Russia’s Messianic Realism

 /  May 13, 2016, 9:58 a.m.


“Napoleon once said that justice is the embodiment of God on earth. In this sense I feel that the reunification of Crimea with Russia was a just decision.”

—Vladimir V. Putin

“We keep waiting for the liberal, democratic, Western-oriented Russian leader, like we keep waiting for the liberal, democratic, Western-oriented Arab Muslim leader. Because, we think, deep down, inside every single person in the entire world is an American, just waiting to be liberated.”

—Rod Dreher

In the midst of the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, the Swedish researcher Maria Engström published a paper arguing that the Russian annexation of Crimea was the foreign-policy manifestation of a messianic turn in Russian politics. Beginning in 2013, she claims, Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders adopted the language of a conservative political theology that defines itself in opposition to secular modernity.

In particular, they depict Russia as the Katechon, the mysterious “restrainer,” whose existence has traditionally been inferred from St. Paul’s remark in 2 Thessalonians that something or someone is holding the Antichrist back until the time appointed for the apocalypse. Carl Schmitt reinvented the Katechon as a political concept, and it’s in this sense that Russia’s political elites have adopted it: they identify “American agents, Ukrainian fascists, and the Kiev junta” as the latest iteration of the eternal Antichrist, and Russia herself as the Katechon. In annexing Crimea and drawing Ukraine and other Eastern European nations into Russia’s sphere of influence, they see themselves as restraining the expansionist ambitions of the American Antichrist; meanwhile, in adopting various anti-liberal domestic policies, they claim to offer the world a cultural alternative to American degeneracy.

Engström credits the political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin with synthesizing Schmitt’s concept of the nationalist Katechon and the ancient Russian tradition that Russia and the Orthodox Church have a special mission to the world. In recent years, Dugin has become the face of Russian illiberal theory in the West: Foreign Affairs dubbed him “Putin’s Brain” in 2014, and Western journalists, impressed by his mystical aura and carefully cultivated beard, regularly compare him to Rasputin. Dugin is most famous for advancing his own version of Eurasianism, a 20th-century geopolitical theory that groups Russia with Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia as a single civilization placed in natural geographical and cultural opposition to Europe. He combines this theory of great spaces with a fierce anti-liberalism, arguing that Eurasia, with the Katechon Russia at its head, represents the global bulwark of resistance against Western degeneracy—the Eternal Rome (just, militaristic, unified) to the Anglo-American Eternal Carthage (seafaring, licentious, capitalistic, individualistic).

More than a few commentators, noticing Dugin’s combination of anti-capitalism, nationalist rhetoric, and irredentist foreign policy aims, have decided that Eurasianism is simply a new flavor of fascism. As Marlène Laruelle, a historian who specializes in the politics of post-Soviet Russia, remarks, Dugin’s theories explicitly borrow various elements from Nazism; she adds, however, that he has lately come to argue that fascism’s embrace of racism (which he loudly deplores) and its elevation of state rather than culture as the subject of history make it nonviable today. Laruelle claims that this shift has been largely opportunistic: as Dugin tries to enter the mainstream and win recognition from the Russian regime, he downplays the anti-Semitism and interest in Nazism that were on display in his earlier work. In any case, if Engström is right about the ideological turn of 2013, we should look to the Dugin of today rather than the Dugin of the 1990s and early 2000s to understand the character of the Russian regime’s professed anti-liberalism. Dugin’s National Bolshevist roots notwithstanding, the Eurasianism that Putin has tacitly encouraged over the last few years does not fit well into the Western concept of fascism, elastic though that term may be. Rather, Dugin seems entitled to his frequently repeated claim that Eurasianism transcends Western notions of left and right. But while calling him a fascist only confuses matters, there’s no denying that Eurasianism’s main enemy is liberal democracy.

For Americans, all this might sound rather frightening. Overheated rhetoric aside, Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014 seem to suggest that Eurasianism is actually helping to drive Russian foreign policy. It’s true that in speeches and interviews justifying the annexation of Crimea, Putin argued in terms of human rights, and particularly the right of self-determination of peoples. But Western leaders and pundits have generally been unimpressed by his attempts to speak their language: after all, the Crimean referendum that Putin cites as evidence that Crimea was clamoring to rejoin Russia was held in the shadow of a substantial contingent of Russian troops, and was boycotted by many opponents of the annexation. It seems possible that the events in Crimea represent the first step in a nuclear-armed Russia’s plot to build a new Eurasian empire and provoke a confrontation with the US—a final showdown between Eternal Carthage and Eternal Rome, which, if you remember the history of the Punic Wars, is not an inviting prospect for the West.

