Jordan Milot is seeking a B.A. in International Studies - Cultural Studies from North Carolina State University. He is spending a year studying Russian-EU relations in Estonia and plans to pursue graduate studies in International Relations. Following this, he intends to work for the US Federal Government, a think tank, or an IGO.
This paper was published as part of Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies.
Europe’s Conflicting Metanarratives
By Jordan Milot
Europe is divided by conflict yet again between the East and West, between the European Union (EU) and the Russian Federation, in a way arguably not seen since the fall of the USSR in 1991. Despite efforts by the EU and Russian Federation to develop peaceful relations, political conflicts exist between these two entities over the economic, political, and cultural arenas of Eastern Europe. Blame for these conflicts is usually attributed to one side or the other and there is a lack of meaningful explanation as to why tensions persist. This lack of understanding perpetuates the continuous political conflicts between the two sides, and unless conscious steps are taken to resolve the problem, continued conflict between these two entities is inevitable. This is because, as this paper will show, these conflicts are primarily driven by each side’s different dominant metanarrative.
I. Metanarratives and Conflict
Culture is essentially all of the fundamental human influences that exist within a society, including moral values, language, ideology, rituals, and symbols, which produce the culture and worldview one inhabits and from which one operates. The combination of these influences has a profound impact on the way people act as a collective. However, simply combining each individual factor does not create a unique culture. Culture is more than its individual parts. All foundational parts of a culture must be able to connect to each other in a comprehensible and relatively consistent way.
As these separate ideas within a culture merge together to form the culture itself, a metanarrative appears to explain the culture. This metanarrative expresses what it means to be a person; it states what is good, what is bad, and why. It tells the history of those who are a part of the culture and explains how the truly objective world must be interpreted. This works to bind all of the particular parts of a culture into a single whole (Chatterjee 2014). Cultures work to reproduce and reinforce themselves in an almost organic way as the binding metanarrative is passed from person to person. The socialization of children is based completely on transferring this narrative, and the culture that depends on it, from one generation to the next. Once this narrative becomes the primary influence on a society, it becomes the society's dominant metanarrative and serves to bind the people as a group and justify their existence. While other smaller metanarratives may exist alongside the dominant one, only one can hold a primary position. Equally dominant metanarratives would damage social cohesion and lead to the groups socially diverging.
Because a metanarrative is so all encompassing, it becomes invisible. It acts simply as truth to the minds of those who exist within it. Of course, this is subjective truth, but it is extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible in some cases, to differentiate between subjective and objective truth. A simple example should suffice: the current modern trend in the West is to recognize adulthood once a person reaches the age of 18-21. However, in the past, adulthood was defined as beginning at much younger ages, or even simply based on accomplishing a rite of passage. While to the modern Western mind marriage for a woman at the age 14 is unnatural and wrong, this was considered appropriate, even in Western societies, only a few generations ago. Thus, while this concept now elicits very strong and nearly universal responses in Western society, its moral wrongness cannot be considered an objective truth because it has been interpreted subjectively over time.
The importance of the role of the subjective truth of metanarratives to the realm of international relations is all too often overlooked. Yet the connection between these two realms is clear. John Hutnyk expanded on this when he explained how politics and culture cannot be separated. As Frantz Fanon argued, “A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people keeps itself in existence” (Hutnyk 2006, p. 365). Each group of people has its own metanarrative that defines its truth. All political forces that represent or rule over their people must connect with the people’s culture in order to persist. Even a warlord depends on his connection to his troops to ensure he is not replaced. While those rulers who come from within the metanarrative connect to it in a natural way, belonging to the culture is not always required to be able to connect with and manipulate a metanarrative. However, the consequences of deviation from the metanarrative by a ruling political power are severe, as is a repeated theme of history. For example, the Catholic King James II of England violated the metanarrative of England at that time, which included opposition to Catholicism as a basic tenant. James’ religious beliefs conflicted with the English metanarrative in which the Church of England dominated; this was a major part of what eventually cost him his throne (Willcox and Arnstein 2001). So contrary to the idea of greater freedom which ruling provides to political forces, these forces are in reality fairly strictly confined by the invisible yet pervasive bond of the metanarrative.
By placing limits on cultures and governments, metanarratives directly, yet subtly, play an important role in international conflict. Conflict is an inevitable part of human existence, as it is based on natural competition over limited resources such as energy, prestige, power, and material goods. The extent to which two narratives align helps dictate the amount of cooperation that can exist between different cultures. When two cultures contradict, a zone of conflict exists between them, producing a heightened possibility of violence. Such a fault line exists within Eastern Europe because of its position between the two dominating metanarratives of Europe: those of the EU and the Russian Federation.
