'Russian Messianism' Yesterday and Today

Dr. Peter Duncan is a Senior Lecturer of Russian politics and society at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London.  Among his notable publications is the book Russian Messianism: Third Rome, Revolution, Communism and After.

Question: How do you define Russian messianism? 

Duncan: In my book what I try to do is first to define messianism, and I have two definitions. First of all, the Jewish concept of a person with a special mission from God to liberate the Jews, which is also used in a wider and looser sense with regard to theories about improving the state of man or the world and the final confirmation of history.  Also, Hans Kohn’s definition of a religious belief in the coming of a redeemer who would end the present order of things, ideas or a single group and introduce a new order of justice and happiness.  But what we really needed to do was have a wider form of messianism where the messiah was not simply just a person, but could be a whole people, as often in the case of Russian messianism, or it could be a Czar, a leader.  It could be a class, like in Marxism, with the working class being the messianic class.  I went on to talk about [Russian messianism] having a wider variety of different possibilities, but basing it from Christian messianism, or the idea that Christ is the messiah who institutes through his suffering the salvation of all of humanity or in some versions those sections of humanity that are prepared to accept him as a messiah, not necessarily everyone.

Russian messianism is like Jewish messianism in the sense that sometimes it's seen as the emancipation of simply the particular nation concerned, the Jews or the Russians, and sometimes its seen that Russia has a mission for the whole of the world.  It is more than just a mission, but at the most extreme case, the suffering of Russia, just like the suffering of Christ or the suffering of the Jewish people, leads to the redemption of the world as a whole. In its more moderate forms, it can mean that Russia simply exists to show the rest of the world a lesson which can be either how to do things, or how not to do things.

Given the experience of Communism, one interpretation could be that through Russia’s suffering under the Communist system, it showed the world not to adopt that sort of Communist system, or perhaps any sort of communist system in general.

I argued in the book that Leninism and the October revolution brought together both the Marxist concept of the working class as the messiah through whose suffering the whole of society is redeemed because the workers thorough the revolution bring about a classless society that then emancipates everyone.  Lenin unites this with the idea of Russian messianism, that the Russian people through their suffering show the way to the rest of the world.

Russian messianism in the Leninist concept has that meaning, but it also has a much more traditional meaning, going back to idea of the Third Rome, whereby the Czar is God’s chosen ruler who sees himself as the Czar of all Christians with a mission to unite all Christians and to convert the rest of the world.

Question: Now, as I understand in your book, you argue that this concept is not always at the forefront of intellectual thought, but that it is more or less prominent in certain periods in Russian history…

Duncan: Yes, but not just the concept of the Third Rome, but also of Holy Rus, which emphasizes the holiness of the Russian people, rather than the Czar and these are two quite separate concepts.

What I argued in the book, as you quite rightly say, is that the different ideas of Russian messianism come to fore in particular times, and especially in times of catastrophe, whether it’s the times of the wars against the Poles in the 16th century, when the Third Rome came to the fore, or when [Patriarch] Nikon introduced his reforms and that was seen by much of the Russian Orthodox Church as a betrayal of the Russian traditional religion, or the period of in the 19th century during the crisis of feudalism, when the ideas came about as to whether Russia could avoid capitalism or had to go through it. Then the period of Napoleon, the revolution, the second world war, and in particular, coming up to the present period, the period of the collapse of communism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The revival particularly in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, I argued in the book, is the idea of Russian messianism being linked with socialism.  So that’s one form that’s existing today. 

When I was writing the book at the end of the 1990s, I was arguing that under Yeltsin, the dominant motif was pragmatism as indeed it had been through much of Russian history, but meanwhile, underneath, there was a continuity of intellectual Russian messianism. The state was going in a different direction, which was mainly to preserve the interests of whatever the ruling group was, and very rarely did these messianic ideas come to the fore.  But what we have seen in the last few years under Putin, which of course has been since I wrote the book, is a revival inside Russia of these ideas about Russia having a different way forward, of Russia being different from the West, which sometimes is expressed clearly, sometimes not so clearly.

Russia now, the leadership now sees itself as sharing democratic values with the West, but at least part of the leadership sees itself as interpreting these values in a rather different way.  We have in the regime the ideas of sovereign democracy rather than of democracy as such, and the idea of Russia having a different form of democracy from that of the West.

Question: And how are these ideas manifested in Russia’s foreign policy today?

