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The Russia Question
Petrinism and the emergent Rus
As a Finn I have a primordial fear of Russia. We managed to secure our independence from the then crumbling Russian Empire in 1917 - and after that same revolution which ultimately succeeded in Russia was swiftly and brutally dealt with a new Finnish Republic was formed.
In 1940 - as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact the Russians sought to reconquer Finland, but found themselves humiliated during the Winter War. When Operation Barbarossa was put in motion Finland tried to re-establish her old borders, but with the defeat of Germany this came to nothing. What had been lost was now lost forever.
Finland then spent the Cold War fearing Russian aggression at any time, and with some skilful diplomacy and self-censorship managed to come out the other end reasonably happy and completely intact.
As a gesture of good will and “neutrality” Finland never joined NATO, and this has remained policy ever since. With some (possibly increasing) dissenting opinions. Since the “Crimea incident” tensions have been building up again - and surely, they are justified. And with our historical experience this is understandable and justified. From my perspective, and from the perspective of Finland and Europe Russia is simply a bully that needs to be dealt with.
Yet I’m also aware of the fact that from the perspective of the Middle East or Central America, so is the US. And the Americans could steamroll these regions at will without any sanctions or protests from Europe - because we are essentially power- and spineless vasal states of the American Empire. Which is part of the civilizational root problem of the Russia question.
The Historical Positioning
Recognizing that Europe and the West are looking at Russia from a strictly selfish point of view lacking any historical or objective standard we also recognize that the conflict is religious in nature, and always has been. The Russia Question is a question of a clash between Western and Orthodox Civilization.
Russia, much like China, is a civilization state and therefore has a fundamentally different view of the world, of history, the state, and the individual. Russia is therefore also independent, and not a vasal state of the American Empire. The source of admiration for Russia in some circles in Europe stem from this realization: Russia is sovereign and can therefore act in a way Europe has not been able to since 1945, or at least not since 1956. In the 1990s there was hope in the West that Russia would become a “liberal democracy”, that is, a friend of Western interests, and for a while it was a kind of free-for-all bazaar. The tragedy of the rise of Putin, from a Western perspective, was his re-establishing of a Russia that operates in accordance with itself.
When Trump was elected president, the West reacted predictably: Trump declared he would start operating the US in the interest of Americans ergo he must be not only of the same creed as Putin, but his rise must be a direct effect of Russian meddling. Trump of course had neither the power nor the intelligence to make good on his threat, nor had his rise anything to do with Russia. This didn’t stop the US media & managerial classes from trying to remove the president from power in a kind of propaganda stunt that was obvious for what it was from the very beginning - namely a strike in the ongoing clash with Russia.
What we are witnessing is the emergence - possibly - of a Russian Modernity which in its very existence poses a threat to the West. Russia is finally emerging from a 300-year period of larping as a kind of backwards proto-Western great power. In Notes from Underground Dostoevsky described Saint Petersburg as “the most theoretical and intentional town on the whole terrestrial globe”. A kind of Las Vegas of the 18th century. A city built from scratch as a beautiful neoclassical backdrop for the imperial family - themselves modelled after the royal families in the West and bent on westernizing Russia. Time to abandon the heartland and open up the “window to Europe”.
Peter and Catherine the Great tried to drag Russia into Western Enlightenment and the materialism and urbanity of the 19th century. And why not? When Russia imitates the West her power always grows - for example, this is how first Crimea in 1783 and then Finland in 1809 were swallowed by the empire. Then when Russia fell to the great Western ideology of the day - Communism - she elevated herself to global superpower status. Spengler called this continuation of Western influence after the fall of the Romanov rule, namely Bolshevism, “the final issue of Petrinism”.
The Soviet Union therefore was nothing more than secularized imperial rule or “Petrinism” - a modernization process borrowed from Europe and vehemently directed at Orthodox culture. In the 1950s Kojève, the great link between Hegel and Fukuyama, and one of the intellectual founders of the EU, echoed Spengler (probably unknowingly) in his assessment of Bolshevism. Kojève agreed with Hegel’s idea that history had ended with the Battle of Jena in 1806 in the sense that “Man’s historical evolution” had reached its conclusion:
What has happened since then was but an extension in space of the universal revolutionary force actualized in France by Robespierre-Napoelon.
The “sovietization of Russia” (and the “communization of China”) were nothing more than the “Sino-Soviet actualization of Robespierrian Bonapartism”. In plain terms, Communism was simply the modernization and westernization of pre-modern Russia and China - a process which Fukuyama proclaimed had reached its final conclusion with the (rather premature) victory of liberal democracy in 1991. According to this scheme of the End of History Russia would take its final form and simply become a part of the happy liberal community. Alas history continues!
In an article called Russian National Identity and the Russia-Ukraine Crisis written by Taras Kuzio for the Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik in 2016, the author writes:
Russia, however, never built a nation-state before it embarked on building the world’s largest empire. Therefore, history and geography made it difficult to retreat from (the vision of) an empire.
