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from issue no. 12 - 2004

The analysis of the rector of the University of the Human Sciences of Moscow

Tradition and pragmatism

This is Kremlin policy today according to historian Alexander Ciubarian: «I am sure that President Putin wants a democratic state and, as he has already said, one close to European civilization». Interview

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Born in Moscow of Armenian parents , Alexander Ciubarian is a historian, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, where since 1988 he has directed the Institute of General History. He skilfully moves between scholarly research and teaching, and in Moscow has created – and is rector of - a new athenaeum, the University of Human Sciences. Ciubarian is also a member of the presidium of the Council of Science and Education, a body headed by President Putin himself.
Ciubarian’s warhorse is European history and the international relations in the 20th century, as witnessed by his many publications on Moscow’s foreign policy in the ’twenties, on the Cold War and its origins.
Ciubarian is a member of the editorial board of the Orthodox Encyclopedia (the first volume of which was launched in Rome in October) and of the editorial board of the Catholic Encyclopedia (launched in Moscow already two years ago). This results in part from the fact that the Institute of General History has a large Study Center on the Church and religions, linked by a special report with the Patriarchy of Moscow, whence the scholarly involvement of many teachers of the Center in the writing of the Orthodox Encyclopedia.
We met this mild-mannered and pleasant intellectual, who backs President Putin’s arguments, in Rome, in the lobby of a well-known hotel owned by the Vatican, on Via della Conciliazione, a few yards from the great dome. And when he was back in Moscow we took up our discussion again in the most anxious days of the confrontation in the Ukraine. We begin from there..
The choir of the Russian Army performing in the Paul VI Hall in the presence of John Paul II on the 26th anniversary of his pontificate, 15 October 2004

The choir of the Russian Army performing in the Paul VI Hall in the presence of John Paul II on the 26th anniversary of his pontificate, 15 October 2004

What do you think of the crisis in Kiev?
ALEXANDER CIUBARIAN: It’s the product of different tendencies and factors. First the internal situation is complex: vast strata of the population are expressing discontent about power and of the way it means to move towards democracy; there is a difficulty quest underway for national identity and for definition of relations between the Ukraine and other countries, to find the Ukraine’s real place in the international community between Europe, Russia and the United States, powers of which it feels the political pressures.
Obviously opinions on all these matters differ, in particular between the eastern and western regions of the country . The result of all this is the complex and often dramatic reality we have before our eyes. But, in the last analysis, it’s about choices that only the people of the Ukraine must make.
A recent international survey showed that the majority of the Russians would have voted for Bush. President Putin also made it very clear he preferred him...
CIUBARIAN: Here there is a valid combination between tradition and pragmatism. Relations betweeen Russia and the United States are important in history, and under the presidency of George W. Bush relations have been good, we have had many positive signs of US support. Of course, anti-American feelings remain that are not connected with this or that presidency or American politics but are a legacy of the Cold War, when Russia enjoyed the status of super-power. In many Russian social strata there is nostalgia, maybe not for communism, but for the times when we were on a level with Washington. We Russians have a habit of good relations with the Democratic American presidents, but very much more with the Republican ones.
In theory, then, the American president George W. Bush will continue the policy of strategic partnership with Russia. I believe that with the Democrats in the White House there would have been more concern for the issue of human rights and internal democracy, which would have caused strains with Moscow…
What has changed after Beslan, Russia’s 11 September?
CIUBARIAN: It’s a very serious question. The Beslan massacre has influenced the thinking not only of the establishment but also of ordinary people. We have seen that the problem of security is no longer theoretical for us but tragically concrete because we can expect terrorist attacks everywhere in the country. Today, almost everybody in Russia thinks we need more serious measures in the struggle against every type of terrorism. The Russian people support our president’s commitment to strengthening the country and to establishing closer relations with the other countries, with the United States and Europe in primis, because we want to be ever more part of the international community.
In the big cities as in the small outlying centers that I have visited recently everybody tells me that the president “must” be more determined against terroristis, and are asking for more internal public order.
After Beslan the instability of the Caucasus became a topic once again. What’s the situation? As you see it is the type of governance that Russia wants to establish in the region acceptable to the international community, United States first of all?
CIUBARIAN: There are two Caucasuses. The first is inside Russia – North Ossetia, Chechenya, Ingushetia, and many other small republics - the second is outside – Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia… Those who criticize Russia for its influence on the Russian Caucasus should also condemn the influence of the United States on Texas or on Florida! For us the Chechen question is a danger not only in itself, but for the whole Russian Caucasus. The Beslan massacre occurred in North Ossetia, not in Chechenya… I don’t suppose that foreign countries, the United States and Europe, intend to deny Russian sovereignty in our Caucasus. For the one outside the Russian borders we only want the situation to be peaceful and positive. We maintain good relations with Armenia – where anti-Russian feelings don’t exist –, with the Azerbaijanis and with the other neighboring states. We may be undergoing problems of stabilization with Georgia, but we have no territorial pretensions.
George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin at the G8 summit 
at Sea Island, Georgia (US), 9 June 2004

