Categorizing the Russia Debate

Here I will try to categorize all the major Russia-watching schools along two axes: 1) a Russophobe – Russophile axis and 2) a values spectrum on attitudes towards the West as a universal mental matrix. Along these lines I created the image map below which attempts to graphically deconstruct the belief systems many prominent Russia-watchers today subscribe to. I mostly limited myself to those with a presence on the Anglophone blogosphere, though I’ve added in some nationalities and ideological groupings to clarify the terrain and fringe elements to demarcate the boundaries.

Jeff Nyquist ( A Step at a Time (David McDuff) Window on Eurasia (Paul Goble) Thomas P.M. Barnett Gordon Hahn (Russia: Other Points of View) The Ivanov Report (Eugene Ivanov) Dale Herspring Moscow Tory (Carl Thomson) Mike Averko Andrew Wilson (Virtual Politics) Vilhelm Konnander Mark Ames (eXile) Mat Rodina (Stanislav Mishin) Kirill Pankratov Russian Blog (Konstantin) Russia in the Media (Fedia Kriukov) Truth and Beauty (Eric Kraus) Nicolai Petro Vlad Sobell Eduard Limonov Siberian Light (Andy Young) La Russophobe (Kim Zigfield) Edward Lucas Streetwise Professor (Craig Pirrong) Robert Amsterdam Russia Blog (Charles Ganske & Yuri Mamchur) Sublime Oblivion (Anatoly Karlin The Russian Government (Dmitri Medvedev & Vladimir Putin) Peter Lavelle The Spirit of Terrorism (Jean Baudrillard) The End of History (Francis Fukuyama) Sean's Russia Blog (Sean Guillory)

Introduction: A Very Brief History of Russia-Watching

Though bloggers generally consider the Russophile-Russophobe dichotomy in contemporary terms, this division was as stark and relevant in the 1930’s. The following remarks made by John Scott in Behind the Urals, an account of life in a Soviet industrial town, are as relevant today as they were back then:
In talking with people in France and America I was impressed by the interest in the Soviet Union and the widespread misinformation about Russia and all things Russian. Everyone I met was opinionated [aren’t we all lol!]. The Communists and their sympathizers held Russia up as a panacea…Other people were steeped in Eugene Lyons’ stories and would not concede the possibility that Russia had produced anything during recent years except chaos, suffering and disorder. They dismissed the industrial and material successes of the Russians with an angry wave of the hand. Any economist or businessman should have been able to see that the tripling of pig-iron production within a decade was a serious achievement, and would necessarily have far-reaching effects on the balance of economic and therefore military power in Europe.
So basically, opinions on Russia were binaried amongst those who cared to express an interest. And they were almost all wrong. The hardcore Communists would not admit that life remained hard for most people, that Russia’s level of development remained far below that of the West (despite the Depression) and ignored the high level of political repression. On the other hand, the anti-Communists were just as wrong. Their ideologized refusal to acknowedge the high morale, technological progress and the huge rise in Soviet military-industrial potential under Stalin did them no good, especially for those Nazi strategists who thought all they had to do was kick the door and the whole rotten Soviet structure would come tumbling down.
Another point I would make here is that Russia’s history is highly cyclical, going through a pattern of collapse, recovery, expansion, stagnation and collapse. There are some convincing reasons that much of this is tied to its geography and derived cultural traditions. The archetypical Russia is economically weak (cold climate, vast distances and subpar riverine interconnectivity) and insecure (open, undefended borders). This traditionally meant that the Russian state had to marshal all available resources to compete as a Great Power, necessitating a strong state capable of maintaining superior armed forces, keeping abreast of foreign technological developments and providing bread and games to the people. However, the strain of supporting a metastasized empire out of proportion to its economic development, as well as the ideological rigidities necessary to thwart its premature dissolution, meant that when critical amounts of pressure did build up collapses tended to be far more total and catastrophic than in the West.
A succinct summary of this theme of eternal rise and fall can be found in Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the 21st Century:
At present, all we see is chaos, struggle, economic collapse, ethnic disintegration – just as the observers of 1918 did. How could they have foreseen then that a decade or so later the USSR would have begun to produce chemicals, aircraft, trucks, tanks, and machine tools and be growing faster than any other industrialized society? By extension, how could Western admirers of Stalin’s centralized economy in the 1930’s know that the very system contained the seeds of its own collapse?
And as is well-known very few Kremlinogists accurately predicted the breakup the Soviet Union until 1989 (although it should be noted that contrary to current conventional wisdom, they were well-justified in their complacency because the Soviet political economy was fundamentally stable, albeit stagnant, and collapse was precipitated by Gorbachev’s abandonment of central planning in the absence of evolved market mechanisms). And yet soon after the pendulum swung the other way. Now quoting myself in Reading Russia Right:
Wildly optimistic predictions of tigerish growth rates and flourishing democracy were confounded, as practically every socio-economic statistic worsened and reforms were perceived to have authorized the wholesale looting of Russia – ‘the sale of the century’ – and the creation of a ‘historyless elite’ focused on the ‘exchange of unaccountable power for untaxable wealth’. By the end of the 1990’s, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, tax collection and monetary emissions had eroded; market fundamentalism had transformed the Upper Volta with missiles into a ‘looted and bankrupt zone of nuclearized anarchy’ in a demographic death spiral presided over by the ‘world’s most virulent kleptocracy’ about to splinter along ethnic lines and fall into fascism sometime tomorrow. The Atlantic put it nice and simple: ‘Russia is Finished’.
And we all know what happened since 1998, even though some Russophobes have yet to catch up with the times – much like the ideologized anti-Communists of the 1930’s… (Of course, this is not to say that Putin is the next Stalin. I’m talking about the economic recovery, and the increasing investments into things like nanotechnology, which will probably be as important in this century as coal and steel were in the last).
Russia and Ideologues: Past Debates on Russophobia

