23 March 2022

Hope and false hope: a riposte to Sebastian Milbank

As a student of Russian history, I want to take the opportunity here to respond to an article by Sebastian Milbank in the Critic. Although much better-intentioned and prima facie far more reasonable-sounding than most articles of its type these days, this article still unfortunately manages to exemplify certain tendencies of wishful thinking and misunderstanding of Russia that typifies the Atlanticist establishment discourse on that country. Milbank writes:
Despite the flood of opinion and attention directed towards the war between Russia and Ukraine, very few in the West, including many policy-makers, really understand the depth and complexity of the history involved.
Truer words were never spoken, and this especially holds true for think-tank denizens like Michael McFaul and Anders Åslund, who have been busy on cable news and Twitter firing off (and then occasionally attempting to retract, when shown to have… to say the least… unfortunate ramifications) historically-illiterate hot takes like gunslingers in a John Woo cop flick. However, although Milbank’s footwork in attempting to understand that history is commendable, he doesn’t quite do enough of it to exonerate himself completely from his own charge. Continuing with Milbank’s article:
Putin’s 5000 word essay on [Russian and Ukrainian shared history]… reveals the sophistication and historical scale of Russian thinking on the subject… it is that marriage of strategic and historic vision with rapacious gangsterism that has seen Putin succeed so often at frustrating western expectations.
I will here reiterate what I have said previously on the subject of this assault. From a moral standpoint, it is inexcusable, full stop. The invasion of the Ukraine was wrong, and Putin bears responsibility. Speaking from a personal standpoint, it is negatively impacting the lives of several people I know and care about deeply. In light of this, however, I also believe that the Atlantic alliance’s hybrid-war tactics of blanket sanctions on necessities targetting civilians, while at the same time making weapons sales to an ill-disciplined and bigoted Ukrainian military are making the situation worse than it already is (as it usually does when we consider the sort of campaigns NATO usually wages). However, at least at first, Putin represented a turn away from ‘rapacious gangsterism’ under Yeltsin, and the heights of ‘greed and violence’ not only in Russia’s government but in its shattered society, which had been encouraged by the West throughout the 1990s in the name of free-market reform.

But about those ‘Western expectations’ Milbank drops in at the end… I am also going to speak to those in my conclusion. These ‘expectations’, insofar as they are bad-faith, insurmountable expectations, seem to lie at the root of a lot of the paranoia with which Russia and Russians currently tend to view the world.
The essay spoke of “three Russias”… Putin is not just blowing hot air when he describes Ukraine as an artificial concept… he refers to a unitary medieval Russian “state” that was torn apart through internal conflict and external invasion, and was laboriously put back together through the conflicts that built the Russian Empire…
It would be well, first of all, to acknowledge where the ‘three Russias’ concept in Putin’s essay came from, and the long history it has in the cultured forms of Russian political philosophy which embraced human dignity and pluralism. The clearest and most influential (at least in modern times) articulation of the ‘three Russias’ theory came in the form of GP Fedotov’s work on the Russian religious mind. Fedotov’s threefold typology of Russian spirituality (which he considered to be upstream of political culture) does present some problems, but is worth reading precisely for this reason: he helps to deflate some of the caricatures of the ‘three Russias’ (in his case referring to Kiev, Moscow and Novgorod), some of which Milbank seems to fall into here.

Putin’s actual essay is, likewise, far more nuanced than Milbank makes it out to be. He fully acknowledges the decentralisation of political power within the Kievan Rus’ (or, in his usage, ‘Ancient Rus’’) polity. He primarily cites the Tale of Bygone Years (a.k.a. the Primary Chronicle) to further his argument for a unified state; however, Putin could equally, and more effectively, have cited the Tale of Igor’s Armament, which dates to the early 13th century. In the 1200s, the anonymous poet who wrote Igor’s Armament was already lamenting the loss of brotherly feeling and unified leadership among the Rus’ principalities. That would better seem to justify the idea that, at one time, the Rus’ polity did have both of these political goods.
But if the deep history of Russia complicates Ukrainian nationalism, it equally complicates Russian nationalism. Like German nationalism, they are the product of romantic 19th century historiography, whose purpose was as much to construct as to discover a national history…
First of all, this strikes me as rather high-handed coming from someone with a historical view of his own country that is clearly deeply coloured by 19th century Romantic myths. Sebastian clearly and, indeed, commendably loves William Wordsworth, and calls for a ‘folk revival’ of the national myth in his own country to counter the pernicious effects of capitalism and urbanisation. Those are all good things, to my mind. But to then turn around and fault other countries for having similar national self-understandings based on Romantic 19th-century historiography seems rather… self-unaware, to say the least. There is nothing uniquely pernicious about Romanticism in Russia that separates it from the English variant or ties it to later völkisch German perversities, particularly when Russian Romantics like Khomyakov looked explicitly to England rather than to Germany for inspiration.