George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin at the G8 summit at Sea Island, Georgia (US), 9 June 2004

You continue to refer to the “post-soviet” areas …
CIUBARIAN: My personal opinion is that Russia, in its relations with those territories that were once within the USSR, must have the status not of superpower but of “great power”. I’m not thrilled when people use the term “influence” of Moscow . Other descriptions do also exist, such as “mutual aid” or “deep and special collaboration”.
It’s a thorny problem. However there is a divergence of opinions in Russia. I remember a recent debate on Russian television in which the half of the journalists present pointed to the US as the enemy working to destabilize Moscow and the Caucasian area. I don’t agree. I believe that the United States also wants regional stability, because Russia is a nuclear power. Between the US and us the relation is not that of conflict but of competition. I’ll say it again: what happened in Beslan is a danger not only for the Caucasus, but for the whole of Russia.
How does the Russian intelligentsia view the process of European unification? Countries once under the Soviet mantle have opened their arms to the United States and now, after the extension of the European Union to the East, they are members of the EU… Nato then, instead of dissolving after 1989, is advancing eastwards…
CIUBARIAN: I’d like to say that my reputation at home is that of an active partisan for Europe. The last book that I’m about to publish this year is called Russian europeanism, and I am absolutely certain that Russia is part of Europe, by geography, culture, tradition… and that we need more than ever to be members of the EU. After the splitting of the continent at the time of socialism, now the values of European scope, such as the market economy, liberal and democratic ideals – even if we may argue about the different possible models of democracy - have been adopted by Russia. In addition, Russia is a federation that, in terms of the relations between the various parts of the country, is looking with interest at the experience of countries with the federal model. Thus we consider Europe – where nations and different cultures endure giving life to a community - an ideal partner, the example of a balance of interests.
Let’s come to the problem of the onetime communist countries now members of the EU.
CIUBARIAN: The time when Russia was hostile to the extension eastward of Europe and Nato is over. Nato is still an enemy for the nationalists and the Russian communists, not for the rest, not least because there now exists a partnership for peace between Russia and Nato. This despite the fact that different interests remain and there is natural competition. In addition, we sincerely need improvement in relations with the countries that were part of the USSR – the Ukraine and Baltic states – and also with the more independent ones – Poland, former Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, etc. But we are well aware that shaping a relationship between Moscow and Kiev is different than one between Moscow and Warsaw... Some countries, the Baltic ones, are members of Nato and of EU at the same time. And, then, to be good neighbors requires understanding on both sides.
Are there difficulties with those countries?
CIUBARIAN: I’m a member of a Historical Commission in Riga, in Latvia, created to study the Nazi and communist occupations and the Holocaust, and I’ve experienced the difficulties of achieving what we’re speaking about because I see that in the former satellites countries the intellectual world and the media can’t imagine how fruitful it would be to be a good neighbor of Russia today. But I’m certain that it’s only a matter of time: the new political classes in those countries, members of the EU and of Nato, are more pragmatic, they’re not afraid of the new Russia, even if it is such a large neighbor.
I’m also head of delegation for the Russian side of a bilateral commission of historians from the Ukraine and Russia. I see and well understand that these post-soviet countries are now much concerned with their national identity: the flag, the anthem, the construction of the country’s history… But they are inevitably going to encounter an obstacle on that road: the long period in which their identity, Ukrainian Belarus etc. – was in no way a problem, precisely because there was a shared Soviet identity (or even earlier an imperial Russian identity). Now they have need to conceive themselves as nation, and even if not everybody in Russia agrees – I’m referring to the old and new nationalists - we must give back these efforts, or at least understand that times have changed. But, in the moment when these countries find themselves rethinking and judging their past, they must realize that they can’t escape the fact that they were part of the USSR, and that the recognition must not be reinterpreted and aimed against the Russia of today! Many decades ago Norway was a part of Sweden, but the Norwegians don’t suffer from the fact that they were inside another state. The same must happen between us and the states that belonged to the USSR, with which we travelled a long stretch of road together.
Unfortunately, we run into the fact that present generations often forget the historical past, even after only ten years.
And for those who weren’t part of the USSR?
CIUBARIAN: The same approach is valid. We share common historical traditions with Poland, with the Czechs there’s no history of war and of confrontations, with Bulgaria there were friendly relations. Russia has no problem recognizing these countries as members of the EU and as good neighbors at the same time. Germany is an example. Despite having been a real enemy in the 20th century, today, according to surveys, it is veined with popular feelings often more favorable to Russia than to the other states of Western Europe!
After the Beslan massacre, thousands demonstrating against terrorism in front of the British and American embassies in Moscow

