Vladimir Putin has begun publishing his electoral manifesto in the venerable Russian daily Izvestia. His press secretary already promised that the program of Russia’s Prime Minister (widely expected to return to the Kremlin in spring after a four year “break”) will be presented to the public as a series of newspaper instalments.
Setting out to read it I hoped to find a “new Putin,” cognizant of the changes that the global information revolution has brought to societies, aware of the myriad of links between his country and the rest of the world, and ready to admit that isolationism leads nowhere and achieves nothing. But looking at the title of the article, “Russia Concentrates,” I had a suspicion that these hopes would be dashed. This is a direct quote from one of the most famous foreign policy documents in Russian history. It is an 1856 message to European governments. His Serene Highness Prince Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov, Russia’s foreign minister (or chancellor), penned it soon after the country’s catastrophic defeat in the Crimean War at the hands of the British, the French and the Austrians. The war’s results were sealed by a humiliating Paris peace treaty. In his note Gorchakov famously said that the Russian Empire is going to withdraw from the European affairs for a while. “La Russie ne boude pas, la Russie se recueille” or “Russia keeps her calm, Russia concentrates”.
Gorchakov, who was an aristocrat through and through and who dominated Russian foreign policy through the reign of Emperor Alexander II, was hardly mentioned in Soviet history books. But since Mr Putin acceded to the presidency for the first time in 2000, the prince (or rather a certain constructed image of him) has suddenly acquired a cult-like status in the Kremlin and in Russia’s foreign ministry. Sculptures, books and honorary stipends for students of foreign policy commemorate his life and work. In the Russian foreign ministry history museum Gorchakov is celebrated more than any other Russian diplomat, apart from the Stalin henchman Vyacheslav Molotov and Brezhnev’s sidekick Anatoly Gromyko.
Why Putin and his team chose Gorchakov as a model for Russian diplomacy in the 21st century is no secret. He was a faithful servant of the empire. He mistrusted the French and the British, and spent nearly all his time as foreign minister battling the harsh terms of the Paris peace. Gorchakov finally succeeded in bringing Russia back to the fore of European politics, although with mixed results.
Now replace the name of Gorchakov with that of Vladimir Putin, substitute “Cold war” for the Crimean one, and the period of 1850s-1870s with the 1990s and you get a perfect example of how Putin and Russia’s ruling class viewed their country and the world at the beginning of this century. Defeated in the “cold war”, humiliated by the “perfidious West” in the Yeltsin era, it had first to “concentrate” and then return with a vengeance to the world scene. Putin’s two terms as president were spent executing this programme. His speech in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference was the epitome of this policy, followed soon by the war with Georgia, embodied this trend. The 2008 economic crisis seemed to have bucked it.
But now Russia’s number one presidential contender is back editorialising about … well, the same things he talked so much about a decade ago. The world is a dangerous place, where everyone constantly competes with everyone else and where unspecified “destructive forces” threaten global stability, aided by the unspecified “states”. These “states” are constantly aiming at “exporting democracy and trampling state sovereignty”. Well I suppose we know their names, don’t we? Putin calls on Russia to pay more attention to the growing political and economic power of the East (read, China) of which he definitely approves. And although he calls on Russia to become a vital link between the East and the West, the context of “Russia Concentrates” leaves no doubt: cooperation with the former is a must, with the latter; an unfortunate necessity. In his piece Putin states that the “post-Soviet era is over”. I could not agree more. Russia’s budding protest movement shows that a growing number of citizens feel this too and they are searching for a new meaning to national life. The question is why then we have to take with us into the future the same post-Soviet inferiority complexes that formed Russian society’s existence for the last ten-fifteen years: hatred of the West, Soviet-style great power nostalgia and misplaced admiration for Chinese authoritarianism? In Vladimir Putin’s piece I could not find answers to the main questions: should Russia adopt Western political values as its own? What is its place in a globalized world? How will it really cope with the challenge of China? In Putin’s vision for Russia’s future one in which it straddles the huge Eurasian space aloof, suspicious, friendless and, ultimately, directionless. I am not certain that Prince Gorchakov, a cocky and vane courtier, but no isolationist, quintessentially a European and an internationalist, would have adopted it as his own.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.