Russian Anxieties

di Olga Dubrovina

We often talk about the anxiety that Russia arouses in the West. There is much less talk of the opposite, that is, how much the West feels fear and anxiety in Russia. Indeed, in the case of Russia it would be more correct to speak of anxieties since they are many and different. Just remember the inferiority complex and therefore the anxiety of the famous rattrapage, the fear of encirclement and finally the anxiety of the image. I dwell on the last two perhaps less explored by historians than the Russian efforts of economic-cultural recovery.


I believe that the October Revolution became the watershed in the understanding by Russian public opinion and the Russian authorities of Russia’s place in Europe.

Some Russian historians date the beginning of the confrontation between the West and Russia in the 13th century, when the Swedish and Teutonic knights began their attack on Novgorod[1]. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a historian and political scientist of official views, called the attack on Russia an existential challenge[2]. In the medieval period, Russia was focused on solving its internal problems, while the complex of self-isolation gradually developed as a reaction to constant external threats and the need to protect religious values, different from the Western world.

In Russia in the 17th century, relations with the West became the subject of intellectual reflection. On the one hand, there is an open dissatisfaction with relations with Europe, which is showing arrogance towards Russia. on the other, there is a growing understanding of the need for a broader assimilation of Western experience. This can be clearly seen in the writings of Krizhanich, a Croatian theologian in the service of Alexei Mikhailovich. “Not a single nation under the suns has long been so offended and ashamed by foreigners, as we are Slavs from the Germans. We have been conquered by many foreigners, they fool us, they lead us by the nose. They sit on our ridges, ride us like on cattle, pigs and They call us dogs, they consider us fools, and themselves as gods”[3]. At the same time, Krizhanich stated, in the West, the minds of the peoples are cunning, sharp-witted, they write many books about agriculture and crafts, there are harbors, trade and crafts are flourishing. All this is not in Russia.

The Peter’s era and the creation of the empire turned the Russians’ perception of themselves upside down: they became part of Europe, having declared this in the international political arena and in the cultural sphere within the country. If during the eighteenth-century Russia’s relationship with the West changed, a change also took place in the East: “Westernized,” Petrine “Russia”, Aldo Ferrari observed, “began to represent itself as the vanguard of the world European and modern (even before Christian) towards an Asia perceived as foreign and backward ». However, this Russian self-representation corresponded to a European vision that tended to depict the empire of the tsars as Asia rather than Europe[4].

It was in the 18th century that a sharp and decisive gap occurred, not so much in material terms, but in cultural and moral terms between the upper and lower classes. The pro-Western worldview of the cultural and political elite contrasted with the old Russian worldview of the people.

Throughout the 19th century, Russian liberals of various persuasions (I mean Westerners and Slavophiles) thought about the place of Russia in Europe, but their reasoning did not go beyond the framework of European liberalism, and Russia in any case seemed to them a part of Europe, being themselves the fruit of European culture. At the end of the century this issue vividly occupied the minds of religious philosophers. So, Nikolaj Berdyaev reflects on the missionary role of Russia in relation to European states.

“Europe will cease to be the center of world history, the only bearer of higher culture. If Europe wanted to remain a monopoly and to be in its European complacency, it had to refrain from a world war. But long ago, European life turned into a fire-breathing volcano. Now Europe is confronted with the main theme of world history – the unification of East and West… And we have every reason to believe the world mission of Russia in her spiritual life, in her spiritual, and not material, universalism, in her prophetic forebodings of a new life, which are full of great Russian literature, Russian thought and folk religious life. And if the end of the provincially closed life of Europe is approaching, then the end of the provincially closed life of Russia is all the more near. Russia must go out into the world. The end of Europe will be the appearance of Russia and the Slavic race on the arena of world history as a defining spiritual force.”[5]

However, his pre-revolutionary thinking was put to an end by the October Revolution, which completely changed the role of Russia in the world. The revolution seemed to “ousted” Russia from the European context. The philosopher points out that the Russian revolution is the fate of the Russian people, its reckoning and redemption. Therefore, N. Berdyaev does not share the point view of those who took the Bolsheviks for a gang of robbers who “attacked on the Russian people in its historical path and bound them hand and feet. ” For him, Bolshevism is not an external phenomenon, but an internal one, representing a serious spiritual illness, “an organic illness of the Russian people”[6].