Anyone familiar with Western commentary on Russia will know that much of it is bifurcated into two camps, the so-called “Russophiles” and “Russophobes”. Both range the whole gamut of opinion from classical liberalism to nationalist arch-conservatism, and tend to invoke Orientalist interpretations of Russian culture to make their points. This dichotomy has a millennial heritage, going back as far, perhaps, as the medieval period when Western Christendom first acquired a primal aversion to the dark, chaotic steppes to the east; yet an aversion tempered by seductive legends such as that of Prester John, who ruled a perfect Christian kingdom in a place beyond the darkness of Tatary.

Though bloggers generally consider the Russophile-Russophobe dichotomy in contemporary terms, this division was as stark and relevant in the 1930’s. The following remarks made by John Scott in Behind the Urals, an account of life in a Soviet industrial town, are as relevant today as they were back then:

In talking with people in France and America I was impressed by the interest in the Soviet Union and the widespread misinformation about Russia and all things Russian. Everyone I met was opinionated [aren’t we all lol!]. The Communists and their sympathizers held Russia up as a panacea…Other people were steeped in Eugene Lyons’ stories and would not concede the possibility that Russia had produced anything during recent years except chaos, suffering and disorder. They dismissed the industrial and material successes of the Russians with an angry wave of the hand. Any economist or businessman should have been able to see that the tripling of pig-iron production within a decade was a serious achievement, and would necessarily have far-reaching effects on the balance of economic and therefore military power in Europe.

So basically, opinions on Russia were binaried amongst those who cared to express an interest. And they were almost all wrong. The hardcore Communists would not admit that life remained hard for most people, that Russia’s level of development remained far below that of the West (despite the Depression) and ignored the high level of political repression. On the other hand, the anti-Communists were just as wrong. Their ideologized refusal to acknowedge the high morale, technological progress and the huge rise in Soviet military-industrial potential under Stalin did them no good, especially for those Nazi strategists who thought all they had to do was kick the door and the whole rotten Soviet structure would come tumbling down.

Another point I would make here is that Russia’s history is highly cyclical, going through a pattern of collapse, recovery, expansion, stagnation and collapse. There are some convincing reasons that much of this is tied to its geography and derived cultural traditions. The archetypical Russia is economically weak (cold climate, vast distances and subpar riverine interconnectivity) and insecure (open, undefended borders). This traditionally meant that the Russian state had to marshal all available resources to compete as a Great Power, necessitating a strong state capable of maintaining superior armed forces, keeping abreast of foreign technological developments and providing bread and games to the people. However, the strain of supporting a metastasized empire out of proportion to its economic development, as well as the ideological rigidities necessary to thwart its premature dissolution, meant that when critical amounts of pressure did build up collapses tended to be far more total and catastrophic than in the West.

