A Russian Lesson on the Anthropology of International Relations


At the end of a long statement, coming as the response to the last question in a press conference in Moscow on August 26, 2013, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov (above), delivered what might be useful to understand as an anthropological statement on international relations, specifically on the treatment of people(s). It is reproduced here in full, given the almost total absence of such ideas and perspectives both in our own mainstream media, and certainly never to be heard coming from the mouths of our ruling political elites. Below, Lavrov speaks on law, freedom, surveillance, and especially in the final paragraph here, attitudes of civilizational superiority that deny the dignity of others. (Minor edits were done to the translation, for clarity).

quote1aAll those, who think that they will be able to establish laws from the epoch of lawlessness, probably act short-sightedly. It will definitely catch up with them later.

What happens with the freedom of the Internet? We were told many times, that there can be no limits by definition. As it seems, this position, which was translated at international forums, was not at all a guide for actions of those, who promoted it in public. In practice, freedom of the Internet was abused and, probably, continues to be abused, as we say, very deeply. For the time being, this is probably causing a mess, at least in terms of morals and ethics.

You can pick any sphere, and it is always better to follow the rules, to respect peoples and help them reach an agreement with each other, rather than thinking in categories of “gunboat diplomacy”, stop to be sick [nostalgic] for the colonial past, the epoch, when they needed just to whisper for everybody to show servile obedience. The world is changing today. It is impolite and short-sighted to perceive other civilisations as second class groups of the population. It will catch you up sometime in the future. We need to avoid the war of civilisations in all possible ways. We are for dialogue, for the alliance of civilisations. But in this case we need to respect each other’s traditions, the history of those communities, which become more and more significant on our planet, to respect the values, which have been created, established for centuries in these societies and were transferred from one generation to another. It is so simple – if you wish to get on well within your neighbours in your village, the same principles apply. A disregard for such principles in the international arena costs much more for taxpayers as well, and, the worst – for peoples’ lives, who then become “collateral damage”. This terrible term (collateral damage) was invented to justify the gross violations of international humanitarian law and is rooted deeply in those, who promote concepts like “responsibility to protect”, “humanitarian intervention” – when the motto of human rights is used to disrupt the most crucial right – the right to live….quote2b

15 thoughts on “A Russian Lesson on the Anthropology of International Relations

  1. Imagine, public officials who actually know what they’re doing. And who do their jobs as those responsibilities are described to the public. Would something like this work in the US of A? Nah, I didn’t think so either.

  2. “But in this case we need to respect each other’s traditions, the history of those communities, which become more and more significant on our planet, to respect the values, which have been created, established for centuries in these societies and were transferred from one generation to another.”

    So don’t bash our homophobia or our misogynistic church.

    It’s all nice words. But they’re also really hypocritical words – as if the Russian government and oligarchs respect the values of Chechens, Dagestanis, the millions of Central Asian and Caucasian migrants in Moscow, women, gay people… Moreover, the argument amounts to a default respect of tradition simply because it’s tradition, with no understanding of the idea that tradition can be wrong, even barbaric. This is not something anyone should be defending.

    Russia has pulled off a fantastic propaganda victory here, presenting themselves not only as the peace-loving side but also as the anti-imperialists defending ordinary Syrians from Western aggression. They’ve managed to do this while refusing to denounce the Syrian government at the UN and keeping the chemical-weapons-using dictator in power through shipments of arms from Oktyabrsk.

    1. I am not surprised by your comment, it was to be expected. This is the usual sort of response that encodes so much of the discourse made dominant in our society, and it is usually proffered with little in the way of questioning.

      For example:

      a) Here you confuse theory with practice. Lavrov’s message is a powerful and valid one because it comes so close to what so many other representatives of other nations have argued for decades since decolonization. Is the Russian leadership hypocritical? Yes. But you also omit that they cooperate with you on Afghanistan, which is the greatest hypocrisy of them all. The message above, however, does not lose force.

      b) “Tradition can be wrong, even barbaric.” This is precisely the kind of standard Eurocentric attitude that one wishes had been left dead and buried back in the nineteenth century, or better yet, buried with the bones of Columbus where it belongs. It’s not a position that deserves any respect, and it informs all sorts of cultural stereotyping and bigotry that it is totally unacceptable, as is your assumption of the right to speak for all others.

