Saturday, April 30, 2022

Wars, Rumors of Wars, and Russia’s Aspiring “New Caesar”

The decade of the 2020s has already been full of strain, tension, and alienation for people all over the world due to the constraints and disruptions of COVID-19. For some it has led to unforeseeable tragedy, but for everyone it has represented an abrupt shift in the ongoing “meta-crisis” that is the emerging new global epoch as it unfolds its unprecedented possibilities and dangers.

And now we have war, once again, involving the world’s largest and most ambivalent protagonists of the use of technological power. Here I don’t mean the brave and suffering people of Ukraine, who - even as they seek to defend themselves with whatever weapons they can get - are drawing on deeper interior resources of strength and resilience, resources which they must continue to rely on above and beyond any promises or alliances with those who live by the material logic of technology alone. Ukraine is an emerging nation, and must struggle not only against their appallingly brutal enemies but also guard their souls from the counter-materialism of those who claim to be their friends.

I see no way around the unimaginable consequences of this already-escalating global conflict. The wealthy First World countries in Europe and America are plunging in with little understanding of the whole context of the Russian imperialist faction’s historical ambitions and Ukraine’s (and other nations’) historical sufferings. Ironically, this ignorance might be a "lesser evil" in the present circumstances; the secularist West is focused on Russia's violation of international law and human rights in their aggressive invasion of Ukraine. This, at least, is a legitimate and concrete concern that everyone can understand and agree upon. News services everywhere are deluged by the awful facts and abundant testimonies to the ruthless and indiscriminate war Russia is waging (which is sadly consistent with the way Putin has used his war machine in the past, most recently in Syria). Our information resources and audiovisual media have little chance to exaggerate, sensationalize, politicize, or otherwise spin these events into the kind of combative entertainment that their distracted, shallow, soul-starved viewers clamor for. They don’t need to. We can satisfy ourselves and our restless curiosity by the feeling of being enthusiastic spectators in a war that seems far away from our own lives, but still made vivid by media technology. What we don’t see is how the war and its consequences draw closer to us every day. 

NATO’s European and American countries—with some hesitations—have responded to Putin’s war in a way that suggests that we think it can be contained to the Slavic world and resolved by the right combination of face-saving and wheeling-and-dealing. As the months have passed, however, we are slowly moving toward the recognition that the factors involved in this war are beyond our grasp. Meanwhile, the Western alliance continues to isolate Russia with economic sanctions and pour billions of dollars and ever-more-sophisticated weapons into Ukraine. While this increases Ukraine’s chances of defending itself, it also may increase Putin’s intransigence and, perhaps, his readiness to widen the scope of the war and bring a new level of destructive technology into play, under the (not entirely untrue) pretext that our nations have already become de-facto belligerents in a war against Russia. This danger will grow especially as the invasion of Ukraine drags on and Russian casualties continue to increase.

I am not saying what should or should not be done to “change” the situation. I’m just trying to clarify my own understanding of what’s happening. I hope I’m wrong about some of it, and indeed the unfolding of historical events are influenced by many factors that cannot be predicted.

Nevertheless, what we are seeing currently suggests that escalation is unavoidable, and can be said already to be taking place. European Union, British, and American interests in supporting Ukraine are probably more complex and ambivalent than the altruistic platitudes about “freedom and democracy” that we hear everywhere right now. But what is undeniable is that Putin’s government in Russia is dictatorial, centralist, kleptocratic, belligerent, and mendacious. It is sure to get worse before it gets better. Putinism may be more tolerable than Soviet Communism, but that hardly justifies ignoring its invasion of neighboring countries and its own peculiar crimes. The Western alliance (and the U.S.A. in particular) cannot be faulted for calling out these evils and insisting they stop (notwithstanding our own hypocrisy, and our willingness to tolerate and/or ignore the evils of other regimes and the oppression of other peoples - which, to be fair, we may not always be able to address in a practical manner).

And, although Soviet Marxist-Leninist ideology is no longer a force in this region, there are other, older ideologies that may fuel the present conflict, or grow in influence so as to affect the future.

