Russia’s Role in the Slavic World
Russia’s perspective revolves around two key ideas: the «Russian world» and «sovereign democracy.» Russia sees itself as the leader of the Slavic-Orthodox world, assuming this role after the fall of Constantinople and the «transfer» of Orthodox religious authority to Moscow (according to this discourse). This notion, known as the myth of the Third Rome, positions Russia as the new center of the Orthodox world. However, it has faced opposition and internal challenges that have hindered its pursuit of hegemony.c
The concept of the «Russian world» stems from 19th-century Russian imperial ideology and encompasses not only ethnic Russians but also Russian-speaking minorities in former Soviet republics. The Kremlin considers these groups as «compatriots abroad» and portrays them as oppressed in their host countries, particularly in Ukraine.
The notion of the «Russian world» serves as a geopolitical tool for Russia to assert its influence and counter the expansion of NATO and the EU. It presents certain Slavic states as integral parts of the Russian identity, providing a justification for Russia’s intervention in protecting Russian minorities. This claim has led to conflicts and territorial disputes in regions like Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea, and Donbass.
In summary, the construct of the «Russian world» has three main implications: the perceived responsibility to protect Russian minorities, the assimilation of certain Slavic states into a Russian identity, and the (pretended) justification for intervention. These dynamics shape Russia’s foreign policy as it seeks to regain the influence lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Searching for an ideal past and retrograde utopias: Russia and the examples of Poland and Hungary
The idea of the «Russian world» challenges the modern idea of sovereignty and promotes a retrograde utopia, looking back to an idealized past. Andrzej Duda’s Poland and Orban’s Hungary share this inclination, seeking a return to a romanticized history. However, this past was never as perfect as imagined, and the notion of a continuous tradition is questionable due to historical disruptions and occupations by other powers. Poland and Hungary, having endured periods without their own state, yearn for a time when they were considered «great.» Yet, this notion of greatness is rooted in an outdated and retrogressive perspective, often reconstructing or reinventing lost empires. In Hungary, examples include the Kingdom of Stephen I, the reign of Matthias Corvinus, and the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. In Poland, inspiration can be drawn from King Sigismund III Vasa and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In this regard, since we are discussing Ukraine, it is worth noting that the linguistic and cultural flourishing of Ukraine took place within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, not in Russia.
And Russia, likewise, has gone through various eras of splendour, such as Peter III «the Great» and Catherine the Great – quite illustrative of greatness. They were the ones who conquered the so-called «New Russia» (Nova Rossija), coincidentally the currently occupied areas in southern Ukraine. However, Vladimir Putin has a particular affinity for Ivan IV, «the Terrible» (1547-1584), a cruel ruler and expansionist leader, a «strongman» who didn’t hesitate to repress and execute anyone in his path, including children, on unfounded accusations, much like his future rival in cruelty in the government: Stalin. This may be due to the historical revisionism practised by Vladimir Putin, who enjoys identifying with Ivan IV. For this reason, he erected two large statues in Moscow and Oryol (south of Moscow), with the inauguration broadcast on television and attended by Russian Orthodox religious authorities – not surprising considering that Patriarch Kirill considers Vladimir Putin is someone placed in power by God himself. Needless to say, there were authorities who endeavoured to draw parallels between that «founder of the Russian state» and the current ruler, suggesting that with Putin, they were witnessing yet another Russian re-foundation. It was also not surprising to find ultranationalist bikers who have a favourable opinion of the Kremlin occupant.
However, the aforementioned historical milestones such as Saint Stephen, Matthias Corvinus, the Republic of the Two Nations, or the tsars of the 16th or 18th centuries are long gone. For Vladimir Putin, it is more convenient to rely on something closer: the USSR. Thus, without abandoning the great glorious past, he has something tangible to focus on. Additionally, he has an enemy on which to project his discourse: the West.
According to Putin’s narrative prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the West – particularly the US – is, as he claims, an «empire of lies» that has not only attacked «traditional values» but also the «morally and ethically recognized norms,» without specifying exactly what values are being referred to. This utopia translates into «spheres of influence,» which means reclaiming the former territories of the USSR – and Ukraine is one of them- as a goal.
