Back to square one

When intellectuals and politicians start talking obsessively about their country’s great ‘originality’, ‘special path’ and a ‘unique mission in the world’, it’s a sure sign they’re facing mounting problems in forging a modern democratic polity, civic nation and respectable international identity. Contemporary Russia is a case in point. Its new foreign policy doctrine, signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on 31 March 2023, is an astounding document declaring Russia’s civilizational uniqueness. Never before had a leader officially stated that Russia is a sui generis civilization. True, Catherine the Great, known for her occasional cockiness, was reported to have once said that ‘Russia itself is the universe and it doesn’t need anyone’. But the empress was quick to qualify her arrogant statement, adding that ‘Russia is a European country’. Yet Russian elites now appear ready to cut their country loose from its European moorings.

This radical ‘civilizational’ reorientation is of course the direct result of the war Russia has unleashed against Ukraine and the resolute and united response of Western democracies to the war. But Russian military aggression, driven by the Kremlin’s nationalist obsession, is in itself a manifestation of post-imperial Russia’s deep identity crisis. More the 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, four key issues remain unresolved: Where do the boundaries of Russia’s political nation run? Are Russians capable of building a truly democratic polity or are they ‘historically’ destined to be ruled by authoritarian leaders? Is Russia a federation – as characterized in its Constitution – or is it a quasi-imperial entity? What is the ultimate objective of Russia’s historical development?

Kremlin leaders don’t give clear and straightforward answers to these questions. Instead, they obfuscate the real problems and set forth the idea of Russia as a ‘unique civilization’, while claiming that the West is in ‘terminal decline’ and ‘on its last legs’. The political implication of this rhetorical maneuver is not hard to fathom: the suggestion is that Russia need not follow ‘advanced’ Western nations as the latter are not ahead of Russia but, on the contrary, have lost their way and found themselves at a ‘historical dead end’.

Yet the notion of a special path (or Sonderweg), alongside the trope of the West’s decline, have a long intellectual pedigree. The Germans who coined the term, have managed to reinterpret their complex historical experience and turned Sonderweg into a research method: a historiographical tool, which has proved especially handy in the field of comparative studies. Most Russians, however, continue to view their historical experience as ‘unique’, eagerly embracing the notion of Sonderweg as the basis for self-identification and self-understanding.For a perceptive discussion of the Russian Sonderweg thesis, including in comparative perspective, see M. Velizhev, T. Atnashev, and A. Zorin, ‘Osoby put’: Ot ideologii k metodu, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2019; D. Travin, ‘Osoby put’ Rossii: Ot Dostoevskogo do Konchalovskogo, Izd. St. Peterburgskogo universiteta, 2018; A. Zaostrovtsev (ed.), Rossiia 1917-2017: Evropeiskaia modernizatsiia ili ‘osoby put’, Leont’evskii Tsentr, 2017; E. Pain (ed.), Ideologiia ‘osobogo puti’ v Rossii i Germanii: istoki, soderzhanie, posledstviia, Tri kvadrata, 2010.

Russia’s historic yardstick

Catherine the Great (detail), Vigilius Eriksen, 1760, Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In his last letter to Pyotr Chaadaev from 19 October 1836, where Alexander Pushkin critiqued his friend’s idiosyncratic view of the Russian past, he also posed an intriguing question, wondering how a ‘future historian’ would see nineteenth-century Russia: Croyez-vous qu’il nous mettra hors l’Europe? (Do you think he will place us outside Europe?). A.S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 6 vols, ed. M.A. Tsiavlovskii (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1938) 4: 432.
Pushkin, a consummate European who corresponded with Chaadaev exclusively in French, appeared to have been somewhat apprehensive about future historians characterizing Russia as a non-European country. Little did he know that statements advancing the thesis of Russia’s special path and proclaiming Europe ‘rotten’, ‘decrepit’ and even ‘dying’ would come from closer quarters.