II. Elite Culture and Common Culture
Although abiding by the dominant metanarrative is essential to maintaining cultural cohesion, significant subcultures can exist within any society. One important such subset that can contribute to a society's internal or external conflicts is the division between a society’s elite and common people. Elites are those people who have significant direct political and economic influence within a society. Because of their unique position of power, they often develop a distinct subculture within their society, and like all subcultures, a society’s elites may develop a related but different metanarrative from the rest of their society.
It is important to keep in mind that a nation's political and economic leaders are not neutral agents; they have their own agenda or agendas in which they use the common people to advance their goals. Mark Beissinger has shown how elites use common symbols that evoke strong emotional responses to draw broad base support, which is then channeled for a particular purpose (2013). As elites tend to monopolize the media space in modern societies, this strategy is widespread. The more successfully elites monopolize and fulfil the role of the common metanarrative’s symbols, the more powerfully positioned they are in order to politically impose their own metanarrative upon others, or, in other words, enforce an ideology. The fact that the metanarrative of the majority can be manipulated by the elite is important to keep in mind when discussing metanarratives, as such a situation is visible in both Russia and the EU.
III. The Culture of the EU
Western Liberalism has helped drive the EU expansion into Eastern Europe. This political ideology is heavily associated with the EU’s metanarrative. Robert O. Keohane defines Western Liberalism, or "Institutional Liberalism" as he calls it, as the mixture of power with a social cause such as democracy or human rights. Interestingly, this has led to morality becoming a leading impetus for the creation of laws, rather than attempting to base laws on objective reality (Keohane 2012). Thus, Anthony De Jasay explains that Modern Liberal Democracy, his term for what I call Western Liberalism, is opposed to Classical Liberalism. The latter argues that unless a man is denied a right he has it, meaning that the role of government is limited in nature, as it must constantly justify its actions. However, this actually contradicts the idea of democracy, which states that the majority has a right to impose their will upon all of society. Essentially, democracy transfers power to governments whereas liberalism seeks, in principle, to take power away from government. This produces a contraction at the core of Western Liberalism (De Jasay 2010). A result of the moral social cause is an underlying requirement to intervene everywhere the social cause is not being respected. This belief in universality is part of what drives the EU to expand.
That the EU has become an ideological rather than an effective economic or political vehicle is well-established. Marshall Auerback and Florin Bonciu offer the common argument that the EU is a modern expression of an older West European elite dream of a united Europe (2010; 2012). In its earlier stages, the focus of the EU was economic integration, which initially helped it to expand. However, Nina Bandelj has pointed out that the economic benefits of the EU are overemphasized, as most of the economic growth of EU countries actually occurred prior to their joining the EU (2010). Bruce Jackson has written extensively on the modern developments of the EU, explaining how, due to economic difficulties beginning in 2008, there has been a shift from simply economic integration to ideological and cultural integration (2010). While Jackson claims that the EU is the only Western force capable of uniting Europe, he holds that the expansion opportunities of the EU are being squandered by poor policy planning (2011). Ioana-Bianca Berna explains how such difficulties in policy coordination largely stem from the fact that policy planning occur at multiple levels of the EU (2013). Nathaniel Copsey and Karolina Pomorska clearly show how convoluted and complicated power relations are within the EU, the goals of many members drastically differing from each other (2010). Rikard Bengtsson and Geir Flikke, among many others, have further mention that the EU is struggling to expand further because the EU’s international power is almost exclusively based in its self-assumed role as a representative of democracy, human rights, and liberalism (2012; 2012). According to several other scholars, the EU is becoming more aware of the importance of using culture as a political tool both within and without its boarders in order to create a popular EU culture instead of simply an elite-centered one (Benson-Rea 2012; Corcoran 2009; Vidmar-Horvat 2012).
So, if the EU must expand in order to fulfill its political ideology, where does it find the ability to expand? After all, such expansion requires significant expenditures of political and often economic capital. Rikard Bengtsson and Ole Elgström offer the theory that the EU is dependent upon soft power, positioning itself as the literal embodiment of the goals of Western Liberalism and the champion of Western Liberalism throughout the world. As such, its power in the international arena depends on two things. First, to maintain its position as the representative power of Western Liberalism its metanarrative must conform to the principles of Western Liberalism. Second, the EU can have direct influence only upon those groups accepting of its position as the champion of Western Liberalism and who themselves share in the metanarrative of Western Liberalism (Bengtsson 2012). Geir Flikke additionally describes how the EU promises financial assistance to new EU members on the prerequisite that they make significant legislative and structural changes to conform to EU ideology. The EU's ability to offer financial assistance and thus grow also depends upon the group’s economic standing; there is little motivation for new governments to join an economically struggling EU (Flikke 2012). While EU expansion eastward seems to have halted for the time being, the EU does want to change the internal policies of its neighboring countries so that they fall in line with the EU’s philosophy (Flikke 2012).
