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By Tsoncho Tsonchev


The Montréal Review, June 2023



And you, Rus, are you not also like a brisk, unbeatable troika racing on? The road smokes under you, bridges rumble, everything falls back and is left behind. Dumbstruck by the divine wonder, the contemplator stops: was it a bolt of lightning thrown down from heaven? What is the meaning of this horrific movement? And what unknown force is hidden in these steeds unknown to the world? Ah, steeds, steeds, what steeds!... Rus, where are you racing to? Give answer! She gives no answer. Wondrously the harness bell dissolves in ringing; the air rumbles, shattered to pieces, and turns to wind; everything on earth flies by, and, looking askance, other nations and states step aside to make way.

Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls (1842)


I begin this conversation on the eve of a war. About seven years ago, as I was finishing a book on Christian realism that included a discussion of just war theory, I wondered why I was wasting my time contemplating and exploring the mystery of war and military conflict, since the possibility of another great war seemed so remote. At the time, Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined seemed unassailable. I argued against it, against Pinker's unbridled optimism, but somewhat reluctantly. An optimist by nature, I nevertheless defended the logic of so-called "common-sense realism" and looked for arguments that would vindicate it against the "pacifist dreams" of the postwar, postcommunist generation. At the time, I argued that human beings were, so to speak, "sinful" and incapable of ultimate improvement. I did this as a Christian, as a student of Augustine (who witnessed both the fall of the Roman Empire and, in his own weakness, the fall of man). I did it as a self-proclaimed "realist.” Moreover, I discussed the inevitable problem of war and conflict not only as a Christian who believed in the plausibility of "original sin," but also as a person who had studied political theory and philosophy for years, and who knew that political science tends to be conservative and realistic. I've spent much of my life at the university, and I've noticed that historians, our particular generation of historians, have always been more liberal and "idealistic" than their colleagues, the political scientists, who have been almost exclusively conservative, "cynical," and realistic. Certainly, I was more attracted to the sharp and witty minds of the political theorists than to the dreamy minds of the leftist historians. But deep in my heart, I hoped that Pinker's kind of optimism was the right argument, that war was becoming obsolete and that the possibility of another great war was diminishing. Human character, I believed despite the voice of reason and the facts of experience, is open to improvement. Man can and does overcome the legacy of "original sin". This, I suppose, was also a typical expression of Christian hope (and youthful naïveté)… Now, seven years later, the world is at war. And the possibility of a great war, a nuclear conflict, has never been closer since the end of Cold War.

The war in Ukraine seems more immediate than the recent wars in the Middle East. There was a hope that conflicts on the "periphery of the world" (which the Middle East still is in the eyes of Europeans and especially Americans) would finally be resolved with the victory of Western coalitions on the ground and the establishment of regimes friendly to the West. The Middle East has never been considered a space of great military potential, so despite globalization and the development of military technologies, a war there supposedly wouldn't cause a global "earthquake", therefore it was basically a war "far away". But the war in Ukraine, at least in its early stages when it wasn't clear how far it could escalate, was never so far away for the rest of the world. First, Ukraine is on the periphery of Europe, not the "periphery of the world" in the strict sense. Second, Ukraine is on the border of two historical world powers—Europe (in its entirety) and Russia. Third, Russia, the invader, is a large body—the head is in Europe, the trunk is in Asia. It is literally "the periphery of the world," but that is precisely the problem. Russia borders Europe, China, the US (and Canada). All these centers of power now find themselves with a "great power" in a state of hot war, and all these centers of power have interests that depend on the outcome of the conflict. For the governments of these powers, Russia's victory or defeat is part of a zero-sum game in which they participate willingly or unwillingly. Fourth, the conflict in Ukraine has led to the formation of coalitions with clear lines of demarcation. The "collective West," as the Russians like to say, versus the "exploited rest" (as the "rest" tend to think). China, Brazil, India, and a number of African states are openly (but somewhat timidly) opposing the Western "interpretation" of the war, and the U.S., U.K., Canada, Japan, and the majority of European states are firmly (but with restraint) pushing their narrative and mobilizing resources for the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. In short, the war in Ukraine is immanent, and it has (almost) completely shattered the recent dreams of pacifists and human betterment optimists.

