25 July 2017

Brotherhood, honour, localism and just war

The Orthodox Church does not have a ‘just war’ tradition which can match the Augustinian-Scholastic one which is found in the Latin West. That does not mean, of course, that Orthodox thinkers have never applied Christian ethics to questions of war and peace. It means that a certain tragic and ironic perspective is taken: war is an evil. Full stop. And yet – in a world subject to the ontology of death – it still happens. When it does, for people to act in defence of the weak or of the attacked is morally superior to doing nothing at all – though it always bears reiterating that the worst course is to attack without provocation.

As it turns out, Orthodox social thinking on war and peace is being articulated in subtler and fuller ways in the present, as it has become necessary. Still, reading Fedotov, it’s interesting to see how monks and laymen attempted to deal with the realities of war, in the face of a tradition which wouldn’t and couldn’t countenance it. Who was in the right? Who had the prerogative to make peace? Were the claims of vengeance (so important to the Viking law that prevailed in early Russia) valid? Could God favour one side over the other, or intervene on one side’s behalf? These were not necessarily questions which were asked outright by the chroniclers, but they are certainly present in their minds and in the minds of their readers.

The early Kievan Rus’ princes were somewhat idealistic in their views of the way in which war should work. The state-of-affairs which was most desirable, and that which was most commendable for a prince to uphold, was the state of brotherly affection, care and obedience, even between literal blood brothers and co-claimants, who led separate semi-independent states.
In the mouth of the dying Iaroslav (1054), the Chronicle puts the following political testament to his sons:
My sons: have love between you, because you are brothers of the same father and mother; if you have love between yourselves God will be in you and subject your enemies under you and you will live in peace; and if you live in hatred, in quarrels and altercations, you yourselves will perish and ruin the land of your fathers and grandfathers which they had acquired with great labours; dwell then in peace, obedient one brother to another.
The eldest, Iziaslav, receives Kiev: ‘Obey him, as you have obeyed me, he is in the relation to you that I was.’ Such was an ideal moral and social order, probably written down in the light of princely quarrels and usurpations which had already begun under Iaroslav’s sons…

Taking into consideration that the whole history of ancient Russia is a never-ceasing war between related persons, the conclusion is tempting that blood ties were weak and the ‘brotherly love’ belonged rather to the province of political rhetorics than to reality. This conclusion, however, would be erroneous. There is at least one example of the real implications of clan relationship.
Fedotov then describes the self-sacrifice of Vladimir Davidovich of Chernigov for his elder kinsman, and his resulting death in battle. Iziaslav II of Kiev, though only distantly related to Vladimir, wept over his body – it was not supposed to happen in such a battle that a prince of the same kin group would be responsible for shedding the blood of another. More commonly, a truce (‘kissing the cross’) would happen, or the victor would take the loser as a hostage for ransom or to sign a peace treaty under duress. The kinship ethic and the political rites of ‘cross-kissing’ did have real implications. Blood vengeance against a relative was unheard-of. The kinship ethic of war also implies something very similar to just-war sentiment. As Fedotov writes: ‘Returning to the famous political testament of Iaroslav, which marks the birth of feudal Russia, one finds the precept of a just war in the prince’s words to his son Iziaslav: “If anyone wishes to wrong his own brother you must aid him who is wronged”.’ Though it must be noted that even this justifiable-war-of-defence is opposed rigorously by the Orthodox monks themselves, who consistently prefer and advise peacemaking to the pursuit of a king’s justice, even defensive, delivered at spear-point. Only one kind of war-making was countenanced by the Church, and that was defensive war against the heathen nomadic Polovtsy (otherwise known as the Qypchaqs), who terrorised the countryside.
Before the stark fact of war… Christian charity was badly-armed. Yet, it waged its generous though unsuccessful war against war for centuries. The Church considered it her duty to preach peace and to secure it by all the spiritual and diplomatic means at her disposal. “Prince,” said the Metropolitan Nicephorus to Rurik in 1195, “we are charged by God in the Russian land to restrain you from bloodshedding.” This duty of peace is stressed on every page of the Chronicles… The Chronicles give praise to every prince who yields to his rival, even to the point of giving up his obvious right in order to “avoid bloodshedding”.
To this kind of kenotic self-renunciation and humility (Fedotov makes the etymological point that the Old East Slavic term for ‘peacemaker’, smirinie смириние, carries overtones of humility and self-abasement), the chroniclers consistently oppose the princely sin of pride, hubris, belief in one’s own power to the exclusion of God. In many cases this comes down as a post hoc judgement on the (usually monastic) historian’s part: if a prince fared badly in battle, the loss of God’s favour could always be blamed on his hubristic self-love and pride in his own battle-prowess. The didactic importance of this historiographical practice, however, is clear.

