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On February 21, right before the first anniversary of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched another anti-Western tirade in his address to the nation’s Federal Assembly. Once more he described an “anti-Russia” project that the West is pursuing. Part of the plan involves ongoing support for Ukrainian “neo-Nazis”; another part entails attacks on the Russian Orthodox Church and traditional family values. The goal of the West, according to Putin, is “to end Russia once and for all.”
The content of Putin’s latest diatribe was nothing new. But his rhetoric helps to explain the growing evidence of heightened anti-Western sentiments in Russia.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia has changed noticeably. The few liberties still allowed in civil society were almost crushed, and protests were replaced by patriotic events. In the beginning, the situation in Ukraine was presented as a special military operation to protect pro-Russian territories; now, according to state propaganda, Russia is fighting against NATO—that is, against the so-called collective West, led by the United States. Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder that anti-Western sentiments seem to be on the rise in Russia.
A year ago, some Western analysts expected a wave of anti-war protests and weakening of Putin’s power due to Western sanctions and the harsher life of ordinary Russians. Instead, something seemingly unexpected happened: Putin’s position remained fairly strong, and instead of anti-Kremlin turmoil, Russia embraced anti-Western isolationism. As the ultra-right media outlet Tsargrad put it, “What should we do? There is only one and the most conservative recipe. We need to close ourselves off from Western influence. ‘Cancel the West’—at least modern, completely hostile to us and corrupt; dangerous to our life and health.”
Some observers have claimed that over the past year, a new reality has come to Russia. A recent New York Times article suggested that a new system of “brutal and archaic public values” was being built in the country. This analysis is not quite accurate and, to some extent, ahistorical. In fact, what is happening now in the country is the reappearance and radicalization of a centuries-old resentment of the West, in the context of the war in Ukraine.
At least since the accession of Peter the Great in the late seventeenth century—but, in fact, even earlier—opposition to the West has been a key element of Russian political culture. It is not just about simple rivalry, but a desire for revenge, coupled with a demand for respect as a great power. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once defined such passions as ressentiment: an envy, or resentment, of a hostile object that is seen as stronger and more successful.
Another German philosopher, Max Scheler, applied ressentiment to the analyses of Russian culture: “No other literature is as full of ressentiment as young Russian literature. […] This is the result of the long autocratic oppression of the people, with no parliament or freedom of press through which the affects caused by authority could find release.” The unreleased feelings Scheler talks about often transform into the search of external object to be blamed for one’s troubles and failures. In the case of Russia, such objects have been Europe and, subsequently, the United States.
After Putin launched a war on Ukraine, a number of Russian journalists referred to ressentiment explaining the president’s motivation and the psychology of his supporters, who view the war as the battle between “good Russia” and the “evil West.”
To this day, Russia has felt a constant need to respond to challenges coming from the West. Peter I the Great, the first Russian emperor, took Europe as a model for reforming Russia, but at the same time, throughout his reign, he sought to demonstrate the great power of the Russian Empire. Peter’s goal was not just to achieve geopolitical prestige in the eyes of the Western powers, but to surpass the West.
During Nicholas’ time, an important debate in Russia arose between Slavophiles and Westernizers. The Westernizers believed that Russia should follow a European path to modernization. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, they advocated the English model of constitutional monarchy and even a republic as the best forms of government. The Slavophiles, on the other hand, believed that Russia had its own special path of development, different from Europe. They assigned a large role to Orthodoxy as a basic cultural bond of Russian civilization, and tended to support classic monarchy.
In the twentieth century, Russia gradually shifted its focus from Europe to the United States as the main adversary. During the Cold War and in the 1990s, many conspiracy theories about American perfidy began to circulate in the country. “Dulles’ plan” was among the most famous ones—according to this theory, the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, intended to corrupt and thus destroy Russia’s spiritual heritage and moral values, thus undermining Moscow’s influence in the world.
Just a few years into his presidency, Vladimir Putin realized that the U.S. wouldn’t see Russia as the rightful successor state to the Soviet Union, and therefore didn’t respect Russia’s imperial ambitions. Abandoning the idea of entering into a constructive partnership with the West, Putin resurrected Cold War rhetoric about the military and cultural confrontation between Russia and the United States. He deliberately worked on his image as not only a cunning geopolitician, but also as a champion of traditional cultural values; a strong man who would not allow liberalism in the “perverted” Western interpretation.
As a result, the idea of a Russian “special path” is alive and well in Putin’s Russia—so too are anti-Western conspiracy theories in the Cold War style. Nor did such opinions ever really fade in Russia: according to a 2020 poll, only 10% of Russians supported the European model of development for their country, while 58% supported the country following its “own, special path,” and another 28% preferred resurrecting the path of the Soviet Union.
By imposing economic sanctions on Russia in 2022, the U.S. and Europe may have hoped to trigger civil unrest and pave the way for a regime change. Instead, the unprecedented sanctions imposed by Western allies, coupled with multibillion-dollar assistance to Ukraine, have fit perfectly into the Kremlin’s rhetoric about the West trying to destroy Russia in every possible way.
The more Putin fears defeat and, more importantly, humiliation, the greater the chance he will feel justified in resorting to his nuclear option—and very likely with the support of thousands of his compatriots. Though Western countries are partially responsible for strengthening Putin’s regime by importing oil and gas, it is time to put the search of someone to blame aside.
It is more important to collectively think about the ways to de-escalate the conflict and—eventually—stop this disastrous bloodshed.
Anastasia Shteinert is a political reporter and MA Candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.