Morality and Politics

Every now and then during my wanderings through the world of Russian political philosophy, I come across something which I want to share. So it was yesterday when I read a piece entitled ‘Morality and Politics’ written in 1891 by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov.

Solovyov frames his argument in the language of Christianity, but I think that even a hardened atheist could find much to agree with. Moreover, although it was written 130 years ago, there’s a lot in this piece which is relevant for current times. And while one could easily accuse Solovyov of excessive idealism, it’s nice occasionally to read something pushing us in a positive direction.

In particular, I was struck by Solovyov’s condemnation of expressions of national exceptionalism and of the self-righteous imperialist atrocities which result from them. At the same time I was also struck by his refusal to allow these atrocities to induce enmity of the Western states whom he was criticising. Instead, he finishes his piece with an appeal for reconciliation between East and West, and argues that the pursuit of such reconciliation constitutes Russia’s international duty.

My rough and ready translation of the piece is below. I have cut out quite a lot in order to make it a more appropriate length for a blog post. In particular, I’ve eliminated a lot of the material in the second half of the article, which discusses Russian-Polish relations and which strikes me as less relevant for today (though even here one might find snippets of contemporary pertinence – e.g. Solovyov’s claim that ‘‘Poland would sooner agree to drown in a German sea than sincerely reconcile with Russia … the significance of Poland becomes clear as the avant-garde of the Catholic West against Russia’.)

Here it is:

Morality and Politics (Vladimir Solovyov, 1891)

A complete separation of morality and politics is one of the predominant mistakes and evils of our time. From a Christian point of view and within the boundaries of the Christian world, these two areas – moral and political – although they cannot entirely coincide, must nonetheless be tightly bound together.

Just as Christian morality has in mind the accomplishment of the Kingdom of God within an individual person, so too should Christian politics prepare for the arrival of the Kingdom of God for all humankind as a whole and its major parts, peoples, tribes, and states.

The past and present policies of peoples in history have had very little to do with this objective, and to a large part have directly contradicted it – this is an indisputable fact. … There is a widely spread point of view that each people should have its own policy, the goal of which is to support the exclusive interests of that individual people or state. In recent times, patriotic voices have rung out ever louder among us, demanding that we not fall behind compared to other states in this regard, and also that our policies be guided exclusively by own national and state interests, and that any retreat from such ‘interest politics’ is stupid or even treasonous.

Perhaps, there is a misunderstanding in this point of view, deriving from the lack of definition of the word ‘interest’; it all depends on exactly what interests one is talking about. If, as is usually the case, one is talking about the interest of the people, its wealth and external power, then despite the fact that these interests are undoubtedly important for us, they shouldn’t constitute the highest and final goal of politics, for otherwise we would have to justify all sorts of evil deeds which we see.

Our patriots boldly point to the political misdeeds of England as an example worthy of imitation. This is a good example; nobody either in word or in deed cares so much about their national and state interests as the English. As is well known, for the sake of these interests the wealthy and powerful English starve the Irish, oppress the Indians, force opium on the Chinese, and pillage Egypt. Undoubtedly, all these deeds are inspired by a care for national interests.

There is no stupidity or treason in this, but lots of inhumanity and shamelessness. … We dare to think that true patriotism is compatible with a Christian conscience, that there is a politics other than interest politics, or, it might be better to say, that a Christian people has other interests which do not demand, and indeed do not permit, international cannibalism.

Even those who participate in it understand that international cannibalism isn’t something praiseworthy. The politics of material interest is rarely presented in its pure form. Even the English, while happily sucking the blood of the ‘lower races’ and considering themselves entitled to do this because it suits them as Englishmen, often assert that they are thereby bringing a great benefit to these lower races, accustoming them to higher civilization, which is not entirely incorrect. Here, therefore, the crude desire for one’s own advantage is turned into an elevated thought about one’s cultural vocation.