Unfortunately, Moscow today has turned all its forces in the “wrong direction” (in various respects) by renewing its centuries-old “Imperial Dream” of hegemony in Eastern and Southeastern Slavic areas and domination of the shores of the Black Sea. It is the dream of a “Greater Russia” whose conquests are justified by its unique Christian and historic “mission.” (I do believe that Russia and all the Slavic peoples have particular and rich contributions of Christian witness for our time, and unique gifts to share with the world, but this univocal, reductive “imperial dream” is not the way to fulfill such tasks.) 

The new Post-Communist version of the dream mashes up pseudo-mystical aspirations with a crass materialistic power grab for regional resources, marshaling all under a repressive centralized regime, a mega-State designed not according to the Marxist minds of Lenin and Stalin, but still too pervaded by their “guts” (particularly Stalin’s)—their will to grab power and impose it by whatever violence is judged to be “necessary.”

Putin is probably more motivated by the mega-State, but Moscow’s imperial dream may be important for solidifying his strange alliance with Russian Orthodox clergy. There is the danger that this old dream - which is nothing less than the Muscovite “restoration” of Eastern Orthodox Christendom - is a worldly dream of reconstructing a very old power that Moscow has long coveted. The Imperial Dream began in the 16th century when Moscow declared itself “the Third Rome” after the fall of Constantinople, claiming the ancient Byzantine imperial pedigree for its relatively new rulers, who styled themselves “Czars” (the Slavic rendering of “Caesar”). Moscow’s archbishop was also invested with the title of “Patriarch” so that the church’s status might correspond to—and be subject to—the dignity of the new Caesars. All too often, the church’s witness to the Gospel was to be obscured or diverted thereafter by Russia’s Emperors to serve their own worldly ends. 

The Imperial Dream tied the Russian Orthodox Church to a particular nation and the will of its autocratic rulers. The ensuing centuries were rich with many holy people, a heritage of profound Christian living, and - eventually - an abundance of martyrs. But too often the hierarchy was dominated by the overwhelming temporal power that held the real primacy in the Dream. In the 18th century, Peter the Great even abolished the Moscow Patriarchate’s status, which was only restored in 1917 by a Synod that had begun meeting during the brief period after Nicholas II’s abdication, when the Duma (Russia’s Parliament) had declared freedom of religion from government control. (As I have written elsewhere [see HERE] the Russian Byzantine Catholic Exarchate in full communion with the Pope also blossomed briefly during this period.) By the time the Orthodox synod had declared the restoration of the Patriarchate, however, the Bolshevik Revolution had prevailed. Future Patriarchs would either be imprisoned (and/or martyred) or be forced into various forms of subservient collaboration with an atheist regime.

But history has more tenacious roots than we think. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been a religious renaissance in Russia, and many Russians once again identify as Orthodox Christians. There is much to be encouraged about in these developments. But the rise of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship has also seen a resurgence of a Neo-Muscovite Imperial Dream. The essential worldliness of such an ideal (even wrapped in the mantle of opposition to globalist moral decadence and secularism) can only be a distraction away from whatever renewal of genuine Christian faith is happening among Russian people today.

How far might Putin and his followers go with this new Dream? Are we seeing the rise of a new form of an old ambition: the “Christian Caesaropapism” that prevailed in Constantinople in the second millennium, prior to its decline, and which was then adopted by the “Caesars” of Moscow up to the dawn of the 20th century?

Czarist Russia had a deep and long-lasting fascination with Constantinople, and sought to wrest it away from Turkish rule and restore it to Orthodoxy (and establish its own political power there). Perhaps we should revisit Russia’s 18th and 19th century clashes with the Ottoman Empire, including the complex events of the “Crimean War.” Does this have any relevance for the current Empire of Putin? In practical terms, probably not. Obviously, the circumstances of Czarist times were vastly different from today. Still we might use our imaginations to venture beyond realpolitik, and ponder the extensiveness of the dreams that motivate people and can become new ways to dress up the desire for power. 