A succinct summary of this theme of eternal rise and fall can be found in Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the 21st Century:

At present, all we see is chaos, struggle, economic collapse, ethnic disintegration – just as the observers of 1918 did. How could they have foreseen then that a decade or so later the USSR would have begun to produce chemicals, aircraft, trucks, tanks, and machine tools and be growing faster than any other industrialized society? By extension, how could Western admirers of Stalin’s centralized economy in the 1930’s know that the very system contained the seeds of its own collapse?

And as is well-known very few Kremlinogists accurately predicted the breakup the Soviet Union until 1989 (although it should be noted that contrary to current conventional wisdom, they were well-justified in their complacency because the Soviet political economy was fundamentally stable, albeit stagnant, and collapse was precipitated by Gorbachev’s abandonment of central planning in the absence of evolved market mechanisms). And yet soon after the pendulum swung the other way. Now quoting myself in Reading Russia Right:

Wildly optimistic predictions of tigerish growth rates and flourishing democracy were confounded, as practically every socio-economic statistic worsened and reforms were perceived to have authorized the wholesale looting of Russia – ‘the sale of the century’ – and the creation of a ‘historyless elite’ focused on the ‘exchange of unaccountable power for untaxable wealth’. By the end of the 1990’s, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, tax collection and monetary emissions had eroded; market fundamentalism had transformed the Upper Volta with missiles into a ‘looted and bankrupt zone of nuclearized anarchy’ in a demographic death spiral presided over by the ‘world’s most virulent kleptocracy’ about to splinter along ethnic lines and fall into fascism sometime tomorrow. The Atlantic put it nice and simple: ‘Russia is Finished’.

And we all know what happened since 1998, even though some Russophobes have yet to catch up with the times – much like the ideologized anti-Communists of the 1930’s… (Of course, this is not to say that Putin is the next Stalin. I’m talking about the economic recovery, and the increasing investments into things like nanotechnology, which will probably be as important in this century as coal and steel were in the last).

So if there’s one thing history proves, understanding Russia requires a wide array of different approaches and a certain ideological flexibility. Unfortunately, this has rarely been the case because Russia is a palimpsest, a place of all things to all people due to its own extremes and contradictions. This is what we are going to explore now…

Categorizing the Russia Debate

Both Russophobes and Russophiles have a somewhat obsessive love-hate relationship with Russia, the main difference being that the “Russophobe” does everything she can to condemn the country (and those who defend it) from within her own specific frames of reference, frequently through the prism of an idealized West; while the “Russophile” does everything she can to understand Russia on its own terms. And since understanding is forgiveness, this inevitably leads to a Romantic infatuation with the country (this is where seduction begins).

Refer to the grid at the top of this post. The vertical axis attempts to gauge the Russia-watcher’s attitudes to the West and its values. Though they may admit to minor blemishes, those who are “pro-West” are firm believers in the absolute superiority of Western civilization as symbolized in the Idea of the West (rule of law, sanctity of contract, free markets, classical liberalism, etc). In contrast “cynics” tend to focus on its rather unnatural (”Faustian”, to use the Spenglerian term) characteristics, systemic hypocrisies and tend to believe in the possibility – and indeed desirability – of economic modernization, social progress and democratization without Westernization.

Viewed from within this conceptual framework of a belief matrix, several major groups or schools begin to emerge.

Centrists & Marxists. These folks tend to be placid, considerate and consciously strive for objectivity in their judgments. Leading lights of this school include Andy Young (Siberian Light), Sean Guillory (Sean’s Russia Blog), the folks at the eXile (though they lean towards cynicism), Geoffrey Hosking and Anatol Lieven.

Siberian Light is the centrist par excellence amongst bloggers. Though he personally has a rather dim view of the Putin administration, Andy mostly focuses on aggregation and allows readers to make up their own minds.

