The first phase of Russia’s turn towards rising Asia is gaining momentum – the Far East’s rate of development is twice the national average (this is not enough, though). Dozens of major businesses crop up in the region.
Oddly enough, these changes have highlighted deficiencies nobody would think of before. Eastern Russia’s development has not yet become a common cause for the whole nation, although the dire need for grand projects is more than obvious. The attitude of the locals remains distrustful. Population outflow from the Far Eastern territories has slowed but not stopped. High on the agenda is the need to involve in this process “Russia’s Asians” – residents of the Far East and Siberia, who have for many centuries maintained and tightened cooperation with their neighbors, who know and feel their needs well enough. Also, it is essential to change the attitude to this turn of the Russian public at large, to promote the awareness that it leads the country towards economic, technological and cultural markets of the future.
Russia has received from Europe nearly all it could and for the time being it is unwilling to get more in exchange for even a tiny bit of its sovereignty, which, bearing in mind its history, is a sacrosanct asset. Russia has borrowed much of European social expertise, a wealthier and more comfortable lifestyle it lacked in the lean Soviet years. The degree of personal freedom among Russians is probably higher: there is certainly far less depressing political correctness.
Also the world around has changed, too. Whereas starting from the 17th century Europe used to be nearly the sole provider of advanced technologies, now their source is quickly drifting to Asia. So does the center of economic activity. While 40 years ago that center was some place in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Ireland, now it is in Turkey, and in ten years from now it will have to be looked for on the border of India and China.
In addition, Russia has apparently reached the limit of its social and public rapprochement with Europe. The Western neighbors find annoying Russia’s unpreparedness to follow the European way and the loss of their profitable and flattering status of a mentor. For its part, Russia by and large is reluctant to import modern European values (for instance, the super-tolerance towards immigrant) because it finds many of them alien, post-European or just disadvantageous. This does not mean Europe is rejected altogether – Russians share the same high culture. A great deal in Europe, such as its ecological regulations, is still worth borrowing. Europe is a vast and lucrative market. It is a nice place to travel. High technologies are still there. However, access to them amid the current U.S. policy of sanctions is limited.
It is quite possible, though, that 2014 saw not just a stop to the further expansion of Western unions, fraught with a big war, but also an end of the Petrine period in Russian history. Europe will remain a neighbor. Russia is to stay on friendly terms with it wherever possible. But the chances Europe will continue to be a benchmark are slim. Russia’s turn to Europe and its technologies from the 17th and 18th centuries was logical: Asia was far away and sliding into a period of relative decline for several reasons, including colonial expansion by a better armed Europe. These days the situation is changing. Asia is destined to become the most important source of capital and advanced technologies.
Many in Russia are still unaware their country happened to be the midwife of history that facilitated the rise of Asia and other newcomers to the world scene. It was Russia-the Soviet Union that put an end to nearly five hundred years of the West’s military supremacy – the pillar of its economic, political and cultural domination. Nuclear parity, once created and preserved over the years, leaves no chance for anyone to win a big war. That is why the today’s world is freer and more democratic. The Asian countries have obtained an opportunity to capitalize on their competitive advantages. The realization that the days of uncontested supremacy are gone and will never return is probably the main reason for the animosity towards Russia that makes the U.S. and some other Western elites see red.
Some in Russia have begun to argue that its strategic loneliness is inevitable. Meanwhile, the word ‘loneliness’ in Russian does not necessarily have a negative connotation. My inner voice prompts me, we run no risk of getting lonely at all – we will not be left to ourselves. More important is the emerging opportunity to establish (without turning our back on Europe) tight cooperation with Asia. Russia can become the center of a Greater Eurasia partnership, an initiative proposed by Moscow and supported by Beijing, especially as it is 90-percent consonant with China’s One Road-One Belt project.
Problems on the way to building Greater Eurasia will be many.
For the people of Russia’s Far East the turn has not yet become an idea they wholeheartedly share. This proposal came from Moscow, for which the central authorities should be thanked. But it has not yet filled the hearts and minds of Far Easterners, who incidentally are far more inclined to think and act big than the other Russians – with drive and passion crucial for the success of any ambitious pursuit. (Incidentally, the lack of drive for big accomplishments and the famous Russian valor is a flaw of current home policies in general.) The locals’ experience and potential of communicating with China and other neighbors has not been tapped to the full yet.
The Eastward turn is beginning to confront ideological and psychological constraints. Efforts to do away with them should enjoy unflagging attention over years to come.
Another, no less important task on Russia’s way to new Eastern horizons is to bring back the history of Siberia and the Far East – glorious and thrilling in many respects – to the fold of historical self-awareness of the entire Russia. It will be likewise crucial to overcoming the attitude of a certain part of Russia to Siberia and the Far East as something different. Sometimes I am asked why it is worth investing into the Far East first and foremost, and not, say, into European Russia’s northern regions. My reply is this region has been Russian land for the past four to five centuries. There one finds superb wildlife and mammoth resources. Moreover, booming neighbors offer vast development opportunities, incomparable to those available in other regions. The competitive advantages that have emerged there for the first time in the Russia’s history can be used for fast-tracked development. Also, something should be done at last to soothe the Siberians’ wounded pride, for in the 1990s those people were undeservedly abandoned and neglected, and in a far stronger way than the other Russians.
In developing the human capital of Siberia and the Far East, which by and large are better than Russia’s average, it will be not enough to just provide assistance in mastering new technologies. It would be reasonable to create moral incentives, to let the people feel themselves again as trailblazers, as leaders who are steering Russia towards new economic, political and cultural frontiers – this time Eurasian ones. The people of Russian culture are open to other cultures and remain very tolerant towards other faiths. This major competitive advantage will give the advantage in a new Eurasian megaproject.
