Russian Tsar Peter The Great is best remembered for his transformation of the Russian Tsardom into the Russian Empire after the Treaty of Nystad which ended Russia’s conflict with Sweden and its allies during the Great Northern War. Among the lands that formally became part of Russia after 1721 was the former Swedish fort at Nyenschantz. It was here that as early as 1703, Tsar Peter laid out plans to create a new modern capital for Russia, the city of St. Petersburg.
The Great Northern War left its mark on Peter in many ways. First of all, it signposted the beginning of Russia considering itself not just an important power in Eurasia but more specifically, the Great Northern War gave Russia its first taste of expanding its territory into politically European territory. By contrast, the lands recovered by Russia from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth beginning with the 1667 Truce of Andrusovo were a combination of historic Russian lands as well as lands populated by Slavic peoples who for all intents and purposes carried with them elements of Russian culture even while under the rule of the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
But by expanding Russian territory into contemporary Finnish, Estonian and Latvian territory, Russia literally became attached to parts of Europe remote from Slavic cultural traditions and history. As such, Peter wasted little time in Europeanising Russian culture. While the architecture of St. Petersburg owes much to central and northern European influences, Peter also forced his generally angry nobility to adopt European dress, customs and learn French as a court language as was the custom in most European courts of the period. Peter went so far as to tax those who refused to shave their beards as in the 18th century, ornate facial hair had fallen out of fashion across Europe, only to make a substantial comeback by the mid 19th century, thus making Peter’s anti-beard legislation redundant.
While objectively, Peter is remembered as a successful ruler insofar as he expanded Russian territory, created a new empire and built a grand new city – in terms of the mentality he imparted to Russia, Peter’s legacy is more of an open question.
The second to last Tsar in Russian history, Alexander III presents a diametric contrast to Peter. Alexander III was well aware of the importance of what today is called the wider global south while in terms of culture, Alexander III vigorously promoted the Russian language, the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian literature and Russian music. In many ways, Alexander III’s reign was a renaissance in terms of nationally minded high art in Russia. To name but one example, Alexander III replaced Italian Opera with the music of Tchaikovsky as the official art of the Russian Empire while also elevating Tchaikovsky to the status of de-facto national composer. Forgetting some of Tchaikovsky’s earlier disagreements with the more nationalistic quintet of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Borodin and Cui, by the 1880s, Tchaikovsky was considered a bulwark of Russian culture at home and abroad and the Tsar was keenly aware of this.
Today, Russia is no longer a Tsarist state and nor is it a Communist state. As such, modern Russians have had the opportunity to examine their relations with the various leaders of both the Tsarist and Soviet eras. While normally this would be a placid or even academic exercise, because of the hostility that multiple western states and many elements of western culture have heaved at Russia’s feet, the issue of Russia’s identity as Eurasian or strictly European remains a major and often painful existential question.
While much of Russia has never been culturally, spiritually or geographically European, because St. Petersburg and the somewhat European style city of Moscow remain the two most influential power centres in modern Russia, there is a tendency among many of Russia’s modern elite to think of themselves as European first and Asian second. This has caused a profound metaphysical crisis because the last several years have proved that centuries old trends of Europe shunning, plotting against, projecting hatred towards and drafting conspiracy theories about Russia and Russians are as prominent in 2018 as they have ever been.
At the same time, Russia’s relations with China, Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan, Korea, most of the Arab world, most of central Asia and increasingly most of south east Asia and Africa are strong and continue to grow. Thus, for victims of Russian circumstance, many Russians are trapped in a scenario of not prioritising the places where Russia and Russians are looked to with respect because of a Peter style lust to become acceptable Europeans.
In many ways, today’s Russian elite are largely to blame for the hostility the western powers continue to throw towards Russia. In the same way that certain predatory animals can sense weakness in potential prey, so too are western leaders aware of the lust among Russian elites for Swiss bank accounts, property in New York, London and Paris and the other typical accoutrements of a typical western oligarch. Because of this, western leaders know the Achilles heels of the centipede that is the Russian elite.
If instead of being seduced by the modern day versions of that which Peter The Great lusted after, Russians decided to consider the state an Asian superpower with some European characteristics in its westernmost regions, things would be a lot better for the ordinary Russian at both an economic and psychological level.
If Russia focused on building cities with the efficiency of China, there would not even need to be discussions of barbaric European style increases to the pension age. If Russia focused on Asian style job creation, there would be no time for the youth to engage in degenerate activities while dreaming of banditry as a means of survival. If Russia combined these opportunities with a Chinese style social credit and security system, there would be a healthy balance between social freedom and social order that would not see Russia ping-ponging between too much social control as in parts of the Soviet period and the even worse social anarchy that defined the grim 1990s.
This is not to say that Russia should not trade with the west. Ideally, every country should trade with every other country on the basis of peace through prosperity. That being said, logic dictates that one prioritises economic systems most geared towards one’s own needs and desires, while logic further dictates that it is always better to do deals with a rational state or a friendly state rather than regimes that operate under an hysterical and hostile mentality.
Because of this, rather than yearn to become a Dollar or Euro millionaire, Russian elites should realise that the economic sun is once again rising at its indigenous home in the east. Rather than wasting time begging to join a European club that has always treated Russians like second class members in the best of times, a new generation of Russian economic, intellectual and political leaders is required to clear the stench of rot from the upper echelons of Russian society and to prioritise a Russia that embraces its Asian history rather than its flirtations with Europe. This will actually increase peace between Russia and Europe as the less one wants or expects from another party, the less tension there will be should disappointment arise.
If this is done, the long suffering Russian people will at long last be able to bear the fruits of a win-win mentality at the top of society that works with rather than against the people. This is the case because while the Moscow and St. Petersburg elites have often looked west, the ordinary people know best that Russia is too vast and diverse to be boxed into an increasingly narrow definition of European culture.