For centuries, the term “Europe” meant for Russians much more than physical location. That a significant part of Russia’s territory is European in this narrow sense is an undeniable fact of geography; Russia’s culture, dominant mentality and religious affiliation also have long been European. The issue of Russia’s political affinity with what Europe has come to represent in modern times — individual freedoms, political pluralism, rule of law — has been more complex. Debates between “Westernizers,” who viewed Russia as firmly belonging to the Western civilization, and “Slavophiles,” who argued for a separate, uniquely Russian way of development, continued well into the 19th century. The “great reforms” of Alexander II that ended serfdom and brought Russia freedom of the press, trial by jury and elected local government, seemed to have settled the matter. As eminent Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov wrote in 1899: “The correct noun for the adjective Russian is European. We are Russian Europeans just as there are English, French, or German Europeans. … I am a European as surely as I am a Russian.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia’s nascent parliament was among the first in Europe to call for the abolition of the death penalty; the Russian czar was the first European head of state to sign a law granting votes to women (for elections in the Grand Duchy of Finland). Universal suffrage was introduced by Russia’s provisional government two years before Germany, 11 years before Britain and 28 years before France.
Communist rule has meant a long detour for many European countries. As Vaclav Havel noted, for them post-Communist reforms meant not just a return to democracy, but also a “return to Europe.” Russia was no exception. On May 7, 1992 — less than six months after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. — it applied to join the Council of Europe. The request was granted in January 1996; on Feb. 28 the Russian flag was raised alongside others over the Palace of Europe in Strasbourg. “With the victory of democracy in Russia and with our membership in the Council of Europe, the territory of freedom has greatly expanded; it now spans seventeen time-zones,” Russian President Boris Yeltsin told fellow leaders in 1997, calling for a “Europe where large and small countries are equal partners, united by shared principles of democracy.”
It was not a principle shared by Yeltsin’s successor. Although Russia remained a member of the Council of Europe in letter, Putin’s government rejected its spirit. Controls over the media, manipulated elections, dispersals of peaceful rallies and politically motivated imprisonments violated the essence of Russia’s obligations under the Convention. With the domestic court system turned into a tool of government repression, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) remained the only recourse to justice for many Russian citizens, especially in politically sensitive cases. The court repeatedly ruled the Russian government to be in violation of its obligations, including with the politically motivated takeover of a leading independent TV network, the unlawful arrest of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, fraud in the 2011 parliamentary election, and the conviction of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny.
In 2015, Putin signed a law allowing the Russian government to ignore ECHR decisions it did not like. Even before this, Russia held the dubious distinction of being among the countries with the most unimplemented court decisions. In 2016, the Russian delegation withdrew from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and has since refused to cooperate with its oversight procedures (particularly regarding a recent Russian travel ban on the special rapporteur for the investigation into the murder of Nemtsov). In June 2017, the Russian government stopped paying its contributions to the council’s budget. If things stand as they do, in June 2019 Europe’s largest country will automatically cease to be a member of the Council of Europe.
Putin will surely be pleased. In all its domestic and foreign policy of recent years the Kremlin has tried to repudiate the principles of modern Europe. A white paper drafted by the Russian government a few years ago explicitly stated that “Russia is not Europe.” This, in a nutshell, is the essence of the differences between Russia’s democratic opposition and the Kremlin. As Nemtsov said in one of his last interviews, “We believe that Russia is a European country; that our civilizational choice is European.” Even the Soviets, with their decades-long rule, were not able to permanently alter that assumption. In the end, for all his best efforts, neither will Vladimir Putin.