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Michael Bonner: What’s the matter with Russia?

Commentary

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is almost 700 days old now, nearing two full years since February 24, 2022, when tanks and troops crossed the Ukrainian border at dawn. But, of course, that isn’t really when conflict began, but when it escalated. You could say that it began almost 3,600 days ago, since it was nearly ten years ago that Russia seized Crimea: a prosperous piece of land internationally recognized as the sovereign territory of Ukraine. The history of Russian aggression against its neighbours, though, is far older than even that, as even a cursory glance at history will show.

The present war is sadly only the latest development in an old process of usurpation and theft. It began in the late 14th century when the rulers of Moscow annexed parts of the eastern Slav lands centred on Kyiv, collectively known as Rus’. This was a cultural and geographical term, not a political one, but the Grand Princes of Moscow began to appropriate it, and to subordinate Kyiv’s political and ecclesiastical institutions to those of Moscow—a series of developments which culminated in the annexation of nearly all Ukraine by the end of the 18th century. Many attempts at secession failed until Ukraine voted to leave the failing USSR in 1991. And to this day the state centred on Moscow still calls itself “Rossiya,” and seeks to rule over the old Rus’ heartland and to co-opt its legacy.

Russia’s self-image as an imperial power takes shape within its literature also. Consider one of the very first Russian novels A Hero of Our Time published in 1840 by Mikhail Lermontov. It is the portrait of a highly unsympathetic person, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, and his adventures in the Russian Caucasus and its environs. When I read it in school, I met for the first time such names as the Darial Gorge, Kerch, Taman, and Crimea—strange and wild places which I struggled to imagine but which now sadly feature in international headlines because of the war in Ukraine.The fictional Pechorin is the type of aristocrat who would have participated in that imperial project, and who would come to dominate Russian political life. He is the archetype of the lishniy chelovek, or “superfluous man,” as we say in English: a wholly immoral person, bereft of principles and beliefs, highly cynical, melancholy, and monstrously arrogant. He is what we would now call a nihilist. Lermontov intended Pechorin as an amalgam “of all the vices which flourish, full-grown, amongst the present generation.” And by that, Lermontov meant the rising cohort of well-to-do Russians in the early 19th century. 

This was prescient, though it was not the Pechorins who overthrew and replaced the old order in 1917. They had, however, prepared the way. It is hard to imagine Lenin’s triumph without the 19th-century nihilists—Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Alexander Herzen, and Mikhail Bakunin, to name only three. Their relentless attacks on religion, hierarchy, morality, and the traditional social order had impressed the Bolsheviks and given them strength, despite little public support. Nevertheless, unlike the nihilists, Lenin and his followers had altogether too many convictions, not too few. And, for a brief moment, the nihilism of the past seemed to give way to visions of a new, and (as some people thought) a better world. But the cynicism and nihilism of Pechorin were to return amidst the drab misery of the Soviet project.

Something like this process has happened again recently. The exhilaration of perestroika and glasnost did not improve the late 1980s Soviet system so much as provoke its collapse. The seemingly limitless possibilities of Yeltsin’s liberalism ushered in a blend of extreme wealth and freedom for the few with anarchy and poverty for the many. Cynicism returned and mutated into apathy and nihilism. From the evil morass of nihilism and national humiliation emerged Vladimir Putin, the ultimate superfluous man of our time, who exchanged one form of authoritarianism for another.

That transformation is consummately explained by Soviet-born journalist Arkady Ostrovsky. His book The Invention of Russia describes the return of authoritarianism and its legitimation through a series of television narratives which shaped Russian self-image. Those who lamented the collapse of the USSR and the humiliation of Russia blamed the policies of the late 1980s. They especially accused Gorbachev’s policy of openness and transparency (glasnost in Russian) which had thoroughly irradiated and dissolved the bogus reality created by the Soviets. All the contradictions and paradoxes of the old regime were exposed, along with the sordid facts of history which had embarrassed the regime. The Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact, the purges and repressions, the denunciation of Stalin, the struggle between nationalists and liberals—those events, their meaning, and even their reality were contested between the Soviet old guard, liberals, and nationalists, as the future of Russia hung in the balance in the 1990s. Battle lines were drawn across the mass media, and Putin’s victory was achieved through total control over national television.