But geopolitics, and specifically the war in Ukraine, is not the focus of my discussion. It is only the reason for it. The immediacy of the war, the shock of its possibility, and the lack of understanding, of any attempt at a deep understanding of the motives of aggression, moved me to the decision to sit down and write. The "aggressor", Russia, is behind a "veil of ignorance" (not in the Rawlsian sense) for the Western public. This state of ignorance is unavoidable. To "know thy enemy" is also to expose oneself to the "humanity" or "likeness" of the enemy. At the beginning of the war there were attempts to hide Russia behind a "curtain". I mean attempts to ban Russian cultural influence abroad, to silence, for example, the voice of Dostoevsky and the music of Tchaikovsky. It is understandable from the point of view of ill-conceived "political realism," but for the sake of peacemaking, not pacifism, there should be no attempts to hide the enemy behind a curtain just because it may evoke sympathy or even attraction. To "know thy enemy" (if you can even do that) guarantees a certain degree of success in dealing with him and possibly appeasing him. A "degree of success", not necessarily just "success". Plato once said, and I agree, that the "good man", though sober-minded, that is, though willing to understand everyone and everything, including the "enemy", will always fail to understand the "depth" of "human folly" and "bloodthirstiness". We may neither understand our own folly nor the folly of the enemy, but we should certainly try to make him (and ourselves) known, to lift the curtain and expose him, so that the "blood lust," as bewildering as it is to us, becomes bewildering to the enemy as well. So this discussion will be about understanding the Russian political and cultural tradition. It should be noted that Russia is not the "enemy" in the mind of the author, for me she is the "state at war" with another "state", and my aim is to introduce Russia to the reader, who may consider her as an enemy, so that (the possibility of) peacemaking becomes a fact, and not a theory in the mouths of wishful academics and political moralists.


At the moment, it seems that Russia is trying to break the world order established after the 1990s and challenge the dominance of a West led by the United States. Today's world is very different from the last decade of the last century. The main difference is the existence of new technologies and forms of control. The potential of the digital age, the age of AI and data collection and analysis is revolutionary. Perhaps the change in the system of surveillance and control is so significant that there won't be a return to the freedoms of the past. The centers of the new forms of control are still in the West. And the West is desperately trying to complete the process of weaving a global web of connections and bringing the world under its rules. But there are centers of power that have an ambition for independence, an ambition that stems from their historical experience of glory and humiliation, from their cultural uniqueness and value, and finally from their real capacity to acquire independence and hopefully influence, if not over the world, at least over their traditional spheres of dominance. These centers of power are China and Russia. And if China has decided to pursue its specific way of expansion, that is, patient, gradual and restrained influence on the periphery of the "Middle Kingdom," Russia, in its characteristic way, has embarked on an ambitious and risky defense (and expansionism), following the old-fashioned Realpolitik strategy.

Instead of being integrated into the structures of the Western political, economic, and cultural order, Russia has been left on the threshold for years - neither really wanted by the West to join the family of "free nations" nor really ready to do so herself. Russian aggression comes as no surprise. In fact, it was expected (See Why Are We in Ukraine? On the dangers of American hubris. By Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne, Harper’s Magazine, June, 2023). And the timing seems perfect. In fact, the West did not need in its family a powerful neighbor with the size and capacity of Russia. It did not need a state, a society, powerful enough to change the system from within according to its own ideas of right, wrong, good and evil. Russia, on the other hand, did not have the nerve to accept the creeping dominance of the West and then counter it. It did not wait quietly to acquire Western technologies and strategies and then use them against their originator, as China has subtly done in recent decades. In short, Russia decided to break the trend of expanding Western political, economic, and technological control in a hard and open way, through a bloody war, risking everything or winning everything, as it did before with the communist revolution, or even earlier with the stubborn preservation of autocratic monarchy at the time of widespread (among European nations) political liberalization.

The Ipatiev House. The Morning After: From the Triptych “Imperial Golgotha” (2004) by Pavel Ryzhenko

The source of the Russian revolt and the reason for the conflict has already been prominently formulated. Samuel Huntington, right after the fall of communism, said that the next chapter of world history would be the "clash of civilizations.” There won’t be a triumph of liberalism, he proclaimed, in the midst of the triumphant liberalism. Moreover, there will be a rise of conservatism, which, naturally, is deeply connected to restoration, preservation, and expansion of traditional culture. For the triumphant West, Huntington's prediction was scandalous. Globalization and the dazzling progress of technology, especially communication and information technology, would not allow a return to the backwardness of nationalism and cultural isolationism and antagonism. The marriage of liberal ideology and technology, the spread of capitalism, and the collapse of all major foreign obstacles to American dominance, the standard bearer of liberal ideology, did not suggest that Huntington's idea of a clash of civilizations would become a reality. Yes, there will be opposition and resistance, but it will be overcome, and the world will enter the new era of liberal freedom, the new era of the triumph of Western model of society. But just when liberalism seemed to have won the battle, just when the framework of the brave new world was completed, a violent reaction appeared - not so much in the United States with Trump phenomenon, but with the emancipation of two major players, one half integrated, the other isolated and methodically weakened, that is China and Russia.