While the argument that joining the EU will better the economic standing of a nation's citizens seems questionable, the expansion of EU influence is not dependent on direct support from the majority of citizens but rather on the support of a country’s elites. This is because the EU project is essentially an elite-based project. Farrel Corcoran and Declan Fahy provide compelling evidence of this. In summarizing their interviews with pro-EU media, they state that “reporters are divided on whether or not a European public sphere exists, but all agree that a smaller, elite public sphere does, and it extends, in Tony Barber’s words, 'far beyond the boundaries of Brussels.'" It consists of senior business people, national and EU politicians, diplomats, civil servants, and journalists” (2009, p. 109). They conclude based off their study that “While there are strong indications that a European elite sphere is developing, a European public sphere shows few signs of life at this stage” (2009, p. 110). Ksenija Vidmar-Horvat further clarifies important aspects of the nature of EU institutions. In her article, "The Predicament of Intercultural Dialogue,” Vidmar-Horvat comes to three basic conclusions. The first is that the use of culture by the EU as a key focus of its political identity is a relatively recent development; prior to its shift to culture over two decades ago, the EU focused purely on economics. The second is that the language used by the EU is imperialist in nature. It argues that its cultural outlook is superior to those of nations not living according to Western Liberalism, and that it has a duty to enlighten them. The third point she clarifies is how the EU’s ideology arises out of Western Europe (Vidmar-Horvat 2012). This is interestingly paralleled in Maureen Benson-Rea and Cris Shore’s findings that the diplomats representing the EU largely came from Western European countries, with 48.6 percent of the commission staff coming from just Belgium, France, Germany, and Italy. They also find that in the diplomatic service, these political elites tend to fully adopt the idea of the single European identity, which the EU argues exists and that transcends nationality. The irony is that despite the EU being domestically an elite-based organization, when representing itself abroad it tends to try to appeal directly to the masses and circumvent traditional diplomatic lines of communication (Benson-Rea 2012).
The EU’s metanarrative and its drive to expand is based on an attempt to reconcile several contradictions. The metanarrative of the EU says that all people living on the European continent are European and heirs to the teachings of the Renaissance and Enlightenment: that all men have certain rights to freedom of property, to liberty of action, and from restrictions by government. Individual effort is good, wealth is a meaningful goal in life, and anything which limits an individual’s rights to gain wealth is evil.
World War I and II added to this narrative significantly with the idea, for example, that democracy is the key to ensuring peace and individual prosperity. Nations that do not listen to the will of the majority (whether their own majority or the majority of European nations) are bad, while those that do are good. What constitutes the majority changes based on the context. Rights considered essential to individual happiness are merged into a single idea: human rights. Thus, a good government must encourage and uphold these human rights based on the individualistic and liberal ideas of the Enlightenment—for example, that governments must limit the power of the majority of its citizens so as to protect the individual from loss of liberties and property. Also, a stable Europe would require a united Europe, as only a united Europe would be able to erase the divides that damaged Europe in the past. To summarize this Western Liberal elite narrative, a government must be chosen by the majority to limit the rights of society in order to protect the wealth and lack of restrictions of the individual, which alone will ensure that the majority receive the greatest amount of wealth, liberty, and power. Of course, in practice this position must be compromised due to logical contradictions. To further complicate the matter, according to the metanarrative, only by such a system can true and lasting peace be created, meaning that it must be spread worldwide.
This is a part of the problem in Russian-EU relations. As the EU has marketed itself as primarily an economic union, yet behaved much more like a cultural and ideological union, each side has felt that they are being deceived or cheated. Furthermore, Russia’s overall rejection of Western Liberalism means that the EU has little direct influence on Russia (Bengtsson 2012). Further, Jackie Gower argues that Russia originally viewed the EU in a neutral or positive manner, seeing it as an emerging sphere of power that would eventually break from the US’s interests. However, as the EU has developed, several points of contention have emerged between these two powers, especially with regards to Eastern Europe (Gower 2000).
IV. Russian Culture
Joachim Willems has produced a unique look at what composes Russia’s modern metanarrative by examining religious education in the country. Religion is often a critical aspect of any metanarrative, but because the Russian Federation is a religiously diverse and multiethnic country, establishing a single religious narrative for Russia is a challenge. In providing moral and religious education, the Russian government has allowed each different major belief system to help shape what education about that belief will be. While attending such a course is manditory, each citizen can choose which religious education they wish their children to receive. What stands out in this education is that regardless of the religious choice, the classes argues for a common Russian identity built on the ideas of tradition and a shared history as the underlying features of what it means to be part of the Federation (Willems 2012).
