The semiotics of fear

I’ve never read the works of Leo Strauss, but a colleague (who we’ll call ‘TK’) once described Strauss’s philosophy to me roughly as follows:

TK: Strauss believed that people don’t actually mean what they say. There’s always a hidden subtext. If you are one of the initiated, who has the key to the code, you can decipher what they mean.

Me: So when Strauss said that people don’t mean what they say, did he mean that? Or did he, according to his own philosophy, actually mean something different? In which case, what he really meant was that people do mean what they say. But if that’s so, then he did mean that they don’t mean what they say. And then, well you get the point – we’re stuck in an endless logical loop.

TK: Indeed. Followers of Strauss are divided on this issue. Some think that he did mean that; some think that he didn’t. They’ve fallen out pretty badly over it.

I’ve no idea if that’s a fair description of Strauss, but it was enough to convince me that I could avoid reading him without doing great harm to my intellectual sanity. Apart from being inherently paradoxical, this sort of thinking is, I think, rather dangerous. It allows anyone who considers themselves one of the ‘initiated’, and as such understands what’s going on beneath the surface, to argue that we should ignore what others are saying because it’s not what they mean. Instead, we should pay attention to the initiate’s interpretation of what they’re saying, even if it’s the exact opposite of the actual words uttered. In this way, our intellectual high priests can convince us that black is white, dark is light, and the moon is made of green cheese.

Let’s take an example. If the Russians deny that they have plans to invade the Baltic states, are they are actually denying that they plan to invade the Baltic states? Or are they, by repeatedly denying the claim, deliberately drawing attention to it, thereby reinforcing in people’s minds the possibility that it might be true? If it’s the latter, then by saying that NATO fears are exaggerated, what the Russians are really doing is constructing a ‘fear narrative’. Denials are admissions, and attempts to reassure are in reality attempts to frighten.

Crazy? Yup. But this is precisely the argument put forward by four Estonian scholars in a new article published in the academic journal Media, Conflict & War. Entitled ‘Discourse of fear in strategic narratives: The case of Russia’s Zapad war games’, it needs to be read to be believed.

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Book review: Dealing with the Russians

‘How do you deal with a problem like the Russians?’ It’s a question which seems to dominate public discourse nowadays, with the Russian Federation elevated to the status of Enemy Number One in much of the Western world. Oxford University’s Andrew Monaghan has an answer – ‘not like we’ve done so far’. In his last book, The New Politics of Russia, he attacked the mainstream Western view of Russia as ‘narrow, simplistic, and repetitive’. Now, in a new book Dealing with the Russians, he lambasts the Euro-Atlantic security community for its approach to the ‘Russia challenge’. ‘The problem Russia poses is being misdiagnosed and the responses, therefore, poorly framed,’ he argues. It is time for the ‘retirement of the worn-out and out-of-date repetitions, and the tired clichés and template phrases that currently dominate the public policy lexicon.’ What we need, says Monaghan, is ‘fresh thinking.’


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‘Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.’ Winston Churchill.

One of the many problems with schism is that it tends to undermine legitimacy. A long-standing institution, such as a church, has a certain legitimacy among its members just due to inertia. A sufficiently long tradition can by itself justify an institution to those who belong to it. But when a group breaks free, it lacks the same justification, and thus the same legitimacy. Consequently, it’s not surprising that splitters may end up splitting up among themselves. And so it is that we shouldn’t be altogether shocked by the extraordinary goings-on in the Orthodox Church of Ukraine/Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or whatever it is the various factions are calling themselves today (People’s Front of Judea, maybe?).

From the late 17th century onwards, Orthodox parishes in what is now Ukraine were part of the Russian Orthodox Church and were governed from Moscow; first through the Moscow Patriarchate; then following the latter’s abolition through the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church; and finally, after the Revolution, through the Patriarchate once again. This remained the case until the final days of the Soviet Union. At that point, the Church split. Russian Orthodox parishes in Ukraine formed a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which acquired autonomy from Moscow but remained ultimately subordinate to the Patriarch there. Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev, however, refused to go along with the new arrangements, and in due course broke away from the UOC to form a rival Church, also called the UOC, of which he proclaimed himself the Patriarch. Ukraine thus now had two UOCs, generally known as UOC (MP – Moscow Patriarchate) and UOC (KP – Kiev Patriarchate). Adding to the complications, from 1990 a third institution- the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) – also operated in Ukraine.

An interesting aspect of these schisms is that there was no apparent doctrinal reason for them. As far as I have been able to ascertain, none of the Ukrainian churches disagree on key doctrinal issues. Instead, the causes of the splits appear to have been the personal ambitions of certain clerics allied with nationalist politics. The latter then led last year to an attempt by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to unite the various churches in a single organization which would be free of control from Moscow. To this end, Poroshenko persuaded the Patriarch of Constantinople to issue a decree establishing a new independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which would combine the OUC (KP) and UAOC. The hope seems to have been that members of the UOC (MP) would then flock to join the new OCU, so destroying the UOC (MP).

This doesn’t seem to have happened. Some UOC (MP) parishes have joined the OCU (allegedly not all entirely voluntarily), but most have not, and those which have are mostly located in the west of the country. Rather than unite the country, the establishment of the new church seems only to have further accelerated its division into western parts (now overwhelming OCU) and eastern/southern parts (still mostly UOC (MP)). The new OCU also isn’t as independent as its creators imagined it would be, as it is officially subordinate to Constantinople and has been downgraded from being run by a Patriarch (Filaret) to being run by a mere Metropolitan (Epiphany).

