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Undestanding Russia

Published with a kind permission of Teodor Shanin.
See the original at http://www.msses.ru/shanin/isolationism.html

The new isolationism: West versus Russia

An assessment, an objective and a project

Teodor Shanin

Teodor ShaninThe contemporary state of understanding of Russian society by "the West” is deeply flawed and increasingly dangerous. It is flawed in its bias towards images of chaos and mafia plus the war in Chechnya as the sole features of contemporary Russia. It is dangerous because “turning one's back” on Russia will not make it go away: this vast country will always be a major factor of global history.

It is also counter-productive to the West’s own interests and declared aims as it serves to underlie the West's inadequate responses. To take but one example, the European governments attempted most recently to 'punish' Russia by freezing funding for TACIS cooperation between Russian and European Universities, a move which delighted Russian nationalists, about which the Russian government cared not at all and which would remove an important source of support to those who mostly resist anti-western views and moves.

Narrow and biased visions of Russia amongst the “Westerners” are reinforced by the crudity and outright lies within the Russian official statements. Growing sense of disillusion in Russia with the West (and vice versa) as well as Russia’s feeling of humiliation and the loss of hope for a stable well-of-and democratic contemporaneity are no justification to it but explain its strong emotional charge. All of that carries its own dynamic: nationalism and isolationism, both Russian and anti-Russian, each blind to its own excesses, each reinforcing the other in a vicious spiral. As time goes by, selective vision, caricaturing stereotypes and old prejudices reinforce each other and penetrate deeper and deeper. It is not any longer routine argument between diplomats and propagandists but new reality of popular perceptions by which future history may become defined.

During the last decade much was done institutionally as well as was happening privately to advance understanding of the West among the Russian elite and its young – an opening of windows to the West has been taking place. Unfortunately little was done the other way round. That state of affairs worsened following events such as the August 1998 financial collapse and the second Chechen war. But it was also accelerated by the way in which the Western mass media tends to present Russia (if at all) just as incomprehensible and evil.

The rise of new isolationism, ill-informed, simplistic and militant, calls for an urgent effort to open windows into Russia aiming at a more realistic understanding of Russian society, especially so by the political, economic and media-producing elites of the West. It should introduce real Russia, warts and all, with no cosmetics but within a balanced picture of its life, ways of survival, collective thought, dynamics and problem resolutions. In particular, it must go behind the daily scandals and the thin layer of “oligarchic” speculators and political hacks, to Russian society at large, especially so to the 90% of the population outside Moscow. Corrupt officials, impudent thieves and vicious generals come together with remarkable schools run by selfless teachers, quite a number of effective managers who pull their enterprises out of general morass, the currently blossoming of NGOs of humanitarian type, the brilliant and ever full theatres the numbers of which doubled within the last few years. In badly hit regions object poverty goes together with remarkable survival abilities of family networks within informal economies and pockets of group solidarity on a major scale. And so on.

For the sake of all, the western vision of Russia must be made more realistic. Russia should be looked at in all its complexity as well as in the light of historic changes taking place, i.e. in terms of generations rather than of a few weeks at a time. Such transformation of vision may be seen as a task unbearably huge but that should not justify inaction while we look on at deepening malaise. Even limited steps may produce a multiplier effect if well aimed and effectively executed.

The main impediment to efforts in that direction is the only too human tendency to let off steam in an avalanche of angry words and then let it all sink into nothingness. As against that one should recover the past merchant tradition by which a deal was made final not just by the signatures on a contract but by a single coin passing from hand to hand between its participants. It is the deed, even small, that validates.

With that in mind a group of people increasingly worried by the current dynamics of West/Russia relations (and which included diplomats and bankers, journalists and academics) met recently in Cambridge to initiate action aiming to counter the neo-isolationist trend. A Programme ““Window into Russia” was initiated. A number of steps was planned: symposium introducing Russia NGOs to their British counterparts, a programme introducting-via-imersion of westerners into provincial and rural Russia, a parallel programme concerning Russian schools, a seminar addressing the issues of neo-isolationism to be held in London a conference of the club of Western businessmen in Moscow to meet with Russian businessmen over issues of social responsibility and so on. An organizational structure was established to provide for further action. It consists of groups of support, an executive committee and a trust directed by a board of trustees. First steps are already in train and we intend to proceed.

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