28 March 2014

Slavophilia and the Russian idea

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

I began reading this article on the Washington Post with some level of annoyance, not exactly befitting the Lenten season. I found Antoine Arjakovsky’s argument – sadly in no wise rebuffed or even questioned by the author of this article which quotes him – that our Patriarch, His Holiness Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, has ‘invented’, in concert with Putin’s government, ‘a new mythology, the new ideology… of the Russian idea, which would invent a new theology of politics’ to be, even on its very face, absurd. Our Patriarch is a kind, gifted and intelligent man, and of course I am happy to see him invite others to explore these ideas, but it is a great insult to the saints and philosophers who came before him to claim that it represents some sort of novelty on his part. But rather than fall prey to my grievous wonted sins of anger and verbal abuse over it, I thought it would be a good opportunity to offer another perspective, and meditate a bit on the history of this idea – certainly a far longer one than His Holiness’s reign as our Patriarch.

There is an affinity between the history of the Slavs and the history of the Jews. The story of each is a story of nomadism, of slavery, of foreign domination, of the uncertain quest for a homeland. Slavs were always subject to the clashes of great empires: the Franks and the Huns, the two ‘Roman’ Empires, the various Turkic, Iranian, Ugric and Mongolic pastoralist empires which raged across the Slavs’ eastern frontier. They were settled on, but did not hold, the great bridge between East and West. At many times during the history of the Slavs, all they had, it seemed, was their common tongue and their faith. And that faith was a fault line, particularly after the Great Schism. The Czechs, the Poles and Pomeranians, the Sorbs, the Ruthenians, the Slovenes and the Croats all embraced the Old Rome; the Russians of Novgorod, Moscow and Kiev, the Bulgars and the Serbs all embraced the New. Broadly speaking, the Slavs have a tragic sense of history, married ironically to a patient and enduring messianic hope – to which the clearest and purest voice was given by the witness of the Church as it approached them from Byzantium.

My encounter with theo-philosophical Slavophilia (a Russian movement which could be inclusive of, but which was very different from, the political pan-Slavism which took hold all over Eastern Europe) has been largely second-hand, through the works of Orthodox lay philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, who was deeply influenced by the fathers of the Slavophil movement, Aleksey Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. Indeed, one of the most influential books of his later life was entitled The Russian Idea.

The Russian idea, as Berdyaev quotes from the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, ‘is not to be understood by intellectual processes. You cannot take her measurements with a common yardstick, she has a form and stature of her own: you can only believe in Russia’. I might have said in college and after that, that this Russian idea is a very Daoist idea – and there is certainly more than a grain of truth to that. There is an element of 無為 wu wei to the entire Russian Slavophil project, particularly when its two greatest ideas – those of sobornost’ and of integral knowing – are only ever pointed to in the fragmentary writings of Khomyakov and Kireevsky, and not spoken aloud. (As Laozi had it: ‘道可道,非常道;名可名,非常名’ – ‘the way that can be told of is not the constant way; the name that can be spoken is not the constant name’.) And the idea that there is a Far Eastern or a Chinese element in Russian thinking is, as Berdyaev would likely agree, not an idea to be tossed lightly aside. But now I would say that it is more correct to call Tyutchev’s sentiment not Daoist but Patristic.

The Russian idea is a Christian idea, and there is something apophatic in its core, something not to be grasped by the fragile and fallible human mind. One can see through Berdyaev reflections in the Slavophils of S. Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite in particular, when they mount their attacks on the ‘triumph of formal reason’ which tended toward an ‘external and lifeless unity’ rather than towards ‘something inward and living’. The positive ideal to which this points, sobornost’, is often translated as ‘catholicity’ or more literally as ‘conciliarity’, carries with it far more dynamic, creative and emotive connotations. Sobornost’ represents the free and loving subordination of individuals to each other in community (under Church, under Tsar, under narod), in response to the same ineffable values.