Sean Guillory (Sean’s Russia Blog) aims to explore Russia through the “dialectic between universal and particular”, without trying to resolve, but rather accepting, the inherent contradictions born of such an exercise – this acceptance is the reason he tilts towards the “Russophile” end of the horizontal axis (albeit this is moderated by his semi-unconscious Western biases). He criticizes the Orientalism which he believes are clouding both the Russophile and Russophobe perspective, though as I assert in this work a Russophile cannot be an Orientalist by definition. As can be expected from a liberal Californian social sciences academic, not to mention his language, Sean directs his analysis through a Marxist and more broadly a dialectical prism. For reasons I will explain below, the dialectical approach is the epitome of Reason, which is located at the center of the vertical axis

On a less refined level, Sean’s approach could be described as both realistic and cynical. This attitude is broadly shared by some former eXile writers like Mark Ames and Yasha Levine.

The Western Russophobes. These are people with a strong belief in the validity of the Idea of the West and its near flawless exercise in the “Western world”. Their perceptions of Russia’s “Otherness” from Western ideals lead to regret and sadness for the apparent plight of the Russian people (often with scant regard for the Russians’ subjective perceptions of their own situation). Examples of such moderate Western Russophobes include Robert Amsterdam, Vilhelm Konnander, Steven Rosefielde, Andrew Wilson and most of the folks at RFERL.

The more extreme elements see the struggle in Manichean, quasi-religious terms. Russia’s ostensible denial of the Idea of the West is amoral, if not heretical – and so are the defenders of Putin’s “bloody regime”, who are either innocent dupes (”useful idiots”) or unrepentant heretics with whom there can be no compromise. Here’s a telling quote from Streetwise Professor’s (Craig Pirrong) seminal essay On Russophobia:

…It is this fundamental philosophical and moral divide between the classical liberal views I espouse, and the anti-liberal views of the Putinists, that explains my intense antipathy for the current Russian government and state, and which is the wellspring of my trenchant criticism. It is not a divide that can be bridged [my emphasis], as these are antithetical conceptions of the roles of the individual and the state…

Yet the cake here goes to Ed Lucas, who explicitly compares modern-day Russia to Mordor (the archetypal evil empire of epic fantasy) and its defenders to the evil henchmen of the Dark Lord himself.

But as the skies darken once again over the European continent (or Middle Earth if you prefer)… Mordor is clearly the Russian Federation, ruled by the demonic overlord Sauron (Putin). His email address, to give a contemporary note, might be sauron@gov.morder.me (the suffix is for Middle Earth). The threat from Mordor—symbolised by the Ring—is the combination of dirty money and authoritarian political thinking.

And Sauron’s henchmen the Orcs are clearly the murderous goons of the old KGB. The new twist—the Uruk-Hai, is the mutation of the old Soviet intelligence service with organised crime and big business. Sauron’s allies—the Nazgul—are the Siloviki, the sinister chieftains of the Kremlin’s authoritarian capitalist system. Like the Nazgul, we seldom see their faces.

So despite their representation of themselves as paragons of upstanding morality and reason, the bankruptcy of their arguments soon shows them up for the reality-disconnected ideologues many of them actually are. Other folks in this category include Paul Goble and David McDuff.

However, the ultimate in this category is the bombastic, manipulative La Russophobe, who abuses “her” anonymity to “expose” (read: smear) innocent individuals voicing disagreement with her extremist views in the vilest and most low-life manner. She represents the voice of Russia’s liberasts, a very small but loud segment of the Russian population which hates its own country and uses Bolshevik-reminiscent rhetoric against its enemies, real and imagined. Beyond them lie folks like Jeff Nyquist and the “Final Phase” conspiracy theorists, who believe that the Soviet Union never collapsed, continues to plot for the global triumph of Communism and recommend a pre-emptive American thermonuclear strike / holocaust on Russia. These extremist elements, lying on a spectrum from SWP to the Final Phase theorists, demonstrate that paradoxically the greater the strength of your belief in the West – the more your thoughts and actions forsake its rationalistic ideals.

The Western Russophiles. People like Thomas P.M. Barnett, Charles Ganske & Yuri Mamchur (Russia Blog), Eugene Ivanov, Gordon Hahn, Dale Herspring and Mike Averko (I think) believe that the civilizational commonalities between the West and Russia are strong, Russia is (more-or-less) converging to Western norms of economic and political behavior under the present regime and intense US-Russian co-operation is both rational and desirable. Such commonalities include: the war against terror, the struggle against radical Islam, common goals in economic development and democratic governance (they acknowledge a separate Russian path to democracy independent of “the West”, noting that there are many forms on national democracy), and Christian identity (so it is not surprising to see Russia Blog funded by the creationist Discovery Institute; before criticizing this, some Russophobes should pause to note that such beliefs are shared by more than half of “real Americans”, and I say this as an atheist!). Carl Thomson (Moscow Tory) is the British representative of this set, a member of the UK’s Conservative Party (!) who largely rejects the Russophobia of his own party.