Second, let’s be real. All history is invention, insofar as it consists not of disconnected facts jumbled together helter-skelter, but instead employs a consistent hermeneutic strategy. Though all decent and responsible history must be answerable to fact, it must also be ordered. And all decent and responsible history furthermore consists in a personal engagement with and interrogation of these ordered facts. Now, nationalist histories may be (and usually are) indecent and irresponsible; but merely pointing to their inspirations and origins and the fact that they are histories rather than mere chronicle betrays an intolerable post-modernist scepticism that is always already selective while pretending to be otherwise.
One of the reasons Kiev draws the hostile and covetous attention of the rulers of Moscow is that Ukraine represents, however nascently and potentially, an alternative vision of Russian identity and politics to that of Putin and his cohorts.
Here is where we leave the realm of history and begin to enter the realm of wishful thinking.

That Putin is a nationalist is not in question. Saying his view of Russian history is thereby distorted and errant is perfectly defensible.

However, to claim that Kiev is the target of Moscow’s political-cultural envy on account of its ‘alternative vision of Russian identity and politics’ is a remarkable form of projection. It’s the functional equivalent of American nationalists claiming in the wake of 11 September that the terrorists ‘hate us for our freedom’. With very few exceptions, the Ukrainian political experience from 1990 to the present, with its sky-high wealth inequality, endemic and flagrant government corruption, risible law enforcement and constant careening from one bloody political crisis to the next, has been nothing that any Russian statesman, least of all Putin, has any desire to emulate (or, more accurately, return to).
11th century Kievan Rus was not a “state”, and even by the standards of medieval kingdoms it tended towards heterogeneity and decentralisation... Nor was it an ethnic unity.
Ironically, in Ukrainian nationalist discourse, particularly since 2014, this acknowledged ethnic diversity of Great Russia is precisely what makes it undesirable. Ukrainian nationalists, fancying themselves as the true inheritors of a pure Rus’ bloodline, are quick to point to the mixed heritage of, say, Saint Andrei Bogolyubskii as proof of the mongrel Tatar and Volga Finnic heritage of Muscovy. By the way, I fully agree with Milbank that this made Saint Andrei more in keeping with the diversity of historical Ancient Rus’, rather than less. But on balance this fact does not serve his argumentative point about Ukrainian nationhood being any kind of enviable alternative for Russia as a whole.

As to the Viking heritage of the Rus’ ruling class; again, this is on its face an unobjectionable fact. However, again, I do not think this fact alone serves the point which he wants it to serve. If the Viking ruling-class element was merely one among many sources of the Rus’ identity, then does it make much sense at all to fault them as essentially defective Swedes in their later history, when additional waves of nomads from the east came to replace the Pechenegs and the Tatars?
Something resembling democracy flourished in many Russian cities, nowhere more so than Novgorod, the true Venice of the North, a great city-state in which the commons, the aristocracy and the clergy shared power, and where many positions (including that of the Archbishop) were subject to popular election...
First, for a point of clarity, the bishops within Milbank’s church, the Church of England, are not popularly elected, they are appointed. In the Roman Catholic Church, bishops are appointed as well; they are certainly not elected by the laity. Novgorod’s process of electing bishops was well outside the norm anywhere in Europe, not just in the Rus’ polities.

I am neither insensitive nor entirely immune to the pull of this semi-mythologised reading of Kievan Rus’ history. The reigns of Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav the Wise and Vladimir Monomakh, as well as the examples of the Martyr-Princes Boris and Gleb, are truly admirable examples of enlightened Christian rulership and law. However, Russian history is never as straightforward as it first appears, and there is often a heavy undercurrent of irony in it. First of which is the fact that Kievan Rus’ retained the institution of slavery, or, in the terminology of Rus’ times, kholopy (meaning ‘the help’, with overtones of servility).

