How “Europe” is Russia?


The peculiar geographical location of Russia results in its duality as the two-headed eagle emblem indicates – one head to the West and another to the East. I would like to discuss how Russia is perceived as being or not being part of Europe through three incidents in the time span of three centuries: the 1703 Great Northern War , the 1812 Napoleon War and the 1917 Revolution. These three incidents respectively signal the beginning of Europeanization in Russia, the peak of Russia as a prominent actor in European politics and the turning point of ideological separation with the West in contemporary history.

The Great Northern war expanded Russian territory to “official” northern Europe and direct access to the Baltic Sea, which guaranteed Russia a permanent position regarding to European affairs. The establishment of Saint Petersburg – the Window on the West not only served as a trophy of victory against Sweden, but also a base for importing western culture and civilization. After almost one hundred year’s involvement in the West, Russia proved itself as a prominent actor through the triumph in the Napoleonic War. In the aftermath of post-Napoleon conventions, Russia and Austria dominated the Holy Allegiance, as the conservative stream against the budding democratization in nineteenth century. Ten decades later, Russia adapted the Communism originated in Germany, and transformed into a gigantic empire but also marked an ideological frontier between the West. These three vital incidents may be perceived as epitomes for distinguishing whether Russia is considered part of Europe.

The Great Northern War – Conquer for Integration 


The Great Northern War began with Peter the First’s ambition in making Russia a mighty country. In order to achieve this ambition, he decided to take the western approach which was more advanced in artillery and technology than Russia. Therefore, he not only imported western civilization, but also he needed territorial expansion further to the West. Lieven explained in Empire: The Russian empire and its rivals, that Russian’s expansion also grew out of insecurity towards defending her borders (Lieven, 2003, 214). The western territorial expansion served as better access to western civilization and a decisive forward for retrieving stance in European politics. Hosking confirmed as, “Russia could not become a European power in the full scene while deprived of secure access to both the Baltic and Black Seas (Hosking, 2003, 184)”. For Russia, the expansion of territory to the west suited her national interest best. The Great Northern War was an embodiment of Russia’s choice of Westernization, the military means, though seemingly the only option under imperialism for achieving best interest of a country, labeled a hostile stereotype for Russia in the long run.

Trophy from the West


The most prominent trophy of the Great Northern War is the establishment of Saint Petersburg, which is important from three aspects: politically, militarily, and culturally. Politically, Russia’s private access to the Baltic Sea was now the capital of the Empire, and the location of the capital indicates her European orientation. This sparkling diamond on Russia’s crown is a demonstration of Peter’s determination of gaining a prominent position in Europe. Militarily, Saint Petersburg’s strategical location is perfect of building navy fleets, which completed Russia’s combat force as a whole. Culturally, the city was a virgin land, and therefore Peter was able to transplant everything based on European trends and replicate a Europe architecturally and culturally right in this remarkable Holy Grail he fought for in the name of Russia. Cohen affirmed the significance of Saint Petersburg as “a symbol of a new Russian historical phase, that of Westernization and European political orientation” (Cohen, 1996, 46). The establishment of Saint Petersburg served as a foundation for Peter’s intention of integration into Europe, and marked the era of Europeanization for Russia. Taras concludes that, “Europe was disposed to treat the Russian state more sympathetically even if Russian culture continued to be viewed as barbarian (…) the West approved of Peter’s borrowings from European culture. Thus the architecture of the new city of Petersburg was praised, while its counterparts in pre-Petrine Russia were considered Asian and not artistic at all” (Taras, 2013, 54).

After the Great Northern War, Russia demonstrated herself as a debutante of the European arena. “Victory in the Great Northern War involved Russia ineluctably in European diplomacy and military rivalry from the 1720s. Her royal family was now marrying into the princely houses of Europe, sometimes to support diplomatic campaigns, and always in the process acquiring dynastic territorial interests (Hosking, 2003, 190)”. Possessing territorial and cultural facts from Europe, Russia officially inaugurated in European politics.

The Napoleonic War – Engagement as Involvement


After a century’s involvement in Europe, Russia’s stance in the Napoleonic war demonstrated prominent as a dominant actor. “The defeat of Napoleon and the arrival of Russian troops in Paris made Alexander one of the principal arbiters of Europe at the Congress of Vienna” (Dukes, 1996, 133). The fact that it was Russia who defeated Napoleon and saved other monarchs in the threat of survival embodies that the cultivation of integration for one century was worthwhile. Being a part of the game is to be influential and persuasive. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic War, Russia was undoubtedly under the spotlight.

Stream of Conservative

%e6%aa%94%e6%a1%88-2016-12-22-%e4%b8%8b%e5%8d%885-26-13However, becoming a prominent actor doesn’t necessarily mean in a positive way. “Russia’s growing presence in Europe, particularly after its victory over Napoleon, led to a Western backlash. Both cultural and political images of Russia became more negative. Russia was perceived not only as a backward and hostile state, but now as a state posing a direct threat to Europe” (Taras , 2013, 55). Russia’s attempts to Europeanization often times occur in the results like chasing outmoded fashion. It requires a certain amount of time adapting and implanting foreign civilization, but when the transformation is completed, foreign trends are no longer the same. “During the nineteenth century Western Europe experienced gigantic industrialization which was accompanied by fundamental change in social and political life. By contrast Russia, under the reigns of Alexander I and Nicholas I, entered a period of protracted crisis of the old regime” (Taras, 2013, 61). Though Russia demonstrated herself as a vital role in the confrontation with Napoleon and the aftermath, the impression was not as a savior, but rather a belated embodiment of last season’s fashion.

1917 Revolution – Separation of ideology


The 1917 revolution overthrew the Romanov dynasty and built a communist regime based on Marxism from Germany, which could also be considered a form of Westernization, but this time drove Russia far away from what Peter has established two hundred years ago. Taras illustrated that, “World War I served as prologue to dramatic events which occurred inside Russia: the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the establishment of the Russian republic, the Bolshevik Revolution, civil war, foreign intervention” (Taras, 2013, 64). This fundamental difference in ideology strengthened the gap between Russia and the West until nowadays.

Away from Europe


The segregation between representative democracy regimes in Europe and the democratic centralism in Russia signified profound influences. When democracy becomes the core value of Europe, Russia has chosen a path to the opposite direction on the spectrum. Peter the First’s westernization guidelines have been replaced by Marxism–Leninism. Though becoming a mighty country still considered as a vital issue, the methodology was no longer Europeanization but Communism.

Conclusion – Vital but Outmoded Neighbor

%e6%aa%94%e6%a1%88-2016-12-22-%e4%b8%8b%e5%8d%885-22-54Russia is definitely an actor in Europe, but to conclude that it is part of Europe remains skeptical. Its location doesn’t necessarily require choosing sides, but rather it might be more comprehensible to be both West and East. Peter the First has chosen the Westernization path for Russia, because he considered that as the best plausible option for his empire. However, the time consuming imitation jeopardizes the effects. Neuman illustrated in Russia and the idea of Europe: A study in identity and international relations, “The Russian state spent the eighteenth century copying contemporary European models. the nineteenth century representing the Europe of the ancien régime, which the rest of Europe had abandoned, and the twentieth century representing a European socialist model which most of the rest of Europe never chose to implement” (Neumann, 1996, 1).

Identity decides behavior

%e6%aa%94%e6%a1%88-2016-12-22-%e4%b8%8b%e5%8d%885-24-43It is vital for countries finding its own identities in international society, so that they know how to behave based on recognitions. “Identity is the ground of action (King, 1991, 42)”. How Russia sees herself and how others see her have associations with how she is going to act. The fact that Russia has to “Westernization” indicates it is not traditional West herself. This imitation has barely been praised by the West either.

Geographically, a large part of Russian territory is not accountable for Europe, though after the conquest and establishment of Saint Petersburg, Russia was able to acclaim for being part of Northern Europe. Lieven illustrated that, “As many Europeans have pointed out, Russia’s geography is typically Asian rather than European (…) On the other hand, the fact that Russia is on Europe’s borders, is indeed part of Europe by most definitions, sharply differentiates it from other flatlands of continent Asia” (Lieven, 2003, 203).

Politically, Russia is in no way account for the western standard democracy, not in the past, let along now. Culturally, the classical high art fields are considered as western, but the common identity refers to its citizens are barely considered so. The peculiar geographical stance has led to its psychological dilemma, and thus resulted in its schizophrenic behavior. “Russia’s identity possesses a power in its own right. It becomes an unsettling power when national identity is defined in transnational ways – in imperial or great power terms (Taras, 2013, 1)”.

Individuality not Integration

%e6%aa%94%e6%a1%88-2016-12-22-%e4%b8%8b%e5%8d%885-24-02Russia has her past with attempts to catch up with European trends but accompanied by successes and failures. It might be an option instead of choosing between Asia and Europe, but a mixture of both. The territorial span of Russia is apparently not plausible for it to be deemed as Europe as a whole. Saint Petersburg might be considered as part of Europe without much controversy, but Russia also has Vladivostok, which is apparently geographically Asian. Aside from Russian’s territorial span is beyond traditional European boundary, her historical traits in pre–Petrine era were more Asian than European. To eliminate Russian’s Asian and European aspects is not just for the country’s self–recognition, and there is no necessity in conducting such a behavior. Knowing thyself is vital, but that does not imply of choosing sides between Asia and Europe. For Peter the First, choosing Westernization was out of the modernization concern; nowadays that concern is no longer an existence. Russia will remain a pivotal neighbor for Europe, but her own self – identification is yet to be decided by her citizens.


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