Culture, identity, freedom—this is the real source of the current conflict. This is also the reason for the curtain of ignorance, in the midst of the plurality of information, that has been drawn over Russia. Russia decided to act and to "survive." Was Russia a modern type of autocracy? Yes, it was. Was a powerful Russia unacceptable to an ambitious West? Yes, it was. Is there anything strange or new about it? No. As Solzhenitsyn said at the time of Huntington's debate, Russia was a unique Orthodox civilization, a cultural empire that should not agree to give up its "God-given" right to independence, rule, and influence. Russia, which had won World War II and dominated the peoples of half the world, would not allow itself to die quietly. Let there be no mistake: Germany was never an empire on the scale of Russia, and second, Germany was part of Western civilization. It could be integrated and appeased after the Second World War, but Russia has always been the neighbor beyond the fence, a periphery, a source of potential disorder (a space, out of our order). The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of the family feud and the return to the bliss and peace of reunification. Russia, as has been noted, has not really been considered part of the Western "family," even though it has been and will always be part of "Western civilization" through Christianity and the inherited Byzantine political culture.

Culture, and the sense of identity associated with it, and from there the continuing sense of lost freedom, is the fundamental source of the present conflict. Geopolitics and power politics are simply expressions of deeply rooted self-perceptions of cultural entities without a sense of togetherness and equal dignity. So my focus would be to expose Russian culture, starting with the Orthodox idea that has dominated and shaped Russian society for centuries, and that even presented itself in the last century under the guise of messianic socialism and communism. Today's Russian revolt has never been a typical "nationalist" upheaval; the old empire has no nationalist ambitions. Nationalism is opposed to the universalist ambitions of imperialism. The revolt is about preserving the old imperial culture of domination. It is about promoting an alternative to Western universalism. Whether Russia is capable of a message as strong and powerful as that of the West, I do not know. What I do know is that it's trying to revive its greatness, its attractiveness, and it looks like it's not going to succeed. But history is full of surprises.


Before turning to Orthodoxy, it may be useful to say something about autocracy, the political tradition of the Russian state. It would be a waste of time to repeat well-known or easily obtained facts about Russian autocracy, and it would not be of value to the general reader to go into historical details about the emergence and development of the Russian state and tsarism. I will simply discuss and interpret the ideas of a prominent defender of the monarchical regime, Nikolai Karamzin, in order to situate the Orthodox tradition within the political tradition of tsarist Russia. Karamzin is sometimes called the Russian Edmund Burke, so conservative is he considered and so influential is he as a thinker in Russian political thought. A quick reading of his Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia could give us an immediate understanding of the grand narrative of the Russian state and empire. It is precisely the "narrative" that is important in Karamzin's work. It has remained unchanged since it was written, and it makes history, it doesn't tell history.

Karamzin's book, although it begins with the Psalmist's words, "There is no flattery in my tongue" (Psalm 138), is a book of praise - praise of the greatness of Russian autocracy and power. Like a modern Eusebius, he pretends to be faithful to historical truth, as the expressed lack of flattery suggests, but he certainly has his preferences, and he does not aim to tell the truth, but to make "truth" possible. What do I mean by "making truth possible"? To make truth possible is to construct a powerful narrative, a vision, to introduce it into the real world with the help of government and society, and to transform whatever reality is into the image and likeness of the narrative. This can be called a Platonic act. It should be noted at once that Karamzin, as a historian and writer, is not very different from all other great historians and writers. There is a misconception among students of history that the "science of history" is only about the correct description and interpretation of facts, while any deviation from the "historical truth" is, so to speak, a "mortal sin". No, the effort to find the truth, the historical truth, has always been as important as the effort to present the past in such a way that it can serve the present and make the future. This, admittedly or not, was well known by all great historians. And indeed, the very first words of Karamzin's Memoir, right after the quotation from the Psalmist, were: "The present is a consequence of the past. In order to judge the former, one must remember the latter; each, as it were, completes the other, and seen together, the two present themselves clearly to the mind." In other words, the past has meaning only through the present, and the present needs clarity, it needs direction, which can only be achieved through the convincing and opinionated, so to speak, interpretation of the past. The present, like the past, has no meaning, and the future has no chance of becoming, unless there is a past that is embedded in a grand narrative, a narrative that evokes feelings, illuminates reality, and offers paths of escape from the riddles of the moment.

