Sophia Cathedral
© Reuters / Murad Sezer; AFP / Natalia Kolesnikova
Hagia Sophia (L); Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow
For all the talk about 'Eurasianism' and Russia's 'unique civilization' the reality is the country is fundamentally European and Christian. The response to Turkey making the Hagia Sophia a mosque again reinforces the point.

In recent years an old buzzword has gained new popularity among what Russians call 'politologists' - that class of pundits and academics who engage in public discussion on political issues. The word in question is 'civilizations', and its use reflects a growing desire to distinguish Russia from the West by claiming some essential difference between the two.

The concept of civilizations has proven particularly attractive among those of a conservative bent and allows them to make a couple of important claims. The first is that the world comprises not different countries all moving toward some common goal founded upon universally valid values and institutions, but rather unique civilizations each of which is progressing along its own separate path. The second is that Russia itself is such a civilization.

The first claim allows Russians to argue in favor of a multipolar international order founded on independent civilizations, and to reject the unipolar system of Western, and especially American, hegemony. The second allows them to reject complaints about Russian non-adherence to Western norms.

This sort of civilizational theory dates back at least as far as the publication in 1867 of Nikolai Danilevsky's book 'Russia and Europe'. Having dropped out of favor in Soviet times, the theory has undergone a remarkable revival in the past 20 years. Contra Samuel Huntington, Russian proponents of civilizational theory argue that civilizations do not need to 'clash', but can learn from each other and maintain peace through mutual dialogue. It is this idea which motivates Vladimir Yakunin's Dialogue of Civilizations initiative, founded in 2016.

Stability, it is claimed, derives not from the imposition on societies of abstract (usually Western) ideas, but from gradual progress on the basis of existing civilizational values and institutions, and from mutual recognition of the right to advance in one's own way. It also comes from an understanding of the traditional values which the main global religions share, allowing for alliances in defense of those values against the encroachment of modern secular liberalism.

That at least is the theory. In practice, civilizational conservatives can be as displeased as anybody else when another civilization is choosing to progress in a manner they do not like. This was shown this week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the former cathedral and mosque of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul would once again become a mosque.

The Russian Foreign Ministry swung to and fro on the issue. At first, it took the line that "this is a Turkish internal affair in which neither we nor others should interfere." Then it backtracked, with ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova announcing that "We regret the decision of the Turkish Republic's leadership." Other public figures, meanwhile, were forthright in their expressions of outrage and concern.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Patriarch Kirill, denounced the move, saying that, "A threat against Hagia Sophia is a threat to all Christian civilization." It "was an unacceptable violation of religious freedom," said Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the ROC's department for external relations. Turkey "will be seen as a violator of religious balance in the eyes of the whole world," said Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Federation Council. And so on.

Yet, really the decision seems to be one that adherents of civilizational thought ought to endorse. Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum in 1935, as part of Ataturk's campaign to secularize Turkey and make it a 'modern European' state. Ataturk's action was exactly the sort of forcible suppression of distinct civilizational traditions in the name of abstract foreign standards of which civilizational conservatives disapprove.

The reopening of a religious house of worship is also precisely the type of restoration of 'traditional' values that proponents of civilizational theory claim to support. Indeed, it is what the ROC itself has been doing, reopening churches closed by the communists at much the same time as Ataturk was closing Hagia Sophia.

All this reveals a striking dissonance between theory and practice. For all their rhetorical support of civilizational theory, Russian spiritual leaders and much of the Russian political class are not always too keen on it when it's put into practice by others. As their responses to the Hagia Sophia decision show, at heart, they regard Islam as a 'threat' (in Patriarch Kirill's words) rather than an equally valid civilizational choice, and at heart, they see themselves as part of a broader Christian, rather than uniquely Russian, civilization.

In short, the current passion for 'civilizations' would appear to be based more on the political benefits it offers than on profound belief. This suggests that if the political situation were to change and the Western world was to extend a hand to Russia to bring current East-West tensions to an end, this passion might evaporate as quickly as it emerged.
Paul Robinson, a professor at the University of Ottawa. He writes about Russian and Soviet history, military history, and military ethics.