Although landed peasants in Rus’ enjoyed this degree of dignity and freedom, landless peasants were not free in medieval Rus’, and indeed they were often treated like chattel. This was also an inheritance from pre-Christian Scandinavia, in the form of thralldom. The institution of kholopy only finally disappeared during the Muscovite period which is the focus of Milbank’s narrative of Russian decline. Its last gasp happened under the reformer-Tsar Aleksei the Quiet, notably during a period of political centralisation and concentration of power.

In his history of the Russian religious mind, Fedotov was quick to deflate this idea of Kiev long being this centre of an enlightened land of liberty governed by wise Christian philosopher-kings and lawgivers. In fact, much of his first volume can come across as quite harsh in its assessments of the way actual history showed the rulers of the various principalities to be a greedy, fractious, vengeful and conniving lot on the whole. It was the monks, the hermits and (in Moscow at least) the holy fools who tended to authentically bear witness to the magnanimous spirituality and Scandinavian openness of the post-baptismal Vladimir the Great.

Except that even here, Fedotov notes that the monks of Kiev and especially Galich had already fallen under the spell of a timocratic emphasis on honour and blood-vengeance that quickly eroded this humane inheritance. Vladimir (whose administrative core later drifted to Moscow) fared little better, with the monks adopting a cynical attitude of flattery toward their princes. Fedotov is clear in his preference for Novgorod, where the tradition of clergy and monastics speaking truth to power and embodying the Gospel seemed to have held out the longest.

However, Fedotov’s rosy view of a free, middle-class, proto-democratic medieval Novgorod, which Milbank here uncritically adopts, was already in need of substantial revision by the time the Soviet Union was on its way out. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, at the very beginning of his essay The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century, points to the research of Siberia-exiled Russian historian Sergei Platonov in showing that Novgorod was in fact a vulgar oligarchy with few actual democratic procedures. Any democratic and independent yeoman-class tendencies in the Russian North arose after Novgorod’s fall to Moscow, rather than before. The grain of truth to Fedotov’s characterisation of Novgorod lies in his understanding of its inner spiritual character, which was in fact allowed to flourish independently in the wake of the fall of Novgorod’s oligarchy under a sort of benign neglect from Moscow in the years following. Again, this speaks to the thick layer of irony that underlies the historical experiences of Russian folk-democracy.
Moscow was an insignificant trading post, set amongst the vast forests that still cover much of the central belt of Russia today...
This is inaccurate. Moscow was indeed a natural point of trade, being located on the confluence of the Moscow and the Volga Rivers. But – as it was a natural meeting place for the diverse peoples Milbank mentions earlier (the Finnic Merya and Murom peoples, the Turkic Volga Tatars and Bolghars, and the Slavic Vyatich and Krivich peoples) – it was far from insignificant. It had been inhabited for centuries, even millennia, before its first mention in the Chronicle, with the first settlement dating back to the Neolithic. Archaeological evidence suggests the existence not only of herding and agriculture but also metal crafts and organised trade. It was not a key political capital, but it was considered important enough to need engineered defences (like a moat, the remains of which date back to roughly 1100). This idea that Kiev was an urban centre of civilised culture and Moscow a mere forest village, in addition to simply being factually wrong, plays into a modernist, nationalist narrative that militates against the idea of Rus’ being a diverse, peaceful or democratic polity.
Estimates vary, but this force killed over 1,500 high ranking figures in Novgorod alone during their most infamous massacre, and employed methods of torture and execution that were considered grisly even by the brutal standards of the time.
That is actually something of a lowball estimate, with Russian historians credibly laying between 2,000 and 12,000 total deaths at the feet of Ivan's oprichniki during his rule. But let us take a look at some of Ivan’s contemporaries in Western Europe for a fair comparison, if we are to speak in terms of Milbank’s ‘standards of the time’. The Duke of Alva, the viceroy of the Habsburgs in the Spanish Netherlands, was said to have tortured to death between 5,000 and 18,000 Dutch during his five-year tenure there, between 1567 and 1573. And on the other side of the religious equation, the monstrously bloody, misogynistic and monk-hating founder of the Church of England, Henry VIII, executed nearly 60,000 Englishmen over his 36-year reign (and women, too, to be fair - some of whom he happened to be married to at the time). The Massacre of Novgorod was indeed the most spectacularly gruesome episode in Muscovite history to that date, but we should be clear-eyed about the fact that Muscovy was far from sui generis in terms of its brutality, even ‘internal’ brutality. The fall of man being what it is, we should not be surprised at this.
A successful Ukrainian parliamentary state ruled from Kiev, uniting Catholics and Orthodox, Russian and Ukrainian speakers, looking to Constantinople rather than Moscow, offers an alternative model of what it is to be Russia.
In the immortal words of Luke Skywalker: ‘Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong.’

