In 2016, I happened to be in Karyes, capital of the monastic republic of Mount Athos, when Vladimir Putin swept into the small hilltop in a motorcade. Russia has had close links with Mount Athos since the ninth century. Then, in the 12th century, Athonite monks led the regeneration of Russia from small settlements in the far north, under the leadership now of Moscow, Kiev having been knocked out of action by the Mongol invasions.
Alighting from his four-wheel drive, the Russian president was escorted into the 10th-century church of the Protaton, and towards a stall traditionally reserved for the emperors of Byzantium, where he stood for vespers. The authority of the emperors of Byzantium, from whom the Russian tsars traced their line of descent, extended over an ordered hierarchy of satellite states revolving in obedient harmony around the throne of a transnational autocrat.
The ancient belief that Russia has a unique, indeed messianic, role to play in world history is perhaps most vividly expressed in the 16th-century “Legend of the White Cowl”. In 1868, Dostoevsky wrote: “Russian thought is preparing a grandiose renovation for the entire world (you are right, it is closely linked with Russian Orthodoxy), and this will occur in about a century’s time, that’s my passionate belief.” In the view of German historian Oswald Spengler, the next thousand years will belong to Dostoevsky’s Christianity.
A feature of Dostoevsky’s thought is his vehement rejection of the European Enlightenment’s optimistic humanism. After his experiences in a Siberian gulag, Dostoevsky abandoned his earlier faith in Enlightenment ideas about progress.
As well as refusing to accept the Enlightenment’s faith in the ability of rationalism and materialism to lead man towards ultimate knowledge, Dostoevsky also rejected the Enlightenment’s dualism, its insertion of a barrier between mind and matter. He spoke of his experience of moments when he felt “all is good”, moments in which he felt a sense of communion with nature, a sense that inner and outer is not separated by an impassable barrier. Dostoevsky believed that the dualism of the Enlightenment paradigm had resulted in man becoming alienated – the sin of Adam.
Dostoevsky argued that – in marked contrast to the increasingly alienated ways of life being lived in the West – the Russian peasant’s connectedness with the land, as well as his life lived within a community, helped make him a more intelligent, more integrated individual than his modern, western counterpart – even though he might be illiterate.
Dostoevsky felt that the best hope for Russia’s future lay in its development of a network of decentralised “village republics”. In his view, Russia’s lack of industrial development was a blessing in disguise. It gave Russia an extraordinary opportunity to lay the foundations for a whole new culture, a whole new civilisation. Such hopes, however, were shattered by the revolution of 1917.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, however, Russia found itself in need of a new political idea. Initial attempts to emulate western-style liberal democracies had ended in chaos. By the late 1990s, a man called Aleksandr Dugin, sometimes called “Putin’s Rasputin”, had come forward with an update of an old idea – Eurasia.
Dugin’s Eurasia strategy was rooted in the work of Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy, who believed that the West is in a state of terminal decline, and that the 1917 revolution had been a counterblast of a primordial, Moscow-led Holy Russia against a westernised St Petersburg. Trubetzkoy envisaged a new Moscow-based theocratic elite exercising its power through a series of regional councils.
Kremlin strategist Dugin has also been called the “Prophet of the Russian Empire”. He sees empires as arrangements able to combine a strict strategic centralism with the broad autonomy of regional forms of government, and in his view history shows that empires have by far excelled the societies that preceded their rise. Dugin believes Russians have what he calls “an empire-building will”, and that the only way Russia will be able to preserve its sovereignty in the face of US hegemony will be through a recovery of its status as an empire within a new, multipolar world. Putin’s speeches are littered with references to Eurasia.
According to Dugin, the Eurasian heartland is home to a civilisation rooted in beliefs and customs very different from those of the West: a preference for the collective over the individual, and for the idea of a family of nations under a supreme ruler. Dugin also believes that Russian identity is, in a fundamental sense, linked to its Orthodox faith. Since at least 2009, Dugin has been speaking of what he sees as the threat to Russia’s imperial ambitions posed by the continued existence of Ukraine as an independent state.
Dugin wants to tear Europe away from the USA and reorient it under a Franco-German alliance led by Berlin. He believes the UK is a puppet state of the USA, and that Russia should not use conventional military force to rebuild its empire. Instead, it should work to generate general chaos, thereby triggering the inner collapse of its enemy – the US-led liberal West. Dugin believes Russia must use its huge natural resources, especially oil and gas, to divide and weaken its enemies, and that the programme of the European Enlightenment must be “liquidated” because “liberalism” is responsible for many historic crimes.
Dugin is especially exercised by the West’s focus on the individual rather than the community, as well as its worship of what he sees as the false god of progress and obsession with economic growth. Dugin argues for the replacement of the ideology of growth with an ideology of conservation. He has encouraged Putin to position himself as a leader and champion of traditional conservative societies.
The question on western minds is whether Putin will now invade Ukraine. Simply put, at the time of writing I think Putin does not intend to invade Ukraine – for now, although he may well opt for one of many options that fall short of a full invasion. Alternatively, he may simply decide to withdraw, saying that it is the “Anglo Saxons” who have been “warmongering”, not Russia.
In the short-term, Putin wants to win concessions from the West, including the acceptance that Ukraine will never be admitted to NATO and greater autonomy for Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine. The latter concession would effectively turn Ukraine into a satellite state of Moscow – precisely why Ukraine does not like the idea. It is interesting that the French president’s well-received visit to Moscow appears to have discussed the Minsk-2 agreement as the basis for some kind of resolution of the crisis.
In the long-term, Putin’s aim, to be clear, is the total collapse of the US and the entire liberal world order. The best way he believes he can serve that ultimate strategic goal is through the generation of chaos – a traditional feature of “Russian man”. A full invasion and occupation of Ukraine right now would probably be resisted by Ukrainians – the western lifestyle right now remains alluring – and so is fraught with risk for Putin.
But Putin believes that the West is internally weak, and that its final collapse will come – possibly as quickly and suddenly as the Soviet Union’s collapse. In ten years’ time, Russian tanks in Ukraine might well be greeted with flowers, rather than bullets.
Putin believes that the Pax Americana is in its death throes, in the same way that the Pax Romana was in its death throes at the end of the second century. After the collapse of the Pax Romana came 150 years of chaos before a new Rome arose – Constantinople. The Russian Orthodox faith is rooted in the idea that cosmos comes from chaos.
Fundamentally, the current crisis in world affairs is rooted in the materialism and dualism of the European Enlightenment. It is a defective paradigm, remarkably similar to the one that brought ancient Rome to its knees. Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes: “The problems of modern moral theory emerge clearly as the product of the Enlightenment project… If the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.”
As Friedrich Hölderlin once said: “Where there is danger, deliverance lies also.”
Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia visit the Saint Panteleimon Monastery on Mount Athos.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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