On 25 February 2022, the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Richard Moore, the chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) published the following Tweet:
With the tragedy and destruction unfolding so distressingly in Ukraine, we should remember the values and hard-won freedoms that distinguish us from Putin, none more than LGBT+ rights. So let us resume our series of Tweets to mark LGBT history month 2022.
In fewer than 280 characters, this short message summarises everything that is wrong with the West. First, Moore sees the war purely in terms of violence and emotion (‘tragedy,’ ‘distress’ etc.) and not as a geopolitical clash or as a security issue (concern for which is his job). Second, he considers “LGBT+” rights the most important Western value, more important than the rule of law or democracy. Third, what his response calls for is pure gesture politics: more tweets.
Eric Voegelin identified these ills in 1952 when he wrote The New Science of Politics:
Gnostic societies and their leaders will recognise dangers to their existence when they develop but such dangers will not be met with appropriate actions in the world of reality. They will rather be met with magic operations in the dream world, such as disapproval, moral condemnation, declarations of intention, resolutions, appeals to the opinion of mankind, branding enemies as aggressors, outlawing of war, propaganda for world peace and world government, etc.
Voegelin goes on to write of the “weird ghostly atmosphere of a lunatic asylum” which pervades such Gnostic societies, and this is surely what strikes us in Moore’s Tweet.
The Ukraine war did not come out of the blue. Instead, it was preceded by two decades of increasing hostility towards Russia from the collective West, especially at the level of the European Union. Some individual countries enjoyed relatively good bilateral relations with Moscow (France, Germany, Italy, Austria) but relations with Brussels were atrocious. This is because Russia was considered an existential threat to progressive Western values, as embodied by the EU and by the Democrats in the U.S.A. In an absurd Manichean fantasy, Russian “influence” was detected behind every manifestation of “reaction” in the West, most notably the election of Donald Trump which gave rise to the futile two-year FBI enquiry into “Russiagate.”
Such a level of obsession can be explained by psychology. Russia is the repressed shadow self of Europe, in the sense that she appears to embody everything Europe is trying not to be. Where the EU is post-historical, Russia is deeply rooted in her history—warts and all. Monuments have been erected in recent years in Moscow to both the victims of Stalinist repression and to St. Vladimir the Great who baptised the Kievan Rus. It is impossible to imagine a statue of Clovis being erected in France in our day.
Where the EU profiles itself as based on de-personalised ‘horizontal’ and supposedly consensual power structures (the European Commission and Council, the World Economic Forum, etc.), Russia appears to epitomise vertical power where everything is decided by Vladimir Putin. This form of personal rule is deeply abhorrent to an EU which has duped itself into thinking that it has passed beyond the stage of power politics. The psychological element is only exacerbated by the sexual dimension: Europe promotes feminine or even effeminate values (tolerance, peace) and sees only aggressive virility in the Russian president.
Finally, where Europe is studiously post-Christian (part of its anti-historicism), Russia has re-established the central place of Christianity in its public life and discourse in a way which is unthinkable in a Europe in which “Catholic” Ireland votes in favour of abortion in a national referendum, and in which birth rates in Southern Europe have been catastrophic for half a century. In the emerald isle, indeed, which used to produce huge numbers of priests who then went all over the world, there are currently only nine seminarians; in the last 30 years in Russia, by contrast, 30,000 new churches have been built and 800 new monastic communities have been formed.
Christianity is thus present in Russian political life in a way that stands in stark contrast to the situation in Europe. When Dmitry Medvedev was president, he inaugurated a huge exhibition of icons at the Louvre with the eloquent title, “Holy Russia.” Moreover, during his visit to Paris, he visited Notre Dame cathedral to venerate the Holy Crown of Thorns in a special ceremony. You have to go back many centuries to find a European sovereign bowing before this symbol of Christ’s kingship.
This is not just a matter of political posturing, but rather it taps into a considerable degree of religiosity in the Russian population. Putin is personally devout but so are very many Russians. When the relics of St. Nicholas of Bari were brought to Russia in a gesture of Orthodox-Catholic friendship in 2017, two and a half million Russians came to venerate them in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Similar numbers queued, often in rain and sleet, for the girdle of the Virgin when it was brought from Mount Athos in 2011. Western media gave huge prominence to the importunate chink of the demonstrations on Bolotnaya Square after the Duma elections in 2011, but has given no attention at all to these silent and gentle manifestations of the real priorities of many Russians.
To be sure, Russia is a modern society with all the curses that modernity brings. But it is not post-modern, as European societies are. Post-modernism is characterised by a rejection of categories and fixed norms—hence the obsession with “LGBT+ values,” the very epitome of non-fixedness—whereas modernity cherishes clear phenomena like the nation-state. Post-modern Europe, like the U.S.A. (or at least its foreign policy establishment), is deeply ideological; Russia is a realist state whose long-serving foreign minister never tires of insisting on the mutual benefits of international cooperation, even between states with very different world views.
The clash between ideology and realism was one of the reasons why the Ukraine war broke out in February. At the end of 2021, Russia demanded security guarantees from Washington and its surrogate, NATO. Russia’s concern was that NATO membership for Ukraine would mean NATO weaponry being stationed a short flight away from Moscow—a very concrete security consideration which anyone can understand who can imagine the prospect of Mexico joining a Chinese military alliance. This demand followed three decades of NATO expansion ever further East, the most recent being that of Macedonia in 2020.