Barnett believes that Russia and the West have a common interest in advancing globalization so as to combat instability and extremism in the destitute “Gap” nations running across the Central Americas and vast swathes of the African and Eurasian Islamic belt. Charles Ganske and Eugene Ivanov are patriotic Republicans who lament what they perceive as the manipulation of Reagan’s legacy to advance an anti-Russian agenda. Many of these people tend to be very much part of the conventional, respectable American “establishment” in politics, business, religion and academia.

The main Western Russophobe argument against their brothers and sisters on the other end of the spectrum is that their position is untenable, riddled with contradictions. But this is based on their own belief that the “real” Russia and the “real” West are incompatible (a divide that cannot be bridged). The Western Russophiles do not believe this belief is valid, so their position is internally consistent and hence can only be discredited (or confirmed!) by objective developments in Russia itself, or rather by how these developments are perceived and interpreted in Western texts.

A more valid objection to the Western Russophile worldview is that they have a rather warped perspective on the “real Russia”, with a tendency to gloss over its defects (that is, defects from the Western perspective, because things like the abuse of administrative resources or the post-totalitarian (Vlad Sobell) nature of unreformed elements of its security, judicial and bureaucratic apparatuses do not much concern Slavophiles, Eurasianists and even most ordinary Russians). This is because they are Westerners catering to Western expectations of what Russia should be and serve afundamentally political role in that their main task is to persuade Western politicians to go against the (Russophobic) Western consensus and seek rapprochement, understanding and co-operation with Russia.

The Skeptical Russophiles. I believe this characterizes the majority of Russia’s people today. They are proud of their nation in all its bittersweet glories and traumatic infamies and are deeply skeptical about the West’s poisoned chalice of absolutist political thinking (whether it is the neocon vision of US-directed democracy exports or the neoliberal dogma of free markets). They tend to see Russia as significantly separate from the West. Their recognition that Westernization is no universal panacea makes them skeptical towards democracy-freedom rhetoric and the overall desirability of pursuing some mythical “convergence” to the West. The fatal flaw of this approach, as alleged by the Western Russophobes, is that it is amoral and irrational (given that it stands in direct opposition to their belief in the Idea of the West). When the skeptical Russophiles screech about “double standards”, “Western hypocrisy” or “Orientalism”, the Russophobes chant “whataboutism”, “moral equivalence” and “tiresome pomo-ism” in retort.

Analysts who think along these lines include Peter Lavelle and the folks at Russia Today(its slogan “any story can be another story altogether” brilliantly illustrates their postmodern interpretation of truth, echoing former Economist journalist Gideon Lichfield who in one of his less cynical moments said, “The truth is like a quantum superposition state: it is not one version or the other, but a strange combination of all them,” in relation to Russia coverage), most prominent Russian politicians (including Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev), Nicolai Petro, Vlad Sobell, Eric Kraus, Fedia Kriukov (Russia in the Media), “Konstantin” (Russian Blog), Kirill Pankratov and yours truly, Anatoly Karlin.

A common Russophobe claim is that this position is inherently paradoxical (if you are skeptical, why only towards the West and not towards Russia?); this contradiction is resolved through re-definition of the terms – changing the Western-imposed definition of a “Russophile” as someone who uncritically praises Russia and its government, to a simple acceptance of it for what it is. Unlike the case for rational Western civilization,resolving its own contradictions is not part of Russia’s historical mission (and furthermore, attempts to do so on the parts of its elites usually led to tragic results).

This naturally results in an organic Russophilia tinged with skepticism towards the West on the part of the Russian people. The poet Fyodor Tyutchev managed to sum this up in just four eternal lines:

Умом Россию не понять, | You can’t understand Russia with intellect,
Аршином общим не измерить: | You can’t measure her with a common scale,
У ней особенная стать — | She has a special kind of grace,
В Россию можно только верить. | You can only believe in Russia.

