Russian Sonderweg. Is understanding Russia’s “Special Path” key to improving EU-Russia relations?9 min read

EU-Russia relations appear to have reached an all time low. A consistent problem that only seems to increase tensions is the fact that Western media neither pay attention to, nor seek to understand Russia’s incredibly complicated identity. An identity that resonates greatly with Europe, while at the same time stressing Russia’s inherent differences from the “European civilisation”. Russia’s self-proclaimed otherness towards Europe is likely to remain the main obstacle in bringing Russia closer to the rest of the continent. The Germans have a special word for that: Sonderweg – or simply “Special Path”.

Russia’s former Deputy Prime Minister, Vladislav Surkov, was a prominent politician of the Medvedev-camp. In other words, one of those Kremlin-based politicians who envisioned a “Western” destiny for Russia. However, as the tides have turned, Surkov in a column this April argued that he no longer believes that Russia can belong to the West. Instead, he argued that Russia stands alone: “The completion of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the end of numerous fruitless attempts to become part of Western civilisation, to join the “good family” of European people […] stretches into a future in which we will experience a hundred (two hundred? Three hundred?) years of geopolitical loneliness”.

Surkov’s wind of change echoes through the halls of the Kremlin, as foreign minister Sergey Lavrov recently stated that today, Russia’s relations with the West are even worse than during the Cold War. However, Surkov went a step further in his column, stretching today’s rising tensions between Russia and the West beyond that of the Cold War: “Russia moved East for 400 years, and then moved West for another 400 years. Neither the one nor the other took root. […] And yet, we can hardly be called a third civilisation. […] She [Russia] is a relative everywhere but nowhere is she a native. She’s one of her own among strangers, but a stranger among her own. […] Russia is a western-eastern half-breed country”.

The West. Example or enemy?

Anyone who is a bit familiar with Russia’s identitarian history knows that Surkov didn’t say anything new. Almost every prominent figure in Russia’s intellectual history has asked him- or herself whether Russia should aim to be part of the “European family” or an “independent entity”. The discussion is as old as the existence of modern Russia – and has divided both politicians and thinkers into two camps for many centuries: Westernisers, who envision Russia as part of the West, and Slavophiles who see a Russia that is leading the East, while independent from the West.

Looking at Russian leaders, Peter the Great, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin can be considered Westernisers as they sought to strengthen ties with the West, while Ivan the Terrible, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin wanted Russia to follow its special path, detached from the “decaying” or “bourgeois” West. No matter how apparent the Westerniser-Slavophile question might be for historians, it still remains a blind-spot for most people. Nonetheless, it is crucial to understand that the Westerniser-Slavophile question is prevailing and that many Russians would agree that their country has always followed a different path from the rest of Europe.

Let’s go back for a second, to a time before relations between the West and Russia were not as dramatic as they are today. In 2010, relations seemed to follow business as usual. Aside from a war with Georgia that most Western Europeans weren’t really bothered by, there seemed hardly to be any sign that Russia-West relations would escalate only a few years later. Still, in the same year Russian historian Rozaliya Cherepanova pointed to the fact that Russians didn’t feel part of the Western community, and that both Russia’s polity as well as the majority of its citizens would be willing to support decisions against the interests of the Western community if necessary. As any historian would, Cherepanova connected this attitude to Russia’s history, and by doing so she introduced the idea of a “Russian Sonderweg”: a national identity shared by both state and society to “unite the intellectual and the ordinary person” by stressing Russia’s identitarian duality between “Russian chaos” and “Western rationalism”.

