Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2008/24 posted by hidden europe on

Russian perceptions of Europe are much in the news this month in the wake of Moscow's response to the Tbilisi government's ill-considered adventure in South Ossetia. And yet Russian popular perceptions are shaped not merely by Kremlin dictates but by several centuries of Russian writing about western Europe.

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Dear fellow travellers

In Dostoevsky's last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, one of the characters declares "I want to go to Europe," going on to say "I do know that I'm going to a graveyard, but it's a precious graveyard." It's an interesting formulation, somehow suggesting that Russia is not quite Europe. More than a century earlier Catherine the Great had observed that "Russia is a European power," but obviously Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov never quite took the point on board (or faith in its veracity had been shaken by Russia's unhappy defeat in the Crimea War). Anyway, Karamazov speaks of Europe as somewhere beyond Russia, just like generations of Russians since. We have Russian friends who still talk of "going to Europe" when they hop on the train in their home town for the overnight journey to Berlin. It is as if there are seven continents plus Russia.

This Russian perception of global affairs is of course nicely mirrored in British discourse where popular parlance refers to Europe as if the British Isles were somehow a place apart. A government poster campaign in Britain used the banner "Going to Europe?" as the prelude to reminding citizens of the importance of securing health cover prior to crossing the English Channel.

Russian perceptions of Europe are much in the news this month in the wake of Moscow's response to the Tbilisi government's ill-considered adventure in South Ossetia. And yet Russian popular perceptions are shaped not merely by Kremlin dictates but by several centuries of Russian writing about western Europe. A contemporary of Dostoevsky, Saltykov-Shchedrin, wrote wittily of his stays at decadent German spa towns in Across the Border, while Dostoevsky himself, in his Winter Notes, offered a polemic on France and Britain that powerfully shaped Russian understanding of its western neighbours. Winter Notes is a plea for Russia to affirm its distinctive position and a warning of the dangers of being seduced by too cosy a relationship with western Europe.

Be it Tolstoy's travel diaries or Karamzin's Letters of a Russian Traveller, centuries of Russian travel writing have wrestled with the relationship between Russia and the rest of Europe. We may be no experts on political affairs and mere travel writers. But our reading of Russian travel writing underlines that Russians have often perceived western Europe as a fragmented dystopia. So from the moment that some western nations leapt to applaud Kosovan aspirations for independence, it was perhaps inevitable that the relationship between Russia and the rest of Europe was destined to become much more tortured.

The month now ending will surely be remembered as the time in which the first of Kosovo's chickens came home to roost. There will surely be more beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Many commentators are now looking to Transdniestr as the next possible flashpoint. It is a little sliver of territory with aspirations for statehood. It features, as it happens, in the September 2008 issue of hidden europe. Karlos Zurutuza, who writes regularly for us on the Black Sea region, has a perceptive essay on life in Transdniestr. Some of the unsung places about which we habitually write in hidden europe suddenly take on all sorts of new meanings as western nations squabble with Russia on whether Kosovo or South Ossetia have legitimate claims to statehood.

Had you realised that you can see all 117 back issues of our e-brief online?

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.