Scholars of Russian history and practitioners of contemporary Russia policy would benefit from reading Gregory Carleton's Russia: the story of war, given Russia's recent return to the forefront of international relations. The worsening of relations between Russia and the West—due, among other things, to Russia's interventions in Syria and Ukraine, interference in the 2016 US presidential election, and ongoing row with the US over the downsizing and closures of diplomatic facilities—makes Carleton's book essential to understanding how and why Russia sees itself as it does. His main argument is that the country's historical experience with warfare, which it considers unique, has given rise to a national ‘myth of exceptionalism’ that forms the foundation of a ‘civic religion’ which all Russians can unite around. War, more than anything else, Carleton claims, binds Russians together. Moreover, as the author notes, while a few key historic battles may be ingrained in Russian memory, none are more so than the Second World War—the civic religion's ‘paradigmatic centre’—in which over 20 million Soviet citizens were killed. Carleton argues that Russia's sense of exceptionalism is not dissimilar to America's, at least in terms of its adaptability, but what sets it apart is that Russia considers its history as cyclical rather than linear—that is, the country always emerges from a crisis or war reborn. Regarding Russia's civic religion, Carleton asserts that it is based on a number of important traits: a perpetual fear of invasion, and thus mistrust of outsiders, given the country's strategic geographic location; a quasi-religious duty to protect the ‘motherland’—both its people and land—and the one true faith (Orthodox Christianity); the historical view that Moscow is a ‘Third Rome’, separate from the Vatican and Constantinople (Istanbul), controlled respectively by heretics and infidels; and the belief that Russia is the natural protector of traditional values that are increasingly under threat from the immoral West. A strength of Carleton's analysis is that he rightly acknowledges the contrasting viewpoints of Russia and the West with regard to Russia's actions and its role in the world. As he claims, the West typically considers Russia as a villain whereas Russia tends to view itself as ‘the defender, the protector, and even the savior or liberator’, leading to what Carleton describes as the country's historic ‘Janus-faced reputation’. However, to be fair, any western criticism of Russia is based on its behaviour rather than identity. As Carleton eloquently explains throughout his work, Russia's national identity is founded on the notion that the country is forever encircled by entities—whether the Mongols, Napoleon Bonaparte, Nazi Germany, Chechen terrorists or the US and NATO—who seek to weaken or otherwise cause it harm. He adds that Russia is widely considered, by contrast, to be an expansionist power in mainstream western discourse. For example, Carleton discusses Harvard University historian Richard Pipes, who describes how Russia, from roughly 1550 to 1700, ‘acquired an average of 35,000 square kilometers—an area equivalent to modern Holland—every year for 150 consecutive years’ (p. 30). Given Russia's expansionist activities during the twentieth century, which included forcibly incorporating the Baltics into the Soviet Union, and the more recent examples, such as its 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Russian perspective that it is historically a victim of aggression from external actors with malign intent cannot be supported in all cases. Undoubtedly, some external forces have harmed Russia greatly over the course of its history, but it is inaccurate to say that Russia is forever a victim and not an aggressor. With regard to the current conflict in Ukraine, Russia officially views it, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as one spurred by a western-backed coup. In this scenario the US, the global bogeyman replacing Nazi Germany, removed a democratically elected president to support a neo-fascist government that allegedly represses ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, as part of a continual effort to weaken Russia. Another critically important insight offered by Carleton is that this myth of exceptionalism and civic religion are not solely the creations of state propaganda outlets nor are they only propagated by them. Rather, they are ingrained into the Russian psyche dating back centuries, or at least to the period in which the Russian state was being consolidated, and are expressed not only via governmental organs but also through popular culture, including film, novels and poetry. Thus, it can be inferred that when attempting to understand official Kremlin statements or narratives, one should not be completely dismissive of them as mere propaganda. Instead, one must consider how Russia views itself, as well as the actions taken by outside powers, when developing a response to particular Russian actions. In short, Carleton's review of Russia's myth of exceptionalism and its civic religion provides an excellent start to achieving such an understanding. Disclaimer: please note that the views expressed in this document reflect the personal opinions of the author and are entirely the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or the United States Government. USAID is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied herein. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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