One of the persistent — and often frustrating — aspects of being a reader interested in Russia is that we so infrequently hear the views and insights of contemporary Russian intellectuals in the Western media or publishing world. In The Code of Civilization, prominent Russian academic Vyacheslav Nikonov shares his views on the turbulent changes currently taking place in the global world order, offering English readers a rare chance to hear a Russian-centric perspective on some familiar political and economic themes.
Nikonov’s thesis is that there are currently nine major contemporary civilizations in existence: Western; Eastern European; Islamic/Arabic; Indian; Chinese; Japanese; South-East Asian; African; and Latin American. While Western civilization has been the dominant global force for the past two centuries, Nikonov argues that the balance of power is now fracturing, and is shifting towards new centres of power based in the global south and east. Nikonov takes a look at each of these old and new centres of power in turn, first offering a general summary of each civilization’s historical development before considering its modern political and socioeconomic position. The result is a wide-ranging and often interesting study of the major powers jostling for prominence in an era of rapid transformation.
It wasn’t so long ago that a popular theory in Western political discourse argued that the end of the Cold War would usher in what Francis Fukuyama famously called “the end of history”: the collapse of the totalitarian alternative of the USSR had proven the worth of the Western liberal, capitalist model, and would lead to the inevitable triumph of Western liberalism and democratic systems of government on a global scale. According to this line of thinking, the undoubted superiority of the Western way of life would prove irresistible to the nations of the second and third world, and would lead to the gradual adoption of the Western model elsewhere. Such thinking now appears astonishingly short-sighted and almost heartbreakingly naive, as recent global trends — from the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to the emerging economic dominance of authoritarian China — have instead proven how deeply divided the world remains, at times even calling into question the survival of the Western liberal tradition itself. “The period of triumphalism in the West after the end of the Cold War proved short-lived,” Nikonov writes. “The West is losing its dynamism and its absolute domination.”
Nikonov argues that the West is in decline for several key reasons. First, large swathes of the West have faced serious economic problems stemming from the 2007-2009 global financial crisis, and recovery has been slow and uneven, while emerging economies in the East (most notably China) are gathering serious strength. Second, there is a demographic crisis: the West has an aging population and a declining birth rate, leading it to depend heavily on immigration to replenish its population (“The median age [in India] is around 25 . . . the average in Asia is 30 . . . and in Europe, 40”). Third, there is what one could also call a crisis of confidence. The heavy promotion of a multicultural model in recent decades has undermined more traditional, nationalistic self-images Western nations used to have, and has sometimes created tensions between the cultures of immigrant communities and that of their Western hosts. “The atmosphere of total political correctness and tolerance . . . led to a situation in which acute ethnic and religious problems found themselves outside the framework of public discussion,” Nikonov asserts, blaming this phenomenon for the revival of populism and separatism in Western politics. He also claims that there is a strange element of self-loathing at play in much contemporary Western discourse, with even the usually supremely self-confident Americans now “tell[ing] monstrous stories about themselves, and show[ing] their ugly side to the world.”
In contrast to this picture of Western decline and decay, Nikonov presents us with the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), while also offering general reflections on the state of Arabic, Asian, Japanese, Latin American, and African civilizations in turn. In some of the book’s strongest passages, Nikonov challenges us to confront just how narrow and Western-centric our views often are, especially in our media: “There is . . . the majority of mankind [in the non-Western world], about whose existence we do not often think . . . Do we ever ponder the processes taking place in countries where there are far more people living today than in Russia; for instance, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, or Bangladesh? Do you ever hear anything about the wars in Africa, which are taking the lives of thousands of people every day?”
Nikonov often shows an even-handed and insightful approach in his discussions of these emerging non-Western powers, analyzing their gathering strength while also pointing out their very real points of weakness. A common problem for these emerging powers is that the standard of living endured by much of their population is still heartbreakingly low. In Africa, Nikonov writes, “65% of the population . . . lives on less than 2 dollars a day, with 290 million people going hungry.” The wide gap between how the average Westerner lives compared to his typical third-world counterpart still has the power to shock, as when Nikonov reminds us that,
“There are poor people in every country. The poor of Europe and the poor of India are utterly different people, though. A typical poor person and his family in India is as follows: below average height, underweight, suffering from chronic illnesses due to constant malnutrition, subsisting only on seasonal or incidental income. He needs to send his children to work, rather than to school. There is an excessive burden placed on women, who must not only work in the field, but also fetch fuel many kilometres from home and look for drinking water . . . India accounts for one quarter of all the people suffering from malnutrition on the planet, while one third of children have a critically low weight. Due to the weak system of healthcare, two children under the age of five die every minute.”
Against this backdrop, it swiftly becomes clear why so much of the world rejects narratives regarding the inevitable triumph of Western civilization — it is, after all, so far removed from the day to day experience of billions of people. Nikonov is also committed to stressing the inevitable cultural clashes such triumphalist narratives choose to downplay or ignore: the nations of the global East and South, Nikonov counters, are home to many well-rooted cultural and social traditions of their own, and they are not in a hurry to discard them for Western models anytime soon. Nikonov discusses how, “Historically in Eastern societies, by contrast with Europe, there was indeed little evidence of political and social pluralism”, while also pointing out that it is actually traditionalism that is gaining a renewed stronghold in much of the world, at liberalism’s expense (“The authorities in China are placing ever greater emphasis on the revival and strengthening of national traditions”). This traditionalism is not only cultural or political in many countries, but also often religious — Nikonov gamely addresses the issue of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arabic world, while also pointing out that while Christian religiosity is on the decline in the West, there is a marked opposite trend in the case of Islam.
