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Opinion/the Netherlands

Persistent images. The Dutch historian and author Heiss Kessler talks about how Europe and Russia have been staring at each other for years and can't understand


People are different. Although we all know this and never tire of affirming this wisdom, the human tendency to think in terms of categories, collectives and collective responsibility seems at times to be irrepressible.

The Dutch are this, the Europeans are that, the Russians are that - with a "light touch" we ascribe certain characteristics, habits, or predispositions to millions of people.

Of course, there is often a grain of truth in such observations, and - importantly - they help us navigate the space of different cultures.

The real problem arises when, through common labels, we no longer see the differences and shades that really exist. Or we prefer not to see them.

I was lucky enough to be in Russia in those first years when the country was opening up after a long period of near-total isolation, in July 1991. I recently wrote about my impressions of that time in a book published by Prometheus Amsterdam under the title "Russia. The country that wants to be different'.

Photo: Jury Somov / RIA Novosti

The image of empty counters

Back then, in Europe, in the Netherlands, where I grew up, we knew practically nothing about Russia and the Russians. The country lay behind the Iron Curtain. During the long years of isolation, there was virtually no real human contact.

The situation in Russia, then still part of the Soviet Union, was difficult. Gorbachev's "perestroika" policy had failed to pull the Soviet system out of its impasse, an economic crisis and growing deficits engulfed the country.

The first image of Russia that began to spread abroad was that of empty counters, an image of a poor country on the brink of survival.

This image stuck for a long time. I remember well how throughout the Dashing Nineties, and much later, this image was literally unshakeable, despite the fact that it was less and less in line with reality.

Only when the phenomenon of the "new Russian" emerged, throwing money around to the left and right, was the image of "empty counters" replaced by that of "the country of the oligarchs," which, in turn, lasted a long time. In many respects it is still relevant today.

The fact that most people in Russia lived neither poorly nor richly, but had a more or less adequate (for this country) overall standard of living, has hardly been noticed.

Photo: Picture-alliance / dpa

(Not) Ideal Europe

Let's turn 180 degrees. When the country opened up after the long Soviet period, Russians' perceptions of Europeans were also very formulaic. I experienced it very well, as you say, "In my own skin".

The image of Europe and Europeans was so vanilla-positive that real Europe and real Europeans were doomed to disappoint you.

The Russians I met during those years were often more aware than I was of the exceptional qualities I possessed, such as decency, honesty and moderation. Whether or not I disappointed my friends I fortunately do not know.

But the fact that Europe had disappointed the Russians on closer examination, had lost its appealing gloss in their eyes, I can say for sure, because I saw it myself.

Europe could boast of order and a high standard of living, but at the same time it turned out to be dull, too moderate and too restrained. It was also too demanding - it gave visas, then it did not, forcing every time to prove "that you are not a camel.”

"Do we really need Europe?" - I have repeatedly heard this rather rhetorical question. The contrast between this imagined Europe and the real one in existence has given rise to frustration, which has translated into rejection and an appeal to "our own", albeit angular and not entirely ideal. It is hard not to see in this disappointment the seeds of the current confrontation.

And now a new image of the "Russian" is taking shape - that of an aggressor who supports the war and Putin. And if not a direct aggressor, then at the very least an apathetic and indifferent person who refuses to accept his responsibility for what is happening.

Photo: Alexey Sukhorukov / RIA Novosti

Although it is well known that this image is not true for everyone. There are, of course, the aggressors, there are those who do not care; but there are also those who left, and those who turned out to be ardent opponents of the war and went to prison for it. But it is, unfortunately, the "aggressor image" that has stuck. Alas.

As for the Russians, what do they think of Europe now?

Given the rift that the current conflict has caused in Russian society, there is no consensus. But unlike back in 1991, I am now only left with the opportunity to judge from the outside.

Author: Gijs Kessler, International Institute of Social History
The author's stylistics have been retained

Cover photo: the author's archive

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