NATO’s response to this realist demand was ideological. Any state, including Ukraine, is free to choose its alliances, NATO said. The Alliance could not close the door to Ukraine or indeed to any state which wanted to join it because that would compromise its “open door” policy, according to which any state can join. Yet this stated policy is based on a lie. States are not free to join NATO: NATO decides whether or not to invite them (Article 10 of the Washington Treaty). Moreover, while Ukraine may indeed be free to join NATO, she is by definition also free to remain neutral or to ally with Russia. All these free choices have consequences in the real world: they are foreign policy choices. Freedom is precisely what we use to weigh up those consequences and base our decisions on circumstances which we have not necessarily chosen. So, NATO’s response about “freedom” is an ideological response, an empty statement which gives precisely no clue how to respond to a real foreign policy dilemma.
NATO’s response was deeply emblematic of its general approach to foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, based as it has been on the notion that NATO and the West embody universal values around which the whole world must inevitably converge—“the end of history.” What I am describing here is not a policy, because the former word implies a polis and therefore other citizens, in this case other subjects of international relations (states) and all the gentle art of balance and compromise which policy always requires. No; rather, what we have here is an ideology, and it is precisely this ideology that has led to the war in Ukraine.
Having attacked Yugoslavia in 1999 and Libya in 2011 explicitly in the name of universal values but not in the name of political realism, still less security, NATO considers itself the guardian of the “rules-based international order,” one of its favourite slogans. In law, of course, this role belongs not to NATO but to the United Nations. As Russian officials have repeatedly said, and as Putin put it on 30 September: “Who has ever seen these rules? Who agreed or approved them? Listen, this is just a lot of nonsense, utter deceit, double standards, or even triple standards! They must think we’re stupid.”
The difference between NATO and the United Nations is pluralism. The UN Charter is explicitly predicated on the sovereign equality of states, i.e., their independence. It is an ideal, to be sure, perhaps more honoured in the breach than the observance, but NATO’s ideal is the opposite. Whereas the UN ideal of pluralism has obvious advantages, NATO’s monism is itself a source of tension, instability, resentment, and war.
Russia opposes NATO’s millenarian ideology for one very good reason: it itself lived under such a regime for seventy years. Alexander Solzhenitsyn identified ideology as the key fact about Communism—more important than the planned economy or state ownership of the means of production. Marx said it with his customary brutality: “The object of critique (i.e., intellectual analysis) is its enemy, which it wants not to refute but to exterminate.” Ideology sees thought as a weapon, directed towards a political goal. As the Brief Philosophical Dictionary—published for decades in the USSR—put it (and this is from the 1955 edition):
The ideology of the working class is Marxism-Leninism, the ideological weapon of the Communist Party in the revolutionary socialist transformation of society. The invincible force of this ideology comes from the fact that it faithfully embodies… the necessities of the historical development of our time. Bourgeois ideology, by contrast, is a reactionary force.
That ideology is at the heart of modernity was what Solzhenitsyn identified in his Letter to the Leaders of the Soviet Union in 1973:
This universal, obligatory force-feeding with lies is now the most agonizing aspect of existence in our country—worse than all our material miseries, worse than any lack of civil liberties. All these arsenals of lies, which are totally unnecessary for our stability as a state, are levied as a kind of tax for the benefit of Ideology—to nail down events as they happen and clamp them to a tenacious, sharp-clawed but dead Ideology: and it is precisely because our state, through sheer force of habit, tradition and inertia, continues to cling to this false doctrine with all its tortuous aberrations, that it needs to put the dissenter behind bars. For a false ideology can find no other answer to argument and protest than weapons and prison bars.
It was no doubt with a nod to Solzhenitsyn that Putin denounced the West as “an empire of lies” in late February.
Unlike in the West, where everyone believes in liberal ideology, the Communist ideology was for long perceived as hostile in the USSR itself. Civil society formed itself in conscious opposition to it—whether in the relatively harmless form of family meals around the kitchen table, the key free space in Soviet life, or in the more overt activism of dissidents. Even obedient Soviet citizens regarded Communism as an unpleasant phenomenon you had to put up with, like cold rain. This is a radically different situation from Western Europe and the U.S., where extreme ideologies of ‘wokeism’ and the mainstream ideology of liberal democracy have penetrated every sphere of life, from cultural events to private dinner parties.
Within the EU, an East-West divide opened up a decade ago between post-modern and anti-national states like Germany and even France on the one hand, and countries like Poland, Hungary, and others whose civil societies had kept a space for freedom, at least in their homes, during Communism, and which had therefore remained to some extent socially conservative. These countries have been inoculated against ideology because they were injected with it for decades and consequently developed antibodies.
Russia is the continuation of this tendency: being further East, she is even less progressivist than, say, Poland. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Ukraine war is that a new and perhaps irreparable rift has now opened up, dividing precisely that more conservative part of Europe whose countries, from this point of view at least, have more in common than they could ever dare admit. Materialist Western Europe will be de-industrialised, starved of cheap Russian gas, while the more conservative Eastern part of the continent will be cut off from any link to Russia’s undoubted spiritual reserves. The only winner in this war is America and the post-modern globalist ideology of which it is, unfortunately, the torchbearer.