Yet unadulterated belief is a luxury that cannot extend to those Russians forced to have dealings with Westerners on Western terms and the foreign Romantic intellectuals who empathize with the “real Russia”. This forces them into a sophisticated andWestern-derived defense in the information war (much as Russians and other civilizations that wanted to preserve their sovereignty from the West were forced into adopting the West’s machine civilization and modern weapons to survive real wars). They are slaves to the West so that “real Russians” can live free.

This phenomenon is illustrated by my reply to Streetwise Professor’s aforementionedOn Russophobia article with Deconstructing Russophobia, where I noted that a) his essentializing of Russia as anti-thetical to liberalism falls under the rubric of Orientalism, b) in support, there were numerous despotisms in Western history and in any case different Western states saw markedly different patterns of historical development, some more statist that others and c) “there many instances of democratic / liberal tendencies organically appearing in Russian history, from the Veche of medieval Novgorod to Putin’s consolidation of liberal democracy in the last 8 years”. Bearing in mind the centrality of belief to SWP’s position, I subjected it the following postmodernist assault:

And that’s really the difference between Russophobes and Russophiles. Russophiles know they live in the matrix; Russophobes think they’re free and laugh at the poor Russians, not realizing that they’re laughing at their own ugly reflections.

My basic assumption in making this argument (shared by many) is that the Idea of the West is based on the historical progress of Reason (or the Mechanism of natural science), a progress that advanced far enough as to rationalize itself – and consequently divine its own eschatology, starting from Hegel, the inventor of the modern dialectical theory. (This represents a profound break not only from the ancient myths and esoteric theo-philosophies which saw the world undergoing eternal cycles of progress and retreat, but also the Roman salvation cults and Chriatinity, which despite positing a linear time and an eschatology treated it as revealed knowledge, rather than building it up from reason).

Yet paradoxically, the Idea of the West (in its dialectical, universal sense) is ultimately a belief system itself, not based on rationalism as it would have you believe (even the axioms of mathematics are an object of belief, let alone something as artificial and unnatural as modern liberal democracy); and any belief system can be discredited by a) pointing out its inconsistencies in real life (this is the basis of the essentialist and Orientalist critiques) and b) exposing its contradictions – namely, by weilding the weapon of postmodernism, the West’s most fatal invention.

Modern thought raises no barriers to a future nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those brought up in its bosom. Relativism – the doctrine that maintains all values are merely relative and which attacks all “priveleged perspectives” – must ultimately end up undermining democratic and tolerant values as well. Relativism is not a weapon that can be fired selectively at the enemies one chooses. It fires indiscriminately, shooting out the legs of not only the “absolutisms”, dogmas and certainties of the Western tradition, but that traditions emphasis on tolerance, diversity and freedom of thought as well.

Who wrote this? Francis Fukuyama, our Age’s prophet of the end of the history – and its unwitting nemesis.

(In his book, Fukuyama utilizes Hegel’s dialectics – that most Western of inventions – in an attempt to “prove” that liberal democracy is the final culmination of a linear history, not the withering away of the state and Communism as asserted by the Marxists. Yet this one paragraph, which I believe to be the most significant by far, contradicts his entire message; and from then on he becomes much less convincing).

The Western Russophobes characterize such attitudes as petulant, childish and nonconstructive (not to say Orwellian and totalitarian). And they are… because they are based on explicit denial of the West, and as such – they are caused by the West. Nazism, Stalinism, radical Islamism… these are hybrids of Western and traditional modes of thought, defined by a reaction to the West. For the defining essence of the West is that it is self-denying and self-refuting, unlike Russia (and traditional societies in general), which is self-affirming! This is the West’s greatest weakness… and its greatest triumph.

Two consequences follow. First, the Russophiles who are also firm believers in the West are viewed as misguided by the more extreme skeptical Russophiles (like Russian nationalists). However, they are useful tactical allies in the real struggle, which is between skeptical Russophilia and the Western Russophobe crusaders (the First Enemy).

Second, when Russia’s truest defenders (the skeptical Russophiles) use the weapons of the West against the West, this results in spiritual contamination which spreads throughout the entirety of Russian civilization, a contamination that skeptical Russophiles must constantly struggle against. For if they don’t, Russians end up deserting their unconditional faith in Russia and replace it with its simulacra – radical, self-refuting ideologies like extreme Slavophilia and Eurasianism, born of Western intellectual degeneracy and seduced by Western technics yet nostalgic for an imagined past of blood, soil and struggle to replace the gray disillusionment and sleazy decadence of the modern West.