The symbol of today’s Russia: the Byzantine two head eagle

It’s not utterly far-fetched to imagine that Russian regional hegemony (including control of the Black Sea) might someday (sooner or later) lead some lmperial Dreamers to take the “dream” all the way to Istanbul, in a new effort to reclaim the ancient Basilica of Hagia Sofia for Orthodox Christianity and restore the city of Constantinople within the Third Roman Empire. This time, however, the Empire would be governed not from the Bosporus but from Moscow - the self-appointed “Third Rome” after Constantinople’s fall nearly 600 years ago. Of course, this is stretching the whole theme too far (even if maybe this scheme might sound “pretty good” to some traditionally-minded Christians). Its achievement would come at an extremely high price. In fact, a wholly Russian Imperial realm effectively controlling everything from Saint Petersburg to Constantinople would be problematic in many ways, and is virtually impossible to picture in today’s context. That doesn’t mean that no one dreams about it, or holds out hope for it in the future. Stranger reconfigurations have happened in history.

Meanwhile, the idea of a Greater Russia—united under Moscow and a conception of “Orthodoxy” as primarily a common civil ideology, a politically useful (and ultimately State-controlled) ideology—presents itself more plausibly, but also with more hidden dangers. Obviously, witness to Jesus Christ and life centered on Him would lose its essential focus, regardless of how much religious talk and action remained about Him. Bishops might even be tempted to bless government injustices, or to refrain from speaking out when they should. Such temptations are common in the secular world, but the Imperial Dream would tend to urge a certain particular enthusiasm from its religious ministers, and would reward those who would propagate it. 

Moreover, the New Imperial Dream would not tolerate anything even perceived as a potential rival. Greater Russia, specifically, would certainly apply “pressure” for the “reintegration” (i.e. the suppression) of the recently constituted Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Metropolitan Archbishop of Kyiv (and canonically independent from the Patriarch of Moscow), which was recognized by Orthodox churches under the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2018, but rejected by Moscow. Moreover, Greater Russia would utterly oppose even the continued existence of the “Greek Catholic Church” of Western Ukraine (much less would it hold out any hope for taking up again the building of an Eastern-rite Catholic eparchy in Russia itself). The Ukrainian Catholics would once more be forced underground, because their very existence would be a fundamental challenge to the State/Imperial claim that a Church’s identity and authority are entirely subordinated to and ultimately in service of the Empire. The New Imperial Dream of a unified Greater Russia would insist that all Russian Christians acknowledge the Moscow Patriarchate’s primatial role within the (one and only) Russian Orthodox Church, which would be bound up with the de-facto more fundamental claim of Russia’s temporal leader to be a kind of “New Constantine” ensuring the order of a newly emerging Russian Byzantine Christendom. The “Christendom” of the “Third Rome,” ruled by a centralized Russian dictatorship, would not be a hospitable place for the growth of Ecumenism among its own subjects. It would be—especially—a realm hardened in opposition to the Successor of Saint Peter and fiercely intolerant of Christians in full communion with him, i.e. Catholic Christians.

(There is a prophet from Russia’s past whose voice might be heard again, who denounced these pretenses in his own time: Vladimir Soloviev. But that’s another story for another day.)

These scenarios may all seem outrageous, but they are on the minds of more than a few pious Russians and are quite familiar to Vladimir Putin. But it is tragically wrong-headed to endeavor to build an allegedly Christian-inspired society that rejects the Papacy in favor of the hegemony of a partisan Super-State posing as a mythical Empire. And, we might add, this dream society would be built on top of the graves of a new generation of martyred and murdered Ukrainians: Ukrainian Greek Catholics, whom this Empire must reject by its very nature; Ukrainian Orthodox Christians who refuse to surrender their faith to the de-facto institutional control of the “New Caesar;” Ukrainians of all religions or ways of human seeking who continue to insist that being Ukrainian is important to their journey in this world, and that no foreign power has the right to divest them of their national allegiance and cultural identity, to drive them from their homes and destroy their land.

And so we find ourselves back in Ukraine, where people of good will from various traditions—but let me note here in particular Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox Christians—have marched side-by-side, from the Maidan protests of 2014 to the present-day defense of their country. Let it be clear to my own fellow Roman Catholics in the West: this real Christian and human solidarity is a far greater hope for the reunion of these sister churches than the fevered dreams of a “Greater Russia” dominated by future self-appointed “Caesars” in a “Rome” of their own design.