For most of us in England, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came as a shock. Those of us who can recall a childhood under the threat of the nuclear bomb were relieved when the Cold War evaporated with the break-up of the Soviet Empire in Europe. It seemed as if Russia might move towards being a Western capitalist democracy, of the type that Khordokovksy
were striving for. But it is now clear that the values and social system that Putin upholds are very different. What are they based on, historically?
In the middle of the 19th century, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II promoted the values of Patriotism, Orthodoxy and Autocracy, in other words Russia, the Church and Tsar, to maintain his sovereignty in a rapidly modernising world. This article will explore each of these in turn.
Russians are notably patriotic. It is a feature that Putin is utilising in retaining support for his invasion of Ukraine. What are the roots of this patriotism? Who are regarded as Russians?
Like all nations, the people who now inhabit the Russian federation come from various ethnicities and languages. The vast flatlands extend from the Baltic coast, and the European part, out beyond the Caucasus into Asia as far as Vladivostok near North Korea. Some attribute Russian exceptionalism to European norms to the fact that it is part-Asian (and so more prone to despotism).
Russian expansion has occurred in stages since the withdrawal of the Mongol Golden Horde in the 15th century. There are some notable steps in this expansion: Peter the Great constructing Petersburg on a Baltic swamp; Catherine the Great taking over the Crimea. By 1914, the population of the Russian Empire was 164m compared to the British Empire, 458m in 1919. The British and the Russian Empire were competing along the NW Frontier of India for decades, ‘the Great Game’ that Kipling plotted into ‘Kim’ where Russia wanted to reach a sea-port in the Indian Ocean, and the British needed to defend their most lucrative colony. So, as a former imperialist nation, it might seem hypocritical to attack Russian empire-building.
The aftermath of Empire lingers long in former colonies, and they are not all bad. The infrastructure of railways, bridges, hospitals, schools may still be extant whether in former British or former Russian colonies. The language of government and education may have become dominant. The metropolis (London or Moscow) is a magnet for the talented and becomes a cultural and intellectual hub. So can we be sympathetic to Russian imperialism?
Is the war with Ukraine just a particularly vicious form of the last throes of imperialism, as with the French in Algeria, and the British in Kenya?
The Ukraine War is more like a war between cousins, with both sides speaking the same language. It is reckoned there are about 30 million people with relatives on both sides. Reading back into history, there is Little Russia (Ukraine and Belarus) and Great Russia. Up until recently, references to Russian cultural figures ignored whether they were from Ukraine or not. Gogol, for example, is from a Cossack background. Prokoviev is from Ukraine. Krushchev too – no wonder he was happy to give Ukrainians the Crimea!
Historically, Slav nationalist movements produced both brave nationalists fighting for the independence of their country, and also fascists who linked up with the Nazis. Some Slav nationalists are noted anti-imperialists (one started the First World War in Sarajevo). The Slav nationalist that Putin has reinstated is Ily-in, whose main career was at the Russian Institute in Berlin in the 1930s. Scholars now debate his legacy: Snyder classifies him as Nazi influence on Putin, while others point out that he was pushed out by the Nazis because of his more liberal values. But Putin’s hostile use of the term ‘Nazi’ is to ignite Russian patriotism with the triumphs of World War II, rather than a close look at actual values.
It is best to read Slav intellectual history from Slav writers. I happened on Martin C Putna (a Czech writer) who comments on “the religious-cultural concept of Slavophilism…born of romantic nationalism” with the examples of Nikolai Danilevsky (1822-1885) who classified “cultural-historical types (which probably inspired Oswald Spengler’s “cultural morphology”) and Konstantine Leontyev (1831–1891) who propounded a theory of evolutionary eras, with democracy, egalitarianism and liberalism all symptoms of aging nations and the new era was the ‘Byzantine’ principle which will save Russia:
“What I want to say is that our tsarism…took root under the influence of Orthodoxy, the influence of Byzantine ideas, and Byzantine culture. Byzantine ideas and feelings unified half-wild Rus in a single body…gave us strength to battle Poland, Swedes, France, Turkey…under its banner we shall naturally be able to withstand the pressure of the whole of international Europe should it attempt…to prescribe to us the rot and stench of its new laws.”
