Since having been back in the United States, I got to make a visit to the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York. It was an awesome experience – and I say this not in the colloquial way but in a heartfelt way. It was one of my first ever visits to a monastic community; the sublime sense of peace about the place, and amongst the people (both monks and other visitors) there was the real sense that we had stepped into another world. I will be the last to deny that upstate New York has its own salvific charms and beauties; but Holy Trinity was something else entirely. Unfortunately we could not stay for the Divine Liturgy since we were on the road home at the time, but the museum at Holy Trinity was equally impressive.
It was a collection of relics, books, icons, altarpieces, personal devotional items, mementos, historical documents and photographs, all preserved by the white émigrés who had fled Russia in the wake of the liberal and Bolshevist revolutions of 1917. It was a truly breathtaking collection, and it was all laid out chronologically, from a 16th-century psalter to family photos of white émigré families taken in their new homes in the US. And it was accompanied by the history of the Romanov royal family all throughout that time, from Mikhail Fyodorovich down to the martyred children of Ss. Nikolai Aleksandrovich and Alexandra Fyodorovna. It was an incredible learning experience for me, but as I read about each of the lives of each of the Tsars in turn, one subtle trend kept coming to the fore.
In the wake of Tsar Pyotr I, there was a marked alternation between Western-leaning rulers of Russia who sought to strengthen and enrich themselves by importing anything and everything German and French, and those who sought strength in the people and spirit of Russia itself. Following the ‘enlightened’ Ekaterine ‘the Great’, who entrenched the institution of serfdom and stripped the monasteries of their traditional privileges whilst all the while proclaiming the liberation and dignity of the individual mind, there was her tragically short-lived son Pavel who restored some of the privileges of the Orthodox monks and the common people whilst reining in the ‘enlightened’ Frenchified nobility. The Westernising Alexander I was followed by the more traditionally Slavophil Nikolai I. Alexander II, ‘the Liberator’, was on friendly terms particularly with the United States and saw in us a kindred spirit of political freedom; it was his son Alexander III, however, who propounded the conservative political doctrine of pochvennichestvo (‘back to the land’), and of course the last of the Russian Emperors, Tsar S. Nikolai II the Passion-Bearer, had a very strong Slavophil streak.
So much was treated in Holy Trinity Monastery’s museum. But one can certainly argue that this trend, alternating between Western-facing and inward-seeking cultural politics (or, if one likes, between zapadnichestvo and slavyanofil’stvo) has continued well into modern times.
More recently, too, the Soviets began as extreme Westernisers following in the footsteps of 19th-century radicals Alexander Herzen and Vissarion Belinsky, despising the backwardness of the traditional Russian clergy and the traditional Russian peasantry and wishing to adopt wholesale both the material culture and the philosophy of their German counterparts. Lenin and Stalin both evinced a Westernising attitude to varying degrees. Despite his mode of assertion that socialism could be attained within a single nation, Stalin’s nationalism was selective, and not particularly Russian in character. In addition to the class-enemy status of the Russian kulak, the less-well-off peasantry came to be regarded with suspicion as forced industrialisation became the order of the day. And although Stalin would later sanction the Orthodox Church as a useful tool in controlling the populace, he never afforded it any true honours. Later Soviet rulers beginning with Brezhnev began recognising the need for an
independent geopolitics and began, if not outright reassessing the value of the Slavophil legacy, at least understanding that Russia had a unique position in the socialist world, and perhaps even a spiritual mission in it (even if ideologically such thinking was forbidden).
When the Soviet Union collapsed, American economists and political leaders ensured that all the political and economic power of that union fell into the hands of the extreme shock-therapy beneficiaries and zapadniki under Yeltsin. In the decade of rapine by Russia’s richest (and starvation by Russia’s poorest) which followed, it was natural that the Russian people would turn to Vladimir Putin. Putin has evinced, at least in the eyes of the Russian public, a much more Slavophil sensibility, even if his Slavophilia is inherited second- or third-hand from the conservative thought of Pyotr Stolypin and Ivan Il’in. Putin promises, as did Tsar Pavel I before him, to restore to Russia’s people a sense of the dignity they’d lost under a generation of oligarchs whose greed and gluttony were matched only by the cold, practically bestial apathy with which they treated their poorer countrymen. In spite of his tragic assassination, Pavel had it relatively easy. Those oligarchs were unabashedly German. The modern criminal class of oligarchs like Khodorkovsky and the late Berezovsky who tried to stare down Putin and lost, brazenly proclaim themselves to be the true voice of Russia even from their remarkably cushy exiles.