These Russian nationalists don’t attack the West because they hate it, but because they love it too much. As such they are heretics and traitors to Russia, for in their absolute opposition to the West they ensure its spiritual triumph through suicide (paradoxical as the concept may sound to Westerners who have not delved too deeply into the spiritual foundations of their own belief system).

The Region of Disillusionment. These are the lonely souls cursed with an absolute love for truth. An excellent example would be Milan Kundera, who dislikes all kitsches, all totalitarianisms. From The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. And no one knows this better than politicians. Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements. Whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch… In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.

Yet all societies need kitsch, a single dominant kitsch, in order to function; as such,these holy fools are spiritually rejected from all human societies. Yet this should not unduly bother them, for as Kundera insists: Einmal ist Keinmal – what is lived once might as well not have been lived at all, with all the moral and spiritual consequences that follow (”In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine”). Internalization of this concept is the road to spiritual freedom. This state of sublime oblivion is every believer’s unconscious dream of redemption.

The lack of belief that characterizes the Region of Disillusionment makes it profoundly unstable. The tortured souls caught up in there cannot resist the Romantic seduction of Russia’s Great March to the right, the iron rationalism of the West below or the radical nihilism (the belief in non-belief) of the top-left. They can either leave this hell (spiritual freedom) of their own volition, or be ripped apart by centrifugal forces and descend into madness, which is just another form of spiritual freedom and sublime oblivion.

There are no major Russia commentators in this quadrant. There are few absolute cynics, and even fewer people care to listen to their blasphemies.

EDIT: On reflection, I think the eXile fits the bill perfectly. They are irreverent court jesters talking truth to Russian, Western and any other power (see Ames’ review of Virtual Politics). Of course, almost no official figures ever cared to praise or even acknowledge them, even though some may have secretly admired them.

Extremists. Extremism of any kind is a profoundly unstable state. Not tied to any specific ideology, it is primarily a pattern of thought, moreover one now frequently reinforced by the phenomenon of Internet enclave extremism:

[O]n many issues, most of us are really not sure what we think. Our lack of certainty inclines us toward the middle. Outside of enclaves, moderation is the usual path. Now imagine that people find themselves in enclaves in which they exclusively hear from others who think as they do. As a result, their confidence typically grows, and they become more extreme in their beliefs. Corroboration, in short, reduces tentativeness, and an increase in confidence produces extremism. Enclave extremism is particularly likely to occur on the Internet because people can so easily find niches of like-minded types — and discover that their own tentative view is shared by others… There is a general risk that those who flock together, on the Internet or elsewhere, will end up both confident and wrong, simply because they have not been sufficiently exposed to counterarguments. They may even think of their fellow citizens as opponents or adversaries in some kind of “war.”

Anyone particular come to mind in the Russia debate? La Russophobe? Ed Lucas? The folks at InoForum? Russia’s liberasts? Myself? (I don’t think so, otherwise I wouldn’t have put myself up for consideration – but I’m interested in what my readers would say on this matter).

Ideological extremism is a fundamentally Western phenomenon, for it is something rationalized and artificial (whereas traditional societies are organic and conservative). I won’t dwell much on the intellectual foundations of various kinds of extremism (I’ve done that in great detail above), but I will mention one feature specific to all of them:they are unstable, with a tendency to flip to opposite extremes.

This is because of the artificial, one-sided manner in which extremists build up their beliefs. Though their belief systems are hard and uncompromising, they are also consequently brittle; given enough insults, they break down into a chaotic state (usually in the Region of Disillusionment). After a depressive, contemplative period, a new belief system takes form, which is frequently the polar opposite of their previous belief system. See for example David Horowitz, who metamorphosed from youthful limp-wristed liberal Marxism to bombastic ultra-conservatism. After several shocks, extremists tend to sink into the Region of Disillusionment, where some of them manage to find an indifferent happiness.

Hence the reason why it is actually Russians who have been exposed to the West make by far the best Russophobes (e.g. Kasparov, Latynina, Illarionov, etc), whereas virulent Russian nationalism typically arises after profound disillusionment with the West (e.g. Russia after the 1990’s smuta).

