The French poet and thinker Paul Valéry once remarked that “The only thing one can learn from history is a propensity for chauvinism. There are no other lessons.”
I’m not sure about this as a sweeping statement but, as applied to Russia specifically and my friend Vlad especially, the aphorism rings true.
I was reminded of it the other day, when I spoke to a distinguished Conservative association about Putin’s Russia, fascism in general and Russian kleptofascism in particular.
Most of my listeners nodded in all the right places, but I immediately identified two or three who were visibly tensing up.
Sure enough, come the Q&A time, one of the superannuated gentlemen asked a question he clearly thought was rhetorical: “But you can’t deny that the Crimea is historically Russian?”
Actually, the only thing I couldn’t deny was that Putin’s propaganda was making in-roads on precisely the kind of people who ought to know better. But I didn’t say that.
Instead I said: “History is an unreliable guide to geopolitics. In this case, it depends on how far back you’re willing to go.
“Prince Potemkin annexed the Crimea in 1783, roughly at the same time Britain colonised India. Khrushchev transferred the peninsula to the Ukraine in 1954, just seven years after India declared her independence.
“The two periods are thus almost exactly coextensive. Does this mean we’d be within our right to annex a part of India’s territory or, ideally, the whole thing?
“And this is just one example. Would the Germans be justified in repossessing Alsace by force? Or Austria all of northern Italy? Or Spain and Portugal most of South America?
“Our claims to Aquitaine also have some legitimacy,” I added facetiously. “In general, if we tried to restore countries’ borders to their limits at some arbitrary point in history, we’d get a war of all against all, thereby refuting this line of thought.”
My opponent seemed satisfied with my reply intellectually, but one could tell he really wasn’t emotionally. Then again, some modern British Tories have always had a soft spot for fascism, which they’ve tended to compare favourably to our own perpetually weak and vacillating governments.
Characteristically and laudably, however, very few have ever been led by their innermost feelings to settle in fascist countries, preferring instead to rot away in decadent but still residually civilised shires.
It is to my friend Vlad’s credit that his retrospective glance at history has a greater telescopic reach than a mere couple of centuries.
This he went on to prove a few days ago, justifying Russia’s brutal aggression against the Ukraine in terms not only historical but also theological. It takes a highly nimble mind to get into such a maze and find its way out, but if anyone can do it, Vlad can.
First came a rebuke to some European nations that for the time being went unnamed: “If for some European countries national pride is a long-forgotten concept and sovereignty is too much of a luxury, true sovereignty for Russia is absolutely necessary for survival.”
Fair cop. One can see the attraction of such statements to those who, like me, detest the EU but, unlike me, don’t know much about Russia.
Then came the theological or, if you will, theohistorical bit: “It was in the Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus… that Grand Duke Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus.”
Get it? Christianity is essential to Russian sovereignty, the Crimea has a sacral significance to Russian Christianity, hence the Crimea, as Col. Putin went on to explain, has “sacred importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”
Actually, even on its own terms his version of Vladimir’s baptism is only one of several hypotheses, but that’s by the by.
Let me mention parenthetically that, although Vladimir was eventually canonised in the Orthodox church, at that time his behaviour was not of a kind typically associated with saintliness.
For example, the libidinous prince, left unsatisfied by his hundreds of wives and concubines, would routinely rape the wives and daughters of his vanquished rivals. But, in all fairness, sometimes he would do the decent thing and add the victim to his regiment of wives.
That is what he did, for example, to the Polotsk princess Rogneda whom he had first raped publicly, with the girl’s parents and a few hundred of Vladimir’s troops in attendance. The warriors cheered him on; the parents probably didn’t, but their reaction wasn’t recorded.
Fair enough, many saints had a dissipated youth. St Augustine, for example, sowed enough wild oats to keep the entire population of Hippo in porridge. But, compared to Vladimir’s epic exertions, he comes across as a eunuch.
Still, it’s good to see that, inspired by Vlad I, Vlad II has apparently found God, if rather late in life. In his exuberant youth he started his KGB career in the Second Chief Directorate, responsible for the persecution of dissidents – including religious ones.
Far be it from me, however, to deny the possibility of an epiphany on the road to Lubianka. Vlad is known to be an occasional rider, so who’s to say he never fell off his horse and had a Damascene experience?
In due course he’ll learn that Russian Christians, unlike their Western counterparts, cross themselves from right to left, but such things do take time. His Western admirers wouldn’t notice the faux pas anyway.
But I do wish he broadened his already panoramic historical outlook. That way he could justify even stronger claims.
You see, St Vladimir wasn’t the first member of his family to get baptised, His grandmother Grand Duchess Olga did it first, on her visit to Constantinople, as it then was.
Now Constantinople was at that time the capital of Byzantium, the eastern Roman Empire. It was in that Byzantine confession that Olga, and subsequently her grandson, were baptised.
So forget about miserable little Chersonesus. The true Jerusalem of Russia’s Christianity is actually Istanbul, née Constantinople. If that doesn’t give Vlad II every moral and legal right to annex Turkey with her selfishly guarded straits, I don’t know what does.
Now, St Vladimir’s descendant Ivan III (d. 1505) actually married (without raping her first) the daughter of the last Byzantine emperor.
He then declared Russia as the natural messianic successor to Byzantium, ‘third Rome’ in the words of the monk Philoteus (‘and there will not be a fourth’).
Since we’ve already sorted out the legitimacy of Putin’s claim to ‘second Rome’, which is to say Istanbul and Turkey at large, what about the first Rome, now going by the name of Italy?
Surely, if Russia sits in the line of godly descent just after Turkey, while the latter was preceded by Italy, both Putin and his Western fans should demand that he occupy all of Italy, or at least her part.
May I suggest Emilia-Romagna, for starters? Brilliant food, Sangiovese is a decent wine, Bologna is gorgeous, and the first Rome is but a short tank drive away.
I hope my credulous conservative friends will second the motion. I know my friend Vlad will – Italian banks would still be a more reliable depository for his $40-billion fortune than Russia.
Oops, sorry, I forgot. He isn’t into vulgar materialism any longer. It’s all about things sacral for Vlad now. Beatification is in order, methinks.
My new book, Democracy as a Neocon Trick, is available from Amazon and the more discerning bookshops. However, my publisher would rather you ordered it from http://www.roperpenberthy.co.uk/index.php/browse-books/political/democracy-as-a-neocon-trick.html or, in the USA, http://www.newwinebookshop.com/Books/0002752