The principle of a higher cultural vocation is cruel and false. Its cruelty can be seen in the sad shades of peoples who have been subjected to spiritual slavery and have lost their living force. And its falsehood, its internal inconsistency, is clearly revealed by its inability to be put into action. In consequence of the fact that higher culture and what the cultural mission consists of are poorly defined, there isn’t a single historic nation which has not expressed pretensions to such a mission and not considered itself to have the right to assault other peoples in the name of its higher calling.

But the pretension of one people to a privileged position in humanity excludes the same pretension of other peoples. Consequently, either all these pretensions have to remain empty boasting … or they must give rise to a struggle to the death among the great peoples for the right to commit cultural violence. But the outcome of such a struggle in no way proves that the victor’s higher calling is genuine; for superiority in military power is not evidence of cultural superiority.

The idea of a cultural vocation can be productive only when this vocation is considered not as a privilege but as a real obligation, not as domination, but as service.

A people has interests, but also has a conscience. And if this conscience is weakly revealed in politics and barely restrains the manifestations of national egoism, then this is an abnormal and unhealthy thing, and everyone should admit that it is not good. International cannibalism is not good, regardless of whether it is justified or not justified by a higher vocation.

Within the confines of a given people, fellow citizens daily exploit, deceive, and sometimes even kill one another, but nobody concludes that this is how it should be; so why they do hold to this conclusion when it comes to higher politics?

Promoting one’s own interest, and one’s own self-importance as the highest principle of the nation means legalizing and perpetuating the difference and struggle which are tearing mankind apart. The common fact in all nature of the struggle for existence, has a place in natural humanity. But the entirety of humanity’s historical growth, all its successes, consist of limiting this fact, and of gradually raising mankind to a higher form of truth and love.

Does Christianity abolish nationality? No, it preserves it. It abolishes not nationality, but nationalism. … We distinguish nationality from nationalism by their fruits. We can see the fruits of English nationality in Shakespeare and Byron, in Berkeley and in Newton; the fruits of English nationalism are worldwide pillage, the deeds of Warren Hastings and Lord Seymour, destruction and murder. …  Nationality is a positive force, and every people, according to its own special character, is appointed to some special service. Different nationalities are different organs in the entire body of humanity … but … the desire to separate oneself [from the body] can arise. And with such a desire, the positive force of nationality turns into the negative force of nationalism. … Taken to extremes, nationalism destroys the people who have fallen into it, making them an enemy of mankind.

One should not deceive oneself: inhumanity in international and social relations, the politics of cannibalism, in the end kill both personal and family morality, which is already partly visible in the whole Christian world. A human is a being of reason, and so cannot bear for long the miraculous division between the rules of personal and political action. … Even if at first only in theory, we must recognize that the highest guiding principle of all politics is not interest and not self-importance but moral duty.

This does not mean that nations do not have legitimate interests, nor a true calling, but on the contrary presupposes both. For if we recognize that each nation has a moral duty, then undoubtedly the fulfilment of this duty is connected to its genuine interests and its true calling. It doesn’t require a people to ignore its material interests and not think at all about its special vocation; it requires only that it doesn’t invest its soul in these, and that they do not become the ultimate goal which it serves.

To oppress and swallow up others for one’s satiation is an animal instinct, an inhuman and godless act both for an individual and for an entire people. To glory in one’s higher calling, to appropriate special rights and advantages over others is an act of pride … it is human, but also un-Christian. … Every nation should think only of its own duty, not paying any attention to other peoples, and not demanding or expecting anything of them. It is not in our power to make others fulfil their duty, but we can and must fulfil our own.

Most immediately, our historical duty appears to us in the form of the Polish question … and the Polish question is only one phase of the greater Eastern question … [and] our eastern question is a quarrel of the first, Western, Rome with the second, eastern, Rome whose representative from the 15th century onwards became the third Rome – Russia. … Should this third Rome be only a repetition of Byzantium, and fall as she did, … or should it represent a third principle reconciling the hostile forces [East and West]? … this reconciliation inevitably stands in front of Russia; without it it cannot fulfil God’s task on earth. … And so in virtue of all this, we will refrain from wilful condemnation of the West and will try instead to clear an intellectual path leading to the rapprochement of the two Christian worlds.