Tighter control of television media was merely the latest iteration of the Russian state capacity for making people believe things that are not true and suppressing information that might inspire criticism. The old Soviet news broadcast Vremya, for instance, disseminated the Kremlin’s view of everything, reassuring its nightly audience under the pretence of objectivity that all was well. Vremya is still in operation despite a hiatus between 1991 and 1994, and it remains the principal source of news for an audience of some 82 million Russians. But it isn’t just Vremya now, and the appearance of objectivity is gone. Every programme on every television channel broadcasts the Kremlin’s narratives non-stop. Unsurprisingly, the main force of contemporary propaganda is the war in Ukraine, in which Russian “heirs to the Red Army warriors” battle Ukrainian “Nazis,” “Satanists,” “terrorists,” and so on, who are controlled by “Anglo-Saxons.” China’s Xi Jinping is “wise,” “brilliant,” and “mighty” on account of his apparent friendship with Putin. But other world leaders, especially those who interact with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, are evil; and on account of a curse transmitted by Zelenskyy they inevitably meet with political disaster like Boris Johnson or death like the late sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said.

As outrageous and incredible as all that sounds, much of it has reached the West through influencers on Twitter, broadcasters like Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones, and even some commentators and politicians. They also transmit and repeat many of the narratives with which the Kremlin surrounds itself. Chief among these is Putin’s imaginary vision of Russia as a bastion of “traditional values” besieged by an “empire of lies,” as he himself has put it. For his boosters, Putin is a “defender of the family and God,” who appeals to many conservatives abroad. And irrational Western hostility to Russia is akin to “cancel culture.” Or so we constantly hear from certain voices.

But is any of this true? Is contemporary Russia genuinely a traditional society? If it were, the return of the old ways would be nothing short of miraculous after two centuries of nihilism and communism. But, alas, this is not the case. Despite a boom in church construction, only about 6 percent of the Christian population attends church regularly in Russia. For comparison, regular church-goers in the USA are about 31 percent of the Christian population. Other comparisons are even less favourable. The ex-Soviet countries have some of the highest rates of abortion in the world. In Russia, the rate of abortion has fallen dramatically since the Soviet era, but there are still about 53.7 abortions per 1,000 women; in America, the number is 20.8. Russia has the third highest annual divorce rate in the world at 3.9 per 1,000 marriages; America is at 2.3. Rates of infidelity in America are slightly lower (about 21 percent) than in Russia (26 percent). The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in America is about 0.4 percent of the population and falling; in Russia, it is 1.5 percent and growing. As for the idea of defending traditional family-formation, Russian oligarchs and senior statesmen notoriously maintain multiple mistresses and parallel families; and Putin himself, who is divorced and has sired multiple children out of wedlock, is no exception.

As an Orthodox Christian myself, I take no pleasure in saying that the Putinist defence of God is also rather weak. Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow, is a former spy with an embarrassing fondness for garish Breguet watches, his $4-million yacht, $43-million private jet, and small real-estate empire in Moscow and St Petersburg. He also has an odd penchant for public blessings of nuclear weapons. Apart from supporting such militancy, the church that he runs is essentially an organ for disseminating domestic propaganda. This is why, under the so-called Yarovaya Law, all forms of worship and spreading of faith are illegal unless conducted within government-approved churches or other recognised religious sites.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill at Red Square in Moscow, during National Unity Day in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP.

Putin and his servants may talk the claptrap of conservatism and the defence of Orthodoxy, but they do not practise what they preach. They are more devoted to appearance than to reality. When criticised for this, they readily pivot to whataboutism, just as the old Soviets did. The West, they say, is equally hypocritical but better at hiding it, so why single out Russia? But this is quite unpersuasive. It is easier to find Westerners eager to denounce the flaws or downright evils of their own heritage than those of Russia. And, if anything, we suffer from too much internal criticism, not too little. Defences of Western civilisation, western Christendom, European and American customs, political liberalism, and so on, tend to be rather anaemic and studiedly qualified. And that diffidence opens the way to Russian agitprop, peddling the theory of a foreign strongman who stands up for his own heritage, even if he has to appropriate it from abroad.

