The Russian world, or the limitrophes of the 21st century

Visitors attend an opening of the gallery of busts of Russian heroes, military and public figures, figures of culture and art-those that left a bright trace in the history of Russia, in the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg, Russia, 24 August 2018.
© EPA-EFE/ANATOLY MALTSEV   |   Visitors attend an opening of the gallery of busts of Russian heroes, military and public figures, figures of culture and art-those that left a bright trace in the history of Russia, in the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg, Russia, 24 August 2018.

Holzstock Festival

In the context of the discussion of the situation of the Russian "opposition" TV station Dozhd' (Rain TV) in Latvia and the deprivation of its license, it is worth considering the fundamental problem of this TV station and its activities in Riga. Just like the problem with any other "opposition" media project created abroad of the Russian Federation by its citizens. All of them, from the very beginning, are doomed to failure.

Well, the basic problem of these media is not that their journalist said something on air or didn't say, by mistake or not, showed a map of Russia with or without Crimea, or whether the station's management showed up for a meeting of the Latvian National Broadcasting Regulatory Commission without an interpreter, expecting that because of them it could be held in Russian (which, even if the members of the Commission were full of the best intentions and all knew Russian, is against the law of the Republic of Latvia). The biggest problem is that this project was a failure from the beginning. Why? First of all, because of the complete divergence of interests.

There is a well-known quote from Pyotr Stolypin, considered a great reformer in Russia: "You need great upheavals – while we need a great Russia." This famous sentence was uttered at a meeting of the Russian Duma on May 10, 1907. It is significant that although the discussion generally revolved around agriculture reform, Stolypin saw the "Polish question" as one of the main obstacles to its implementation.

Polish language as an obstacle in the way of Russia's historical tasks

Deputies from the so-called Polish Circle in the Russian state Duma were not at all distinguished by any exceptional radicalism; one of their most important demands was the requirement to restore public education in the Polish language in the Vistula Land – that what was left of the so-called Congress Kingdom of Poland, established after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when the Russian tsar pledged to respect its autonomy. Russian repression, which fell on Poles after the bloodily suppressed uprisings of 1830 and 1863, deprived them not only of education and learning in their native language, but even of the right to name their homeland its own name.

"Behold, gentlemen, there are those lessons of history which, I believe, demonstrate emphatically enough that a state like Russia cannot and indeed has no right to deny itself with impunity in carrying out its historical tasks. [...] Indeed, it would be interesting to trace how influential Polish circles in Western Russia [that means – „in Poland “] reacted to the great upheavals that Russia experienced in 1905 and subsequent years. [...] An opportunity was created for the Polish population to interact with us, so that, leg for leg, they walked together with the Russians along the path of culture, in a peaceful current of statehood. But how did the Polish intelligentsia take advantage of this opportunity? Well, in the same way as before: an exceptionally strong increase in hostility to everything Russian. It happened what was supposed to happen: every time the Russian creative force weakens in the country, the Polish force strengthens and comes forward."

On the road to the modernization of Russia (of which Stolypin was a great supporter), it was therefore necessary to suppress all cultural drives of the Poles, which represented nothing less than "the growth of hostility to everything Russian." Sounds familiar, doesn't it? "Russophobia" is one of the favorite platitudes, a kind of peculiar key word, so eagerly repeated today by both regime and opposition media in Russia. It is precisely the accusations of "hostility to everything Russian" that are also being made today against the Latvian authorities and society in the context of the revocation of the license of the aforementioned TV station.

Another slogan often used by Russians is the alleged greatness of their culture (i.e., others against it are "small"), after all, one cannot deny the "greatness" of Pushkin, for example?

The great Russian poet never hid his hostile attitude towards the Poles, for example, giving expression to it through his propaganda poem "To the Slanderers of Russia," in which he unambiguously put the message to the people of Western Europe, showing his attitude to the Polish-Lithuanian uprising of 1830, along with the advice not to meddle in Russia's internal affairs, which, after all, they supposedly do not understand anyway: "What angered you? The riots in Lithuania? Leave it away: it's a Slavic dispute among yourselves." Pushkin certainly did not consider himself ignorant, although he probably did not fully know which nations of the tsarist empire belonged to the Slavic linguistic and ethnic group and which did not. Then again, in the context of Russia's greatness, it apparently didn't matter to him.

