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Contemporary Russia and the West
A Collaboration between Public Books and La vie des idées/ Books&Ideas

by Alexander Rocca & Ophélie Siméon & Caitlin Zaloom , 15 October 2015
with the support of Public Books

In this virtual roundtable published in partnership with Public Books, six contributors from France, Russia and the US address the issue of contemporary Russia and its often tense relations with the West.

With Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, many Western commentators have proclaimed the beginning of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. The Russian media and government, meanwhile, deny all Russian involvement and depict Russia’s expansion as the necessary protection of ethnic Russians in a historical struggle against fascism dating back to the USSR’s victory over the Nazis in World War II.

For scholars and observers alike, there is a poverty to our analytical concepts, which, now more than ever, seem insufficient to the emergent international situation. Freighted by both disinformation and often misleading historical analogies, we lack a vocabulary to adequately describe events in contemporary Russia. The goal of this special collaboration between Public Books and La vie des idées/Books & Ideas is to develop new ways to think about and discuss contemporary Russia and its relations with the United States and Europe.

One thing is certain: a significant geopolitical shift is underway. In recent years, Russia has adopted a staunchly anti-Western attitude as it strives to reassert its global dominance and to weaken the power of NATO, the United States, and the European Union. The collapse of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government in early 2014 spelled a radical power-shift in a region strategically and symbolically important for Russia. With NATO’s eastward expansion potentially stretching to the newly westernizing Ukraine, Putin turned to covert military means to retain Russia’s influence. In Russian media, Yanukovych’s overthrow became a fascist coup, a claim bolstered by a vocal neo-Nazi movement in Ukraine and by the fact that Yanukovych was democratically elected. Moreover, the shelling of civilian areas in Eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian national forces alike make it yet harder to claim moral superiority for either side in the conflict.

But even as Putin’s government decries fascism in Kiev and around Europe, it has spent years forging connections with the European far right and far left, from Le Pen’s Front National in France to Tsipras’ Syriza in Greece. Added to this is Russia’s substantial investment in information campaigns to influence public opinion, with near-complete control of domestic media and a burgeoning international brand that includes Russia Today and Sputnik. Not coincidentally, Russia’s military expansion has been encouraged by an ethnic nationalist ideology as well as by the powerful resurgence of the Orthodox Church in Russian life. This has been accompanied by crackdowns against elements of civil society critical of Putin’s regime, increasing state control of business and infrastructure, and the suppression of sexual and religious minorities throughout Russia. As Western sanctions have begun to cripple the Russian economy, moreover, a narrative of Western aggression has helped to make Vladimir Putin’s domestic support stronger than ever.

In short, there seems to be little hope of a de-escalation of conflict, much less a rapprochement with the West. How are we to describe this political and intellectual standoff? Without falling into the traps of liberal triumphalism or anti-imperial bluster, how can we imagine new ways to understand the origins and consequences of the present conflict? And indeed, in what ways have ideologues on either side exacerbated the tensions, and how might we clean the intellectual slate? Finally, what is at stake—in the conflict itself, in the gradual contraction of Russian civil society, in the seeming paralysis of Western power, and, most importantly, in our discussions about these watershed global confrontations?

La Vie des Idées and its English-language parent site Books & Ideas is delighted to announce our second collaboration with our American partner Public Books, to examine contemporary Russia through different perspectives: political and economic, but also social and cultural.

Our first pair of essays, by American Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies Eliot Borenstein and French sociologist Carine Clément, address the dominant political discourses in today’s Russia, from Anti-Americanism to Putinism.

Our second and third sets of essays (to be co-published in Public Books’ November 1st and November 15th issues), will feature contributions by Russian historian Katya Pravilova, French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff, American anthropologist Monica Eppinger and demography specialist Cécile Lefèvre.

Dossier's Articles

by Alexander Rocca & Ophélie Siméon & Caitlin Zaloom, 15 October 2015

To quote this article :

Alexander Rocca & Ophélie Siméon & Caitlin Zaloom, « Contemporary Russia and the West. A Collaboration between Public Books and La vie des idées/ Books&Ideas », Books and Ideas , 15 October 2015. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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