The Importance of Being Irrelevant

A recent trend in the financing of higher education has been to link research funding to evidence that the projects being funded have some practical or commercial value. One example of this is the United Kingdom’s Research Excellence Framework which ties research funding to a rather vaguely defined ‘impact’ assessment, thus requiring university departments to demonstrate the social relevance of their work.

For pharmaceutical chemists, metallurgical engineers, petroleum geologists, and many others, this probably isn’t a big issue. However, if like Lucky Jim in Kingsley Amis’ book of that name, you are studying ‘The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485’, you are going to find it more difficult to prove the social utility of what you are doing.

Frankly, I think that the whole process is rather silly. Take, for instance, my own doctoral thesis and first book, The White Russian Army in Exile, 1920-1941. The book is about a Russian émigré military organization known as ROVS (Russkii Obshche-Voinskii Soiuz in Russian, the Russian General Military Union in English), founded by General P.N. Wrangel in 1924.

General Wrangel
General Wrangel

There was a reason nobody had studied this group before: White Russian émigrés were regarded as historical dead-enders who left no legacy. This was a thoroughly obscure history of a thoroughly obscure organization, whose original members had all died off by the time I came to study it. Its impact on anything: zero.

Until now.

In a startling twist of history, ROVS hung on not just all through the 1920s but longer than the Bolsheviks. It outlasted the Cold War and returned to Russia. And more than that, it has suddenly this year grown back into an organization of political relevance.

The current leader of ROVS, Igor Borisovich Ivanov, was for a while Deputy Chief of Staff and head of the political department of the army of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine. In a statement he issued in September (a transcript translated into English is available here), he talks about changes in the rebel leadership which led to his resignation, and his dislike of the ideological orientation of the new leaders.

Igor Borisovich Ivanov
Igor Borisovich Ivanov

To get the full impact of Ivanov’s message, you need to know a little about the organization he heads and what it stands for. Equally, some of the backstage (or backstab) manoeuvring in Russian and Ukrainian affairs makes far more sense if you are familiar with the history and ideology of ROVS (see on this point an article I wrote a few weeks ago for The American Conservative magazine. ).

My esoteric historical study has unexpectedly become useful. When writing The White Russian Army in Exile, I never dreamed that it would be of any ‘use’ for anything. That wasn’t the point. Had I been forced to carry out an ‘impact assessment’, I would have had to say its practical value was nil. But I would have been wrong! Fifteen years later, having happened to have learned all about this particular obscure vignette in history has enabled me to provide a unique perspective on a matter of considerable importance.

In short, all knowledge is potentially useful and should be pursued as an objective in itself.


Here we are again

Here we are! Here we are! Here we are again!
We’re fit and well and feeling as right as rain.
Never mind the weather, now we’re all together.
Hullo! Hullo! Here we are again.

(Song by Frederick Wheeler, 1915)

Here we are again. The Canadian Parliament has voted in favour of sending the air force to Iraq to wage war against the Islamic State. This will be the fifth war fought by Canada since the end of the Cold War: the Gulf War (1991); Kosovo (1999); Afghanistan (2001-2014); Libya (2011); and now Iraq (2014). Since a few Canadian servicemen and women were also involved in Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia (1995) and the invasion of Iraq (2003), one could even make that seven wars. This is an extraordinary total for a country which enjoys almost complete safety from external attack.

Not even the Canadian government pretends that it’s going to win this war. Also, nobody thinks that the war is going to be short. We’re in for the long haul, we’re told, despite Sun Tzu’s observation that ‘No country ever benefitted from a protracted war.’

Pursuing a policy which you know cannot succeed is almost the definition of irrationality. So, what is going on in our politicians’ minds?

One explanation might be that the government really believes that the Islamic State poses a mortal threat to Canada. As Foreign Minister John Baird told the House of Commons, ‘The dark clouds of terror are gathering in Iraq and Syria, threatening to strike their thunder from India to Spain. We must not let this storm descend on Canada, and we know that it will if left unchecked’. But if the Islamic State really is so dangerous, why are we only sending six planes to deal with it? The fact that we are making such a tiny effort suggests that we do not really consider ourselves so threatened after all. There must be another explanation for our behaviour.

Moralism may be part of the answer. The Islamic State is ‘evil’ and thus has to be fought. ‘This is a struggle against a group of terrorists that rape, pillage and slaughter anything and anyone that stands in its way,’ says Baird, ‘Throughout our history, Canada has done its part defending the ideals and values that have made our country the envy of the world. Canada heeds the call. Canada protects the vulnerable. Canada challenges the aggressor.’ The war is thus not so much about defending ourselves against a threat, let alone about achieving victory, as about identity. It’s a matter of pride, of proving who we are.