Kuzio even makes a comparison between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Soviet Empire, and laments the fact that there was no Russian Atatürk (actively forgetting Atatürk’s authoritarian methods and fiercely anti-Western nationalism):
Atatürk’s Turkey sought to distance itself from the backward Ottoman imperial legacy and to modernize the country by building a Westernized nation-state. In contrast, since 2000, Putin’s regime has portrayed the Westernizing 1990s in negative terms as “chaos” when a weak Russia was allegedly put down and not respected by the West.
Kuzio description of the history of the “intermingling of Soviet and Russian identities” shows how perfectly the mainstream historiography mirrors both the Spenglerian and Kojèvian view of history. What Kuzio identifies as “Soviet nationalism” and which he sees in Belarus, Donbas and Crimea is that which could and should be called Russian-Orthodox civilization. When Kuzio states that there is a blurred line between Russia and the CIS and that Russia has failed to “take the Atatürk path of distancing itself from the Soviet Empire and to build a civic nation-state” he fails to acknowledge the fact that Russia, like China, is a what Zhang Weiwei and others have called a civilizational state. China is not a “nation state” like say France, but a civilization comparable to the West that is governed, at the moment, by one state.
This culture-state relationship will cause conflict when the culture is spread over an area where many states rule. In this sense Russia is similar to Germany although on a far greater scale and in starker contrast to the West. Germany was a cultural area which then formalized into a nation state that was unstable. This situation was only “solved” after 1945 when all Germans were forcibly relocated within the boarders of the nation state. In a way the relation between Germany and Austria is similar to the one between Russia and Ukraine. Indeed the fate of Ukraine could be similar to that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which also fell apart due to its multi-cultural structure.
Kuzio thus creates a clumsy and unclear “Soviet nationalism” when he should be looking at civilizational causes. This is the exact same mistake other expert make today when they claim Putin is rebuilding the Soviet Union when in fact he is looking to the older Rus and to the Orthodox-Slavic cultural area. That is, after the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union Putin is trying to build a “correct” version of the empire - one united not by royalist or Bolshevik whims, the latter of which he has been very critical, but on cultural-religious ties. A cultural area that is to harden into a Civilizational empire.
The Russia of the 1990s was a beaten empire, up for grabs by criminals, oligarchs and Western strategists. Naturally, from a Western point of view this manifested a kind of “openness” that allowed the West to expand its power at the expense of Russia. A resurgent Russia would of course correct this from a Russian perspective, which in the Western mind is a problem in itself due to our blind subjectivity. In effect, what Kuzio laments is the halt in 2000 of the actualization of the modernizing process and of a renewed “Petrinism”.
Or to put it bluntly, a Fukuyamian end of history for Russia ought to have encompassed her full capitulation to NATO and Western commercialism. Putin, it is claimed, kept history in motion and for the first time since before the 1700s Russia was heading towards a society not based on Western ideals. This society and state is now beginning to crystallize, however, it might still have been different had the West sought a more collaborative approach back in the day. After all, if the Cold War was over and Communism was dead, why was there a need to contain Russia?
A Russian-Orthodox Modernity is something entirely different to Petrinism. Putin isn’t trying to simply ape the elites in London, Paris and Berlin nor is he forcing some violent revolution based on Western progressive ideals. And while momentarily momentous the Western way never seemed to work out in the end. Instead Putin is now talking about uniting the peoples of the Kievan Rus’ while massive ultramodern skyscrapers are popping up all over Moscow. Like China in its own way, Russia is reverting back to its historical pre-Petrinist form while having the advanced technology of Western Modernity at its disposal.
The Consolidation of the Rus
There are many historical problems at the root of the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine, but a central one is that between 1654 and 1991 Ukraine didn’t really exist, and especially in these times of ours pointing to a nation state existing before the 17th century isn’t seen as justifiable. Secondly, a civilizational fault line runs directly through Ukraine splitting the country in a western and eastern part. The western part has historically been influenced and ruled by Austrian, Hungarians, Poles and Lithuanians and are followers of the Uniate Church. The eastern part is Orthodox and essentially Russian, and the same goes for Crimea. Ukraine suffers from a Czechoslovakia-problem on a civilizational scale.
As Mark von Hagen, a historian on Russian and Ukrainian history, has stated:
How should a historian view the Galician provinces of the Habsburg Empire, the Ukrainian populations that dominated interwar eastern Poland or the southwest provinces of the Russian Empire? Today’s Ukraine is a very modern creation, with little firmly established precedent in the national past.
The ahistorical nature of Ukraine was for von Hagen more of an opportunity to battle the “outdated narrative of the formation of the nation-state” by pointing, in very postmodern fashion (this was in 1995), to the “fluidity of frontiers, the permeability of cultures, the historic multi-ethnic society”. Almost 30 years later it is clear that fluidity of frontiers and cultures cause clashes and conflict.
Crimea was part of Russia from 1783 until 1954 when Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine for no reason at all except the Soviet Union was thought of as rather permanent. As early as 1992 the Crimean parliament voted to declare independence from Ukraine but backed down after Ukrainian pressure, while the Russian parliament voted to cancel the old cession of Crimea to Ukraine. It was clear from the beginning that Russia was never going to let Sevastopol and the rest of Crimea slip away, and frankly the re-conquering of the area makes more sense than the British-Argentinian war over the Falkland Islands (If Putin stayed true to his ideology he should really consider returning the little slice of Ostpreußen - now known as the Kaliningrad Oblast - to Germany).