Religious philosopher Ivan Iljin, who has become incredibly in demand over the past decade by the modern Russian elite, urged Russians to fear the European fear that Russia instills in Europe. Analyzing the attitude of Europe towards Russia, Ilin points out that “we are lonely, incomprehensible and “unpopular”” because European people don’t know us. Western Europe does not know us, firstly, because the Russian language is alien to it; secondly, because Russian (Orthodox) religiosity is alien to it; thirdly, because the Slavic-Russian contemplation of the world, nature and man is alien to her.

But the unknown is always scary. The fear humiliates a person; therefore he covers it up with contempt and hatred. We need sobriety and vigilance. In the world there are peoples, states, governments, church centers, behind-the-scenes organizations and individuals who are hostile to Russia, especially Orthodox Russia, and even more so to imperial and undivided Russia. So the world is replete with “Russophobes”, enemies of national Russia, promising themselves every success against its collapse, humiliation and weakening.

If Berdjaev saw in Bolshevik a redemption for Russian people, Iljin conceded it as a result of the Europeans’ desire to neutralize Russia. “When Europe saw that Russia became a victim of the Bolshevik revolution, it decided that this was the triumph of European civilization, that the new “democracy” would dismember and weaken Russia, that one could stop being afraid of it and that Soviet communism meant “progress” and “calming down” for Europe[7].

 In 1917 the Bolsheviks faced unprecedented hostility, digging a gulf between Russia and the governments of the West like never before. For the first time, after a centuries-old process of approaching and integrating Russia into the European context, the exact opposite happened: Russia opposed the rest of the world by cutting, perhaps not the roots, but certainly the branches of its union with the European world.

Lenin himself was one of the first to draw attention to the break with the Western world. However (and here a parallel can be drawn with Ilyin’s thoughts), thanks to the power of the idea, Russia survived in conditions of complete isolation and a threat to its existence. According to Lenin, Russia was in danger of destruction for the same messianic activity, only now with a socialist color.

Of course, we can be crushed by any great power that sends troops against us. But they won’t dare to do it. It is a strange paradox to see that, however weak Russia is in comparison to the unlimited resources of the Allies, it has not only managed to crush all the armed forces, including the British, American and French troops that the Allies have sent against it, but it has also achieved diplomatic and moral victories in the cordon sanitary countries”.

In 1919 after the Versailles Peace Conference an official of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs wrote in his report: “Russia has no external friends on whose altruistic support it could count on in difficult time. Everyone – both friends and enemies – consider our homeland exclusively as a means of enrichment. Our orientation and our policy must be exclusively Russian”.

Stalin, in his famous speech of 1931 “On the Tasks of Business Managers”, turned to the sad past of Russia, the victim of foreign aggression, as a weighty argument for urgently overcoming backwardness. Deliberately thickening the colors, he creates a stereotypical picture of a hostile environment that has become for many years, with which Russia had to put up and, possibly, in the future which will have to resist. “But we don’t want to be beaten. No, we don’t want to! The history of old Russia consisted, among other things, in the fact that it was continuously beaten for backwardness. The Mongol khans beat them. Turkish beks were beating. The Swedish feudal lords beat them. They were beaten by the Polish-Lithuanian lords. The Anglo-French capitalists beat them. The Japanese barons beat them. […] They beat us because it was profitable and went with impunity. […] The wolf’s law of capitalism. You are behind, you are weak – it means that you are wrong, therefore, you can be beaten and enslaved. You are powerful – then you are right, therefore, you must beware”[8].

Exactly one hundred years later Vladimir Putin in his celebratory speech said on December 31, 2018: “We will have to solve many urgent tasks … And we can only do it together. We have never had and will never have helpers. So, we must be a compact, united and strong team”.