It’s about proving who we are to ourselves, but it’s also about proving who we are to others. ‘Being a free rider means you are not taken seriously’, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Decoded, this means that we are waging war because we don’t want the Americans to look down at us. This is a longstanding obsession with Canadian politicians.

Anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers wrote that honour is ‘the value of a person in his own eyes but also in the eyes of society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride, but it is also the acknowledgment of that claim, his excellence recognized by society, his right to pride.’ Seen this way, Canada’s decision to bomb Iraq is all about honour. The problem with this is that strategy is about applying means to achieve ends, but if honour is your end, you achieve it the moment you start bombing. Just by turning up, you have proven that you are somebody who fights evil and deserves your allies’ respect. After that, what you bomb, when you bomb it, how you bomb it, and whether your bombing achieves anything or not, is neither here nor there.

It is no surprise that we end up fighting wars we do not win.


Was communism a Russian phenomenon?

This week in the course ‘Russia and the West’ we will be examining the Soviet Union between the Revolution and the Second World War, including the question of whether communism should be seen as a sharp break in Russian history, with the imposition of a Western ideology (Marxism), or whether communism is better seen as a continuation, or even accentuation, of traditional Russian ways of government.

To this end we will read parts of Nikolai Berdyaev’s 1937 book The Origin of Russian Communism, which is what I want to discuss here.



Berdyaev (1874-1948) is one of Russia’s best known philosophers. Originally a Marxist, he later became something of an Orthodox mystic, while still retaining some links to socialism. In this regard, he was part of a complex Russian liberal-conservative tradition which defies easy categorization.  In The Origin of Russian Communism, he had this to say:

Russian communism is difficult to understand on account of its twofold nature. On the one hand, it is international and a world phenomenon; on the other hand it is national and Russian. … it was Russian history which determined its limits and shaped its character. A knowledge of Marxism will not help in this.

Communism, Berdyaev maintained, was built on the foundations of Orthodox ‘messianism’ and the tradition of Russian autocracy. Thus, he concluded, ‘Russian communism is more traditional than is commonly thought and is a transformation and deformation of the old Russian messianic idea.’

Is he right? For sure, one can see features of continuity between Imperial and Soviet Russia: state-led modernization, the ideology of collectivism, not to mention much of communist iconography (such as the ubiquitous portraits of Lenin and Stalin which replaced the saints of yore). But Berdyaev ignores, I think, all the decisive differences between pre- and post-revolutionary Russia. The totalitarian nature of Soviet communism, which sought to infiltrate itself into every aspect of social life, was quite new and extraordinary. The modernizing drive was more than just a larger scale version of state-led modernization under leaders such as Peter the Great. It was allied to an altogether different ideology.

So to go back to the original question – Was communism a uniquely Russian phenomenon? I am open to being swayed either way in this debate.

When the West did not exist

The hundredth anniversary of the First World War has produced an outpouring of fresh literature on the subject of a conflict whose legacy continues to shape the world today. With a few notable exceptions (Josh Sanborn’s Imperial Apocalypse, the Russia’s Great War and Revolution project and, of course, my own August 2014 book on Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich), this torrent of commemoration has passed Russia by. Despite the fact that by summer 1915, the majority of the divisions of the Central Powers were fighting on the Eastern and not the Western Front, so much more has been written about the latter than about the former that one might be excused for believing that the British Empire had won the war entirely by itself.

This past weekend I attended a conference about the First World War at the beautiful Château Lake Louise near Banff, Alberta. Of almost 100 papers delivered at the conference, only three were about Russia. This is a shame, not merely because it distorts our understanding of the past, but because it erases from history a time when Russia was fully integrated into the international politics of Europe.

By way of illustration, here is a photograph taken at the Russian Supreme Headquarters (Stavka) early in 1915 showing the Supreme Commander Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich with a group of Cossacks. The decidedly Francophile Grand Duke took two flags with him to Stavka: the first was the standard which his father had flown when commanding the Russian Army in the Russo-Turkish War nearly 40 years previously; the other was a French tricolour given to the Grand Duke by General Joffre in 1912. You can see both flags in the photograph. There is no Russian flag. Extraordinarily, the Russian Supreme Headquarters fought the First World War not under the flag of Russia, but under the flag of France.


As this example shows, one hundred years ago the West, as a collective entity juxtaposed to Russia, did not exist. France and Germany were fighting each other, but Russian and French interests were seen as identical. In today’s world too, there is no inherent reason why on any given subject the interests of France and Russia should not be closer together than, for instance, the interests of France and Germany. The same applies to all European and North American countries. Canada and Russia, for instance, do not have to be further apart than, say, Canada and Slovakia. In fact there are very good reasons for suggesting that Canada might have rather more in common with Russia than with Slovakia. Canada and Russia are, after all, polar neighbours whose economies are both reliant on natural resource extraction.

