08 February 2014

The Third Rome, Nevsky, and Putin's Russia

Recently I was teaching my kids about Russian history and they found it interesting how connected the Russians are to their past. We spoke of the Mongol Invasion and how the Russian countryside is littered with little monuments and shrines the people still visit to remember the fallen warriors from battles that took place almost 800 years ago.

Even the Soviet period could not completely eradicate this impulse.

Protestant Europe and especially America have always been forward looking. Remember at the time of the Reformation, Rome was conservative and it was Protestantism that was the liberal/progressive movement. Protestantism wanted a new Europe, and a new world.

In America, we don't grow up with historical awareness, perspective or perhaps most importantly, deep visceral feelings and passions connected with the past. America is very patriotic, but it's forward looking. The intensity and nature of the patriotism is quite different. Some, particularly in the Church have fostered something closer to this sort of feeling. But even today, I don't think the average American can even grasp what it meant to the national psyche when the frontier was finally closed in the 1890's. This almost spiritual element connected to the American mind and experience is something that has already been all but forgotten. Some thought it was recaptured briefly during the Space Race. And today they lament its termination believing the pioneer spirit was essential to American identity... something that has now been lost.

I'm not saying we should or shouldn't have these feelings, passions and connections with the past. I mention it only because I believe that lacking these feelings hinders us in our understanding of others and what motivates them.

Europe went through a time of darkness and destruction in the centuries subsequent to the fall of Rome. The Byzantine world flourished but also had the constant spectre of Islam and Asiatic invasion on the horizon. Eastern Christendom has always felt like they defended the West and yet the West has never appreciated it and in fact to show their gratitude has frequently stabbed them in the back.

While European civilization was flowering during what we might call the High Middle Ages, Russia was entering a dark age. While Europe was building cathedrals, stone castles and synthesizing knowledge in the universities, Russia was being burned by the Mongols. And then in the midst of this horror the Roman Catholic Teutonic Knights invade from the Baltic coastlands. If you understand the period it's easy to see why the Russians so revere Alexander Nevsky and the stalwart kingdom of Novgorod. There's a reason why they call it Novgorod the Great.

While Europe was launching into the Age of Discovery and Exploration, the Byzantine world was in ruins. Out of the ashes of the Mongol invasions the state of Muscovy arose and united the Russian people eventually breaking the power of the Mongol ruled Golden Horde.

Moscow saw itself as the Third Rome, the defender of Eastern/True Christendom against the heretic Roman Catholics from the West and the Asiatic hordes coming from the Eastern Steppe.

The First Rome had fallen into apostasy and came under the domination of the antichrist Popes. The Second Rome (Constantinople) fell to the Turks and Moscow the Third and Final Rome now took up the banner.

This continuationism, this sense of the Byzantine/Ancient Christian heritage continued right up to the fall of the Tsars with the Bolshevik Revolution.

When Russia emerged in the 1500's as a new powerful state it was very 'backwards' compared to the West. No wonder considering what it had endured. But 'backwards' is of course a subjective judgment. They thought different and still do. They did not have the 'progress' model of the West that was birthed by Renaissance and Protestant and Catholic Reformations. This notion of progress would lead to the Enlightenment the Scientific Revolution and ultimately the Industrial Revolution.

The Russians (rightly I think) look at all of this from under a furrowed brow. The modern age hasn't been so wonderful. They are not as dazzled by 'progress' as the West is. To them the West has always been decadent and apostate. The Enlightenment and all it has wrought only confirm this.

Remember too that Marxism is a Western ideology and paradigm. It was applied in Byzantine fashion to the Soviet Union, a classic despotism, but the core ideas and values come from Western Enlightenment thought. In many ways Lenin was a traitor to the Russian soul. The Soviet period was supposed to be about progress and shedding the past, but it didn't take long for the Russian people to realize it wasn't any of these things. It was a false promise, a lie.

While the West speculated and invented, the Russians were still fighting the Tatar-remnant of the Mongol Invasions and interacting not with the New World, but with the wilds of Asia and coming into conflict with older Oriental civilizations.

The Communist era and the Cold War were historical aberrations. Coming out of the chaos of the 1990's, Russia has been trying to regain its footing and sense of self identity.

Their history has been about resistance, and strong rulers who will defend their massive land from the Eastern hordes and the Western schemers. They are wedded to their history and their place in it. Continuous reinvention is not part of their psychological character. To the West this is a regressive fault, to the Orthodox mind this is fidelity, strength and dignity.

To survive they (like old Dark Ages Europe) had to work collectively. Feudalism is to them a more recent and necessary system that ensured their survival as a people. This is perhaps why Communistic ideas found a more fertile field there. Of course Communism does not necessarily have to be Marxist. Many Christian groups which antedate Marx by centuries in Russia and North America can attest to that. Interestingly some of the most accessible history on these groups was written by Marxist historians who wished to look at examples of Communalism and Communism from the past.

The Russians do not have the same kind of individualism and confidence in progress that is found in the West. Does that make them backwards? Assuredly it does to some. For myself, I'm not so sure.