The October Revolution served as a watershed that made divergences even more acute and pushed Russia away from the West like never before. The political and cultural isolation, in which the Russians found themselves, left a profound mark on the conscience of the Russian political and cultural elites without completely closing the communication channels. To this day, however, there remains a kind of grudge that is expressed both in terms of political discourses and in cultural and scientific exchanges. The regret for the lack of understanding on the part of the Westerners, the unwillingness to dialogue and the insensitivity to Russia’s needs are the recurring issues that are encountered in the various official speeches, in the ministerial correspondence and in the reports of geopolitical analysis. Over the past hundred years, Russia had developed some attitudes towards the West which on the one hand it has always wanted to overcome through its cultural and scientific diplomacy, on the other hand it has transformed into the fundamental pillar of its foreign and domestic policy.

Anxiety of the image

The reaction to the unfriendly and threatening attitude of the West towards Russia was and is not only self-isolation, but also increased attention to one’s image. The way the West perceived Russia, and especially the USSR, was important to Russians for three main reasons. First, as Mark Smith argues, it’s a matter of self-determination. Russians explain Russia to themselves not by putting their backs to the frontier and staring towards the interior, but by facing outwards, looking beyond the border, and by being part of the world. This is not only matter of borrowing or learning from others, and it goes far beyond trade and diplomacy. Deeply rooted in culture, it’s a state of mind[9]. We find the same idea in a biggest expert of Russia culture, Ju. Lotman. “The attitude towards the Western world”, continues the Russian scholar, “was one of the fundamental questions of Russian culture throughout the post-Petrine era. It can be said that an alien civilization intervenes in Russian culture as a singular mirror and a point of reference; in fact, interest in “strangers” in Russia traditionally takes on the sense of a method of self-awareness”[10].

Second, for the Soviet rulers, the question of the image of Soviet Russia was important, since it served to attract new adherents. But not only. The positive image of the USSR created by cultural diplomacy in the late 1920s and early 1930s also served to attract loans for the implementation of socialist construction projects in the first five-year plans. Therefore, the creation of a positive image was also of an advertising and propaganda nature. And third, as any psychologist would say, a special concern for the opinion of others speaks of inner insecurity and an inferiority complex. In fact, during a recent interview, Sergei Lavrov mentioned the bad habit of Russians to look back to the West and the need for an early liberation from allodoxaphobia: “It’s time for us to stop judging ourselves by the assessments that the collective West or individual Western countries give us. I don’t think we need to constantly look at what the West says about us”[11].

We can trace a certain continuity in the importance that the Russian and then the Soviet authorities attached to public opinion in the West about Russia and about their initiatives. In 1847, a concordat was concluded in Rome between the Russian Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. This event is one of the most important episodes in the history of Russia’s relations with the Holy See. One of the reasons for signing of the Agreement was the anxiety of Nicola the I about image of Russia in the West. The fact is that pope Gregory XVI launched an anti-Russian company in Western Europe in order to criticize the conditions of the profession of the Catholic faith in Russia and to put an end to the persecutions of the Catholic clergy in Poland.

A similar behaviour can be traced at the beginning of the Soviet period, when the formation of Soviet state took place. It was supposed to be protected it not only by force of weapons, but also by creating a positive image among then-enemies, but potential partners in the future.

Offended by the fact that in the “Italian bourgeois press” grain was declared rotten, and the stocks of Soviet barns were depleted, on September 19, 1919 Chicherin insisted asked the members of the Politburo “at least a little, but some bread still send to indicate that the dispatch is in progress. It is a fact this continuation is especially important”. Despite the disastrous the situation in the country (surplus appropriation, civil war, famine) The Politburo, in response to Chicherin’s letter, recognized “it is politically necessary to give Italy some more grain”, and a week later decided to allocate 160 thousand poods of grain. It’s much less what the Italians wanted, but a lot for Russia and enough to maintain contacts and to preserve the image of a government that fulfils its obligations at any cost.