Mortally wounded in a fateful duel in 1837, Pushkin didn’t witness the beginning of the grand debate on Russia’s identity, distinctive features of its historical development and its relation to Europe that was unleashed by the publication of Chaadaev’s first ‘philosophical letter’ – a debate that is still ongoing. It wasn’t a future historian but another nineteenth-century Russian poet Fyodor Tiutchev, four years Pushkin’s junior, who coined a paradigmatic formula of Russia’s samobytnost’ (originality): ‘No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness: She stands alone, unique’. F.I. Tiutchev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 6 vols. (Moscow: IMLI, 2003) 2: 165

But how original were Tiutchev’s historiosophical musings about Russia’s originality? As a Russian diplomat, Tiutchev spent more than 20 years abroad, mostly at the Bavarian court in Munich, where he came under the strong influence of the German Romantic movement – a cultural phenomenon that was instrumental in Sonderweg’s emergence. During the wars of liberation against Napoleon, the German national consciousness and collective identity were formed in contrast to those of the French. Nineteenth-century historian Leopold von Ranke saw German history as unique: ‘each nation has a particular spirit, breathed into it by God, through which it is what it is and which its duty is to develop.’ L. Krieger, Ranke: The Meaning of History, University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Moreover, it was deemed ‘the most important’, as Germany was thought of as ‘the mother’ of all other nations. Ibid.
Enthused about the founding of the new Reich in 1871 and proud of Imperial Germany’s economic power, many historians and political thinkers came to believe that a ‘positive German way’ existed. They readily contrasted strong, bureaucratic German state, reform from above, public service ethos and their famed Kultur with the Western notion of laissez-faire, with revolution, parliamentarianism, plutocracy and Zivilisation.

Not unlike their German counterparts, Tiutchev and other young Russian nobles (who would soon become known under the moniker of Slavophiles) saw a huge upsurge of Russian national feeling following victory over Napoleonic France. Twentieth-century philosopher Alexander Koyré aptly wrote, ‘national reaction was quickly turning into reactionary nationalism’. A. Koyré, La philosophie et le problème national en Russie au début du XIXe siècle, Champion, 1929.
Against the backdrop of epic battles from 1812 to 1815, the representatives of early Russian Romanticism found the idea elaborated by their German intellectual gurus – Herder, Fichte and the brothers Schlegel – exceptionally appealing. They subscribed to the premise that German originality was based on a special type of culture, which couldn’t be conquered by brute force. The triumphant entry of Russian troops into Paris seemed to have upended the customary cultural hierarchy. The defeated French were cast as ‘barbarians’, while the Russians’ victory was attributed to their ‘national spirit’ rooted in the Russian language, historical traditions and Eastern Christian values.

When the grand debate, provoked by Chaadaev’s controversial publication, kicked off in the late 1830s, it zeroed in on two principal questions: Should Russia be compared with Western nations or is it following its own unique historical trajectory? And, are Russian ways superior or inferior to those in the West? Notably, both representatives of Russian ‘official nationalism’ and Russian Westernizers shared the view that Russia and Europe’s trajectories were identical. However, they sharply disagreed over who was in the lead: St. Petersburg imperial bureaucrats insisted on Russia’s superiority, while Westernizers argued that Russia was underdeveloped and lagging behind Europe. It was only the faithful disciples of German Romantic thinkers – Russian Slavophiles – who spoke in favor of Russian exceptionalism and produced what could be called the first interpretation of Russian Sonderweg.

The school of thought that exalted Russia’s divergence from Europe and the West, born from heated discussions from the 1840s to the 1850s, has remained central to the country’s intellectual life ever since. In the 1870s and 1880s, Neo-Slavophiles/Panslavists developed core Slavophile ideas of cultural oppositions: idealism vs. materialism, sobornost’ vs. individualism, selfless collective work vs. profit-obsessed capitalism, deep religious feeling vs. amoral cynicism. Nikolai Danilevskii’s theory of ‘cultural-historical types’ is a case in point.
Eurasianists then delivered a complex theory on the vision of ‘Russia-Eurasia’ as a unique world unto itself in their writings of the 1920s and 1930s.

