Does Russia Belong to Europe?

April 29, 2016

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question about developments related to Russia and the broader region. This week, we asked a group of historians and political observers to discuss Russia’s place between East and West. 

Peter Frankopan, Director, Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research


frankopanRussians, wrote the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev, are different to most other peoples in the world. “We are neither of the West nor of the East.” Two hundred years later, many would agree with him – not only in Europe, but in Russia itself. This is because Chaadaev’s statement is not so much a statement of opinion, but one of fact. From the point of view of geography, while part of Russia is part of Europe, much if it is not. From a social, political and economic perspective, things are equally complicated – for there are many Russias, many regional differences, important distinctions between the town and the countryside, as well as its vegetation, climate and peoples. 
Russia is neither of the West nor of the East, as [Russian philosopher] Chaadaev said.

On the other hand, “belonging” to Europe is complicated. We are living in an age where the unknitting of ties within – and quite possibly the disintegration of – the European Union is part of a major reshaping of a continent that has dominated global affairs since the expeditions of Columbus and Vasco da Gama. We are experiencing a time of extraordinary challenge to the concepts of free movement of peoples, of a refugee crisis that has met with little agreement amongst European countries and even less action, and of paralysed economies devastated by deep rooted causes. It is not just what it means to be Russian that is complex; so too what it means to be European.

But one thing is clear: Russia does not have problems while Europe has answers – as the question seems to suggest. We would be foolish to believe that enlightenment, civilisation and decency stem from European “values,” for history teaches that intolerance, slavery, religious persecution, and genocide were at their most fierce in the continent of Europe. Conversely, Russia has long and rather better experience with parts of the world whose importance is now rising: Iran, China, the states of Central Asia.

For centuries, Russia has had to deal with the diversity of its own population as well as those beyond its frontiers – incorporating tribal peoples, working out how to elide those of different religious beliefs to Orthodoxy (including adherents of Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, animism and least successfully, Judaism). Russia’s vastness and scale make it feel very un-European. But it has a great deal more in common with Europe than meets the eye. But treating Europe as an exclusive club – and deciding whether Russia is fit to join it – seems to me unhelpful, divisive and above all, requires an approach not based on history and facts, but on emotion. I for one would always rather listen to my head than to my heart. 


Mark Galeotti, Professor of Global Affairs, New York University


galeottiRegardless of talk of “Eurasianism” and the like amongst Russia’s chattering and governing classes, in my experience Russians of every political complexion and socio-economic status look westwards and consider themselves part of a wider European civilization. Of course, this leads to problems and miscommunications.

I have lost count how many times in the past couple of years Russians have felt the need to tell me, almost invariably in sorrow rather than anger, that the West is treating Russia badly, almost invariably couched in terms of not just common interests but common identity. The very reason for the splenetic way that Moscow responds to what it sees as slights and insults from its neighbors is precisely because they are not neighbors but family. The most savage rows are always with family, after all.

Russia is so sensitive to European criticism because the two aren’t neighbors, but family.

I am ultimately an optimist about Russia of a very European sort; I think they are genuinely embarked at last on a journey that, once the national traumas Putin represents have been worked through, will bring them squarely into a European democratic, liberal, rule-of-law cultural fold. But it won’t be immediate, it won’t be easy, and we need, without in any way condoning abuses, to accept that Russia cannot and will not be like “us” tomorrow. And if we do want to critique Moscow (as we ought), then we should apply the same standards across the board, and not single Russia out for specially critical scrutiny. That kind of familiar “tough love” does no one any favors.

This response was excerpted, with the author’s permission, from the author’s blog In Moscow’s Shadows. 

Marlene Laruelle, Director, Central Asia Program and Associate Director, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES), George Washington University


laruelle-marlene1To such a question, the first answer should be: it depends how one defines “Europe,” and what one means by “belongs.” My first, immediate answer, would be a “yes,” without any doubt.

Russia belongs to Europe, in the sense of sharing the very fundaments of European culture: it is a largely secular society with Christian roots; it shares the same pan-European history, and has been in deep interaction with – as well as greatly enriched – European culture, from literature and art to science.