Cups of tea and bottles of water

The Navalny poisoning story keeps getting odder. After the Russian oppositionist fell ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk, his supporters claimed that he was likely poisoned by a cup of tea he consumed at Tomsk airport. Now we’re told that the poison was in a bottle of water he drank in his hotel in the same town. Alexei Navalny’s team have released a video showing them packaging up materials from Navalny’s hotel room including a couple of water bottles. This, we must suppose, is meant to corroborate the bottle poisoning thesis.

Personally, I have no reason to doubt that a German laboratory found, as it claimed, a chemical of the Novichok-type in the bottle in question. The identification of the nerve agent in (or on, it’s not entirely clear which) the bottle then allowed the Germans to confirm the type of ‘cholinesterase inhibitor’ in Navalny’s blood. This may explain why Russian doctors were not able to confirm the presence of poison – they didn’t have a sample to compare the blood with. Beyond that, though, the latest twist in the Navalny story leaves one with a lot of questions.

The cup of tea scenario never made a lot of sense. To poison Navalny that way would have meant a) knowing in advance that he was going to have a cup of tea in the airport; b) knowing at which café his colleague would buy it; c) knowing who that colleague would be and telling the poisoner, so that s/he gave the right cup to the right person; d) somehow obtaining the cooperation of whoever would be serving tea at that time and in that place; and e) somehow getting them to lace Navalny’s tea with Novichok while not contaminating anybody else’s food or drink or poisoning themselves. Clearly, this didn’t make a lot of sense from a practical point of view.

The problem with the bottle of water scenario is that it isn’t more obviously practical. Unless this was an inside job, and the bottle was laced by one of Navalny’s entourage, one has to wonder how a would-be poisoner would know that Navalny would drink from that particular bottle of water in that particular room.

If it was one of those complimentary bottles one finds in hotel rooms, one can see how it could be done – the poisoner sneaks in the room, replaces one of the complimentary bottles with a pre-poisoned one, and sneaks out. But how did s/he know which room Navalny would be staying in? (I understand that his staff never book under his name – so even if you can identify rooms booked by the staff, you wouldn’t know which one was Navalny’s, not another member of the team’s). And how did the poisoner know that Navalny, and not somebody else, would drink from that specific bottle? There may be good answers to these questions, but they’re not immediately obvious.

Then, of course, there are the issues of how the bottle got packed and transported to Germany without infecting anybody else, and why it apparently took hours for the poison to have its effect. Again, there may be good answers, but as yet they aren’t clear.

Planting a poisoned water bottle in a target’s room could indeed work as a method of murder, but it’s fraught with risks of failure – the target just doesn’t drink any water; someone else drinks from the bottle; and so on. If you want to kill somebody, you can imagine a simpler, and far more certain, way of going about it.

But at this point, we don’t even know that the water bottle was one provided by the hotel. What if it was one Navalny and his staff bought elsewhere? If that’s the case, how on earth was the poison delivered into the bottle? I can’t say that I can see how.

In short, it’s not impossible that Navalny was indeed poisoned this way, but it’s difficult to work out the exact dynamics of it, and it’s a scenario which begs a lot of questions.

So, how do we get answers?

First, the German government needs to be a lot more forthcoming with information. At present, it’s refusing to tell the Russians anything. It’s position seems to be that the Russian authorities are guilty of the crime, and therefore can’t be trusted with the evidence and should just confess. Obviously, this isn’t a very good way of getting the Russians to cooperate.

Second, the Russian government needs to show a much greater enthusiasm in investigating (at present, the authorities have just carried out what they call a ‘pre-investigation’, which appears to be less than thorough). The authorities’ attitude seems to be that the whole story is a plot to frame them and so it’s best to pretend that no crime was committed at all. Equally obviously, this isn’t a very good way of convincing outsiders of their innocence.

As I said before, the Russians need to take this rather more seriously. Everyone involved– Navalny’s team, hotel staff, etc. – needs to be interviewed; the bottle’s origin traced; the room and hotel swabbed and analyzed; the exact chemical composition of the poison publicly identified. And so on.

