“The Decaying West”
The Reemergence of an Old Idea
As we’ve recently seen, one of the major themes of Putin’s statements and in the Russian state’s propaganda in general is that of Western “decadence,” “decline,” and “corruption.” In the official line, not only do these forces weaken the West, they are contagious and therefore dangerous to Russia itself. In his “declaration of war” speech, Putin spoke of the West’s attempt to:
…destroy our traditional values and impose on us their pseudo-values that would corrode us, our people from the inside, those attitudes that they are already aggressively planting in their countries and which directly lead to degradation and degeneration, because they contradict the very nature of man. It won't happen, no one has ever done it. It won't work now either.
It should be obvious that “degradation and degeneration” that “contradict the very nature of man” refer in particular to the promotion of LGBT rights, a major target of Putin regime since 2012. But there is also a larger sense that liberalism in the West is seen as a totally corrupt system, an “empire of lies” as Putin memorably put it:
By the way, American politicians, political scientists and journalists themselves write and talk about the fact that a real 'empire of lies' has been created inside the United States in recent years. It's hard to disagree with that; it's true. But do not be modest: the United States is still a great country, a system-forming power. All her satellites not only resignedly and dutifully assent, sing along to her for any reason, but also copy her behaviour, enthusiastically accept the rules he proposes. Therefore, with good reason, we can confidently say that the entire so-called Western bloc, formed by the United States in its own image and likeness, all of it is the very 'empire of lies'.
It’s interesting that Putin ascribes this view to Americans themselves. The exact expression “empire of lies” is not one I’ve come across, but apparently there is a 2008 thriller by Andrew Klavan by that title. It’s of an overtly right-wing bent, about a conservative man who stumbles on an Islamist terror plot but is stymied in his investigation by the media, the government, and academia—the titular “empire of lies.” I’m not sure if Putin is familiar with that particular novel, but he clearly has in mind a hard right-wing critique of modern liberalism—often labeled “wokeness”—that views it as a kind of crypto-totalitarian system, a notion peddled by people like the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, who has a book called Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissident. Dreher uses the experience of the Soviet Union and the works of Solzhenitsyn as touchstones for his Orwellian picture of American life and is a strong proponent of the thesis of Western decadence and decline. As we will see, this cross-pollination of reactionary fantasies between East and West is nothing new.
Beyond Putin himself, the view of Western decay has quite a few adherents in the elite corridors of Russian policy and statecraft. For instance, Sergei Karaganov, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, the head of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a former close advisor to Putin, wrote last Spring that the West “is falling apart politically and morally, and weakening economically.” In a 2016 piece for Harvard International Review, Karaganov wrote, “The European and Euro-Atlantic nations — which a quarter of a century ago seemed destined to dominate geopolitical, social, and political matters — have lost momentum. Today the West is declining in all these aspects, losing 500 years of historic leadership…” (In the same piece, he notably characterized Russian foreign policy in the following way: “The foreign policy of Russia is essentially resurrected Russian Imperial and Soviet traditions married to specific assessments of new and unprecedented developments on the international scene.”)
In an article in the journal Russia and Global Affairs, Karaganov declares that “…Europe, having reached the peak of its civilizational development and produced the best ever political achievement of mankind – the European Union, started drifting away from persistent labor and other traditional values, sank into a multilayered crisis with no end in sight, and began to retreat. In fact, Spengler’s prophesy about the decline of the Europe may come true.” (Spengler, of course, is Oswald Spengler, the author of The Decline of the West, which gloomily predicted the downfall of the western lands to decadence back in 1926.) In a 2015 op-ed for the Brookings Institution, Lilia Shevtsova went so far as to state, “Declinism and the Spenglerian ‘End of the West’ became the key premises of Russia’s foreign policy concept.”
Karaganov is also apparently a fan of the book The Decay of the West and the Resurgence of Russia, by an obscure Western scholar named Glenn Diesen, who also contributes regularly for the Russia in Global Affairs journal, the official outlet of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. The premise should be predictable at this point: Western liberalism is a weakening and self-corroding ideology, and Russia represents the return healthier and older tradition of national community. But the notable thing is the term “decay.”
This notion of a “decaying,” “rotting,” or “putrid” West is a very old one in Russian political discourse. It appears in the 1840s, in the first issue of a journal called the Muscovite, in an article by the poet and scholar Stepan Shevyrev, entitled “A Russian's View of Contemporary Education in Europe,” which traces this “decay” to the modern innovations of revolution and reformation:
France and Germany were the scenes of two great events, to which the whole history of the new West is summed up, or rather: two critical diseases corresponding to each other. These diseases were - the reformation in Germany, the revolution in France: the disease is the same, only in two different forms. Both were the inevitable consequences of Western development, which took on a duality of principles and affirmed this discord as the normal law of life. We think that these diseases have already stopped; that both countries, having experienced a turning point in their illness, entered again into a healthy and organic development. No, we are wrong. Diseases generate corrosive fluids, which now continue to act and which, in turn, have already caused organic damage in both countries, a sign of future self-destruction. Yes, in our sincere, friendly, close relations with the West, we do not notice that we are dealing as if with a person who carries an evil, infectious disease, surrounded by an atmosphere of dangerous breath. We kiss with him, hug, share a meal of thought, drink the cup of feeling ... and do not notice the hidden poison in our careless communication, we do not smell in the fun of the feast of the future corpse, which he already smells of!
