20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues the series of stories about Russian nationalism written by the well-known scientist Alexander Yanov. This essay, which will be published in two parts, tells the story of the birth of Pan-Slavism in Russia's foreign policy and the dangers of its revival.


Tsar Nikolas I (left); Napoleon (right)

Mission Impossible

For three decades, from 1825 to 1855, Russia's foreign policy was dictated by, paradoxically, the Decembrist revolt. More precisely by the trauma which Nicholas I, the demiurge of this policy, suffered in the days of rebellion. And because he was completely convinced that “the madness of our liberals” stemmed from the West, he saw his mission as the eradication of the revolution in its very lair – in liberal Europe.

To the Tsar, it seemed most important because he was extremely vain. The glories of his elder brother Alexander I, victor over Napoleon, made him sleepless at night. He dreamed of brilliant victories, of getting the nickname Agamemnon of Europe , and of receiving the title Blessed in Russia. However, because in his time the disturber of the European peace was not the great Corsican but the revolution, a victory over this revolution under his leadership was the only way for him to catch up with the late brother. So it all came together: the injury on Senate Square, and the tsar's vanity.

Fyodor Tyutchev formulated this mission for Nicholas very precisely: “In Europe, there are only two real forces, only two major powers - Russia and Revolution. Now they come face to face and tomorrow they might fight. There can be no agreements or transactions between the one and the other. What is life for one - is death for another. For many centuries, the political and religious future of humanity depends on the outcome of this struggle.”

Looking back from the XXI century, we see clearly that Nicholas’ mission was impossible. Moreover, he had to admit his defeat during his lifetime. But this was not obvious in the 1830s. Ultimately, Russia was a European superpower after its victory over Napoleon. And it seemed that nothing was impossible for its sovereign.

Mikhail Petrovich Pogodin, the second prominent ideologue of the regime, wrote about this openly: “I ask, can anyone compete with us and we will not force him to obey? Is the destiny of the world not in our hands if we want to solve it? What is impossible for the Russian Tsar? Let them invent any sort of problem for the Russian Tsar, even similar to the problems offered in fairy tales. I think it is impossible to invent any that would be too difficult for him to resolve, if only he has his supreme will to do it.”

The vanity of Napoleon’s superpower triumphs taught his followers nothing: neither Nicholas I, nor Napoleon III, nor Wilhelm II, neither Hitler nor Stalin, nor even George Bush junior.

To an even greater extent than Tyutchev, Pogodin expressed the general opinion of that time, the spirit of the era, if you will. Few people would disagree with him in Europe at that time and even fewer in Russia. But even Pogodin could not keep up with Tyutchev’s poetic imagination. Here is his picture of Russia’s future: “Only two facts can be concluded for the Western revolutionary interregnum of the last three centuries. These two facts are: 1) the final formation of the great Orthodox empire, in short, Russia’s future, carried out by the absorption of Austria and the return of Constantinople, and 2) the reunification of the two churches – the east church with the west church. These two facts, to tell the truth, are one: the Orthodox emperor is in Constantinople, he is the master of Italy and Rome, and the Orthodox Pope in Rome, who is a subject of the emperor.”

You can argue about what exactly was this half-mad bragging evidence towards – Russia’s glory or its illness. Vladimir Solovyov had doubts. “Russia is sick," he wrote, "and it is our moral malady.” As a student of Solovyov, I not only share his opinion, but call this disease the Napoleonic complex of Russia (another addition to our terminology.)

Napoleonic Complex

Here, in fact, we talk not about some special Russian disease but a European one (this confirms that Catherine was right and Russia remains a European nation even in illness.) And anyway, I named Russia so only because France was the most striking example and victim.

It's amazing how Napoleon, a brilliant man in many ways, did not realize the futility of his bloody redrawing of Europe . Yes, he became the overlord of the continent, but it was obvious that all this gigantic building would collapse after his death like a house of cards. And then who needs his triumphs? After all, they had to pay for this a terrible price: a whole generation of French youth was killed on the European and Russian fields. But the vanity of Napoleon’s superpower triumphs taught his followers nothing, who one after the other got into line for “the first place among the world’s kingdoms:” neither Nicholas I, nor Napoleon III, nor Wilhelm II, neither Hitler nor Stalin, nor even George Bush junior.