Russian society and government today is riven by the same oscillations. One might remark that these oscillations are its natural doom, given its geography. Historically, when it has not been threatened and overrun by Tatars and Mongols, it has been threatened and overrun by revolutionary French or fascist Germans. Being a nation which must face simultaneously west and east, caught at a crossroads between civilisations and cultures and religions, there will always be cross-pressures exerted on Russian society from West and East.
But lest we forget: the Russian civilisation has a character all its own. It is a relatively new civilisation, of only a thousand years. But it bears a resemblance and a relation, as the protophilosopher of Slavophilism Alexey Khomyakov pointed out, to the Iranian civilisational ‘type’. Russia is, like Persia before it, must be understood as a lettered and lyrical civilisation. It is therefore also a spiritual civilisation. And, like Persia before it and alongside it as well, it is given both to the depths of philosophical pursuit after truth (and theological pursuit after the one uncreated Source of that Truth) and to the urgent calls of radical social action, driven by the conviction that even the lowest and poorest in society must be dignified as agents of language. As such, the deepest and truest and grandest manifestations of the Russian soul are not in sculpture and monument, the static depictions of earthly power and force, but rather in rhyme and verse and prayer – the free and living expressions of truth.
There is a great deal of truth in Khomyakov’s likening of the Russian civilisation to the Iranian, but this Slavophil (dare we say Parsophil?) account is somewhat too simplistic. There is always the Daoist Chinese turn in the traditional Russian mind as well. The highest truths cannot be spoken or sung aloud, and if they can be prayed they must be prayed in silent attention. This is evident, ironically enough, in the works of the Slavophils themselves, who always pointed to the theological ideas of соборность (catholicity) and of integral knowing in their works but never directly spelt them out. The Iranian civilisational principle (imparted to the Slavs at their genesis by way of the Alans) which Khomyakov identified as central to the Slavic spirit, was never proclaimed from the rooftops with a Cyrus cylinder or a Shahnameh, but rather kept in a very Chinese humility in the common life of the family and of the община (traditional peasant commune). Khomyakov understood that China was not merely a tyranny like unto all the other tyrannies around the world, but carried within itself a refinement which defied both Tatar rapine and British opium-fuelled befuddlement.
This peculiar and worlds-defying civilisational expression, both Western and Eastern, we may imagine was a block on which power-hungry Tsars might ascend, but which would always cause them to stumble and bruise and break their feet. A Westerner, approaching Russian history from a Whiggish perspective, might find baffling this idea that tyrants like Pyotr and Ekaterina might be Westernisers; that is, that they would espouse a philosophy of bourgeois freedom and secular political science against the grain of the civilisation they ruled. They might find it paradoxical, even mad. Surely ‘Russian autocracy’ must account for their dictatorial methods, and nothing else! Thus the flaws in the Western perspective may be covered over and magicked away by attributing the attachment to it of a Pyotr, or an Ekaterina, or an Yeltsin, to the personal insincerities, hypocrisies and foibles of a nobility spoilt by a decadent and backwards culture.
But this cannot be the whole story. Yeltsin is a trickier case, but clearly Pyotr was not mad; nor was Ekaterina. Serfdom was introduced and entrenched under a series of Westernising monarchs and a Westernising state apparatus. Those who railed loudest for its abolition included the Slavophil theorists and the narodniki (populists). It must be acknowledged: the bearded, praying Russian peasant was the threat to the Westernising absolutist, and needed to be broken; this newfangled Whiggish enlightenment philosophy, on the other hand, in despite of its democratic protestations, could be too-easily tamed to an absolutist will.
Because Western reason – not Russian reason and not Iranian reason – admits only one principle for the necessary and rational legitimation of government. Nowadays, that principle is ‘democracy’, the popular will. But Pyotr and Ekaterina and Boris all found it easy enough to locate that one principle in their personal whims. They found it easier to govern as tyrants, a people who have had all the lyricism and the prayer beaten out of them, and who have had both replaced with the formulas of rights and gain. Slavyanofilstvo may have openly supported an autocratic monarchy, but it cannot be ignored that in practice the Tsars found it easier to implement serfdom, subjection of the Orthodox Church and other tyrannical measures with zapadnichestvo!
