Russia Russian Foreign Policy Russian ontological security Russian Security Culture Russian Vigilance Norm Russian-Western relations Western Influence and Threat to Russian Ontological Security Western Influence in Russia Western Invasions of Russia Western Meddling in Russia

Russia’s Western Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the Security Vigilance Norm, PART 1

**All of the below is covered in greater detail and fully documented in Gordon M. Hahn, The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (Jefferson: McFarland Publishers, 2021).


            Ever since its first encounters with Western peoples and states, Russia has been torn between emulating the culture and practice of its constitutive Other, the West, on the one hand, and trepidations and security vigilance in relation to its Other. Russian fears and security concerns were induced by real, actualized, and perceived threats that emanated from the West. Russia’s penultimate fear has been the potential for an existential Western threat to Russia’s sovereignty and survival as a people and state as a result of collusion between domestic dissidents and opposition movements, on the one hand, and foreign enemies. From this fear has come the not infrequent episodes of spy mania and xenophobia in Russan history, including in part the Great Terror under Joseph Stalin. A different, more soft threat often extant, perceived, and even exaggerated by Russians has been that to its ontological security—the sanctity of its national and cultural identity as one distince from others, in particular from its Western Other. Over time and repeated Western political and military interventions and assaults, Russian trepidation fostered a strong value and norm of vigilance. In these ways, Western influences, meddling, intervention, and military invasion helped make the Russia. Today, Russia’s security culture and vigilance norm are reflected in its philosophy, literature, historiography, social sciences, and performing arts.


Over the centuries Russia has been deeply entwined with the West, becoming increasingly entangled in a vexing dilemma. On the one hand, it has often aspired to be more like its Western ‘Other,’ first admiring the West’s artistic and overall cultural acheivements, then its economic, military, and even imperial triumphs. The dilemma was a fundamental one for Russian culture and identity. From the medieval Kievan Russian state, ‘Kievan Rus`’, Russia began to be torn by its Western roots in Christianity, its ‘Other’ status rooted in its ‘Other’ Eastern Orthodox Christianity, on the one hand, and its search for a separate identity that would honor its eastern Slavic ethnic and cultural traditions, on the other hand. Russia was split between its quasi-Western and Eastern roots; a split that replicated itself in new forms throughout Russian history. While elements in Russian state and society sought to make all or aspects of Russia more Western, other Russians recoiled from growing Western influence on the native culture and identity. This perceived threat to her ‘ontological’ security was often accompanied or soon followed by Western political intrusions, military interventions and invasions into the homeland or perceived threats to Russia’s national and existential security. All this gave birth to a security culture and vigilance norm focused on the various potential threats emanating from the West in particular. Russia or elements within it, however, continued to pursue but often were unable to implement new forms of Westernization fully, leaving Russia ‘lagging behind’ the West. These partial ‘displacements’ of the native culture set the stage for the next effort to attain Westernism, establishing a cycle of liberalization and retrenchment or displacement and ‘reconstitution.’ The contradictions between the push and pull of the West constitutes what can be called ‘the Russian dilemma.’

Russia’s security culture and its vigilance norms both developed spontaneously and were constructed instrumentally – as some Russian and Soviet leaders overstated or invented threats – in response to Western cultural influence, political interference, and military interventions and invasions. The Russian response to the various forms of Western intrusion led to a heightened security culture within Russia’s political and strategic security culture requiring vigilance against the West: cultural threats to its ontological security; military and interventionist threats, particularly proxy military and political meddling by the West; fear of internal division, dissent, and instability; and great trepidation regarding the possibility of collusion between the domestic leadership’s opponents and Western foes. The contradiction between Western policies and behavior towards Russia and Russia’s consequent trepidations regarding these four threats tend to conflict with Russian aspirations to the West, making the Russian dilemma.

            The extent to which Russian culture, in particular its political and strategic cultures, is dominated by security concerns and the urge for vigilance against one or more of the potential Western threats has waxed and waned over time. There have been brief periods where Russia’s security culture is ‘desecuritized’ to a considerable extent. The vigilance norm recedes in its prevalence within Russia’s political, stratregic, and overall cultural discourse; it becomes a recessive rather than a dominant strain in Russian culture and discourse. Over the course of Russian history, however, the security vigilance norm has been the dominant strain in Russian culture, rendering it a ‘security culture.’ Nevertheless, recessive cultural norms and strains remain embedded in the culture, and, in the case of Russia, the national identity. Therefore, they can be ‘reactivated’ to dominant status by factors internal and/or external to Russia and its culture. There has been an accompanying tendency throughout Russian history to abandon liberalization and Westernization during periods of real or perceived Western threats of one or another kind. In other words, when the security vigilance norm is dominant and not recessive, there is a tendency to reconstitute the traditional authoritarian pattern in its most recent incarnation and crackdown on the social and political forces that liberalization had unleasged.

Most often in Russian history it has been Western rather than ‘Eastern’ influences, actors, actions, and policies have served as external drivers of the reemergence of the security culture and vigilance value. There is no Russian dilemma with the East, which never has been a constitutive Other for Russia. The present article is based on recently published book The Russian Dilemma: Security Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021).

The West and the Construction of Russian Cultural and Identity Duality

The following article and the book it is based on attempt to answer several questions. When, how, and why did the West become Russia’s “significant ‘Other’”? Why has it remained Russia’s self-defining parameter ever since? What historical events, if any, further reinforced and deepened Russian views of the West in its political and strategic culture? When and why did Russian leaders begin to draw the conclusion that internal dissent and antagonistic forces in the West collude to undermine Russian social and political stability and state sovereignty? In what periods was this attitude or norm in Russian culture stronger or weaker and why?

