Features A European Russia or a Russian Europe

Is Russia part of Europe? Russians answer this question in different ways. For many of them, Russia is not Europe but Eurasia, which is an alternate unit of civilization. I do not share this opinion, writes Adam Michnik here.

Published on balticworlds.com on May 13, 2011

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Is Russia part of Europe? Russians answer this question in different ways. For many of them, Russia is not Europe but Eurasia, which is an alternate unit  of civilization. I do not share this opinion.

For me, Russia is an irremovable component of Europe, just like Poland, Ireland, or Portugal. Can one imagine European culture without Pushkin and Dostoevsky, without Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, without Sakharov, Brodsky, or Solzhenitsyn? The Russian dreams of the future also inscribe themselves in the European model: right wing and left wing, conserv-ative and liberal. Russian Bolshevism is a European product in the same measure as German Nazism.


Several years ago, I participated in a conference in Berlin that was devoted to Russia’s relationship with the European Union. One of the speakers, a known Russian democrat, and also a colleague of mine, presented a brilliant lecture on the subject of Russian-German relations over the course of two centuries. It struck me that in this lecture he made no mention at all, not even one word, about Poland or Ukraine.

Later, as we talked and drank beer for several hours, I tried to persuade my friend that it was not possible to truly understand the history of Russian-German relations without mentioning Poland. I think that I did indeed persuade him. He, however, was a noble-minded Russian democrat who, moreover, today has been pushed to the political margin. The great Russian nationalist or imperialist-loyalist sees Poland as simply an annoying obstacle to good relations between Russia and Germany or France. He is not alone in this. I would be interested in the views on this subject of former Chancellor Schröder, who, as Chancellor, negotiated with Russia the understanding on the question of the Germany–Russia Baltic pipeline in order then to become the beneficiary of the negotiated contract. Hiding within this is a symbol of one of the variants of Russian policy: it is no longer necessary to threaten the European partner; it suffices to corrupt the partner. What can a Pole think about this matter? Perhaps, in the first place, he may detect in this a reversion to policy of the Rapallo type, that is to say an understanding between Germany and Russia achieved at the expense of Poland. Perhaps that Pole may see in this a scheme for Russia–EU relations that are being shaped today in offices within the Kremlin.

In Moscow, I heard the words “Russia, which rose from its knees” after the breakup of the USSR, “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. These are words that provoke serious reflection. Thus, the greatest catastrophe was not the world war unleashed by Hitler, nor the triumphs of Stalin’s totalitarian empire, but the ending of that empire. These words may also indicate a return to imperial rhetoric and policy.

During the Boris Yeltsin epoch, a joke was related in Moscow concerning an airplane flight taken by the President of Russia together with Leonid Kuchma, the President of Ukraine. Yeltsin asked Kuchma which nation would lament more if a catastrophe occurred: the Russian or the Ukrainian? Kuchma immediately answered that it would be the Belarusian nation,
 because Lukashenka was not on the plane.

Since those years much has changed. Yeltsin was not Lukashenka. He was stubborn, authoritarian by disposition and a destroyer of the legacy of communism. Yeltsin did this with the grace of a Russian bear or a bull in a china shop. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin followed Lukashenka’s path. He acted gradually, annihilating the independent media and the independent administration of justice, disabling political parties, and establishing Ramzan Kadyrov’s police regime in Chechnya. Then he could announce to the world that Russia had risen from its knees. And so today Russia can dictate the conditions for its cooperation with the European Union.

The gist of these conditions would be as follows: Help us with the modernization of the economy and we will pay you for this with good money. Chancellor Schröder will explain to you that this is really good money, so say the people from Putin’s circle. Others, from President Dmitry Medvedev’s circle, speak differently. They say that the modernization of Russia is not possible without a consistent de-Stalinization, without a struggle against “the reigning juridical nihilism” and against the corruption, and without a rational and controlled political democratization. Unfortunately, judging by the recent, second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, these “others” are losing. It is therefore worth repeating two known Moscow bon mots. “A new economic theory has been invented, Putinism, which not only ties up loose ends but also one’s hands.” Whereas, after the verdict against Khodorovsky, I heard that Ivan said to Peter, “They say that Putin broke his hand.”  Then Peter asked, “Whose hand?” 

