This is a shortened version of the book chapter written for “The ‘Clash of Civilizations’ 25 Years On: A Multidisciplinary Appraisal. “, the original can be found here: http://www.e-ir.info/2018/04/22/where-does-russia-end-and-the-west-start/
If you stand on the banks of the river Narva in North-Eastern Europe, you can see two medieval castles facing each other on both sides of the river, this is a powerful symbol of the border between Russia and Estonia, at our times also the border of the European Union and NATO with Russia. The question is, if it is also the fault line between two distinctive civilizations, the Western and the Orthodox ones? I argue that Estonian and Russian border is indeed a fault line between the Western and Russian civilizations, and it leads to simmering conflict. This dividing line runs also through the Estonian society, as large minority of Russian speakers resides in Estonia.
To the East of Narva, the vast plains stretching through the Ural mountains to the coasts of the Pacific Ocean form the territory of the Russian state. According to Huntington, Russia is a torn country with its identity in permanent crisis. The Russian identity search has been always connected to the defining of oneself through the opposition to the ‘Significant Other’, and this Other has always been the West. The West was either positive or negative, but it is always present in the visions of national identity and national interest.
There were several attempts to modernise Russia during the course of history. Famous attempt of modernisation and Europeanisation was undertaken by Peter the Great in the 18th century. Later on, in the 19th century, the debate between Slavophiles and Westerners dominated the intellectual debate in Russia. Relevant for our times, is the experiment with democracy of the 1990s, when the authorities of Russia undertook radical reforms at home, and took a pro-Western course in foreign policy.
The discourse of Civilizationism has started to dominate the official Russian policy since the authority of Vladimir Putin was established. The ideas of Civilizationists and Eurasianists start penetrating the official statements in the 2000s, especially after the attempt to a rapprochement with the West, and after that, further drifting apart. The frequency of the term ‘morality’ and ‘spiritual’ in Putin’s speeches increased, especially since his return to the Presidency in 2012.
Aleksandr Dugin, the famous intellectual and Eurasianist ideologue, sees the Russian civilization as universal. The blurriness of Russianness, and Russia being not only a state, but also a civilization is connected also to the fact that Russians do not live only on the territory of the Russian state. Russians outside Russia are an important resource and inspiration for the policies of Russia.
The main policies concerning Russians outside Russia are the policy of compatriots, and the more general framework policy of the ‘Russian World’. Actually, one can see the evolution from the more defined and, one could argue, bureaucratic policy of compatriots towards much more blurred and definitely more emotional trend of claiming the ‘Russian World’. We can see the trend from the policy with concrete measures, such as repatriation, towards an overwhelming ‘Russianness’. At the extreme end of this spectrum one can place the symbolic saying of Putin that Russia has no borders at all, which later was interpreted as a joke.
What about the Western bank of Narva? The region of the Baltics has been populated for a long time, people known as Estonians or Aesti have been living here for around 1500 years. To the present day, Estonians preserved their language, which is not part of the Indo-European group. Later on, in the 13th century, these tribes have been fighting the Livonian Order and were finally occupied by them.
The Livonian Order had some designs on the Slav lands to the East, and there were several armed conflicts. After many devastating wars, and especially Nordic Seven Years War (1563-1570). Estonia, at the time known as Livonia, fell under the Swedish rule. This period is still colloquially sometimes referred to as ‘good old Swedish time’. What later came to be called the ‘Northern War’ broke out in the region in 1707. It was connected to the tsar of Russia Peter the Great’s policies of expanding to the West, and needing the ‘window to Europe’, as St. Petersburg was referred to. After 1721, Estonian territory became part of the Russian Empire and it remained this way until 1918.
By this time, Estonians were Protestants, and this led to the high level of literacy in their mother tongue, as everybody had to listen to the sermons in their native language and also know how to read the Catechesis. Thus, the Estonian language education was spreading, and with time, the number of educated Estonians reached critical mass, which served as a basis for reconstruction of historic memory and emergence of independent thinking. It can be also claimed that according to the famous thesis of Max Weber, Protestantism led to the high morals and work ethics among the population. Max Weber notes that the German word for profession is Beruf or “calling”, the same is true about the Estonian language – elukutse is “calling” or more precisely “life calling”. Thus, Protestantism claimed that you can achieve unity with God through your work, through your profession. Protestantism has still great influence on the values of Estonians, and these values sometimes clash with Orthodox ideas of the ethnic Russians.