Two key aspects of Eurasianist political philosophy are especially influential on present-day Kremlin leaders. First, Eurasianists resolutely rejected a model of the nation-state, arguing that ‘Eurasia’ is a geopolitical space destined for imperial rule: the Russian/Eurasian empire was considered a ‘historical necessity’ based on a vision of the organic geographical, cultural and historical unity of the ‘imperial space’. Second, Eurasianists contended that Western-style parliamentary democracy was an alien institution, ‘culturally’ incompatible with Russian/Eurasian political folkways. They argued that the Eurasian political model was an ‘ideocracy’ – an authoritarian, one-party state ruled by a tightknit ideologically driven elite.

Eurasianists formulated their extravagant theories while keeping a close eye on events in the Soviet Union; there is no denying that Soviet policies and practices strongly influenced Eurasianist theorizing. But what, more specifically, of Soviet communism? Shouldn’t it also be analysed through the lens of the Russian Sonderweg paradigm? What is the historical significance of the Soviet period (1917-1991) if defined in relation to both European political practice and pre-revolutionary Russian political development?

Questioning Russia as exception

Soviet exceptionalism is a tricky case. On the one hand, as scholar Martin Malia perceptively notes, it ‘represents both maximal divergence from European norms and the great aberration in Russia’s own development.’ M. Malia, Russia under Western Eyes: From the bronze horseman to the Lenin mausoleum, Belknap Press, 1999, p. 12.
Yet, while departing from European ways in terms of its practices and institutions, the Soviet Union was very much European ideologically. The combination of Marxist precepts and Russia’s poor socio-economic conditions ultimately shaped the Soviet experiment. Paradoxically, some Russian émigré thinkers suggested that the European far-left ideological foundations of the Soviet state might even force dyed-in-the-wool Russian conservative nationalists – the champions of ‘Holy Russia’ and detractors of Western publics’ ‘godless materialism’ – to reevaluate their anti-Western attitudes and embrace the ‘West’ they were living in. After the 1917 Revolution, poet Georgii Adamovich wittily noted, ‘the West and Russia seemed to have changed roles’: the renewed (communist) Russia ‘suddenly bypassed the West on the left’, abandoning its Christian vocation, while the West came to represent Christianity and Christian culture. G. Adamovich, Kommentarii, Aleteia, 2000, pp. 184-185.
‘Very soon,’ wrote Adamovich sarcastically regarding Russian émigrés, ‘we, with our Russian inclination towards extremes, would probably hear about “West the God-bearer.”’ Ibid.

The official position within the Soviet Union, however, supposed that it represented a higher stage of universal civilization, much superior to that of the ‘capitalist West’. Even in the supposedly ideologically monolithic communist system, the old debate on Russia’s ‘uniqueness’ hadn’t died out. After a series of earlier iterations – Slavophiles vs. Westernizers, Populists vs. Marxists, Eurasianists vs. Europeanists – the notion resurrected in the form of a vibrant discussion between those who supported the idea of ‘building socialism in one country’ and the champions of ‘communist internationalism’. The discussion produced an intriguing paradox. Mikhail Pokrovskii, a leading Marxist historian, backed Stalin’s vision of ‘socialism with Soviet characteristics’, while Leon Trotsky called for the need to de-emphasize the idea of Russian historical peculiarity. Ironically, when Pokrovskii formulated his theory of merchant capitalism in the early 1910s, he was a staunch opponent of Russian exceptionalism and denied not only the existence of any significant Russian socio-economic samobytnost’ but also that of Russia’s backwardness vis-à-vis European nations. Trotsky, for his part, in his ‘German articles’ from 1908 and 1909, emerged as a strong supporter of Russian exceptionalism, emphasizing Russia’s divergence from Western ways.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, heralding the end of Soviet exceptionalism, seemed to provide Russia with the opportunity to demystify its homegrown Sonderweg thesis and return – according to the phrase, popular with both rulers and citizens in the early 1990s – to ‘the family of civilized nations’. Even historian Richard Pipes, who placed a special premium on Russia’s ‘un-Western’ traits, appeared convinced that Sonderweg was at an end for Russia. ‘I think that now Russia has only one option left – turning West’, he argued in a short essay written in 2001 for the European Herald, a liberal, Moscow-based journal. By ‘West’ he intended a political community that comprises not only the US and the European Union but also such ‘Eastern’ nations as Japan, Taiwan and Singapore. ‘Nowadays it seems to me that for Russia a “special path” makes no sense.’ Dismissing the notion out of hand, he wrote in conclusion, ‘I don’t even know what it actually means.’ R. Pipes, ‘Osoby put’ dlia Rossii: chto konkretno eto znachit?’ Vestnik Evropy, No. 1, 2001,