Khomyakov and Kireevsky, theorists though they were of Russia’s special spiritual and world-historical mission, were not mean-spirited, arrogant nationalists, as their intellectual heirs (such as our Patriarch Kirill who is known to quote Berdyaev, along with Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin and the leading lights of the erstwhile ‘Motherland’ party, Dmitry Rogozin and Sergei Glazyev) are painted in the Washington Post, along with most other Western news outlets, on a routine basis. They acknowledged the deep debts they personally, and Russia generally, owed to a Christian Greece and indeed to a pre-Christian Iran. The Russian idea didn’t point to a larger or more powerful Russia – indeed, power was something which has always sat ill with the Russian idea. The Slavs were always on the receiving end of power – of Frankish power, of Byzantine power, of German power, of Tatar and Mongol and Magyar power. Tragedy and messianic hope touched each other to produce something like anarchism, fierce and uncompromising… and also something positive which found, in the persons of Nikolai Berdyaev and Vladimir Solovyov, a close kinship with Catholic personalism.

Though they sat on this immense bridge between East and West, whenever the Slavs happened to mount the watchtowers themselves they always did so in a spirit of distrust, that in doing so they were taking on the mantle of Antichrist. Berdyaev notes that the Kievan Rus’ did not dare arrogate to themselves the power of life and death over their subjects. Khomyakov absolutely baulked with revulsion at the very idea of capital punishment – a sentiment echoed both by sympathetic pochvenniki like Dostoevsky and semi-Westernisers like Turgenev, not to mention someone like Leo Tolstoy! Indeed, in much of Russian thought there lies not so far beneath the surface a legendary suspicion that beneath the trappings of the Tsar’s worldly power (and in particular that of Peter the Great) lies the mark of Antichrist.

In truth, the Slavophils loved monarchy. They even elevated it along with Orthodoxy and the narod to the status of one of the basic principles of the Russian idea. But it would be wrong to think that they worshipped monarchical power for its own sake! They elevated it only insofar as it was a specifically Russian characteristic, an organic corrective to the tyranny of the Western absolutisms of bourgeois democracy and of enlightened despotism. Because it was not love of power that motivated the Slavophils, or those who came after them, but the power of love: what animated the Slavophil ideal of monarchy was precisely the sobornyi spirit, that of the inner life of the community. Berdyaev notes that there was a radical moment in the writings of Khomyakov, a shunning of the state and an instinct prefiguring narodnichestvo, that peculiarly Russian populism which elevates the lived values of the traditional peasantry and working class to something approaching a civic-messianic status.

It ought to be noted that in the present day, the intellectual and political atmosphere of Russia is far more ambiguous. Putin himself takes Slavophilia second-hand, for example, from the works of Berdyaev’s fellow white émigré Ivan Il’in. Though the two overlap significantly, it is also wrong to conflate, as the Western press sometimes does, Slavophilia with the new Eurasian doctrine. There is Slavophilia to be found in the Church and amongst the clergy, but aside from the political platforms of ‘Motherland’ and now ‘Fair Russia’, Slavophilia as such has few outlets in the political realm. Aleksandr Dugin, one of the more prominent Eurasianists, is not so much influenced by the Slavophils as he is by more extreme, even neo-pagan sources. Dugin’s political doctrine bears greater resemblance to that of Konstantin Leontev, and is anti-personalist and anti-narodnik: it brooks no freedom-in-community, embraces power triumphally and not tragically, and clings far too tightly to the nation-state – all three tendencies which would have repelled Khomyakov and Kireevsky, not to mention Berdyaev. Even sympathetic Russia-watchers ought to be highly wary of this direction.

It is nevertheless on one level wrong-headed to equate the Russian civic messianism with that of America, despite their surface similarities. True – both Russia and America have historically and geographically faced vast frontiers leading outward, away from the rest of civilisation. And also true – Russia and America both have used this geographic fact to command great empires driven by ideology. True yet still – Russia and America have embraced their respective empires most unwillingly. But America was and is still, in a very real sense, the New World; the old world with its old gods into which the European colonists set foot quickly vanished beneath our guns, germs and steel. The American colonists faced no great existential threats to their survival, and our approach to power and to progress has been always triumphal, never tragic.

