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.