Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Revanchism of the Third Rome (Part 1)

Over the last seven or eight months, as I have tried to make sense of the changes (and attempted changes) which major players have wrought in global and American national politics, I have done a lot of reading, in an attempt to see the various major global actors through various lenses. Those who regularly follow this blog know that one of the lenses through which I like to look is the lens of abnormal psychology, as applied to both individuals and nations. So you can imagine how my interest was piqued as I came across a series of blog posts titled, Russia As A Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Ukraine As A Narcissistic Injury, written by a Ukrainian lady named Olga Doroshenko (or, as she writes in her profile, Дорошенко Ольга). Olga had the rather painful fortune to live through the violent counterrevolutionary response to the initially nonviolent 2014 Ukraine revolution which ousted then President Viktor Yanukovych.

Her series of posts on Russia contain, I am sure, some barbs of the sort which arise from the deeply unpleasant history that builds up between people who are related enough to each other to really get on each other's nerves when they live too long near each other. However, her posts also present a thought-provoking analysis which lines up with many aspects of Russia's official "face" which I had observed over the last few years "from the side," as some Russians say. As one can see from her writings, the danger of national narcissism is not limited to certain nations. Any nation can fall into such a derangement if the conditions are right. Her posts also shed a great deal of light on Russia's unhealthy interest in the affairs of non-Russian nations, including the interest which has been "lavished" on the United States during the last major election cycle.

What conditions does she then identify in the case of Russia? First, let's consider her thumbnail sketch of NPD. To me, she seems to be right on in stating that NPD is a compensatory response to feelings of inferiority. As Olga writes,
"Narcissism always starts with an inferiority complex. A narcissist feels his/her insignificance and hates him/herself for this. This hatred causes shame, and in attempt to protect him/herself from this shame the narcissist builds up an ideal person which he/she pretends to be. But any hint of criticism shatters this ideal image, which is intolerable. Therefore, the critic is treated as an enemy.
Any sane person can ask: why so complicated? If you feel shame, you just stop doing what causes this shame and stop feeling shame. Profit! That is true, but not for the narcissist. The narcissistic shame is different from the ordinary shame: there is no particular reason for it, the narcissist is ashamed just of being imperfect. Which means: just of being human."
Dealing with this shame in a truly effective way is quite scary. It is painful work to learn to live gracefully, humbly and honorably within the limits which your Creator has imposed on you, just as it is also painful to for most of us to admit that we have faults and sins to be repented of. Indeed, for the narcissist, choosing to give up the grandiose self and accept one's humanity - one's ordinariness and imperfection - is like experiencing a death. For a narcissist, the only thing worse is the involuntary disintegration of the narcissist's grandiose self in response to external events. That does lead some narcissists to choose physical death.

What then is the source of Russian narcissism as expressed in foreign and domestic governmental policy? What is root of the inferiority complex that the national grandiose self is supposed to cover up? According to Olga, that inferiority complex is the result of perceived historical technological, social and economic underdevelopment in comparison to Europe. And as suggested by Olga, this inferiority complex has historically been felt most keenly by the elites of Russia, including the tsars and other nobility, and the intellectual class (many of whom were also of the nobility). Therefore, the elites, from tsar to nobility to intellectuals in the service of the tsar and the nobles, all collaborated, often consciously, to build a collective identity consisting of a national grandiose self. This grandiose self, bejeweled with the virtues of a soldier (bravery, courage, spirituality, ability to endure hardship for a greater good, reverent submission to authorities, etc.), was meant both to inspire ordinary Russians (many of whom were serfs - that is, slaves - from the 11th century to the mid 19th century) to enthusiastically answer their masters' calls to arms, and to promote meek submission to the hardships under which Russian "commoners" lived. It was also meant to inoculate the populace against the desire for social change - even though, from time to time, some ordinary Russians were able to see how much better off many Europeans were, particularly in being allowed to live as free people.

Thus one of the chief "virtues" of this grandiose self was the ability to meekly submit to suffering - the suffering which must be endured for the sake of achieving the greater good of building a truly "great" nation. This meek submission was summarized in the notion of "the enigmatic Russian soul", the inmost being of a nation that had gladly accepted its calling to suffer as a "collective Christ" in order to bring light and redemption to the world. Never mind that the sufferings borne by the Russian masses were in many cases inflicted by those who held power in Russian society. Never mind also that the redemption which Russia believed itself called to bring to the world was to be brought by violent imperial expansion.

A chief ingredient needed for this grandiose self was the presence of a cast of inferior characters against whom this grandiose self might appear truly grand by comparison. The masters of Russian culture therefore cast Europe as a collection of these inferiors, a bunch of "soft" and "weak" people whose enjoyment of a more pleasant way of life was proof of their "godlessness." (As someone told me a while back, "In Russia, the strong survive! We don't demand soft treatment." His implication was, "like some other people...") Later, the cast of inferior characters expanded to include the entire West - at least, those who are white. As for the rest of us, well, I am sure that not many members of the current Russian elite regard what goes on in our heads as thoughts worth taking seriously. Oddly enough, that does not bother me, for reasons which I will elaborate in a future post.

Thus do we encounter modern Russia as the "collective Christ" pitted against a godless world as it soldiers bravely on in its Messianic mission to bring light and redemption to a world whose desire to be left unmolested is just so much proof of the "godlessness" of that world. Thus has this "mysterious", "enigmatic" nation closed itself off from learning anything from the world which it despises. This is convenient for the present-day Russian elites, for whom the prospect of internal change must be the kind of night terror that can cause cardiac arrest. But I must mention that it has not only been tsar and nobility that have conspired to build such an enduring grandiose self. There has been another agent involved in this project over the last several centuries. I will describe that agent in my next post.

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