As the United States celebrates independence from Britain, the Kremlin is attempting to frame its struggle with the West in terms that echo the sentiment of the American holiday: as a fight for sovereignty against a hegemonic foreign power.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft at the celebration commemorating U.S. Independence Day at Spaso House, the official residence of the American Ambassador in Moscow. Source: Valery Melnikov / RIA Movosti
It seems that every country, just like every person, must have a birthday. In the case of nations, it is a date grounded either in historical events or in symbolism that celebrates the emergence of statehood.
Yet of the major countries on today’s map, perhaps only the United States boasts a rare combination of two historical facts: first, that its “birthday”is set in stone (the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776); second, that the ideological tenets proclaimed at that date remain essentially unaltered to this day. Indeed, those tenets continue to define the strategy of U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
Russia, like many other countries, can only envy the United States in this regard.
Despite its 1000-year history (or perhaps because of it), the Russian state still has no universally accepted “birthday.”
What’s more, Russia’s political ideology has changed course on at least five occasions in the past century alone, each time by approximately 180 degrees.
Nevertheless, modern Russia has felt the need to pick a day, and to give a reason.
A typical example is the “Day of Russia”(the equivalent of Independence Day), which is celebrated on June 12. On this day in 1990, the parliament of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (or RSFSR, the largest of the 15 former republics of the Soviet Union) adopted the “Declaration of State Sovereignty,”which, even at the time, and despite the still-undiminished euphoria of perestroika, provoked a wry smile from most Russian citizens.
After all —what, exactly, is Russian sovereignty? Russia has existed as an independent state since time immemorial! Everyone understood that it was merely a political ruse by Boris Yeltsin (recently appointed as chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR) in his power struggle with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 1992, June 12 was proclaimed a national holiday in Russia. It remains so to this day. However, the search for a truly watertight definition of national sovereignty and independence continued.
Since 2005, Russia has also celebrated the “Day of National Unity”(November 4) in memory of the expulsion of Polish invaders from Moscow in 1612. But the desired public enthusiasm was not forthcoming. As in the case of June 12, the date was there, but an ideological consensus on the pertinent historical events wasn’t.
Neither 1612 nor 1990 saw the emergence of a Russian Thomas Jefferson able to sum up in one succinct sentence why the people needed their newfound independence and how to defend their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Sovereignty, Independence and the National Idea
In the rhetoric of modern Russian politics, the theme of sovereignty and independence rings loud and clear —no head of state will deliver a policy speech without reference to it.
The crisis in Russia’s relations with the West, which entered the acute phase in the spring of 2014, forced the Russian political community to seek new arguments in support of its position.
Some of the statements that issued forth even seemed to be reminiscent of the American invective against Britain during the War of Independence. At times, one can almost imagine that the phrases “tyrannical London”and “King George III” have been swapped for “global domination-hungry Washington”and “President Barack Obama.”
Moscow’s condemnation of the “inadmissibility of U.S. interference in the internal politics of sovereign states”and the “vice of external control”has a resonance with the grievances of the freedom-loving U.S. colonies against the mother country, which in their eyes had lost all sense of proportion.
When forced to recognize Russia’s economic weakness and technological backwardness, they draw comparisons with the dependence and backwardness of North America in the late eighteenth century, which nevertheless did not prevent the United States from defeating the greatest empire of the day.
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One could argue in a sense that modern Russia is inspired by the ideals of the American struggle for independence, and that it seeks to harness them in its confrontation with the very state that gave birth to such ideals and still adheres by them (at least formally).
Even Russia’s wished-for support from China and Latin America in the fight against U.S. hegemony recalls the Thirteen Colonies’hopes of assistance from France and Spain (whose participation, incidentally, played a decisive role in determining the outcome of the clash with Britain).
But today, in the twenty-first century, is it worth counting on a repeat scenario of the eighteenth? And will Russia’s diplomatic bet pay off in trying to convince Europe and the Old World in general that it is time to reject “external control”and turn the main weapon of the New World —the ideals of the Declaration of Independence —against America itself?
The main obstacle, from our perspective, may not even be objective factors of an economic or political nature, but fundamental differences between Russian and Western notions of what constitutes independence and sovereignty.
First, the acute anxiety over maintaining sovereignty inherent in Russia and China, as well as a handful of African and Asian countries that gained independence only a few decades ago, is far less pronounced in the United States and Europe.
The last time U.S. independence came under serious threat was back during America’s second war with Britain, the War of 1812. Meanwhile, united Europe has long harbored the idea that state sovereignty is no sacred cow, and can be partially sacrificed for the sake of political stability and in the name of fulfilling ambitious transnational goals.
Second, the tussle for external sovereignty in Russia over the centuries has gone hand in hand with the internal struggle for “independence from the state,”or what Isaiah Berlin might have described as “negative liberty,”i.e. freedom from interference by others.
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As a result, one might say that the Russian concept of freedom and independence is comparable to the feelings of a slacker who just cut math class. The U.S. equivalentis that of the A-grade student’s sense of pride when allowed by the teacher to tackle some interesting problems, while his classmates sweat over a boring test. Liberation may be a common word, but means something entirely different when Russia urges foreign partners to aspire to it —something unintelligible and barely applicable outside of the “Russian world.”
Third, within the framework of modern Russian ideology the struggle for sovereignty and independence is a conservative project aimed not at the search for new forms of existence, but at the restoration of what has been lost and the preservation of traditions. At this point, Russian-style independence veers violently away from its U.S. counterpart.
In crisis-hit Europe, the nostalgia for the “pre-EU golden age”is quite notable. But will this longing be strong enough to vanquish the American idea of progress, which in the past half century has become so firmly rooted on European soil?
And, what’s more — is it a fight worth winning?
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.