East is East and West is enemy

By entering into a comprehensive strategic partnership with North Korea, Putin has confirmed both Russia’s growing eastward slant and her perennial enmity to the West.

North Korea has been supplying arms and ordnance to Russia, and the new partnership allegedly includes provisions for Kim sending his troops over as well. But it’s Russia’s growing intimacy with China that’s particularly enticing, with the latter clearly cast in the male role.

In fact, Russia’s slant in the direction of China has been so steep that the country has tumbled into China’s embrace. About 60 per cent of all currency trading at the Moscow Exchange is in yuans, with that proportion steadily growing.

China accounts for about 40 per cent of Russia’s foreign trade, but this figure is misleading. For China dominates foreign trade in Asian Russia, especially the Far East. There China’s part in the region’s foreign trade approaches 90 per cent.

At the same time China has secured long-term leases (in effect, ownership) on some 37 million acres of Siberian territory, with the area size mushrooming year on year. All of this bears an eerie resemblance to the medieval relationship between the Mongols and the Russian princes who each had to travel to the Horde to obtain his licence to rule.

“Nothing is new under the sun,” goes the proverb, and my previous sentence set the stage for some historical explanation of the title above. The sentiment it expresses is a constant of Russian history – and has been since long before Russia became a unified country, rather than an aggregate of separate and typically hostile principalities.

I am talking about real history, not the figment of Putin’s imagination, a faculty he puts in high gear every time he tries to legitimise himself within the historical continuum. Thus he explained yesterday that Russia wouldn’t survive defeat in the on-going war.   

“It means the end of the 1,000-year history of the Russian state,” said Vlad. “I think this is clear to everyone…” I don’t know about that, but what should definitely be clear to everyone is that nothing that even remotely can be described as the Russian state existed 1,000 years ago.

What existed then was Kievan Rus’ founded by Viking marauders in the 9th century and already falling apart in the 11th. Until then it had been held together by the iron hand of Prince Vladimir who had baptised Rus’ in 988.

When Vladimir died in 1015, his sons kicked off an internecine carnage. Kievan Rus’ was rent apart, and her religion along with it. Towards the end of the 11th century, a great part of the country reverted to paganism, which was mentioned in a chronicle of 1071.

The conflict between eastern and western principalities was particularly ferocious: eastern princes must have felt that contaminating proximity to the West made western principalities less than Russian. When Andrey Bogolyubsky, Prince of Vladimir-Suzdal, captured Kiev in 1169, he gave the city to his host for a three-day rape and pillage – a treatment that in Rus’ was reserved for foreign cities. In other words, for Andrey and his troops Kiev was as foreign as any Polish or German city.

Most historians ascribe medieval Russian hatred of the West to religious strife, but they have causality the wrong way around. In fact, Vladimir chose the Eastern Rite specifically because he rejected not so much Western Christianity as the civilisation it was spinning off.

At that time Western Christianity was already producing the kind of statehood in which the relationship between the sovereign and the people was based on inchoate liberties. That was something princes from farther east were finding hard to accept, and Vladimir was no different.

The prince knew that, given some breathing space, the people under his sway could well begin to get ideas above their station. And, sensing unerringly that a civil war was already under way, he wanted them to remain abject slaves, not to become mere subjects.

That was the nature of the fundamental problems he had with Western Christianity and, by extension, with the West at large. In time those problems became an essential fibre of the Russian psyche, although not always in any straightforward way.

As if to prove their eastward slant, Russian princes were more than willing to enter into coalitions with eastern foreigners against the more western principalities.

Thus the Chernigov Prince Igor (hero of The Lay of the Igor Host and Borodin’s subsequent opera) formed an anti-Kiev alliance not only with the Smolensk Prince Rurik (a descendant of the founder of Kievan Rus’) but also with the Polovets chieftains. When, after Igor’s death in 1202, Rurik captured Kiev, most of the city was again razed and burnt. According to a chronicle, this “great evil was like no other since Russia had been baptised”.

In 1237-1240 the Mongols occupied most Russian principalities, starting centuries of what Russian historians call the Yoke. In fact, most of the Russian princes happily collaborated with the Mongols, using them to settle accounts with their neighbours. Russia’s favourite saint, Alexander Nevsky, is especially remarkable in that respect.

Although Alexander wouldn’t accept even a mild compromise with Catholicism spearheaded by the militant monastic orders, he was more than willing to accept any far-reaching compromise with the Mongol invaders. In fact, rather than fighting them, he fraternised with Khan Batu’s son Sartaq, an Arian Christian, thus becoming the Khan’s foster son (Batu, incidentally, was Genghis’s grandson).

Though he had never heard of Quisling, Alexander acted in a similar capacity by busily collecting tribute for the Mongols from his fellow Russians and ruthlessly punishing those who wouldn’t pay. Having their eyes poked out and their tongues cut off were the mildest of the punitive techniques favoured by the great hero, and his Mongol masters approved.

In 1547 Alexander was canonised in the Russian Orthodox Church. Clearly, the Russians have their own standards of saintliness.

Moving rapidly through the centuries, we’ll see that most foreign observers, from Ibn Fadlan in the 10th century to Giles Fletcher in the 16th to Maistre and Custine in the 19th, single out xenophobia as a salient Russian trait. However, that xenophobia was selective, being more acute when directed at the West.

If you read the works of the Russian writers and philosophers of the 19th century ‘Golden Age’, you’ll find various manifestations of this tendency in all of them, from Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky, from Pushkin to Soloviov (Chekhov being a notable exception).

Sometimes this attitude is masked by fulsome protestations of affection, such as Dostoyevsky famously writing in his Karamazovs about going down on hands and knees to kiss “the sacred stones of Europe”, or Soloviov dreaming of fraternal reunification of Western and Eastern churches.

In the former case, Dostoyevsky’s affection for the inanimate objects in the West was matched by his virulent hatred of anything Western that moved. In the latter case, Soloviov’s version of ecumenism left one in no doubt as to which church should absorb which. And though Tolstoy professed to loathe the state as such, when he got down to specifics one realised that it was the Western state – and its elements in Russia – that he mostly abhorred.

Putin’s frequent forays into history betray both his own ignorance and a tendency he shares with many other tyrants: falsifying history for his nefarious ends. But true enough: he is indeed part of an historical continuum, that of Russia’s irreconcilable animosity towards the West.

From its very beginning (in the 16th century, not 1,000 years ago), the Russian state has combined the features of Byzantine Caesarism with Mongol tyrannical centralism, both Eastern. Hostile standoff with the West, punctuated with occasional blood-letting, didn’t start with Putin – and neither will it end with him.

Though Kipling had a different East in mind, he was right in his prophecy that “never the twain shall meet”. They shan’t – although one does hope that Russia’s hatred of the West won’t blow up the world.

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