Russia’s Turn to Its Asian Past

As nostalgia surges for the eastern conquest of Genghis Khan, Putin maps out his own empire


President Donald Trump’s summit with President Vladimir Putin on July 16 will take him to Helsinki, one of Russia’s many lost possessions. From Finland to Mongolia, the Russian Empire and then, in somewhat different borders, the Soviet Union once ruled more than a sixth of the planet’s surface. Mr. Putin has famously described the loss of this empire, which happened nearly overnight in December 1991, as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century—not least because it has stranded tens of millions of Russian-speakers beyond Russia’s shrunken frontiers.

The phantom pain over that vanished greatness still haunts Russia’s collective consciousness. These days, the sting of this perceived historic injustice is redefining Russia’s sense of where its civilization really belongs—and is prompting a revision of how the country views its own past.

Less than a decade ago, it seemed self-evident that Russia, despite all of its cultural and political differences, was reclaiming its rightful place as part of the Western world. In a piece for a German newspaper, Mr. Putin wrote of a “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok” that aspires to free trade and shares common values.

Now Russia is increasingly looking East, toward an uneasy alliance with an illiberal and much more powerful China, and—in recognition of the country’s increasingly Muslim makeup—with nations such as Turkey and Iran. But even more pronounced is a sentiment that Russia, so unique in its vastness, must remain a world unto itself, a country that should expect kinship from no one—and that, in a motto coined by Czar Alexander III more than a century ago, can count on only two reliable allies: the Army and the Navy.

Russia is not the only country where nationalism, fueled by a desire to regain past glories, real or imagined, runs high today. From Brexit Britain to Mr. Trump’s “America First” policy to Xi Jinping’s emboldened China, the established international order and its institutions—based on cooperation and compromise and built largely by the U.S. and its allies—are struggling to survive. The very concept of the West is now in question.

This unraveling has prompted a dramatic change in how Moscow sees its own place in the world. “Russia followed a Western-centric approach for 200 years, with the West as its reference point, either in a positive way or in a negative way,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of Russia’s Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, a body that advises the Kremlin. “Today this no longer corresponds to the realities of the world—because the West is ceasing to be the center of the world.”

This change is happening even as Russia’s cities and lifestyle appear increasingly similar to those in the West, something evidenced by the festivities of this summer’s soccer World Cup. In Moscow, visitors now encounter bike-sharing, vegan cafes and bearded hipsters serving craft beers.

Still, the feeling of a separate destiny—and of being surrounded by foes—has taken hold of Russian society. Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and the Western economic sanctions that followed suit, pushing Russia into a recession and a financial crisis, turned out to be a turning point of historic proportions.

“Until 2014, Russia used to see itself as the easternmost bus stop of the Western world,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Since then, there has been a fundamental shift and Russia has turned inward. The Russian elite and its leader, Putin, have come to the conclusion that attempting to become part of the West won’t lead to desired results.”

What’s happening in Russia today isn’t just reversing the liberal legacies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Trenin added. It’s also an attempt to undo the westernizing approach that has dominated the Russian state going back all the way to Czar Peter the Great, three centuries ago. To some Russians, the reversal goes even further, with a new appreciation of the Golden Horde, the heir to Genghis Khan’s Mongol empire that ruled Muscovy from the early 13th to the late 15th centuries.

Some Russian nationalists now herald this Mongol-Turkic state, governed by descendants of Genghis Khan’s oldest son, as the foundation of Russia’s own eternal empire. Long expunged from memory, the Horde is trending in Russia again, the subject of movies and a popular TV series. There is even a theme park at the site of the Horde’s razed 15th-century capital Sarai Batu—a former film set of faux palaces and mosques where visitors ride camels, practice archery skills and take photos in Mongol dress.

Russia’s official historians and the Orthodox church long viewed the Horde’s rule over Moscow as a barbarian “yoke,” responsible for Russia’s underdevelopment compared with the West; studying its history was banned by the Kremlin in 1944. But modern revisionists, inspired by the “Eurasianist” ideology that sets Russia apart from the West, see the Russian state as the heir and beneficiary of that Mongol empire. They admire its ruthless centralism, its desire for conquest, its ability to maintain law and order—and its religious tolerance, which allowed Christianity and Islam to coexist.

Indeed, the medieval Russian state adopted much of the Golden Horde’s administrative system. Russian words for money (den’gi), treasury (kazna) and customs (tamozhnia) are all of Mongol-Turkic origin, and the Mongols’ system of yam postal relay networks became the backbone of the Russian empire. But after defeating the Horde’s successors, Russia eliminated most traces of its existence. Once a city larger than Paris or London, Saray Batu today is just a giant field strewn with medieval pottery shards, its mosques and palaces dismantled to provide bricks for the fortifications and churches of Astrakhan’s 16th-century citadel down the Volga river.

The leading voice of this Eurasianist movement in Russia today is the philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, who combines admiration for the Horde with close connections to the European and American alt-right and neo-fascist movements. “We, Russians, live under the shadow of Genghis Khan. He brought us not just the subjugation by the East but freedom from the yoke of the West,” Mr. Dugin has written. “Russians before Genghis Khan were just a periphery of Byzantium and Europe. Russians after Genghis Khan are the core of the Universal Empire, the last Rome, the absolute center of the geopolitical battle for the destiny of the world.”