But that is not the most sinister aspect of Russian propaganda in the West. It is rather the capacity for covering frustrated Westerners with a miasma of Pechorin-like apathy. The disease of postmodernism has left many of us unable to dispel it, since the idea of objective truth has fallen out of favour, especially in our universities. Accordingly, we are all too susceptible to believing half-truths and even outright nonsense. If your preferred political candidate didn’t win, for instance, the reason is that the election was rigged and your cause is hopeless. If you are frustrated by incomplete information about the war in Ukraine, you should give up because you will never know the truth. All political decisions are made by a shadowy international cabal who manipulates your politicians from above, so there is no point in voting. How do you know whether or not a specific government document is fake? Your elites hate you, so give up. The propaganda is an invitation to disengage from politics and social life; and when those talking points reappear in the mouths of Western commentators, they are taken as evidence that Russia, however bad it may be, is no worse than the West.

Like all good propaganda, it contains a small element of truth. Both Russia and the West do indeed suffer from many of the same illnesses. Both are afflicted by forgetfulness of history, social atomisation, excessive faith in technology, political apathy, and a widening gulf between the rich few and a poor multitude. And yet, those problems are all far worse in Russia, which has been ruled and abused by superfluous men for 200 years at least. The past two centuries of Russian history are accordingly strewn with the ruins of broken institutions, shattered utopian dreams, and national humiliations. No model of associational life free of state control has survived. The consequences of this are represented in two statistics: a quarter of the Russian population regularly feels lonely, and about 80 percent of adults claim to be surrounded by people who share their views on almost everything—signs of advanced atomisation and de-politicisation of society. The seemingly universal support for the war in Ukraine likewise represents extreme alienation of everyday life from politics, and the inability of Russian citizens to adopt their own political positions on events. Finally, the great Western disease of postmodernism is more acute in Russia, where the power of the Kremlin dictates what is true, and Alexander Dugin’s theory of a peculiar “Russian truth” is nothing more than an exaggerated form of relativism.

What this calls for in the West is a far more vigorous defence of our own traditions and heritage than we are used to. We can start by acknowledging that a good many traditional ways of life have survived better in the West, especially in North America, than elsewhere. Consider the Mennonites, Lubavitcher Jews, the Russian Orthodox in exile after the Bolshevik revolution, the Iranian royal family, or French Catholicism in Quebec—they are all communities who have flourished better abroad than in their place of origin.

We must also do away with relativism and postmodernism, and re-dedicate ourselves to objectivity and unanimous truth. Otherwise, the consequences will be grim, and we will be like Lermontov’s description of the people of Pechorin’s generation:

…we are no longer capable of great sacrifices, either for the good of mankind or even for our own happiness, because we know the impossibility of such happiness; and, just as our ancestors used to fling themselves from one delusion to another, we pass indifferently from doubt to doubt, without possessing, as they did, either hope or even that vague though, at the same time, keen enjoyment which the soul encounters at every struggle with mankind or with destiny.

Such an attitude is yet more prevalent in contemporary Russia than it was in the early 19th century, and it is already well advanced in the West. The fate of Moscow will be ours if we allow ourselves to become nothing but ambitious, self-absorbed nihilists. 

And so, Russia is indeed an example to us, but not as their right-wing boosters would have it. Twenty-four years of Putinism were built on two centuries of decay. Far from a vision of a renewed West, Russia shows us how much worse the West shall be if we continue down the same road of forgetfulness, apathy, and nihilism. One day, like Pechorin, we may find that we can still look back upon our ancestors’ achievements, but we will not be able to understand or imitate them, and we will not even want to.

‘Before we go about trying to save the world, how about we get our own house in order first?’: The best comments from Hub readers this week

Commentary

This week’s Hub Forum saw readers providing their input into Canada’s growing hospital wait times, the nature of government spending, the state of news media in Canada, and global affairs, including the meeting between President Biden and President Xi and Canada’s relations with the European Union.

The goal of Hub Forum is to bring the impressive knowledge and experience of The Hub community to the fore and to foster open dialogue and the competition of differing ideas in a respectful and productive manner. Here are some of the most interesting comments from this past week.

Sign up for our daily Hub Forum email newsletter today.

Changing how we fund hospitals to put the patient first could help eliminate health-care wait times, policy experts say

Monday, November 20, 2023

“Health Commissions need to be re-established at arm’s length from the politicians, negotiate rates with specialists and hospitals, and they need to develop a primary care system, disease management programs, and introduce insurance concepts like premiums, pays and deductibles, etc. The hospitals and their specialists should then be free to provide additional self-pay ‘private’ services to others, subject to meeting their public system responsibilities.”