      Also, if you don’t like the Russian Orthodox church…I believe you are free to stay out of it. Right? Or has someone forced you to join? I don’t know about your world, but my world is big enough for everyone to find their place. If you don’t like their place, then enjoy your own–they are under no obligation to transform themselves to please you by becoming more like you, and I am thankful for that.

      As a friend once said, “Societies are not amusement parks. They don’t need to acquire the latest ride.”

      c) Syria is Russia’s ally, much like Bahrain and Yemen are the U.S.’ ally and whose atrocities the U.S. not only justifies but also directly aids, while committing some of their own. Even so, the U.S. is unable to pull off any propaganda victories of its own. Interesting isn’t it, given the millions invested in “soft power” and “public diplomacy” and “information operations.” Two days ago, John Kerry spoke as if he were boss of the world; in less than 24 hours, he is following Russia’s lead. So I half agree with you here.

  3. How is it backward and Eurocentric to think that tradition can be wrong and barbaric? Clearly, it can be, unless you believe that, say, FGM isn’t barbaric simply because it’s traditional, or that headhunting in southeast Asia – certainly an interesting and important tradition – wasn’t a horrible series of grisly crimes. Lavrov is saying that tradition should be respected just because it’s tradition. He doesn’t give a further argument as to why this should be; he assumes that tradition alone should command our respect. It’s not Eurocentric to reject that line of thinking (how could it be?) – it’s just good sense. I notice that you haven’t bothered to argue against the position either, and instead have resorted to the genetic fallacy. I hope you understand that that isn’t sufficient to undermine what I’m saying.

    It’s not bigoted, either. It’s traditions, not entire groups of people, that rouse my ire, and they do so precisely because they are harmful to the people involved. Female genital mutilation is not something I’m willing to respect, and that isn’t because I despise the ethnic groups who practice it. Rather, it’s because I see them as human, and therefore inherently deserving of respects *as humans*, not as cogs in a cultural machine that produces traditions.

    Let’s be clear about what you’re saying here. You’re saying that people – human beings like you and me – are less important than traditions, and that traditions, even harmful and horrifying ones, cannot be criticized. That’s *appalling*.

    And as for the Russian Orthodox Church: do you know anything at all about Russia? Have you heard of Pussy Riot? Are you really unaware that the symbiosis between the church and Putin’s authoritarian regime is complete, and that they are pushing together for a socially conservative, anti-egalitarian, homophobic, repressive nation of Russian nationalist-church-goers where democracy is impossible?

    You’re right that the church is under no obligation to change from me, but you seem to be ignoring the very real fact that church-supported hooligans regularly assault gay rights activists and ordinary gay people in the street, and that they have cooperated with the state since the end of the Soviet Union to keep women’s rights down. Either you’re unaware, or you think that tradition is more important than the rights of gay people to live as they wish to.

    1. AJ West–Your statement undermines itself, which is what I was pointing out. Clearly, many if not most Russians disagree with your calling their traditions “wrong” or “barbaric”–so you are speaking from a particular vantage point, and it’s not the vantage point of either a Russian or anyone outside of the dominant, liberal imperial elites of the West. To term anything “barbaric”–and it really pains me to see ANY anthropology student using such language–is to invoke the civilization-barbarism dichotomy that emerged from Europe. So it is a Eurocentric statement and it defeats itself by being incapable of laying any claim to validity, rooted as it is merely in its own particularistic cultural bias, which is at the root of bigotry.

      Feel free to be *appalled* by what you do not understand or refuse to understand. Some would say that very stance is appalling in anthropology. What I clearly said–and I really don’t know how anyone could presume to distort this–has to do with the self-determination of peoples, in not being mere cogs of the cultural machine which you impose on them. Who cares what you like? They will develop their own approaches, in their own time, on their own terms.

      Pussy Riot. Of course, that had to be thrown in there. For a moment there, I thought you might have been serious. I was wrong.

      Anyway, unlike the State Department script that you so eagerly follow without question, this item is not about what you believe to be the Russian “human rights” record and even less so about gays. That you would like to distract attention from what is an excellent statement from Lavrov, and point to all sorts of other real or imagined sins, is actually showing me that you are a cog in a cultural machine that produces a tradition of ethnocentric judgments of others. I thought we had outgrown that in anthropology, but apparently that is not true of Oxford.

