Russia, shield of Europe?

In a post last week, I commented that some modern-day Slavophiles ‘claim that it is precisely by refusing to fully endorse “Western values” that they can save Western civilization from itself’. This sparked one comment which read, ‘I wouldn’t claim that exactly none have this sort of a messianic vision, but it must be very few. They sympathize with the western conservatives of course, they lament their decline, they see them as natural allies – yes, but I don’t think they regard themselves as saviors of their civilization.’ With this in mind, I was intrigued by an article I read this week by Dalarna University’s Maria Engström. This was published in 2014 in the journal Contemporary Security Policy, and is available free online here.

Entitled ‘Contemporary Russian Messianism and New Russian Foreign Policy’, the article introduces readers to the concept of ‘Russia as Katechon, as the world’s shield against the apocalyptic forces of chaos’. Katechon is a Greek word meaning ‘that which withholds’. The idea dates back to St Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. According to Engström:

St John Chrysostom interprets Paul’s words as a reference to the Emperor and his power that withholds and protects the world from the advent of the Antichrist. In this teaching, the Roman Empire is an antithesis of Anomia [lawlessness] and will exist until the Second Advent, restraining the chaos. … Already during Ivan the Terrible’s reign it was specified that the two enemies of Moscow as the Katechon are the external Antichrist, that is, all lands beyond Muscovy, and the internal Antichrist, which is no less dangerous than the external one. Internal resistance to the State under certain circumstances and especially during unstable periods is now interpreted as an indulgence to the powers of Anomia and chaos. This eschatological view becomes a constant of Russian history and the Russian understanding of the State as the Restrainer.

Engström explains that in Imperial Russia the idea of Katechon eventually came to imply that Russia was the shield which protected Europe from chaos. Thus Pushkin wrote of Russia’s ‘special destiny’, which included saving European civilization from the Mongols. Similarly, Alexander Blok wrote in The Scythians that, ‘We’ve held the shield between two hostile powers – Old Europe and the barbarous Mongol horde.’ Later in time, Russia was the Katechon which saved Europe from Napoleon and Hitler.

According to Engström, while the general concept is an old one, the use of the actual word Katechon in Russia is very new. The word entered Russian political philosophy following the translation into Russian in the 1990s of the work of controversial German jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). In the process, it has undergone an evolution. In addition to the idea of defending Europe militarily, it has now acquired a spiritual sense – that of Russia being Europe’s ideological shield, defending against the influence of liberal Western values. The West, says Engström, is:

described in terms of Anomia (relegation of Christian values, forcing the majority to adopt the opinions of the minority, destabilization, and chaos). The rhetoric of spiritual mobilization, of Russia’s responsibility for the fate of the world, and of the ‘burden of the Russian people’ is becoming dominant once again as it was many times before during tragic periods in Russian history. … The new conservative doctrine is very anti-Western, but it is not a denial of Russia’s European identity; rather it is an argument for Russia’s true European Christian identity that got lost in the bureaucratic body of the European Union.

Some Russians go on to conclude that their country can only fulfil its messianic role as Katechon by propagating an alternative ideology to that of the decadent liberal West. The Russian constitution’s prohibition against an official ideology is thus mistaken and should be repealed.

This is all fascinating stuff. But I part ways somewhat with Engström when she says that this type of thinking has an important influence on government policy. This is especially true of the theory that Russia should be an ideological Katechon, protecting Europe against moral chaos. As I noted in a previous post, Vladimir Putin has recently repeated his own opposition to the idea of any sort of state ideology beyond ‘patriotism’. This hardly suggests that he sees himself as engaged in a deep ideological struggle with Western liberalism, let alone as leading a mystical charge to shield the West from the consequences of its own decadence.  More broadly, as I explained in yet another recent post, Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine and Syria supports the conclusion that Russian foreign policy is mostly Realist in orientation and focused on defending national interests not on promoting any ideology or set of values.

Friday book #12: My white knight

Today’s book is something a little different – the collected works of Ivan Savin, sometimes referred to as the ‘poet of the White ideal’. When doing research for my doctoral thesis, I discovered that Russian émigré military journals often contained poems by Savin, so when I found this book for sale in a Moscow bookstore I snapped it up.