The hypothesis pursued is the following: The development of Russian culture and its politics at home and abroad developed in the context of its overall discourse with the West writ large, focusing on both discursive and behavioral (policy and implementation thereof) interaction: Western influences over, involvements in, interventions into, and invasions of Russia. Russia relates to the West as its constitutive Other, borrowing from, emulating, and aspiring to the West’s level of political and cultural attainment and power. However, the same Western cultural and political power that inspires Russians to aspire to the West has also made the West the most dangerous to its external and internal security. This is the Russian dilemma.

The West has not only influenced Russia but sought to redefine Russia’s culture and identity in its own image, often purely for purposes of self-aggrandizement. When the West or elements within it have grown sufficiently powerful and frustrated with Russia’s efforts to become Western and submit to not just Western values, norms, and institutional practices but its geopolitical ambitions as well, Westerners have meddled and intervened politically and even militarily. Thus, Russia’s relations with its Other have gone through repeating cycles of emulative Westernization, Western intervention, Russian rebuff to the intervention, and Russia’s revival of traditional values, norms and practices with but limited survival of elements borrowed from the more advanced, liberal Western cultural strains. Most importantly, this repeating cycle reinforces the Russian security norm of special vigilance against its Western foes, domestic Westernizers, and collusion between them, as it has been precisely one or more of these threats’ actualization that put Russian culture, identity, and sovereignty in danger.

During Westernizing and liberalizing displacements, the security vigilance as a dominant cultural value or norm tends to become more recessive. Western ideas are no longer regarded as manifestations of dissent or opposition, since dislocation of some Russian values by European is encouraged by the regime and occurring with some regularity. Initially at least, the West welcomes the new policy obviating the need for nudging, pressuring or intervening into Russia in order to “civilize” her. The Russian regime’s desire to borrow from the West requires comity in relations with it. Therefore, anti–Western propaganda campaigns, witch hunts for colluders, and foreign policy tensions are unnecessary and inexpedient. But once the West intervenes politically or invades militarily, the security vigilance value is reactivated and returns as a dominant strain. It maintains that status along with the return to more tradi- tional domestic governance patterns and more contentious relations with the West until the next round of Westernizing displacement.

I trace the inculcation of two interrelated central strains or norms into Russian political and strategic culture beginning from the 15th century and continuing until the present day: fear of military-political threats from the West externally and inter- nally, especially fear and prevention of collusion between domestic elements with the Western enemy. Taken together we will refer to this strain in Russian political and strategic culture as Russia’s sometimes real, sometimes conjured “security vigilance” culture or norm. This norm is central to a historical “Russian dilemma”: Russia’s developed dislocation of its self-identity with reference to the West and periodic displacement of Russian traditional cultural strains, norms, values, etc., by those from the Western clashes often contradicts Russia’s value of national security vigilance towards military and domestic political threats emanating from the West. Crucial is the fear of connection, possible collusion between the potential external military threat posed by Western foes and the internal danger of social and/or political dissent, opposition and in stability from above (within the state or elite) or from below (from elements within society).

Western studies of Russia’s identity-formation and culture tend to ignore or, as in Billington’s monumental The Icon and the Axe and Malia’s Russia Through West- ern Eyes, leave implied the effect of security threats—internal and external—that accompanied Western civilizational-identity and sociopolitical challenges to Russia. As a result, Western scholars tend to overstate the uniqueness of, or narrowly focus on strains and elements in Russian culture and political culture such as: autocracy/authoritarianism; highly centralized rule and the absence of any tradition of local government and self-administration; a complete non–Western, even anti–Western culture; a lack of continuity with “more European and democratic” Kievan Rus; the political element of the medieval Russian religious view of Moscow as the “Third Rome”; the inordinate, retarding Mongol-Tatar influence; Russian values stifling individualism and economic vitality from the Russian people; and Russian expansionism or imperialism. At the same time, Western studies examine Russian norms and practices as supposedly wholly or nearly wholly distinct from Western ones and outside the contexts of Western deviations from its own stated cultural norms and values in general and of Western policies towards Russia. When talk turns to Russia, the history of Western colonialism and episodes of Western totalitarianism are often left aside. Indeed, Western imperialism, colonialism, and totalitarianism have had a direct negative impact on Russian history, sometimes threatening its very survival, sometimes inspiring Russian emulation.

Rather than looking at Russian history, culture, and politics in isolation from the West’s behavior towards Russia—as is usual practice in much of mainstream Western “rusology”—it is necessary to look at Russian cultural formation and evolution as a process very much interdependent with and ultimately dependent on the West. Constructivist theories of culture, politics, and international relations hold that societies develop their self-identity in relation to others, sometimes a single constitutive Other, with which the developing self is compared and contrasted. Relations with, and perceptions of the Other may shift from being or being perceived as, respectively, a threat, model, and/or protégé’ (student), but the referential pairing, contrasting and comparing persist. Students of Russian history are unanimous in the view that since the 12th–13th-century Russian history has been an alternating pattern of attraction and repulsion in relation to various “Europes” and the West. The West also has focused on Russia, viewing her as either an alien civilization and antipode, not fully “Other”/not fully its own, or as insufficiently similar sometimes moving towards assimilation.

States, institutions, interest groups, decision-makers, and policymakers define their own and national interests and determine their preferred strategies, policies, and behavior in their country’s foreign relations through the lens of, or influenced by elements of the country’s strategic culture (political culture related to foreign policy and national security alone). Grigorii Tul’chinskii notes the centrality of security in the formation of cultural values and hence “harsh ethno-confessional solidarity” in political culture, especially in more traditional societies. But, as Katzenstein observed, “culture” is not an empirically researchable subject for understanding a country’s strategy-making and behavior. Hence, in this article and the book upon which this article is based focus instead on a particular cultural value or norm: the emergence and development of Russia’s security value of vigilance against Western military threats, internal instability, and connections between them. Following Katzenstein, I analyze the weight of history or major crises or events—“historical discontinuities”—as well as the “memories and beliefs about those events as interpreted and reinterpreted by political actors” which determine cultural norms and values.