What's worse, the Napoleonic complex has an insidious characteristic to recrudesce. An initial triumph inevitably followed by a second phase, perhaps even more brutal - national poignant longing for the lost superpower. This longing led Napoleon III into the place of Napoleon I, Hitler into the place of Wilhelm II, and Stalin into the place of Nicholas I.

If the original Napoleonic complex rests on the right of the one with power, the keyword of the second phase is revenge. In other words, with the country, which had the historical misfortune to visit the superpower’s Olympus (and inevitably after that was reduced to the ranks), in fact, happens the same as with the man who lost, for example, his hand in a war. There is no hand, but the pain remains. The man, of course, is aware that this is phantom pain but it is not getting any less painful. That's why I call this a secondary, revanchist phase of the Napoleonic complex the phantom (another term that we will need). For three Slavophile generations, desperately pining for the lost superpower after its collapse in the ill-fated Crimean war, revenge, in fact, became the Russian idea.

Slavic twist

These terms are important because Slavophilism finds its own foreign policy, which was before a domain of the regime’s ideologues exclusively, at the intersection of the two Napoleonic complex’ phases. In their understanding, the Russian idea was based on the chosenness of the Russian people according to the Third Rome philosophy, and not on tribal solidarity. As it was said in the circle of the Ministry of Education: “It [the foreign Slavdom] should not rouse our sympathy. It is on its own, and we are on our own. We arranged our state without it, and it had no time to create anything and now it completed its historical existence.”


Fyodor Tyutchev (left); Mikhail Pogodin (right)

All this was logical from the principles of Nicholas' foreign policy. Ultimately, the foreign Slavs were legitimate sovereigns of other nations, and the Tsar stood firm in the defense of their legitimacy. In this arrangement, the Slavophiles were truly useless, or as Russians say, they were “the fifth spokes in a chariot wheel.” Everything changed after 1848, when Europe coped with the revolution without the Tsar (he was invited to “clean up tails” in Hungary); and his dreams of catching up with his late brother went to pieces. Nicholas urgently needed to reorient his foreign policy. His concept of Europe should be reconsidered first.

In the Nicholas era, the view that Europe was “rotten” was generally accepted. Back in the early 1840s, Stepan Shevyrov’s (Michael Pogodin’s co-editor in Moskvityanin) article made a lot of noise. It clearly hinted that Europe was already rotten. In any case, Shevyrev rebuked St. Petersburg’s audience that “it does not sniff the future corpse’s odor, which already smells, in the communion with the West.” The reproach was heard: “This produced such an effect in the highest circles, just a miracle,” wrote Pogodin to his coeditor: “Your 'Europe' is driving me crazy.”

The Napoleonic complex has an insidious characteristic to recrudesce. An initial triumph inevitably followed by a second phase, perhaps even more brutal - national poignant longing for the lost superpower.

It is hard to imagine the degree of the public’s frustration, when “rotted” Europe had beaten Russia in the Crimea some decade and a half later. “Not the force hits us,” Khomyackov wrote then, “We have it. And it is not courage, we do not need to look for it; we were beaten and strongly beaten by thought and by spirit.” And Pogodin exclaimed in horror: “There is not one force against us, but the spirit, the mind and the will, and what a spirit, what a mind, and what a will!”

It is fair to say that the process of revising the concept of Europe had already begun in the early 1850s. Then it was recognized that although Europe was rotting, it was still strong and Russia alone could not defeat it. Russia needed allies. That's when they remembered the foreign Slavs. And oddly enough, the first who thought of them was Pogodin. “Nations hate Russia,” he wrote in his unheard bold letters to the Tsar, “They see it as a major impediment to their development and progress, and become angry for its interference in their affairs. The legion of the general opinion organized against Russia.” And as if that was not enough, he adds in the following letter: “Here are the results of your policy! Governments betrayed us, nations hate us; we have no allies, and traitors are at all angles. So tell me why, if your policy is good?”

