24 April 2013

Neo-Byzantinism: Russia and the New/Old Paradigm Wars

Russia’s actions have to be understood in light of history. Americans have often made the mistake of assuming that the world really and truly changed after 1945 and that the events of 1991 set the changes in stone. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While the events of 1914-45 were titanic and dominated the rest of the 20th and certainly continue to dominate the early 21st centuries, I would again argue these events represent a historical parenthesis. Rather than look ahead to another century of American dominance and the prevalence of new ideas and paradigms, one would do better to examine the past. History in this case is every bit as useful as a modern Political Science textbook.
What has Russia’s role been throughout history? How does the Byzantine legacy and Russia’s role as the Third Rome relate historically to the Latin West? These are the questions that need to be asked.
Even the Soviet period was often misunderstood by American analysts. Comintern and the Socialist International were propaganda tools but essentially fictions. In the end Nationalism always won out whether it was within the Russian dominated Soviet Union, in Maoist China, Ho’s Vietnam, Hoxha’s Albania, or even in Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Communism it was not. Instead these countries replaced traditional regimes with Red Tsars and Red Emperors. Mao and Stalin far exceeded anything that had preceded them. The people of these countries cast down the old tyrannies and replaced them with tyrannies in the superlative.
Even as early as the Crusades when the Russians were new converts to the Byzantine rite, there was a manifest suspicion and distrust between the heirs of the Latin West and Greek East. The reasons for this are complicated but suffice it to say the East is leery of Western motivations. I think they’ve always been torn between interpreting the West as uncouth, barbaric, bumblers, or duplicitous, arrogant hypocrites.
The differences in time only grew more pronounced. The Byzantine legacy is filled with bitter resentment. As they fought the long war against Islam and Ottoman encroachment, as they died a slow death, the West flourished basking in the sun of the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Westerners will often point out the Byzantine world (which would include Russia) experienced no Renaissance…to which they would reply that there was no need. They never went through the Dark Ages. They never lost the knowledge which the West only began to rediscover after the year 1000. The West views the East as stagnating and undergoing a long process of decay. Those in the East bitterly point out that the West’s flourishing was often at the expense of the East or at the very least able to occur because the East bore the brunt of the Asiatic assault.
In addition Western arrogance, probably best symbolized with the power-grasping ambitions of the Papacy reached its height with the speculative and scholastic theology of the Middle Ages. The idolizing of the mind and intellectual speculation is to them an idol. In addition from an Eastern perspective, the Renaissance (so-called) also birthed the Reformation which to them is just a further degenerative form of Roman Catholicism.
While some would wish to deny it the Reformation and the wars of religion certainly laid the groundwork and opened the door for the Enlightenment and the creation of the modern world, a world built on humanistic and secular assumptions. With it came the arrogance and the claims, the perceived rights (or even duty) of the Western elite to dominate the affairs of the world. The Crusaders were back but this time with new ideas, technology and a vitality no one in the world could match.
When Constantinople fell in 1453, the Russians began to see themselves as the Third Rome. The first had fallen to barbarians and to apostasy. The second (Constantinople) fell to the Turk and now Moscow was the Third and final manifestation of the Sacred Polis, the Holy City.
And this was not just a vacuous idea, or mere turn of phrase. They believed it whole heartedly and for them this identity and the threats that went with it were real.
I’ve mentioned before the issue of security and how paramount it is for many people in many parts of the world and yet it is something we in the United States take for granted. Certainly America has a unique history that has generated a fairly stable modern state. Although I would contend greater familiarity with American history would dispel some of this, nevertheless the United States has also experienced a remarkable stretch of domestic peace, free from invasion.
Despite the supposedly dire threats coming from places like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Grenada, the United States even without its military colossus is almost unassailable. It’s too big and too isolated from opposing power centers. The United States will never allow hostile regimes to exist in Canada or Mexico leaving its enemies only a few military options…mutually assured destruction with nuclear weapons, or the most massive and impossible trans-oceanic naval invasion in the history of the world…or terrorism. For rival states, isolation and attrition are their best hope.  
In the past century America has been attacked twice on its own territory. One attack came on a remote colonial archipelago in 1941 and the second time a strategically worthless but visually and politically sensational guerilla strike in Lower Manhattan and Washington DC.
Basically the last time America experienced a real domestic war with large-scale death and destruction was 1865 and the last time it was invaded was by the British during the War of 1812. I don’t count the border skirmishes with Mexico etc… They posed no existential threat to the nation.
Basically the United States has possessed an unrivaled ‘security’ that helped to establish its economic and later geopolitical might. While the Europeans were still slaughtering one another, the Americans were steadily advancing and cobbling together a continental empire. The Indian Wars loomed large in the American psyche but overall were pretty minor vis-à-vis the wars of Europe and Asia.
I take it as sociologically axiomatic that security generates leisure and with leisure comes the advancement of the arts, sciences, industry…essentially a vibrant civilization. Political theory falls within this sphere. People trying to scratch out a living under threat of invasion or raiding do not develop new forms of architecture, political thought, nor are they going to take the time to innovate or invest in new things. They’re trying to survive and they’re looking foremost for security.[i]