Russia’s cultural borrowing

And yet, 20 years on, the idea of ‘uniqueness’ and demonization of the ‘collective West’ are all the rage in Putin’s Russia. Why is this? The reason, I think, is twofold. First, unlike in 1960s and 1970s Germany, post-Soviet Russia didn’t see a vigorous nationwide debate among the country’s historians on the fundamental issues of Russia’s historical development. Some promising discussions that began during the twilight years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika didn’t bear much fruit and petered out in the chaotic era of the early 1990s. Second, as the Russian political regime has become increasingly authoritarian under Putin, the Kremlin has come to believe it is expedient to deploy the notion of Russian exceptionalism to buttress its position both domestically and internationally. Ukraine favoring ‘Europe’ has motivated Putin’s regime to rethink its international identity.

And yet, all the intellectual groundwork for deconstructing the idea of Russian uniqueness had already been laid by the time the Soviet Union collapsed. Several generations of pre-revolutionary Russian, émigré, Soviet, and international scholars had amply demonstrated that Russia is no more unique than any other country. Russia’s historical process, its social structure, state-society relations and political culture are indeed marked by sundry peculiarities, but these stem from Russia’s geopolitical position on the periphery of Europe: it sits on the eastern edges of the European cultural sphere and extends all the way to the border with China and the Pacific Ocean. Like many other countries, Russia borrowed its high culture from elsewhere, and did this twice: first, from Byzantine Constantinople; and then, in the late seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries, from the more advanced Western European cultural model. In both cases cultural norms, values and practices came from without. Russian cultural development should be understood as the process of mastering a ‘foreign’ experience.

Cultural borrowing does not mean, however, that Russian culture lacks a creative element. When Russia adopted certain aspects from another culture, the borrowed cultural models would find themselves in a completely different context, reshaping them into something new. These cultural phenomena would differ from both the original Western models and ‘old’ Russian cultural patterns. Perceptive Russian scholars like Boris Uspensky and Mikhail Gasparov note this paradox: it is precisely the orientation toward a ‘foreign’ culture that contributes to the originality of Russian culture. See: B.A. Uspensky and M.L. Gasparov, Russkaia intelligentsiia i zapadny intellektualizm: istoriia i tipologiia, B.A. Uspensky (ed.), O.G.I., 1999.

Yet such orientation contains significant tension in itself: the gravitation toward a ‘foreign’ culture is dialectically, and antithetically, linked with a desire to protect one’s own ‘authenticity’ and shield oneself from foreign cultural influences. The following dynamic ensues: the emerging inferiority complex gives rise to prickly nationalism, the search for a special path, mythologization of history, messianism and assertion of one’s special mission in the world. There is another paradox here that Uspensky also notes: it is precisely this nationalist backlash against a ‘foreign’ cultural tradition that is usually the least national and traditional. Craving for ‘authenticity’ and ‘national roots’ is most often the result of foreign influences – in the Russian case, the influences of Western culture that Russian intellectuals sought to repudiate. This is what puts early Slavophiles and German Romantics on the same page: the Germans felt they were culturally ‘colonized’ by the French and rebelled; the Russians borrowed the philosophical language of German Romanticism and applied it to their own situation. In both cases, this was a Sonderweg point of departure.