Some of Nikonov’s most scathing insights are reserved for the United States, which Nikonov regards as a superpower beginning to fade into the sunset. Some of his insights have genuine weight, as when he mentions how Trump’s appeal amongst his core voter base was largely fuelled by his embrace of economic protectionism and his habit of playing upon a sense of grievance in the white, conservative Christian population: “They think of themselves as proud people in a world where the traditional sources of their pride – faith, independence and loyalty – are ceasing to be valued. Trump offered them some meaning in life.” He also points out that much of the weaknesses exhibited by the Democratic party during both the 2016 election and the mid-term elections were rooted in “a lack of positive ideas”. And as could perhaps be expected of a Russian academic, Nikonov does not mince his words when it comes to the subject of US-Russian relations, either: “Russia is accused of all the deadly sins and of being to blame for all of America’s woes”, he complains. He argues that America has built its global dominance upon trying to cut off the attempts of any rival powers to assert their own interests, and that Russia, as a perpetual challenger in terms of military might and influence, has become a catch-all bogeyman. There is, I think, some truth to that claim.
However, the book is at its weakest when Nikonov addresses Russian civilization itself. There are two glaring problems: Nikonov’s biases bleed through to the point of distraction, and some of his historical claims are downright bizarre. Nikonov is a huge fan of Vladimir Putin, and takes no pains to disguise that fact, which is not in keeping with the even-handed tone he employs in the stronger parts of the book. This bias leads to statements such as, “Putin brought in the independent, proactive, multi-vector policy of a pragmatic ‘father of the nation’, who was at the same time concerned with the majesty of this nation”, and “the majority of Russian society . . . considers Putin to be one of the most successful and propitious leaders. And there are a multitude of grounds for believing this to be so.” Nikonov is a member of the United Russia party — once home to Putin himself — so his biases are neither surprising nor shocking, but it can still be tiring to see them displayed with such a lack of subtlety.
A bigger issue I have is Nikonov’s presentation of Russian history. While understandly piqued by the persistent anti-Russian bias in much of Western discourse, Nikonov falls into the other extreme of trying to rewrite Russian history in the high nationalist mold usually favoured by Putin’s regime. We are told that in the waning days of Tsarism, “Russia was no longer an absolutist monarchy,” which may be true in theory but was certainly not very true in practice, that “Nicholas II was a competent ruler of the country”, and that “By the time of the February Revolution, Russia was prepared militarily and economically for a successful continuation of its military actions” — statements so egregious that I had to read them twice to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. This whitewashing tendency continues in his discussions of the Soviet era. While Nikonov does acknowledge the “exceptionally high cost” of Soviet industrialization and collectivization under Stalin, including “the elimination of the Kulaks, the Gulag forced labour camps, and cleansing purges”, he nevertheless goes on to claim that, post-Stalin, “The Soviet regime ensured political stability, and in order to do so, administrative measures were used: the arrest, exile (internal or overseas), and [the] detention in prison or in psychiatric clinics of a few hundred, or at most a few thousand people” [italics mine].
Nevertheless, there are insights to be gained in Nikonov’s analysis of his own civilization. He calls the Soviet Union “an ideocratic state”, in which, “For the first time, an ideological construction had come into being which consciously went against mankind’s entire previous experience.” He is also astute in pointing out that, “In the West . . . the only occasions when Russia has been applauded have been when it committed suicide – in February 1917 and in December 1991”, which raises important questions as to why, exactly, the West has so often struggled with accepting Russia as an equal member in the European family of nations. “Russia is the largest European country with the largest population”, Nikonov muses, and yet “those in Brussels, London or Berlin, when they utter the word Europe, do not have Russia in mind. The geographical Europe and the political Europe are two different entities.” And his assessment of the downfall of the Soviet Union is, one could say, brief but certainly memorable:
“Nowhere . . . with the exception of the Soviet Union as it went through perestroika . . . ever attempted to combine democracy with a non-market, planned economy. The main problem with such a model is as follows. When, in the conditions of a democracy, people are allowed to ask questions, the first question they ask, in the absence of a market, is: ‘So where’s the food?’ This was the question that proved to be fatal – and the last question of all – for Gorbachev.”
Overall, The Code of Civilization is a lengthy, thorough, and wide-ranging work of political and economic analysis that yields much valuable information, while also providing some interesting food for thought by challenging many of the narratives that continue to persist in Western intellectual circles. Nikonov’s work reminds us of the importance of taking a truly global view when assessing the world’s current dynamics, and provides some sobering critiques of the Western world’s current malaise. The message is clear: if the West is not to be left behind, we must embark upon a cultural and political revival of our own, before it is too late.
Disclaimer: Glagoslav Publications provided me with a free review copy of the book for this review. All opinions expressed in the above review are my own.
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- Nikonov, Vyacheslav. The Code of Civilization. Translated by Huw Davies. Glagoslav Publications, 2020. Currently in print.
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© Brandy Harrison/Russophile Reads 2021