In Western Europe this meant Feudalism and many believed it was the Christian social order (which would include economic theory).
In America the security granted by circumstance (or more rightly Providence[ii]) allowed for citizen participation to flourish, and education and a vested interest in the affairs of society led to democratic impulses.
In Russia (and in many other countries) these conditions have almost never existed, are not part of their culture, and thus there’s little expectation to think that suddenly they’re going to change. Many honestly believed during the 1990’s that Russia after a few bumps in the road would become yet another democratic nation. Historians cautioned against this expectation but they were dismissed. It was a new era for new ideas that were going to change the world.
Twenty years later the world is reverting to old patterns and forms, sometimes dragging democratic regimes along with it.
While Byzantium was trying to recover Constantinople from the Venetian hands which captured it during the 4th Crusade, Russia was being overrun by Batu Khan and the Mongols. It was during this 250 year domination (the Tatar Yoke) that Moscow came to the fore and eventually led the Russians to autonomous freedom.
As the self-appointed heirs of Byzantium, the new Caesar or Tsar reigned as God’s agent. As the last Rome they stood against the ‘Asiatic hordes’ from the east. And even though the traditional date for the Mongol stand-down or retreat is 1480, the Russians continued the war with the Turco-Mongol forces (under various forms) right up to the eve of World War I.[iii]
Geographically Russia is indefensible. Employing Scythian-style (retreat and scorched earth) tactics she was able to defeat both Napoleon and Hitler but at a great cost in terms of life and destruction. Russia wins by attrition and then launches a vicious counter-attack.
In the south, the Steppes stretch from the Carpathians in Romania to Mongolia. There is no way to defend these lands. There was always the threat of the Asiatic horsemen…The Turco-Mongol Tatars coming and raiding.[iv]
This combined legacy of Byzantine heritage and geopolitical insecurity provide the formula for a society demanding strong firm leadership and organization. Just like in Western Europe during most of the Middle Ages, the era of Feudalism, security was paramount and men were happy to sacrifice freedom in order to have it. Though it is seemingly beyond our grasp men sold themselves into serfdom for security and a structured society. For many people the greatest fear is chaos and anarchy.
Russia tasted this in the 1990’s under the Yeltsin regime. To be fair it’s not all Yeltsin’s fault, nevertheless Russia was knocked down and during this period the state disappeared from the lives of the people and was replaced by unrestrained capitalism. If there’s a vacuum it will be filled by someone. Organized Crime has shown itself quite able to set up Feudalism in its own backyard, and operate with great Capitalist vigour at the same time.[v]
It was a cutthroat era in which some became fabulously rich and others became desperately poor. A lack of any regulation fosters gangsterism and corrupt monopolies. This was the age of the Russian Oligarch and the central government essentially lost power over vast swaths of the country. When Capitalism is unrestrained, the monopoly eventually extends to state powers as well. Being rich isn’t about money, it’s about power and when Capitalism knows no boundaries, in the end the state will also be bought and sold and used as just another tool in the arsenal.
The poverty and insecurity, and massive crime destabilized society. Government had broken down and been replaced by cutthroat groups vying for control. People began to long for the stability of the Soviet days. Thus when a strong leader like Putin came into power, though the West was wary, the Russian people were more than happy to see the return of strong leadership. In the end freedom is not paramount and in fact is meaningless without security. I cannot emphasize this enough. Putin began to restore that in the early 2000’s.
In addition he began to slowly arrest the process of American expansion into Russia’s traditional sphere. The Americans are basically acting as if the world is theirs for the taking. Russia and much of the rest of the world, see the Cold War as over, the tension is gone, the false paradigm imposed on the globe has been removed. American geopolitical aggression no longer has support, it no longer has an excuse. Now all the world can see it for what it is…an Imperial project.
Some in the United States recognized this and were happy to celebrate and promote this new unrestrained imperial age. But these so-called Neo-Conservatives (and I don’t think they were alone) detected international resistance and domestic indifference. The 1990’s was a time of economic expansion. The internet, globalism, Wal-mart were all taking off. These were the years the American public grew fat…literally.[vi] The last thing the public wanted was foreign entanglements. The aborted Somalia mission and the Balkan incursions were not understood and did not gain much public interest or support. The Kosovo bombing in 1999 generated some interest from a technological point of view as military worshippers observed this new form of warfare with fascination.
The Neo-Conservatives suggested that something would have happen that would jar the public consciousness. They needed something that would force the public out of its internalized box and give them the mandate for foreign action. They understood that without American aggression and expansion the Unipolar framework would not hold and the world would either revert to an older model or take on a new one.
This birthed the now well known Project for New American Century.[vii] And please understand what this is. Unilateralism, hegemony, the goals of the PNAC are simply technical terms and often euphemisms for world empire. That’s been the goal all along.
It just drips with irony to me. I grew up a Dispensationalist and spent much of my youth looking out for world government. That was the big threat. That was the sign the Rapture was about to happen and the antichrist was going to show up. Thankfully I abandoned that aberrant theology when I actually became a Christian and started reading and studying the Bible. But now in the late 1990’s it did indeed look there was a world empire, and yet the Dispensationalists I had left were celebrating it in the form of the United States. They were still afraid of the pathetic and largely irrelevant United Nations. The science fiction series ‘Left Behind’ had just come out in 1995.
