Enlightenment

My View of the West: the avant-garde for Russian and Ukrainian social movements

Olga Baysha

The West or, rather, the image of the West as constructed by Russian and Ukrainian social movements for democratization, occupies an important place in my research. The narrative of unidirectional progress, employed by all the social movements I have analyzed, presents the West as the avant-garde leading humanity toward the “normal” modern condition in which no cultural or historical differences matter, and where all societies ultimately look the same. Whether in Gorbachev’s USSR, Putin’s Russia, or Yanukovych’s Ukraine, the discourse of unidirectional progress always presumes an inexorable movement of humankind toward an advanced Western condition where the ultimate truth, hitherto obscured, can finally be unveiled.

In the presentation of many Ukrainian and Russian activists for social justice, whose discursive constructions I have analyzed, the West emerges as an undeniable moral force with the right to judge, pass verdicts and impose punishment. Aligning themselves with the “civilized” West, these activists present themselves as “educated people,” “people who stand for their dignity,” who are “very motivated,” “goal-seeking,” “smart,” and “responsible.” Often, they imagine their struggle for “democratization” as an attempt to jump out of the dark medieval ages – the premodern state of human development – to the era of the Enlightenment. This struggle is conceived as an attempt to breach the new iron curtain that separate Ukraine and Russia from the condition of the highest modernity as represented by the West. The social condition of the contemporary West is presented to be a norm against which those who are thought unfit could be judged.

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This grand simplification of social and political realities, which are always much more complicated than the simple duality of “good/progressive vs. evil/backward,” develops into a tendency among “democratically minded” activists to see all opponents – not only those in power – as “jackals,” “the bootlickers of the regime,” “traitors,” or just “weak and demoralized people.” Because of their “inadequacy,” or “abnormality,” to put it in Michel Foucault’s terms, the opponents of democratization equated to Westernization are seen not as human beings or citizens whose opinions deserved to be taken into account: They appear as “idiots,” “sovoks” (derogative term to denote the Soviet condition), or “serfs.” The latter, in the opinion of many activists for “democratization,” have a chance “to become Human Beings”– they just needed to take their “progressive” stance.

The problem with the modernizing mission of the social movements with a West-centric imaginary is that all of them end up undermining democracy rather than promoting it, as they diminish and marginalize their presumably underdeveloped compatriots, and colonize them by excluding their voices from deliberation on important issues of societal transformations within “progressive” public spheres. As I argue in my recent book Miscommunicating Social Change: Lessons from Russia and Ukraine, this West-centered imaginary is internally antagonistic.

Establishing a solid, impermeable barrier between activists pushing forward the agenda of universal globalization and “others” who oppose it, the discourse of democratization equated to Westernization creates the conditions for a “maximum separation,” when “no element in the system of equivalences enters into relations other than those of opposition to the elements of the other system,” as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe famously argued. It does not allow for a democratic exchange of opinions between the two antagonistic camps within a symbolically shared space.

The author (Ph.D., University of Colorado at Boulder) is an Assistant Professor at the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” (Moscow, the Russian Federation). Her research centers mainly on political and cultural aspects of globalization with an emphasis on new media and global social movements for justice and democratization. Dr. Baysha is especially interested in analyzing inherent anti-democratic tendencies of the discourses of Westernization employed by post-Soviet social movements. Dr. Baysha is the author of two books: The Mythologies of Capitalism and the End of the Soviet Project (Lexington, 2014) and Miscommunicating Social Change: Lessons from Russia and Urkaine (Lexington, 2018).

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

The Shadowy Boundaries of East and West: Russia in the British Enlightenment Geography

By Oili Pulkkinen

Displacing East and West

We are prone to think that Russia, throughout modern European history, stood as the gate between Europe and Asia, the West and the East. Russia has represented otherness, inferiority and underdevelopment, and probably provided Europeans with a first pattern of backwardness against which they could measure their own civilizational achievements.