Dennis Egan

A fiscal reckoning is coming for Canada

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

“The federal government should stick to federal issues, defence, immigration, border security, etc. Leave provincial issues, such as dental care and housing, to the provinces. Instead of dollars going to provinces for health care, it should be tax points. Eventually, our federal taxation would lower and provincial tax rates would rise.”

Alice Barr

“The urgency with which we collectively deal with this reckoning will be a reflection of we, the citizenry. It seems to be irresistibly tempting, for federal governments, in particular, to spend imprudently when the political benefits are primarily gained today and the costs borne tomorrow.

We will either begin to punish governments for imprudent and chronic spending-revenue imbalances or wait until it gets to crisis levels and do it under duress. Alas, I see the glass as half-empty in this case.”

Rob Tyrrell

“It is entirely reasonable for a society to decide that it wants a larger, more expensive government in the name of equality or whatever. I think for instance of Denmark which has quite a large government that its citizens apparently value. The difference is the Danes value it enough to pay for it.

If we want to have a bigger government, we have to be prepared to pay for it over the long run. Big government on the cheap isn’t a sustainable model. As I say in the article, something eventually has to give.

There is some onus in my mind therefore on progressives to not merely make the case for a larger government. They must also make the case for the tax increases to pay for it.”

Sean Speer (editor-at-large at The Hub)

It’s the end of an era for news—the industry can either adapt or die

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

“It reminds me a bit of that old adage: What is the definition of insanity? Continuing to do the same things and expecting different results. For me, I want to see the ‘news media’ as a source of accurate news and much less editorializing and personal opinions.”

Gregory Kett

“The great news is that there are lots of fellow citizens that want to do quality journalism. As per the article, flawed legacy news media and government need to ‘get out of the way of those building a future for journalism.’ We are in a delayed transition period due to government picking winners and competing directly via the CBC. They should at least stop making things worse.

Most of the modest measures in the article would facilitate the conditions for a competitive and flourishing news ecosystem (fueled by journalism—investigating, reporting, and sense-making) that serves citizens and our democracy.

Such an ecosystem, without ‘interference,’ will naturally be digital so there may be no need to encourage digital mediums specifically via incentives.”

Rob Tyrrell

“I understand radio news needing to get to remote communities, but we’ve now come to a time when the internet is available in more regions. Privately funded journalism brings competition and will up the level of competency.”

David Wright

A humbled China may be looking to de-escalate tensions with the West as its economy falters, analysts say

Thursday, November 23, 2023

“As we enter an age of automation China will require fewer and fewer people to manage and operate the ‘world’s workshop.’ Plus they have already built much of the infrastructure so will continue to benefit from that. They can also outsource globally while retaining control. So as far as continuing to make everything for the world they can manage that.

Similar principle for their military—how many drone operating couch warriors will it take to sink the US 7th fleet? Things are changing and they won’t need the same numbers of people to continue.

The only problem will be their internal consumer markets which will impact their economy overall. But that won’t impact their industrial or military might.”

— Mike Fortier

As EU leaders visit Newfoundland, the message is clear: It’s time to step up, Canada

Friday, November 24, 2023

“This goes beyond trade. We have more pressing issues to resolve. And until we do, we will never achieve Laurier’s vision of Canada being ‘the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come.’

Frum was spot on in saying our country is ‘in the grips of an ideology that is very dangerous to the health and safety of Canadians.’ He added, with succinct accuracy, that the ‘greatest superpower of democracy is the power of self-correction’. This is a power within Canada that is about to ignite.

Prime Minister Trudeau, for all his faults, has performed an immense public service through his actions over the last 10 years, exposing many glaring weaknesses within our political and governmental structures. These weaknesses have allowed that dangerous ideology to grow and thrive, further eroding our ability to function as a democracy and to grow an economy whose primary strength has been its immense and abundant natural resources. Our domestic and international decline under his watch has been spectacular. Despite this, I am optimistic that future historians will regard the next two years as the moment we recognized the need to ignite that power of self-correction that Frum says is within us.

Before we go about trying to save the world, how about we get our own house in order first?”

RJKWells