Russia’s complex often catastrophic relations with the West or some Western states brought or heightened concerns about not only the country’s military and political security but also its “ontological security.” As domestic unity, tranquility, and often stability might be ruptured by Westernization with encouragement from elements in the West, so too would the country’s sense of possessing an integral culture and self-identity. Mitzen defined ontological security as “security not of the body but of the self, the subjective sense of who one is, which enables and motivates action and choice.” It refers to “the need to experience oneself as a whole, continuous person in time—as being rather than constantly changing—in order to realize a sense of agency.” In other words, ontological security for states is the imperative to preserve the integrity of the country’s national culture and identity, since these form the prism through which the state will define its national interests. and when malleable undermine the state’s purposefulness in foreign affairs. Zarakol focused on the desire to protect the integrity but also the continuity of the country’s identity: “[T]he incorporation of the modern worldview created a rupture in the traditionally self-centered worldviews of agrarian empires and forced them to rearticulate their new state identities around the anxiety of ‘demonstrable’ inferiority and the goal of catching up to the West by following its ‘standards.’” In addition to the insult of stigma imposed by the West, Russia’s divided, split, or dual culture and identity have been seen by many in the country as fraught with domestic political conflict, instability, the greater potential of treason by “pro–Western” elements, and ultimately state collapse and loss of Russian cultural and identity altogether.

Duality in Russian Culture and Civilizational Identity

The Russo-Western relationship is a unique one in history and contemporary politics; one in which on party has so persistently defined or assessed itself in relation to an exclusive other. The Russian dilemma derives from the aspiration to be emulate a West from which it is often simultaneously under constant threat. The dilemma and resulting ambivalence is compounded by Russia’s own cultural-identification duality. Building on Vyacheslav Morozov’s adaptation of Leonid Bakhtin’s discourse theory of “dialogism” in Russian literature and Yurii Lotman’s theories of dualism and semiotics (sym- bolism) in Russian culture to analyze post–Soviet Russian discourse, we can move beyond conceptualizing individual national cultures (and civilizations) in static form and examine the formation and evolution of political and strategic cultures as part of a multivaried process of internal and external factors. Morozov emphasizes the “non-autonomy of Russian national identity” this way: “[T]he process of its forma- tion consists in a continuous struggle between the tendencies of structural complete- ness and isolation, on the one hand, and structural integrity subverted by dislocation [self-definition in relation to others], on the other hand. … [A] culture cannot exist in isolation and needs an Other for complete functionality.” For Russia, “Europe as its irreducible signifier plays the most important role…, and the dislocation provoked by its presence comprises the most important and as yet underappreciated pecu- liarity of Russian political discourse.” In short, Russia’s “struggle” to form an inte- gral national identity and culture has been complicated by the tension between the desire for integrity and uniqueness, on the one hand, and cultural and identity “dislocation”—Russians’ tendency to define Russia in relation to others, in particular the West as its constitutive Other—on the other hand. Morozov concludes from his close reading of post-structuralist sociology and Russian cultural studies (kul’turologiya), especially of Lotman, that “the redistribution of power between the paired signifiers”—Russia and the West and their respective values—has been the engine of Russian cultural and historical evolution through the ages: “[P]recisely the complicated, ambiguous attitude of attraction and repulsion and the feelings of its own inadequacy and moral supremacy in relation to the West (although not only to it) over the course of centuries has comprised the main driving force of cultural dynamics in Russian society.”

Borrowing from Bakhtin’s idea that a text does not exist independently from its reader in its emergence or impact on individual readers and society, Lotman applied this interactivity model in theorizing about cultural development and change. For Lotman, cultures—most notably Russia’s—develop not in isolation from, but largely in response to others. He posited that the “specific characteristic of Russian culture” at least until the end of the 18th century was its “principal polarity” and structural “dual nature.” Russia’s polarity and duality evolved around paired opposites at various stages in its historical development: Orthodox Christianity—paganism; Orthodoxy— Catholicism (and to a lesser extent Protestantism); and from the late 17th century on, Orthodoxy—Western secularism and rationalism.

The Process of Cultural/Identity Transformation

Cultures—including political and strategic culture—experience change and continuity; sometimes elements of both are part of the same developmental process. Russian duality, for example, is constructed by the pairing of the old and new. During the last, modern period of Russian history, Russia’s turns to the new and rejections of the old coincided with alternating periods of traditionalist “pro-pochva” (Russian native land or roots) and innovationist pro–Westernization sentiment. Beginning from Peter the Great’s displacement of Russian culture and identity by Europe standards, new pairings of Russian/Western antitheses emerged successively: Orthodoxy/sec- ularism, the “land”/bureaucracy, peasantry/aristocracy, mysticism/rationalism, Slavophilism/Westernism, bourgeois capitalism/international communism. In several periods, the ruling regime itself promoted Westernism, provoking a Russian backlash. The Russian backlash produced a new metastable condition or “thesis”— one partially old and new—which again comes to viewed as the “old” and in need of replacement by a new Westernizing thesis—with the West also having developed to something “new”—and so on.26 Despite the apparent tension and seeming potential for fundamental change, Russia’s dual cultural-identity structure has been “unified,” with limited change occurring only within this shifting but unchanging binary pochva/West structure for over three centuries. As Lotman observed: “Even in the changes [of cultural values], a lack of change [in the dual pochva/West structure] is observed.”27 In other words, change in Russian culture and identity occurs but only within, and in reference to the binary “Russia/West” Russian cultural structure.