In addition to the initial period of Soviet rule, there are episodes associated with the return to Soviet Russia of the former military white armies recruited by the Bolsheviks. The NKID attached special importance to this event, since the attention of the European public was riveted to them, and he furnished the moment of the meeting with special solemnity.

In order to create a positive image and raise their own prestige in the eyes of the Western public, the Soviet authorities actively used cultural and scientific diplomacy. The history of Soviet cosmonautics can serve as a special example of creating a positive image and a desire to present oneself from the best side. Space exploration and demonstration successes in space have served ideally for scientific diplomacy. It was important to impress public opinion with the flight of the first woman, the first spacewalk, the first docking, the first orbital station, not to mention the first satellite and the first man in space. And scientific cooperation between the countries of the socialist bloc (Intercosmos), with the USA (Soyuz-Apollo) and fruitful scientific ties with France made it possible to demonstrate the achievements of the USSR in the eyes of the European public. Behind the perfect picture of successful launches, scientific achievements, and the first records lies a whole series of tragedies and mistakes. But it was forbidden to talk about them, the Soviet press deliberately kept silent about the missions that were not completed in space, interpreting any flight in a positive way.


The fear of the encirclement, readily entrenched in the consciousness of the Russian authorities and the Russian mentality, goes back to the 13th century, when for the first time the Russian lands faced the aggression of the West, clothed in the form of religious confrontation. An inferiority complex developed already in a later era with the establishment of permanent contacts with the West after Peter’s reforms.

With a sharp break in relations with Western countries after the October Revolution and the need to restore them in order to survive for Soviet power, both complexes in the minds of the Bolsheviks received a new impetus to development and deepening. The Soviet and then the Russian authorities were always anxious about their external image and about the reaction to its regime from the West. The issue of acceptance and exclusion from the Western community was central to the USSR and continue to remain so for contemporary Russia. They are particularly concerned about their own place and role in the world, as well as the West’s attitude towards events inside Russia and towards its actions in the international arena – all this made Soviets/Russians pursue an active cultural and scientific diplomacy.

The phenomenon of “looking to the West” continues to exist in the contemporary discourse of the Russian establishment. At the beginning I quoted Lavrov’s words about the need to finally get rid of this centuries-old complex. Obviously, under the fear of a hostile environment and anxiety for their own image, there are objective reasons for such phenomena. Building new relationships based on overcoming the complex of persecution and condemnation can occur only in the case of a mutual desire on both sides to understand and accept the fears of the other.

[1] Karpov A., Jurj Dolgorukiy, Moskva, Molodaja gvardija, 2019, p. 204.

[2] Nikonov V., Rossiyskaya matritsa, Moskva, Russkoe slovo, 2014, p. 360.

[3] Nikonov V., p. 375.

[4] Roccucci A., Come il Nord divenne Oriente, in Limes, 9, 2020, p.132.

[5] Berdyaev N., Sud’ba Rossii, Moskva, Izd-vo Lemana i Sakharova, 1918, p. 124-126.

[6] Kurilova L., Rossiya mezhdu Evropoy i Aziey, Voprosy filosofii, Vestnik TGEU, n. 1, 2001, p. 106.

[7] Iljin I., Natsional’naya Rossiya. Nashi zadachi, TD Algoritm, 2017.

[8] Stalin I., About the tasks of business executives: Speech at the First All-Union Conference workers in socialist industry, February 4, 1931, in Stalin I.V. Sochineniya. Vol. 13. Gosudarstvennoye izdatel’stvo politicheskoy literatury, Moskva, 1951, pp. 37-38.

[9] Smith M. B., The Russia Anxiety and how History can resolve it, Penguin Books, 2019, p. 195

[10] Lotman Ju., Sovremennost’ mezhdu Vostokom i Zapadom, in Id., Istoriya i tipologiya russkoy kul’tury, Iskusstvo-SPB, Sankt-Peterburg 2002, p. 748. Cit. in Roccucci A., p. 131.

[11] From interview to Sputnik, “Komsomolskaya Pravda” and “Moscow Speaks”, 14.10.2020.