In the 19th century, the national awakening was taking place among Estonians echoing the overall European process of nationalist ideas. It was also the times when under the rule of the Russian tsar Alexander the Third, the policy of ‘russification’ started.
By 1918, the opportunity presented itself, after the devastating First World War, Bolshevist Revolution. The Estonian Republic was proclaimed, followed by the War of Independence against Soviet Russia and Landeswehr, the forces of Baltic German aristocracy. The Estonian Republic existed until the 1940 occupation by the Soviet Union, which happened as a direct result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, and its secret protocol dividing this part of Europe into spheres of influence. The German occupation followed in 1941, and then Soviet occupation again in 1944, which would last until 1991. The Soviet authorities applied cruel policies of repression against Estonian population including mass arrests and deportations to Siberia. Notwithstanding the attempts of russification, the Estonian identity was preserved as strong all through the years of all the occupations and mistreatment.
Estonian identity developed in close connection with Western civilization, and naturally, after the declaration of independence in 1991, the main goal of the government was its reintegration with the West. The foreign policy of Estonia was flowing naturally from its source – the need to re-establish a nation-state based on the national identity of the majority ethnic group.
Estonia was left with the legacy of about 27% of non-Estonians residing on the Estonian territory. First reaction of Estonians was to ignore and neglect this issue – maybe the Russians would all move back ‘home’? The main principle of the policies was that of restitution – meaning that the Estonian Republic was the legal descendant of the pre-war Republic, and not a new state. The citizenship was granted to everybody, whose ancestors were residing in the pre-war republic, notwithstanding their ethnicity. All the people who came later, had to pass the process of naturalization, meaning the exam of the Estonian language and the knowledge of the Constitution and the citizenship legislation. It led to the situation when about a third of the minority population have no citizenship, and are considered aliens.
By mid-1990s, Estonians realised that the Russians were a part of society. It had been the start of the integration policy. This is the policy of the inclusion into the society, though it first primarily concentrated on the need to improve the command of the Estonian language for non-Estonians. In nowadays society, the difference of values is manifested in many ways, such as family patterns, attitudes towards LGBTI, the role of religion in life, state policies – in general, one can claim that the Russians, in average, are more conservative in relation to these issues.
The attitudes towards LGBTI were thoroughly researched in 2014, and the data showed clear difference according to the major communication language of the respondents. The 49% of the Estonian-language respondents accepted homosexuality, with this number being just 21 % for the Russian-speakers. 44% of Estonians and 73% of Russian-speakers did not accept the homosexuality. The attitudes towards religion were researched in 2015, the results showed that 19% of Estonians and 25% of non-Estonians belong to a congregation, 46% of Estonians and 80% of non-Estonians have been baptized. 40% of overall population considers itself Orthodox, and 36% Lutheran. The main clash in opinions though is going along the lines of the attitudes towards Russia and its policies, with the majority of Estonians seeing its assertive behaviour as a threat, and the Russians seeing the need for better relations with the Russian state.
What about the interaction between these two states and societies, which we could see are quite diverse? We could see the differences in culture and attitudes that support Huntington’s thesis of an Orthodox civilization as distinct from the West. Estonia belongs to the West with its history, culture and values. Russian Orthodox civilization influences the attitudes of Russians in Estonia a great deal. As Huntington also puts it, Russia has a ‘kin-state syndrome’ towards Russians outside Russia. We can see that the present Russian state’s orientation on civilizational discourse leads to the situation that many Russians abroad can identify themselves with Russia without taking any everyday practical decisions, such as repatriation. The Russians in Estonia live their everyday life in the European Union, at the same time, they preserve their emotional link to Russia.
We could see that the clash of civilizations is happening both between the states of Estonia and Russia, and at the same time in the minds of Estonian population, as the Russian minority is influenced by the Orthodox civilization.