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Illustration by Daniel Pudles 

Russia's evolution since the fall of communism has sharply revived  some enduring questions. How does the West best deal with a country whose traditions and approach are so visibly different from our own? What are the prospects for Russia, over time, turning into a "normal European state"? Is Russia, from the European perspective, an insoluble problem?

I served in the British Embassy in Moscow twice — from 1994 to 1998 and again (as Ambassador) from 2004 to 2008. It is the changes in Russia over those 14 years that have given these questions new salience. The mid-1990s were a period of economic chaos in Russia but also of real hope. The deep fissures which had divided our continent for 40 years seemed to be a thing of the past. A system, communism, which had imprisoned and murdered millions was gone. The "End of History" was declared. Democracy and the market economy were to become universal. Central and Eastern Europe quite rapidly assimilated themselves into the West, in particular by becoming EU and Nato members. Russia would take a bit more digesting, but the widespread feeling was that this was just a matter of time. The Russians with whom I met and worked, mostly the aspiring middle class, saw themselves as well rid of communism. They were keen to enjoy the freedom and prosperity that the new dispensation offered. They wanted their country to rejoin the "European Home" from which it had for too long been cut off.

By the time I returned, in 2004, Russia was diverging from the script. One big thing had gone right — the economy was booming. Despite huge inequities and distortions, prosperity and market habits were gradually spreading across the country. But on virtually every other front, Russia, while vastly less alien than it had ever been under communism, remained a long way from the European norm. And the gap, if anything, was growing wider. Elections were manipulated, opposition parties and NGOs pressurised, the media largely docile, the security organs under imperfect control and the legal system was deeply compromised. And Russia's relations with her Western neighbours had become much more problematic. There were serious arguments about such items as Nato expansion and missile deployment. Russia found herself facing a record number of complaints in the European Court of Human Rights. Quite regularly, one or another of Russia's neighbours had her supply of gas or oil cut off. UK/Russian relations were a particular black spot with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, enforced closure of most of the British Council offices in Russia and a bunch of pro-government thugs trailing me (as Ambassador) around and trying to break up my meetings. The many nice Russians with whom I continued to have good relations were as keen as before on the benefits of the market and their new personal freedoms, but much more guarded about the consequences for Russia of untrammelled democratic politics. They were also much clearer that Russia should "stand up" to the West rather than try to view herself as part of it. 

So is Russia doomed to be always the part of the European jigsaw that doesn't fit? Or, to put it another way, to what extent is Russia part of Europe? This is not a mere issue of geography but has fuelled a long debate laden with historical consequence. For 500 years, Russia has hovered uneasily at the Eastern end of the continent, now in, now out. The relationship could be pictured as one of those traditional folk dances where the two sides take a few steps towards each other, and then back — forward and back — without ever reaching a final equilibrium. 

Let's follow the dance. How have Russia and the West viewed each other over the years? From the West, the predominant image of Russia has long been of a country on the edge of civilisation, not really "one of us". Giles Fletcher, the first English Ambassador to record his impressions in detail, wrote for Queen Elizabeth I of "the true and strange face of a tyrannical state (most unlike your own) without true knowledge of God, without written law, without common justice". Frederick the Great found Russia "half barbaric and barely European". For Hegel, the Slavs were essentially "onlookers in the struggle between Christian Europe and unchristian Asia". The Marquis de Custine, Russia's de Tocqueville, described the country as "a society that is still young and savage, European discipline supporting Asiatic tyranny". And finally Churchill memorably saw Russia as "a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma". Any popular Western newspaper will supply an up-to-date version of essentially the same views.

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