The new arrangement has not pleased Filaret, who lost his position as head of the church he created. In May, Filaret declared that in his opinion the UOC (KP) had not been abolished, and he remained its Patriarch. He refused to sign the OCU’s charter at a meeting of its Synod, claiming somewhat bizarrely that, ‘The Synod (…) was aimed at the destruction of the Kyiv Patriarchate. Now there is an influence on our primate of these pro-Moscow forces that have entered. And their task is to destroy the Kyiv Patriarchate.’ Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, however, refused to back down, pointedly declaring that, ‘Filaret is no longer Kyiv Patriarch, but a former Kyiv Metropolitan.’

In response, Filaret has now gone one step further. On 14 June, he sent out messages to bishops inviting them to a Council of the supposedly abolished UOC (KP). The Council met yesterday. It announced that the UOC (KP) still exists, that Filaret is its Patriarch, and that it retains the rights to all its property. Unsurprisingly, the OCU has stated that it doesn’t recognize Filaret’s Council or its results. According to one source, on Monday the OCU will formally declare that Filaret and his supporters have split from the Church, albeit saying that, ‘it’s not a schism, it’s just separation of a specific group that supports the opinion of Patriarch Filaret’.

How many people will follow the Patriarch remains to be seen. His Council yesterday does not appear to have been well attended. Most senior clerics seem to be loyal to the OCU. Nevertheless, the new split can only harm the legitimacy of the OCU, and it makes it much harder for the OCU to claim that it is the one true Ukrainian church and that people should leave the OUC (MP) to join it.

Once again, religious doctrine appears nowhere in the disputes. Instead, the warring parties trade nationalist rhetoric, each portraying themselves as the true defenders of the Ukrainian nation. One article published with the headline ‘Only Patriarch Filaret will protect Ukrainian faithful in diaspora’ commented that the creation of the OCU had sold Ukraine out to the Greeks (i.e. Constantinople). By contrast, ‘Patriarch Filaret is almost the only leader in the Ukrainian Church who still believes that it must be independent and serve interests of Ukraine.’ Against this, supporters of the OCU accuse Filaret of playing into the hands of Moscow. As one Ukrainian religious scholar puts it, ‘It’s hard to say directly that this is exclusively the influence of the FSB, or some Russian intelligence services. But the fact that Holy Patriarch Filaret’s ambitions are being successfully warmed up is hard to deny.’

In the mid-19th century, the Slavophile theologian Alexei Khomiakov wrote an influential tome entitled ‘The Church is One’. He stressed the value of sobornost’, a sort of spirit of voluntary collectivism which results in decision making by consensus and agreement by all to respect the decisions taken. Sobornost’ seems to be rather lacking at the moment. And as the clerical battle heats up, God seems to have been forgotten. The OCU was from the start a political not a religious project. It’s hardly surprising that it’s floundering. There is, I think, I lesson there for religious and political leaders everywhere.

Book review: the lands in between

I’m told that the famous British journalist Bernard Levin was once fired from his job as a theatre critic after he failed to write about the play he’d been told to review but instead filed an article detailing the walk he’d taken after he left the play half way through. It was Levin’s way of saying how terrible the play had been.

I’m tempted to take the same approach with Mitchell Orenstein’s book The Lands in Between: Russia vs the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War, recently published by Oxford University Press (OUP). Is it really worth giving it attention it doesn’t deserve? It would be much more entertaining to tell you instead about my outing last Friday to Sergiev Posad. But I promised OUP that I would review it (though after this one, I doubt that they’ll send me any more books to read!). So I shall. If nothing else, it will serve to demonstrate what sort of stuff is now being propagated by serious publishing houses and how exactly the architects of the ‘New Cold War’ go about spreading fear among the general population.


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Bookstore politics

When in Russia, I like to take a look at the shelves of the politics section in major bookstores, in order to get some flavour of what politically-interested Russians are reading. The assumption is that what’s on sale reflects what people buy, and that what people buy tells us something about political preferences. It’s perhaps not the most sophisticated method of assessing educated opinion, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

On Sunday, therefore, I popped into the big bookstore in the Singer building on Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg, and took a look at what what was on the shelves of the politics section there. This photo shows the main finding:


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Today, I was at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, where I made a few contacts, looked around the stands (the busiest of which seemed to be that of Kalashnikov), and learnt among other things that St Petersburg is hosting four games in the UEFA Euro championship next year. The very nature of such occasions tends to be positive, as they’re attended by people wanting to do business with one another. Despite all the talk of Russia’s isolation, people of many nationalities were present. And despite the somewhat stagnating nature of the Russian economy, there was a lot of money on display, which contrasted rather with the poorer living conditions of ordinary people which my students and I saw on an outing later in the evening.


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Travelling again

Apologies for the prolonged lack of posts on this blog. In part, this is due to lack of inspiration; mostly, though, it’s due to the burden of my teaching responsibilities, first preparing a bunch of students for a trip to Russia, and then going to Russia with them. We’re now in Moscow. With luck, I’ll find a moment to share some impressions.

Here I am at the top of the Federation Tower last night, where I took part in a very Russian dinner, with an hour+ of toasts and speeches.