Duncan:  In the initial period of Putin’s rule, the fundamental point that was put forward after 11 September 2001, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was the view that Russia is at the forefront of the international struggle against terrorism: Russia has been suffering the attacks from terrorists, primarily from Chechnya, but also from Taliban influenced forces through Central Asia, and the rest of the world hasn’t been a victim in the same sort of way. The rest of the world hasn’t appreciated Russian suffering, but now the rest of the world, particularly the United States, is seeing what Russia has gone through and is coming to see that Russia is actually the leader of the struggle against terrorism.  Therefore, the United States must cooperate, and other victims of terrorism must cooperate and recognize Russia’s special position in this war against terrorism.  This thereby legitimizes Putin’s struggles in Chechnya, the repression, the air bombardments, the arrests, and the filtration camps, on the basis that the United States has to do that as well in Guantanamo, in Abu Ghraib.  But [the thought is], we’ve been suffering for the benefits of humanity, and we’re at the front lines just as we were at the front lines against the Mongols in the 14th to 16th century, just as we were at the front lines against Napoleon in the 19th century, against Hitler in the 20th century, against American nuclear weapons in the Cold War period, again we are in the lead and the West should recognize this.  That changes after there is disillusionment from about 2004 onwards, because the United States begins to criticize Russia despite how Russia had helped the United States in Afghanistan, opening up its airspace, giving aid to its allies in the Northern Alliance, helping the Americans to capture Kabul.  But now America doesn’t need Russia anymore, so it proceeds with the enlargement of NATO, takes into NATO three countries that had previously been in the Soviet Union: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, showing little concern for Russia’s interests… 

Russia gives up its bases in Vietnam, in Cuba, to show its desire to cooperate with the West, and instead what do the Americans do? Instead they decide that they are going to walk away from the ABM treaty, and not only do that, but then to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, so Russia sees itself as betrayed by the West, despite its suffering, despite its attempts to cooperate with the West, and so we have a different form of messianism now.

Instead of Russia as being the leader of the world struggle against terrorism, and this is not proclaimed openly, but very much it’s under the current, that Russia is now one of the leaders of those parts of the world that resist American imperialism.   Putin only once used the word imperialism, as far as I know, at one point last year.  Otherwise that would have been a taboo word to describe America.  Even Yeltsin only talked about NATO aggression after Kosovo.  He never talked about American imperialism. 

So this is a very different sort of messianism. Where Russia has had a civilizing mission in the Eurasian continent and acted as a model for other states, Russia has a different model from the West now. The Russian model involves a greater degree of state intervention in the economy, and a much more cautious attitude towards foreign investment, which is increasingly seen as exploitative of Russia’s natural resources.  In this sense, to some extent, [we see] a revival of Cold War stereotypes, although not entirely, because there is no attempt to return to a Communist ideology or to a philosophy of state ownership.  In foreign policy, this means that now Russia sees itself as different.  It sees the Western states as misusing international organizations like the United Nations: only using them when they are convenient to the West, but avoiding them when they are not convenient as in the case of Iraq, or in the case of Kosovo, when the United States and some European states go on their own, breaking international law.  So Russia sees itself as defending international law, showing the way forward to the world, while the West has double standards.

Question:  What will be the fate of Russian messianism 15 or 20 years from now?

Duncan: I don't want to say that Russian messianism will be at the forefront of Russian foreign policy, I think that would be a mistake, because pragmatism is still very important, but messianism is an element.  It’s an element against terrorism, and an element in the opposition to American unilateralism, but at the same time Russia also follows its own interests, and that’s still the fundamental foreign policy.  Russia needs to attract Western investment in order to be able to extract oil and gas out of increasingly unfavorable environments. It needs to be able to sell its raw materials to the West to earn money. So there can’t be any kind of ideological determinism in Russian foreign policy. What I would rather say is that these elements are there in people’s thinking, particularly among intellectuals, and are increasingly now through the media reflected in how ordinary people see the West.  Policy makers at the sharp end will continue to have to be very aware of the interests of Russia and Russian companies, the capacities of the Russian army, which at the moment are not very good.  But talking about, did you say 15 or 20 years?

If you are talking about that, then we should also think about the existing system that Putin has introduced in terms of this sort of electoral authoritarianism that there is in Russia today and the greater role of the state in the economy.  I think this will be seen to be inefficient.  Already, we can see that the state sectors of the economy are less efficient than the private sectors, if we look at the oil industry for example.   Inevitably, a new generation will come to power that will want to bring about another wave of reforms in Russia, which I think will again involve looking towards the West, just as happened with Gorbachev and Yeltsin in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Whether that will carry through or whether it will be a half-hearted reform that will lead to a half-hearted way back, as has been the case in the 1990s and the present decade, that will depend on the international situation and on the balance of forces inside Russia itself.  We should expect changes in Russia, but not before the next 10 to 15 years as far as domestic policy is concerned.  But foreign policy is both a product of domestic policy and of the international environment. 

Question: Do you think there will be substantial changes in terms of foreign policy under the new Russian administration?

Duncan: If there are changes, they are much more likely to be driven by changes in the outside world.  There will be more  continuity inside Russia.  The foreign ministry I don’t think will change very much.  Medvedev has worked with Putin for the last 17 years, hasn’t shown much signs of being different.  He sees the British Council as being involved in espionage for example, in the way that Putin did. The change will rather be if there is a change in the United States, depending on what attitude the next American president is going to have. There is a general belief that McCain will be bad for Russia. McCain is on record for saying that Russia should be removed from the G8 because it is not democratic, whereas neither Clinton nor Obama has talked about that in any sense. So generally speaking, the Democrats are seen as likely to be friendlier to Russia than the Republicans.  Therefore, there will be greater possibility for Russia to cooperate with the West [if a democrat is elected] than if McCain wins.

-- 04/17