Ivan Savin was the pen-name of Ivan Savolainen, a Russian of Finnish extraction who was born in Odessa in 1899. During the Russian Civil War, he served in the White Volunteer Army, as did his brothers, all of whom were killed during the war. When the Whites abandoned Crimea in November 1920, Savin was left behind because he was suffering from typhus. Eventually released by the Bolsheviks, he fled to Finland where he lived until his premature death in 1927 following an operation for appendicitis.

Reflecting on Savin’s work, Nobel prize winning novelist Ivan Bunin commented, ‘What he left behind him has guaranteed him for ever an unforgettable page in Russian literature; first because of the complete originality of his poems and their pathos; and second because of the beauty and strength of their general tone.’

Below is the poem from which the line on the book’s cover (‘My white knight’) is taken. My not very poetic translation follows the Russian:

Continue reading Friday book #12: My white knight

Imperial Russia

Much has been written in the last couple of years about Russia’s ‘conservative turn’. On the whole, I haven’t been impressed, but I did quite like an article I stumbled across today by Moscow-based American academic Christopher Stroop which was published last month in The Public Eye magazine (which describes its mission as being to ‘challenge the right-wing’ and its ‘threats to human and civil rights’). Entitled ‘A Right-Wing International’, the article describes the leading role which the Russian Orthodox Church has played in the World Congress of Families (WCF), an organization ‘dedicated to what [its members] call “the natural family”.’

Stroop depicts the WCF as the product of a complex mix of Russian and American influences. It emerged out of discussions between Russian sociologists Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov and conservative American activist Alan Carlson, who was strongly influenced by Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian émigré sociologist who taught at Harvard. According to Stroop, Sorokin taught that, ‘absent absolute values grounded in unchanging religious truth, human morality will decay and society will descend into chaos’. Sorokin drew on the writings of earlier Russian thinkers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Berdyaev, Ivan Ilyin, and Sergei Bulgakov, who all maintained that in the absence of belief in God, people would come to idolize the state. The result would be tyranny. Berdyaev, says Stroop, ‘believed in a particular Providential calling for Russia … in which a spiritually renewed Russia would have an important role to play in reviving the Christian roots of European civilization’. It is this idea, Stroop claims, which now inspires the Russian Orthodox Church and some Russian political leaders.

Stroop warns that the ‘idea of a special role for Russia in the world’s moral progress … [can] all too easily play into a sense of Russian exceptionalism: a sense that Russia represents a morally superior civilization.’ Berdyaev, Bulgakov, and others sought hard to avoid this, but ‘With or without claiming inherent moral superiority, there is a clear claim here that Russia has a spiritual mission to enlighten other nations. Historically, this claim is rooted in Slavophilism.’ Stroop adds:

The Russian discourse of moral mission and the superiority of Christian values to those of the ‘decadent’ West has played a key role in the resurgence of social conservatism in post-Soviet Russia. It should be noted that this discourse is essentially imperial; Russian concerns about morality have never been only about Russia, but have always been bound up with considerations of the role that Russia should play in the wider world.

I agree to some extent. As I have pointed out before, Slavophilism drew on German Romantic claims that nations could only contribute to humanity by following their own path and drawing on what was best in their own culture. Paradoxically, Slavophiles wished to distance themselves from the West, not in order to live in splendid isolation but precisely in order to be able to contribute something to the West. In the same way, some of their modern successors claim that it is precisely by refusing to fully endorse ‘Western values’ that they can save Western civilization from itself.

Yet to call this ‘imperial’ is going a bit too far. ‘Imperial’ implies the imposition of a set of ideas or a form of government by an alien central authority. I do not see any indication that modern Russian conservatives have any such thing in mind. Their idea is not to create a ‘right-wing international’ like the old Communist International. At the heart of the philosophical tradition Stroop describes is a recognition of the value of diversity. The basic claim is that Russia is different, and should be allowed to do things differently. That in turn means that others are different too and should also be allowed to do things differently.  It is no surprise that many of those who are now called ‘conservative’ in Russia are resolutely opposed to what they believe are the modern manifestations of imperialism, such as globalization. Theirs is in many ways an anti-imperial philosophy.