They had a world empire right in front of them and they were missing it. In fact they were prostituting themselves to it.
But the Neo-Conservatives, the political thinkers who understood what was happening in the world were concerned. They public wasn’t getting it. The Cold War was over, but now the United States either had to ‘step up’ or risking losing it all.
The Neo-Conservatives said another Pearl Harbour type event was required to jar the consciousness of the public. For political thinkers, fear is a blank check.
By September 2001 they had what they needed and the mechanism for implemented the full-scale Imperial Project was the Orwellian named War on Terror.
America’s rivals and enemies including Russia were not fooled. They could see the signs in the sky. A storm was coming. And, the United States now had a powerful and visually sensational narrative to vindicate their actions. The American media far from being Left Wing or Anti-American would support the state narrative and aid the project in every way possible.
The actions of Russia and other nations would not make sense to Western audiences. They would seem irrational, hostile, devious and sinister.[viii] The Crusaders said the same of the Byzantines in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Some things never change. No one is trying to suggest the men running Moscow are somehow acting in a noble or altruistic fashion. But that’s a far cry from suggesting the folks in Washington or London are somehow good or acting in a moral manner.
What’s the lesson? Both sides are evil. Both seek power and will do whatever they have to in order to attain it. At the very least Christians should understand this. Even if they don’t understand what’s happening in terms of geopolitics and history, a basic understanding of this will keep them from being fooled. The threat here isn’t that American Christians will be taken in by Russian propaganda. Instead they are enslaved and blinded by the pro-American media which comes in many forms.
And yet it is good to know some history and something of the world especially if we’re going to interact with it, talk to other people, and raise our children. It’s been striking to watch the American media fumble the Boston Marathon bombing. The public knows nothing of Chechnya and its history with Russia. Apparently many people confused the Czech Republic with Chechnya, so that the ambassador had to make a statement! It makes no sense whatever for a Chechen to attack the United States. The motivations have to found elsewhere. To try and weave in some kind of Russian narrative is to misunderstand the situation.
Not everyone needs to be an expert, but this kind of ignorance is reprehensible and people (again I’m speaking to Christians) in this condition are subject to manipulation. Add Nationalism into the mix and the Church will become unrecognizable and without realizing it may (indeed will) find itself engaged in great evil.
Russia’s actions must be understood in light of its history. At present rather being aggressive it is in many ways trying to check America’s aggression since 1991. We’ve seen this in the Ukraine, South Ossetia and their attempts to stop NATO expansions. This coupled with the EU and the United States sometimes acting as partners have fueled some of Russia’s actions with regard to Natural Gas delivery.
Russia’s new economy is built largely on gas and oil and this has just further complicated the geo-political situation. Old fault lines are re-cast and re-born and today just like before, the Black and Caspian Sea’s are becoming areas of strategic tension and a new Great Game is afoot in Central Asia where Russia, China, the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent come together. America is playing the role of Britain in this new version but is far more dangerous.
Russia historically has influenced the Slavic perimeter of Europe. Catholic Slavs like the Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks have not appreciated this, while fellow Orthodox like the Serbs, Bulgarians, and at times the Greeks have long looked to Russia as a protector. During the Ottoman Centuries, the Syriac/Assyrian people and the Armenians looked to Russia as a protector and potential liberator, a new Byzantium.
The Russian state is slowly re-embracing its Orthodox heritage and its role as the New Byzantium. This means old rivalries and obligations are being reborn. Russia’s history demands security, and in order to achieve it the state must be strong and able to extend itself over a massive geographical area.
The West is to be feared and yet in some ways it is begrudgingly admired. The cowboy, the rough and tough even aggressive leader is respected. They feared Reagan, and maybe even Bush a little bit, but they respected them, far more than someone like Carter or Obama. Does that mean threatening language, brinksmanship and aggression are right or Christian? I wouldn’t say that at all. It’s just a reality in a fallen world. Maybe a Christian leader can’t run an empire? Maybe living your values will mean the divestment of power. This is true in the business world as much as in the world of politics. The Japanese have long understood these worlds operate under the same rules.
The American Church has played a large role in promoting America’s Imperial interests both practically and certainly ideologically. This and the entire Byzantine/Latin heritage and tension must be understood when interpreting the actions of the Russian state and Orthodox Church with regard to the treatment of ‘sects’. There’s a lot of baggage and the American connections have only exacerbated the tension.
What is startling is that the conditions both geopolitically and economically are slowly creeping once more toward a scenario reminiscent of 1914. We’re a bit off from that yet, but I was startled the other day at work. I heard someone on the radio echoing the same sentiment. We live in interesting and unsettling times. But then again we’re told there will be wars and rumours of wars. I don’t believe that to be only applicable to the time just before the End. I think it to be characteristic of the entire age.
World peace and stability under any flag is a fiction. It won’t happen, but even if it did, it wouldn’t be peace. It would be some sort of imperial tyranny. This is equally true of an American hegemony.
For myself I would rather see power broken and dispersed rather than consolidated. If that means a risk of instability, I would rather live in that world than one in which America dominated. My motivations for this sentiment are spiritual and theological in nature. But no worry, when one hydra-head is cut off, another grows in its place.