A German concept

To understand this idea of a ‘Sonderweg’, we should briefly look at its German origin. Initially, the “Sonderweg”, or “Special Path”, was a nationalist concept in pre-war Germany. The special path followed by Germany, nationalists argued, was inherently different from that of Britain and France; Germany didn’t follow the “Western” path of industrialisation, consumerism, individualism and colonisation, but a unique German path with traditions, family-values and law and order at its core. It was the duty of German nationalists to keep Germany on that special and pure path, untouched from the corruptive elements of the Anglo-French world. However, Germany’s Sonderweg silently died in the ruins of World War II. But the idea of a special path was picked up by historians in the 1960’s. Through their historical research, Sonderweg became a means to explain why Germany, of all countries, ended up committing the greatest war crimes in modern Western history. Indeed, historians of the 1960’s agreed with the pre-war patriots on what made Germany unique: Germany’s hierarchical and militaristic culture versus the British capitalistic and pluralistic one, as well as Germany’s emphasis on ethnic “kultur” values against France’s civil “société” values. Rather than being proud of Germany’s uniqueness, the Sonderweg-historians explained these aspects of German culture as the “original sins” that eventually brought down the Weimar Republic and made room for the Third Reich to prevail. Once an identitarian concept that was supposed to explain both the glorious past and the promising future of Germany, today the Sonderweg lives on as the dominant academic understanding of Germany’s dark past.

Although most Russians are not aware of this concept, Cherepanova makes a lot of sense in arguing that Russians have a similar understanding of their country. On the one hand, we have the Slavophiles, who celebrate Russia’s uniqueness against their European neighbours. On the other hand, we have the Westernisers, who consider these unique aspects of Russian culture as the “original sins” of Russia’s presumed backwardness. Indeed, the Slavophiles and Westernisers might not agree about what path Russia should follow, but they agree that so far it has always walked its own Sonderweg; its special path.

Russian exceptionalism

Since Peter the Great, Russian polity has acknowledged Russia’s Sonderweg. Peter’s aggressive reforms were aimed at turning “barbarian” and “backwards” Russia into a full-fledged Western imperialist state. In this sense, Peter the Great was a Westerniser who tried to get Russia off its Sonderweg and make way for a European path. At the same time, more and more Russians, especially religious figures, were opposing Peter’s radical reforms and argued that Russia should keep its own path of being a truly Orthodox state that would not try to act on equal foot with colonial empires in the West.

As a matter of fact, Russia’s special path goes back even further, when Ivan the Terrible crowned himself Czar and declared Moscow as the “Third Rome”, the true Christian centre that would not fall for the foreign, barbarian forces that had conquered Rome and Constantinople.

The idea of an exceptional path for the Russians continued throughout Czarist times. Long after Ivan the Terrible proclaimed Moscow as the new centre of civilisation and Peter the Great implemented his radical political and social reforms, Russian intellectuals continued to be divided, questioning whether it was desirable for Russia to move Westwards or not. Czars changed their policy towards the West frequently. Slavophiles recurrently forced the Kremlin to return to a traditional Christian society, and Westernisers would revive again those old ambitions to become “truly European”. The Soviet Union was no exception to this story, adopting Western elements when possible (most prominently, Lenin’s Marxism to make Russia the leader of a “new socialist Europe”), while closing the gates for those elements that were considered “bourgeois” or, as the old Czarists and the new Putinists would call them, foreign.

The future

The debate between Slavophiles and Westernisers have continued into the present day. Liberals in today’s Russia cannot help but explain their country in the language of a Westerniser: homosexual toleration, freedom of speech, feminism – all of these values seem to scream, “the West is doing it right, we are doing it wrong!”. The same goes for the conservatives, who seem to be unable to escape from a Slavophile discourse: Christian-Orthodox values, patriarchal ideals, Czarist-like social hierarchies – all aspects that are considered “typically Russian” are automatically “a-typically European”. Hence, a return to Russia’s traditional identity seems almost inevitably synonymous to a retreat from pro-Western values.

Aren’t these two camps exaggerating Russia’s special path? Is Russia really so detached from Europe? After all, how illiberal is Russia truly if it would compare itself to some of its neighbours in the East and South, like China or even Azerbaijan, let alone North-Korea? How “un-European” is Russia really? Wasn’t the traditional definition of Europe simply white Christendom?