Russians. Russians have traditionally been accepting towards Russia in all its faults and glories. This is a default steady state that is only disrupted by severe socio-political breakdown. Their encounter with the West ushered in profound shocks, including the formation of the Russian intelligentsia – a civilizational defense mechanism to protect its spiritual sovereignty. They are in a profound predicament, however, since they are an inorganic cosmopolitan element, apart from the real Russia. Their assimilation of Western thought patterns in tandem with their retention of older Russian identities creates a profound internal conflict which further alienates them from the real Russia: either they desert to the West and become Western Russophobes, like the Bolsheviks and today’s liberasts; or they become spiritual cynics in the Region of Disillusionment, rejected by all except an inner God; or they flee into the comforting recesses of an imagined past, like the extreme Slavophiles or Eurasianists (their only disagreement with each other is on what the imagined past was like).

Most just about manage to remain in the spiritually unsettling void of skeptical Russophilia (this includes the Putin circle), fighting against both totalitarian temptations and Western Russophobe encroachments on two fronts. Since today more and more Russians are becoming Westernized in thought but simultaneously ever more disillusioned with the West, the consequences for the future may be dire.

Pray that Russia continues its insane struggle. For only suicide – universal suicide, can break the loop of the struggle. Much like Samson bringing down the Temple, a glorious nuclear conflagration will sweep the Faustian West with its machines and intellect and hypocrisy into the vortex of sublime oblivion, freeing it from the overlong, tyrannous daylight of the unnatural state and once again ushering in the primeval mysticism of the dark forests, where blood and instinct can once again reign dominant over the biosphere. As they should, according to the true dissident.

Foreigners. Amongst Western Europeans, Germans are probably the most disillusioned with the West, especially in its depopulating, depressed eastern regions. It is a spiritually bifurcated and psychologically tortured nation: though it played a major role in manufacturing the Faustian world of machines and the intellect, it is safe to say that a nation which produced the likes of Nietzsche, Spengler and Heidegger possesses a profoundly mystical soul. Given that the imposition of liberal democracy onto its soil was artificial rather than organic, and its deep spiritual affinity with the Russian soul in its worldview, the re-emergence of the Reich is likely. Many Muslims also view Russia positively (with the exception of Wahhabi extremists), unlike the West which they regard as arrogant (pretensions of universality), disruptive (of age-old traditions) and spiritually degenerate.

Peoples like the British, French, Poles and the Americans retain a large degree of belief in the West – the Poles and Americans to a greater extent, the British to a lesser (they are partly disillusioned, perhaps to a greater extent than the others, by the effects (ostensibly rational) neoliberal democracy has had on their nations – social breakdown, deindustrialization and paradoxically, a metastasized state with universal surveillance and databases, political spin, burgeoning bureaucracy and ever expanding welfare rolls to support the demoralized victims of market fundamentalism). Ultimately, throughout history the Idea of the West was sustained by economic growth; whenever it faltered, as in the 1930’s, the hyenas pounced and the temptations of simulated belief and of struggle reasserted themselves. Quoting Spengler in The Decline of the West:

…..The future of the West is not a limitless tending upwards and onwards for all time towards our presents ideals, but a single phenomenon of history, strictly limited and defined as to form and duration, which covers a few centuries and can be viewed and, in essentials, calculated from available precedents. With this enters the age of gigantic conflicts, in which we find ourselves today. It is the transition from Napoleonism to Caesarism, a general phase of evolution, which occupies at least two centuries and can be shown to exist in all Cultures…..

…..The last century [the 19th] was the winter of the West, the victory of materialism and scepticism, of socialism, parliamentarianism, and money. But in this century blood and instinct will regain their rights against the power of money and intellect. The era of individualism, liberalism and democracy, of humanitarianism and freedom, is nearing its end. The masses will accept with resignation the victory of the Caesars, the strong men, and will obey them…..

With the coming of energetic and environmental limits to growth, mass cynicism is inevitable. Cynics, including skeptical Russophiles, will have an easier time everywhere. Let us hope they do not dare storm the heights and attempt to reinvent the past, using all the powers of the modern Megalopolis (cybernetics, WMD’s, virtual politics, relativism, etc) at their disposal – to destroy the Megalopolis.

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