Unexclusive difference

But if we reject the existence of a sharp dividing line between ‘West’ and ‘East’ or between ‘Europe’ and ‘Russia’, acknowledging them as social constructs, what would a more suitable model explaining similarities and dissimilarities between national trajectories across the Eurasian continent be? The West-East ‘cultural gradient’, an understanding that there is a softer gradation and unity as one moves from Europe’s Atlantic coast eastwards all the way into the depth of Eurasia, is one option. See C. Evtuhov and S. Kotkin (eds.), The Cultural Gradient: The Transmission of Ideas in Europe, 1789-1991, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003.
Pavel Miliukov introduced the idea in his multivolume Essays on the History of Russian Culture, which he thoroughly reworked in the 1920s and 1930s when in exile in Paris. Conceptually, the essays are based on two main theoretical principles. First, Russia’s historical evolution repeated the same stages through which other ‘cultured peoples of Europe’ had passed. Second, the process of this development was slower than in other parts of Europe: ‘not only in Western but also in Central Europe’. Miliukov’s bottom line was this: there was nothing particular or unique about Russia in this respect. ‘Peculiarity is not an exclusive feature of Russia. It shows up in the same manner in Europe itself, in a growing progression as we move from the Loire and the Seine to the Rhine, from the Rhine to the Vistula, from the Vistula to the Dnieper, and from the Dnieper to the Oka and the Volga’. P. N. Miliukov, ‘Sotsiologicheskie osnovy russkogo istoricheskogo protsessa [1930]’, Rossiiskaia istoriia, No. 1, 2008, p. 160.

Miliukov’s ideas were further developed by émigré economist Alexander Gerschenkron, who positioned the European gradient at the basis of his highly influential model of industrial development. Gerschenkron’s thesis suggests ‘the farther east one goes in Europe the greater becomes the role of banks and of the state in fostering industrialization, a pattern complemented by the prevalence in backward areas of socialist or nationalist ideologies.’ M. Malia, Russia under Western Eyes, 440; Alexander Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective, Belknap Press, 1962.
Gerschenkron exerted a powerful intellectual influence on Richard Pipes’ lifelong opponent Martin Malia – a prominent Berkeley historian who perfected the concept of the West-East gradient. It became the essence of Malia’s exposition of the process of Russia’s social, intellectual and cultural development. ‘The farther east one goes,’ Malia contended, ‘the more absolute, centralized and bureaucratic governments become, the greater the pressure of the state on the individual, the more serious the obstacle to his independence, the more sweeping, general and abstract are ideologies of protest or of compensation’. M. Malia, ‘Schiller and the Early Russian Left’, Harvard Slavic Studies IV, 1957, pp. 169-200.
 While Malia understood ‘Europe’ as a more or less coherent cultural sphere including Russia, he maintained that ‘Russia is the eastern extreme … she is the backward rear guard of Europe at the bottom of the slope of the West-East cultural gradient.’ M. Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991, The Free Press, 1994, p. 55.
Another useful concept, as antidote to the discourse on backwardness, is Maria Todorova’s idea of ‘relative synchronicity within a longue durée development’. In analysing various European nationalisms within the unified structure of modernity, Todorova redefines the ‘East’ – Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Russia – as part of a common European space. M. Todorova, ‘The Trap of Backwardness: Modernity, Temporality, and the Study of East European Nationalism’, Slavic Review, Vol 64, No. 1, 2005, pp. 140-164.

The European bloc

By the end of the 1980s, conceptualizing Russia within the pan-European context had become mainstream among Moscow governing elites. One of the key aspects of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’ was the idea of a ‘common European home’. Boris Yeltsin talked of the need to ‘rejoin the European civilization’. Remarkably, as late as 2005, in his state of the nation address, Putin contended that Russia is ‘a major European power’, which for the past three centuries has been evolving and transforming itself ‘hand in hand’ and ‘together with other European nations’.

Two problems, however, weighed against Russia’s smooth identification with Europe. One was the age-old quest for status: Russia’s self-understanding as derzhava (a great power). The awareness of the derivative nature of Russia’s modern culture and of its ‘civilizational’ dependence on Europe clashed with the grand idea of Russian greatness. As Russia grew richer and stronger during the 2000s, the Kremlin leadership found it increasingly difficult to perceive themselves as ‘learners’ going to school with Europe. ‘Great Powers do not go to school’, quipped political scientist Iver Neumann. ‘On the contrary, they lay down the line and teach others.’ I. B. Neumann, ‘Russia’s Europe: Inferiority to Superiority’, International Affairs, Vol. 92, No. 6, 2016, p. 1397.