Ukraine (along with Belarus) might lack social and institutional history, but then again once established, recognized and identified with, nation states tend to become de facto existent. However, the problem of a cleft country remains: the western Ukrainians are Western oriented nationalist who want nothing to do with Russia whereas the population is the east is very Russian.
What happens, then, when a resurgent Russia clashes with the West and it is no longer a local problem, but a case of Western Ukraine being backed by the West and the East by Russia? Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov recently stated how:
For us, it's absolutely mandatory to make sure that Ukraine never, never, ever becomes a member of NATO
Just as Europe should look to secure that no major European nation ever becomes a Chinese protectorate. Already two years after the collapse of he Soviet Union it was suggested that the relation between Russia and Ukraine holds a similar unifying significance for Eastern Europe as the Franco-German relationship holds for Western Europe. The former is crucial to the unity of Orthodox Civilization, as for the latter: imagine if half of Germany was Russia-oriented and the other half was oriented towards the West…
Putin’s view of the situation could be summarized in relation to the title bestowed to the tsars of the 17th and 18th centuries: The Sovereign of all Rus’: the Great, the Little and the White, referring to Russia, Little Russia and Belarus. He states as much himself: “Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe”. This nation, however, fell apart and was then picked apart by Mongols from the east and later ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the west. From the 17th century the Russian lands were once again centralized, but this time by Moscow and not Kyiv. This process culminated under the Russian Empire but once again came apart after its fall in 1917.
It is obvious that Putin thinks of this development in purely historical and civilizational terms, and is looking to restore what was squandered during the 20th century. The squandering he blames on the soviets whose main concern was not nationhood but universal ideology, and they shifted the internal borders of the empire at will. Here, the loss of Crimea is just among the worst is a series of historical crimes.
Putin, so far, seems to hold a grip on Crimea, Donbas and Belarus, however, it is unlikely that Russia will ever see New Russia and Little Russia as not part of the Motherland. Certainly, a split of Ukraine into two different countries is possible, which only leaves the “problem” Kyiv. Putin cites Oleg of Novgorod who apparently considered Kyiv to be “the mother of all Russian cities”. And how could someone interested in restoring the brotherhood of the Rus not be interested in Kyiv?
Putin’s problem is that he genuinely seems bothered by the idea of the world considering himself or Russia as being “anti-Ukraine”. Too aggressive a foreign policy would therefore defeat the purpose of bringing the Ukrainians home again. Putin respects the Ukrainians as national brothers, but at the same time he sees in Ukraine a country manufactured by Soviet politicians and led astray by a false historical consciousness and Western influence. Formally adding both Ukraine and Belarus to the federation would certainly bring civilizational satisfaction as well as huge territories and 50 million additional citizens. It would certainly mean a victory in the form of inner consolidation in face of a clash with the West.
The West is going through an inner consolidation of its own as the world is moving from unipolar globalization towards a multipolar civilizational model. Anti-Russian rhetoric and sanctions are part of this process. Disadvantageous events as seen from a Western managerial standpoint, such as the election of Trump and success of Brexit were therefore basically blamed on Russia. These are classic examples of leaders trying to neutralize internal problems by replacing them with a common external threat.
Russia, however, is not out to restore the Soviet Union or re-establish Imperial rule, but to undo the mistakes of the Soviets and consolidate the Russian-Orthodox civilization. The West has to ask itself if it is willing to risk a larger conflict by making Ukraine the decisive battle, or whether simply admitting Russian influence in the region is preferable. With a pro-Russian government in Kyiv Putin might accept a kind of Germany-Austria situation in terms of kinship, however, with anti-Russian sentiment and Western meddling Ukraine might split apart or be slowly taken over entirely.
With Putin at the helm Russia does not, as of now, pose a threat to countries such as Finland or Poland as they do not form, according to Putin’s worldview, a natural part of the Russian lands. This is not to say that Europe shouldn’t figure out a way to organize its own defence (which means a Germany willing to rearm) as civilizational sovereignty and power is the language Putin understands and respects.
I do care about Finland and Europe more than I do about the fate of faraway lands at the mercy of some other great power. However, the hyperbolic and hypocritical stance of the West in relation to Russia is simply an expression of our own civilizational subjectivity. Understanding it for what it is, and Russia’s ambitions for what they are is surely helpful. Screeching about neo-Soviet imperialism and irrational aggression is simply giving into blind subjectivity too much. It is simply a reframing of the timeless Western attitude towards other cultures and civilizations: our power and violence is necessary and scientific, theirs is fundamentalist and irrational - war between European countries is perverse while Western wars outside of Europe are unfortunate. The situation in Ukraine is not unique and neither is the Russia question. We are simply looking at a Russian version of the Monroe Doctrine. The clash between Rus and the West does not have to be violent - but it can only be resolved by historical insight and mutual respect.