Given the declared mission of The Public Eye magazine, it would seem that Stroop’s use of the word ‘imperial’ is meant to sound some sort of alarm about the threat Russia poses to human rights in the West. I think that this is unnecessary. At the end of the day, most Russians are far more interested in being left alone by the West to do things their own way than they are in converting the West to their own point of view.

Latest publication

As part of a special edition on Ukraine edited by Nicolai Petro, the academic journal European Politics and Society has just published an article by me, entitled ‘Russia’s Role in the War in Donbass and the Threat to European Security’. If you have free access to academic journals, you can read it here, along with the other articles in the edition. Failing that, I recommend Petro’s introduction, which lays out briefly what all the articles say, and which is freely available to all online here.

Overall, it is an excellent edition, which gives a far more balanced portrayal of recent events in Ukraine than that available in many other publications. Thanks to Nicolai Petro for his hard work in putting it all together. The other articles are as follows:

David Marples, ‘Russia’s perceptions of Ukraine: Euromaidan and historical conflicts’.

Denys Kiryukhin, ‘Russia and Ukraine: the clash of conservative projects’.

Ivan Katchanovski, ‘The separatist war in Donbas: A violent break-up of Ukraine?’

Hall Gardner, ‘The Russian annexation of Crimea: regional and global ramifications’.

Mikhail Molchanov, ‘Choosing Europe over Russia: what has Ukraine gained?’

Volodymyr Ishchenko, ‘Far right participation in the Ukrainian Maidan protests: an attempt of systematic estimation’.

Friday book #11: Spetsnaz

I bought today’s book probably in 1990 or 1991, when I was a young officer in the British Army and studying the Soviets was a form of professional development. But before long the Soviet Union collapsed and all we Russian-speaking officers found that nobody cared about the Spetsnaz any longer. Nowadays, the subject is probably right back in fashion.


Book Review: Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine

My recent post on Sergei Lavrov’s article provoked a discussion about whether it matters whom politicians cite. French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff has written a small book entitled Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine [Inside Vladimir Putin’s Head] based on the principle that it does.

Given how many people have written articles claiming to know what Putin wants or what he is thinking, it is surprising how few of them have bothered to go through all Putin’s speeches to find out what it is that he has actually said. Eltchaninoff has trawled 15 years of Putin’s pronouncements to discover which philosophers the Russian president has cited and to locate ideological statements. He has also interviewed a number of Russians who have taken part in the country’s ideological debates, such as philosopher/political activist Alexander Dugin, outspoken priest Vsevolod Chaplin, writer Alexander Prokhanov, and political philosopher Boris Mezhuev. He proposes that Putin is of more philosophical bent than commonly imagined.

By examining Putin’s speeches in depth, and using them to make a serious analysis of Putin’s ideological preferences, Eltchaninoff’s book breaks new ground. It contains much interesting material, and I certainly learnt a lot from it. In that respect, its contents are a valuable addition to our knowledge of Russia’s leader.

That said, I have some strong doubts about Eltchaninoff’s analysis of Putin’s philosophical sources. Eltchaninoff’s conclusion is that Putin is above all an ‘imperialist’ and an ‘arch-conservative’. But to reach this conclusion he has to treat some sources differently from others. Eltchaninoff dismisses as unimportant or irrelevant quotations from philosophers whom Putin has cited whose work doesn’t support his conclusion. Meanwhile, he puts a lot of emphasis on things other philosophers wrote which could support the conclusion, even when the things in question are not what Putin was quoting. The result is misleading.

Eltchaninoff mentions six main thinkers whom Putin has cited: Immanuel Kant, Konstantin Aksakov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Konstantin Leontiev, Ivan Ilyin, and Lev Gumilev. He deals with the first three very differently from the last three.

Eltchaninoff discusses Putin’s references to Kant, and in particular Kant’s essay on ‘Perpetual Peace’, in the context of his liberal, pro-European discourse in the early 2000s. But he doesn’t allow himself to conclude that Putin is, or indeed ever was, liberally-inclined or pro-European. Eltchaninoff notes that when speaking in Kaliningrad or Berlin, Putin said that Russia was part of Europe, but when speaking in Asian cities he said that Russia was Eurasian. The citation of Kant was, therefore, just a diplomatic ploy, an example of Putin’s ‘pseudo-liberalism’.