Russia has also participated in European politics since the Middle Ages through its links with Byzantium and, more directly, from the 17th century until the present day. Russia’s updated involvement in European affairs, in part through the promotion of so-called “illiberal” values, is nothing new, but a normal pattern for a big power trying to develop its soft power on the European landscape. Promoting illiberal values is not an anti-European policy: a similar vision of the world is shared by the political leadership and sections of domestic public opinion in several Western and Central European countries. Europe is the homeland of liberalism, but also of illiberalism in all its forms.

Europe is the homeland of liberalism, but also of illiberalism in all its forms.

Finally, Russia is part of Europe in that it shares more or less the same socio-economic construction: an industrialized country, a highly educated society, and huge difficulties in finding a way to maintain welfare-state traditions and well being for the middle class while remaining competitive in a globalized world. Because of its Soviet past, these elements in Russia may differ a bit from the rest of Europe, but compared to the “big others,” the emerging powers in Asia, Latin America or Africa, Russia is without a doubt in the same boat as Europe in terms of its development pattern.

Of course if one wants to limit “Europe” to the European Union and its institutions, then Russia is outside of it and will probably stay out of it for the coming decades. However, it seems clear that the future of the EU construction will be to find a way to interact more closely and in a more peaceful way with its regional environment, particularly the countries who are fated to remain outside of the EU per se: these include both Russia and some of the former Soviet republics, as well as the south of the Mediterranean Basin.

There are many ways of being “European.” The United States and Canada offer another understanding of a shared European past. Australia is yet another example of a European society living in Asia and being increasingly involved in Asian politics. There is therefore room for Russia to be part of this broad European world and at the same time to display its own foreign policy and its specific, distinctive features.

Leonid Luks, Professor of History at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt (Bavaria, Germany)


When Peter the Great “cut a window through to Europe” in the early 18th century, Russia became an inseparable part of  Europe and a full-fledged member of the European “concert of powers.” The main drama of subsequent Russian history was predetermined in this way. From then on, Peter’s Western vision was forced to compete with Russia’s Byzantine and Mongolian legacies. Neither Peter nor his successors were able to turn Russia into a “normal” European country. But at the same time, the way back to pre-Petrine antiquity was closed for good.

Peter’s radical critics, the Slavophiles and Eurasianists, claimed that his reforms effectively destroyed the foundation of Russian power. Nikolai Trubetzkoy, one of the founders of Eurasianism, wrote that no foreign invader had ever before succeeded in destroying Russia’s centuries-long national culture and lifestyle to such an extent. The Eurasianists failed to notice that the Muscovite Russia which they idolized so much had eventually begun to suffocate under its own autarchy and self-content, leading to an unprecedented crisis of Russian identity whose beginnings dated back to at least the reign of Ivan the Terrible. In order to overcome its increasingly deep cultural stagnation, Russia was in dire need of a cultural stimulus from abroad  and the natural place to get it was from the West. According to the Russian emigre historian Vladimir Veidle, it’s no accident that Peter the Great opened his window precisely to Europe, and not to the Middle East or Asia. The unparalleled achievements of Petrine Russia were the direct results of “Peter’s pivot” to the West.

When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, they tried to continue Peter’s vision and transform what they viewed as a backwards country into a leading industrial European power. But in contrast to Peter’s revolution, which brought Russia closer to the West, the Bolshevik revolution had the reverse effect. The new regime launched a merciless campaign against Europeanism in Russia with the help of the Red Terror and later the Stalin Terror, forced hundreds of thousands of pro-Western Russians to flee the country, and closed the window to Europe that Peter had opened.

Any attempt to isolate Europe from Russia will lead to the wilting of both cultures.

The hope of overcoming the break between East and West and “returning to Europe” was the driving force behind Gorbachev’s perestroika. The most radical members of the reformist camp, like the radical Westerners of Peter’s time, strove with a particular zeal to transform Russia into a normal European state. But like their predecessors, they underestimated Russia’s distinctiveness. Every attempt to transfer Western models and institutions onto Russian soil, without taking into account Russia’s unique features, was doomed to end in failure. Russia “is a European power,” as Catherine the Great once said. But it should be noted that her idea of Europeanism differs from that of the West. When observers in both the East and West claim that Russia is a European country in mere geographical but not in cultural terms, they forget that Europe itself is a two-faced Janus, with its own “East” and “West,” which can’t exist without each other. In a similar vein, it’s impossible to imagine Western culture without Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Kandinsky, while Russian culture is unimaginable without Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe and Hegel. Any attempt to isolate these interflowing vessels from one another will lead to the wilting of both cultures.

