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A Journey for Understanding (Part I)

Navigating Eurocentrism and the ‘Mysterious Russian Soul’


This is Part I of the Book Review on Johannes Socher’s “Russia and the Right to Self-Determination in the Post-Soviet Space” (Oxford University Press, 2021). You can read Part II here.

In international law’s complex landscape, few issues elicit as much debate as the elusive concept of self-determination – not least due to Russia’s contentious state practice. In his incredibly timely book, published already in 2021, Johannes Socher has delved deep into this very topic, offering a thorough analysis of Russia’s self-determination stance. As we venture into the depth of Russia’s engagement with international law, the echoes of historical legacies, imperial ambitions, and conflicting narratives emerge. While Socher’s book offers a guiding light, one ponders: What aspects will the author highlight through selected frames, and how will these choices inform and shape our understanding of the subject?

The book begins with an epigraph from Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, quoting a defense speech. Dostoyevsky, whose work we owe the cultivation of the ‘mysterious Russian soul’ (see Williams (1970), p. 582), wrote a story about Karamazov, accused of murdering his father. In the quote, a literary device used by Socher, Karamazov’s advocate refers to the preceding prosecutor’s speech:

“I was warned in Petersburg, and was myself aware, that I should find here a talented opponent whose psychological insight and subtlety had gained him peculiar renown in legal circles of recent years. But profound as psychology is, it’s a knife that cuts both ways (…)” (p. XXV).

The reader immediately wonders, will Socher act as a prosecutor or the defender of the Russian stance on self-determination?

Taking sides, however, is not Socher’s intention. His goal is to fill a gap in the literature which, as Socher would have it, mostly focused on “judging” Russia’s involvement in self-determination conflicts and did not aim at “understanding” a specific Russian approach (p. 11). Socher endeavors to genuinely engage with Russian claims vis-à-vis European perspectives as an object of investigation (p. 7). In the conclusions, he suggests that it is “more insightful” to see that Russian references to international law differ from Western approaches, signifying not just power politics but a regional fragmentation of international law (p. 206). To provide a rationale for contrasting Russia’s position with the Western or European viewpoint, Socher employs the fragmentation framework and refers in particular to Koskenniemi’s well-known critique of Eurocentric international law, heavily influenced by European values and originally designed for ‘civilized nations’ (p. 7).

Given the significance and richness of the questions prompted by the book’s approach which extend beyond the specific legal concept of self-determination, our review will be divided into two parts. The first part will focus on the book’s framing and discuss the issues of ‘understanding’ and international law’s Eurocentrism, particularly concerning self-determination. In the review’s second part, we will leave the bird’s eye perspective and explore Socher’s rich empirical work and analysis of the Russian state practice on self-determination, as well as their Soviet legacy. Socher’s extensive work also illuminates the complicit roles of Soviet and Russian academia in shaping the self-determination right in line with the state foreign policy. These insights are further contextualized with developments post-book’s release.

Умом Россию (не) понять?

One can (not) understand Russia with the mind, or can they? At the book’s outset, Socher challenges readers to move beyond “judging” and towards “understanding” Russia’s approach to self-determination. The pursuit of “understanding” is a recurring theme throughout the book. Socher explores various frames of references, in which inconsistencies of Russia’s stance could make sense: Those reach from understanding their approach through the lens of “assumed spheres of influences”, Schmitt’s Großraum theory, and Koskenniemi’s differentiation between classic and romantic conceptions of self-determination (pp. 207-209). Yet, despite these attempts, Socher notes, Russia’s state practice remains inconsistent (ibid).

The author further addresses the perceived language barrier hindering understanding of Russian scholarship, urging Western scholars to self-reflect (p. 211) (as reviewers, we add that self-reflection shall be certainly available to Russian scholars too). He underscores that during the Cold War, understanding Soviet thinking was essential, and warns against viewing Russia as an “exotic Other” (pp. 211-212). Here one might ask themselves: is the problem Socher takes with “exoticizing” about not taking Russian viewpoints seriously or about applying double standards due to the perceived difference of these views?