The Ukraine is ‘parliamentary’ only in the very loosest sense of the word. Since its independence in 1991 it has had only two successful orderly and peaceful transitions of power: the election of Viktor Yanukovych in 2010, and the election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2019. The Ukraine’s HDI has remained pretty much stagnant over the past 10 years, and has consistently lagged behind Russia’s for that same period. The Catholics in the country tragically tend to despise the Orthodox. And among the Orthodox there was a nasty three-way schism (UOC-MP, UOC-KP and UAOC) that has now, thanks to the Phanar’s ineffectual and uncanonical intrusion in 2019, morphed into a somehow even nastier three-way schism (UOC, UOC-KP and OCU). It is also not simply repeating Russian talking points to point out that Russophone Ukrainians in the Donetsk Basin – who rebelled, it must be said, in response to Ukrainian police actions against Russophone activists in Kharkov in early April of 2014 – have been under sustained military bombardment by the Ukrainian Army for the past eight years.

As for Constantinople: it does not actually exist as any kind of independent political power anymore, and has not existed as such since 1453. As an ecclesiastical power, its control lies in the hands of a small coterie of wealthy Greek-Americans. It is an unfortunate reality of Orthodox politics that we tend to look back and wax nostalgic for past empires, whether Byzantine or Russian, when doing so is least profitable. But the fact remains: Ukrainian clerics and politicians looking for clear moral and spiritual guidance today can no more ‘look to’ Constantinople than they can ‘look to’, say, Maghas in ancient Scythia.

The problems of social dysfunction, rampant official corruption and government opacity that the Ukraine currently faces are problems that are deeply familiar to most Russians. And that was before the war that is currently hideously destroying whatever semblance of public order was left. No, the horrors of the current war are sufficient to themselves without indulging this flight of fancy that Russia somehow envies what the Ukraine had become.
... We should look to the deep history of Ukraine and Russia as a source both of explanations for the present horror, but also the great secret of history, like the last voice trapped in Pandora’s box: the hope that things were once very different, and could be again.
I wouldn’t put it in precisely these terms, but I agree with the substance of this sentiment, and that is a hope which I share. I would, however, make a needed distinction between ‘hope’ and ‘false hope’. My Russian and Ukrainian friends here (and, yes, I do have both) do not see much room for hope at the moment, and – echoing Peter Hitchens in his recent thoughts on the subject – I find my own hope in this situation to be rather tenuous.

Suppose Russia were to do away with Putin tomorrow. Suppose they were to institute a suitably democratic form of government. It might be modelled on the medieval veche of Pskov and Novgorod. It might be modelled the noble zemsky sobor which more closely resembled the ancient Scandinavian ting. It might be modelled on the obshchina, the rural commune of the free black-earth peasantry of the Russian North. Or it might be modelled on the mir (village-level cooperative society) and artel’ (artisanal guild, later a proto-labour union) of later Tsarist Russia, in which the old democratic spirit managed to cling on until Witte and Stolypin dealt them the death-blow. Suppose this new, independent and democratic body were to hold elections and deliberate on policies about how they would orient themselves geopolitically.

Bear in mind that most Russian people rightly and with fondness remember their role in ending the Nazi terror in Europe: a great struggle against a clear and inhuman evil; a struggle paid for mostly in Russian blood. Bear in mind that their immediate neighbours, the Ukraine among them, view this same struggle with what may generously be termed indifference, given the state-sponsored veneration of figures like Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych and state support provided to units like the Azov Battalion. Bear in mind that many of the older generation of Russian voters today remember vividly the misery, deprivation and anarchic violence of the 1990s which Milbank rather selectively cites as a time of ‘democratic federalism and the chance for real liberty’. What on earth makes Milbank think that this body would make laws and enact policies substantially different from those which Putin did?