"If you want to hear stupidity, ask a foreigner what he thinks of Russia," he wrote in one of his letters.

From here we will threaten the Swedes

Since the days of Pushkin, who is considered the founder of the Russian literary language and great Russian literature, the slogan "we demand a great Russia" has been and still is the essence of the Russian national idea, which still underlies all visions of the country's future, as well as visions of Russia's role even today. All these visions have always been – and still are – executed at our expense. Ours – that is, all the nations affected by the "great upheavals" that directly correlated with Russia's demand for "greatness."

So, on the one hand, Russians like to tell the world that they are an inseparable part of world culture, and point out their "inseparable ties" with European culture – and on the other hand, they show undisguised tendencies to stress clear contempt for this (supposedly, after all, "common") culture, emphasize their cultural distinctiveness and "superiority", and even more so to their neighboring "small" European nations. On the other hand, they have a ready answer to any accusations against them – "Russia cannot be known by the mind".

With all this in mind, it becomes clearer why an anti-regime TV station from Russia chose Riga for its headquarters. It was a kind of show-off – here we are where we should actually be, where the Russian word and Russian ideas are still "alive," as this is part of "our" Russian world. As Alexander Pushkin wrote of St. Petersburg, newly founded on conquered lands on the Baltic Sea, "from here we will threaten the Swedes."

In other words, today's Latvia, safe under the NATO umbrella and relatively prosperous within the EU, in their visions and imaginations is simply nothing more than a kind of alternative Russia. In the minds of "opposition" Russians, it is a country whose existence is explained by the measure of their needs, with only one task – to serve their vision of a "new Russia of a better future" (a phrase often heard on Dozhd' TV). Without Putin in power, but also without any reflection on their role in the world. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon in the history of Russian ideas. It is quite easy to find out by referring again to the "great Russian literature." It suffices to mention in this context, for example, Vasily Aksionov's The Island of Crimea. This is a 1979 novel, published after the author emigrated from the USSR to the United States two years later. It represents a kind of alternative history and geography, the main premise of which is that the Crimea peninsula is a full-fledged island. This detail plays an important role in the history of the Russian civil war: the island of Crimea is likened to the real island of Taiwan, which is, according to the author, quite a successful experience of confronting political and economic systems alternative to each other within one nation.

It is also significant that until the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Kyiv, and in a broader context also the whole of Ukraine, played for many "opposition" Russians the role of just such an alternative Russia. And now, in addition to Riga, Tbilisi, Chisinau, Almaty, Tallinn, Vilnius, Helsinki and – why not – Warsaw or Krakow are also suitable for this role. Wherever they can act near Russians and gather around them a critical mass of Russian speakers, ready to act together and willing to perceive the world exclusively through the prism of their language. It is precisely such people that TV Dozhd' was also looking for in Latvia – and it certainly found them, too.

Russia cannot be put in a hat

One hundred years ago, Mikhail Bulgakov, also an ardent supporter of an alternative Russia (that is, other than the Bolshevik Russia of the time), very aptly captured the phenomenon of peculiarly expressed imperialism in his novel The White Guard. In one chapter, he describes the flight of "white" Russians to Kyiv in the winter, spring and summer of 1918. They were fleeing the Bolsheviks from Moscow and St. Petersburg to the then-independent Ukraine, where a Ukrainian state was being formed under the leadership of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky – with an alternative concept of a Central Council headed by the so-called Directory, mostly identified with the figure of Symon Petliura.

Bulgakov himself never emigrated to the West, longingly looking forward to the "new Russia" in Kyiv, where he watched the Ukrainians' attempts to create their own statehood with complete incomprehension and malice. "Russia cannot be put into a hat," he once replied to a question about possible emigration. Today, considered a leading figure in the current Russian opposition, Alexei Navalny, in an interview with Echo Moscow radio a few months after Russia's annexation of Crimea, when asked directly by the presenter to whom the peninsula belongs, replied: "Crimea belongs to the people who live in Crimea," and added: "Crimea will remain part of Russia and will never again be part of Ukraine in the foreseeable future." Toward the end of the conversation, Navalny added a phrase that is often quoted as indicative of his stance on the Crimean issue: "Is Crimea a sausage sandwich that can be passed back and forth?".