While Socher aspires to be able to understand Russia, the reader misses the author’s reflection on what understanding – beyond the challenges presented in comprehending the Russian stance – truly means. Exploring and contextualizing the (different) meanings and dimensions of understanding would have surely been helpful. Especially, insights drawn from Hans-Georg Gadamer and Vittorio Hösle could have informed this quest.

What Does It Mean ‘To Understand’?

Unsurprisingly, the term understanding is multifaceted. As the ordinary meaning of “understanding” is ambivalent and thus not immediately helpful we might look to adjacent disciplines to acquire deeper and more comprehensive knowledge. In philosophy, understanding broadly implies deep comprehension of phenomena, crucial for achieving scientific epistemic goals (de Regt and Dieks (2005) pp. 139-140, Stocker (1980) pp. 329-330, Friedman (1974) p. 15). Hösle (2018) identified another dimension that is, ‘understanding as excusing’ (pp. 20-22), stemming from Terence and Madame de Staël. While understanding must not necessarily lead to forgiveness (cf Brattvoll (2023)), it offers interesting insights into the Russian use of the term, reflected in Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ and Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ which cites ‘tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner’ (Book I, Part I, Chapter XXV). In fact, the Russian equivalent, ‘понять и простить’, appears in various contexts, including a 2014 interview with a Crimean official post-staged referendum.

Gadamer (1960), on the other hand, carves out the intimate connection of understanding with interpreting and discerning which aspects to highlight (pp. 250-251, 306, 388). His idea of ‘fusion of horizons’ illustrates gaining an understanding as entering another one’s viewpoint and navigating familiar and unfamiliar elements in an ‘I-Thou’ interaction (ibid., pp. 179-181, 237-242, 370). For Gadamer genuine understanding requires both parties to meet on the same level, engage in a ‘conversation’ without applying distorting frames, and be open to adjusting their viewpoints (ibid., pp. 360-387).

Applying this conversational lens illustrates the challenge that trying to understand Russia’s stance on international law poses. Russia’s frequent questioning of rules’ universality and its weaponization of the language of international law for foreign policy defeats the possibility of a Gadamerian dialogue. Therefore, Socher’s application of sophisticated frames to interpret Russia’s actions, while offering a captivating read, risks skewing the meaning of understanding by trying to understand the other better than they do understand themselves (cf Gadamer, pp. 194, 352-353; Hösle, pp. 175-176). Socher appears to overlook a straightforward message from Russia: their belief is not in their arguments, but in that they can get away with them.

The forthcoming sections of our review are guided by two insights from the above analysis: the challenge of understanding with distorted frames, which we will discuss through the ‘Russian soul’ and Eurocentrism frames; and the importance of highlighting in understanding which will be exemplified by Socher’s depiction of the Crimea case-study.

The Frame of the ‘Russian Soul’

Attempts to understand Russia frequently involve the misguided use of the ‘Russian soul’ concept, effectively exoticizing the subject. The frame is notably absent in Socher’s direct analysis. What is noteworthy is that Socher bookends his analysis with a quote from Dostoyevsky in the epigraph and concludes the book with a caution against exoticizing Russia. Wishing to contextualize and continue the discussion begun by Socher, given the significance of this frame in the context of understanding, and its relevance for the Russian self-determination discourse, we will now delve into it.

Robert C. Williams’ in-depth investigation of the history of the ‘Russian soul’ concept – an idea embodying complexities of understanding Russia – reveals that the term emerged in Russian vocabulary mid-19th century after the Crimean War, disastrous for the Russian Empire (Williams (1970), p. 582). As an alternative to what could have been classified as a failed state, the ‘Russian soul’ embodied Russian nationalism and zeal for self-determination centered on its people – good, innocent peasants destined for a triumphant future (Williams, pp. 573-578, 582).