Another manifestation of the Russian world is «Russianness,» which implies that the center (that is to say: Russia) encompasses the periphery, although the ethereal concept of Eurasia is subtly mentioned more than the space of the former USSR. However, it is not only the Russians in Russia who are the driving force: on the contrary, the «Russians» scattered in other countries – as mentioned above in the particular concept of diaspora – play an active role. According to this perspective, they are bearers of tremendous energy, which characterizes people living between two worlds: they are «passionate» individuals, containers of passion – energetic, adventurous, and enterprising (their actions to «liberate» the Donbass region would be a direct manifestation of this character).
Another concept closely related to the «Russian world» is the notion of sovereign democracy. This idea stands in opposition to the perceived decadence of the West, lacking traditional values as previously mentioned. Sovereign democracy is easily digestible and adaptable to the general public because its content is vague.
However, there are defining elements such as 1) traditionalism, 2) zeal for state sovereignty, and 3) national exclusivity. In this particular type of democracy, notions like the rule of law (justice is seen more as an ideal), protection of minorities, press freedom, and the existence of a viable opposition play a secondary role. There is an intentional comparison with Western democracies, suggesting that they are forcefully trying to impose their type of democracy on Russia. Therefore, the universality of EU values is denied, and it is claimed that these values seek to restrict Russians. According to this narrative, both types of democracy are equally valid. Thus, sovereign democracy is a form of democracy that adapts to Russians and is -theoretically- desired by them. It is a pretended «equidistance», it is argued that sovereign democracy (i.e., the Russian version) has flaws, but so do Western democracies.
Regarding the relations with the European Union, there are significant elements: Russians are sovereign, while EU members are not. The EU imposes regulations that restrict their sovereignty. This discourse aligns with the interests of semi-authoritarian governments in countries like Poland and Hungary. For this reason, it angered Putin that, during the invasion, when he sent a letter to each EU state, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, responded on behalf of all. The Kremlin promptly criticized these countries, accusing them of being unable to govern themselves and being influenced by an anti-sovereign EU.
This updated and revised postis part of my article…
The political constructs of the “Russian world” and “Slavic Brotherhood” in the light of the 2022 russian invasion of Ukraine: the case of Serbia
The Russian Federation uses two tools to facilitate and extend its influence in the Slavic post-Soviet sphere: the “Russian World,” and its twin idea “Slavic brotherhood.” The first tool is expressed in two ways: first, protection of Russian minorities in an area that Russia considers its sphere of influence (Transnistria in Moldova, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, or Crimea and Donbas in Ukraine). Second, Russia denies the national character of certain states, such as Belarus and Ukraine. Instead, both are defined as Russians, or ways of being Russian. In either case, the consequence is that Russia reserves its right to (military) intervention to protect the Russian minorities.
Regarding the second tool, Slavic brotherhood, this construct is applied to other peoples who are not considered by the Kremlin to be Russians, but fellow Slavs. This is the case of Serbia, dealt with in this paper. Perpetuating the myth of “Slavic Brotherhood” allows Russia-particularly since the Kosovan war-to increase its influence in large sectors of Serbian public opinion.
Les construits politiques du « monde russe » et de la « fraternité slave » à la lumière de l’invasion de l’Ukraine en 2022: le cas de la Serbie
La Fédération de Russie utilise deux outils pour permettre ou accroître son influence, notamment dans la sphère slave: le « monde russe » et la validation de modèle de « Fraternité slave ». Le premier présente deux manifestations : premièrement, la protection des minorités russes dans une zone qu’elle considère comme d’influence russe (Transnistrie en Moldavie, Ossétie du Sud et Abkhazie en Géorgie, Crimée et Donbass en Ukraine) ; deuxièmement, en déniant à certains États slaves leur caractère national, ils en viennent à être considérés comme russes, ou l’étant d’une certaine manière (Biélorussie, Ukraine). Dans les deux cas, le corollaire est un droit d’intervention pour protéger les minorités russes.
Quant à la « fraternité slave », le construit s’applique à d’autres peuples qui, bien qu’ils ne se considèrent pas russes, sont pour la Russie des « frères slaves » : c’est le cas de la Serbie, lequel est abordé dans cette étude. Ainsi, l’invention de l’idée d’une « fraternité slave » laïque, pour protéger la nation serbe, sert à la Russie – surtout depuis la guerre du Kosovo – pour accroître son influence dans de larges secteurs de l’opinion publique serbe.
Mots clés : Balkans occidentaux; Serbie; Russie; invasion russe de l’Ukraine; monde russe; fraternité slave