certainly was that.
The discussion was moderated by Alexander Neklessa, Director, Centre for Geoeconomics Studies, Russia. The other panelists were Andrii Yermolaiev, director, National Institute for Strategic Studies, Ukraine; Cecile Vaissie, Head of the Russian Studies Department, University of Rennes, France; and Azamat Sultanov, Managing Director, Russian Media Solutions, UK. Dmitry Andreyev, Docent, M.V. Lomonsov Moscow State University, Russia, was the commentator.
The one impression I got as the discussion progressed was that it was exclusively Eurocentric. As the second last speaker I had a chance to hear out the majority before my turn. The European speakers were concentrating on the pockets of Russian influence in Europe and, of course, the former Soviet republics which form the biggest Russian diaspora.
The far far away Russian World
The problem with such a Eurocentric view is that it concentrates on a shrinking Europe while ignoring the millions of non-Russians outside Europe who are passionate about Russia. They live in places as diverse as Venezuela, South Africa, India, Algeria, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mongolia and Brazil.
The call of Russia strongly resonates in these places where people believe it is country that can be trusted – in a way the West can never be. In many parts of the Middle East, South America and Africa there is a belief that Russia can stop Western expansionism and bullying. Russia is seen as counterweight to the West.
But the chief reason there is a Russian World at all outside Europe is that the Russians do not believe their civilisation and culture is superior to the rest of the world. They do not believe in doling out self-righteous sermons the way people in Western countries do.
The fact that Russia has never claimed racial or religious exclusivity is extremely important to Asians, Africans and especially Indians, who were at the forefront of the war against colonialism. For those not in the loop about India’s struggle against foreign rule, India fought against foreign rule – Islamic and European Christian – for over 1000 years. Indians are, therefore, sensitive to claims of racial superiority of any kind.
The British boob
On September 3 as the conference bus deposited me outside my hotel, a man in his 60s introduced himself as a professor of Eastern European studies from London. All I wanted to do was get into my room and sleep off the jet lag, but this gentleman insisted on finding out where I was from.
When I said I was from India, the professor said: "I have never travelled outside Europe and I say that with pride.”
Well, I replied, if your ancestors had felt the same way you do, the world would have been spared a lot of agony.
My point is that a Russian would never treat a foreigner like that. Despite the galaxy of great Russians such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Gagarin and Korolev, who have contributed to the arts and sciences, you won’t see Russians behaving like they own the planet.
Now, many of you may disagree but I feel one of the things common between the Abrahamic faiths and the West is a sense of entitlement – that the world belongs to them and they have the first right to its resources. There are different degrees of entitlement among various countries in the West, but basically the elites of all Western countries believe in this entitlement. The scramble for colonies from the 1500s to the 1900s, and the senseless invasions of Iraq and Libya are proof of that.
Now, Russians are also European but have a mindset completely different from the predatory instinct that marks the likes of Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Belgium. They don’t believe Russians or Europeans are superior to Indians or Asians or Africans.
The Russians also embarked upon colonial expansion, especially in Central Asia. But here’s where they differed from the West. When the West was kicked out, they left behind industrial wastelands such as India, China and Algeria. However, when the Russian left in the 1990s, they left behind heavily industrialised countries such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
Just hold that thought – look at what the West did in its colonies and compare that with the Russians did in their dominions. You get the picture.
According to Moscow-based academic Dmitry Mikheyev, Russia offers an alternative to the "selfishness and hedonism” of the Anglo-Saxon world. Perhaps this is why Russia’s influence continues to endure in the post-Soviet republics. In contrast, Britain’s influence across the Commonwealth of Nations is reduced to a resentful afterglow. Similarly, French influence in its former colonies in Africa and Asia is shrinking and is being replaced by a pervasive Chinese presence.
Hopefully Russia won’t fritter away the vast deposits of goodwill in the most unlikely places in the world. For, it is goodwill that translates into strong economic, security and cultural ties, raising the possibility that tomorrow’s Russia will be as influential as the Russia of yesteryears.