No one talked to the intimidating Emperor in his timid country like this, where, in the words of Alexander Nikitenko, “People began to fear for their living day, thinking that it might be the last one with their friends and family members.” And yet, as Pogodin wrote later, “The emperor was pleased to hear (my letters) not only with good will, but also with gratitude.” Does this seem to be true? Paradoxically, it seems. Nicholas desperately needed a new foreign policy strategy. And Pogodin was the only person in his entourage (Slavophiles did not count for the Tsar despised them), who proposed it.

Another triad

The new strategy required a decisive rejection of the old counter-revolutionary approach. Forget about the revolution, said Pogodin, “It frightened us groundlessly.” Forget about Uvarov's triad and its nebulous “national spirit.” The new triad should sound clearly: Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Slavdom! Because our allies - and the only reliable and powerful ones - are Slavs. There are 10 million Slavs in Turkey and 20 million Slavs in Austria. Subtract this amount from all over Europe and you will add to our 60 million. How much will they have and how much will we have? The thought stops; it is breathtaking.

The new strategy required giving up the sacred principle of legitimacy. The shift towards the Slavs meant the dismemberment of Turkey and "absorption" of Austria, countries that had quite legitimate monarchies. But what was offered in return for all these sacrifices turned Tsar’s head. It sounded really enticing. Listen to this: “Russia has to become the head of the Slavic Union. According to the philology laws, the Russian language will become the standard language for all Slavic tribes. In general affairs, Greece, Hungary, Moldavia, Wallachia, Transylvania should stick to this Union by their geographic position, considering the Russian emperor as the Head of the World, i.e. the Father of the Slavic tribe.... And let's see whether we then fear the Old West with its logic, diplomacy and treachery.”

Of course, Pogodin’s plan of a “great Orthodox empire” appears to our contemporary viewpoint as utopian as Lenin’s project of the world revolution. Especially as the first step towards its implementation - a clumsy attempt to dismember Turkey - led to the European war, the collapse of Nicholas' regime and, worst of all, the expulsion of Russia from the superpowers’ Olympus. But then, the first failure of Lenin’s project - a campaign against Poland – did not force Bolsheviks to abandon the utopia. And even a quarter of a century after Pogodin, Slavophile Nikolai Danilevsky considered the Panslavist project realistic, giving his utopia a science-like appearance.

The new strategy required giving up the sacred principle of legitimacy. The shift towards the Slavs meant the dismemberment of Turkey and "absorption" of Austria, countries that had quite legitimate monarchies.

The problem was that the initial phase of Russia’s Napoleonic complex had gone into oblivion along with Nicholas, and Slavophiles were left with revenge. They stayed in these circumstances until 1917. But was it only up to 1917?

In July 2003 I was looking through responses on the article by Vladimir Bondarenko about “Russian revenge” on the site of the Tomorrow newspaper and I stumbled upon this gem: “The energy flows at once from one phrase RUSSIAN REVENGE [capital letters preserved, as in the original. - AY]. It's not a dream. It is in the air ... Accidentally I met an intelligent Bulgarian at the airport who lives in Germany 12 years. Just during our ten minutes of conversation the Bulgarian said with a restrained force: “Yes, we are poor and lowly, some people make fun of our inclination toward Christian truth, but I am convinced that the West is a dead society. There will be our Slavic feast of OUR ORTHODOX REVENGE. Everything is ahead of us! Everything is behind them.””

The only difference between modern cultural Bulgarian and the old man Shevyrev was in that: the last one wrote when illusions were still fresh and not checked by the reality, and the first one, wrote when the phase of the phantom came long time ago. That’s where the cry for the revenge came from. The rest, a complete coincidence. And this is after so many cruel dispelled illusions...

To be continued in part two.