Interestingly, suggesting Russian superiority over the materialistic West – which sold its soul in a Faustian way – was not a Russian invention, but an idea borrowed from German idealism (ibid., pp. 573-576). Dostoyevsky interpreted the ‘Russian soul’ as anti-European, with the twist that Russia would save Europe with brotherly love (ibid., p. 584). Even as Russia’s industrial efforts weakened its position to make claims of moral superiority, the myth of the ‘Russian soul’ was kept alive in the West (ibid., p. 585). Lenin, for instance, was described as symbolic of the Russian soul’s reaction to Western civilization (ibid., p. 587).

The ‘Russian soul’ idiom’s persistence in Western narratives is striking. We only have to browse through the archives of The New Yorker magazine (hereinafter – TNY) to see that since its debut in 1925, the magazine has employed it in myriad realms: ballet critiques linking it to the character of a ‘little [powerless] man’, literature and cinema reviews depict souls “pickled in Hunter’s vodka” and the indescribable “Russian soul-thirst” (TNY, 22 January 1979, p. 99; 23 October 1995, p. 36; 04 May 1968, p. 163). Yeltsin’s comments during the Communist Party Case underscored the yearning for expansion in the “consciousness of the Russian” and “a powerful image in the Russian soul: the idea of breadth as wealth-the more, the better” (TNY, 30 November 1992, p. 118). Needless to say, in these examples the term is used with little to no explanation, thus promoting a romanticized view of Russia and its people. Only in 2023, TNY’s piece emerged, contemplating the impact of everyday romanticization on foreign policies, reflecting on Dostoyevsky’s expansionist rhetoric mirrored in modern-Russian propaganda, on Russian literature in Putin’s invocations of the ‘Russian world’ and the lack of post-colonial criticism of Russian legacies, unlike British or French, due to non-overseas imperial expansion.

Ukrainian writers have been even more straightforward in critique of what they see as Western need to rationalize evil and Russian normalization of it. They explain the weaponization of Russian culture, the impact of Dostoyevskism on the Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and the intellectual roots of events in Chechnya, Moldova, and Georgia in Russia’s revered literary works (see also Plokhy (2015), p. 152). As Russian literature largely evaded post-colonial scrutiny with its writers not being seen as ‘troubadours of the empire’, similarly, the saltwater test further shielded the USSR from being identified as a colonial power, sparing it from self-determination claims (Socher, pp. 29-32, 54-55; cf. Sparks (2023), p. 90).

As such, the ‘Russian soul’ frame, commonly used outside the context of exploring the origins of Russia’s own self-determination claims, proves inadequate in understanding Russia. This frame leads to exoticizing the subject, a pitfall Socher also cautioned against (Socher, p. 212).

The Frame of Eurocentricity

While Eurocentricity is an important debate, its utility in understanding a Russian approach is constrained. As will be shown below, this limitation stems from the difficulty in reconciling critiques of Eurocentricity with Russia’s own colonial history, active role in shaping ‘Eurocentric’ norms, especially with a view to self-determination, and its responsibility as a UN Security Council permanent member to uphold peace within those rules. This discussion gains particular significance considering the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and many global responses that weaponized the Eurocentricity critique, overlooking imperial rationale of the Russian aggression and Ukraine’s anti-colonial struggle for self-determination (Labuda (2023), pp. 2-22; cf Plokhy (2015), pp. 349-350).

Eurocentrism Critique

Eurocentrism is criticized, among others, for the projection of its vision of international law through imperialism and colonialism (cf Socher, p. 7; Nollkaemper (2011), para 11). In fact, during the 19-20th centuries, colonial conquests and territorial expansions were not limited to (Western) European states: examples also include Russia’s occupation of Siberia (Kämmerer (2018), para 4) and the USSR’s imperialist formation through invasion, occupation, and staged referendums (cf Friedmann (1965) p. 870).

Socher notes that despite Soviet claims to distinct international law based on Marxism-Leninism, Soviet doctrine was arguably never Marxist, and might be better understood through the hegemony concept, (p. 8) a view extending to modern Russia’s conceptualization of self-determination right in its self-defined sphere of influence that arguably support “the idea of a greater Russian Reich or derzhava” (pp. 9-19, 207).