Shevyrev was a proponent of the ideology known as “Official Nationality,” the state doctrine of Nicholas I. Unlike his older brother Alexander I, who had liberal sympathies, Nicholas was an arch-reactionary brought up to fear and hate the legacy of the French Revolution. The so-called Decembrist revolt of liberal-minded aristocrats at the beginning of his reign deeply shook him. He would then cast himself in the role of policeman of Europe, always on guard for the appearance of revolution. With the assistance of his Minister of Education, the Romantically-inclined Sergei Uvarov, Nicholas developed “Official Nationality” as the philosophy of his state’s foreign and domestic policy. The three pillars of this ideology, set against the revolutionary triad of Liberté, égalité, fraternité were "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”, that is to say, the centrality of the Orthodox religion, the Tsar’s absolutist rule as an extension of father’s patriarchal rule of the family and the landlord over his serfs, and the special characteristics Russian nationality, which were basically Russian proclivity towards obeying Orthodoxy and Autocracy. (Compare this tripartite formulation to Karaganov’s articulation of Russia’s three “ideological messages” to the world: “national dignity,” “Orthodoxy,” and “traditional foreign-policy principles, including protection of national interests by force,” i.e a kind of modern form of legitimism.)
Somewhat ironically this emphasis on “Russianness” and Russia’s special role in the world has a Western origin. The authors of “Official Nationality” were cosmopolitans, who traveled and studied in the West and were deeply familiar with European culture. Shevyrev and the writers in his circle were influenced by the German Romantics and Idealists like Schelling, at the time articulating a new philosophy centered on religion, myth, and national essence, in reaction to the Enlightenment’s focus on universalism and reason. Even the notion of “Western decay” came from the West itself! As the historian Nicholas Riasanovsky points out in his books Nicholas I and Official Nationality in Russia, 1825-1855, “…Shevyrev's extravagant account of the decline of the West was borrowed, in part, from a French publicist, Philarète Chasles.” He even quotes Chasles’s disquisition on the West’s moral decay at great length.
Ultimately, nationalism was a difficult ideology for the Russian empire to fully adopt. After all, it constantly sought to smother the nationalisms of its own subject people. Nicholas I in spirit and in the pursuit of his foreign policy was still “pre-ideological:” he was attached to the ancient principle of monarchical legitimacy over that of nationalism. He valued his blood relations with the other monarchs of Europe no matter their “national origin” and encouraged and supported them when he could. He was willing to help overthrow democratic revolutions, but his war aims against his fellow monarchs were always limited and “realist,” as we might say now: focused always on maintaining the balance of power and never out to topple a fellow “legitimate” ruler.
Those limitations were all bitter disappointments for a number of the proponents of Official Nationality who had fully imbibed the Romantic ideal of nationalism. Riasanovsky writes, “As liberalism advanced and revolutions surged through Europe, those who thought in dynastic and legitimist terms became ever more pessimistic and ever more on the defensive. Their one remaining purpose was to protect the status quo, to hold the line, with a determination born of despair. But the nationalists looked at the world in quite different manner. Excitement, optimism, and hope served them as daily bread. They welcomed the age of gigantic, ‘tribal,’ wars.” They demanded an aggressive and sweeping foreign policy suitable to the occasion instead of what they considered to be timid, puny, and trifling measures of their government.”
With the Crimean War, these nationalists hoped for an apocalyptic showdown between East and West allied with the Islamic Ottoman Empire, and were instead embarrassed by the incompetent debacle of the Tsar’s war. And, from the period after revolutions of 1848, even the nationalism of some Official Nationality ideologues was deemed suspiciously “modern” and probably too popular: they were removed from their posts and censored as well. Riasanovsky, again: “Life in Russia took on certain nightmarish quality which forced even many supporters of the existing regime to cry out in despair.”
Riasanovsky characterizes the 30 year period where “Official Nationality” dominated Russia as “lost years” of stifling censorship and hysterical reactions to liberal and democratic developments abroad leading ultimately to a disastrous foreign policy that the Empire never fully recovered from. At least in part this resulted not from Russia turning inward and towards its own past, but because it paid too much attention to the intellectual fads of the West.
I’m indebted to the following books in the creation of this post:
Russian Identities: A Historical Survey, Nicholas V. Riasanovsky
Nicholas I and Official Nationality in Russia 1825 - 1855, Nicholas V. Riasanovsky
An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century Russian Slavophilism, Peter K. Christoff