The “Russian World”-the desire for expansion

Mikhail Epstein, a Russian-American philosopher and cultural historian, has just published an extraordinary book, The Russian Anti-World, New-York, FrancTireurUSA, 2023. The author asserts that no amount of achievement of Russian culture, no amount of love for it, can erase the stinging imprint that the current regime puts on it. How could the people educated in this culture produce the greatest catastrophe and threat to the existence of humanity? We publish the first two chapters of this book.

The “Russian world” is a central idea of contemporary Russia, and its expansion is the main goal of the state. Compared to the previously dominant ideas – such as “Orthodox Empire”, “Third Rome”, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, National Principle”, “Communism”, “Class Struggle”, “Proletarian International”, “World Revolution”, “Real Socialism” – the “Russian World” seems to be a very poor idea, deprived of substance. Russia now is not identified with any general concept, but only with itself, with the idea of “Russian” as such (a real tautology). And one does not understand in the name of what, if not in the name of itself, it should expand.

Vladislav Sourkov, in placing the concept of the “Russian world” at the center of Russian politics, hardly defined it as anything other than a “desire for expansion”: “What is the Russian world? This idea, I introduced it one day into the fabric of public policy… There was this issue: how to talk about the Empire, about our desire to expand, but without making the international community cringe?1 “. Let’s evoke the title of V. Sourkov’s novel Close to Zero (published in 2009 under the pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky2) and we will understand that this is precisely how he defines the Russian world: as a zero in rotation and expansion3.

And in fact, if one observes the mode of expansion of the Russian world, one realizes that it does not include any basic motivation, neither philosophical-religious, nor socio-economic. The countries at whose expense this “world” is trying to expand – first Georgia and now Ukraine – are nothing particularly foreign to Russia, especially in the case of Ukraine: the religion is Orthodox, the economy is capitalist. In order to define the cause of this tug-of-war, it is necessary to start not from positive characteristics of the “Russian world”, but precisely from what it denies. And then we see that this world is in essence an anti-world: it is fundamentally defined by negative characteristics that have become self-sufficient after the collapse of previous ideologies. The peculiarity of Russia in the 21st century is the creation of a purely negative identity, which has been formed, so to speak, a contrario.

Each phase of history gives a new meaning to all previous ones. Russia’s current war against Ukraine, against Europe, against the West reveals as never before the negative characteristics of its socio-national identity, which was previously hidden by the fog of strategic changes. Sometimes Muscovy proclaimed itself a pillar of the Orthodox faith; sometimes the Russian Empire aspired to unite all Slavic peoples and take the lead in the European world; sometimes the Soviet Union tried to unite the whole of humanity under the banner of the most progressive doctrine and sweep capitalism from the face of the earth. Now the strategy has become simpler. Russia is not against the miscreants and the bourgeoisie, it is not against Catholicism and capitalism, it is simply against them, as antimatter is, by its very physical nature, opposed to matter.

Antimatter nuclei, as synthesized by researchers, are composed of antineutrons and antiprotons, and when matter and antimatter interact, they annihilate each other. In the same way, over the centuries, Russia has produced in itself a historical antimatter, which is now colliding with the rest of the world and threatening to exterminate it in a chain reaction. The result of millennial metamorphoses is the appearance of a space conducive to a perfect storm, a giant crater the size of the largest country in the world, which tries to suck into itself everything that surrounds it, and which is defined not by what it is, but by what it opposes. Anti-time, anti-future, anti-history, anti-law, anti-society, anti-freedom, anti-being… In 2022, Russian society has suddenly crystallized into anti-society, although the process has been underway for a thousand years. This social anti-matter has a physical equivalent: the nuclear weapon. It is generally said that such and such a country acquires nuclear weapons, but one can also consider that nuclear weapons are acquired by one’s country, as soon as it has reached maturity on the level of the “anti”, and that it can be used to annihilate the whole world, including oneself.