I suggest Putin’s hostility to the EU and NATO derives from that “Byzantine” romantic heritage of anti-liberal values.
Allegiance to ‘Orthodoxy’ is a strong feature of Russian patriotism. I had the odd experience in 1971 of a pre-planned visit to the museums of what was then called Leningrad (now St Petersburg again). In those days of the Iron Curtain, it was still possible to visit with your proposed itinerary vetted by Intourist, and a compulsory tourist guide. I went to visit the Museum of Atheism. There I found most of it was devoted to beautiful icons, but there was a nod to other religions of the Soviet Union, with small displays on Islam, Buddhism and Shamanism. There were groups of school children there too being educated about religion. As I lingered to look at the icons, I saw the guide, and a teacher looking at me for my reaction. I got a sense that there is tremendous cultural pride in this heritage, at odds with the official policy of atheism at the time.
The heritage of the Russian Orthodox church goes back to 988 when Vladimir, the Viking ruler of Kyiv, was baptised. Nestor, a chronicler of the event, says that the Prince had a choice between Islam, Judaism (of the Khazars) and Byzantine Orthodoxy. He chose Orthodoxy because of the beauty of the liturgy and the edifice. Putna comments that the Byzantine world view consisted of “hierarchical scales that provide a comprehensive order to the life of society: the inner organisation of the cathedral as a model of the cosmos and a path to salvation, from the entrance door open to all sinners right up to the most holy space of the altar.” One can see why this appeals to autocratic rulers.
The Russian Orthodox Church
The missionaries from Byzantium brought with them basic religious texts translated into Cyrillic, and using language called Church Slavonic. Just as with the Authorised Version of the English bible and the Welsh bible helped shape those languages, so Church Slavonic was a unifying language of Russians for centuries. But unfortunately, although the early missionaries set up churches, they neglected education, even of the clergy. Whereas in the west of Europe, the Latin Church was promoting scholarship and Universities were starting, Russia was mostly illiterate, even the clergy. As a result, there was excessive focus on details of ceremonial – the split between the old Believers and the new (17th century) was not about points of doctrine as with the Reformation. It was about whether to use two fingers or three for blessing.
For some, religious zeal merged with nationalism. Just as Byzantium had been the equal of Rome, so Russia was now to be the third Rome, with a divine mission in the world to counter the effete influence of the West. One can see why such a version of Christianity appeals to megalomaniac autocrats.
When I first encountered Russian clerics (at the World Council of Churches in 1968 at Uppsala) it was noticeable that they did not attend the sessions on social justice (even though they came from the country of ‘socialism’) but were present for ‘faith and order’ sessions. It is unlikely that the Russian Orthodox church can help introduce a more rights-based view of government in Russia these days: its current leader, Kirill, is a pal of Putin’s.
European history has plenty of examples of despotic rulers. Nowadays we are revulsed by their actions. English schoolchildren for instance are fascinated by the six wives of Henry VII, and the beheading of two of them. But the history of many European nations is also a tale of several centuries of taming the monarch with more democratic institutions.
Even a quick look at Russian history shows that most of their rulers repulsed democratisation. Popular uprising was cruelly suppressed: as examples, Ivan the Terrible with the assault on Novgorod; Peter the Great suppressed Cossack (Ukrainian) uprising, as did Catherine the Great, and she persecuted radicals; Nicholas 1 executed the Decembrists (1825). In the next century of the Soviets, even the communists still produced autocratic rulers, such as Stalin who sent opponents to the Gulag in Siberia.
So Putin, in charge of Russia for more than two decades, is beating the drum of history in tune with a type of Russian patriotism that is used to the amalgam of nation, church and autocrat in government. Sadly, this runs counter to the experience of almost all other European nations who have, often through bitter conflict, achieved more democratic governments that respect human rights. So without shared values, it is not surprising that the Russian Federation withdrew from the European Court of Human rights on 12 September 2022.