It is worth keeping in mind these jokes, since Russia–EU relations depend on the internal condition of both partners. Lenin — the degraded classicist of Russian policy — said that foreign policy is a continuation of internal policy. Therefore, since internal policy is indicative of the cooperation with respect to modernization, the matter appears obvious:  Russia requires a thaw in relations with the democratic world.  However, nothing is obvious here.

The Russian elites are faced with two different challenges. First, how to make the Russian economy competitive and resistant to crises, and set in motion economic growth, since one cannot count on perpetually high prices for oil and gas on the world markets. Second, how to strengthen and consolidate their power over Russia so that nothing would threaten it.  (And also how to rebuild the imperial status of Russia.) These two challenges are potentially contradictory. Modernization and cooperation with the democratic West eventually lead toward political freedom and pluralism, while the strengthening of authoritarian power and the return to empire is a presentiment of a new type of Cold War. Can these two objectives be harmonized? This is possible only under the condition of an actual breakup of the European Union.


This is not an unreal scenario. The European Union is stuck in a manifest crisis. Behold Greece on fire, where the answer to indispensable internal reforms comprises strikes, demonstrations in the streets, and setting fire to automobiles. Behold Ireland, so very recently  the Celtic Tiger and now mired in an economic crisis. Waiting in line is Portugal. Behold Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi was able to become master of the State by means of big money, building his own media-information empire, and mastering the public media. Berlusconism has become the symbol of the infantilization and primitivization of politics in a democratic state. 

Behold the financial crisis in the EU and the sad renaissance of national egoisms.

Behold the heated problem of immigrants from Islamic countries, whose emigration was spontaneous, unplanned, and devoid of control. Obviously, Europe should remain open; however, Europeans say that immigrants should be directed to productive work and not encouraged to avail themselves of public benefits, and that the ideologues of fundamentalism who thunder against the “rotten West” should be extradited. Everybody indeed should behave in accordance with the obligatory law, with the values and norms of European culture. Weakness and yielding concessions are not a proper response to Islamic fundamentalism.

In turn, in countries of Central and Eastern Europe, there has appeared a new wave of authoritarian tendencies: the language of nationalism and myopic egoism. Meanwhile, the EU can only become a real partner with Russia when it learns to speak to the Kremlin with a single voice and develops a common political strategy for these discussions. Otherwise, the results of such talks may be baffling. If Russia’s foreign policy is an extension of its internal policy, then it will become a trend towards the vassalization or else — according to the terminology of another epoch — the Finlandization of Europe. In this perspective, it is worth analyzing the policy of Russia with regard to Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus, and also to the Baltic States.

Putin, in my opinion, does not believe in democracy in Russia. Nor does he believe in democracy in Europe, or democracy in general. He is indeed no exception in this matter. The temptation to authoritarianism accompanies democratic countries like a shadow. It appears under different political banners from Chavez and the Persian ayatollahs to Putin and Yanukovych, and further to Lukashenka and Orban. In Poland, we have seen this spectacle in the epoch of the governments of the Kaczynski brothers. A specific feature of authoritarian tendencies is the replacement of political activities by the operations of special services. The final result of such operations produces activities that “the winged words” of present-day Russia designate as “drowning even in the lavatory”. Degenerations of this type occur everywhere, but in the world of authoritarian governments they become the norm.


Today, Russia is not a totalitarian but an authoritarian state. It is even a fairly liberal authoritarianism. Simply visit a Moscow bookshop, where one finds on the shelves books the possession of which, during the epoch of Leonid Brezhnev, led straight to jail and a labor camp. Or take even Russian films with their bitter truth about the past and present of Russia. It is even enough to listen to public debates in Moscow or in Petersburg. Russia is an authoritarian state, the intellectual elites of which are permeated with a democratic spirit. Therefore, the future of Russia is open.

My friend, the well-known Russian writer Viktor Erofeev, calls Russia “the merry hell”. “The main enemy of Russia is its inhabitants”, he writes. “Russia, over the course of its entire history, has always tyrannized and oppressed its peoples; it has persecuted them. Shielding itself with tsarist or communist ideological doctrines, it has consciously destroyed its peoples in apocalyptic measure — by wars, hunger, epidemics, purges and repressions. Furthermore, it has forced its inhabitants to show their love of the Russian state, to shout incessantly ‘Hurrah!’. Today Russia is affected by vertigo. It has huge reserves of oil but its production of goods is low. It has nuclear weapons but also horrible roads. It insists that it is powerful. However, which of its closest and more distant neighbors perceives its attractiveness? This huge country is afraid that it will break up into pieces.”

