Staunton, March 26 – By his annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin has re-awakened the imperial dimension of Russian messianism, a force that has been contained since 1991 but that now will lead to ever-broader conflicts that will lead either to a Russian victory over all its supposed enemies or the collapse of Russia, Vladimir Pastukhov says.
But at the same time, another form of Russian messianism, a concern with universal social justice, is also being re-awakened, and that represents a potentially even more serious challenge to Putin’s system than the imperial messianism which because of his victory in Crimea is making him into “the messiah” for many Russians, the St. Antony’s College expert adds.
In an article in Novaya Gazeta 25 March, Pastukhov points out that Russia today is populated by “a different people” than it was “all of a month ago,” a people who are “inspired” by a vision which gives them the messianic role that they as a nation have always craved .
“Russians do not fulfil a mission, all the more so when it is unfulfillable; they live it and are its function,” the historian says. Instead, “the missionary spirit was and apparently remains the moving force of Russian history.” It is part of “the Russian subconscious,” and Putin has “re-awakened” in Russians this “beast.”
What is surprising and requires comment, Pastukhov says, is that this messianism was asleep for “a quarter of a century,” an “insanely long” period “for the Russian cultural code” and one that reflects “the deep depression and historical shock which the Russian people experienced after the disintegration of the USSR.”
But if the messianic spirit was sleeping, it did not disappear, and one can identify the forces that have roused it. First among them is the West and the United States which behaved in ways that have given rise to the Weimar syndrome which has awoken in the Russian soul the very same instincts which moved the Germans after their defeat in World War I.”
The winners of the Cold War didn’t think it necessary to create a new Marshall Plan, he says. They didn’t think they had to meet the interests of Russia even half-way on “any of the issues that were psychologically significant” for Russians either within their country or in their former allies.
Moreover, the West acted in an extremely “casuistic” way with regard to following “the norms of international law.” It did when it suited its interests but not when it suited Russia’s or anyone else’s. And others, like Ukraine, also made a contribution to re-awakening Russian messianism by their actions as well.
Indeed, Pastukhov says, today, “one can assert that in fact during all this time, the cold war did not end for a minute. It simply became less intensive, degenerating into cold war light.” In this world, the Americans pretended to cooperate with the Russians, and the Russians pretended to share American values.
Both of those acts of pretence were lies, the St. Antony’s scholar says.
“One can argue as to who in each specific case was right and who was wrong,” but one can’t dispute that Russians never came to terms with their defeat and always hoped that they would someday be able to redress it.
Pastukhov cites the observation of Leo Tolstoy that “masses of people usually go into motion ecause they are unified by a certain very simple but universal feeling, at the base of which lies a single universal interest.” He called this “’a differential of history,’” and identifying it in Russia was “one of the chief hidden motifs of the works of Tolstoy himself.”
Since the end of the Soviet Union, “Russia has been in an uninterrupted search for some kind of ‘new ideology’ which would awaken the sleeping Russian passion.” All failed, until it was discovered that “the universal differential of post-communist Russia was a longing for imperial greatness,” a desire to punish those who had punished Russia.
That is what Putin has tapped into, because he felt and recognized that “the people needed a victory,” regardless of where and but a victory in order to take revenge for Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. He has gotten this victory but he has started a process he cannot stop until “all the fuel” behind it is burned up.
Those who think that there will be a quick end to this are making a most “serious mistake,” Pastukhov says.
“The ‘Russian machine,’” he continues, “has a broken speedometer and no brakes. It is secure only when it is not moving.” Western leaders have described Putin as “inadequate,” Pastukhov continues, but “he is no more inadequate than Atilla in the eyes of the residents of besieged Rome.” And he is less so than the leaders of the Old and New World “who do not understand” that “the conflict is only superficially connected with Ukraine or even more with Crimea.”
Crimea is “only an occasion” for the re-igniting of this Russian messianism, Pastukhov points out. “War has been declared not on Ukraine but on the West, on its policy, ideology, way of life, values and way of thinking. This is a ‘holy’ war, that is, an ideological and religious one, which is condemned to become total.”
And it will go on until “the defeat of the West or the disintegration of Russia,” he suggests. Russia has fewer chances for victory than does the West, but what happens will in fact depend on many decisions yet to be made. In this, one cannot exclude that “the only beneficiary of this clash in the final analysis will be China.
Those who think Putin is going to stop with Crimea are deceiving themselves. He can’t stop because he cannot make a concession “to any ‘foreign enemy’ on any issue. Politically, he has driven himself into a corner.” That doesn’t mean that there won’t be pauses, but the thrust will continue.
The Kremlin leader, having “united the people under the flag of revanchism appears today as a Messiah,” Pastukhov says. Many who opposed him now do not, and they will support what he does even if they earlier rejected exactly the same thing. There are not going to be any mass protests “in the current atmosphere.”
“Of course, any holiday sooner or later ends. But it is always possible to create a new one.” There are ethnic Russians and Russian speakers elsewhere, in Moldova, the Baltic countries, Belarus, Kazakhstan “and in many other places as well.” It is simply a matter of playing up one or another issue to keep the passion of messianism alive.
But there is another force at work too, the Oxford scholar says. “Besides imperial nostalgia, Russia history has another differential which one might describe as being of ‘a second order,’ but which is more powerful than the first: the striving of the Russian people for social justice” both locally an universally.
While it can be used to justify messianic imperialism, this “differential” can represent a threat to the regime which launches such campaigns by calling into question the absence of social justice at home. Such feelings are “the red button in the Russian soul.” Whoever is able to reach it will “pull the chair out from under Putin.”
That is because “the real Russia idea is not imperial; it is the idea of universal justice,” and Russians’ sense of justice has been and is being violating by Putin’s policies at home. In sum, “Russian social messianism is stronger than Russian national messianism,” even if it does not appear that way just now.