Even so, Fedotov is sensible that such an ideal, in such an environment where Churchly ethics run up consistently hard against noble ones, cannot last more than one or two generations; he traces out how it degenerates in various ways in different settings. The very first cities to succumb to a more militaristic, expansive and less-constrained understanding of just-war sentiment are, unsurprisingly, Galich and Kiev. Fedotov stresses that through their constant contact with the Latin-Catholic Poles and Magyars, Galich and Kiev absorb some of the sæcular ethics of the państwo: the emphasis especially on the nobleman’s right of blood-vengeance against those who insult him. It was a Galician prince who first blasphemously scoffed at the rite of ‘cross-kissing’ (‘What? This little cross?’); and the later Chronicles of Kiev and Galich do not censure princely quests for imperial honour and glory the way the early ones do; in this way they tacitly legitimate blood-vengeance and satisfaction for insult as a political motive for war.

Still, Fedotov makes it clear that, despite the warped, one-sided ethics of libido dominandi which the southwestern principalities borrowed second-hand from the feudal Latin-Catholic world, he prefers this historiographical practice to that of Vladimir, in the Russian northeast. In the town founded by Saint Andrei the God-Loving, the monastic chroniclers did not emphasise honour; they retained the elder-Kievan language of Churchly piety, peacemaking-via-humility, and the censure of pride. But something else changed. Instead of attributing victory or loss to the moral failings or lack thereof of the prince, victory is ascribed to the direct intervention of God; loss is generally passed over in relative silence. In place of the glory-seeking of the southwestern cities, there is instead a kind of cynical realpolitik that creeps in at the edges of the Vladimir Chronicles which Fedotov does not like at all; he sees in it a prelude to a sort of collective chauvinism. ‘The chronicler of Vladimir … opposes to the “justice” of Rostov and Suzdal the new “justice” of Vladimir, which is, at the same time, “the justice of God and of the Mother of God”.’ The city itself and its self-interest are identified with Divine agency and protection – a form of thinking Fedotov is very right to hold suspect.

Only in Novgorod does Fedotov see the old Christian-brotherly thinking survive in a healthy way, alongside the peacemaking imperative of the monastic discipline, through the local Chronicles. ‘The love of peace and horror of war is clearly seen in sentences like these: “God, by His mercy, did not shed any more Christian blood”, or “God did not let Christian blood be shed among them”.’ But even that begins to deteriorate in the years running up to the Mongol invasions, when Fedotov begins to see monastic partizanship take form around the various civil conflicts and riots which broke out there in the early thirteenth century (with the monk-chroniclers beginning to bow to public opinion, and lay blame for the riots on the victims).

Fedotov presents a fascinating cross-section of mediæval Russian historical literature, and whether or not it was his intent to do so, he also raises some interesting questions about the nature of both proto-pacifist and proto-just-war thinking (if such terms can even rightly be used without anachronistic distortion) as it arose in Orthodox monastic histories. Even if the writing of the histories took on a bit of a post hoc character, and even if war and bloodshed were endemic to the time and place, it behoves us (particularly those of us who, following Solovyov, tend to be sympathetic to the just-war tradition) to examine the ways in which wars were understood, justified and resisted by the authorities which recorded them.


  1. King David of the Old Testament, who we venerate, is, I think, instructive on this topic. Although he desired to build a temple in which to worship God, he was denied that honor precisely because he was a warrior. Instead, it was left to his son, Solomon, a man of wisdom who reigned over Israel in peace, to build the House of God. And yet, God loved David, and saw Himself in him.

  2. Both very much true!

    Thank you again for the comment, Bud 1.