Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov Has Invented A Version Of History To Meet His Needs

April 14, 2016
Russian Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov at a meeting of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2015

Bruno Maçães is a former Europe Minister in Portugal and the author of the forthcoming “The New Eurasian Supercontinent.” He is currently traveling in Russia, Iran and Central Asia. Follow him on Twitter at @MacaesBruno.

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, likes to think of himself as a man of ideas, whose contribution to shaping his country’s foreign policy comes from the ability to place it in a long historical context. In this he is no doubt unusual among his ministerial colleagues, the vast majority of which have assimilated the notion that we have entered a new historical age, so new in fact that perhaps history is now unnecessary or even, to a certain extent, misguiding.

That said, Lavrov cares little for history properly understood. He uses it in order to make certain points, and these are usually of the most current and even polemical character. His latest essay, meant to address Russia’s international standing in relation to what he calls “some examples from history,” starts by making the point that Russia cannot be seen as forever trying to catch up with the West, since it originally enjoyed “a cultural and spiritual level frequently higher than in Western European states.” The historical example here is of course Kyivan Rus before the Mongol invasions. Lavrov points out that at a time when royal marriages were the best gauge of a country’s place in the international system, the daughters of Grand Prince Yaroslav — who ruled Kyiv from 1019 to 1054 — became the queens of Norway and Denmark, Hungary, and France. His daughter Anna married Henry I of France and later wrote back to her father that her new country was “a barbarous place where the houses are gloomy, the churches ugly and the customs revolting.”

By arguing that Kyivan Rus is part of Russian history Lavrov shows how little of a student of history he really is. He reads it backwards. If he read it in the right way — from the past to the future — he would perhaps be more inclined to see the Rus as part of Viking history. Prince Volodymyr — Yaroslav’s father — was after all still so intimately linked to his ancestral home that he spent five years in Scandinavia before returning to Kyiv to claim the throne — bringing with him a new Viking army.

All these are in a way trifles, more or less childish provocations which Lavrov brandishes in full knowledge of how upsetting they are to Ukrainians. They do to some extent vindicate those Ukrainians clergymen who in 1944 — in events still far from being elucidated — took Yaroslav’s remains to Manhattan, where they were spotted soon after; they were afraid of physical and cultural appropriation by the advancing Soviets. Lavrov is engaged here in that very kind of exercise, but he is by no means alone and the real question is how in the end he comes back from his historical explorations to the present and the status of Russia in the international system. On this he makes a number of important points.

Still within the orbit of historical analogy, Lavrov starts by noting that Russia is in fact the political creation of Alexander Nevsky, who made the founding choice of resisting every and any attempt of assimilation coming from the West, even if that meant accepting a kind of temporary subjection to the Mongol empire. For Lavrov, the real danger to Russia’s special role and mission comes from the West. Anything — and by referring to the “Mongol yoke” he seems to imply literally anything — is preferable to assimilation by the West.

From that point on Russia’s destiny was traced, so to speak. In the coming centuries it would slowly develop what Lavrov calls “an original type of spirituality.” This idea is perhaps the very definition of conventional wisdom in Russia today. In my travels there this year I heard it from everyone, from a Circassian university teacher in Krasnodar to a half-deranged priest in Irkutsk. Lavrov is a politician. Whenever possible he appeals to the lowest common denominator.

What then is this Russian type of spirituality? All of Lavrov’s essay is a defense of “evolutionary change.” This is particularly obvious in the passages he devotes to the Soviet Union, which culminate in a complete rehabilitation of its signal contributions to human history and good government, but this is accomplished less in the name of revolutionary principles than as a corollary of the “continuity of Russian history, which should include all historical periods without exception.” If you thought that Czarist Russia was the preserver of throne and altar after the Napoleonic chaos, Lavrov disabuses you of the notion by noting how Alexander I and Nicholas II were prototypes of the cosmopolitan long-term project of subordinating national interests to the good of mankind.

Since the Russian special path stood at odds with the Western model of modernization, conflict between Russia and the West became a kind of historical given. The second wave of globalization (the first culminated with World War I) is for Lavrov very much a vindication of the Russian gambit that there are many different models of development, “which rules out the monotony of existence within the uniform, Western frame of reference.” He praises the Chinese economic miracle as having settled the issue once and for all. He also tries to argue that the Western revolutionary animus results from its belief in a single model to be imposed on political and social reality. Russia, by contrast, believes that change should be carried out in forms and at the speed that conforms with the traditions of a society.

Having set these two opposing world views, Lavrov is now ready to draw the political conclusion he is mainly interested in: the need to establish a new and improved international system — “without dividing lines.” What would this new architecture consist of? Here Lavrov is neither very explicit nor very original. He argues that a renewed and reenergized OSCE — rather than NATO — should have provided a common security umbrella less tainted by ideological blueprints of a bygone era. In practice this would involve the West’s abandonment of some of the most basic principles of its political culture, starting with the idea that public opinion should have access to the fundamental levers of political power. That for Lavrov is just one vision of politics among many and thus cannot provide a viable basis for the international system as a whole. No more color revolutions — to be replaced, perhaps, by “a moral basis formed by traditional values that are largely shared by the world’s leading religions.”

On the end of the Cold War and the international system that followed Lavrov makes two further — and rather revealing — points. First, he argues against the popular notion that the Soviet Union’s dissolution marked a Western victory. No such thing: it was the result of a certain desire for change in the Soviet Union itself “plus an unlucky chain of events.” The latter reference is important because it seems to suggest there was nothing necessary, inevitable and permanent about that dissolution. Second, Lavrov tries to get rid of the other justifying tenet of the current world order: freedom. That for him is a red herring: new NATO members are not freer than before. They confess to him — behind closed doors, of course — that they can’t take any significant decision without the green light from Washington and Brussels.

History took a different path. For Lavrov the fateful error was made by “our Western partners’ when they decided to expand NATO eastward, rather than using a unique opportunity to create a new international system “including all the colors of the modern world.” Thus Lavrov ends up offering us the quaint vision of an international system modeled on pluralistic electoral politics. He wants to carve up a role for an evolutionary party to go with the revolutionary party of the West, so committed to the “technology of revolution” that it cannot offer any viable solutions to common problems such as global terrorism or the depletion of the commons. At this point Lavrov sounds like no one as much as Nikita Khrushchev: the West wants to clamp down on Russia very much like, in the past, capitalists — big and small — wanted to silence those who struggled for a different and more just society.

Is this to be taken seriously? In some respects the answer must be no. With Khrushchev it was a piece of propaganda and false consciousness. That has not fundamentally changed, but then Lavrov does present us with the unavoidable world-picture of our age and that should be recognized: the international system is now fragmented into different and ultimately irreconcilable visions of the whole. In this it has come to resemble democratic politics in an open society. It is rather unfortunate that Lavrov seems blind to the bitter irony that he is defending the kind of pluralism for world politics which his country continues to fail to offer its own citizens.