Does Russia suffer from a messiah complex?

Does Russia suffer from a messiah complex?
Pro-Russian rebels on a tank get ready to take position near the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport during fighting with Ukrainian government forces in the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, October 4, 2014.

After months of silence, critical voices have re-emerged in Russia. Tens of thousands of demonstrators came out on the streets in Moscow and other cities on Sept 21 demanding that President Vladimir Putin keep his "Hands Off Ukraine!" and stop lying about the Kremlin's actions.

To be sure, the authorities permitted the protests, perhaps to judge the public mood, but in the face of threats of violence from Russian nationalists, the marchers exhibited real courage. And they reminded the world that their voices are still to be heard, despite efforts by Mr Putin and his thuggish supporters to silence them.

The protesters represent one side of a debate that started four centuries ago with Peter the Great, a debate between two visions of Russia's destiny.

In speaking of their desire for Russia to be a "normal country", the marchers were calling for it to follow one such vision by becoming a modern European state that respects the borders of others and allows its citizens to be prosperous, democratic, and secure at home.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, hopes for this path forward were high, but subsequent years of corruption and perceived humiliation by the West have allowed for an opposing vision to re- emerge.

This second vision reflects a centuries-old messianic streak in Russian culture, centred on the belief that the nation has a unique mission transcending the constraints of a normal country.

It is a view that surfaces in the works of 19th-century Russian literature, and it has sometimes led the nation to do great things, such as its heroic World War II struggle against Germany in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

But it can also lead Russia to be arrogant, prickly and dangerous, especially when it is feeling insecure.

At such times, Russian leaders alternate between arrogant boasts about their military power and spiritual superiority, on the one hand, and heightened sensitivity to perceived slights and threats, on the other.

A distinct spiritual core

What is new in this current bout of messianism is that it is built on a dream that extends beyond Russia itself, a dream of "neo-Eurasianism".

This movement traces its roots to Russians who fled to Europe after the 1917 Revolution and created a vision of national destiny around czarist monarchy and Russian Orthodoxy, as opposed to Bolshevism.

In the 1920s dozens of emigres were holding regular seminars in Paris, Vienna and Brussels, and were publishing a newspaper and academic journals touting Eurasianism in response to what they saw as the death of Russian culture in the Soviet Union.

They came up with a vision that celebrates a fusion of cultures from East and West, asserting that instead of a curse, the 13th-century Mongol invasion was a source of strength for the grand cultural amalgamation that ensued.

And instead of anxiety over whether Russia is truly European, it celebrates a distinct spiritual core that makes Russia a world civilisation and relegates Europe to the periphery.

Perhaps because of fears about economic stagnation, or maybe because the Kremlin is concerned about disillusionment among Russian youth, the idea of Eurasianism has been dusted off and put back to work.

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