Thus the National Review published an article warning of Russia’s coming “fight against the subversive oceanic bearers of . . . human rights,” while Foreign Affairs warns darkly that Eurasianism might become too powerful a force in Russian politics for Putin to control. No doubt some concern is warranted; for at least two reasons, however, the argument that Eurasianism proves that Russia is hell-bent on immanentizing the eschaton seems to miss the mark.

First is Eurasianism itself, which, as the concept of the Katechon indicates, casts Eurasian civilization as a restraining force rather than a dominating one. Dugin’s vituperative attacks on the West are alarming, but he is generally careful to specify that he is opposed in particular to the liberal universalism of American elites rather than to the very existence of liberal civilization. In his work The Fourth Political Theory he remarks in a rather conciliatory tone that “the West. . . is a very acute civilization, very particular, very arrogant, and very smart . . . [it] has history, and is because of its history.” In other words, he wants to put liberalism in its place rather than wipe it off the map.

Dugin reserves some of his harshest attacks for the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama (at one point in The Fourth Political Theory he remarks, apropos of nothing, that Fukuyama “may already be a robot”—a joke that probably loses some of its force in translation). Fukuyama famously argued that the end of the Cold War marked the end of history: having defeated its most powerful rivals, liberalism, the most perfect conceivable regime, would gradually become the only possible regime, ending once and for all the struggle between ideologies and nationalities that constitutes what we call history. What we fear when we talk about an irrational, messianic Russia is that Putin’s regime will try to shatter this “quiet” apocalypse by triggering an explosive one. But Dugin claims that Russia’s goal is, or ought to be, to prolong history—to refuse to allow it to end either with a bang or a whimper.

Americans can perhaps be forgiven for regarding liberalism as universally desirable; its Enlightenment progenitors conceived of it as such, we’re taught from grade school up to agree with them, and illiberally governed countries around the world have robust liberal parties that bear up heroically under persecution and repression. But the fact that Western individualism and notions of universal human rights are profoundly appealing to many people from traditionally collectivist societies does not mean that liberalism is bound to triumph. Free and fair elections in the Arab world often put anti-liberal parties in power, and more and more Westerners seem to be questioning their own positions in the liberal order.

The most obvious manifestation of this trend has been the rise of European anti-liberal parties like Greece’s Syriza on the left and France’s Front National on the right. Meanwhile, Dugin and his associates have decided that Donald Trump represents the illiberal leader America needs. And no wonder: Trump is Dugin’s kind of leader, someone who appears to see international relations as a perpetual competition rather than a glorious progression towards a universal consensus. Trump’s followers, for their part, represent the sort of völkisch spirit that Dugin would like to see at the core of every country’s identity. On the one hand, the issues that they feel most strongly about, and that Trump returns to whenever he gets a chance—building the border wall, making sure the US “wins” at international trade, and reducing America’s international military commitments (down to Trump’s suggestion that America’s allies should acquire nuclear arsenals of their own so that they won’t have to rely on US arms)—all reflect an approach that rejects any sense of an American mission in the world. On the other, Trump’s frequent breaks with Republican economic orthodoxy might be cast as a pale reflection of Dugin’s anti-capitalism. Trump’s followers appear to have given up on the liberal-internationalist vision that American elites sold the public during the Cold War and that the neocon-dominated Republican establishment sought to weave into the fabric of 21st-century American conservatism. Meanwhile, on domestic policy questions, they share some of Dugin’s distaste for the West’s characteristically permissive social norms. Vox’s Amanda Taub even labels them authoritarians, making the contrast between their vision and the liberal one explicit. The great neoconservative Irving Kristol spoke of American “conservatives wishing to preserve liberal institutions and liberal values.” But Trump’s cadres are rejecting liberalism entirely—an extraordinary undertaking in a nation founded on liberal ideas.

