When describing Russia, people tend to quote the Russians themselves—“You will not grasp her with your mind, or cover with a common label”. This might indeed be the case for those who do not know Russia, Russian history or culture too well. It is especially true for Western researchers and observers, who Lauri Mälksoo says understand Russian society a lot less than Russians understand Western society. Lauri Mälksoo is a scholar of Russian language, society, legal history and people, and as such he has undertaken an in-depth historical analysis which concludes in a quite convincing generalisation explaining why Russia is the way it is and acts the way it does.
In order to understand countries and nations, especially great ones, it is necessary to look deep into the past. Lauri Mälksoo does exactly this. He begins with the Schism of 1054, the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the Council of Florence of 1439, which notably attempted to reunite the Eastern and Western churches. He points out that the traits which are still characteristic of Russia today were already visible then. History records that the church leaders of both sides reached an agreement on a formal level, but when the heads of the Eastern Church returned to Russia, the local religious leaders and conservatives rejected the agreement as something foreign. As a result, the Eastern and Western churches remained separate, and sometimes even on opposing sides.
This concept of uniqueness is hard for those outside the culture to notice and even harder to understand, and hard even for those who are active participants within it. A thorough understanding of both Western and Russian societies, including international law, is needed for an observer to both be close enough to them and yet remain separate and retain a critical outlook and analytical skills. Therefore, Lauri Mälksoo bases his analysis on numerous sources, including three outstanding experts on international law who are connected to Estonia and are well-known even to us. These are professors Friedrich Martens, Mikhail Taube and Vladimir Hrabar, who served the Russian Empire in their lifetime. It was common in Tsarist Russia that the scholars and legislators of international law were not Russian, but rather of German or Baltic German origin.
Mälksoo finds that the observations those men made help us understand Russia’s current international legal behaviour as well. For example, Martens concluded that a government’s international legal behaviour is largely determined by that government’s national attitude towards itself, law, order and institutions. Hrabar noted that Russia has always believed itself to be intellectually different from Europe, a sui generis society. Mälksoo uses several examples from recent history, up to the events in Georgia and Ukraine to show that the observations made by Martens, Taube and Hrabar are still valid in the modern day.
What was once determined by the church has passed on to the realm of secular power and the social environment, and the process continues to this day, partly through the close symbiosis of secular and ecclesiastical power that is characteristic of Russian society. Mälksoo believes that it can be observed even now, 600 years later, during meetings between Russians and Westerners in various international organisations and forums, where the sides are often in deep opposition, and where even current geopolitical interests and needs are overshadowed by the differences in the starting points of political philosophy and ideology.
Mälksoo points out that when it comes to reading and understanding Russia’s behaviour, it is not the way the West reads and interprets Russia that is of the utmost importance, but rather the way Russia interprets itself and international law. The author explains that the key to Russian behaviour throughout history and also during the post-Soviet period is the powerful, deeply rooted idea of a distinct Russian civilisation, one that is unlike the West. Russia does not ideologically consider itself a state among many, but rather a unique (great) power following “the Russian idea”, which gives it the right to decide things according to its own interpretations and will. Accordingly, the Russian doctrine provides its own content for international law, its own meaning for terms and its own interpretation for agreements. In the light of all this, it is not surprising that the fundamental nature of Russian, Soviet and Post-Soviet international law doctrine has basically not changed.
Seeing themselves as unique and standing in opposition to the West is innate to Russia. Peter the Great allegedly announced that Russia needs Europe only for a few decades and then would turn its back on it. History has shown that this is exactly what has been happening. Nothing new.
Mälksoo believes that in order to understand Russia as a regional great power, it is necessary to explore carefully whether Russia is using terms and concepts the same way as they are used in Western culture. Nevertheless, Mälksoo admits that the essentially messianic Western idea of the universality of international law that helps countries and people to socialise is a two-way street, not a one-way one. In order to avoid collisions, the users of that path need to know how to read the signs on both sides.
Unlike most brick-sized hard to read international law monographs, Lauri Mälksoo’s 200-page monograph is written in good style, is rich in facts, quotes and arguments, but is easy and fascinating to read and should serve as a handbook to anyone interested in Estonian-Russian relations.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.