      Thanks and best wishes.

  4. Max, I’m wondering what you think of the following idea: The transparent absurdity of the alleged rationale for bombing Syria (moral outrage, etc.) is so blatantly obvious–to people who understand history–that the following subtext could be inferred from this, I.e.: This is a way of telling people that the US Government, or at least the Executive (Unitary?) Branch of it, doesn’t really care whether we believe their pathetically lame (deliberately so?) excuses for acts of aggression, commission of international war crimes, et al–they are going to do whatever they want, without requiring so much as a plausible pretext. Thus demonstrating to us their indifference to us and, presumably, our powerlessness to affect their actions.

    Why else would they resort to such a flagrantly (as in, in-yer-face) preposterous rationale? All speculation, of course, but I’m interested in your thoughts. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Roland,

      The U.S. leadership is building on and extending the theme of “exceptionalism” by making it even more imperial, in an almost absolutist and monarchical sense. The first stage involves telling the world that the U.S. has an inherent, special right to rule and to determine the destinies of other nations, and that whatever may appear as crimes committed in exercising this rule are not crimes when the U.S. commits them. Nineteen guys attack some buildings in New York–and that’s “war”. The U.S. firing 120 cruise missiles into Libyan cities, and then pounding them for months with thousands upon thousands of bombing runs–that’s not “war,” that’s humanitarian “kinetic military action”. The second stage is not that difficult to achieve, and seems almost inevitable in building on the first stage: now the imperial elite starts to issue commands to its own domestic populace. No need to seek approval for their actions, because unlike the citizenry, the imperial elites reigns above any law, whether international or domestic. They might “consult” a portion of the elected political organs of the citizens, they might ignore them altogether, or they might do as recently but still with the understanding that military action may take place regardless. This same elite pretends that if it does not “act” it will be held accountable for inaction; yet when it does “act,” it should never be held accountable for any crimes committed.

      1. Thanks for your response Max–much appreciated. I take all points you mention. But I haven’t been able to discern a response to my specific, rather narrow question, which has to do with deliberate attempts to intimidate ‘those smart-alecky-intellectual types’ (you know–anyone familiar with the work of Noam Chomsky, for example; a minority but a sizable one).

        I suppose my question ties into what I perceive as (maybe–speculative, not certain, but plausible) other oddities over the past decade or more; Use of the word “Homeland,” for the agency, for example–they didn’t have to call it that. Also, what has Gitmo really been all about? More recently, the targeted persecution of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, Glenn Greenwald himself, Evo Moralis, …. the list goes on.

        The overarching principle has to do with stifling dissent, and making the entire world aware of what “We” do to people who get out of line. I suspect that Guantanamo has been there more for show than for substance–the CIA and others have had, for decades, plenty of black sites to send people to for punishment and/or disappearance. (Including at least one in Syria, btw–a la Mahmod Arar.) There was no need to allow the information to “leak” out about the horrific things the US was doing to people, including people who were known to have had nothing to do with what the US claims to be concerned about.

        Why are these (and many other) things so public and so conspicuous? Including using insultingly bogus justifications for dropping bombs on Syria–they can’t possibly be so clueless as to think that anyone who knows anything is going to believe that, can they? (Yes, some people, a lot of people, will believe anything, no matter how absurd, if it suits them at the time, but that leaves out a lot of people who won’t.) So why make the horrendous actions, the bad actors acting in bad faith so blindingly obvious to the small-but-significant “smart-alecky” group, if not to, by implication, intimidate? Your thoughts?

        Oh, btw, I don’t know a lot about Russia, but I have a few close friends who are natives and who have lived there their entire lives–some as ancient as myself, some much younger; (In Moscow and in Novosibirsk City.) I talk with one or two of them frequently, by Skype, at no charge–at least two or three times per week. What they think? = What you said. Just because the Cold War is over, doesn’t mean the propaganda stopped. I stand, proudly, in solidarity with GLBT people and their rights. But the whole homophobia thing, and what the P R debacle was Really about–all of that, and a whole lot more, has been blown far out of proportion in the West (especially, of course, in the US). So, the point is, don’t believe everything you read in the papers, so to speak. Better yet, don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

  5. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’ s eloquent analysis of global politics truly qualifies for a first rate anthropological engagement of the current human condition. His views are tinted by an enlightened and humane understanding of colonialism and its bloody aftermath in which the United States has become the biggest thug in block. I have lived in this country for more than five decades. I have never heard an American political leader or prominent government figure to realistically and meaningfully articulate global (and even local) political formats, processes and problems in a coherent ideological and morally consistent framework. Everything—thoughts and actions—that originate in the political apparatus of the United States invite the label uninformed, contradictory, delusional, provincial, and uncouth. Barak Obama’s speech last night contains all these characteristics. For example he states: “for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security”. In reality, every place touched by the United States since WWII—Palestine, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria—has turned to dust—to instability, separation, insecurity, and political chaos.