Change in specific cultural content in Russia often occurred through what some post-structuralists call “dislocation,” which Russian culturologists Lotman and Boris Uspenskii explored in their seminal article on the fluid status of antagonistic others or “rogues” in Russian culture. “Dislocation” involves the active adoption of particular Western or other foreign elements in place of native old Russian traditions (or previously European-borrowed “new traditions”) and occurs within the larger Western-vectored reorientation process of dislocation. Examining the place of the clergy, Cossackdom, thieves, and executioners in Russian society historically, Lotman and Uspenskii suggested that, given the presence of specific opposing antipodes, cultural borrowing (and rejection) occurred throughout Russian history in periods of powerful inclination to define oneself in relation to the West whether through reje tion and/or borrowing from its constitutive Other. Western elements only recently perceived as antagonistic were incorporated by Russian culture, while previously “native” or approved “Other” elements were expelled, deemed in the new light as “pre-cultural.” Obverse to dislocation is ‘reconsitution’—rejecting any borrowing and/or borrowed elements from the West and a return to “tradition” or search for a truly Russian, “Slavic,” “third way,” or special path (osobyi put’).

Strains or elements (values, attitudes, beliefs, ideas and even behaviors and institutions) in a political and/or strategic culture may rise and fall in their diffusion and relevance. Some strains and elements are handed down from generation to genera- tion through family tradition and orientation, education, socialization, historiography, social science, the humanities, and the arts. Despite such “transmission,” some once “dominant” strains and elements that history introduces into a particular cul- ture can disappear or devolve to secondary or tertiary “recessive” status within a culture or civilization. In other words, political and strategic cultures consist of dominant strains, norms, values, attitudes, etc., as well as recessive ones. Recessive strains or elements can be secondary or tertiary. National memory may not allow some discarded elements of the culture to disappear entirely; such recessive strains recede into the lower depths of the cultural-identity memory to reemerge at a later time.

The decline of dominant cultural strains and elements and the revival of recessive ones over time occurs through long cultural transformative processes, called elsewhere “sedimentation” and “reactivation,” respectively. Laclau focuses on the unchosen policy or institutional design options that are available but rejected by authorities in favor of others and thus fall into and are embedded in the “sediment.” Morozov then redefined sedimentation as “the transition of the ‘political moment of the taking decisions in resolution-resistant conditions to the relatively fixed reality of social relations’; objectivity is the product of sedimentation and poten- tially always can be subject to … reactivation.” Morozov stresses that the concept of “decision” in sedimentation process ought not always be taken to mean a concrete event. Perhaps most often, decisions made by cultures “sedimentizing” a strain or component thereof should be viewed as “a process that is continuing also in our time.”

For our purposes then, we will regard the process of sedimentation to mean that after a strain, norm, value, attitude or other such element becomes part of a particular political and/or strategic culture it becomes embedded like a fossil in the sediment or a memory in the brain. If dominant, it is at the surface of the cultural discourse and identity, repeatedly referred to and deployed by many political actors. If recessive, it has receded in importance for the culture as a whole and is less often referred to or deployed and usually by fewer actors. However, it may remain predominant for sub-groups within the political and/or strategic culture and can be “reactivated” for the political/strategic culture as a whole when the external or internal situation of the culture changes. The longer dominant strains and elements are embedded, all the more difficult it is for them to fall out of the cultural sediment altogether; they are also more accessible and easily excavated for reactivation in future, after they have been sedimentized as recessive strains. At the same time, as new strains and elements are incorporated into a culture, embedding recessive ones deeper into the sediment.

Instead of regarding that which is “sedimentized” as being only that which is dominant, the concept here applies also to recessive strains and elements in political and strategic culture which have declined in salience to society at any particular time but remain available in the cultural strata or national memory to be excavated and reacti- vated. Changes in the group’s or culture’s values and norms are driven by shifts in the overall culture’s environment; political, social or economic crises, new experiences, and interactions with “Others” and other external factors prompt cultural change. Change can entail burying previously predominant objective truths, values and so on or, say, in times of crisis pulling back the sedimentary cover in order to find deep in the culture’s historical residue “old new” values for reactivation among those fully or partially buried in the strata. Elements that have been “sedimentized” can be “forgotten” seemingly, buried under layers of higher stratified cultural elements deep within historical memory. The arrangement or hierarchy (dominant over recessive) of strains and elements within a political or strategic culture can lead to reconstruction particularly in times of social and political upheaval or threat. The overthrow of the elite’s political discourse and/or institutions noted by Morozov is no less robust for, and indeed is a reflection of the more fundamental cultural transformation of the kind found during periods of revolution or other forms of regime transition, leading to a new set of values, attitudes, beliefs, ideas and ultimately institutions and behaviors in society and state.

Given Russia’s dependence on Europe for its self-identity and culture—both political and strategic—the West’s relations, specific policies and actions towards Russia become pivotal not for just Russia’s image of the West but for Russian national identity and culture as a whole. Additionally, the West has made Russia an important “Other” for centuries, usually as foil for self-satisfaction and a cause for proselytization, even expansion and subjugation in the east. It is on this background as well that of Russia’s original and traditional culture that the strains and constitutive elements of Russia’s political and strategic culture developed in comparison, contrast and competition with, sometimes contempt for, and sometimes in admiration and imitation of the West. The usually dominant or at least prominent strains and elements of anti–Westernism in Russian culture have been embedded, sedimentized and reactivated over the centuries. We can observe through the centuries several periods of Russian borrowing, emulation and exultation of the West and things Western interspersed between periods of outright contempt and paranoia regarding them. layers, the more difficult it will be to reactivate the latter.

