My advice to Cameron

David Cameron arrives in Moscow on Monday, marking the first visit by a British PM since the Litvinenko affair. He will find his hosts suspicious, their politics defensive and his rhetoric on democracy and human rights will no doubt fall on deaf ears. But he should not be disheartened, says Dmitry Oreshkin: Russia remains a two-faced Janus, hoping, on one level, to engage.
Dmitri Oreshkin
10 September 2011


“Asians only understand force.  Believe me, I’m Asian myself,” said Stalin somewhat playfully to Churchill.

The real picture is rather more complicated. Russia is still a two-faced Janus, albeit to a lesser extent that the USSR was, turning a European face or, in the words of Alexander Blok, an ‘Asian mug’ to the outside world.

In that part of the Russian establishment for whom the mythology of Soviet power is still a guiding principle, the theory of Alexander Dugin, eclectic geopolitician, philosopher of history and appeaser, is currently fashionable. Great Russia, the keeper of the ancient tellurian code (the wise men of Russian patriotism have a weakness for fanciful European terminology), is condemned by the onward march of history to a fateful rivalry with the Atlantic sea powers represented by Great Britain and the USA. This leads us to the bold conclusion that the last two world wars were an irritating historical mistake: instead of fighting the tellurian spirit of Germany, Russia/USSR should have gathered together all the continental Eurasian forces and made a stand against world evil represented by the Atlantic Leviathan. The fact that this didn’t happen is, of course, the fault of the exasperating British who cunningly drove a wedge between those natural allies, Germany and Russia.

The high-flown drivel of the Dugin theory is interesting because it articulates the vague suspicions and expectations which lie in the depths of the nation’s wounded consciousness. Is Russia great?  Great is axiomatic, but then why did she lose the Cold War? Well, because she missed a trick when choosing her ally and fell victim to the agents of perfidious Albion – Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the other ‘democrats’. But it’s not too late to correct that mistake! Come hell or high water we have to re-establish the tellurian alliance, which will put Russia at the centre of the united states of Germany, Iran, China and other Eurasian powers like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Syria and Iraq. Otherwise the Atlantic anaconda will carry on biting off bits of the great land-based civilisation (Iraq, India, Pakistan…and Afghanistan waiting in the wings) and stifle the tellurian nucleus. Then it will suffocate, having lost its raison d’etre. It will be the end of history…

That’s just how things are, as the Russians say

When translated into the language of practical priorities, this exotic ideology:

  1. positions Britain and USA as historical enemies no 1;
  2. acts as a justification for the state confiscating the people's rights and income;
  3. is grounds for militarism and expansion by force.

Given the growing importance of the military-industrial lobby in Putin's Russia, it is no surprise that snippets of Dugin's thinking – usually modernised and less virulent in form – constantly turn up in the Russian establishment's discussions, and in the stream of information from the state television channels.

In foreign policy this value system manifests itself in the correlation between robust rhetoric and deeds and the growth of export prices for basic goods. Additional funds from the Russian public purse are always used primarily to strengthen the military machine, and only then to meet the needs of the population: health, education, housing and social policies.  The Afghan campaign coincided with high oil prices at the end of the 70s, Putin's Munich speech and the Georgian war with the price rises of the second half of the 00s.

But if that were all there was to it, there would be no point in Mr Cameron getting into his plane. Times are changing. Ideological and geopolitical unity disappeared from the Russian establishment some time ago, and from society too. People are increasingly boldly stating their rights – material, rather than political or civic. The result of this is that the government has to use a significant part of the money earned from oil and gas to address social problems and to improve standards of living. There's less and less left for exalted ravings. Natural bourgeois pragmatism pricks the bubble of rapturous geopolitical lyrics much more unforgivingly than any 'agents of influence.' For purely objective reasons the Russian Janus is compelled to smile more often at the West with its European face, leaving its Asian 'mug' for domestic consumption.

Russia: instructions for use

Russia is the country of Soviets, as is well known [Rn word soviet means counsel, advice ed]. The author of these lines dare not place himself above the powerful current of history, so will content himself with a few small pieces of advice.  

In my opinion it is helpful to set out clearly three levels of relationship.