At this juncture, the reader begins pondering about the value of turning to the Soviet/Russian hegemonic view, given that it faces criticism similar to the Eurocentrism challenge. If we accept the need for it, and having Gadamer in mind: can a meaningful conversation and reciprocal influence between views exist if one party refuses to engage in good faith and manipulates the language of law, while the other attempts to reconcile the differences? Is the utility of this dialogue further undermined when considering observations by both Socher (pp. 71-76) and Butler (2020) (pp. 59-61, 214-220) that Russian jurisprudence and doctrine symptomatically do not get the basics of international law right (as seen in cases like Tatarstan)? In other words, without addressing these issues, one is left wondering: Can understanding be reached at all, and if so, what exactly can be learned from the Russian perspective on international law?

Russia’s Role in Shaping Mestizo International Law

Socher situates his study within broader research of regional perspectives on international law, referencing Becker Lorca (2006) among others (p. 7). What Socher does not explore is Becker Lorca’s (2014) lens of international law’s mestizo (mixed) origins, shaped by central and peripheral interactions leading to universal norms, which in our view offers a more comprehensive understanding of Russia’s role in shaping legal regimes (pp. 9-23).

Historically, after the 1709 Battle of Poltava, Russia emerged as a formidable European power, later contributing to the European collective hegemony through the 1815 Vienna Congress (Plokhy (2015), pp. 127-134, Thürer (2011), para 3). Yet, the 19th century saw Russia striving to reaffirm its standing among ‘civilized’ nations, and Becker Lorca’s study covering 1842-1933 period, reveals Russia’s semi-peripheral position during these years, with lawyers like Martens, contributing to universal rule creation (Becker Lorca, pp. 118-128).

Friedrich (aka Fyodor Fyodorovich) Martens actually exemplifies the difficulty with placing Russia against the Eurocentric perspective. Socher’s book footnotes Mälksoo’s (2014) work “F.F. Martens and His Time: When Russia Was an Integral Part of the European Tradition of International Law”, but in a different context (p. 41). Importantly here, Martens, a representative and legal advisor for Russia, utilized the ‘civilized’ benchmark both to argue for Russia’s inclusion in the international community and to justify its expansionist policies (Mälksoo (2006), pp. 388-389, Mälksoo (2014), pp. 813-825). Marten’s apologetic rhetoric behind Russia’s 1877 intervention in the Ottoman Empire, was labelled by Koskenniemi (2005) as emblematic of a ‘European tradition’ (pp. 113-114).

The above shows that understanding historical contingencies of international rule development is critical in assessing Russia’s attempts to carve out special norms. Ultimately, it is essential to differentiate between appreciating diverse perspectives and subjecting different actors in similar situations to distinct rules (Peters (2019)). In other words, criticism “cannot stop at Europe’s boundaries” (see Koskenniemi’s interview with Obregón (2017), p. 383).

Shaping the Right to Self-Determination

Socher argues that the history of the self-determination principle in international law starts with the Russian Revolution, not Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points (p. 12, Chapter 1). This duality, commonly used as a heuristic, may overlook the role played by other actors and deny their agency. In this context, Becker Lorca’s book again offers a different frame, while providing space to accommodate Russian contribution.

Becker Lorca highlights non-Eurocentric stories (pp. 8-9) and demonstrates how semi-peripheral States in the early 20th century shifted from the civilized standard to statehood arguments, facilitating recognition of self-determination as an international right (pp. 226-287). Socher’s book, by addressing the USSR’s role in codifying the right to self-determination (Chapter 1), in this sense continues the discussion.

Yet, while to Socher the USSR’s role has been ‘the decisive’ (p. 12), Becker Lorca, who generally positions Russia as semi-peripheral to the Western center, does not include USSR/Russia in numerous examples of semi-peripherals contributing to the formulation of the right to self-determination (pp. 227-239). In fact, it is illuminating that his examples include claims by Ukraine and Azerbaijan to join the League of Nations, that were rejected due to the instability of their borders caused by Soviet invasions (pp. 263-273).

