Being the “Сorrect” West While Isolated From the Actual One. Putin’s Utopia
June 16, 2023
  • Oleg Kashin

    Journalist and writer
Oleg Kashin writes about the inherent flaws in the current anti-Western nation-building project in Russia: proclaiming conservatism and distinctiveness, this project reproduces Western values and practices, only from 60 or 70 years ago.
Many years ago, when I was a young Moscow journalist, I went on a business trip to the Russian Far East for the first time in my life. A distant, mysterious region that cannot easily be reached (nine hours by plane!) – I knew ahead of time that it would surprise me, but I had Asian exoticism in mind.

Before the trip, I had heard and read many times that in the cities of Russia’s Pacific coast, the influence of neighboring countries – above all, China, which has carried out a soft expansion there, both in terms of business and migration – is rather visible. In Moscow in those years, people from Central Asia were already working on construction sites, and it was logical to expect that the Far East labor market would have Chinese features. I arrived in Vladivostok with such expectations, and this charismatic city, paradoxically, managed to surprise me precisely by the fact that in its organization, life and population, it was basically no different than any medium-sized Russian city – the same people, the same architecture, the same service, no Asian features.

My local acquaintances took me to an Italian restaurant for dinner, and when I asked them about Chinese and Japanese cuisine, they thought a minute and suggested the same nationwide chains that operated in Moscow.

The first impression is always superficial, however, and after observing local life a little longer, I was able to establish that Chinese business, Chinese tourists and Chinese students are quite widely represented in the region, though strangely they do not look at Vladivostok as part of the universe in which they live – on the contrary, they see it as the most accessible and reachable piece of Europe, which is interesting for them because it does not look like the world they are used to with Chinese cuisine and Chinese habits.

Values experiments of Putin’s Kremlin

Now, years later, that old observation seems to me a metaphor for the current civilizational choice made by Russia during the Ukraine war. When people talk about the current isolation of Russia, they often think of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, though this comparison is not entirely correct. The Soviet Union was surrounded by an Iron Curtain, and the hermetically sealed border equally separated it from European countries (even if they were Soviet satellites), from Iran and Turkey in the south and from the Asia-Pacific region. The current isolation is not hermetic whatsoever – it concerns only the Western side, while the south and east, on the contrary, are now of exceptional importance for Moscow. Throughout the first year of the war, the Russian economy turned its back on the West, setting up schemes for “import substitution” and “parallel imports” and putting roots down in the space that now, with Moscow having broken with the West, represents the outside world.
The window to Europe cut by Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century has now been boarded up, and the 300-year-old movement toward the West has stopped.
The Bronze Horseman – a statue of Peter the Great, the Russian emperor who cut the “window to Europe” in the early 18th century. The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 put an end to Russia’s 300-year-old movement toward the West. Source: Wiki Commons
Russia is learning a new geography of the planet, globalizing in the reduced space that is now available to it. The closest great power to look to when it comes to global issues is no longer the US, but China. Yachts, villas, luxury shopping – it is not the Cote d’Azur or the south of Italy, but Dubai, which this year has become a kind of distant suburb of bourgeois Moscow.

Instead of many European airports that were once connected with Moscow by direct flights, there is Istanbul, which is now the only international hub available to Russians. Iran and even Taliban Afghanistan, which for decades were a no-go for Russian business, have suddenly become important partners. Even Coca-Cola, which is no longer officially supplied to Russia, is sold in Russian stores in cans with Pashto inscriptions supplied from Kabul. African countries, where the now-infamous Yevgeny Prigozhin was responsible for Russian influence in recent years, are also proving much more important to Russia than they were before the current war and Western sanctions.

On this truncated map of the world, Russia is the only European country, almost like the real West. The role of exotic newcomer to this world – once called the “third” world – is strange and somewhat funny. You can imagine how for Iran, with its hypertrophied state conservatism, Russia will be unacceptable as a trade and cultural partner from the standpoint of its conservative values. Still, speaking of conservative values, Putin’s Russia has devoted many years to cultivating and even constructing them: Orthodox Christianity, politicized during the years of Putin’s rule (the Pussy Riot case should probably be considered a turning point in this regard), the cult of the Victory in World War II, which became a full-fledged quasi-religion under Putin, “family values,” implying zero tolerance not only for LGBTQ+ people, but for everything that does not fit into the concept of a “traditional family” (for example, childlessness). The values experiments of Putin’s Kremlin are clearly based on political expediency and are a derivative of the anti-Westernism that Vladimir Putin himself has formulated many times at the political level, railing against the “unipolar world” and “US domination” – with the further logic seemingly going something like this: if being transgender is encouraged and gay marriages are legalized in the West, then we will fight them so that there is confrontation in all areas (if homophobia reigned in the West, Putin would of course legalize gay marriage himself).
But state devotion, homophobia and exaggerated pride in a heroic historical past – is that enough to build your own system of values, different from the Western one?
It is impossible to raise your own ayatollahs and mahatmas out of people who have lived for the last 30 years in the Western system of values – the current Russian elite did not buy villas in China, did not keep their capital in Iranian banks and did not send their children to African universities to study. Now, playing at conservatism and distinctiveness, they can only reproduce the values and practices of the West, only from 60 or 70 years ago, when gays were sterilized in England, in Hollywood cinema even the final kiss, according to the Hays Code, was supposed to be as chaste as possible, and Christian preachers threatened anyone who did not look like a standard, conservative family with hell. This toy West, of course, will not look like the original, but it will also not be able to become an independent civilization, while all the ways out of the historical impasse caused by Vladimir Putin’s military adventure include a return to the previous path – a task comparable to the one that Tsar Peter took on three hundred years ago.
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