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Bill Bowring: Answers to questions from the Georgian Journal of Strategic Politics


Professor Bill Bowring, Birkbeck College, University of London
1. Can we say that the Russia has a state ideology? If so, what forms modern Russian state? Can you single out thinkers, or traditions that shape pollical-cultural identity of the state?
In my view the ideology of the contemporary Russian state is that Russia is and should continue to be a great power (derzhava), and deserves respect as such. The present regime looks back to Ivan IV, Peter I, Catherine II, Alexander I, II and II, and to the fact that in 1814 Russia defeated Napoleon and its army marched through Paris, and that in 1945 Soviet forces having defeated Hitler occupied Berlin. The greatest fear of the regime is that following the sudden collapse of the USSR in 1991, with the “parade of sovereignties” in many regions of Russia, the Russian Federation itself could break apart. That is why Mr Putin condemns Vladimir Lenin ferociously, especially his principle of the “right of nations to self-determination”. Mr Putin holds Lenin responsible for the end of the Russian Empire, for the murder of Tsar Nicholas II, and for the collapse of the USSR. I recall that Lenin’s last struggle (Moshe Lewin) was on the question whether Georgia should be entitled to independence. The present regime must also try to cope with a demographic crisis, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, crumbling infrastructure, and a really rubbish Navy…
By the way, it should be noted that when in 2008 Mr Saakashvili launched an idiotic war in South Ossetia, failing to block the tunnel, the Russian army reached Gori, the Georgian army having run away. The Russian army could in a few minutes have occupied Tbilisi, but did not do so. Why? Russia is plainly not in control of the regime in Abkhazia, nor of Ramzan Kadyrov’s bloody Islamist dictatorship in Chechnya, on Georgia’s border. The situation in the North Caucasus is one of the greatest threats to Russia’s continuing integrity.
2. What is essential for understanding the Russian way of thinking towards the others?
Is there a “British way of thinking”, or a “Georgian way of thinking”? My parents were both born in the USA, and most of my relatives are there. I spend a lot of time in the Former Soviet Union. Which “way of thinking” do I have? Most Russians I know, including my wife, are a mixture. She is half Tatar (Turkic) and half Mordovian (Finno-Ugric), with a family name (Brynza) which comes from Moldova. Is there a Tatar or a Mordovian way of thinking? Most Russians have Jewish ancestry and most certainly Ukrainian ancestry.
When I first visited Russia in 1983 Georgians were regarded as wealthy, glamorous, and proud. Attitudes have not changed much. Nearly every Russian family has at least one member who has been in prison, and almost all lost family members during the war. Intelligentsia families all lost people to Stalin’s repressions. These experiences, including the chaos of the 1990s, help to form Russian desire for stability, which is a large part of Mr Putin’s popularity.
At the level of the state there is a continuing fear not only of collapse or disintegration, given the existence of strong separatist movements in Russia, but of encirclement by NATO.
3. Can we say that Russia is trying to spread her ideology over the Eastern Europe?
I am following closely developments in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Moldova, Britain, France – I don’t see any signs of Russian ideology in Turkey which also has a strongly authoritarian regime like Russia. The constitutional crisis in Poland with an authoritarian populist government at war with the Constitutional Court has nothing to do with “Russian ideology”. The success of Brexit in Britain, and the current extremist government, are not as far as I can see the result of “Russian ideology”. Figures such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump admire Mr Putin for his authoritarian conservatism, not for his “Russian ideology”.
4. Is there a correlation between the rise of illiberal democracies in Eastern Europe and the strengthening of the Russian state influence?
I think you mean “correlation”. The answer is No. There are right-wing populist movements in many parts of the world. There is indeed Russian state influence throughout Europe, through RT and other forms of “soft power”, but this is designed to stir up dissatisfaction and turmoil in the EU.
5. Some scholars argue that Russia has enough soft power to be attractive for others, what makes Russia attractive? Especially for those in Easter Europe?
Russia in my view is not attractive in Eastern Europe. Ukraine and Poland has the same standard of living in 1991, now Poles are much better off than Ukrainians or Russians. I read in the newspaper today that more than 40 Russians have just died as a result of drinking bath oil containing methanol – because they could not afford real vodka. Easter Europeans will not be attracted by Russia’s AIDS epidemic or by the colossal scale of corruption, or the power of the Orthodox Church.
6. Arguably there is a link between populist movements in Europe and Russian administration, what we may expect in near future if we consider a situation in which the populism reaches its pick? Can we say that Eurasianism is not that utopian after all?
I am not aware of any writer, least of all Mr Dugin (or Count Trubetskoy), saying that Eurasianism is utopian. Dugin’s version is a vision of the bitter struggle for survival between a materialist, consumerist West and a spiritual, “sobornost”, theocratic, Byzantine, Eurasia. The most dangerous manifestation of populism in recent times is Donald Trump, and his inspiration came partly from Brexit, not from Russia – though he admires Mr Putin’s macho image. In any event Eurasianism is far from populism, and is indeed deeply authoritarian. Furthermore, I have written, in the final chapter of my 2013 book on Russia, about the strong influence of Carl Schmitt’s decisionism and authoritarianism on the Russian regime.
7. Some scholars argue that Russia is creating an alternative cultural-political model to the Western one, do you agree with the statement? if yes, what is it all about?
I have already disagreed – see above. Which scholars? I have not seen them. Which is the Western model, anyway? The USA? Germany? France? The UK – which will in my opinion soon break up?
8. Can the existence of an alternative way (Russian way) exist peacefully with the western way? Is the multipolar view cherished by some Russian thinkers intrinsically in conflict with the Western values?
First you must accept that there is an alternative, Russian, way, which I do not. Or for that matter, a “Western way”. Or a “Georgian way” – although Georgia is a much more homogenous state than most, with a very distinctive history and religion. And quite a few Western scholars, for example Mearsheimer in the US, have just as much a theory of a multi-polar world as does Dugin or Tsygankov.
9. Taking into consideration Russia’s current approaches, what should the Western rational policy look like?
This is a quite different question. Russia’s approaches to what? There are ideologues in Russia, for example General Reshetnikov, who argue that Ukraine was created by Lenin as an enemy to “Russia”, and has no right to exist. There are others, for example Mr Lavrov, who insist on Ukraine’s sovereignty, and insist that Russia has no intention of annexing Donbas. The US and EU have in fact done very little about Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. In Syria, Russia has scored a tactical victory over the US, but strategically is treading a very dangerous path, when it has allied itself with Shi’a powers, Iran and Hizbollah, when Russia itself has a very large Sunni Muslim population. President Trump is likely to have very different priorities from the EU, or Britain after Brexit. US relations with China are much more dangerous, potentially, than relations with Russia.