When the Berlin Wall came down and brought to an end the contest between the Western and Eastern blocs, Europe had a new opportunity to become united. But this unity has eluded us so far, because isolationists on either side of the vanished “Iron Curtain” continue trying to prove that the paths of Russia and the West are incompatible.

Judging by the “tsunami of patriotism” (as the newspaper Novaya Gazeta called it) that erupted in Russia following the annexation of Crimea, the supporters of a special path for Russia  which completely rejects the Western model of development  have achieved a complete victory in the country. However, as a rule, nothing is ever final in history. It is by no means impossible that those who side with Russian Europeanism, despite their marginal role in Russian politics today, will be able to return to the political stage under more favorable conditions, as has already happened more than once in the country’s history.

Giovanna De Maio, PhD Candidate, L’Orientale University (Naples, Italy) and Special Guest at the Brookings Institution


GiovannaAny answer to such a wide and debated issue risks being partial and incomplete, especially if we consider that Russia is a diverse and fragmented country in terms of ethnic groups, religion, culture. A country of over 140 million people, spanning two continents and ten time zones, with over 500 years of history as an empire, Russia cannot be fully comprehended in monolithic terms.

However, if we have to reduce the overall consideration into a dichotomous choice between Europe or Asia, then the answer must be yes, Russia belongs to Europe. Even though Russia did not experience some formative steps of the European identity building process—such as the Holy Roman Empire, the European Renaissance, and the Age of Enlightenment—starting from the 18th century, Tsar Peter the Great looked at Europe as a model for Russia’s modernization. Since then, Russia based its identity either in imitation of, or as a challenge to, European models.

Russia wants to pursue its own geopolitics while sharing Europe’s geopolitical interests as a whole.

Soviet Russia tried to delineate its own system in contrast to the archetypical features of Western societies, namely capitalism and individualism. Andrey Zhdanov, for instance, who directed the Soviet Union’s cultural policy during Stalin’s time, openly asserted that it was necessary to fight against the Western influence on Soviet culture. Nevertheless, after the fall of the USSR, Russia indeed looked at Europe as a model to follow, in order to pursue its economic, social, and political development. This realization, along with the legacy of historical interactions between Russia and Europe, contributed to link them together in a common neighborhood and with shared geopolitical interests. One example of shared interest is stability in the Middle East, which represents a threat for both Russia and Europe, but not for other powers like China, which does not share the same strategic goals.

Russia, as a society, still wants to belong to Europe. But as a geopolitical actor, Russia has embraced a realist, hard-power worldview that attempts to go beyond the normative European model of soft power. Indeed Russia is even interested in being part of the Western security structures, but only on its own conditions. Fundamentally, Russia wants to be considered as an equal partner on the global stage, with a say in every geopolitical scenario covering its economic and political interests. However, being an equal partner does not mean that Russia considers itself comparable to any of the European member states. On the contrary, it wants to be regarded as a geostrategic player that is as powerful as all of them combined.

Andreas Umland, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation (Kyiv)


UmlandRussia certainly belongs to Europe – in the opinion of both many of its leading representatives and many Western observers, whether past or present. Yet, “Europe” is a fluid concept whose ideational content has changed every other decade over the last couple of centuries. There were times when political nationalism, unfettered industrialism, Christian traditionalism and cultural messianism were seen as quintessentially European. Yet, today this has changed, in some regards quite radically so.

Perhaps, a few decades ago, Moscow could have passed off its current official ideology and policies as “European.” Today, however, the Kremlin’s talk about what Russia’s domestic affairs and international relations are or should be appears anachronistic at best, and atavistic at worst. Russia’s elite may think of its loudly announced “conservative” value system as being “European.” Yet, in the eyes of many contemporary West and Eastern Europeans, that discourse is merely backward, for some scarily so.

‘Europe’ is a fluid concept where Russia has to finds her place.

Germany too was, well into the 20th century, pointedly non- or even anti-Western. It took us two spectacular sociopolitical collapses in 1918 and 1945 to finally find our place in “Europe.” One hopes that Russia will, after its two recent collapses in 1917 and 1991, not have to go through a third one to eventually find her proper place in contemporary Europe.

The Center on Global Interests provides an open platform for discussion. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone, and do not reflect the positions of their affiliated organizations.