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Stefan Widomski: Russia can and should be understood with reason

"The G8 summit in St Petersburg is over. It is time to draw conclusions: where did it succeed, where only partly so and where did it fail? The international press has presented such analyses and views on the results of the summit vary greatly, depending on the given country’s interests, the writer’s political stance and knowledge of international politics."


The G8 summit in St Petersburg is over. It is time to draw conclusions: where did it succeed, where only partly so and where did it fail? The international press has presented such analyses and views on the results of the summit vary greatly, depending on the given country’s interests, the writer’s political stance and knowledge of international politics.

On the surface, everything seemed to go well – nothing could truly disrupt the meeting attended by the leading politicians of the world and Finland’s Prime Minister Vanhanen, whose mandate was due to Finland’s EU Presidency. The unorganised and scant opposition was kept well away from the meeting venue and the activists arriving from abroad were not let into the country. The guests had their photo-ops with the chuffed-looking President Putin and returned to their respective homes, and the world returned to the order of the day. Nothing dramatic happened. 

And yet, something did happen. I think that the significance and position of Russia as one of the A-listers of world politics was underlined and solidified. President Putin was clearly pleased with the situation and his closest Russian allies took their own unquestionable positions as major global political actors.  In St Petersburg, foreign leaders met Russian counterparts who would fight fiercely for their interests and were outspoken and conscious of their negotiating strengths – people who, encouraged by their oil dollars and the rapid growth of their national economy, demanded that they be treated as equal negotiating partners. Partners, who have strong global significance and whose opinions cannot be dismissed summarily.  Right or wrong, Russia and the Russian seemed to be sure of their current and future value. Just before the summit began, the hosts asserted, with distinct echoes from the Communist era, “Russia has been, is and will always be a superpower”. 

Energy as the main theme

The reliability of energy supply and related security questions comprised the main theme for this year’s summit. The leaders of the most highly developed industrialised countries were concerned that Russia could swiftly, even brutally, use the energy as their trump card to further its own goals: the recent situation with the Ukraine was fresh in everyone’s memory. Politicians in Russia as well as elsewhere are fully aware of how potent a weapon energy is. Differences of opinions arise merely from the premise that what is good for Russia is not necessarily good for others, and vice versa. 

Obviously, the significance of oil reserves is only going to increase in the future. This in turn will give Russia far more say in world politics than the size and development of its national economy would merit. That is why the comparison made by some observers that the size and significance of the Russian national economy are no more than those of the Netherlands or even Denmark can be dismissed outright. 

Germany provides a good example of just how dependent EU Member States are on Russian energy. Last year the crude oil deliveries from Russia to Germany grew by 3 per cent, reaching 34 per cent of the entire amount consumed by Germany. Meanwhile, deliveries of Norwegian crude oil decreased by one-fifth, meeting 15 per cent of Germany’s crude oil demand, with the UK delivering 13 per cent.  One hardly needs to explain how crucial the German economy is to the growth and development of the entire EU economy.  

Oil can buy a lot. In addition to money, oil also brings intangible wealth to Russia. Strong self-confidence and security in one’s international position are partly a result of oil and the growing economy. And it was oil that enabled Vladimir Putin to point out that in fact Russia had already reclaimed its place among the superpowers a few years ago, at least when it comes to the growth of its national economy. German Gref, the Russian Minister of Economic Development and Trade, who is usually very moderate in his expressions, even said that the right place for the World Economic Forum is not the small Swiss village of Davos but the most beautiful city in the world, St Petersburg.  

“Russian soul”

The Russians have pointed out that other countries do sometimes engage in strange games. They have accused others of applying one set of standards when dealing with Russia, but switching to another set when regarding the actions of other, particularly Western, countries. 

This takes us to the theme of the supposed dissimilarity or quirkiness of Russia and the Russians. During the Romantic Period, not least inspired by the German Romanticists, Russian writers and philosophers discovered the “Russian soul”. Despite several attempts, nobody really succeeded in describing it exhaustively, although such larger-than-life figures as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chernyshevsky (to mention but three) did their best, not to mention the foreign seekers of the soul and essence of Russia. 

When yet another Russian, a poet named Tjutchev wrote “Russia is a thing of which the intellect cannot conceive” things went completely out of hand. It seemed as if delving into the depths of the Russian soul, or trying to find that soul in the first place, stopped everyone from seeing the plain and simple reality: that the Russians were just flesh and blood, as real as the rest of us. In particular, those who never read Tjutchev’s poem to the end, and therefore failed to understand it, started to repeat this famous line, first as a cliché and a stereotype, then as a mantra void of all meaning. This one idea, that Russia cannot be understood with reason, would explain why some things were different in Russia, and why things that were possible in Russia seemed impossible elsewhere. It also explained why something was done, and something else not. Even the simplest phenomenon needed to be explained through the mystical “Russian soul”. 

The Russians began to regard themselves as different from others and also exploited this mantra to their own advantage. If something was not going right, it was because all of a sudden the possible had become impossible, or if laziness set in, there was always a good explanation – this is Russia.  Which entailed that – Russia is a thing of which the intellect cannot conceive! And we would just nod in approval. We two mentally lazy persons, one from the East and one from the West, found the answer and saw the truth! 

People usually grow older and wiser. They may then say things that remind me of H.C. Andersen’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes. Hence my delight at reading Harry Helenius, the Finnish ambassador to Moscow and a seasoned and talented Russia expert, write in Helsingin Sanomat that Russia can be understood with reason.  I could not agree more with this and that Russia in fact must be understood with reason and nothing else if we are to appreciate the thoughts and actions of the new generation of Russians and be able to co-operate with them. 

For Russia’s is indeed a common yardstick, and you measure her just like everyone else. This will rid us of the old theory that things simply cannot be the same in Russia as here in Finland. I also agree with those Russians who demand that the use of double standards when dealing with Russia be abandoned. Abandon all this nonsense, here as well as in Russia. Only then can we achieve things that would benefit us all. 

Out with double standards and mantras – in with reason. Leave Romanticism to the Bolshoi, music and troika. Russia is a thing of which the intellect can and must conceive. My friend Harry Helenius was right. 

Stefan Widomski 

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