Gaia vs. Leviathan: Why Is Russia at War With the Modern World?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 124

(Source: Deutche Welle)

Almost a year and a half of fighting in Ukraine has been cause for deep reflection among independent Russian intellectuals. However, due to a sharp increase in state censorship, it is currently unfeasible to publish their studies in Russia, where even mentioning the word “war” can result in criminal prosecution. In 2023 alone, fundamental works such as Mikhail Epstein’s Russian Anti-World: Politics on the Verge of Apocalypse (see EDM, February 22) and the collection In the Face of Catastrophe edited by Nikolai Plotnikov (see EDM, April 3) were published.

In June 2023, Polity Press published a new book by Alexander Etkind, a professor at Central European University in Vienna, entitled Russia Against Modernity. In the book, Etkind presents the invasion of Ukraine as only part of the Russian state’s larger war against global progress—namely, the environmental, social and cultural challenges of the 21st century.

The Russian professor explains the scope of his research in this way: “Why is Russia opposed to modernity? Because it is completely dependent on the export of its carbon raw materials. Any energy transition programs deprive the Russian Federation of its usual sources of income. This is the essence of this confrontation” (, April 15).

Today, Western analysts are actively discussing the topic of Russia’s decolonization to prevent future imperial conquests (see Bugajski, Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture, 2022). Back in 2011, Etkind wrote the book Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience, in which he explored the historical expansion of the Russian state, when Muscovy turned not only regions with differing cultures but also independent Russian principalities (Ryazan, Tver, Veliky Novgorod, etc.) into colonies. Ultimately, this internal colonization “splashes out” and leads to the conquest of other countries.

This trend has continued under the current Kremlin leadership. President Vladimir Putin explained the annexation of Crimea and other Ukrainian regions by the need to “protect the rights of the Russian population” (, July 16, 2014). Nonetheless, as a consequence of the Russian occupation, these territories have not received any local self-government and are now governed by Moscow-appointed military administrations.

Furthermore, another fundamental factor differentiates today’s Russia from the Soviet Union. If the official Soviet ideology appealed to “progress,” albeit understood in a narrow communist framework, then the doctrine of the Kremlin now is the defense of “traditional values.” In fact, Putin’s war against Ukraine is merely the most obvious and tragic element of his extensive “special operation” against modernity.

Etkind clarifies his position by distinguishing between two versions of modernity. One, which he calls “paleomodern,” continues the inertia of the 19th and 20th centuries when development “was seen in even more burning of energy, in even more use of fossil raw materials.” He symbolically calls this approach the “world of Leviathan,” which consisted of the global competition of empires. The author contrasts this with the “world of Gaia,” or “green modernity,” where “progress is measured by reducing energy costs through the use of renewable sources that are in harmony with nature” (Svoboda, June 4).

“Gaiamodern,” named after Gaia the goddess of Earth in Greek mythology, refers to the necessary transition to new ecological thinking for humanity. Etkin shares the “Gaia hypothesis,” which has been expressed by various scientists since the 1970s (, August 23, 2020). According to them, our planet is a synergistic and self-regulating system, all elements of which are changeable but interdependent. Such an understanding requires taking into account global diversity, decentralization and, at the same time, ethical equality.

Today’s Russia is merely an example of such intolerant “political selfishness” as it seeks to impose its outdated imperial worldview on other countries. The Russian “Leviathan” thus keeps humanity dependent on fossil fuels and supports archaic dictatorial regimes both at home and abroad (Meduza, June 15).

Etkind cites hefty statistical data to support his assertions. For example, the share of renewable energy in Germany today is 47 percent, while, in Russia, it is only 0.5 percent. Meanwhile, hydrocarbons make up more than two-thirds of Russian exports, and those proceeds are directed to arms production, aggressive propaganda and the enrichment of a narrow circle of Kremlin elite. This situation gives rise to colossal social inequality wherein 58 percent of national wealth belongs to 1 percent of the population. Additionally, higher incomes are concentrated in Moscow, while the rest of Russia’s regions remain resource colonies. The most prestigious and highly paid work is connected either with the siloviki or with raw materials industries, but not with intellectual and modern professions.

This inequality is also manifested in the ethnic, gender and generational contrast between Russia and modern countries. Despite the fact that ethnic non-Russians make up about 20 percent of the population in Russia, they are underrepresented in the government. Moreover, only 10 percent of ministerial positions in the Russian government are held by women, which pales in comparison to 46 percent in the United States. In 2022, among the 23 members of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, only four were over age 50, whereas, among the 31 senior members of the Russian government, only six were under 50.

As for Russia’s future prospects, Etkind is rather pessimistic, suggesting that “the longer the war goes on, the more barbaric it becomes, the more likely it is … that the existence of Russia will be interrupted” (Svoboda, July 17). A similar scenario played out at the beginning of the 20th century, when, after the defeats in World War II and the revolution of 1917, the Russian Empire collapsed. However, the Bolsheviks then managed to restore its statehood.

Reflecting on how to avoid a repetition of the imperial cycle, Etkind recalls when, in 1919, the American emissary William Bullitt made a secret visit to Vladimir Lenin in the Kremlin. The Bolsheviks were then in a difficult position: the territory they controlled was reduced to several regions of central Russia, approximately within the borders of 15th-century Muscovy. Lenin, in exchange for the diplomatic recognition of his regime by the West, agreed to fix the results of the Russian Civil War as the state borders. Thus, instead of the revival of the imperial “Leviathan,” dozens of internationally recognized states could appear in the Eurasian space. Unfortunately, Woodrow Wilson, then-president of the United States, abandoned the project. Today, instead of “appeasing” Moscow, will Western leaders seek to thoroughly demilitarize and de-imperialize this empire?

At the end of the book, Etkind talks about the need to “de-federalize” Russia, though this may not accurately reflect his position (, April 15). The author likely interprets “federation” as a kind of state unity, while this term usually refers to treaty relations between its subjects. In truth, today’s Russia, as a result of Putin’s policies, has long been “de-federalized” and turned into a de facto unitary state.

Overall, two views of a post-Putin future dominate the Russian opposition-in-exile today. Many believe that Russia should be preserved as a single Moscow-centric country; in the worst case, some “ethnic outskirts” may then break off. The opposite view is expressed by the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum, in which representatives of various regional movements advocate the complete disintegration of Russia into separate states (, accessed August 1). However, both positions appear to predetermine the future of Russia’s regions without taking into account local interests. When local parliaments, with the participation of all, are freely elected in various regions, their deputies will subsequently decide for themselves whether they need independence or some kind of (con)federative association with their neighbors. And any decision they make democratically will mark the return of these regions to modernity.