Russia, on the other hand, is a unique bridge between many Old Worlds, all of which have shaped its historical destiny: the Franco-Latin West through the Balts, Poles and Germans on one side, and China through the Tatars on the other. Their ruling class came from the heathen Swedes and Finns, and these were baptised by the Byzantines. The Slavic sense of tragedy has given the Russians a keen and deeply conservative awareness of the trade-offs involved in the precarious geopolitical position they have pretty much always occupied.

But the dissimilarities between these two forms of civic nationalism – now dancing a deadly dance with each other amidst a vortex of misunderstanding, hostility and recrimination – also make the need for understanding all the more urgent. As an American of (Czech) Slavic immigrant extraction, I see more similarities than I see differences in the basic desires and beliefs of the American people and the Russian, in spite of the posturing now being taken by our respective governments. None of us who are sane want to plunge into another cold war that stands such a great danger of heating up. And as someone who is trying to follow in the Slavophils’ footsteps philosophically and theologically, I truly hope and pray that we can learn from and better understand Russian history.

I should note in closing that Berdyaev himself was not a Slavophil – for him, their historical thinking (about the Tsars of Moscow in particular) was too naïve when not downright wrong; their attachment to monarchy too sentimental; their antipathy toward Catholicism and all things Western too simplistic. But Berdyaev also refused to let himself be understood without them. Berdyaev took to heart and made his own the Slavophil concept of sobornost’; with it he mounted his twin attacks on bourgeois individualism and atheistic collectivism. He elaborated on the Slavophil critiques of Catholicism and Scholasticism, particularly in his friendly disputes with fellow Personalist philosopher Jacques Maritain. Most importantly, though, he endorsed and shared the Slavophil faith in Russia’s spiritual mission, which had yet to manifest itself. And still has.

† The famous quatrain by Tyutchev:

‘Умом Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить:
У ней особенная стать -
В Россию можно только верить.’

24 March 2014

Trans-Pacific portents

Taking a break from the travails of Kænugård and Taurica for awhile…

It seems there is something of a misnomer about the CSSTA, though an understandable one. If Taiwan is a part of China, then it is not and cannot be considered a ‘free-trade agreement’ any more than is the interstate commerce clause in the American constitution. To frame the issue thus is therefore precisely to beg the central question of the debate over what Taiwan’s status should be. Hence, why both the US government and the Chinese government support the CSSTA, though for different reasons. And also, why US support of the law is seemingly contingent upon its being thought of as a ‘free-trade agreement’.

I can sympathise completely with the economic concerns of the protesters; naturally, they don’t want to see depressed wages and a ballooning wealth gap like what the mainland has experienced. And I can agree that if these economic integration measures are taken too fast, out of step with political integration measures, the only people who will be hurt by them in the meanwhile are ordinary Taiwanese. But what the protesters seem to miss is that reunion with the mainland will happen one way or the other; I’m convinced of that. The appropriate question to be asked is: how shall it come about? Shall it come about peaceably, on equitable terms? Or shall it come through a course of protracted geopolitical strife and all the clandestine manoeuvring, violence, hardships and resentment that will entail? And what will Taiwan’s government and economy do then?

Taiwanese independence is, to me, as much a non-starter of a cause as is Southern secession. American liberals and progressives in particular ought to summon up at least a fraction of the scepticism of the former as they apply on a regular basis to the latter, and for some of the same reasons. And even though the Democratic Progressive Party makes all the noises that tend to appeal to the average American progressive, they have been known to take a disturbingly hard-right, historical-revisionist turn when it comes to Japan’s historical role in Asia. (This is just the most egregious example, though. The DPP has shown some disturbing tendencies to cosy up to the whole gallery of Asia’s hard right, including Tibetan and Uyghur ethno-nationalists.)

