Habakkuk on Russia Delusion Syndrome (RDS)


One rather material element in delusions about Russia, alike in my country as in yours, is that people still appear to have difficulty realising that Putin is not a communist, and, where they can get this far, find it utterly impossible to make sense of what he actually is.

Among the more extreme instances was provided by our Ambassador to the UN, Karen Pierce, in the exchanges in April as the Western powers were trying to cover up yet another ‘false flag’ chemical weapons attack. She explained: “In respect of Karl Marx, I think he must be turning in his grave to see what the country that was founded on many of his precepts is doing in the name of supporting Syria by condoning the use of chemical weapons on Syrian territory.”

(See https://www.rt.com/uk/42384… .)

This problem might have been avoided had our then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, summoned his Eton and Oxford contemporary Paul Robinson back from Ottawa, where he now teaches. Ironically, it was when Johnson was editing the ‘Spectator’ that, in January 2004, he published an article by Robinson, headlined ‘Putin’s might is White’, which had a shaping influence on my view of contemporary Russian realities.

(See http://archive.spectator.c o… .)

Only later did I learn that, after leaving university, its author had served for five years in Army Intelligence, and, when he chose to do a doctorate, opted to excavate some forgotten figures from Trotsky’s ‘dustbin of history’, writing on the White Russian Army in exile.

As a result, at a time when so many who had opted for ‘relevant’ subjects quite patently had no idea what was happening, Robinson could see, clearly, that what goes into the ‘dustbin’ does not necessarily stay there: that Putin was, in essence, a grandchild of the Rev olution who had come to believe that some of those who had opposed it had been completely justified. (As it were, Trotsky should have been in the ‘dustbin’, not Denikin.)

Moreover, having described the new Russian President as a ‘typical Soviet radish – red on the outside but white at the core’, Robinson went on to put into context the complexities of his relationship towards ‘liberal’ ideas:

‘Probably the most fundamental tension in Russian politics is that between the concepts of gosudarstvennost’ and its rival obshchestvennost’. The nuances of the latter are difficult to translate, but the term refers to civil society and, roughly speaking, means “public opinion”. Liberal commentators regard the state in Russia with suspicion. At the start of the 20th century, they longed for the state to surrender its power to “public opinion”. They still do. But supporters of gosudatstvennosr view supporters of obshchestvennost’ with equal suspicion. They see them as the self-interested representatives of the chattering classes, who, if put into positions of power, will immediately plunge Russia into a state of anarchy in which their beloved liberties will be of no use to them or anybody else. This, the Whites argued, was what the liberals of the provisional government had done in 1917, and this, many now claim, is what free-market democrats such as Yegor Gaidar did to Russia in the early 1990s.


‘There is something of a misconception in the West that the Russian state has traditionally been exceedingly powerful. In fact, the opposite is the case. Compared with Western countries, the rulers of pre-communist Russia had a very small administrative apparatus and comparatively limited financial resources to govern an enormous geographic area. Russian leaders have regularly found it extremely difficult to enforce their rule far from Moscow or St Petersburg. Even in the modern era both Yeltsin and Putin have found themselves frustrated by regional governors who pursue policies directly counter to those of the central government. In earlier times, it was a lack of power, not a surfeit, that induced tyrants such as Ivan the Terrible to resort to violent administrative solutions.

‘A weak state can lead to despotism. It is only under the shelter of a state strong enough to protect its subjects from crime or external assault, to create and enforce laws to regulate commerce and industry, and to encourage the arts, education and other social benefits, that a society can prosper, and that the conditions for individual liberty can ever hope to exist.’

(http://archive.spectator.co… .)

If the division was put like that, my own strong reaction was that, for precisely the reasons why I had every sympathy with the Western intervention against Bolshevism in the Civil War, I also much preferred Putin to the contemporary Russian ‘chattering classes’ – also, of course, I may be biased: I know the British ‘chattering classes’ rather well.

What has since become clear, moreover, is that when the Western ‘chattering classes’ do actually take notice of the figures to whom Putin harks back, they totally misunderstand them. An excellent example came after, in 2014 , he recommended regional governors works by Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyev, and Ivan Ilyin.