The first, and most important, are pragmatic economic relations. Trade, sales of technology sales, participation in complicated field development, where deposits are inaccessible and production impossible with existing Russian technology. Both the Russian establishment and public opinion will understand the need for a direct and robust partnership, based on mutual business interests. Business is business, interest rates are interest rates, 'trust the dealer, but always cut the cards' [possibly Ronald Reagan's only Russian phrase, ed]. Unpleasant memories of the BP problems and Shell's Production Sharing Agreement in Sakhalin should not be swept under the carpet, but regarded rather as a reason for an even clearer statement of terms and conditions, so that, where necessary, there can be recourse to the international court. In this the Russian elites have moved closest to European standards – when it's a question of clear-cut advantage, people learn surprisingly quickly.

"Russians know little about how the British state is organised. Great Britain is confused with England; people know practically nothing about the basis for relations between the various nations in the one realm, or British multiculturalism (except that it collapsed at the same time as world capitalism)"

The second set of problems is linked to the climate of trust in international relations, to democracy and respect for human rights. It is unlikely that much progress will be made with these problems. The differences in values are too great.  More importantly, the pragmatic interests of Putin's elites are diametrically opposed to European interests. In a fair election with genuine competition and conscientious vote counting 'United Russia' would win approximately 25% less of the vote than in the conditions of 'sovereign democracy.' Why should the Russian establishment admit observers from OSCE and ODIHR to the elections when everything is already so well set up? Why should it register the opposition party PARNAS, only to hear quotes from Boris Nemtsov's brochure 'Putin. Corruption' issuing from the TV screen?

The most that can be hoped for here is, once more, a pragmatic relationship on specific aspects of foreign policy – Afghanistan, for instance, where Putin's establishment fears the return of the Taliban evern more than London or New York. Libya, the Middle East…the most rational approach to observance of the law and human rights would be a clear assessment and statement of differences on key questions such as the Litvinenko or the Magnitsky affairs, the quality of Russian elections, police raids etc. with no attempt to exchange political flexibility for economic favours. Here it has to be quite clear, Putin's way: keep the sheep and the goats apart. Because at the end of the day Russia is just as interested in Britain as Britain in Russia.

The third level of relationship is propaganda and public relations. A rare chance to open people's eyes to the way in which Russo-British relations did, and still do, take shape.

It would be a good idea to offer Russian media a summary of concrete facts relating to British attempts to capture the Russian market.  No one knows anything about that in Russia. Nothing! The story of the [1912 massacre of the] Lena Goldfields [workers] and the Metro-Vickers affair are completely unknown. Even the Arctic Convoys to Murmansk have only been mentioned vaguely, with no concrete details of what the British ships actually brought to the USSR. The British brought us small amounts of something, people say…so it would be useful to remind them of the real facts, now long since forgotten. 

"Russian society is in transition. This manifests itself in the propensity of Russian politicians to pretend to be the opposite of what they are – so as to please both of Russia's faces, the West and the East."

Russians know little, and their information is often inaccurate, about how the British state is organised. Great Britain is confused with England; people know practically nothing about the basis for relations between the various nations in the one realm, and British multiculturalism (except that it collapsed at the same time as world capitalism). It would be good to hear about this from a reliable source.

As for public speeches: cheap flattery would be greeted with gratitude and relief. Russian public opinion agonises over the conflict between an exalted opinion of itself, instilled by Soviet propaganda (the most advanced society, the standard bearer of progressive humanity), and the very disappointing realities of today. For reasons given above they are doubly wary of representatives of the British elite. They truly believe that the English [sic] are haughty, cynically hypocritical and profoundly indifferent to the history and culture of other nations.

So an acknowledgement of the historic role of great Russian culture, its military achievements and the significance of Russian civilisation from the lips of a representative of the British establishment are doubly eagerly awaited. But with double distrust too.

And, finally, one more thing. Russian society is in transition. This manifests itself in the propensity of Russian politicians to pretend to be the opposite of what they are – so as to please both of Russia's faces, the West and the East.  Putin, trained in the KGB, usually presents himself as a moderate Westerniser, so as to soften his image in the eyes of the europeanised section of society. To avoid the image of a soft liberal, lawyer Medvedev, a university man, plays the part of a strict great power nationalist with beetled brows.

So, as we say in Russia, in reality everything is very different from what it is in actual fact. 

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