In pursuing the security culture hypothesis below, I detail Russia’s cultural and state interactions with the West from the formation of Russia’s national identity and culture (including political and strategic culture) during the post–Kievan Rus period of the rise of Muscovy to the Putin era, including (1) key periods of Russian internal instability and ontological insecurity driven by displacements of Russian norms, values, and ideas by Western ones; (2) the West’s often actively subversive and simultaneously reactionary effect on Russia’s politics and culture; (3) and Western military invasions of and threats to Russia.

The Origins of Russia’s Security Vigilance Norm

The wellspring of Russia’s security vigilance culture perhaps goes as far as back as the fall of Kievan Rus` to Mongol hordes in 1240. It was well understood even at the time and certainly soon after that Kiev’s demise had been the result of incessant infighting between Russia’s principalities, with leading princes vying for the Kievan throne. Another wellspring was Novgorod prince Alexander Nevskii’s military conflicts with invading German Teutonic crusaders in the 13th century, culminating in the defeat of the Teutonic knights at Lake Peipus (in today’s Estonia) on 5 April 1242 in the epic Battle on the Ice, in which the Teutonic forces fell through the ice in a seeming miracle that earned Nevskii canonization by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Although not related to Western threats, the Mongol subjugation of most Russia’s principalities, excluding most notably Nevskii’s Novgorod and Pskov, began generating Russia’s tendency to emphasize national and ontological security.

Russia’s security culture and its central vigilance norm began to form and embed itself in Russian political and strategic culture after the fall of Kievan Rus as Muscovite Russian state formed during the struggle for supremacy among the Russian principalities after Moscow prince Dmitrii Donskii defeated the Mongols in the 14th century. During Moscow’s struggle with Novgorod, Vladimir, Tver, even Poland-Lithuania at that time the first in a series of heresies – religious dissents – stretching through the 16th century threatened to redirect the formation of Russia’s national identity and culture – Orthodox Christanity – in the particular form that had developed across all the Russias since IX century baptism of Kievan prince Vladimir I or the Great. These dissident heresies of the ‘strigolniki’ (defrocked ones), Judaizers, and non-possessors or ‘nestazhateli’ all had ties with the western and somewhat westernized Russian principalities of Novogorod and Pskov. These principalities were part of the Hanseatic League, had avoided the stultifying effects of the Mongol yoke, and in the case of Novgorod especially were competitors with rising Muscovy for the leadership and unification of the Russian principalities. Moreover, Novgorod had signed treaties with the powerful Western Polish-Lithuanian Union, the military power and Catholic identity of which posed both national and ontological threats to Moscow and other principalities. Moreover, Poland-Lithuania also contended to unite the eastern Slavs and Russian principalities under its wing and Catholicize its own and any incorporated Orthodox Christians. The conjunction of external military and ontological threats emanating from the West furthered the formation of Russia’s security culture and vigilance norm as a part of the foundational experience of Muscovite Russia. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks in 1453 reinforced the sense of mounting military and ontological threats to Orthodoxy and therefore still young Muscovy as well.

            Ivan III or the Great (1440-1505) made great strides in reuniting many of the Russias under Muscovite tutelage, the Church elders of which began to adorn the refounded Russia with the mantle of the last surviving bastion of Christianity and resistance to the infidel wave from the south. At the same time, Rome was seeking to extend Catholicism into the Russian lands, using the rising Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as its vanguard in the east, repressing Orthodoxy in its realm just west of Novogord and Smolensk. The confluence of the formation of a new Russian state and national identity at a time of grave two-pronged external threat further embedded Russia’s security vigilance norm, meldng it into its early political and strategic cultures.

            Under Ivan the IV or the Terrible (1530-1584), this developing pattern was furthered by an intensifying struggle against Roman-Polish expansionism. A signal event was the defection of one of Ivan’s key allies, Prince Andrei Kurbskii, to the Poles. Likely motivations for Kurbskii’s turn included Ivan’s attempt to concentrate all power into his hands, efforts to destroy the popular veche and emasculate the boyar duma, his brutality in doing so, and Kurbskii’s fears after defeat in battle against the Poles that Ivan would use him as a scapegoat and punish him. Kurbskii’s act most surely crossed over into treason, as he joined the Polish army and served as a commander in battle against Russian forces for years to come. Kurbskii became the first Russian dissident émigré` to seek and find refuge in the West and from there collude with Russia’s foreign enemies against her existing order. Consequently, he became an enduring symbol of dissent as treason and Western collusion in Russian culture. This can be seen in modern references to Boris Berezovskii and Mikhail Khodorkovskii as modern-day Kurbskies.

            The Polish focus in the now almost exclusively Western vector in Russia’s security culture and vigilance norm was cemented for centuries by Warsaw and the Vatican’s involvement in a crisis created by the end of the Ryurikovich line of succession at the end of Ivan’s reign. The Poles attempted to pursue their Catholic messianism by parlaying Russia’s crisis into a kind of false flag insurrection that wrought Russia’s most destructive period of chaos, violence, and Western intervention before the 17th century and perhaps even after. The rule of Ivan the Terrible’s first successor, the regent tsar Boris Godunov, began well enough, promising significant Western-style reforms, but the promise was left unfulfilled by virtue of Boris’s increasing paranoia because of rumors of boyar-Polish machinations against him followed by the apparent murder of the last successor in Ivan’s lineage, the tsarevich Dmitrii, and his own unexpected, early death soon after. That a Westernizing ruler seemed to usher in the disaster to come was not lost on some Russians of generations to follow, no matter how unconnected the impulse to reform and subsequent events were. The security vigilance norm was already robust enough to prompt blaming the West for things it had no hand in. What followed would transform superstition into justifiable suspicion when similar events ensued.