This requires both the Germans and the Russians to stop treating this as a political football and instead work together to find answers. This, of course, is almost certainly not going to happen. As a result, attitudes on both sides of the political divide are likely to harden. In the West, nearly everyone will take it as granted that an attempt was made to murder Navalny using a Novichok-laced water bottle. And in Russia, nearly everybody will point to the problems with the water bottle thesis and conclude that the story is total hokum.

As for me, I don’t know what to make of it. But what’s for sure is that the episode is yet another nail in the coffin of Russian-Western relations. Somehow or other, it all keeps getting worse.

Election reporting

Leaders of Russia’s ruling United Russia party were in a good mood on Sunday night as the results of the country’s local elections streamed in. ‘You have received the votes of the people, who trust you’, party chairman (and former Prime Minister and President) Dmitry Medvedev told candidates. ‘All our [gubernatorial] candidates … will win in the first round … and likewise in the regional and municipal parliaments United Russia will form a majority in every region without exception’, added party general secretary Andrei Turchak.

Turchak wasn’t exactly right about the results, but not far off. United Russia has reason to be happy. Its candidates for governor were elected with thumping majorities, even in Irkutsk, where it had been predicted it might lose. And in city and regional elections, the party was consistently top, generally getting around 45% of the vote, some 30% or so above its nearest competitors, the Communists and LDPR.

And yet, that’s not what you’d think if you went by the stories in the Western media today, which focused almost entirely on miniscule gains by supporters of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. ‘Russia opposition makes gains in local elections,’ ran the headline on the BBC website. ‘Navalny allies win council seats as Putin’s party claims victory’, said that in the Guardian. ‘Alexei Navalny’s allies claim council wins in Russia local elections’, shouts Deutsche Welle. And so on. You’d imagine that the elections were indicators of some significant shift in the political tide.

So what were these great gains? Navalny-backed candidates won 2 seats in the city of Tomsk, and 5 in Novosibirsk. That’s it. A grand total of 7 council seats. To be fair, it’s 7 more than they’ve ever had before, and so in that respect, it’s progress. But it’s hardly a significant result in the grander scheme of things. Across the country, United Russia governors were being elected with shares of the vote of 70 or so percent. Is ‘Opposition makes gains’ really the appropriate way of reporting the results? Methinks not, but it’s an interesting insight into the mentality of the Western press corps.

Proof of collusion at last!

Despite the secondary roles played some bit part actors in the Russiagate drama, the central figure in allegations that Donald Trump colluded with the Russian government to be elected as president of the United States has always been Trumps’ onetime campaign manager Paul Manafort. The recent US Senate report on Russian ‘interference’ in the 2016 presidential election thus started off its analysis with a long exposé of Manafort’s comings and goings.

Simply put, the thesis is as follows: while working in Ukraine as an advisor to ‘pro-Russian’ Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, Manafort was in effect working on behalf of the Russian state via ‘pro-Russian’ Ukrainian oligarchs as well as Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska (a man with ‘close ties’ to the Kremlin). Also suspicious was Manafort’s close relationship with one Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the US Senate claims is a Russia intelligence agent. All these connections meant that while in Ukraine, Manafort was helping the Russian Federation spread its malign influence. On returning to the USA and joining the Trump campaign, he then continued to fulfill the same role.

The fundamental flaw in this thesis has always been the well-known fact that while advising Yanukovich, Manafort took anything but a ‘pro-Russian’ position, but instead pressed him to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU). Since gaining independence, Ukraine had avoided being sucked either into the Western or the Russian camp. But the rise of two competing geopolitical projects – the EU and the Russia-backed Eurasian Union – was making this stance increasingly impossible, and Ukraine was being put in a position where it would be forced to choose. This was because the two Unions are incompatible – one can’t be in two customs unions simultaneously, when they levy different tariffs and have different rules. Association with the EU meant an end to the prospect of Ukraine joining the Eurasian Union. It was therefore a goal which was entirely incompatible with Russian interests, which required that Ukraine turn instead towards Eurasia.

