Discover more from The Low Country
Czar Peter was here
Russia turns eastward — and Europe will be the poorer for it
To my readers: very best wishes for 2023!
A short distance from where I live in Amsterdam the plaque below is embedded on the side of a 17th century building. Although I walk by there regularly I only recently noticed it because it’s not facing the street and is somewhat hidden behind a hedge and an iron fence:
The building was once part of a Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) shipyard, and the plaque commemorates the six-month period that Russian czar Peter the Great spent living and working at the site to learn the craft of shipbuilding. The building is adjacent to a street named after the famous visitor, the Czaar Peterstraat, and in fact this neighborhood of Amsterdam is known as Czaar Peterbuurt. His stay in Amsterdam was part of tour he did of Holland and England as newly minted czar of Russia. He came away impressed:
After his trip to what is now the Netherlands in 1697 to 1698, the young czar returned home singing the country’s praises and famously declared that he wanted to build a city in Amsterdam’s image. “If God gives me life time,” he was quoted as saying in 1703, “I shall make of Petersburg a second Amsterdam.”
From: “A Slice of Russia in Amsterdam” (The New York Times)
Czar Peter's sojourn in Western Europe marked Russia's turn towards Europe for inspiration in modernizing its underdeveloped society. Russians voraciously assimilated European culture and technology; they saw themselves as European and wanted to be part of Europe. In establishing St Petersburg, his new capital, on the Baltic sea, Czar Peter opened a gateway to the West.
If Czar Peter’s ethusiasm for Amsterdam may seen as emblemlatic for the start of Russia's romance with the West, the year 2022 and the Ukraine conflict marks end of it. That affection and attachment went unrequited.
When the Special Military Operation was announced by Vladimir Putin on 24 February of last year, it was said to have been met with a certain ambivalence by the Russian public; there were even small anti-war protests in various cities. However, the massive barrage of propaganda and anti-Russia hysteria that was unleashed in the West quickly made the Russian people understand that the conflict was not between Russia and Ukraine, but that their country is now fundamentally on war footing with the West on at least three fronts: kinetically (limited to Ukraine, for now?), diplomatically, and, first and foremost, economically.
Russian public opinion, whether we like it or not, now stands resolutely behind the country's leadership and they are prepared to see it through, as they have so regularly in the past. Its army is motivated and competent, the citzenry now overwhelmingly supports the country's incursion into Ukraine, despite the tragedy of being forced to fight fellow Slavs. Russia has called up its reserves, mobilized its industrial war fighting capability, and gained widespread support on the diplomatic front – China, India, Iran, and others in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world are quietly and firmly in its camp. Its economy humming along, largely if not wholly undisturbed.
While the hostility emanating by the still ascendent neocon faction in US reflects the crude zero-sum mentality of the imperial-minded hegemon, and is perhaps to some degree the predicable outcome of great-power rivalry, the wave of anti-Russian hysteria that swept across Europe revealed a darker tone, as though something deep in the cultural DNA of Europeans had been triggered; a primordial fear perhaps of uncivilized Mongol-Tartar hordes sweeping in the vast steppes of the Asian landmass, trampling on and ravaging the delicate flowers in Josep Borrel’s precious garden. Or perhaps it was the millennial contempt for those unruly Slavic hordes who remained “Christian” but never submitted to the doctrinal and worldly authority of Papal Rome. In any event, the history of Russophobia here in the West runs very long and very deep.
Vladimir Golstein is an online friend (we’ve never met) who teaches Slavic Studies at Brown University; he was born and grew up in the USSR and migrated to the US in the 1980s. Vladimir is a prolific commentator on all things Russian from whom I’ve learned an immense amount. How will Russia, the West’s jilted lover, respond? In its inestimable style, he recently shared the following on his social media channels:
Russia Is The Country of Nihilists
Dostoevsky's practical nihilist, Raskolnikov, just took an ex and whacked and robbed a pawn-broker. Turgenev's more theoretical one, Bazarov, rejects all the abstract concepts like politics, religion, morals and so on. In fact, it was Turgenev who introduced the word "nihilist" into Russian language.
This wholesale rejection was the subject of Turgenev's Fathers and Children. Turgenev observed and explored the Russian tendency to oscillate from wholesale acceptance to wholesale rejection of the previous culture.
Communists have rejected centuries of Russian Empire. Post Soviets have rejected almost a century of Soviet Socialism. Which takes me to the contemporary moment and Russian views of the West.
From Peter the Great on, the west had been seen as Russian "fathers" and teachers. There was a wholesale acceptance of it. Oh, France! Oh, England, Oh, Germany! The motherlands of culture and civilization. Guess what? The idiotic, nasty and self-righteous western policies are bringing in the results. There are less and less people (outside the pockets of spoiled brats in St. Petersburg and Moscow) who take West seriously. Lies, aggression, relentless propaganda, accusations and sanctions are ushering in its results.
From embrace to rejection, that's the trajectory of Putin and his country. You guys talk about legality, democracy, freedom of the press and so on. Are you serious? You can wage wars, bomb to smithereens, install puppets and then mumble something about rules, laws, international order and not grabbing the territory of your neighbor? We no longer believe anything you say, even when you say something truthful and meaningful.
That's nihilism. And that's what London and Washington had planted. Now they are harvesting something more dangerous than an invasion here, referendum there, or even use of tactical nukes somewhere. They are harvesting total rejection of what they stand for, rejection that would spread from Russia to the rest of the world. Nice job, pompous fools.
(Follow Vladimir Golstein on VKontakte).
