Russia’s Wars and Russkii Mir – Between and Beyond the Statehood

9 August 2018, 16:46 | Tornike Metreveli's column | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Tornike Metreveli

August 7, 2018 marked 10th anniversary of Russia’s military invasion to Georgia. A full-scale military operation in grave violation of international law carried a message to the rest of the former Soviet  states: do not dare to choose Georgia’s political vector or you will pay the price. Consequences of Russia’s invasion for Georgia were pricy: ethnic cleansing of Georgian population from the occupied territories, recognition of South Osetia and Abkhazia as the independent states and continuous creeping occupation under which Georgia shrinks in size on a regular basis. However, Ukraine still chose to decide its own political vector and paid for it. Georgian war was a modus operandi against Ukraine. Crimea has been annexed. Eastern Ukraine is still in mess. For those of us who observed, studied and lived through Russia’s foreign policy towards its neighbors, the fact that Russian government is able to invade and occupy a sovereign country was not a surprise. Back in  August 2008, however, only 24.7% of Ukrainians believed that Russia was an aggressor in war with Georgia (29.2% of Ukrainians thought of Georgia as an aggressor state).

Russian soldiers during 2008 war holding Russian flag near Tbilisi sign

A lot has been written about who started the Russo-Georgian war and when, why and how. Yet, often an underestimated part in the discussions about Russia’s geopolitical mosaic is the concept of Russkii Mir (Russian World), a cultural aspect of Kremlin’s hegemonic foreign policy towards it neighbors. I have encountered the emotional power of Russkii Mir when talking to people around Ukraine and Georgia within my research capacity. In the most memorable conversation, when talking about belonging and identity, one informant of Armenian ethnic background who was brought up in Ukraine and who also spoke Ossetian at home passionately self-identified as “Russian in a cultural sense”. We learn from renowned sociologists that people may live between identities, yet an important part here is the context and consequence of public choice. What is the geopolitical meaning of “feeling Russian” in contemporary Georgia and Ukraine, what is Russkii Mir both as a concept and as a category of practice?

The doctrine vividly advocated by Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev aka patriarch Kirill of Russia is an important attribute of - what French historian Marlene Laruelle calls Russia’s Eurasionism. Russkii Mir lays the groundwork in the cultural spaces which it identifies as Russian. Groundwork for readiness to embrace the value systems and political institutions of the past, establish the new regimes based on old value systems. It culturally legitimizes a profound and fundamental rejection of the Western values and an instinct toward empire. Russkii Mir reveals the vulnerability of Western societies, its moral decay and civilizational superiority of Russian Orthodox value system. Therefore, Russkii Mir is both beyond and between national identity at the same time. A closer look at monumental address of patriarch Kirill at the Opening Ceremony of the Third Assembly of the Russian World illustrates key features, directions and pillars of Russkii Mir.

“The foundation of Russian world today is Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia, and saint Lavrentii Chernigovskii expressed this idea with famous phrase ‘Russia, Ukraine, Belarus – this is wholly Rus’. Precisely this understanding of Russian world is deeply rooted in contemporary name of our church. Church is called Russian, but not in ethnic sense. This name indicates that the Russian Orthodox Church performs a pastoral mission among peoples who accept the Russian spiritual and cultural tradition as the basis of their national identity, or at least as an essential part of it.

Separate question in this discussion is what does it mean to accept Russian spiritual and cultural tradition as the basis of national identity for any non-Russian nation-state? How can a foreign cultural tradition as a base of national identity be operationalized? What may be the implications for state sovereignty? “Despite being divided by state borders and incompatibilities with certain policies,” Patriarch Kirill asserted, “we continue to remain spiritually one nation and in the majority - the children of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

The physical territorial borders are relative, Russkii Mir is beyond borders, it is about common historical memory, culture, religion and language:

“Of course, we must admit that these borders, at least for today, with the present character of all these border situations create unnecessary obstacles between the peoples of the Russian world. At the heart of the Russian world lies the Orthodox faith, which we found in the common Kievan font of baptism. Thanks to the historical choice of Saint Prince Vladimir, our ancestors joined the family of Christian nations and began to create a powerful united Russia…Another support of the Russian world is Russian culture and language. Russian, Tatar, Ukrainian, and Georgian can belong to Russian culture, because it absorbed the traditions of many people. Russian culture is a phenomenon that does not fit within the borders of one state and one ethnos and is not connected with the interests of one state, which is very important today to understand…”

“The "Russian World", is not an instrument of political influence of the Russian Federation…The foundation of the Russian world is the common historical memory and common views on social development. Our people have a strong consciousness of the continuity of the Russian state and social traditions, beginning with the time of Kievan Rus and ending with the present Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Moldova and other countries under the historical space of Russia. Our ancestors together built and developed Russia, defended it from foreign invaders. This was the case throughout the existence of our one homeland, regardless of the prevailing political system. However, independent states existing in the space of historical Russia and aware of their common civilizational affiliation could continue to work together to create the Russian world and view it as their common supranational project. One could even introduce a concept such as the country of the Russian world. It would mean that the country relates itself to the Russian world if it uses Russian as the language of interethnic communication, develops Russian culture, and stores general historical memory and common values ​​of social construction.”

Yet again, the major question is why should one care about the idea of Russkii Mir, if after all it is just a wanna-be-cultural theory? A short answer is because it is a predisposition to believe in alternative reality, the reality in which factuality – national boundaries, sovereignty, territory and nation-state - are diminished by historical and cultural relativism. Russkii Mir culturally legitimizes protection of pro-Russian populations from alleged mistreatment on foreign territories. As we should have learned from the recent history of Georgia and Ukraine - believing in alternative reality and undermining the concept of statehood can mobilize people to hold unconstitutional referendums, obtain foreign passports or even welcome a ‘foreign’ army.

Russian military photos taken during war in 2008

Dr. Tornike Metreveli is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Tornike was the SNSF Research Fellow at Harvard University, held different research positions at the University of Bern, London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh.

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