After the fall of the USSR, Western Liberalism quickly spread in Russia. The decade of the 1990s was spent attempting to fit this ideology on top of the Russian metanarrative. The results were a disaster, with political and economic troubles ruling Russia for much of that decade. This disaster led to a widespread rejection of Western Liberalism as a political ideology. V. I. Pantin argues that a strong sense of political identity does not exist in Russia. Political parties are judged based on their relationship with the President, and each election serves essentially as a referendum on his policies. One of the problems with Russia’s electoral democracy is that “the Russian political system serves to represent the interests chiefly of various elite groups rather than the mass strata of society” (Pantin 2010, 19). Of course, this completely contradicts the foundational ideas of democracy as understood (although not necessarily practiced) in the West. This should come as no surprise though, as openly elite-based rule is a foundational part of Russian political culture, which has survived for centuries (Keenan 1986). In summarizing the crucial aspects of the political ideology of the common Russian citizen, V. I. Pantin found a strong preference for an authoritarian state, little economic or social stratification, rejection of liberalism , and a focus on Russian culture and tradition. Pantin also found a general rejection of communism, despite a communist party's national presence, which suggests a disconnect between what the communist party argues it is, and what it really argues for. A certain suspicion of the EU and United States are also critical tenants of the current popular stance. This kind of Russian nationalism has become the dominant ideology (Pantin 2010).
Every ideology is based on a particular metanarrative and may be viewed as the political realization of such a metanarrative. In examining the underlying metanarrative of Russia, what emerges is the realization that those elements listed by Pantin align with two historical ideologies that existed in the Russian Empire. Both are clearly summarized by Denis Vovchenko. The first major trend is Pan-Slavism. The second major trend occurring in Russian society shares many fundamental similarities with Pan-Slavism and is called Pan-Orthodoxy. Both of these ideologies arose as ideologies of opposition to the West, positioning the idea of the West as Russia’s significant ideological and cultural standard of comparison. They struggled to resist arguments by part of the Russian elite of that time that Russia needed to become like other European nations. One of the key ways they did so was by arguing against the universality principle in Western Liberalism.
Pan-Slavism was a belief system that, like Western Liberalism, emerged as a product of the 19th and 20th centuries. Its basic tenants were that Russians had an ethnic tie to their Slavic neighbors and should work to see the creation of a broad-based Slavic confederation based on Orthodox Christianity in order to liberate the Slavs from rule under other ethnic groups, as was the situation in places such as the Austro-Hungarian or Turkish Empires. It would develop alongside Western Europe, but on its own path adjacent to the rest of Europe. There was a strong focus on both tradition and ethnicity. Pan-Slavism saw Russia as neither a truly European nation nor an Asian one.
Pan-Orthodoxy is similar to Pan-Slavism in that the Orthodox Church was seen as a key component of Russian identity. Russia was seen as the force to which the oppressed Orthodox people of Eastern Europe must turn in order to find full expression and freedom. Russia in return was to have an important paternal role in establishing this new union. A critical element of this 19th century movement was the legacy of Byzantium uniting all Orthodox believers, as this provided a sense of historic legacy and justification for the movement. Pan-Orthodoxy also sought to develop independently from Western Europe and was an alternative path from the liberalism which was developed there. The essential difference between Pan-Orthodoxy and Pan-Slavism is that while Pan-Slavism focused on a politicized ethnic and national base, Pan-Orthodoxy focused on the idea of Byzantium and the Orthodox religion. However, there are many overlaps and both groups of intellectuals associated with one another (Vovchenko 2012).
Much of Russia's metanarrative has also been defined by its geography. The core of Russia, located from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, is a relatively cold and wet region. The growing season is short and famine has historically been common. Beyond this forested heartland lie vast steppes, which have brought the constant threat of raiding tribes including the Mongolian Hordes from the East and numerous nations from the West. Lacking natural defensive boundaries, the need for constant defense became a large and continuous theme in Russia’s history. Thus, Russian society turned inward for protection against the outside and against famine. Moreover, the influences of both East and West deeply impacted Russia and played a critical role in Russian intellectual thinking. Russia has often felt both a part of Asia, and yet also a part of Europe. From Europe it inherited many aspects of the foundation of its culture, such as Christianity. From Asia, it saw itself as inheriting communal values and a strong authoritarian state (Hosking 2011).