Russia is in the process of reverting to a historic model... a strong hero-leader, a new Tsar who must rule with a strong hand. It's part of their history, culture and geo-politically almost a necessity. I'm not defending it, I'm simply pointing it out.

Russia sees itself as the Third  Rome. Of course in our secular age, you're not likely to hear that promulgated in the halls of diplomacy. Russia helped to liberate the Slavs of Southeastern Europe from the Turks. This is why from the US/EU perspective, the Serbian resistance had to be crushed before Russia became strong again. Russia was bound to stand with her historical ally. Of course they would have preferred if Russia had stayed down, but history and geography was against them. But even today, Russia is not as strong as some think and riddled with severe and looming problems.

The US is trying to intervene in a complicated neighbourhood and the East has centuries of experience at playing the diplomatic game. Putin so far has proved quite cunning when it comes to checking further Western advances. And understand, that's how they see it. From Eastern Europe to the Caucasus, the Middle East and even in Central Asia...the US has moved (even bullied) its way into old traditional Russian spheres. The US wants to pretend these spheres don't exist (the unipolar model) but they are facing a growing resistance all around the world. Some of it is coming from Europe itself and has engendered great bitterness between the camps. I found it interesting that a revised Tom Clancy story was made into a movie that envisioned the European Right provoking a war between America and Russia in order to completely liberate Europe from outside control.

Russia is the defender of Eastern Christendom and this would include the Nestorian and Monophysite groups scattered in the Caucasus and the Middle East. Who is intervening? Is it the Russians reverting to old roles contra Islam and the East? Or is it the North American based New World Order?

Both sides are of course evil. All empires are. Russia is not the empire it once was and once again it must be emphasized that though it appears ascendant at the moment, it is riddled with deep internal problems. For both Russia and China their greatest enemies are civil strife and unrest that have the potential to break their systems.

Don't think that the United States isn't doing all it can to foment those forces as well. That's an old tactic and one the US knows well. Money can buy a lot of civil unrest and agitate already existing social tensions and problems.

Right now in Russia you have the modernizing legacy of Peter the Great warring against Alexander Nevsky. One faction wants Russia to be modern and part of Europe, the other force led by Putin views Russia in terms of its overall historical role and place.  

Who will win?

Ironically Putin represents the kind of leader the Christian Right wants for the United States... but they won't be quick to admit it.

What I am most struck by in this country is the role the media is playing in criticizing his regime. And yet they refuse to tell the story. They won't dig into the 1990's or the geopolitics. They certainly won't report Russia's position.

They could even go after Putin's wealth. He's hidden it, but is reportedly one of the wealthiest men in the world. Instead they focus on things that will agitate and scare the American public and at every opportunity, they push the issue of homosexuality, a now resolved issue in this country.

The Christian Right lost control of the narrative. In this country it is now viewed on par with the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960's. And if you had any doubts, both Chevrolet and Coke ran ads during the Sochi Opening Ceremony that featured gay couples. It's already been in the primetime television shows, but to incorporate this during a major television event, a time when families would be watching, is certainly crossing a line.

I find it repulsive and marvel at the sweeping social change. Such a thing was simply unimaginable not that many years ago. My response? Turn it off if you must. Television has long been morally objectionable to me and of course a big waste of time.

I don't want the state following Putin's route even if homosexuality is an abomination. The homosexuals and fornicators don't need the force of the state or the pressure of Constantinianism. They're lost and hell-bound. They need to know Christ. We judge according to the Word but since we are saved by grace, we don't render the judgment. Christ will do that.


Cal P said...

It is certainly odd to read Pravda commentaries. It's like being in a different world, with a certain antique imperial flavor. The good Russians scorning the decadence of the West and its godless ways. Of course, Pravda was a Soviet mouth-piece, but as Empire morph or failed evolutions are undone, the stories change.

I think the Ukraine conflict is pivotal to Russia's geo-political role. If Ukraine joins the EU, that'd be a major blow to Moscow. But it'd be interesting also for Brussels. Will Europe, strongly focused by a strong Germany and France, create a new pole of power and shove off Washington's 'buck-stops-here' power?

On the one hand Europe is a tattered patchwork, but on the other there's is growing rage with both immigrants and American influence. Will men like Geert Wilders be the future of Europe?

It's all lamentable, but interesting none the less.

Protoprotestant said...

This is why I was pleased (at least in terms of my own thinking) to see a year ago or so some other authors picking up on these trends.

The EU was a workable idea until they added in the Euro currency. That's bringing out all the other tensions.

The EU experiment may collapse. Economic tensions are reviving nationalism and aggravating the whole demographic situation.

If the EU collapses, the multilateral world returns and all the old European polarities are revived....

we 'may' (and there are many variables) be back on the road to 1914. All the old geographic issues are revived.

One big exception. The modern states are largely homogeneous... all the ethnic cleansing after WW2 (the chapter everyone forgets) changed the nature of many of these countries. But the tensions have by no means completely gone away. There are still issues of transportation, resources, security and all the rest...