Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Revanchism Of The Third Rome, Part 4: Caesar's 21st Century

At the end of my last post, I promised to discuss how the concept of the Third Rome and Russian Orthodoxy have influenced and guided Russian policy since the fall of the Soviet Union.  I also promised to discuss the bearing these concepts have had on the presidency of Vladimir Putin.  In my discussion, I will be relying heavily on "Russia's 'Special Path' In the Relation Between State and Nation" (Geir Flikke, Russia and the Nordic Countries: State, Religion and Society, Fondet for Dansk-Norsk Samarbeid, 2016) as well as other sources.

At the outset, let me say that the essay by Flikke makes a distinction between the concept of a state and that of a nation, with the state being the creation of the power-holders at the pinnacle of a society, and the nation (polity - as in a people united by collective identity, or народ) being a grassroots creation by a people from the bottom up.  Accordingly, the French concept of a nation is "the political authority emanating from the people..."  In this conception of nationhood, the people of the nation have a major say in how they want their national identity to be defined.  The state as an expression of the government of that nation depends for its legitimacy on the political authority emanating from the people.

The Russian experience has, historically been diametrically opposite to this process.  Starting from the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the Russian state has been an entity imposed by the most powerful on those without power.  "As Vera Tolz stated...'Russia became an Empire before ever contemplating becoming a nation'" (Flikke, ibid.)  The characteristic of such a state is that it is usually an autocracy and not a democracy.  This is to be expected, given the way that Ivan the Terrible achieved victory over his military rivals - namely by being more expert at the use of violence than his rivals - and given the way that the successful use of violence concentrates power in the hands of the wielder of successful violence.  The result in the Russian case was the creation of an extremely long-lasting system of despotism.  The majority of people who made the transition from non-Russian to Russian status over the last five or so centuries did not therefore do so willingly, but under compulsion, as newly-incorporated subjects of an empire.  (Chenoweth and Stephan would not characterize this as a "democratic transition"!)

Fast forward to the 1990's and the time of great difficulty for Russia as it struggled under societal disarray and widespread corruption under Yeltsin.  One of the analysts of that time, a man named Yegor Gaydar (Егор Гайдар), wrote a pamphlet titled, "State and Evolution" ("Государство И Эволюция"), in which he made some very interesting points, as noted by Fikke:
"...Gaydar...saw the greed of nomenklatura capitalism in his own country as inevitably linked to a specific “Russian” entity and cultural context – that of the state. If state and property have never been divided, historically, and in present times, Gaydar held, '(...) even the most powerful state would, in reality, be weak and degenerate (trukhlyavy). The state servicemen, the bureaucracy (chinovniki) will eat the state completely, and they will not halt the hunt for property. Everyday corruption will soon become the real state of affairs. The servicemen will intuitively try to stabilize the situation, by converting power into property.' (Gaydar, 1994)."
And this also:
“Gaydar clearly linked this to the paradox of the liberation from the Tatar Yoke, asserting that the dissolution of the Horde put Russia on a firm path towards despotic Asian rule, firmly expressed by Ivan Grozny. [This], he suggested started the thriving expansion of Russia, ending only in 1945. And, this is important, the steady expansion left Russia void of important processes of nation-building and it also tapped state resources; Russia became a '.... Civilization' (dogonyayushchaya tsivilizatsiya), dedicating most of its resources to “catch up” with its constituent other --- the West: 'Russia was captured, colonized by itself, ending up as a hostage of the militaristic-imperial system, which profiled itself in front of the kneeling people as its eternal benefactor and savior from external threats, as the guarantor of the existence of the nation.' (Gaydar, 1994, p. 46).”
Gaydar's thoughts here can best be summarized by saying that the historical despotism of the Russian state never allowed the Russian people to build the local and regional independent institutions that constitute a healthy nation.  This is why the 1990's (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) were such a time of government corruption and social instability.  The Russian national response to this time was not to look inward to become the sort of people who could manage themselves on local and regional levels, not to begin to develop the capacity for what Mohandas Gandhi called swaraj, but rather to look for another strongman.  In Vladimir Putin they found him.  (But when one strongman "rescues" a nation from being eaten by other strongmen, what guarantee is there that the rescuing strongman won't also be a cannibal?)

Now, what is needed to sell the idea of a strongman and his imposition of a strong unitary state on an unresisting people?  The political and cultural leadership have answered that question in a number of ways.  But one of the ways has been the transformation of the Russian Orthodox Church into a blatantly political instrument to support the regime of Vladimir Putin (Per-Arne Bodin, "The 'Symphony' in Contemporary Russia"; Kristian Gerner, "Clericalization, Militarization and Acquiescence," Russia and the Nordic Countries, 2016)  There is indeed an organic link between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian military: "...a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church took part in the meeting of the Marshal Staff of the armed forces," (Gerner); "...Russian fighter planes were consecrated and sprinkled with holy water by an Orthodox priest..." (Gerner); the State and the Church collaborate openly in the strengthening of a "civil religion" which is primarily cultural in nature, although its symbols are religious (Kahla, "Third Rome Today or State Church Collaboration in Contemporary Russia", 2016); and the Russian Orthodox Church has been involved over the last several years in a massive project of canonizing many military heroes as saints (Kahla, ibid.)

And as for the concept of Russia as the Third Rome, this idea has been elevated even further.  Russian propagandists now refer to Russia as the "Katechon," a concept arrogated by Russia from the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians from the New Testament.  The Katechon is defined as that restraining force or agent which keeps the Antichrist at bay and preserves the world order against lawless chaos.  (Now, to me, that's funny!  Have you seen some of the numerous YouTube videos of Russian road rage incidents?  And these propagandists claim that Russia stands alone to defend the world from lawlessness!  Must...stop...giggling...)

To shoulder such a burden for the preservation of the world most "obviously" requires a strongman.  And of the activities of this "strongman" and his minions I have much more to say - especially as they apply to those of us who are not Russian.  But tonight I am out of time.  To be continued...

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