Bulgakov's description of the Ukraine of a century ago was an alternative or even temporary – until the fall or defeat of the Bolshevik regime in Moscow – Russia in the eyes of most cultured Russians and those in opposition to the Bolshevik regime. The author's described hatred of the Bolsheviks in no way correlated with the perception of the geopolitical changes taking place all around. Changes that affected our entire part of Europe – the independent, "troubled" Poland mentioned in the text, the emerging Baltic states, Finland and Ukraine – countries for which Russians even coined a special pejorative term – "limitrophes".

Limitrophes (from the Latin Limitrophus, "frontier") is the collective term used by Russians for states formed after 1917 on territory previously (at least partially) part of the Russian Empire. The term came into use at the end of World War I. According to the definition of the Little Soviet Encyclopedia, it was used to refer disparagingly to "states formed from the outskirts of former Czarist Russia, mainly from the western provinces (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, partly Poland and Romania)."

Paradoxically, Bulgakov was right when he wrote that such an escape of Russians and the creation of alternative Russias in other countries would not happen again in the 20th century. However, in the 21st century, almost exactly a century after the events described by Bulgakov, it happened again. This is what is still happening before our eyes, and the adventures of the Russian opposition TV station in Riga are a perfect example.

Do we all want a democratic Russia?

Let's return to the 21st century. Recently, the question of whether or not we (i.e., the "collective West," a term so eagerly used by the regime's Russian propaganda) desire a democratic Russia has been raised with increasing frequency. And if we desire it, it is our duty to support and help those Russians who also supposedly desire the same. After all, it's simple, right?

It is. But only seemingly, because the answer to this question requires us to know what those Russians who want a democratic Russia really want, and what they expect us to do about it.

The short answer again is simple: they want a Russia without Putin. However, those who do want that, for the most part, expect their country to once again be essentially what it was before February 24, 2022 and the international isolation that followed – but above all, not to be forced to seriously revise its role in the world and rethink its relations with other nations and states.

Russia without Putin in its relations with the rest of the world according to this concept is simply to automatically return to the business-as-usual model. Corresponding to the previously established pattern of "We give you hydrocarbons and access to our receptive market (well, and some of our "great culture"), and you give us visas and direct flights to Paris, New York and London, access to modern technology and the recognition that we are equal or even slightly "more equal." Greatness, after all, obliges – 'we demand a great Russia', do you remember?".

"Opposition Russians" actually expect three things: 1) access to sources of funding for their ideas (there is already talk of a "Marshall Plan" for the "new" Russia"); 2) the possibility of unlimited "Lebensraum" for the Russian language wherever Russians want and need it (any other solution is a manifestation of "Russophobia"); 3) here I will use another quote, this time from philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev: "to deny Russia in the name of humanity is to rob humanity." This sentence resonates perfectly with the current narrative of "defending the great Russian culture" in the face of numerous attacks caused by "Russophobia," for example, the alleged "barbarism" committed by Ukrainians in dismantling monuments to Empress Catherine II and General Alexander Suvorov in Odessa. The latter, in addition to colonizing Ukraine, became famous for, among other things, the massacre of Warsaw's Praga district in November 1794, but according to many outraged Russians, this is purely a cancel culture phenomenon, nothing more. That is: recognize our cultural greatness and don't try to lecture us, because by definition you don't understand us anyway.

Therefore, the answer to the question of whether we want a democratic Russia is directly related to the answer to the question of whether we agree to the realization of just such a vision of a new Russia in the way that the people themselves expect. In other words, would we accept the role assigned to us in advance by adepts of this concept as the new limitrophes of the 21st century.

Author: Nikodem Szczygłowski

This article was originally published and is available on New Eastern Europe and is being republished by Veridica with the author’ consent.

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