Making allowance for Erofeev’s literary rhetoric, I could rejoin his sentiments by noting that the greatest chance and hope for Russia are its inhabitants and their talents, their virtues of intellect and character. Can they lead their country toward democracy? Or, on the other hand, can Europe help Russia, for which yesterday has passed and the shape of the future is not clearly drawn.


Russian political and business elites are looking at
China. In this country, governed by the Communist Party, “dissidents” selectively find their way into prisons, but the economic growth is truly impressive. Present-day China is the subject of dreamy sighs from all of the authoritarian dictatorships on all of the continents. Everywhere there is talk about the Chinese model, which comprises growing wealth, a continually improving quality of life, and a tough authoritarian government. The European model is completely different. The European Union arose as a negation of totalitarian dictatorships full of cruelties and barbarism. European values are humanism and tolerance, equal dignity of all citizens, freedom of the individual, solidarity with the weak, and political pluralism. Europe can bring such testimony and such a system of values to the world. However, will such a Europe come to terms with Russia? Will such a Russia come to terms with such a Europe?  

I count myself among the careful optimists. Russia has a need for Europe. Europe is neither a military nor an economic threat to Russia. Furthermore, it needs Russia as an important economic and political partner. Culturally, Russia has more links with Europe than with Iran or China. (So speaks rational reflection.) We know, however, that in history, the logic of reason often succumbs to the logic of blind fanaticism, imperial stupidity, and egoistical myopia.

In Russia, there are political environments — and by no means marginal ones — in which participation in political life is treated as the creation and hunting down of enemies, both internal and external. Following Konstantin Leontiev, a nineteenth-century conservative, these people stubbornly repeat: “One must freeze Russia so that it does not stink.” And so it is that they continue to say that maintaining Putin’s regime is necessary for the salvation of Russia. I have heard identical opinions in Peking and Shanghai from adherents of the “tough” policy in China.

The Chinese political elites profess a far-seeing strategy of the incorporation of Taiwan, following the example of Hong Kong. The Russian “tough guys” are certainly thinking in a similar manner about the whole post-Soviet territory, especially about Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia. Perhaps they also have similar thoughts about Poland, Bulgaria, or Slovakia?

I do not know whether they think in like manner about Western Europe, whether Berlin and Paris appear in their dreams in the form of Taiwan and Hong Kong. These questions, however, are worthy of consideration. ≈

  • Russell Integro

    I think that Russia is not part of Europe it is Asia with Central Asian mentality now.

  • http://twitter.com/lushfun lushfun

    There are two things I find odd.

    Complete ignorance of the necessity of economic benefit for one party or another. Of course Poland or Ukraine would like the benefit of transit of gas/oil/other goods, the problem is the economic leverage of this construct has a monopoly structure on both ends the transitor and the producer. Trying to escape paying the transitor is logical from a simple business decision be you a sovereign nation or a chocolate manufacturer. I remember reading heritage or some other conservative publication and it was calling on Russia to give up arms deals for the sake of democracy. My comment was simply thus: “will you replace those $10+ billion dollars in sales lost with an alternative market where you dominate or do you expect someone to take a loss for your ideals and benefits and damage theirs” Again simple economics and rational expectations…

    I am certain that Poland has just as much want to re-vassalize Ukraine and amalgamate it under a pseudo-protectionism to re-integrate with Lviv and other western Ukranian lands, Poles consider theirs. In fact thus far most I have met in real life keep on saying Lviv is their city, which makes it odd to think whom built it and who really cares. The reality is everyone has their geopolitical prerogatives which are underpinned by either economic or safety issues. Europe has them as well. Pretending the global interconnections do not exist between countries on the political sphere is ignoring the reality around us.

    Most of my life I lived in Brooklyn but I do have my biases just like you.

  • Dr Janusz Tanas

    Comprehensively written, as always in the past, this master of thought allows others to unveil their own opinion on this complex topic. Congratulations Adam nice to reed your words.

  • by Adam Michnik

    Editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, where he sometimes writes under the pen names Andrzej Zagozda or Andrzej Jagodziński. In 1966–1989, one of the leading organizers of the illegal, democratic opposition in Poland. He is the recipient of many awards, including a Knight of the Legion of Honour.

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