Pseudomorphosis and antimorphosis: the world’s basement

The fact that Russia has always positioned itself as the antithesis of the rest of the world and declared itself surrounded by enemies – “heretics”, “heterodox”, “miscreants”, “Judeo-Masons”, “capitalists”, “anti-communists”, “anti-Soviets”, “Russophobes” – is a testimony of its own reversal. There are two fundamental characteristics of Russian culture that seem to contradict each other: a dependence on the West and an opposition to the West. Not without reason, the German philosopher Oswald Spengler called this phenomenon pseudomorphosis: when a culture that has not yet blossomed takes the form of another. “An artificial, inauthentic history has been imposed on a people who were destined to live outside history for many generations… recent science and art, education, social ethics, the materialism of a world capital have been introduced…”, Spengler wrote about the Russian pseudomorphosis in the time of Peter the Great.

But not every “pseudo” culture becomes “anti”, i.e. aspires to the destruction of its initial matrix. For this to happen, the pseudomorphosis must have taken place in a country with a large enough territory and population to have the capacity to oppose the civilization it has taken the form of. And in fact, since the time of Peter the Great, Russia has absorbed Western techniques, industry and education in such a way as to turn them against the West itself. Russia is no longer just a pseudomorphosis, but an antimorphosis, and the more it borrows, the more it comes into confrontation with the source of its borrowing.

“Everything that appeared around, from that time on, was perceived by true Russianness as poison and lies. Apocalyptic hatred is now directed against Europe.” (O. Spengler). It is a culture of jealousy and rivalry, which finds its vocation in disputing the supremacy of other cultures, in ousting them precisely because of the progress it has drawn from them. In this, Russia is radically different from China, which opposes the West as a separate civilization, born before Western civilization and forging its own paths in the conception and transformation of life. Despite the profusion of borrowings from the West, China is developing along its own civilizational axis. Of course, Russia has greatly contributed to the accentuation of anti-Western characteristics in China, setting it on the path of communist revolution and Marxism-Maoism. However, China’s historical destiny has much older and more powerful mechanisms. While Russia has no other support, no other focus that attracts it as much as it repels it, than the West.

Russia is constantly railing against the world order, while it cannot establish order within its own borders. Dostoyevsky’s “basement man” has an acute sense of self and self-worth, but lacks any real artistic talent, and therefore exhausts himself in small and large-scale attacks on others, which above all cause him great suffering. Russia is a “subterranean” state, and it is no coincidence that it was one of the first countries to create a political “subterranean” (in the 19th century the clandestine organizations Land and Freedom and People’s Will), and in the 20th century it raised the revolutionary subterranean to the height of power. The behavior of Russia on the world stage reflects the features of a man of the basement now quite confident, embodied in the twenty-first century by the number one of the Russian state. This country challenges everyone, humiliates, but is not capable of founding its own civilization that other peoples would join willingly.

The tragedy of Russia is that it is not autonomous and creative enough to build its own civilization, which could compete with the great civilizations of the East and the West. And yet, it is too large and proud to be an integral part of other civilizations, to accept a subsidiary role. Certainly, a country does not have the obligation to create its civilization. Neither Australia, nor Indonesia, nor Pakistan, nor Brazil have this objective. But this is exactly what Russia wants to do, again and again – either as the Third Rome, the last pillar of the true faith; or as the USSR, opening the way to a bright future for the world; or as the center of Eurasia and the banner of Eurasism opposing “Atlanticism”…

All these attempts are failures and are repeated all the same. The country suffers and makes others suffer, and this is the meaning of its existence, its means to remind everyone (and itself) that it is alive. Without this suffering, Russia would have already turned into a barren desert – only suffering, its own and that which it makes others suffer, animates it and its artists, from Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy to Platonov and Solzhenitsyn. The Russian essence is to be against oneself and others, to be the first in (self)negation and (self)destruction. It is a country that brings danger and torment, and does everything to divide its population into two unequal categories: drunks, thieves and scoundrels on the one hand, saints and martyrs on the other.

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