But there is something quite alluring about the energy these protesters can work up, even if it is wholly misdirected. If only we could summon that kind of energy and careful scrutiny of our own elites when they try to railroad through a real free-trade agreement (along with every ugly consequence to the environment and the job market that entails) written by corporate proxies without any kind of legislative scrutiny, but which might have a huge and negative impact on the quality of American health care, labour rights, environment and civil liberties – let alone the similar impacts such a trade deal will have on all of the other nations looking to join this monstrosity! And the real kicker is: for all their bluster against the current trade deal with China, Taiwan’s pan-Greens support the TPP, and have been making enquiries into Taiwan joining it! (I’m not a great fan of the KMT’s role in this either, by the way. Ma Ying-jeou also supports the blasted thing, but at least hasn’t shown himself eager enough for it to have made any concrete inquiries into joining.)

At this point, to me, the Sunflower protesters come off as dupes – though to be honest, faced with a bad option and a worse one, opting for the worse is in some ways understandable. Even so, the two-faced hypocrisy of the Taiwanese pan-Greens is breathtaking. On the one hand, they are willing to play up the potential harms of the CSSTA to domestic labour-rights and local businesses. But on the other hand, they salivate over the possibility of joining the TPP, and thus selling out those exact same labour and local business interests to an unaccountable cabal of multinational corporate and financial concerns based, one may safely assume, not in Taiwan or anywhere else in China, but in the offshore tax-havens of American and Japanese tycoons.

10 March 2014

Pointed video post – ‘Последний бой’ by Э.С.Т.

Legendary Russian heavy metal band Э.С.Т. (Electro Shock Therapy, fronted by the late great Jan Sagadeev) made this contribution to the 2006 compilation album Мы Победили!, which featured covers of Soviet-era songs from or about World War II, each performed by a different folk, folk-rock, anarcho-punk, ska or metal band. ‘The Last Battle’, originally a 1971 song by composer-poet Mikhail Nozhkin, takes the perspective of a common soldier on the Eastern Front, who wants this battle to be over and done with so he can go home. Sadly, it doesn’t seem as though the last battle is quite over yet: under Yatsenyuk there are still racists, fascists and corporate plutocrats plundering the lands and people which were once on the Eastern Front. Respect to the Eastern Ukrainians and to the Crimean self-defence militias who are still fighting that last battle, and here’s hoping that history may one day finally bury the plague of the radical right once and for all.

07 March 2014

Call it democracy

First, we have the details over how the new regime came to power. The telephone call between EU policy chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet deepened the suspicions over whether or not the snipers who shot thirteen people in Ukraine’s Independence Square were not, in fact, hired by the opposition to Viktor Yanukovych – the people now in charge of the Ukrainian junta.

Second, we have the staffing of the new regime itself. The Waffen-SS worshipping neo-Nazi party Svoboda, which has been active in the protests from day one, controls the ministries of defence, ecology and agriculture, the vice prime-ministry and the internal security forces for the new government. The leadership of the new government includes not only neo-Nazis but also neoliberal austerity-pushers (Arseniy Yatsenyuk) and fundamentalist Protestants (Oleksandr Turchynov). The only thing left for the junta to do, if they haven’t done it already, is to turn over the rest of its day-to-day functions over to Halliburton, Monsanto and Blackwater.

Third, we have the new regime throwing Ukraine’s poor and elderly under the bus, showing us what they are capable of and what they will continue to do to the nation’s poor. According to the recent budget railroaded through the rump Rada, the pensions of Ukraine’s elderly – who paid into the system with their hard work and tax money – will be halved under the starvation-austerity rule engineered by the EU and the IMF. As corrupt and as authoritarian as Yanukovych’s government may have been, he never showed this kind of heartlessness and callous contempt toward the elderly. But even so, as Canadian folk-rocker Bruce Cockburn angrily sang back in 1986, they still take the tyranny of so-called developed nations’ idolatry of ideology, and they call it democracy!