The hitch is that Russia does not seem able to escape its Sonderweg identity as long as Russians continue to compare themselves to Western Europeans. “If they are doing it, then we should!”, Westernisers tend to state. “If they are doing it, then we shouldn’t!”, Slavophiles would reply. And so the Kremlin is forced to remain ambiguous in its attitude towards the West: it cannot become too friendly with its Western neighbours but it also understands that it cannot uphold its own identity without the rest of the European continent.

One can argue whether Russia should try to escape its Sonderweg or not, but this identity is dominant in Russia’s political thinking while it is mostly ignored in international media. The Westernisers versus Slavophiles as a common narrative for academics should not be overlooked – not only to understand a politician like Vladislav Surkov but to understand Russia’s political identity as a whole. While Russophobes hope that hostility towards Russia will force Russians off the global stage, Russlandverstehers (another great German word, meaning “Russia-understanders”) hope that a friendly attitude towards the Kremlin will bring Russia to the European camp. But both groups should realise that their hopes are largely built on historical ignorance. As long as Russia’s dual identity remains one of the few consensuses in Russia’s public space, it is in the Kremlin’s interest to never leave the European family entirely, nor to become a full-fledged member of it.

Jules Ortjens is a student of Political Science who graduated from Humanities at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and currently studies EU-Russia Studies in Tartu, Estonia and Moscow, Russia. Having been active in Dutch politics for a while, Jules is primarily interested in how European politics is interpreted in different national public spaces.

3 thoughts on “Russian Sonderweg. Is understanding Russia’s “Special Path” key to improving EU-Russia relations?9 min read

  1. Generally, a very interesting article. Quite neatly and correctly describes the current state of affairs and mares a compelling argument about the future. A debatable argument which is worth further exploration and justification, but a very interesting one. There are a few comments on the historical part: 1) “Slavophiles who see a Russia that is leading the East” – There were quite a few different branches of Slavophiles, but none of them, to the best of my knowledge, saw Russia as leading the East. Vice versa, some of Slavophiles saw Russia as leading the West in the sense that Russia could teach the West “real” (Orthodox) values and truths. This also resonates with modern traditionalists despising Western “decay” and praising Russian “real” values as these traditionalists (at least some of them) claim that Russia is a real (read conservative and Christian) Europe. 2) Equating Ivan the Terrible, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin in their wish to see Russia following its Sonderweg is way too audacious. Ivan the Terrible hardly had any identitarian issues in his mind to deal with, back then the identity was measured mostly in terms of religious affiliation and in that sense he was Orthodox with Moscow being the Third Rome, meaning the inheritor of European values. Joseph Stalin did of course separate the Communist Russia from the West, but it’s important that he hardly wanted, especially in the beginning of his journey, to confine this model solely to the Soviet Union. Russia’s model was supposed to become the global model and not to remain Russia’s unique one. And Vladimir Putin is different again as his traditionalist posture, in my view, largely bases upon geopolitical reasons. When he became a president, he was a pro-Western young liberal, sharing basic Yeltsin’s ideas. But then, for geopolitical reasons, he changed his behaviour and his stance, while, I think, keeping his initial pro-European and pro-Western beliefs deep in his heart 🙂 That said, I understand the idea of referring to the most prominent figures in Russia’s history, but I think here it is too much of a generalisation.

  2. Hi Kirill, thank you for your interesting commentary. Regarding the categorisation of Russian leaders, it is not my intention to actually argue that Ivan the Terrible or Joseph Stalin were Slavophiles. Rather, I wanted to point out the dominant framework underlying Russian historiography, in which historical actors are judged upon their respective relation with ‘the West’. Whether the respective leader felt Russia should be part of the Occident or not, is most often a central question in studies on Russian history and identity. I believe it reflects the general identity construction in Russia, both in the political life and the cultural life. I hope this clarifies my stance somehow.

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