Tag Archives: conservatism

Double standards again

One of the interesting aspects of the research I am conducting into the history of Russian conservatism is the contemporary resonance of texts written 100, 150, or even 200 years ago. My point here is not to express approval or support of what was written, merely to say that, if you change a few names, much of it could be written today. As a means of understanding contemporary Russian thinking, some of these older texts are quite insightful.

Take for instance Nikolai Danilevskii’s 1869 book Russia and Europe, the 2013 translation of which by Stephen Woodburn I have just started reading. As early as page one I could not but notice the contemporary relevance. Danilevskii complains of Europe’s double standards. Why, he asks, did Prussia’s and Austria’s flagrant aggression against Denmark in 1864 fail to arouse any sense of indignation among Europeans, whereas Russia’s earlier war against Turkey (notionally in defence of Christians) generated immense moral outrage and the creation of the coalition which defeated Russia in the Crimean War. Substitute the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (or any other example of American or British aggression) for the Prussia/Austrian invasion of Denmark, and substitute Russia’s current war in Syria for its earlier war against Turkey, and you can see that, in Russian eyes at least, not much has changed in the past 150 years. For some reason, a double standard applies when moral judgements are made about Russia and the West.

To illustrate the point, here are some key excerpts from Chapter 1 of Russia and Europe, starting on page one.

[P.S. I am thinking of starting a regular feature which would involve the weekly publication of extracts from other Russian conservative texts chosen for their contemporary relevance (and, I stress, not as a mark of approval). I think this could be educationally useful as well as providing a good springboard for political discussion and getting feedback on my research. My previous translation and publication of Ivan Ilyin’s ‘Against Russia’ got a lot of readers, so maybe these would too. It would be good to know if there is any interest.]

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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.

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.