A person claiming to be the surviving Dmitrii, the False Dmitrii, appeared in Poland and received at least implicit backing from both Polish king Sigismund III Vasa and the Vatican for a venture to seize the Muscovite throne. Members of the Polish and Lithuanian gentry and Jesuit order helped Dmitrii organize and man an invasion force, which crossed the border into Russia in autumn 1604 and marched north gaining Cossack and Russian volunteers along the way. Dmitriii had promised to convert himself and Russia to Catholicism and thus make Russia a de facto vassal of Warsaw and the Vatican. Seizing Moscow, False Dmitrii promised Western reforms, but the influx of so many Catholic foreigners quickly alienated the population, and he was soon assassinated in a boyar plot. This ushered in an era of chaos, civil war, Cossack bandit warlords and gangs partitioning and maraudering across the country, Polish and Swedish invasions and interventions, and the the brief taking of the Muscow throne by Sigisumund’s son Vladislav. In 1612 a second Russian partisan movement rose up liberated Moscow and began expelling the Poles and other interlopers from the country. This process took a decade to complete, with occasion Polish intervientions occurring in an effort to overturn the Romanov dynasty installed under Mikhail I in 1613. It took several decades for Russia to return to its pre-1604 population level.

This catastrophe – referred to by Russians as the ‘Time of Troubles’ or Smuta – ushered in an even more pronounced campaign against Westerners in Russia, especially Poles, and it embedded in the culture the image of the dangerous Pole scheming to undermine Moscow as a symbol of Western meddling and military aggression. The symbolic images of the Poles, Lithuanians, Catholics and Protestants in Russian society were designed by articulations in official gramota issued immediately after the False Dmitrii’s assassination by Shuiskii’s chancellery and the ROC Patriarchate as well as gramota and other documents (such as stories by various publicists) produced later during and immediately after the Smuta. The documents detailed the violence and crimes committed by the invading Westerners against Russians and anathemized them in harsh terms defined by the religious intolerance and fanaticism of the era as well as natural hatred for the foreign occupiers. They typically emphasized the Poles’ and Lithuanians’ role in manipulating the False Dmitrii and bringing to Russia “Lutherans, Jews, Poles and Romans” (Catholics) in pursuit of “the destruction of the true belief, Orthodox Christianity” through the imposition of Catholicism and Protestantism. Such documents were replete with derogations, setting the Westerners apart not as constitutent but wholly alien ‘Other.’ They are “filthy” and “defiled” enemies and destroyers of the Russian state, their faith and customs are “malignant” “idolatry.” They are the Russian state’s would-be destroyers, “eternal enemies” and “fighters against God” (bogoborotsy). King Sigismund is equated with Satan and doing the devil’s work. Poles are the embodiment of “guile” (lukavstvo), a combination of treachery, cunning, and recklessness (kovarstvo, khitrost’, verolomstvo). Other contemporary documents communicated, for example, the improper conduct of Marina and her party in Russian churches, occupying soldiers’ defilement of churches and holy relics, and the “defilement of the honor” of Russians’ wives by the invaders.

For much of Russian society such attitudes towards the particular invaders themselves were extended to their infidel compatriots in Poland, Rome, and the entire non-Orthodox Christian West. Their images became more embedded in the culture over the decades and centuries, especially since colluders and collaborators were punished or eliminated and such communiques continued to influence Russian values. Four centuries after the Smuta the Polish mazurka danced in Mikhail Glinka’s opera Life for the Tsar set in the Smuta in the scene of the Kremlin wedding of Dmitrii and Marina Mniszech, daughter of the Polish noble who organized the initial invasion force, represents intrusion by the decadent Westerners. Mniszech had become a Russian synonym for “witch” and a symbol of the ontological and military security threat from the West.

 The extent to which the Smuta was watershed in Russian history and left an indelible imprint that shaped its political and strategic culture was made even more evident as recently as 2006 when Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to fill the vacuum in Russian self-identity caused by the collapse of communism and the Soviet state by invoking the Russian national uprising against the Poles during the Smuta. In place of the abandoned November 7th holiday commemorating the Bolsheviks’ 1917 October coup, Putin inaugurated National Unity Day on November 4th.  The new national holiday reinforces the value of security vigilance by at least inference from Western threats and Russian collusion with them. It is the combination of these combined concern over foreign military threats and domestic divisions, instability and collusion that drives Moscow’s present-day resistance to NATO eoansion and domestic opposition forces that seek to establish Western systems in Russia. The result is linkage between the intensity of the foreign threat, real and perceived, and the level of democratization supported or opposed by the Russian elite and state leadership.

Recovery, Early Westernization, and the Great Petrine Displacement  

From the mid-17th century there was a gradual re-opening of Russia to Western influences, especially under Mikhail I’s son, Alexei the Quiet (who reigned 1645-1676). The conduits for this passive opening brought Western influences through Kiev’s Moghyla Techological Academy and the Russian governments Posolskii prikaz, a proto-foreign ministry. Officials in the Posolskii prikaz, such as Afanasii Lavrentovich Ordin-Nashokin, brought in knowledge of Western ways and practice, especially in the arts. The Kievan academy inserted Catholic, Protestant, Greek philosophical, and other Western influences to Moscow. The impact of the academy grew as its graduates became involved in an effort ordered by Alexei’s father, Mikhail, to study the sacred texts of Eastern Orthodoxy. In the process, one intensified by the ROC’s Patriarch Nikon under Alexei, mistranslations were discovered indicating that changes to rituals and prayers needed to be made. This sparked a schism, the Great Schism or Raskol, in Russian culture; the first of two that would shake Russia in a period of a half-century and involved Western culture. Large portions of the Orthodox flock refused to accept Nikon’s changes, regarding them as evidence of the approaching apocalypse and the second coming of Christ. The rational endeavor to have Russian Orthodox practice follow Orthodox practice as laid down in the confessions’s historical sacred texts was met by an irrational response on the part of the so-called Old Believers, who clung to the old ways and prepared for the coming end by creating isolated, closed communities. The leader of the Old Believer schismatics or raskolniki, Avakuum Petrov, a priest from the Yurev Monastery in Pskov, proselytized in writings and preaching an austere way of life dedicated to cleansing the soul in preparation for Christ’s return. One of the forms of cleansing he promoted was self-immolation, leading to tens of thousands of raskolniki incinerating their bounds to the corrupt, evil earthly life. The Raskol’s Westernizing was far more limited than Posolskii prikaz’s introductions to secular ways and customs, but its divisive effect on the culture indicated the extent to which traditionalist, still superstitious Muscovite elements perceived an ontological threat from the West to Muscovy’s Orthodox culture. This sense was compounded by the second schism to shake Russia in the latter decades of the 17th century and first quarter of the 18th century: Peter the Great’s radical reformist Westernization.

Westernization was deepened and broadened by Alexei’s son Peter the Great (reign 1682-1725), who masterminded a vigorously proactive Westernization policy emulating Swedish, German, Dutch, and British ways in government, education, science, warfare, the arts indeed in every sphere of Russian life. The ROC was completely subordinated to Peter’s government under a Holy Synod and began losing some of its political and social influence. With secularization came rationalism, challenging the religious foundations of traditional Russian culture and identity. This great transformation was driven by Peter’s powerful vision and will and carried out with no great shortage of coercion and even violence. In addition to Peter’s unofficial, incognito tour of Europe to gather Western knowledge in practically all spheres from military technology to dentistry, two major wars with Sweden, and the goal of deepening Russia’s role in European geopolitics, the first Russian emperor encounter with the West had similarities with that under Ivan the Terrible and during the Smuta. Like Ivan’s Prince Kurbskii and post-Ivan’s False Dmitrii, Peter the Great’s reign would be marred by defections to the West by two important personages. The first was the defection to the Swedes during the Great Northern War by the Coassack Hetman Mazepa, who had received strong support and was able to greatly enrich himself because of patronage from Peter. Then Peter’s son and tsarevich Alexei defected to the Holy Roman Empire after a falling out with his father and supposedly sought support from Vienna and even Stockholm in organizing a force to place himself on the thrown. Alexei returned to Russia on a promise from his father that he would not be punished but upon his arrival in St. Petersburg, he was arrested, secretly tried, and executed or extrajudially killed during interrogation possibly carried out by Peter himself. Both Mazepa and Alexei became symbols, anti-heroes of the security vigilance norm, marked as traitors and colluders with Westerners.

One of Peter the Great’s last acts was to enshrine his victories over both the dual external and internal threats he had encountered in an Imperial ideology he was constructing for the Russian state. One element was to draw parallels between his reign and that of the 13th century Novogord prince Alexander Nevskii who had defeated the Teutonic knights. Peter had Nevskii’s remains brought from their resting place in Vladimir to St. Petersburg to be interred in a new Alexander Nevskii Monastery being built, organizing an elaborate ceremony on the anniversary of the signing of the 1721 Nystad Treaty that ended the Great Northern War. The liturgy used in the first commemoration in 1725 and in annual commemorations that would last until 1917 and renewed after the Soviet collapse sacralized Nevskii both for his military victories, including the Battle of the Ice, and his defeat of internal enemies, “malignant rebels,” paralleling Peter’s military victories and defeat of internal opponents such as the streltsy, Mazepa, and tsarevich Alexei.

Thus, the defections of Mazepa and Alexei more deeply embedded the fear of collusion between foreign and domestic foes and conversely strengthened the culture of vigilance against political unity and national security. The fear of collusion in turn was compounded and undergirded by growing ontological insecurity. The often, brutal break from the old religious and superstitious mentality of pre-Petrine Muscovy under Peter in favor of science and rationalism created a new schism in Russia’s self-identity, eventually producing a deep ideological split within the Russian elite and the intelligentsia that would emerge from the aristocracy as a result of Peter’s great dislocation and its development the course of the 18th century.

The century of female rulers and palace coups that was the 18th century would also be one of expanding Westernization, including the birth of a constitutional movement that was born first within the aristocracy and would eventually be adopted by the last tsar of the century following Peter the Great’s death. Russia’s pursuit of, and entry into Europe yielded at least four anti-autocratic strains and practices in Russian political culture: (1) aristocratic constitutionalism cum republicanism, (2) imperial ‘collusion’ with Westerners, in particular Germans, (3) liberal intelligentsia republicanism, (4) and autocratic constitutionalism sans republicanism. The growth of constitutionalism in Russia coincided with growing Western influence and the formation of pockets of reformist aristocrats, further adding to the growing schism that would evolve into what would be called the Slavophile-Westernizer debate or controversy. At the same time, most of the century’s female rulers were involved in one way or another in palace coups involving Western players, tying the constitutional movement to Western interference in the eyes of many Russians. The intensifying security vigilance against colluders manifested itself in several ways. Empress Anna Ionovna would banish Westernizers, who attempted to put ‘conditions’ on her autocratic powers. Catherine the Great would seek the supposed Western hand behind the Cossack peasant revolt of Emilyan Pugachev, and Nicholas I would do the same in relation to the 1825 Decembrist revolt that capped off the post-Petrine century.

