Holy Russia, Holy Everybody Else

Russian President Vladimir Putin took a lot of ridicule in the West for his assertion that Crimea is as sacred to Russia as the Temple Mount is to Jews and Muslims. Even in the context of Orthodox theology, Putin struck a cognitive dissonance. But there should be no surprise at the invocation of Holy Russia. Russia has considered itself holy since the fall of Byzantium, when the headquarters of the Orthodox Church passed from the “second Rome” at Constantinople to the “Third Rome” of Moscow.


Laugh at Putin at your peril. The bell tolls for you. Every nation that ever has existed considered itself holy in some way. It is impossible to have a nation except on the premise of the sacred. Men cannot bear mortality without the hope of immortality, and it is the continuity of our nation that vouches for this hope. We are not immortal as disembodied spirits playing harps on clouds, but concretely, in our earthly form. Nations that give up their hope of immortality roll over and die, often through infertility, for example today’s Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Hungarians and Poles.

To be sacred is not necessarily to be good: the Aztec priest excising a captive’s heart had a sense of the sacred as intense as Mother Teresa’s. Putin’s assertion of the sacred character of his country is no more or less than a statement that Russia intends to survive. After all we have read of Russia’s impending demographic collapse, Russia’s fertility rate has climbed back to 1.7 last year from just 1.2 a decade ago, an unprecedented peacetime recovery. America’s total fertility stands at just 1.86. Russia is in much worse demographic shape because of the extremely low birth rates of the past generation, to be sure. The point is that Russia won’t be written off.

America’s mishandling of Putin shows once again the utter bankruptcy of secular political science. The devotees of Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu and Machiavelli, the game theorists and systems analysts, the liberal idealists and neoconservatives, failed to grasp that Russia would look on any attempt to sever Crimea from Russia as an existential threat. Russia threw itself into the arms of its old rival China, and the Russian population rallied behind Putin, in a response that leaves America at a strategic disadvantage.


It isn’t simply that Russia wants a warm water port at Sevastopol: the dismemberment of historic Russian territory is an assault on Russia’s self-conceived sanctity. The difference between Russia and other European nations is that among the Europeans, Russia is the last to give up the religious nationalism that drove European politics during the past millennium. I do not assert that Putin’s nationalism is a good thing. But Europe knows only two states of mind: national self-sanctification and moribund quiescence. That is Europe’s tragedy, and Vladimir Putin’s.

That is the main subject of my book How Civilizations Die. I summarized the point in a 2009 essay for the Website First Things:

From the Gothic invasion of Italy in A.D. 401 to the defeat of the Magyars at Lech in 955 and the conversion of St. Vladimir in 1015, the barbarians often entered Christian life not as individuals joining the new People of God but as tribes brought into Christendom through conquest or alliance. Christian universalism triumphed over the ethnocentric impulses of the converted tribes through a supranational political model, from Constantine to Charlemagne and finally until the time of Charles V (when Christian polity broke up in the Reformation and Wars of Religion).

Because Christians are a new people called out of the nations, Christian theocracy must be supranational in character. The various political states of Europe were fostered by the Church, which furnished them with language and culture; but those states were ­subordinated, in some sense, to a Latin-speaking supranational Church that was senior partner to a ­universal empire.

No Christian thinker from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas doubted this. Never has the Church taught that the destiny of each ethnic group must be realized independently. On the contrary, Christianity can only flourish within a political model that transcends nationality such that the Christian’s citizenship in the People of God takes precedence over citizenship in a Gentile nation. As a citizen of a universal empire, the individual Christian was subject to a supranational political authority that stood above the Gentile nation and suppressed its ethnocentrism.

Apart from this European model of universal empire, only one other political form has appeared that fosters Christian universality. That is the nonethnic state embodied in the United States of America. Americans, too, belong to no single ethnicity. If a special grace accords to America, then it is by design rather than accident that America is both the most Christian of all industrial countries and home to the largest ­Jewish population outside the State of Israel.

Despite the thousand-year reign of Christian ­universal empire, the ethnocentric impulses of the ­converted tribes never disappeared. Indeed, Christianity gave them a new and in some ways more pernicious morphology. As Franz Rosenzweig observed, once the Gentile nations embraced Christianity, they abandoned their ancient fatalism regarding the inevitable extinction of their tribe. It is the God of Israel who first offers ­eternal life to humankind, and Christianity extended Israel’s promise to all. But the nations that adhered to Christendom as tribes rather than as individuals never forswore their love for their own ethnicity. On the ­contrary, they longed for eternal life in their own ­Gentile skin rather than in the Kingdom of God promised by Jesus Christ. After Christianity taught them the election of Israel, the Gentiles coveted election for themselves and desired their own people to be the chosen people. That set ethnocentric nationalism in conflict both with the Jews”the descendents of Abraham in the flesh”and with the Church, which holds itself to be the new People of God.

As Rosenzweig put it, “Precisely through Christianity the idea of Election has gone out amongst the individual nations, and along with it a concomitant claim upon eternity. It is not that the case that such a claim upon eternity conditioned the entire life of these peoples; one hardly can speak of this. The idea of Election, upon which such a claim [upon eternity] uniquely can be based, becomes conscious for the peoples only in certain exalted moments, and in any case is more of a festive costume than their workaday dress . . . . Still, there sleeps upon the foundation of one’s love for one’s own people the presentiment that someday in the distant future it no longer will be, and this gives this love a sweetly painful gravity.”


After the fall of Communism, the majority of Western strategists assumed that liberal democracy would spread eastwards from NATO and the European Community, enveloping Russia in an expression of manifest destiny. The trouble is that Western Europe is hardly a model to be emulated: it will disappear, or at least become unrecognizeable, during the present century. Putin knows this and denounces the moral deterioration of the West.

Russia’s response (and the response of the Russian population above all) confounded Western policy: more than four decades after Nixon went to China, we stood godfather to a new Eurasian power bloc uniting Russia and China (and probably India before long).

None of this was inevitable, as Henry Kissinger argued last month in an interview with Der Spiegel. Putin’s form of religious nationalism is the same nasty variety that set the world on course for the First World War. I do not share the admiration for Putin that some religious conservatives display: the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

I am concerned first of all with America’s strength, and we have weakened our position materially, perhaps decisively, by misreading Russia. Hurling insults at Putin will have all the impact of a small child displaying his courage in front of the lion cage at the zoo. How many disasters will befall us before our policy-making elite stops to consider the basic flaws in its thinking?



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