However, “east” and “west” (and “western”) were merely spatial concepts in eighteenth-century geography, devoid of specific political or cultural connotations. Nonetheless, it was the case for the Europeans, for whom ”Europe” and ”European” were synonymous with cultural, economic, political, technological advance and superiority, and more broadly, with the whole process called modernity. The representations of the East, by contrast, were more blurred and ambiguous. On the one hand, the East was seen as cruel, uncivilised and underdeveloped. On the other hand, it looked attractive because of its aura of mystery, and its flow of luxury items. Moreover, one must not forget that the Biblical Eden was situated in the East.

Further, the shift from a three-continent system (Europe, Asia, Africa) to a four-continent system (Europe, Asia, Africa, and America) after the discovery of America has been problematic for the Enlightenment geography which was based on a division of the globe in two continents (in modern terms “tectonic plates”): the Eastern and the Western continents, that is, Europe, Asia and Africa located on the former, and America on the latter. This division corresponded to the contrast between “The Old World” and “The New World”, which was an elementary part of the new Newtonian, scientific geography. Thus, Europe, Asia and Africa were situated in the geographical “east” rather than  the geographical “west”.

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The eighteenth-century globe was divided into the Eastern and Western Continents in William Guthrie A New Geographical, Historical and Commercial Grammar, 1799 (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online ECCO, Gale).

The Russian Empire

Russia and the Russians were characterised and depicted through European standards. For example, the Orthodox religion was seen as the Catholic religion without the pope, while Russian workers were held to be as good as Scotsmen, strong and robust. Nonetheless, from the European perspective, Russia was not only perceived as inferior; it had rich natural sources, commercial connections with the East, and excellent water routes (rivers) for this purpose, as well as good development prospects.

Even though Russia and Europe were located on the same continent, Russia was culturally different from the other countries of the continent, especially France and Britain. One indication of this was the poor status of Russian women. The stereotypical depiction of Russians as binge vodka drinkers was a commonplace, and even the number of vodka shops were recorded in the entries on Russia in geography books of the time. Russia, and especially Russian environment and nature were described as more “Nordic” than “Eastern” part of the Continent, snowy and cold.

Compared with the other European empires (especially Britain, France and Spain), the Russian Empire was a massive landmass. Europeans subdivided it into large parts, European Russia and Asian Russia in Asia, and smaller units, like Moscovite Russia and Tartary. Before the emergence of ethnographic research in the late Enlightenment, a couple of Russian minorities were mentioned, but the distinctions between various minorities living in Russia and between these and the Russians were not explained. Usually minorities were simply named ”Tartars”.

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The map of the Russian Empire in Atlas to Guthrie’s System of Geography, 1800 (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, ECCO, Gale). Russia was generally pictured in two separate maps of Russia in Europe and Russia in Asia, but in this map the vast empire is pictured in one map.

Russians had not always been “Russians”. Although geography and history were distinct areas of scientific knowledge in the eighteenth-century, historical details were recorded in the geography books. Since the origin and history of nations was a crucial element of nationhood (not yet nationalism), it was important to explain the origins of geographical terms and names. For instance, several different origins, each bearing a different connotation, were attributed to the name “Europe”. Similarly, it was assumed that ‘Russia’ originated either from russus, meaning a dispersant, and a wanderer, or from the ancient Croatian Prince Russus.

According to the Russians’ historical narrative, the conquered Russians had become the conquerors. The heart of real Russia had been Moscow, and it still was, despite the fact that Peter the Great founded a new capital, St Petersburg. By contrast, official modern historical narratives tell that (Orthodox) Russia originated from Kievian Russia, but according to the eighteenth-century geography, Kiev had been, and remained, the Russia of the Cossacks, rather than the cradle of Russia.

Russia, the largest empire in the world in spatial terms in the 18th century, if it not appeared entirely strange, certainly looked very different from (other parts of) Europe according to British Enlightenment geography, on the cultural level no less than in its geographical setting.

The author has a PhD in social sciences (political science) at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Her research interests include the Scottish Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century geography and the conceptual history of politics. She is currently preparing a research project on critique of democracy. This text is based on the author’s article ‘Russia and the Euro-Centric Geography During the British Enlightenment’ in the special issue on the Nordic Enlightenment  in Transcultural Studies (Brill) 2018(2), 150–170.