Entering a new millennium has set off countless discussions on the theme of "Russia at the crossroads of history." The crossroads motif is of perennial importance for Russia, more so than for any other country, and has been so for at least three centuries.
This particular crossroads is an endless, ongoing one at which the perpetual adolescent that is Russia stands painfully working through the question of geographical, historical and metaphysical self-identification. Put more simply, is Russia a part of Europe or not?
The resulting adolescent love-hate complex an archetype of the Russian political consciousness has re-emerged in dozens of Russian foreign-policy publications on Russia and NATO and Russia and the West.
NATO's eastward expansion, or to be more exact, Eastern and Central Europe's rush toward the West, has struck chords in deep-seated layers of our political consciousness, reanimating the undying cultural debate about whether Russia is part of Europe and reminding us that in some respects, the answer is no.
That is not because anyone is trying to push us out of Europe, but because due to the specific features of our history, geography and national psychology, we haven't yet been able to answer this tortuous question for ourselves.
This dispute, which has never really stopped, is just as acute as ever in Russia today. It merges foreign and domestic policy issues into one indivisible whole. Whether the subject under discussion is the fate of democratic institutions at home or Russia's relations with the outside world, the question in both cases involves the fundamental values of Russian society. In "turning its Asian grimace" to the West, Russian authorities inevitably end up showing the same unpleasant face to their own people.
The centuries-old conflict between "Westerners" and "Eurasians" continues in Russian culture today, only it is aggravated by the gnawing hurt of having been defeated by the West in the Cold War. With the coming to power of a new president, the pendulum has swung back toward the Eurasian view, but this shouldn't be put down to Vladimir Putin's personal merits.
More likely is that the arrival in power of a man with Putin's biography and mentality objectively reflects the dominant mood among the Russian "political elite."
Putin's vision of "managed democracy," "information security," "the administrative vertical" and other addled nonsense would stand a chance of success if its aim were to force a destitute and ignorant population to dig as many canals as possible and build "industrial giants." This was how the Industrial Revolution took place in the 19th century in the West; it was how the Stalin regime modernized Russia in the first half of the last century; and how Southeast Asia made its leap forward in the second half of the last century.
This time, the pendulum's Eurasian swing could prove fatal. The figment of confrontation with the West and attempts to form a "strategic partnership" and essentially a military coalition with China will put Russia on the international sidelines and make it subject to China's strategic interests. In the long term, this course could lead to first de facto and then de jure loss of control over the Far East and Siberia.
In his recent ambitious manifesto "Eurasia above all," one of our most prominent Eurasians, always ready to feed the authorities with his advice, proudly said of Russian history: "In the 16th century, Moscow took the baton of Eurasian empire-building from the Tatars."
The Eurasians of old Muscovy carefully handed this baton on down the centuries. But if they are honest and consistent in their thinking and really do believe in Eurasia ueber Alles, then they should realize that the baton that is empire-building is not only received, it is also handed on. Five centuries is a perfectly decent length of time to have carried it, and with the change of millennium, perhaps it's time to pass it on to a historically more-promising empire-builder the Middle Kingdom. The process has already begun.
(Andrei Piontkovsky is director of the Center for Strategic Studies.)