As for Aksakov, Eltchaninoff considers Putin’s mention of him to be irrelevant. Aksakov, he notes, was a ‘first generation Slavophile’, but these Slavophiles were not imperialists; Putin is an imperialist; therefore, we cannot draw any conclusions from Putin citing Aksakov! Instead, Eltchaninoff says that Putin is closer to ‘second generation Slavophiles’ such as Nikolai Danilevskii, and proceeds to provide a long explanation of Danilevskii’s beliefs. But as far as I know (and Eltchaninoff doesn’t produce any evidence to the contrary), Putin has never cited Danilevskii.

Putin’s mentions of Berdyaev are similarly regarded as meaningless. Eltchaninoff remarks that the concept of freedom was at the core of Berdyaev’s philosophy. Putin is, as we all know, against freedom. Thus, it follows, according to Eltchaninoff, that Putin simply doesn’t understand Berdyaev. If he did, Eltchaninoff says, he wouldn’t have cited him.

Leontiev, Ilyin, and Gumilev receive very different treatment, with Eltchaninoff taking care to emphasize the anti-Western and illiberal parts of their philosophies. He segues neatly from Leontiev to the so-called ‘crown jurist of the Third Reich’ Carl Schmitt (to whom Putin has never in fact referred), thus creating the impression that Putin has fascist tendencies, while ignoring the fact that Schmitt is quite popular nowadays with a whole array of entirely non-fascist Western thinkers.

Eltchaninoff describes Putin’s references to Ilyin as ‘a manner of avoiding fascism while coming very close’. Like many other commentators, he draws attention to the positive statements Ilyin once made about fascism and to his repeated calls for ‘dictatorship’, while ignoring those things Ilyin said about the need to limit state power and the importance of personal freedom. And yet, it is precisely those latter points that Putin has cited, not the former.

As for Gumilev, Eltchaninoff provides some interesting information about Putin’s knowledge of his works, but fails to provide context for all the citations. When speaking at Kant University in Kaliningrad, Putin cites Kant; and when speaking at Lev Gumilev University in Astana, he cites Gumilev. Eltchaninoff believes that the latter cancels out the former, but not for some reason vice-versa. If Putin quoting Kant is merely ‘pseudo-liberalism’, could not Putin quoting Gumilev be ‘pseudo-Eurasianism’?

Having finished his survey of Putin’s speeches, Eltchaninoff comes to the conclusion that, ‘The philosophical sources of Putinism, however diverse they may be, all rest on two pillars: the idea of empire and an apology for war. This is the common core of Sovietism, Ilyin’s ‘White’ imperialism, Leontiev’s conservatism, Danilevskii’s panslavism, and Eurasianism.’

There are two major problems with this conclusion. First, the thesis that Putin is pursuing an empire by means of war is highly debatable as a matter of fact. Second, the interpretation of Putin’s philosophical sources as being united by empire and war is also highly debatable. Sustaining this interpretation requires one to ignore several of the most important sources and to be highly selective in one’s use of those sources which remain. After all, Putin’s citation of Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace’ hardly fits Eltchaninoff’s conclusion.

Overall, this book is, as we academics like to say, ‘an original contribution to the literature’ on Russia’s president. But I am unconvinced that it really tells us what is going on ‘inside Vladimir Putin’s head’.

Debunking myths

In my final post of 2015, I said that I would try to focus more on good analysis of things Russian and less on bad. So here are links to three recent articles which go some way towards debunking some common myths about Russia.

First, Mark Galeotti punctures the myth that Russia is ‘weaponizing’ everything from information to refugees. As Galeotti correctly points out, the weaponization meme, ‘reflects and encourages poor analysis’. He concludes:

Realistically, it is unlikely that there will be any change from the Kremlin. Rather, it will have to be the West that instead starts to wean itself off the addictive temptations of caricature. Not to be the bigger party (though it will be), not on the condition that Russia follow suit (it won’t), but because better policy comes from better understanding.