After the Beslan massacre, thousands demonstrating against terrorism in front of the British and American embassies in Moscow

Has the debate on the Christian roots of Europe been followed in Moscow?
CIUBARIAN: About twenty years ago I wrote my first book. It was called The European idea in history: the view from Moscow. The influence of Christianity on Europe then seemed to me blindingly obvious. Today we need to take account honestly for the reasons for so much opposition on the point during the works on the European Constitution chaired by Giscard d’Estaing. The situation in Western Europe has become very complex. Christianity remains an historic value, but different religions coexist by now in the daily life of various European countries: millions of Moslems live in France, as in Germany.
This issue is linked for us Russian citizens to the question: is Russia part of Europe? It’s not a new debate: it was already being discussed in the 19th century. Russia, naturally, has its life and identity, at times very different from the European one. There’s no doubt that we are a great bridge-country between Europe and Asia. About twenty million citizens who profess Islam live within our boundaries. Millions of inhabitants in Siberia and in the Russian Far East live a long way from Europe. Once the Italian ambassador to Moscow came to our Institute to give a paper on “Russia in Europe”. He had made a recent visit to the Far East and he said: «I have visited Vladivostok and I have discovered that among the inhabitants of the Far East there are Europeans who live in Asia».
So on what is Russian europeanism based?
CIUBARIAN: From my point of view, it’s not based only on Christianity, but on the need to adhere to the European values of democracy, of the market economy , of human rights. As for Christian values, they can also serve today the purpose of keeping the peace among peoples, preaching goodness and non-violence.
Currently in Russia the debate on the teaching of religion in schools is very lively. At our Institute we are preparing a manual on the world religions, so as to explain to children the history and nature of the various faiths, paying more attention obviously to Orthodoxy. Tolerance is for me the greatest value that the Christian religion in Europe and in Russia can give us. Now the main task in Russia - and that is why we must also have help from the teaching of religion in schools - is the consolidation of society around some principles. Let me conclude like this: I am optimistic, I’m certain that we have chosen the democratic path and that we won’t step back. I am absolutely sure that President Putin also wants a democratic state and, as he has already said, one «close to European civilization».
You were in Rome when the Russian Army choir sang in the Vatican to celebrate the twenty-sixth anniversary of the pontificate of John Paul II…
CIUBARIAN: A Russian TV opened with a program on the event. This ensemble was a very well known dance group already in Soviet times. It’s obvious that saying “the Russian Army in the Vatican” has a double politico-ecclesiastical sense, and that in principle it’s a good sign of the improvement in relations with Moscow.
If then it means that the Pope will go in Moscow, I don’t know. It’s known how things really stand.

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