The grand narrative is always romantic, as the beginning of all that survives, succeeds, and flourishes. Karamzin's view of the early Russian state is romantic. He imagines the emergence of an ideal Russian state, living in paradisiacal peace, waiting for the original sin. In this state, the king is a messiah who appeases the warring factions of the scattered people, rules with power and justice, and acts as a father who loves his entire family. The picture Karamzin paints is not original. The fatherly figure of the king is the image of Adam, the first of the earthly kings, who lives and cares for his dominion. This is an old medieval concept describing the supreme role and duty of temporal authority, in the person of the monarch, defending his God-given right to rule and dominate.

But original sin, the rupture of corruption, is at hand. It doesn't happen as in the biblical story of the fall, but it is very similar. The corruption of the ideal kingdom of the early Rus comes from outside. The temptation, the impetus for the sinful act is introduced into Russia, it has no roots in the natural beginnings of the state. Corruption comes from Europe, from the West, with the introduction of the appanage system: not only the firstborn receives inheritance, territory and authority, but all the king's children. In the appanage, under the guise of justice and equality, the seeds of envy, competition, and striving are sown. The unity of the family and the authority of the one are exposed to the "plague" of desire. During this age of "sprightly youth," Karamzin says, Russia failed to protect itself from the "plague" brought from Europe by the Germanic peoples - the apanage system. This, he says, led to the “internecine wars of fainthearted princes,” who “oblivious of glory, good of the fatherland, slaughtered each other and ravaged the people, in order to add some insignificant town to their appanage.”  

The result of sin was weakness and destruction of order. The internal conflict in the early Russian state created opportunities for other people--Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, and others-to both advance and feel more secure. Russia's internal weakness created opportunities for her neighbors. And not only opportunities, but also "contempt" for her, and aggression. “They who previously feared the Russians, now treated them with contempt,” Karamzin says. The grand narrative is a psychological construct, and in real politics the feelings and psychological state of a people or a nation are as important as its material state. I would even say that it is more important than any actual state of empirical or material existence. A nation or a person who feels despised, abused, rejected, or exploited, no matter what its (or his/her) actual state is, is a nation (or a person) ready for war and conflict. The self-perception and self-consciousness of a person or a society should be the first thing to be explored when trying to guess its (or his/her) future actions. That's why human behavior is hard to predict. We may see a flourishing and secure nation commit political suicide by going to a misconceived war, or a degraded people, lacking any significant means of defense, capable of overthrowing the dominance of a ruling empire. The state of mind in most cases determines the action and the result. That's why Karamzin, consciously or unconsciously, emphasizes the "contempt" with which the weakened Russia was treated after its fall into corruption. And this fits very well into the narrative, which aims to make history and provide ways out of the mysteries of the moment. For this narrative wants to give not only possible practical means for achieving glory, freedom, or whatever the nation needs or desires, but also consolation, pride, self-esteem, and so on.

But the contempt of outsiders is nothing compared to the contempt of the people for their own rulers. This is the critical point from which the entire system of governance in a state begins to fall apart, especially if the system is not democratic or liberal and depends entirely on the quality and performance of unelected powers. The competition and conflict between princes led to a weakening of their authority. “Once the princes began to sacrifice their blood for empty, selfish ends,” Karamzin says, “the people lost zeal for them and they looked with indifference on the downfall of princely thrones, ever ready to side with him who was more successful, or else to betray him when his good fortune betrayed him too.” Princes could no longer expect true loyalty from their subjects, and rule without loyalty (based on respect, not just profit) was doomed to failure.