Whether democratic or autocratic, Russia will always be different from its neighbours, let alone from those of us living in England or America. And sadly, as the official policies of imposing blanket sanctions on life necessities, restrictions of freedom of movement and business on the Russian people themselves bear witness, when Russians fail to demonstrate that they are sufficiently like us to suit our imperial whims, we punish them collectively, as a whole people. The Western failure to understand, let alone respect, this difference is one of the deeper root causes of the current war in the Ukraine. Actually sorting out that conflict in a way that is lasting and just will be a painful process, and a Scandinavian democratic makeover for Russia will not do the trick.

11 March 2022

Statement of the Sámiráđđi on the situation in Russia

The Sámiráđđi, the Council of the indigenous Sámi people, Europe’s only indigenous nation, who bravely stood alongside the Water Protectors here in the United States during the standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline, has put out this statement from its Russian section:
The Section on the Russian side of the Saami Council cannot ignore the current situation in the country or remain silent about it. In no case will we touch upon the question of who is right and who is wrong, but each of us understands that there is no justification for military action. In any case, all this touches us, so the Section on the Russian side considers it necessary to comment on this topic.

Now, the citizens of the Russian Federation, including the Saami people in Russia, are in a situation where no one knows what awaits us in the future. We cannot plan anything and we find ourselves in a very unstable situation.

Sanctions already introduced by different countries, and possible future sanctions, will primarily hit, not businessmen and owners of mega-corporations and banks, but ordinary residents of the country. Already, prices on the electronics market have increased by 30% in one day, and we expect the prices to increase even more, not only for electronics, but also, for food and essential goods. The sanctions and the measures introduced do not separate the citizens of the Russian Federation by area of work or nationality, so the Saami people in Russia find themselves in an extremely unstable, one might say, dangerous, situation. None of us can predict how the aggravated situation will end, but already now we must be prepared for additional difficulties affecting international work.

For example, the sanctions have affected the work of Russian banks, which means that transactions to Russia will be difficult. This involves both projects and salaries and makes cooperation more difficult. Sberbank has conducted transactions in Norwegian kroner through a US bank, transactions in euros through a German bank, and both of these countries imposed sanctions on working with Sberbank and many other banks.

Now we are talking about the partial blocking of Facebook by Roskomndazor [The federal service for supervision of communications, information technology, and mass media] (partial blocking implies a strong slowdown in traffic on this site).

Russia was suspended from membership in the Council of Europe, the Committee of Foreign Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Council for Human Rights, many sporting events were canceled, and they were suspended from participating in Eurovision. These data are changing very quickly, perhaps at the moment this information is no longer relevant, but the fact remains that international cooperation for Russian citizens, in any direction, is now as difficult as possible.

Some of the countries closed entry for citizens of the Russian Federation, including those who had work and study visas. We do not rule out the possibility of sanctions that will annul existing visas for Russian citizens.

In many documents, the Saami Council states that the Sami are one people who live regardless of state borders. Now, this is high on the agenda, to make sure that the Sami people from the Russian side can continue to participate in international meetings and conferences, including visiting other countries.

Now, more than ever, the Sami people in Russia need international support to continue cooperation between the Sami of the four countries.

We hope that this difficult situation will soon be resolved in the least painful way.
Note that the Sámi, in their own words, find military action wholly unjustified, although they understandably decline to choose a side in the conflict. Sanctions are economic warfare, and if they are not targeted, they will hurt ordinary people. The Sámi understand this, even if modern Western people, who still fancy themselves ever so much more sophisticated and knowledgeable, do not. The only indigenous people in Europe have stood up again alongside Asian indigenous nations like Ainu Moshir (which, like Sápmi, straddles both sides of an arbitrary international border, and which the Japanese government has thrown under the bus again) in demanding for themselves geopolitical neutrality. It is unlikely that the Western powers plus Japan will allow them to take it peacefully.

Speaking personally as an Orthodox blogger based in America, I stand fully with the Sámi and the Ainu peoples, both in calling for an end to the war, and also for maintaining neutrality as far as possible. I call for an immediate end to American sanctions on civilians in Russia, so as not to hurt poor folk and innocents living far from any field of battle.