In recent months, Russian president Vladimir Putin has made speech after speech In speech detailing and discussing Russian’s profoundly broken, utterly dysfunctional relationship with the West. In his Valdai speech from October, he talks about two Wests, one of which cannot leave in peace with Russia:
[There is] the West of traditional, primarily Christian values, freedom, patriotism, great culture and now Islamic values as well – a substantial part of the population in many Western countries follows Islam. This West is close to us in something. We share with it common, even ancient roots. But there is also a different West – aggressive, cosmopolitan, and neocolonial. It is acting as a tool of neoliberal elites. Naturally, Russia will never reconcile itself to the dictates of this West.
In 2000, after I was elected President, I will always remember what I faced: I will remember the price we paid for destroying the den of terrorism in the North Caucasus, which the West almost openly supported at the time. We are all adults here; most of you present in this hall understand what I am talking about. We know that this is exactly what happened in practice: financial, political and information support. We have all lived through it.
What is more, not only did the West actively support terrorists on Russian territory, but in many ways it nurtured this threat. We know this. Nevertheless, after the situation had stabilised, when the main terrorist gangs had been defeated, including thanks to the bravery of the Chechen people, we decided not to turn back, not to play the offended, but to move forward, to build relations even with those who actually acted against us, to establish and develop relations with all who wanted them, based on mutual benefit and respect for one another.
We thought it was in everyone’s interest. Russia, thank God, had survived all the difficulties of that time, stood firm, grew stronger, was able to cope with internal and external terrorism, its economy was preserved, it began to develop, and its defence capability began to improve. We tried to build up relations with the leading countries of the West and with NATO. The message was the same: let us stop being enemies, let us live together as friends, let us engage in dialogue, let us build trust, and, hence, peace. We were absolutely sincere, I want to emphasise that. We clearly understood the complexity of this rapprochement, but we agreed to it.
What did we get in response? In short, we got a ”no“ in all the main areas of possible cooperation. We received an ever-increasing pressure on us and hotbeds of tension near our borders. And what, may I ask, is the purpose of this pressure? What is it? Is it just to practice? Of course not. The goal was to make Russia more vulnerable. The purpose is to turn Russia into a tool to achieve their own geopolitical goals.
As a matter of fact, this is a universal rule: they try to turn everyone into a tool, in order to use these tools for their own purposes. And those who do not yield to this pressure, who do not want to be such a tool are sanctioned: all sorts of economic restrictions are carried out against them and in relation of them, coups are prepared or where possible carried out and so on. And in the end, if nothing at all can be done, the aim is the same: to destroy them, to wipe them off the political map. But it has not and will never be possible to draft and implement such a scenario with respect to Russia.
What else can I add? Russia is not challenging the Western elites. Russia is simply upholding its right to exist and to develop freely.
(Source: the Kremlin website)
As Putin and others express it, Russians are not turning their back on those aspects of the West that formed them and the West of which they are civilizationally and culturally a part; they are turning the backs on what the West has become; a censorious, self-righteous, deluded, ultimately self-destructive culture wallowing in ultra-woke obsessions, dominated by a cynical, insular, self-serving political culture.
After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, some in the West, notably the neocons, adopted the apologetically triumphalist rhetoric that the West was the winner. That frame is neither helpful nor accurate; the Cold War was settled peacefully; the collapse of the USSR was a disaster for everyone, not least of all for the working class in the West. However, as we embark upon Cold War 2.0, with a new bloc system emerging (the West, more or less, against the rest), it is now obvious that we will be the losers, if we want to continue frame things in conventional terms. As a multipolar world emerges, propelled forward under the leadership of Russia, China, India, Iran, and others, we here in the West are on the wrong side of history. You might say we were also on the wrong side of history the first time around, but perhaps it wasn't so obvious then. It is now.
Also if one accepts that the West “won” the Cold War, it can also be said that the Anglo-American neocons and their running dogs in Europe lost the peace, not once but twice. First at the end of the last Cold War (remember talk about the “peace dividend” in the early 1990s? It never materialized). And now a second. Rather than constructive relationship with a renascent Russia, we’ve once again chosen conflict; we’re back to geopolitical blocs and cognitive walls.
Returning to Holland briefly. Back in March, scarcely a week after the start of the military incursion, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev was “cancelled” by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra because he wouldn't publicly distance himself from Putin and the Russian government:
It was one of an endless number of such gestures across the Western world, sanctions that amounted to little more than virtue signaling, but one I found particularly galling as I thought back on a concert in battle-torn Syria a few years ago.
In May 2016, after Palmyra had been liberated by Syrians with support from Russians, the Iranians and other allies, Gergiev led a concert with the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre in the Roman amphitheater at the Unesco archelogical site there. The centerpiece was Bach’s Chaconne from Violin Partita no. 2, a solo piece played by the orchestra’s first violinist. It is an extraordinary work; Bach on the solo violin has more plaintive, less vibrant quality than his famous solo piano works, perhaps because the stringed instrument is closer to the human voice, and this gives it an ethereal quality, its intricate architecture making it the auditory equivalent of gazing at the roof of a medieval cathedral in all its glorious complexity. The orchestra and audience members listening in rapt attention; Gergiev and the violinist both wearing baseball caps to shield their eyes from the late-afternoon Syrian. As we listened to the Bach, RT’s cameras slowly panned across the site, its ancient stones silently speaking volumes. It was a statement, a demonstration, of what Russia stood for, made all the more powerful for it being essentially wordless. The music and the imagery said it all. In the emerging new Cold War, I would prefer not to have to pick sides, but if obliged I know which side I am on.
The concert was originally broadcast by RT on its YouTube channel; after the Russian media purge of 2022 (to keep our fragile “democracy” safe, of course) it was removed, but fortunately one or another good citizen has re-uploaded to that site, and you can watch it here:
Shortly before the holidayswrote an extraordinary piece on her Substack in which she discussed that remarkable concert and its significance in the larger context of Weimar Classicism. Highly recommended, as is all of Cynthia's work: