From Sevastopol (1854) to Sochi (2014): is Russia civilized yet?


Sochi and Sevastopol are separated by a sweep of the Black Sea coast. Sevastopol, on the diamond-shaped peninsula of Crimea, is part of today’s Ukraine, but was Russian or Soviet for two centuries, and retains many features which are linguistically and culturally Russian. Sochi, the Olympic venue, has become the most famous outpost of southern Russia. Crimea was the object of a European war of mass destruction in the middle of the nineteenth century. Sevastopol, which was besieged for a year, was the focus of some of the most dreadful suffering. Britain, France and Turkey were the main adversaries of Russia, who fought alone. Both sides saw the war as a crusade for their version of civilization.

War between Russia and the Western powers seems to be inconceivable today. And yet the Western assumption that Russia is uncivilized persists.

Five years before the Crimean War made formal enemies out of Russia and Britain, much of the rest of Europe was gripped by the revolutions of 1848. In its last issue of that year, The Economist explained why there had been no revolution in Russia: ‘her population is not yet civilized enough to feel those yearnings after freedom and self-government which have agitated Europe.’ In his splendid history of the Crimean War, Orlando Figes points out that the British press helped to create the Russophobic atmosphere in which a catastrophic war became possible. His examples are more trenchant than one can find in The Economist, whose flair even then was for reasonable argument. The Economist has also been consistent, pointing out in September 2011: ‘Russia’s only aim in the 1990s was to become a normal, civilized state. But two wars in Chechnya and the destruction of Yukos, Russia’s most successful oil company, in 2003 put an end to that hope.’

Perhaps The Economist now considers the Russian state rather than the Russian people to be uncivilized, though I am not sure that this is clear. In its latest issue, The Economist calls it ‘a dream’ to consider Russia to be ‘the sophisticated and civilized country’ that was projected in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Games. Plainly, the fact that rights are not secure and that corruption is endemic makes life uncertain and highly stressful for many Russians and unbearable for a few. The Sochi Olympics have reminded many outsiders of this reality. But denying Russia the attributes of civilization seems to be not only an unfortunate way to use words, but one that has a long record of unfortunate consequences.

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