The accession to the throne by Peter the Great’s third successor, Anna Ioanovna, successor to Peter’s grandson and Alexei’s son Peter II, was accompanied by an attempt to institute or at least begin instituting a constitutional monarchy. A group of Westernized aristocrats, led by Dmitrii Golitsyin and Vasilii Tatishchev, drafted a set of ‘Conditions’ or ‘Punkty’ upon offering her the throne. Golitsyn (1663-1737) was the cousin of Vasilii Golitsyn, the convinced Westernizer whose home was a center of Western cultural activity in Moscow and who ran the Posolskii prikaz under Tsar Alexei Mihailovich and had proposed wide-ranging political and social reforms. By the age of 26, Dmitrii Golitsyn knew several European languages and European political theory and was prepared to institute a fundamental Europeanization of Russia, going beyond Peter the Great’s often superficial changes. He was sent abroad in 1697 at the age of 34 by Peter to study naval affairs in Italy, then followed Vasilii’s steps into diplomacy. Later Peter the Great dispatched him to the Ottoman Porte to secure a treaty allowing Russia free maritime passage into the Black Sea through the Dardenelles Straight. In 1707-1718, Golitsyn was appointed voevoda of Kiev. With the Poltava victory and end of fighting in Ukraine, he was able to introduce some of the reforms he hoped for the country. He had a library of 6,000 books and organized students of the Kiev Academy to translate from Latin numerous European works on history, politics and philosophy by Puffendorf, Hugo, Machiavelli, Grotius, Locke and others.

Upon Peter II’s death, Golitsyn proposed the adoption of the Swedish 1719-20 constitutional reforms not just for administration but for the overall political system. This was the first salvo in a wathershed political battle during what Russian historian Yakov Goldin regards as the most pivotal five weeks in Russian history from 19 January – 25 February 1730, during which Russia sttod on the brink of a possible transition to a republican constitutional monarchy. One European diplomat stationed in Russia observed about this period: “In the homes and on the streets of Moscow the English constitution and the parliament’s rights were all that was heard being talked about.” In an ensuing series of machinations and maneuverings between the constitutionalist faction and an oppositing traditional autocratic faction, various draft constitutions were prepared and circulated at court. The constitutionalists eventually lost to the traditionalists (now Petrine, not Muscovite) in a showdown between the parties that included various Guards’ units – the main weapon in the 18th century’s numerous succession struggles and coup lots. Goldin concludes that the tactical problems were complicated by the strategic one: the rift or “split consciousness” of Russia’s “pre-intelligentsia.” The inability of the pro-Western intelligentsia to unite and organize their efforts effectively in their struggle against authoritarianism would continue to plague Russia up to the present day.

Anna’s investigation into the constitutionalist plot brought a decade-long rule was a stultifying and oppressive time for the Russian aristocracy, gentry nobility, merchant class, and peasantry alike. Given later accusations against Anna of incorporating too many Germans into the Russian government and court – herself a German foreigner from Courland – investigators did not raise a charge of collusion with foreigners against Golitsyn and the others, though they could have. Golitsyn was not shy about consulting Westerners in designing his reform program and relied particularly on advice from German Holsteinian Henrich von Fik (1679-1750/1), who was at the time serving the Russian government. The “intelligent free-thinker” Fik was regarded as an expert on Sweden, having been sent there as a secret agent during the Great Northern War. He took from Stockholm a store of documents on Swedish internal politics and was brought into the Russian state service to advise Peter on administrative reforms that eventually replaced Russia’s prikazy system with the Swedish kollegii system. When Golitsyn served as president of Russia’s government or Kamer kollegiya, Fik was its vice president, and the former immediately made use of latter’s documents on the inner workings of Sweden’s constitutional system. Also, a Swiss diplomat reported that Fik was in contact with 28 Russian nobles “who desire freedom and are laying down the beginning of the repeal of autocracy” and not only gave advice but helped draft particulars of documents for limiting the autocracy. In the weeks when the Conditions were still an option and constitutional drafts flowered, Fik unveiled his previously tightly held views, telling the Kamer kollegiya: “(T)oday the Russian Empire became the sister of Sweden and Poland.”

As events played out, Fik obviously had spoken too soon. With Anna’s triumph in the palace power struggle, she would initiate what liberal 19th century Russian historian Sergei Platonov called a “sad epoch” over which “hung a terror.” Her harsh ten-year reign saw a secret investigative chancellory send some 20,000 into Siberian exile and 5,000 would never return.  Although they made up perhaps a single percent or two of Anna’s exiles, the Secret Chancellery was particularly active in pursuing the constitutionalists of 1730. Fik’s own patriotic service still made it difficult for Golitsyn, himself, or allies such as Golitsyn’s brother Field Marshal Mikhail Golitsyn, who supported their constitutional endeavors, to be charged with treason for colluding with foreigners. However, they were all charged with other alleged crimes as part of a campaign to quash constitutionalism. Fik was arrested and exiled to Siberia in January 1732 for supporting Golitsyn’s Conditions but was released by Empress Elizabeth I in 1743. Anna’s Secret Investigative Chancellery charged Tatischev with bribery when working in the Monetnyi Dvor, the Russian mint. Anna had the case closed, but Fik remained under investigation for the rest of his life. He was professionally exiled to the Urals, where he helped develop Russia’s mettalurgical industry and wrote histories of Russia’s minority ethnic groups, dying in 1750 during transport to a new place of exile. An old and frail Dmitrii Golitsyn, who like Tatischev had also consulted with the Swedish ambassador, would be charged with intentionally misinterpreting imperial and governmental decrees and was hauled before the Senate for trial in December 1736. Convicted in January 1737, he was imprisoned in the Shlusselberg Fortress. There, in April, Golitsyn passed away, the first dissident of many to die within its cold, damp walls.

Anna and her Petrine autocrats could not but help make the connection between Western-inspired reformism and the threat to their power and the stability of the state. Thus, the tendency to assume a false choice between reform and stability and between the Western innovations and Russian tradition was established.


*All of the above is covered in greater detail and fully documented in Gordon M. Hahn, The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (Jefferson: McFarland Publishers, 2021).



About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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