[i] This is true of individuals as well. As I’ve written elsewhere, those with wealth and security, especially when inherited will not understand the mindset or motivations of those who do not possess them.
 
[ii] Contrary to some the acknowledgement of Providence in no way suggests Divine Endorsement. Some have made this fatal error and imposed heretical meta-narratives on American history. If they would formulate their historiography in light of Scripture they would realize that God did the same with Babylon, Assyria, and Rome and yet also condemned them for their wickedness. Providence is rightly acknowledged but woe to the fool who thinks he can probe the Divine Decree as if he’s seen the end of all things.
 
[iii] Some of the remnants of the Mongol horde ended up allying with the Ottoman Empire. These conflicting ‘interests’ led to a centuries long series of wars between the Tsars and the Sultans.
 
[iv] As an aside, one branch of my family which I’ve mentioned before left Germany and settled on the Volga in the 1700’s. Well into the 1800’s their settlements were subject to Kyrgyz (another Turco-Mongolic people) horse raiders. The German (Volgadeutsche) settlements were on the eastern side of the Volga, on the fringe of Asia. Their settlements were almost wiped out but eventually they befriended the Kyrgyz and stood with them against the Russians.
My own family left when their exemptions from conscription, granted by the German Tsaritsa Catherine the Great expired. Some of my great-great grandfathers were drafted into the Russian army during the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War. This led to their departure and migration to the United States.
 
[v] . In fact in Latin America, many people have preferred the Narcotraficante cartels (a form of Feudalism) over and against what are often exploitative military dictatorships which many people realize are acting as proxies for American interests. The drug lords are criminals, but as long as they’re paid, will protect the local interests and give what people want the most…security.
In Mexico, state intervention, corruption and wars between the cartels have created massive instability. They’re living a nightmare, their towns and neighbourhoods are the battleground. Like the Germans in the Thirty Years War, when it’s all said and done the people start to hate everyone and view every government and every army as corrupt, self-serving and evil.
 
[vi] During much if not most of 1992-1998 I was completely outside the Continental United States (the lower 48) and part of that time I lived in Europe. I remember coming back to the United States and moving to the South at the end of December 1997. Over the next several months I was shocked as I began to interact with American culture. A lot had changed but the one thing I noticed right off was the waistlines.
 
[vii] If you read the list of people who drafted, signed and supported the project, it looks like a directory for the leaders of the Bush administration, some of their imperial cronies, the staff of FOX news, large names in the Military Industrial Complex, the pro-Israel lobby, and the Christian Right. What evils and conspiracies lie within the hearts and actions of some of the members on the list, I leave to others or at the very least for another time. At the very least, it is safe to say the 2nd Iraq War was conceived by these people in the late 1990’s.
[viii] To counter this Russia Today (RT) has operated as a sort of Radio-Free America, giving voice to American dissidents on both the Right and Left. Its bias is blatant and they fall into the FOX-like mouthy girl short skirt gimmick at times, and for that reason is not worthy of much respect. That said, I all too often agree with their viewpoint. It's rare to find a network hosting people ranging from Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell to Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky.

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