The end result of these unfortunate developments was the disintegration of the Russian state and its fall under Mongol rule. It should be noted that Russians, unlike Western societies and nations, place much more emphasis on the preservation of communal spirit and bonds. Historically, community has been more important to Russians than individual spirit. It is a cliché, but one that has a lot of truth in it, that Western societies have always been the most individualistic communities in human history. They were so thanks to their specific historical development. I mean the competition between church and state, monarch and nobility, nobility and bourgeoisie, the struggle between different religious sects and religious authorities, as well as the competition between different nations and principalities crammed into a relatively small territory, and finally the influence of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and the fact that the principle of freedom of conscience became not only a religious idea but also a secular ideal-all of this contributed to the emergence of individualism as the most characteristic trait of Western civilization. It can be argued that individualism is what made Europe a "modern society." Not science, not art, not even democracy (which is a form of collectivism), but individualism and respect for the idea of personal conscience made Western Europe modern. This doesn't mean that "modern" or "modernity" or "individualism" are synonymous with "good" and "necessary"; that they can be exported and imposed. The evaluation always depends on the perspective and the careful (and constantly updated) definition of individual rights and duties. For Russians in the past, as for those living today, the communitarian spirit has always been stronger than for other nations in Europe. And, according to Karamzin, the corruption of morals and the loss of authority of the secular powers led to the destruction of the spirit of togetherness between the rulers and the ruled, and ultimately between the ruled themselves. “Weakening of the power of the state was accompanied by the weakening of the inner bonds that unite the citizens with authority.” Inner bonds simply mean the "sense of togetherness," the sense of being one, of being a family.

In describing the reasons for the fall of the early Russian kingdom, Karamzin doesn't stray too far from Augustine's interpretation of the fall of Rome. A powerful state, many would agree, usually falls of its own weight. When its foundations are shaken, when its principles of good government are corrupted or abandoned, when its head, its government, is weakened by internal divisions and competition for power, by pride and private interests, when its body, that is, its people, doesn't follow orders naturally but is forced to behave according to the unnatural ways of the ruling parties, when the whole organism is burning with ulcers of strife and injustice, then the state falls apart, then the state is exposed to diseases and external infections.  Augustine, in his City of God, explained the fall of Rome with the corruption of morals and internal conflicts - the "bonds" of unity were destroyed. It was only a matter of time before the barbarians sacked the capital and completely destroyed the empire. It was a slow but inevitable process. Karamzin says, “In view of these circumstances, is it surprising that the barbarians subjugated our fatherland?” His answer, “It is more surprising that it should have been able for a long time to appear and to function (just like Rome empire before) as a self-sufficient political body, while its organs and its heart were dying—a fact which can be explained by the weakness of our neighbors.”

This last observation, on the other hand, reminds us of God's timeless warning to the Jewish people, as written in the Scriptures: "It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you go in to take possession of their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations" (Deuteronomy 9:5). A realpolitik strategy has always been about avoiding pride and overestimation of one's own capabilities; it has always been about a realistic understanding of the world outside and the qualities within. The early Russian kingdom, like the late Roman Empire, was kept alive for a long time despite its disease only because the external threats were too weak and corrupt to overcome. When the level of corruption reaches its peak and falls below the level of morality of any other nation, the state succumbs. Not that the Mongols were better than the Russian princes, but the princes, the state, were too weak to confront and expel them. The opposite was also true - the Russians, like the Romans, were able to expand in the past thanks to their inner qualities, which were not so excellent in reality, but which were better than the weakness of their neighbors. In any case, there is no power vacuum on the international scene. Everything depends on the balance of power. It doesn't matter whether formal borders are respected, but who controls whom in spite of the borders. And the capacity for control is due to the inner capacity to behave and direct one's will and actions in a more excellent way than anyone else.

After the fall to Mongol rule, Russia lost its independence for more than 200 years. Karamzin's narrative skips this period entirely, only to jump directly to the happy ending of the story of foreign domination. He calls Russia's capacity for survival and resurrection “A miracle!” And when he speaks of renewal after the Mongol yoke, he again constructs a narrative full of biblical allusions. Salvation, he says, came from a small, humble village, just like Bethlehem, called "Kuchkovo," Moscow. The Russian monarchy was reborn there, and the person who won the title of "Gatherer of the Russian Lands" was Ivan Kalita, "the founding father of Russia's glorious resurrection." In Karamzin's narrative, Kalita is again like the Messiah. It is not the fading control of the Mongols, but the strong will of the Savior who performs the miracle of salvation.

The resurrected Russia, however, was not quite the same as the old Russia. The difference, according to Karamzin, was more positive: from now on, autocracy had a better chance of ruling and surviving.

to be continued...


Tsoncho Tsonchev (Ph.D., McGill University) is the author of The Political Theology of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Reinhold Niebuhr: Essays in Political Theology and Christian Realism (The Montreal Review, 2018) and Person and Communion: The Political Theology of Nikolai Berdyaev (The Montreal Review, 2021).


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