Painstaking consistent efforts are required to overcome the eurocentrism of a considerable part of Russian elites – certainly a regressive factor in the modern world. Amid the havoc of the 1990s and the chaotic recovery of the 2000s the Eurocentric sentiment soared, as many Russians of means took their newly-appropriated gains out of the country – to Europe in the first place – and as their compradorian attitudes inevitably gained strength.
Russian society should by no means abdicate from its mostly European culture. But it should certainly stop being afraid, let alone feel ashamed, of its Asianism. It should be remembered that from the standpoint of prevailing social mentality and society’s attitude to the authorities Russia, just as China and many other Asian states, are offspring of Chengiss Khan’s Empire. This is no reason for throwing up hands in despair or for beginning to despise one’s own people, contrary to what many members of intelligencia sometimes do. It should be accepted as a fact of life and used as a strength. The more so, since amid the harsh competitive environment of the modern world the authoritarian type of government – in the context of a market economy and equitable military potentials – is certainly far more effective than modern democracy. This is what our Western partners find so worrisome. Of course, we should bear in mind that authoritarianism – just like democracy – may lead to stagnation and degradation. Russia is certainly confronted with such a risk.
I believe that in several years’ time the whole of Russia will realize that it is no longer an oriental periphery of Europe. We will see that Russia’s road to Asia, to new riches, to power and progress is “our road home.” That having borrowed from Europe its high culture and made it still richer Russia now takes its own civilized niche of a great Eurasian power – an original blend of many civilizations in its own right. (This thought was prompted to me by L.E. Blyakher, a wonderful Russian historian and philosopher in Khabarovsk).
Our knowledge of Europe, especially of its older part, is good enough. But we still know very little about Asia – a continent of rising cultures, civilizations and technologies. We should hurry right away to introduce extensive courses of Asian history and languages to our school curricula and to train specialists in oriental affairs at our universities on the massive scale. In any case, the history of the human race, hitherto written mostly by Europeans, will undergo revision in a couple of decades. Glittering Byzantium, which the successors of crusaders tend to portray as an embodiment of intrigues and ineffectiveness, will appear in its true disguise: that of a marvelous civilization that has preserved and developed European culture throughout the dark Middle Ages to mate it with the Oriental ones. Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Korean dynasties will take a worthy place next to the Plantagenets, Habsburgs, Bourbons, Stewarts and Romanovs. It is very important for us, Russians, to become the first Europeans in Asia or even the first Asians in Europe to play the inherent role of a civilizational bridge, and not just of a transport link.
This is the right moment to use the experience of the Far Easterners, who have long had close relations with the Chinese and other neighbors, to brush aside what is still left of the “Yellow Peril” myth, which was imposed on us some time ago and which continues to be fueled by forces, scared to see Russia’s further emancipation from the West. It takes good knowledge of Asian history and of one’s place in it to remember that anti-Japanese sentiment is very strong not only in many Asian countries, but also in the Pacific areas of Russia, where memories of Japanese invaders’ atrocities are still alive. Knowledge is crucial to preventing old-time insults and phobias from hindering reasonable Russian-Japanese rapprochement and dialogue with other countries. Such knowledge will be very useful in concrete diplomacy, too. For instance, it remains unclear why in the dialogue with Japan the latter invariably appears as the injured party. History was complex. It is to be studied and sensed. And it will be a whole lot better to do so using the intellectual capital and experience of the Far Easterners.
The importance of some of the instruments of enhancing the national and local motivation for accelerating progress towards the most promising markets of the future is obvious. These are the already mentioned mandatory school and university courses in Oriental studies, films about the glorious and dramatic history of Siberia, its incredibly brave and determined people and its marvelous riches. It is also important to actively involve the local elites in the promotion of Russia’s national policy in Asia. It will be essential to extensively study the experience, however critical, of Asian countries and to create permanent clubs uniting business and intellectual elites of Russia and the Asian countries. It will be useful to pool efforts with the Asian neighbors to study and compare the value systems of Russians and Asian peoples. It looks like there is a great deal more in common in this respect than one may anticipate. Likewise, efforts should be made to intertwine Russia’s central and Siberian-Far Eastern elites to let the former better understand the needs of Russian Asia, and the latter, feel its involvement in shaping and implementing Russia’s Eurasian policies. The sooner Asia, including Russian Asia, comes into vogue for Russians, the better for the country.
Lastly, some final remarks.
First. Time is overripe for ending the artificial bureaucratic division of Russian land lying east of the Urals into Siberia and the Far East. All the way Siberia developed as an integral region. It has similar human resources and mentality. Central Siberia, suffering from what some describe as “continental curse,” that is, its remoteness from the markets, will benefit a lot from such unification and the use of advanced economic instruments, which are now being used to boost the development of the Far East. The latter will derive its own tangible benefits from integration with the powerful industrial and scientific potential of Central Siberia.
Second. For the sake of economic development, for bolstering morale and for rejuvenating Russia’s entire governing class it is an imperative of the day to set up a third and, possibly, fourth capital city east of the Ural Mountains and on the Pacific Ocean and to move there some of the federal agencies and head offices of major corporations. Such decisions were taken a while ago, but nothing has been done to act on them to this day.
And third. It is a bitter irony of history that we still refer to Pacific Russia as the Far East, using a name coined by the British. For them this part of the world was surely a faraway one. Also, in their scheme of things, there was the Near East and the Middle East, sandwiched in-between. In the meantime, for us the Far East is the closest…
The article originally was published in "Rossiyskaya Gazeta" (#7585 (122) on June 06 2018.