“The Code of Civilization” by Vyacheslav Nikonov

Vyacheslav Nikonov (Wikimedia Commons) Vyacheslav Nikonov (Wikimedia Commons)

The Code of Civilization might at first seem to be another in the line of books which includes Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and Samuel P Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations that attempt an overarching view of world history with an aim to model the present and predict the future. This time, however, the author—Vyacheslav Nikonov—is Russian.

That the book was written for a Russian audience (the 2015 edition was subtitled “What awaits Russia in the world of the future?”) is perhaps enough reason to read it. If nothing else, the publication of Huw Davies’s (fluent and easy-to-read) translation makes accessible at least one strain of thought—from someone whose curriculum vitae in academia, government and politics ticks all the boxes necessary to write a book of this kind—that is rarely available in English.

Nikonov—who is also the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov; yes, that Molotov—however, goes light on the theory; the book, if anything, is something of a counter-argument to the idea that an understanding of the world can be structured around a single concept. Rather, he argues that the world is a complex place and is on the cusp of great change:


We are at the turn of the ages, when former hegemons are doing all they can to reverse the onward march of history. And the rising powers are not sure of the irreversibility of their successes, and do not know exactly how to utilize their fruits.

“There are currently nine civilizations in the world…”

The Code of Civilization, Vyacheslav Nikonov, Huw Davies (trans) (Glagoslav, December 2020)
The Code of Civilization, Vyacheslav Nikonov, Huw Davies (trans) (Glagoslav, December 2020)

Nikonov structures his book around “civilizations”, a concept which he admits is hard to pin down. Seemingly more for purposes of categorization than theory, he uses:


a socio-cultural community of nations and states, lasting a long time in historical terms, which incorporates a host of shared or similar parameters and characteristics…


and argues that


there are currently nine civilizations in the world today, some of which can be broken down into sub-civilizations. Each of them has a kernel, in which its civilizational particularities are manifested at their most distinct, and a periphery, where they are vague.


These are Western, Eastern (based around Russia), Islamic, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Southeast Asian, Latin American and African, with the last three still being somewhat nascent. One might take some issue with these divisions, but the book itself is in fact divided along somewhat different lines: Europe, the US, Russia, China, Japan, India, Islam, Latin America and Africa.

Of more note than the division itself is that Nikonov manages to compress each country or region’s history, including economics, politics and geopolitics into clear chapters of, on average, 50 pages or so. While readers of the English edition may not find much in these summaries that they do not already know, the summaries themselves are no mean accomplishment.

Some tidbits, however, might surprise. One is that Americans owe their independence at least in part to the intransigence of the Russian crown:


When the British colonies in America began their uprising in the 1770s, the British King George III asked Catherine to send an army and a fleet to quell the unrest. Potemkin allegedly said: “If England needed 20,000 soldiers, Russia could give them to her without a problem.” Those 20,000 soldiers would probably have been enough to suppress the uprising and to postpone Independence Day in the USA by many decades. Catherine, however, had not forgotten George’s refusal to sign a treaty of alliance, or to support her in Turkey or Poland.


Another is that Nikonov lumps Russia in with the West as an exponent of colonialism:


The peak of colonialism in Asia came in the 19th century, when several zones came under colonial control: the British zone, in the south and southwest of the continent, the Russian zone in Central Asia and the Caucasus, the French zone in Indochina, the Dutch zone in Indonesia, and an area of joint influence by Western states and Russia in East Asia.


The Russian perspective itself generates some comparisons which are unlikely to come up otherwise, for example one quoting Boris Martynov that


the ‘conquering’ of Brazil by the Portuguese would be more aptly dubbed a ‘mastering’, and in this, there was much in common with the process of mastering Siberia and the Far East in the 16th to the 18th centuries.


Despite (gently) taking his fellow citizens to task in the introduction for “looking at the world from a single point of view: from the West and North” and the importance he places on Asia, Nikonov does not get there until more than halfway through the book’s 650-odd pages and allocates it only about one-third of the book. Perhaps the most salient point is that Nikonov gives Japan its own chapter—perhaps due to Russia’s own history with the country, and implying an ongoing role of independent agency—rather than, say, considering it part of a “Confucian” Northeast Asia.

Nikonov’s comments on Asian-Russian relations are not new, but bear repeating:

The Russian Federation has still not fully recognized its Asia-Pacific identity. At the same time, in other states in the region, Russia is often not considered to be one of them; it is often seen instead as a European country.


Although Nikonov’s principle argument is that the world’s geopolitics are in the process of being rewritten, one imagines that much discussion of the book in the anglosphere will nevertheless focus on those sections which deal with the issues roiling US-Russian relations. If the first step to better relations is understanding, then Nikonov’s presentation is worth reading. He for example quotes Russian political Aleksey Bogaturov that


Belief in their superiority is the first and, perhaps, the key characteristic of the American worldview…


and goes on to add


The notion of America’s just superiority gives it the ability to throw off all doubt as to the appropriateness of expansive interpretations of the USA’s rights and global responsibility.


Many Americans might well agree with the premise if not the analysis of the consequences.

Although Nikonov is usually matter-of-fact, he will occasionally slip into sarcasm, as in this discussion of the early days of the Trump administration:


Moscow, if you listen to what American journalists and politicians are saying, changes American presidents. With a single telephone call from the embassy, it can have anyone of the President’s aides fired. It is already clear how you can get rid of any civil servant in the USA: all you need is a call from the embassy or simply from Moscow and the words “sorry, wrong number”.

Asian readers, less directly invested in US-Russian relations, may find a Russian perspective on the world interesting for its own sake.

The disposition of these disagreements, however, is not crucial to Nikonov’s overall thesis. Asian readers, furthermore, who are less directly invested in US-Russian relations, may find a Russian perspective on the world interesting for its own sake.


As in any book of this length, there are some errors, at least some of which seem to be due to transliteration or editing. Harvard’s Graham Allison comes out as “Ellison”. Colombia is mispelled as Columbia.

These should however not be allowed to detract on what otherwise a well-written exercise in comparative world history and which—for once—doesn’t place the United States at its centre.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.