1. What can you say about future of liberalism in Russia? Can existing liberal groups in the country attractive local electorate?
It depends what you mean by “liberalism”. Yabloko and Parnas present themselves as “liberal” parties and are described as such in the media, but have very limited traction with the electorate, as shown by their miserable results in the last Duma elections. There are a number of proponents of liberalism in Russia, in the sense of a free market economy, including Mr Yasin, the Scientific Director of the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, and the former Minister of Finance, Mr Kudrin, whose IV All-Russian Civic Forum I attended on 19 November. As you know, the Liberal Democratic Party in the UK is really struggling, as is the FDP in Germany. Maybe “liberalism” does not have a future in Europe! My opinion is that Russia badly needs a social democratic party, as exists in moist of Western Europe, with a base in the trade unions – and even more badly needs a split in the Communist Party. If there were an effective social democratic party, I am sure the Sravedlivaya Rossiya (SRs) would disappear.
2. Some scholars are concerned by Russia’s raising soft power. What is your opinion on the topic? Is Russia’s soft power as strong as it is sometimes presented?
Russia now spends more on RT than the UK spends on the BBC World Service, and its mix of conspiracy theories and pretended support for protest movements ahs gained it some audience in the UK and USA. But its constant lies and wild speculation means in my view that its real impact is strictly limited. Contemporary Russia has far less cultural attraction than did the USSR.
3. You argue that Putin criticizes Lenin. What about Stalin? Some scholars argue that in the latest books on Russian history there are attempts to re-think his role and introduce him as a good “manager”? (Phillipov, A.V. The Newest History of Russia, 1945-2006).
I don’t argue this – it is a fact. Putin regards Lenin, and has done for years, as a great enemy of Russia and responsible for the end of the Russian Empire, for defeat in WW I, and for the collapse of the USSR. See, and, and I already mentioned that Lenin’s last struggle was against Stalin, on the question of independence for Georgia. Stalin has now been rehabilitated as a great Tsar (and effective manager), along with Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. Under Stalin, the Russian Empire reached its greatest extent.

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