Second, Michael Kofman points out the fallacy of the concept that Russia is waging ‘hybrid war’ against the West. I said the same back in December 2014, and endorse Kofman’s final words:

We spend too much time chasing hybrid ghosts, confusing ourselves, and diffusing lines of effort. In Washington, Russian hybrid warfare has come to embody Frederick’s [Frederick the Great’s] warning on defending everything; while in Europe they seek to defend against Moscow everywhere. If the West is to come up with a political and military strategy that deals with Russia, it must start by killing bad narratives and malformed analysis: Russian hybrid warfare should be the first on that list.

Third, Sergei Armeyskov denounces the recurring claim that Russia is on the verge of collapse. As Armeyskov says, ‘real Russia’s problems do exist and they serve as the realistic basis for the mythology of “imminent Russian collapse”. This Western “collapsophilia” can be referred to as crussialism (from crush +Russia + [certain amount of] realism). Crushialism [sic] has been an inseparable part of Western master discourse of Russia for years.’ But this crussialism is wrong. According to Armeyskov:

Russia has many serious economic and social problems. I know it much better than any BBCNN ‘Russia watcher’ because I’m a common Russian living in Russia, so I see the signs of crisis every day. But ‘crisis’ doesn’t mean it will necessarily result in a revolution/regime change (we had enough), and even the latter isn’t equal to ‘collapse’.

Amen to all that.

Friday book #10: The Last Secret

Today’s book tells the story of the forcible repatriation of Soviet citizens and former subjects of the Russian Empire by the British Army at the end of the Second World War. Some of these were Soviet prisoners of war who had joined General Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army, which fought alongside the Germans. Others were Cossacks (and their families) who were veterans of the White armies who had fled Russia after the end of the Civil War. Many of these had fought with the German-backed Russian Corps in Yugoslavia.


At the time, the British view was that all these people – including the non-Soviet Cossacks – were ‘traitors’. The British government felt no obligation towards them, and considered good relations with the Soviets more important than protecting people who had fought on the side of Britain’s enemies. British opinion later shifted and began to consider the repatriations as a ‘betrayal’ of people who had either acted under duress or, as long-term opponents of Bolshevism, had some understandable reasons for acting as they did. The episode came to be seen as a shameful sacrifice of human lives to a brutal dictatorship.

As a result of this book, originally published in 1974, and of a 1978 work on the same subject by Nicholas Tolstoy, a monument dedicated to those handed over to the Soviets in 1945 was unveiled in Cromwell Gardens, London, in 1986.

communist victims
The Communist Victims Memorial, London

Philosophical hodge-podge

In the 1930s, the Young Russians movement of Alexander Kazem-Bek attempted to rally Russian emigres around the slogan ‘For Tsar and Soviets’. It didn’t catch on, but if Kazem-Bek were alive today, he would find his idea doing rather better. As a historian, one of the things I have found most striking about Russia in the past decade is the way that its people manage to mix together utterly contradictory symbols and beliefs, such as Tsar and Soviets. Extreme examples include a scandalous icon which briefly appeared in a St Petersburg church in 2008 and which depicted a meeting between Stalin and the blind holy woman Saint Matrona of Moscow in 1941, and another Stalin icon which was displayed in June 2015 at Prokhorovka, the site of the largest tank battle of World War II. Other less outrageous mixings of the Soviet and the Orthodox, or the Soviet and the Imperial, abound.

St Matrona and Stalin

A lot of Russians seem not to notice the obvious inherent contradictions in mixing these things together. Rather, they appear to synthesize them in a way which somehow makes sense to them. I found it interesting, therefore, to observe Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, doing the same thing in an article he wrote last week for the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

Continue reading Philosophical hodge-podge

Difference vs. Division: guest post by Yury Lisitsa

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has written an important new article outlining the historical and philosophical foundations of the Russian government’s view of the world and Russia’s place in it. I plan to post my response to it in the next couple of days. In the meantime, noting that Lavrov ended by citing philosopher Ivan Ilyin, I asked Yuri Lisitsa, who has edited and published 30 volumes of Ilyin’s works, for his reaction. Yuri has kindly given me permission to publish his thoughts, which you can read below (my amateur translation):


Continue reading Difference vs. Division: guest post by Yury Lisitsa