The other problem, which is relatively recent, concerns how ‘Europe’ is constructed. In the late nineteenth century, the autocratic Russian Empire, even when it was looked down on by the liberal elites of Great Britain and France, could still be regarded as perfectly ‘European’ in the company of other Old Regimes, being part of Dreikaizerbund (League of the Three Emperors) together with Wilhelmine Germany and Habsburg Austria-Hungary.

Yet in the late twentieth to early twenty-first centuries, the situation changed drastically. The emergence of the European Union and its expansion eastward, along with the parallel expansion of NATO, another ‘Euro-Atlantic institution’, meant that institutionally Russia was being set apart from what came to be understood as ‘Europe’. This process of the institutionalization of ‘Europe’ presented Russia with a tough dilemma: either join this ‘European bloc’ or revisit the issue of self-identification. The issue has been exacerbated by Moscow’s tense relations with its ex-Soviet neighbours – above all with Ukraine – who are seeking association with the EU, and ultimately membership. A tough question started haunting Kremlin strategists: if European orientation is fully compatible with Russian identity, then on what grounds is Moscow preventing other post-Soviet nations from joining the EU? Various conservative political thinkers called Russia’s politics of identity ‘deeply flawed’ and clamored for an urgent conceptual rethink. Predictably, the suggested solution was to proclaim that Russia and Europe are distinct civilizations, each producing a gravitational pull and possessing its own sphere of influence. B. Mezhuyev, ‘‘Ostrov Rossiia’ i rossiiskaia politika identichnosti’, Rossiia v globalnoi politike, Spetsvypusk: Konservatizm vo vneshnei politike: XXI vek, May 2017, pp. 108-109.

This is precisely what Russia’s new foreign policy doctrine has done.

Back to square one

But if Russia is not ‘European’, what is it? Kremlin spin-doctors tell us it is following its special path as a unique ‘Russian civilization’. See: A. Kramarenko, ‘K voprosu o tsivilizatsionnom samoopredelenii Rossii’, Rossiia v globalnoi politike, 4 May 2023,; V. Popov, ‘Rossiia – samostoiatelnaia evraziiskaia tsivilizatsiia’, Rossiiskii sovet po mezhdunarodnym delam, 22 January 2024,
However, it isn’t clear, as the late Richard Pipes notes, what that actually means. Remarkably, Kremlin-friendly political thinkers promoting the idea of Russian ‘uniqueness’ appear to be confused about this issue themselves. At the discussion held in late April 2023 on the eve of the XXXI Assembly of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy for Russia’s elite group of top security analysts, speakers acknowledged that Russia’s departure from its European self-identification and the former foreign policy tradition occurred ‘partly by her own will, partly because of unfavorable external circumstances’. Although Russia was viewed as a country ‘marked by originality’, it was considered ‘premature to assert that the Russian civilizational basis has already been formed’. Revealingly, some analysts argued that ‘Russia does not yet know exactly what it wants, its goals and desires are yet to be formulated.’ To fulfil this difficult task, analysts paradoxically highlighted ‘an urgent need to turn to the Russian intellectual legacy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’, specifically to the works of Russian anti-Western and nationalist thinkers such as Fyodor Tiutchev, Nikolai Danilevskii, Konstantin Leont’ev, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Lev Gumiliov and Vadim Tsymburskii. E. Kulman, ‘Rossiia kak tsivilizatsiia tsivilizatsii: Krugly stol v preddverii XXXI Assamblei SVOP’, Rossiia v globalnoi politike, 24 April 2023,

And so, we appear to be back at square one. Like in the mid-nineteenth century, current calls for the Russian Sonderweg remain a rhetorical figure, a metaphor meant to conceal Russia’s perennial inability to transform itself and finally come to terms with (European) modernity. Yet there is hope. In his 1930 lecture delivered in Berlin, at the time of Stalin’s ‘Great Break’, Pavel Miliukov presciently noted: ‘The Russian historical process is not ending; it is only being interrupted at this point… Despite [social] earthquakes and eruptions, and most often with their assistance, history continues.’ Miliukov, ‘Sotsiologicheskie osnovy russkogo istoricheskogo protsessa’, p. 164.



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