Fourth, we have the new regime essentially kidnapping mayors and antifa activists from Ukraine’s east and south without warrants and without cause over the past three days. Mikhail Dobkin, former mayor of Kharkiv, narrowly escaped unlawful arrest. People’s governor of Donetsk Pavel Gubarev has been detained. Antifa activist Vladimir Rogov has gone missing. Several others have been beaten and tortured by the regime’s thugs.

Through the words and deeds of its ‘bottom-feeders passing themselves off as leaders’, the new regime has shown itself to be heinously cruel, such that any comparison or moral equivalence with Yanukovych’s government is an obscenity. We are talking outright cartoonish levels of outright evil (or, as the Catholics who, when in normal command of their moral faculties, oppose this sort of thing might otherwise describe it, crimes which cry to heaven for vengeance) being paraded propagandistically through the Western press as paragons of civic virtue and champions of freedom. Seventy years ago, my late grandfather and his countrymen – my countrymen – fought people like this in Asia and in Europe with their sweat and blood. Now my government is doing all it dares to support them, and it must stop. The new Ukrainian regime deserves to be overthrown from within, as it seems the residents of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Crimea desperately want to do. I will not excuse Russia if they decide to invade, but at the end of the day, the Russian government is not my government. It’s high time for my government, and the mass media of my country, to cease and desist with the nonsense of supporting Nazis, fundamentalists and oppressors of Ukraine’s poor and elderly.

But they call it democracy.

03 March 2014

Trouble in the marches

Which marches? Take your pick. As David Lindsay correctly notes, both the Slavic ‘оукраина’ and the Chinese ‘xinjiang 新疆’ mean ‘march’.

A suspect has been named as the lead perpetrator of the brutal mass-knifing, clearly a terrorist attack, at the train station in Kunming on Saturday which resulted in the deaths of 34 people and left 143 hospitalised. Yet the Western news media clearly do not treat this attack in the same way as they would had it been committed on American soil: English-language news coverage of the attack is heavily dosed with scare-quotes, weasel-wording meant to cast doubt on any and all investigations and reports coming from the Chinese government, and blatantly exculpatory analysis about the motivations of Uyghur anger against the Han Chinese (even to the point of, in Mr. Rexit’s case, practically defending the actions of the attackers by implying they ‘couldn’t take it anymore’), beneath all of which the facts get lost that thirty-four people were murdered in cold blood. (CNN seems to have finally gotten the message, though, interestingly enough.)

In any case, please do add your prayers for the repose of the dead, for the swift recovery of the wounded and for justice to be visited in full upon the perpetrators. Kunming needs it right now, as do all those who are grieving over friends and loved ones lost in the attack, or who are worrying over those still in the hospital. Memory eternal for those who have been blamelessly cut down.

And please do, as Great Lent begins, forgive me also, a sinner. And I pray that I will be better at forgiving others; I fear this is something I still need desperately to work on.

Of bears in gilt cages

Hansen Ding just posted this comment on Facebook:
I think there’s a very important factor about the Ukrainian crisis that hasn’t really been talked about.

The paradigm that’s existed since the fall of the USSR is that globalized free trade will stop the possibility of war between major powers. Because the rich have a lot of interests tied up in global trade, it’s assumed that the West can use its economic muscle to keep the peace - ie. if Russia & China are out of line, swiss bank accounts can be frozen, foreign assets can be seized, the oligarchs will get shaky and war will be averted.

But under this assumption, we’ve ignored dangerous warnings of anti-west nationalism as we repeatedly insult, harass and antagonise Russia, safe in our assumption that they will never dare fight us so long as we’re lining the pockets of their oligarchs.

In the 90’s, we could have welcomed Russia into the global community. We could have built a new global order of understanding and tolerance. Instead the West cheered on the Chicago school reforms which plundered Russia and plunged it from superpower to a shrinking, almost third world nation. We expanded NATO right up to Russia’s door-step even though NATO’s entire raison d’être was no more. We pointed NATO & the EU at any countries not willing to follow our political line. We installed missile shields in a blatant act of provocation right on Russia’s doorsteps. We funded and provided political cover for Chechnyan separatism even as schools as theatres were being blown up in Russia. We supported nations like Georgia which tried to act with war-mongering impunity against Russia.

