07 October 2016

Eurasian persuasion

Without being anti-Western, I think it is safe to say that a balanced Orthodox theology needs to have its roots in both West and East. Speaking from the personal angle, I’ve found great spiritual nourishment and healing in both Bede and Berdyaev; in both Ambrose and the Abbas of the Desert – and found, often to my surprise, that they came to similar conclusions from different directions. Converting to Eastern Orthodoxy emphatically did not mean abandoning my Tory Anglophilia or my respect for the grand tradition to which my former Communion laid claim. But it did broaden and deepen, and perhaps explained in ways that were not evident before, the real ties that that same Tory Anglophilia had to my (both big-‘R’ and small-‘r’) romantic fascination with the East, broadly considered, both in its Persian and in its Chinese aspects.

It is again worth noting – over and over again, because it never seems to sink in – that a great many of the achievements of the West (and, let’s not fool ourselves, they are many and they are worthwhile!) are rooted in its exchanges with the East – both real and idealised. Greek philosophy, including mathematics and science, was inspired by ideas absorbed by Pythagoras in his tutelage under the Persian magi: ideas such as there being one God, ideal, perfectly good, without form and standing outside and beyond time and space. (Yes, it’s true: theology really is the queen of the sciences, though perhaps it’s more appropriate to say she is their mother!) And, as the Daoism-influenced Chinese social critic and philosopher Dr. Wang Hui points out frequently, ‘Asia’ was at once the source of the material wealth which drove much of the Western Renaissance, and also the idealised enemy against which modern theories of politics were, at the same time, established. The isolation and detachment of the West from the East is a geographical impossibility; it is an artificiality and a fiction. From this it follows, to a certain extent, that the artificial border thrown up by Atlanticist assumption between totalitarian Oriental despotism and virtuous Western republicanism is nothing more than a vulgarisation of this fiction, a doomed war against geographical and cultural reality.

The Slavs – children of East and West – were, after all, stuck in the middle on a gigantic land-bridge between the two. The Slavic peoples themselves have been from the beginning an admixture of Eastern and Western genetic influences, from the Teutonic Goths and from the Iranian Scythians. They were subject to Frankish encroachment and enslavement from the west, and from the east they faced down hordes of Magyars and Tatars. The Rus’ adopted their religion from the Byzantine Greeks and (at that time Turkic) Bulgars to the southeast, and their governors they selected from the ranks of the Scandinavian traders and raiders who came out of the northwest.

Because of this peculiar arrangement, the Rus’ grew into a culture which adopted the most humane, most personalistic, most kenotic and most communitarian aspects of their new faith. Unlike the Byzantines, but much like the Georgians at the peak of their civilisational openness to Iranian culture, the early Kievan rulers Prince Saint Vladimir and Prince Saint Yaroslav both shunned capital punishment and torture. Some among these early Christian rulers embraced an almost pacifistic ethos of martyrdom. The Kievan Rus’, more so even than other mediæval states of the time, embraced welfare provisions from the state and public education, administered largely through guilds and communes. It is little wonder, indeed, that a radical left-wing personalist like Nikolai Berdyaev could point to Kievan Rus’ as a model of the spiritual aspirations of the Russkiy mir, of the Russian idea!

On the other hand, though – though at the local and grass-roots level there was a kind of syndicalist form of social and religious life flourishing, aided and strengthened by the cœnobitic traditions of the Holy Orthodox Church – the life of the government took on a very different flavour very shortly after the era of the Princely Saints, Vladimir, Boris and Gleb, and heroes like Yaroslav and Vladimir Monomakh. Because the life of the state took after its Scandinavian origins rather than embedding itself in the life of the Slavic folk, it could often be vicious, venal and even tyrannical. The Viking warlords, the Rus’ who ruled their Eastern Slavic nation, gathered their close retainers about them, quickly consolidated their power in semi-independent principalities (often ruled by brothers and close kin), and struggled amongst themselves for influence and dominance. This arrangement was in some degree necessary – or quickly became so, as the Slavs were attacked from all sides, and eventually subjugated by the Tatars. However, when they gained their independence, it was under the auspices of Ivan III., the liberator and greatest ruler of the Russian people, who married Sophia Palaiologina (the last princess of the Byzantine line), and began to style himself, under her influence, Самодержец (Autocrat), Государ (Sovereign), Царь (Emperor). Syndicalism and communitarian village life at the grass-roots existed in parallel with absolute power in the halls of government! Let the gentle reader understand the irony. The humane, peace-loving, self-emptying, other-embracing aspects of the Russian soul come from its engagement with Iranian and Egyptian Desert spirituality. The embrace of absolute autocracy, on the other hand, stems from the Greco-Roman tradition and from addressing the demands and weaknesses of Scandinavian sacral kingship!

When Berdyaev remarks upon the Russian soul, the Russian temperament, this is what he means. On the one hand, there is a pure, an elemental, a perfectionist, an unshakeable and unquenchable passion and drive for justice and truth, the kind of anarchistic drive which levels all before it, and which can only be satisfied in the religious experience of the Messiah, the person of Christ. And on the other hand, there is the resignation and the obedience, the falling down before the absolute, the total subjection before the батька, the ‘father’ of the people. There is a total radicalisation of the ‘both-and’ in the Russian character; there is a total rejection of half-measures and muddling, of bourgeois grasping after the material; there is only the blinding Tabor white of martyrs, shot through with firmament sapphirine and with the vermilion of blood!

If Eurasianism represents, even in the eyes of its critics, a ‘fusion of Slavic and Turko-Muslim’ elements, and ‘interprets [Russia’s] geographic location as grounds for a kind of messianic “third way”’ – it is still a critical thing to consider. Europe and Asia are not truly as separate as some like to think, whether geographically, culturally or politically, and to too many in the West, the Russian nation is a very uncomfortable reminder of this. It goes against the bland, comfortable bourgeois narrative of ‘development’, and speaks to both spiritual and egalitarian values that are present but have gone too long disregarded in Europe. Eurasianism deserves, and will get, a serious hearing… though I confess that my own inclinations are still strongly to the elder Slavophilia, rather than to the ‘newer’ and more Renaissance-inflected theorising of Dugin.

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