Mr. Dugin, despite his frequent media appearances and a reputation of voicing what Russian officials prefer not to say in public, exercises little actual influence in Moscow’s corridors of power, said Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, a state think-tank in Moscow. Yet, he added, this new fascination with the Golden Horde serves a clear political purpose. “There is a desire to show the history of Russia not as purely Christian but as Christian-Muslim because we now have around 20 million Muslims in Russia,” Mr. Kortunov explained. “And there is a desire to show that the Western orientation is not the only possible trajectory and that there are alternatives to it.”

The impulse to abandon Russia’s Western orientation was recently articulated by Vladislav Surkov, a close aide of Mr. Putin who advised him on the Ukrainian crisis. “Russia spent four centuries heading toward the East, and then another four centuries toward the West, without taking root in either place,” Mr. Surkov wrote in a much-discussed academic article in April. From now on, Russia—an eternal “half-breed”—will face “a hundred (two hundred? three hundred?) years of geopolitical solitude.”

The profound disillusionment also stems from the failure of policies that aimed to bring Russia closer to the West following the Soviet Union’s breakup—a failure that many Western officials now admit wasn’t just Moscow’s. “The West was not sufficiently imaginative or creative in how to embrace Russia back when Russia had the intention of becoming a normal country,” said Lithuania’s former foreign minister Vygaudas Usackas, who served until last year as the European Union’s ambassador to Moscow and now heads the Institute of Europe think-tank. “As a result, we are finding a Russia that is searching for its identity between Europe and Asia—and that, in the meantime, has become an assertive and aggressive power with the stamina and the resources to discredit and undermine Western democracies.”

While the forces pulling Russia apart from the West have long bubbled under the surface, the breaking point came with Mr. Putin’s decision in 2014 to invade Ukraine (which many Russian politicians and officials believe shouldn’t be a separate country in the first place) and to annex the Crimean peninsula. The Ukrainian crisis of 2014 and the Western reaction to it, Mr. Surkov wrote, “marks the end of Russia’s epic journey toward the West, a stop to the multiple and fruitless attempts to become a part of Western civilization.”

The Western economic sanctions imposed since 2014 hampered trade, investment and the access of many big Russian companies to capital—as well as the ability of prominent Russian officials and oligarchs to take European vacations. Despite the election of Mr. Trump and his oft-stated desire for warmer ties with Mr. Putin, this pain has only intensified. In part because of congressional pressure, Mr. Trump’s administration has tightened existing sanctions against Russian companies and individuals. Unlike President Barack Obama, who feared antagonizing Moscow with such a step, Mr. Trump has also delivered lethal weapons to Ukraine’s military.

In Russia itself, hostility to the West has also grown deeper, with TV hosts—while often sympathetic to Mr. Trump and routinely calling him nash, or “ours”—matter-of-factly discussing the projected impact of Russian nuclear strikes against American cities. Russian state propaganda often equates Western nations to Hitler’s Germany and promises to defeat them just as the Soviet Union vanquished Germany in 1945.

It’s not clear to what extent the Kremlin believes its own propaganda. While resentment over Russia’s diminished stature is a key motivator of Mr. Putin’s behavior, so far Russia’s decision-making has been driven largely by opportunism rather than by a grandiose civilizational shift. “I don’t think Putin is thinking in terms of historical mythologies,” said Mr. Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council. “I don’t think he needs an ideological grounding for his policies.”

Still, Russian expansionism is not all about Mr. Putin and his personal ambitions. Empire-building is part of the DNA of Russian and Soviet history, said Alina Polyakova, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution. Stalin’s Soviet Union, just like Mr. Putin’s Russia, she pointed out, moved to reconquer lost parts of the Russian Empire once it became sufficiently strong, annexing the Baltic states and invading Finland. “Putin’s foreign policy is not really an outlier from a historical perspective,” she said. “There is a difference between Russia and the other empires, such as the British or the French. Those empires may have given up even more territory, but in Russia, the sense of loss, the sense of being a victim of the world, has never been healed.”

Mr. Putin highlighted this perception of victimhood in his March address to the Russian parliament, lamenting once again that, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the country lost 23.8% of its territory, 48.5% of its population and 41% of its GDP. Though Russia within its current borders remains the largest nation on earth by landmass, it doesn’t even rank among the world‘s ten largest economies. Its GDP is roughly the size of South Korea’s or of the Guandong province of China. Russia’s political class naturally looks with nostalgia to the time of its youth, when Moscow was the feared and respected capital of one of the world’s only two superpowers.

Today, Russia has no ideology or alternative economic model to export, and its claim to global relevance is backed up almost exclusively by its military might and the willingness to use it, as in Syria, Georgia and Ukraine.

“The position of the authorities and of Putin himself is clear: Everything was awesome in the past, during the Russian Empire and even during the Soviet Union, and we want to return to that greatness,” said Russian historian Alexey Malashenko, the director of research at the non-government Dialogue of Civilizations think-tank. “But what greatness?” he asked. “There is no such thing as the Russian national idea anymore, just a thought that people should be afraid of us. It’s a hooligan ideology. We cannot imagine our future and so we keep distorting our past.”

And in Russia, he added, rewriting the past to suit present ideological needs is a time-honored tradition. “Everything is opportunistic. When I was a student, there was a Tatar-Mongol yoke, then it became a Mongol yoke, then it became just a Golden Horde yoke, and now it turns out there was no yoke at all, and it all was just an interaction between the East and Russia.”

Photo: Vladimir Putin strolled alongside other leaders of what was then the G-8 group of leading nations in 2013, at the last summit before the Western-led group suspended Russia for its annexation of Crimea the next year. Russia had joined in 1998. PHOTO: LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS


Source: The Wall Street Journal :

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