At the other end of the cultural spectrum, many of the children of immigrants to Western Europe have taken to distinguishing themselves from their Western neighbors in ways that their parents find or would traditionally have found superfluous. For instance, many of the women who wear the veil in France are the daughters of immigrants from areas of the Muslim world where the veil isn’t generally worn. As Americans and European immigrants alike reject the liberal premises their countries are founded on, it appears that simple exposure to Western-style individual freedom isn’t enough to convince everyone to accept liberalism’s assumptions about the value of individual freedom and self-expression, capitalist growth, and even democracy. It’s worth bearing in mind, then, that foreign anti-liberalism isn’t always motivated by repressive tendencies or the hunger for power.

And inasmuch as it’s sincere rather than cynical, it needn’t be devoted to remaking the world order. The Iranian political theorist Deghani Firooz-Abadi, writing on Iran’s vision for the international order, confesses that his country’s interpretation of the Koran requires a global revolution and the establishment of a worldwide caliphate at some point down the road. But in the passage that follows this forthright admission, Firooz-Abadi emphasizes that the time is not right for such a transformation. Iran, he claims, wants more than anything else to preserve a multipolar world system that allows it to be itself in the face of America’s liberal hegemony. Dugin’s version of the Katechon is an explicit institutional version of this attitude: yes, the time is coming when a just God will destroy the liberal Anti-Christ and all its works, but for the time being our work is to resist.

When I read Dugin, I’m reminded of one of America’s few prominent illiberal thinkers, Rod Dreher, who has won fame and some notoriety in Christian circles for advocating something he calls the Benedict Option in response to the secularization of American culture. Broadly speaking, the Benedict Option involves retreating into insular communities where American Christians can obey God’s commands without interference from government or society. There’s a sense in which Eurasianism resembles the Benedict Option on a global scale: Russia wants to carve out a space in the liberal post-Cold War order for countries and peoples that reject Western values to live out their traditions. Hence the curious but robust alliances between Shiite Iran and officially non-confessional but dispositionally Orthodox Russia, as well as Russia’s renewed relations with communist (but also, to an increasing degree, Confucian) China. These nations have adopted disparate ideologies, but all are officially opposed to liberal internationalism, and, to some extent, to industrial capitalism (or at least, in China’s case, to unbridled free trade).

It’s possible that Dugin’s conciliatory, moderate tone on practical foreign policy is concealing truly frightening intentions. But the other reason for rejecting the idea of Russia as a millenarian power is the character of Putin’s own rhetoric. What is probably his most famous foreign policy speech—the explosive condemnation of American imperialism he delivered at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in 2007—amounted to an argument that America’s unipolar domination of the world order represents a menace to global security. “There [are] and can be no moral foundations for modern civilization,” he told his audience. As Engström suggests, he seems to have backed off from this stark, amoral realism since 2013; his speech on the occasion of the annexation of Crimea appealed to the “firm conviction . . . based on truth and justice” that the region belongs to Russia. But in the same speech he attacked the US and its European allies for believing “that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right.” Meanwhile, in his 2014 address at the Valdai Discussion Club, which the Kremlin has offered to the world as an important foreign policy statement, Putin deployed a similar combination of foreign-policy realism and domestic nationalism. While Dugin may not be fully satisfied with Putin, whom he’s described disparagingly as a liberal capitalist, the Russian president seems to be aligning himself with the Fourth Political Theory, at least for the moment. No doubt Putin’s embrace of Eurasianism is largely opportunistic; nevertheless, as Brickley LeQuire remarks, Putin’s secret motivations are beside the point. Where ideology is concerned, to seem is, in the most important sense, to be.

For Putin, then, the mysticism of the Fourth Political Theory amounts to little more than the content of Russia’s alternative to America’s liberal global hegemony. Dugin’s brand of messianism, however disturbing we may find its spiritual message, seems unlikely to lead to the nuclear annihilation of the West. Instead, it’s a sort of transfigured form of the realist message that Putin has been pushing since Munich and before: a unipolar world will remain profoundly unstable as long as there’s dissent, and history isn’t dead yet. Like America, Russia has begun to position itself as the global representative of an idea; unlike America, it’s careful to avoid claiming that its ideology ought to dominate the world. American realists, at least, should be able to find common ground with Putin and his people.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Malloy Owen

Malloy Owen is a fourth-year in Fundamentals and philosophy. He wrote his Fundamentals junior paper on the political theology of Plato’s Laws and is currently working on a BA essay on Kierkegaardian self-legislation. He has interned at The American Conservative magazine and spent last summer teaching high school students in the Great Books Summer Program at Stanford University. On campus, he is the publicity chair of UChicago Students for Life.


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