Asia is not always a positive term. It is sometimes used as a proud badge of anti-Western defiance, to be sure, but here it means backward, inefficient, sluggish, and corrupt; the non-European face of Russia. It is a form of national self-denigration, an expression, perhaps, of what a Russian sociologist has called the “experience of failure,” the idea that Russia is always lagging behind the West. When Mikhail Gorbachev embarked on his political reforms in the 1980’s, he was trying to save socialism, but he was also playing to a Western gallery. Like other liberal reformers before him, he wanted Russia to join the West. He basked in his Western popularity, even as many Russians blamed him for yet another experience of failure: the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
Chinese are touchy about perceived Western superiority. But their nationalism is not based so much on a complex of peripheral inferiority as on a sense of humiliation because the Middle Kingdom’s weakness was exposed by 19th-century Western imperialism. Chinese nationalism has a pumped-up, grandiose quality, visible in Beijing’s monumental new buildings, great national showcases of granite and glass often topped, rather absurdly, with mock Chinese roofs. Moscow has few monumental new buildings, but many old ones are being restored in an effort to reconnect with a more gracious, more European pre-Communist past. And unlike in Beijing, where Chairman Mao’s destruction of the past has been almost completed by helter-skelter modernization, there is much visible history left in Moscow.
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