Commenting on this in a piece headlined ‘Putin Can’t Stop’ in that leading outlet of your ‘chattering classes’, the ‘New York Times’, David Brooks produced a spectacular example of the misuse of ‘proof texts.’

This led him to conclude that ‘All of this adds up to a highly charged and assertive messianic ideology’, and that ‘Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.’

(See https://www.nytimes.com/201… .)

It has become clear to me, however, is that the Western ‘chattering classes’ are not simply ignorant. A key reason why Brooks, and many like him, travesty these writers is that they have themselves embraced a ‘highly charged and assertive messianic ideology.’

This was made vividly apparent in a column by Brooks in the ‘NYT’, in February 2017, which was entitled ‘A Return to National Greatness.’ In this, he restated and developed themes he had set out in an article written twenty years before, when he was a ‘senior editor’ at the ‘Weekly Standard.’

A central theme, as Brooks put it in the later article, was that the main building of the Library of Congress ‘articulates the central animating idea that held this bursting, turbulent country together.’

‘In that story, America is placed at the vanguard of the great human march of progress. America is the grateful inheritor of other people’s gifts. It has a spiritual connection to all people in all places, but also an exceptional role. America culminates history. It advances a way of life and a democratic model that will provide people everywhere with dignity. The things Americans do are not for themselves only, but for all mankind.

‘This historical story was America’s true myth…’

(See https://www.nytimes.com/201… .)

Ironically, it turns out that the ideas set out by Brooks are actually rather closer to those of many of the original Bolsheviks than they are to those of the ‘chattering classes’ of the time who facilitated the coming to power of Lenin and his associates.

As has become clearer in recent years, a central strand in the thinking of many of the of those who made the October Revolution came out of the attempt by ‘borderlands’ intellectuals to transcend the politics of ethnic division by embracing a ‘highly charged and assertive messianic ideology.’

A fascinating 2008 article entitled ‘The Ethnic Roots of Class Universalism’ by Liliana Riga, an American lady now teaching at Edinburgh, summarises the research presented in much greater detail in her 2012 book ‘The Bolsheviks and the Russian Empire.’

(See https://www.research.ed.ac…. .)

Although there is a certain amount of ‘social science’ jargon I find irritating, Ms. Riga has made a monumental effort to put together some very interesting modern writing on nationalism with detailed biographies of the ninety-three members of the Central Committee in the early revolutionary years, setting them in the contexts from which they came: a Herculean la bour.

Something that emerges with great force is that the forces of ‘modernisation’, in the Russian Empire as in the Hapsburg Empire, could push people towards what might be called ‘tribal’ identifications. But, in part precisely because of that, they could lead to people adopting ‘universalistic’ ideologies in part precisely because of the promise these held of transcending ‘tribalism.’ And, not uncommonly, these ‘univeralistic’ ideologies have also been ‘messianic.’

If this is so, then a question arises as to whether people like Brooks are actually hell-bent on heading the United States into precisely the dead end into which Bolshevism ended up heading much of Eurasia.

A central problem, in both cases, is that the coherence of one’s polity is liable to end up depending upon ‘myths’ which prove unsustainable.

The kind of ‘myth’ in terms of which Brooks wants to define American identity was easy enough to hold in 1989. At that time, a central fact about the world was the extraordinary success of the post-war ‘Pax Americana’ both in Western Europe and central parts of East Asia. B y 1997, he and people like should have been trying to reckon with the fact that the Russian ‘chattering classes’ had turned out as wrong at the end of the Soviet experiment as they had before it.

By 2017, Brooks should have made some attempt to reckon with the fact that subsequent attempts to impose American model by force in the Middle East had turned out completely catastrophic.

The total failure of him and his like – in Britain as much as in the United States – to make any attempt to reckon with the ways in which the world has changed since 1989, I thi nk, brings out their true spiritual ancestry: a certain amount of Leon Trotsky, but a lot more of Leonid Brezhnev.


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