We funded revolutions and coups across the world willy-nilly, under our arrogance that so long as we hold the cayman island bank accounts, we hold the keys to the caged wounded bear.

Well now the bear’s woken, it’s too angry, suffered one stone and sling too many, to be held by money anymore. Nationalism is a curious thing - when a country is doing well it barely exists, but when you degrade and harass that country again and again, it rises and swallows all reason in a blind rage. The bear’s woken. Look to our sins.

I have, as I have noted before, a troubled relationship with nationalism, just as I have a troubled relationship with my own nation. My entire experience of what good there is in America is all linked through places which don’t fit the nationalist narrative. My political awareness was shaped by an Irish Tory eighth-grade history teacher (who taught us from Howard Zinn), and by my parents’ enthusiasm for the cultures of the American Indians of the American Southwest. Delving into my own family history has revealed that my forefathers seem to have shared a penchant for picking the losing side; including the ultimate villains of the American national mythos, the Loyalists to the Crown during the Revolution.

Nationalism can only ever be healthy if it is oriented to some higher transcendental good, outside of the nation. That is what distinguishes the nationalism of G. K. Chesterton or Mohandas Gandhi from the nationalism of Oswald Mosley or Benito Mussolini (or Oleh Tyahnybok). Chesterton and Gandhi aimed their nationalism inwards, to the virtue of the people within that nation even when other nations might be bettered by it in brute-force egoistic terms. Chesterton detested Kipling, and he detested the Boer Wars; he would have preferred England the small, healthy, peaceful country with a firm sense of its own rights and purpose under God to England the empire for its own sake, upon which the sun never set. And his love for England he characterised as the greater, for he would love England even if it were not, in a worldly sense, great. Gandhi was of a very similar turn of mind. He preferred swaraj in India, under which people kept charkas and dressed in their own homespun, to a government which dressed as its colonial lords did and flaunted its wealth, whilst keeping the rest of the nation in chains. And he did not seek to murder the British but to shame them into submission. If these examples define what it means to be a nationalist, then being a nationalist is not such a bad thing. I still find it a troubling word, though, particularly when being a nationalist comes to mean beating and kicking and denigrating people whose nation is not one’s own. And particularly when being a nationalist comes to mean lifting the flag as an idol in rejection of the ikons of the living God.

Putin is by no means an ideal leader; there is yet too much of Napoleon in him. But even if his nationalism is (particularly after the venture into Crimea) quite clearly not of Gandhi’s bent, it still bears greater resemblance to Chesterton’s than to Mussolini’s (or Tyahnybok’s). The Western powers still openly speak of using carrots and sticks on Russia as though they are to be treated as beasts of burden. They have taunted, goaded and bullied a dispirited people, who have been trying to stumble back to their feet after the humiliations of shock therapy and kletpocracy imposed by those very same powers, for far too long. Our scholars inflate and misassign the crimes of the Soviets and lay them at the doorstep of the Russians (never mind that Stalin was Georgian or that all of the Soviet leaders who followed him were at least half-Ukrainian), and they downplay and obfuscate the vicious and heinous horrors that the German Nazis visited upon them. Our leaders speak of history in a way which is so far removed from any historically-minded awareness of actual recent events, that it openly defies parody.

And, as the Boston bombing showed (said bombing having been carried out by Chechens who were already under suspicion in Russia, about whom Russian authorities tried to warn us), our foreign policy regarding Russia is not only arrogant but also self-destructive. Do we truly delude ourselves into thinking that the Chechen extremists are in any way grateful when we use diplomatic or covert pressure on their behalf? And are we truly deluding ourselves now that Ukrainian extreme nationalists are in any way grateful for the machinations of Victoria Nuland and company? Hansen is perfectly right that we ought not to bait bears which we delude ourselves into thinking we have cleverly trapped in gilt cages. Especially when the bear is not even predisposed to attacking us in the first place.