Manafort’s position on this matter therefore worked against Russia. Even The Guardian journalist Luke Harding had to concede this in his book Collusion, citing a former Ukrainian official Oleg Voloshin that, ‘Manafort was an advocate for US interests. So much so that the joke inside [Yanunkovich’s] Party of Regions was that he actually worked for the USA.’

If anyone had any doubts about this, they can now put them aside. On Monday, the news agency BNE Intellinews announced that it had received a leak of hundreds of Kilimnik’s emails detailing his relationship with Manafort and Yanukovich. The story they tell is not at all what the US Senate and other proponents of the Trump-Russia collusion fantasy would have you believe. As BNE reports:

Today the Yanukovych narrative is that he was a stool pigeon for Russian President Vladimir Putin from the start, but after winning the presidency he actually worked very hard to take Ukraine into the European family. As bne IntelliNews  has already reported, Manafort’s flight records also show how he crisscrossed Europe in an effort to build support in Brussels for Yanukovych in the run up to the EU Vilnius summit. …

On March 1, his first foreign trip as newly minted president was to the EU capital of Brussels. … The leaked emails show that Manafort influenced Yanukovych’s decision to visit Brussels as first stop, working in concert with his assistant Konstantin Kilimnik … In a memorandum entitled ‘Purpose of President Yanukovych Trip to Brussels,’ Manafort argued that the decision to visit Brussels first would underscore Yanukovych’s mission to “bring European values to Ukraine,” and kick start negotiations on the Association Agreement.

The memorandum on the Brussels visit was the first of many from Manafort and Kilimnik to Yanukovych, in which they pushed Yanukovych to signal a clear pro-EU line and to carry out reforms to back this up. …

To handle Yanukovych’s off-message antics, Manafort and Kilimnik created a back channel to Yanukovych for Western politicians – in particular those known to appreciate Ukraine’s geopolitical significance vis-à-vis Russia. In Europe, these were Sweden’s then foreign minister Carl Bildt, Poland’s then foreign minister Radosław Sikorski and European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule, and in the US, Vice President Joe Biden.

“We need to launch a ‘Friends of Ukraine’ programme to help us use informal channels in talks on the free trade zone and modernisation of the gas transport system,” Manafort and Kilimnik wrote to Yanukovych in September 2010. “Carl Bildt is the foundation of this informal group and has sufficient weight with his colleagues in questions connected to Ukraine and the Eastern Partnership. (…) but he needs to be able to say that he has a direct channel to the President, and he knows that President Yanukovych remains committed to European integration.”

Beyond this, the emails show that Manafort and Kilimnik also tried hard to arrange a meeting between Yanukovich and US President Barack Obama, and urged Yanukovich to show leniency to former Prime Minister Yuliia Timoshenko (who was imprisoned for fraud).

It is noticeable that the members of the ‘back channel’ Manafort and Kilimnik created to lobby on behalf of Ukraine in the EU included some of the most notably Russophobic European politicians of the time, such as Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski. Moreover, nowhere in any of what they did can you find anything that could remotely be described as ‘pro-Russian’. Indeed, the opposite is true. As previously noted, Ukraine’s bid for an EU agreement directly challenged a key Russian interest – the expansion of the Eurasian Union to include Ukraine. Manafort and Kilimnik were therefore very much working against Russia, not for it.

The idea, therefore, that Paul Manafort was an agent of influence for the Russian government flies against everything we know about what he actually did. As for Kilimnik, maybe he is a Russian intelligence agent – I’m not in a position to say. But if he is, he’s a very weird one, who spent years actively pushing the Ukrainian government to pursue a policy which directly contradicted Russian interests.

None of this, needless to say, appears in the US Senate report. Instead, the report chooses to focus on the apparently shocking revelation that Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik, as if this sharing of private information was in some ways a massive threat to national security and proof that Manafort was working for the Russians. The fact that both Manafort and Kilimnik spent years doing their damnedest to undermine Russia is simply ignored. Go figure!