    Accusing Russia of homophobia is a distortion of the real conditions in Russian political and popular culture. That culture is fundamentally not different than the American culture on this issue. The legal status of GLBT “marriage” in a few American states distorts the realities of American attitude toward homosexuality. The cosmology of homophobia pervades American culture; it resides barely under the surface. But since Americans are only interested in surface effects, what is under the surface does not matter. Gender inequality and the effect of various forms of misogyny are available in virtually all industrial and post-industrial societies. However, America is unsurpassed in the abuse, exploitation, and vulgarization of women and womanhood.

  6. Max: Thanks for your response, much appreciated. I wrote a lengthy question-and-comment in response, attempted to post it and, I must have hit the wrong key because it disappeared into the ether. Ergo, will give the extremely short version (you don’t know how lucky you are):

    Your points taken. My question more narrow, specifically to do with intimidation of “intellectuals.” Why are so many nefarious things so in-yer-face-obvious to this group? They must know that we know, right? So why do it that way? Why use “Homeland” in Security–obvious overtones and it didn’t have to be called that. Why the as-much-show-as substance, very, very public ongoing events at Guantanamo? Why not put forward a better excuse than “shocked! … shocked, I tell you!” for Syria? Is there a deliberate underlying intent to tell those who know better, “we don’t care what you know, and we’re letting you know not only that, but also, look at what could happen to you if you step out of line.’?

    Part 2. Have friends in Russia, native to Russia, lived there most/all their lives, ages range from mine-Methusela-to much younger, talk to one or two of them frequently by phone–couple times a week, for several years. On all the PR, homophobia, et al, what they think is what you think. As best I can tell, you have a pretty accurate understanding of what’s been happening in the Russian Federation and why. Putin, btw …. wildly popular there …and, imo, should be.

  7. “Clearly, many if not most Russians disagree with your calling their traditions “wrong” or “barbaric”–so you are speaking from a particular vantage point, and it’s not the vantage point of either a Russian or anyone outside of the dominant, liberal imperial elites of the West.”

    And how on earth do you know that they like their traditions? How do you know that they don’t feel compelled to follow them by the threat of violence? I agree that it comes from a certain standpoint, but so, technically, do all positions. Your unquestioning acceptance of the idea that tradition is good for its own sake, *including other peoples’ traditions*, is also a minority position and one found only among ‘dominant, liberal’ Western elites. Is your position not similarly Eurocentric by your own confused metric?

    Do you really think that there aren’t any closet homosexuals in Russia who want to come out but can’t? Do you really think the church represents the views of everyone in a nation of 150,000,000 people? Do you really believe that women in Russia want to be held down by the men in their society (which they are)? Do you *really* believe that anthropologists should endorse the tyranny of the majority?

    Your comments imply that majority rule is acceptable, that judging tradition from a moral standpoint is never acceptable (even when you yourself are trying to make a moral claim), and that there is no stand we can take on any tradition. This is the least ethical approach to humans you could ever take. Would you have similarly refused to take a moral stand against German antisemitism in the 1930s, indubitably heir to an old tradition? Or is it only some traditions that you like and others that you don’t?

    And why is it acceptable for M. Jamil Hanifi to say that “America is unsurpassed in the abuse, exploitation, and vulgarization of women and womanhood”, presumably engaging in a moral denunciation of American culture (with which, by the way, ‘many if not most’ Americans are in agreement), when I cannot denounce Russian culture in the same terms?