Becker Lorca focus is not on Russia’s central-peripheral role in self-determination, but by revealing the mestizo heritage of the self-determination concept, he enables to see a perspective that goes beyond the typical “West vs Russia” binary, and to question Russian interactions with nations it views as colonies. This approach also helps to address the challenge posed by Socher’s approach: if readers accept the USSR/Russia’s decisive role in formulating the self-determination right, how do we reconcile this with an assumption that Russia holds a different, legitimate view from the (dominant) Eurocentric one? This question is even more pertinent considering the structure of international law in the field of international peace and security, where self-determination cases land, and Russia’s responsibility as a UN Security Council’s permanent member to maintain peace under those allegedly Eurocentric rules.

Understanding as Highlighting – The Crimea Case

Socher analyses Russia’s state practice through seven case-studies: Tatarstan, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea (Chapters 2-4). Each case-study summarizes the conflicts’ origins, Soviet and post-Soviet developments. This approach offers readers a digestible context, but to achieve clarity, certain facts and narratives are emphasized while others are inevitably omitted.

The Crimea case-study firmly asserts the annexation’s illegality and powerfully criticizes Russian justifications (pp. 147, 159-176). Yet, some case-study parts require further attention, and within the limits of this review, a few examples are provided.

The book’s mention of pre-annexation “vigorous policy of Ukrainization” followed by “increasing radicalization and xenophobia on the peninsula” (p. 156) lacks contextualization and is troublingly vague. An unmentioned 2012 OSCE report provides context (p. 303) of Russian nationalism with anti-Tatar sentiment, alongside many ethnic Russians’ refusal to integrate into Ukrainian society. The reality of ‘vigorous Ukrainization’ was 89% of Crimean pupils studying in Russian before annexation (see OSCE HCNM Report of August 2013, p. 27 and of September 2015, Sections 4.2-4.4). Post-annexation, Ukrainian-language schooling plummeted further to only 0.1% studying in Ukrainian by 2021, despite the ICJ’s 2017 calls on Russia (see ICJ, Order on Provisional Measures (Ukraine v Russia), paras 97-106; Report of the Council of Europe of May 2022, para 34; and of June 2021, para 4.7).

It is surprising to find in the book the rather simplistic narrative of Crimea’s transfer as Khrushchev’s “gift” (p. 153), despite the author footnoting sources debunking the myth, such as Sasse’s detailed analysis, showing broad political and economic motives behind the 1954 decision (Sasse, 2007, pp. 6, 95-125). In fact, what could enrich understanding of the Crimean transfer is considering it in the broader context of common USSR reorganizations – for instance, the dissolution of the Karelian SSR and its absorption into the Russian SFSR. Additionally, referencing a by nowsanctioned Russian media source on Crimea’s transfer (p. 153) calls for caution; and even that source notes the transfer’s prosaic economic, geographical, and cultural reasons – context absent from Socher’s description.

Finally, the portrayal of Crimea’s Soviet history as a “dispute” contrasts with the “resistance” themes in all other case-studies (cf Socher, pp. 70, 82, 152). This framing is puzzling as the text does not detail any dispute over Crimea’s transfer in Soviet times, and sidelines resistance of Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people, throughout the Soviet era and nowadays, which is clearly relevant in self-determination discussions.

This reoccurring linkage between Soviet and contemporary self-determination practices, coupled with a role played by Soviet-Russian doctrine, is the next point we address in Part II of our review.

Polina Kulish

Polina Kulish is a PhD candidate and a research associate at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena. Her fields of research encompass the law of international organisations, law of international security, and media law. In her current research project, she is exploring the nature of member states’ compliance in international organisations.

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Tero Lundstedt

In addition to his work as the Content Director of a Finnish think tank Libera Foundation, LL.D Tero Lundstedt continues his academic pursuits on a post doc project relating to territorial conflicts in the post-Soviet space. Tero’s research topics include international law and politics, conflict mediation, territorial issues and Russian foreign policy.

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