Given this paradoxical historical dialectic to which Russia has found herself prone since the eighteenth century dawned, it becomes necessary for our public sphere to re-evaluate Vladimir Vladimirovich. It should be readily apparent by now that the constant drumbeat of the Western news media across practically the entire political spectrum (from FOX News to MSNBC and from the Wall Street Journal and Reason Magazine to Vice News), to the effect that the only relevant fact is that Putin is an evil neo-Stalinist tyrant who must be done away with, is naïve and intellectually suspect at the very best. Clearly the nation he governs is complex enough that no such facile characterisation will stick very well. And when one examines the undercurrents in the history – that the tyrannies of Pyotr and Ekaterina, but also of Lenin and Stalin, and later Yeltsin, have been accompanied and supported by Westernising influences; and that beneficial reforms, like the abolition of serfdom, have come largely at the hands of churchmen, Slavophils or quasi-Slavophils doing damage control – it becomes somewhat clearer why Putin enjoys such high rates of support, rates which tend to baffle or frustrate Western news audiences (when they aren’t refusing to believe them outright).
It also becomes clear that Putin’s project is precisely not a neo-Stalinist or any kind of neo-Soviet one. When he ‘acknowledge[d] that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century’, he did so in the context of a speech which attempted to articulate a new way forward that was neither totalitarian nor gangster-capitalist. When Putin says he wants neither the ‘take away and divide by all’ revolutionary past, nor the ‘careless reforms’ which resulted in oligarchic control of the media, mass poverty, economic stagnation, unstable finances and paralysis of the public sphere, he should be taken at his word. Any sane, realistic Russian leader with any career hopes at this point would be seeking to bolster his own domestic support by at least sounding like a Slavophil, at a point at which many Russians have come to see Westernisation as a total non-starter.
And so we have Putin at least saying in public that he is committed to defending Orthodox Christendom, including that in the Middle East, supporting the secular government in Syria and offering visas to Middle Eastern Christians under threat from Islamic extremists. We have him expanding upon Medvedev’s land reform programmes guaranteeing all Russian citizens a small plot of arable land, in order to encourage smallholder and community agriculture. We have him openly criticising big ag and genetic modification corporate giants like Monsanto and Syngenta, and his Duma imposing severe legal restrictions on GMO seed trading inside Russia. We have him proposing to reconstruct Chudov Monastery and Voznesensky Convent in the Kremlin, which had been destroyed by Stalin in 1930. And we have him critiquing American foreign policy whenever it seeks to pressure Russia or make its immediate backyard a more unstable and dangerous place (which is, sadly, often).
This is not to say, of course, that the United States must write off Russia as an ally or as a potential partner in certain areas. Russia’s looking inward to fix its own problems, even though it might use an oppositional, combative language against America and the West more generally, will in fact ease the pressure Russia places on Western governments in the long run as its geopolitics reorient themselves eastward. From such introspection a new Russia may emerge: one which can be trusted to oppose the extremes of political Islam, of radical rightism in Europe and of the encroachments of the cultural imperialism of the liberal elites of the current global hegemon – and to assert in its place a spiritual, a more personalistic vision of the potentials of human society. This Russia will naturally and unavoidably have some elements of authoritarian rule, but these will be worn openly and the limits of authoritarianism will be made legible to observation both from within and from without.
But this Russia may not emerge under Tsar Pyotr’s dialectic. As long as Russia keeps measuring itself against the West, whether trying to be Westernised (as Ekaterina wanted) or whether trying to rebel against the West (as Pavel rebelled against his mother), it cannot awaken. It should be noted that Putin himself falls under Pyotr’s dialectic, in his attempts to clean up the mess left by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. And Putin cannot hope to build, solely under the power lent to him by a rebuilt Russian state and by an enthusiastic generation of Russians, the Russia that is to come.
The Russia that is to come, if it is to emerge, will emerge suddenly and under a kind of otherworldly hope. It will be a bridge between West and East, a friend and support to both, and subservient to a personalist ideal rather than to the worldly political leaders and economic elites of either.
Matthew Cooper graduated University of Pittsburgh (International Development and Asian studies). He currently teaches English in China and serves as a contributing editor at Solidarity Hall thinkerspace.