    “unlike the State Department script that you so eagerly follow without question”

    I’m not even American! And I’m not arguing for any particular standpoint on Syria at all. It’s just that I have a lot of Russian friends – I worked with Russian students of all ages for years and retain many lasting friendships. There are a lot of disgruntled Russians who disagree with the majority but cannot speak for fear of violence, losing their job, or some similar outrage. Lavrov is trying to get everyone to agree to the unquestioning acceptance of tradition in other countries, even when that tradition causes harm to the people living under its sway. That isn’t a good position. You call my position Eurocentric, but you haven’t even bothered to argue against it (again). You’ve just lambasted it as ‘Eurocentric’ and seem to believe that that’s enough. It isn’t, and I’m not.

    “the self-determination of peoples”

    Let’s be clear: this is a mistaken principle. It takes ‘peoples’ to be more important than ‘people’. It is assumes that within any nation or ethnic group, there is a collective will which they all possess and which causes them to believe the same thing, which is transparently false (an anthropologist should know that!). It assumes that ethnic groups/nations are wholes more important than the sums of their parts. And it endorses the ethno-nationalist and authoritarian principle that ideas that are deemed to be good by the supposed collective belief are more important than the rights of individual humans.

    Invoking the ‘self-determination of peoples’, instead of the freedom of human beings, has always been controversial and always should be. It’s not a good principle, and you cannot invoke it without argument as to why it is good.

    Putin is popular in Russia, but he is an authoritarian dictator. It is unbelievable that an anthropologist claiming to be against empire, colonialism, and oppression could support Putin, a man trying to suppress opposition (*especially* ethnic opposition from non-European-Russian ethnic groups) while using homosexuals as a scapegoat.

    1. AJ West,

      You’re very confused, and not really up to this kind of debate. (I don’t mean to personalize things, and it’s difficult to address the message without sometimes accidentally addressing the messenger.)

      Neither you, nor anyone else, needs to be American to follow the same lines as found in any script issued by the State Department. So you’re accusing me of making a false accusation, which is itself false. I also know you are not American: my reference to Oxford conceded that at the very least you are not in the U.S. But it doesn’t matter either way.

      Second, you need to decide if I am a minoritarian, or a majoritarian, because you accuse me of both above. Which is it? This is an example of what I call flailing, throwing everything you can, valid or not, invented or real, and hoping desperately that some of it will stick. It is extremely poor writing, not to say a deficient and illogical form of argumentation.

      If you believe gay men and women resent their situation in Russia, then please leave it up to them to solve. That is what self-determination is all about, and generic “people” only exist in the liberal imperialist imagination, that obliterates difference then gasps and gulps when faced with difference. It’s not your place to speak on their behalf, which is really very arrogant of you.

      Then you tell me that I have not bothered to argue against your Eurocentrism (which means you are not even paying attention), and yet here you are back again responding to my statements. That’s quite a lot of verbiage for an argument that is not taking place. Not only are you Eurocentric, you are crassly so, without so much as an an ounce of the sort of reflexivity that might actually help you to improve, thus making better, more subtly Eurocentric arguments.

      Finally, you end with another false accusation–that frankly speaking, you took out of your rear end–and that is that I am a Putin supporter. That ends this “conversation” for good now, I have been through this dreary sophistry from commentators for too long to put up with more of it.

      PS: LOOK UP THE MEANING OF GENETIC FALLACY, since it is what you are guilty of committing.

  8. A closing comment:

    Given the complexity of Russian society, of any society, it is simplistic reductionism to examine every practice, every utterance, through the single lens of Western-conceived ideas of “gay rights,” with its attendant emphasis on individual freedoms and diminished states. In this sense, gay rights becomes an expression of neoliberal policy, which is itself decidedly opposed to genuine self-determination.

    Secondly, it is a form of ad hominem arguing to look at a great statement such as the one featured in this article, and simply huff: “Oh yeah, what about gays!?” Not only is it an irrelevant remark that takes nothing away from the original statement, it is entirely dishonest (we commit no sins, so let’s focus on others).

    Thirdly, one would have thought that it was not the work of anthropologists to go around the world passing harsh judgments and issuing denunciations. Supposedly, our aim was to understand others, not trash them. At this pace, we are moments away from a reactionary restoration of scientific racism.

    Lastly, Russia needs no lessons on revolution, not from anyone in the West. Russia has had two momentous revolutions in the space of just over 70 years–it can teach lessons about change, but you would first have to learn how to listen. Unfortunately, some refuse to do even that, and yet claim to be anthropologists. Now that is truly shameful and disgusting.

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