Peter Gatrell argues that Russia’s historical disadvantage lies not so much in this cultural dichotomy but rather in its lack of intensive growth. For most of Russia’s existence, expansive physical growth was a critical aspect of economic growth and the power of Russia abroad. Yet the common occurrence of famines and the resulting economic disruptions discouraged saving and investing in future years both by private citizens and by the government who might have invested in more extensive infrastructure beyond what defense demanded. Gatrell argues that Russia’s government has been plagued by two factors. First, as mentioned previously, the need for a large defensive army has been a constant issue for Russia’s government. This has drained wealth away from the populace. The second issue is that, contrary to popular belief, Russia has suffered a chronic shortage of governance. Ruling such an extensive expanse of land has been challenging, and the presence of the ruling power has always been weak outside the major cities. Furthermore, Russia has seen very little friendly international engagement compared with neighboring powers. International trade with Russia has historically been weak and most important contact has often occurred in defending itself from another power. Russia has been in relative isolation in the international arena for centuries (Gatrell 1996).
Russia's historical inward focus has persisted into the current day according to Dmitry Trenin. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has attempted to maintain a sphere of influence, but has been relatively unable to do so because of this very inward focus. In his works “Russia and the New Eastern Europe” and “Modernizing Russian Foreign Policy,” Trenin lays out the case that contrary to many claims in the West, Russia is actually a non-aggressive regional power seeking to exert influence on neighboring countries in order to preserve a cultural and economic buffer zone (2011; 2011).
So where does Russia’s metanarrative contradict the metanarrative of the EU? Russia is driven by the idea of itself as a "third way," neither Asian nor European. In direct opposition to the idea of a single universal policy that is correct for all people, Russia’s metanarrative argues that the Russian people have their own path of development and that all Slavic people are a single, unique kin group who are the champions of a distinct religious tradition. Russia is inwardly focused, yet not truly isolationist as it is not opposed to international engagement. While it is not hostile to the EU per se, any attempts by the EU to infiltrate Russia’s perceived sphere are seen as a hostile attack.
V. Drawing Conclusions
Confrontation between the EU and Russia will likely continue to occur into the foreseeable future. This is because their tensions are rooted in each group’s metanarrative and these two metanarratives are naturally opposed to each other. The fact that there has been almost constant tension between the West and East of Europe for centuries already shows the depth and seriousness of these contradictions. However, it is possible to reduce these tensions, but this requires action on the part of both sides.
In regards to the EU, it must shift its ideology. The universal demand required by Western Liberalism will endlessly drive the EU to take an aggressive attitude towards its neighbors. Because a major part of EU relevance is based on the continued fulfillment of its promise to champion Western Liberalism, it must engage in finding and criticizing nations, such as Russia, which do not fit its ideal model. Thus, to reduce hostilities with Russia, the EU must give up their principle of universality. This would require finding a different reason for the EU to be a relevant entity rather than the champion of a universally desirable Western Liberalism.
The EU must also stop its informal diplomacy directed to the citizens of other countries and begin working through formal diplomatic channels. The EU focuses on reaching out to citizens to create change, and thus Russia is correct in its understanding that the West supports and encourages revolutions, as this is the most natural outcome of radically shifting a society's metanarrative. Granting the benefit of the doubt to the EU, it is understandable that, because of its stated belief in the universality of democracy, it would appeal to the people as the ultimate arbiters of political power and social change. However, this is an incorrect model in at least Russia, if not elsewhere, as Russian politics are not, even by the standards of the majority of individual citizens, directly dictated by the will of the people.
For Russia’s part, it is important to ensure that Pan-Slavic and Pan-Orthodox rhetoric is kept within acceptable levels that do not create a climate of fear in neighboring states. While again granting the benefit of the doubt to Russians, such claims are easily understood as imperialist ambitions by others. Further, Russia’s desire to be both part of the idea of Europe and simultaneously not part of that idea, is incredibly problematic. The European metanarrative emphasizes EU unity. There is no room for a country that is both part of Europe and not part of its integrated, harmonious whole. Thus, if Russians do not generally want to be part of the EU metanarrative, they must be willing to say that they are not a part of Europe. This can help alleviate the EU’s tendency to want to urgently change Russia's metanarrative and provide greater clarity to both sides of the conflict.
Whether or not such major changes to the core of the EU and Russian metanarratives are possible in practice is another question entirely, and beyond the scope of this paper. What can be concluded here is that, while working to make the metanarratives of Russia and the EU more compatible would not be easy, it would help to create workable conditions for the necessary trust required to ensure that peaceful relations become the normal state of affairs rather than the exception.
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