Seen this way, the West as the opposite of Russia is not a natural phenomenon but rather the product of institutions set up after the Second World War, most notably NATO and the European Union. These institutions have their advantages:  they help to prevent divisions of the sort that ignited the two World Wars. But they also have disadvantages:  their existence encourages their members to regard getting on with other members as more important than pursuing their own interests. Groupthink trumps rationality, and good relations with Russia are sacrificed as a result.

So too does the obsession with ‘Western values’ trump national interest.  A hundred years ago, Imperial Russia and Republican France had profoundly different forms of government. This did not preclude them from getting on. Nor should it prevent Russia and the West today, when the differences are so much smaller.


Crackpot theories: Eurasianism

As a regular feature of this blog, I intend to cover themes studied in the courses that I teach at the University of Ottawa on the topics of ‘Russia and the West’ (Autumn semester) and ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’ (Winter semester). I will post an entry each week relevant to the topic of that week’s class. This week in ‘Russia and the West’, the class will be looking at Russia’s relationship with the East, to determine to what extent Russia might be considered an Eastern rather than a Western country. With that in mind, this post will take a brief look at the theory of Eurasianism.

Simply put, Eurasianism contends that Russia is neither Western nor Eastern but something entirely distinct – Eurasian. Dreamt up by Russian émigrés in the 1920s this idea languished in obscurity until resurrected in post-communist Russia in the 1990s, since when it has acquired a degree of political influence and also morphed into a somewhat extreme form in the writings of philosophers such as Aleksandr Dugin.

Eurasianism derived from a late nineteenth intellectual desire to discover distinct national roots of Russian culture. A notable figure in this movement was the critic Vladimir Stasov, who sought to liberate Russian art from European influences. He and others promoted a revival of Russian folk traditions. The best known result was Igor Stravinsky’s music and Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for the ballet The Rite of Spring, which celebrated Russia’s supposed Eastern roots.

Eurasianism inspired a drive to find non-Western influences in all aspects of Russian life. This included re-evaluating the impact of the Mongol conquest of Russia, analyzing Russian flora and fauna to demonstrate their uniqueness, and so on. In the process, Eurasian scholars undoubtedly made some original and useful contributions to our understanding of Russia. However, they cherry-picked their evidence. Items which suggested Russia’s distinctiveness were emphasized, while others which suggested the opposite were downplayed. Further problems then arose when the research on Russian distinctiveness was allied to some rather dodgy geopolitical theories and turned into a political movement.

The most prominent of these theories were the geopolitics of Harold Mackinder and Otto Spengler’s theory of the decline of the West. According to Mackinder’s ‘heartland theory’, Siberia and Central Asia together constitute the pivotal geographical area in the world. ‘Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World,’ Mackinder wrote. Seen from the point of view of modern Eurasianists, this means that Russia should seek above all to control Central Asia, which implies a restoration of the old Soviet borders or at least some form of closer union between Russia and Central Asia, such as the new Eurasian Union.


Heartland theory is, of course, utter rot. The United States has remained the world’s greatest power for the best part of a century without, until very recently, exerting any form of control over the ‘heartland’. Mackinder was entirely wrong.

As for Spengler, in his 1918 book The Decline of the West he claimed that civilizations rise and fall as they develop from youth to senility. Western ‘Faustian’ civilization, he said, was reaching senility. By contrast, Russia was a young civilization waiting for its energy to burst forth, but it was trapped in a state of ‘pseudomorphosis’ by the dominance of the West, which had therefore to be cast off. Unfortunately for Spengler, the West failed to decline in the hundred years following the publication of his book. He too was entirely wrong.

Spengler’s ideas nevertheless influenced Soviet thinker Lev Gumilev (1912-1992), in whose writings Eurasianism finally jumped the shark into the realm of pure loopiness. According to Gumilev, ethnic groups live and die as their levels of ‘passionarity’ (a sort of mystical life force) rises and falls from youth to old age. It reminds one somewhat of General Ripper’s obsession with America’s ‘precious bodily fluids’ in Doctor Strangelove.  Again, the conclusion is that Russia should ally itself not with the decrepit West but with the fresh, virile forces of the East.

Eurasianism has a touch of truth to it, enough to make it compelling to some. Overall, though, it is a crackpot theory, based on some rather bizarre and obviously false ideas from a hundred or so years ago. If they have any sense, Russians should definitely not use it as the basis for any type of political action.

%d bloggers like this: