Why Russia Hates Western Civilization

Even before the current, intensified phase of Vladimir Putin's eight-year war against Ukraine, the Russian President's former advisor, Andrei Illarionov, told the Westminster Institute that Putin's goal in forcing the Minsk agreements upon Ukraine was “not to allow [the country] to become part of Western civilization.” This comment reflected a widespread view that the confrontation between Russia and the West represents a civilizational rift, a perspective that likely got much of its traction from Samuel Huntington's classic “The Clash of Civilizations.”
In modern Ukraine, this view is probably held by a majority. It is certainly the paradigm of a 2016 report published by the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine on “the civilizational choice of Ukraine,” a phrase frequently heard in the country which Illarionov modified into “civilization choice” in his speech. A government award has also been given to a Ukrainian research project that sought to formulate strategies to integrate the country into Western civilization, to be applied to education and research programmes and, in an advisory manner, the work of NGOs. Google's second search result for the query “Western civilization” in Ukrainian is an article in the Encyclopedia of Modern Ukraine which begins: “Western civilization is the leading civilization of modernity.” By contrast, the Encyclopædia Britannica has no entry on the topic, and searching for “Western civilization Britannica” leads one to a fairly unflattering article on “Westernization.”
In Russia's halls of power, attitudes towards the West have shifted. A relatively friendly current was embodied by the former deputy prime minister Vladislav Surkov. Surkov was naturally no ally of Europe or the USA: he acted as a major engineer of Putin's 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Nonetheless, this architect of much of Russia's official ideology under Putin advocated for his country to take on a sort of alternative European identity rather than an Asiatic one, drawing harsh criticism from the extremist authoritarian Izborsky Club. The Club, led by a Stalinist media figure from Soviet times, wants a “totalitarian, Russia-led Eurasian Empire would confront and eventually overthrow the West.”
Surkov relinquished his position of power in 2013, however, and since then the Izborsky Club and related fundamentalist groups have gotten ever more of a hold on the ears of Russia's top decision makers. In 2017, the group was already informing the views of even centrist Russians. Since Putin's re-election as president in 2012, the Russian government has increasingly promoted it and other, ideologically similar organizations. Although their interactions were undoubtedly complex, the Kremlin's ideological development beginning in this period ran parallel to the theoretical work of the radical rightist think tank community in Russia.
Nowadays, the tenor of foreign policy discourse among Russia's extremist right is overwhelmingly anti-Western, showing considerable kinship with cultural leftism. Thus, an article published by a policy institute created by Konstantin Malofeev, an influential businessman with ties to Putin and the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, states that Russia is fighting in Ukraine to make all of Earth less Western and European. This ambition is cast in a postcolonial light. Of course, the irony of using a postcolonial ideology to justify colonial expansion reveals the hypocrisy found in many self-professed opponents of imperialism.
The Russian vendetta against perceived Western, and especially American, hegemony dates back decades, essentially to the appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1996. However, the civilizational nature of the conflict was, for a long time, less unequivocal than it has become. The Russian government's current totalizing opposition to everything Western was manifest in Putin's statements that the Western world was an “empire of lies” and that Russia was under attack by every single mass media entity in the West, which were all, according to him, basically propaganda outlets. Opposition writer Boris Akunin offered the obvious rejoinder that although plenty of lying goes on in Western countries, at least it happens in service to conflicting agendas instead of all being channeled in the same direction by a coercive government. Yet Putin's propaganda has instilled such a distorted image of the collective West over his two decades of rule that he can get away with such statements within Russia.
Why has Russian anti-Westernism become so radicalized? One likely reason is its elites' need to bolster its flagging popularity by firing up passions. After all, this seems to have been one reason for Russia's military adventurism. A look at Vladimir Putin's approval rating since the turn of the century, as compiled by Statista, reveals that the 2014 invasion of Ukraine followed a period when he was relatively unpopular. The war flung his numbers up meteorically, but approval cratered again in 2018 and only recovered with the current, broadened invasion. Nor was the trend of public disillusionment prior to the escalation confined to perceptions of the President. 2021 polling by the Levada-Center showed a protracted decline in Russians' feelings of trust for “the main political institutions,” “law enforcement agencies,” and even “the church.”
Additionally, the increase in ideological aggressiveness probably serves to deal with the country's stagnation on various fronts. Researchers have dedicated many studies to messianism in Russian foreign policy. According to political scientist Alicja Curanović, one trope in this messianic tendency is the idea that Russia's moral standing makes up for its technological and economic weakness. A major motivator here is clearly resentment: “justice” is the supposed core of Russia's task in the world, says Curanović. The potency of victimhood narratives throughout history certainly explains the fervor Russia's anti-Western worldview has taken on, and is a clear cause for concern. Regardless, if the civilizational messianism of Russia's ruling class is driven by an inferiority complex, this explains why it has been galvanized in recent years: Russia has been stagnating in multiple vital areas. In 2021, the disposable incomes of the country's inhabitants were slimmer than at any other point since 2009. In journalist Maxim Trudolyubov's analysis, an especially potent shock to the public's mood had come in 2018, when the retirement age was raised – and in 2019, real incomes had been declining for half a decade.
Contrariwise, earlier seeds of the Kremlin's and its allied scribblers' fanaticism were planted by the so-called color revolutions in countries neighboring Russia. One reaction in Russian politics to these shifts away from autocracy was to reinvigorate the theme of the “Katechon,” a staple of the Russian messianic tradition that dates back centuries. In this meme, as analyzed by Maria Engström, Russia represents the “Katechon,” a bulwark that protects the world from Satanic forces both without and within itself. In the modern context, it is such liberal opposition forces as enacted the color revolutions, as well as Russia's Western “foes,” that embody said forces of evil. In Engström's account, the trope is closely linked to the idea of Russia as the “Third Rome,” that is, Byzantium's successor as the home of the Christian faith. The latter concept is an interesting side to the civilizational conflict between Russia and the West, which Frederick Kagan had to clarify in his appearance on The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast: although appealing to Christianity, which is also a cornerstone of Western civilization, a powerful current in Russian culture thereby delegitimizes the West by casting Russia as the exclusive seat of the true religion.
The conclusions from the above suggest themselves for any Western conservative. It has shocked many that parts of the American right have expressed sympathy for Putin, one podcaster even declaring his support for the aggressor state over Ukraine. Whatever it is, it is not traditionally conservative to favor the country committed to undermining Western civilization instead of the one deliberately upholding it. Still, many have been duped, with obvious intent. As Douglas Murray has observed, Putin has acted as a “cynical” manipulator, making much, for instance, of his Christianity while having Christians in Ukraine slaughtered by Islamist fighters. Similarly, the aforesaid Malofeev spoke in terms appealing to Americans on the right side of the aisle by praising Ronald Reagan in a 2014 interview. His statements aimed at Western audiences seem designed to give no inkling of his virulent enmity towards Western civilization.
Let me summarize bluntly. Do not be suckered in by the Kremlin. William A. Galston has shown that at least some of the support for Vladimir Putin from the Western right stems from a mentality of “[c]ulture war über alles.” Ask yourselves, then: in the global culture war, who is really on your side?
Serio-comic war map for 1877 by Frederick W. Rose is licensed under Trove