RUSSIA AND BRITAIN: A RELATIONSHIP IN A CONTEXT (Full version of Alexander Yakovenko’s article for Daily Telegraph’s supplement RBTH of 16.12.2014)
The year of 2014 has not been particularly successful for our bilateral relations, to put it mildly. Indeed, it’s a challenge to profess optimism in the face of official ties almost frozen at all levels. The way out of the doom and gloom mood seems to be to have a look at a broader picture. After all, it was the Euro-Atlantic and global context that explains the origins of the present state of affairs between Russia and the West. What comes to mind?
In the first place, it’s difficult to extract this conflict from the global environment, defined by economic and financial crisis. The latter reflects another systemic crisis of the Western society. As history proves, those happen once in a century, which makes each début de siècle a time of troubles. The previous such a crisis required two world wars and geopolitical imperatives of the Cold War to accomplish this societal change. This time, hopefully, nobody is talking war but the lunatic nationalist fringe in Ukraine.
Secondly, it looks like an endgame of the deeper and complex processes, which, on both sides of the Cold War divide, date back to roughly the same period of late 60s – early 70s. In both instances opportunities for radical reforms were missed. The Soviet Union reached its impasse first. Now is the turn of the West. This analysis is supported by the latest research by Francis Fukuyama and Martin Wolf in their books “Political order and political decay” and “Shifts and Shocks”, both of which The Economist finds depressing. It looks like things accelerate at this stage.
Russia’s relationship with the West is held hostage to the crises, for which Russia bears no blame. In such watershed times, when future is impossible to foresee or falls short of original expectations, some leaders push all the buttons and look for usual suspects to be rounded. This, in my view, accounts for utter artificiality of the Ukraine crisis, where things were rushed from outside. It was also a display of unilateral action, quite contrary to multilateralism espoused by the European Union. The latter’s foray into geopolitics is no medicine for the Eurozone ills, rather a sign of something badly amiss in European project. Germany happens to be the bulwark of the austerity orthodoxy, which, in view of many, destroys Europe by economic means as surely as by force of arms. No wonder, Berlin’s Russia policy is as successful.
Naturally our bilateral ties flourish where life remains, i.e. in business, as far as the sanctions permit, and most of all in culture. We have already been through similar periods, when these two pillars helped support the entire edifice of our bilateral relationship.
As to business, there is no need to explain here, in the land of Adam Smith and John M. Keynes, that sanctions, while a poor substitute for real war, run counter to the basic principles of market economy and undermine confidence upon which rest financial markets. Our trade goes on, although the figures are smaller: US $ 15,5 bln for the first nine months of the year (US $ 24,6 bln for the previous year).
Britain and Russia are particularly lucky to possess cultures of universal value. It is ultimately to culture that boils down everything else in humanity. It was not by chance that this year was declared by our governments a cross Year of Culture. Though official presence and the scope were scaled back on the part of the British government, we have succeeded in many ways, including exchanges between museums. The Embassy has been busy presenting the Ushakov medals to the British veterans of Arctic convoys (1500 of them have already received it). Their unique contribution to the war effort was also recognized in Britain.
Hard times are conducive to reflection and philosophy. Shakespeare, a genius of the magnitude of divine revelation and a unique product of European Renaissance, will always justify Britain’s being in the world. At least, this is the view of our philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev on Dostoevsky and Russia. Our two nations have always been challenged by universalism of our literatures. This challenge still echoes in the ambivalence of the British on the EU.
Is it really coincidence that Dr Rowan Williams published his research on Dostoevsky in the year when the global crisis started? He wrote that the philosophy of Dostoevsky’s novels and the questions it asks are as political and unmistakably contemporary, as well as literary and theological. It’s easy to agree with those who have similar view of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare and Dostoevsky equally fit Francis Bacon’s maxim that the poets and writers of history are best doctors of the knowledge of the real truth.
Geoff Dyer in his Zone, inspired by Tarkovsky’s Stalker, came across issues of silence, last word, finitude etc. As an observer of America’s political scene for the FT, he can judge for himself that those categories apply to body politic, too. As to Russia, we keep channels of communication open, we don’t disengage. President V.Putin and Prime Minister D.Cameron still meet, be it in Normandy, Milan or Brisbane, which proves that differences ought to be debated.
One might say that we are at the rock bottom in our bilateral relationship, but if that results in broader awareness of our cultural affinity, we may be much better-off than meets the eye. Sometimes it helps to change the topic. I have no doubt that we’ll come out of this crisis wiser, and sooner rather than later.