Russia cannot be grasped by reason. Russia must be believed in.
The first thing about Russia is size. It is so vast that its scale is global; hemispherical rather than national. That the area it covers should be one country is not rational, it must, in a way, be believed in. So one can say that belief was the driving force behind the creation of Russia, and therefore belief is the force that maintains it.
Russians will refer to their country’s size as the primary character that has shaped Russian culture, society and psyche. Simply in order to keep the enormous and extremely complex country together -and to govern it from a centralized capital- huge infringements on democratic principles and individual liberties are, and have been, necessary -the argument goes. Thus the infringements have always been largely accepted as concessions to be made in exchange for the greater good, which is the Russian empire. The notion of empire must be understood in both geopolitical terms and in ideological/religious/philosophical terms. In principle the cause of Russia, and the empire -which must be regarded both as a fact and an ongoing task in the Russian mind- is greater than any individual pursuit. This points to the messianic self-understanding of the Russian people.
The messianic notion of being a chosen people
Believing to be a chosen people, the Russian national state is for the Russian mind a God-given task and an historical as well as metaphysical destiny.
This notion is the driving force behind Russia’s historical expansionism, its pronounced “otherness” and incomparability towards the west, and, most important from the perspective of recent history; it is the chief character in what the west observes as Russia’s defiance towards the modern so called “universal” principles of human rights, democracy and liberal society.
From a western perspective these principles are indeed universal, and regarding them as such has become the common denominator of a westernized global society. They are said to mark the progress of humankind and are viewed as achievements that set our time apart from the past. In Russian eyes however this stance is not only a blatant imposition of power and dominance –forcing an ideology on the world in order to gain hegemony also in real, i.e. political, economical and military terms– but more importantly it displays ignorance and lack of humility concerning the grander scheme of history and the unfolding of human civilisation from a metaphysical perspective.
In the Russian view of what one might call the realization of world spirit –in the Hegelian sense– the western fundamental principles are irrelevant, misconceived experiments that have enjoyed some success, but that are ultimately feeble and not destined to shape human history in the bigger scheme of things. The situation in Russian eyes is that the sweeping success of the western model is but a temporary phenomenon, which is not grounded in a fundamental understanding of the metaphysical make-up of reality i.e. in the relationship between individual, society, ruler, nature and God.
The system of individual rights and liberties, fundamental democracy and the quest for understanding, respect and, ultimately, global equality and peace, is from the perspective of Russian metaphysics a perversion where man has ascended to the role of omnipotence, thus dethroning both tsar and God, -and the need to believe.
This is because in Russian eyes the basic and undeniable fact of human life is to be conditioned and in the hands of an otherness, i.e. destiny, history and God. To claim full control of all aspects of reality and history is the same as denouncing God.
The “current” effort to make all men join forces and cooperate in a world void of Devine power, which is the project of the west, is in Russian eyes not only futile, but also opting for less than one should. For the fundamental belief is that it is better to be a man in a world ruled by God and Tsar than in one ruled by people. Simply because with the rule of man all mystery disappears; and with it true beauty, true meaning, true danger, true courage and most of all; the profundity of destiny. In short man is robbed of a set of existentials that are infinitely more powerful than simple happiness in the western sense, i.e. in the form of peace, prosperity and success in personal pursuits.
One can say that the notion of happiness is the key word here; for the Russian and Slav mind happiness is simply not that important. Happiness is trivial, happiness is infantile, and happiness overshadows things infinitely more important. At least one can say that it is a different notion of happiness that comes into play: western happiness is associated with love, tranquillity, success and prosperity in material terms. Russian happiness is more about excess: life lived to the full, in courageous defiance of death, health, pragmatism, small-scale successes etc.
Success: things that matter to the Russian mind are not measurable in terms of success and failure. In fact the concept of success is not compatible with the concept of destiny, not in the Russian sense anyway.
And this has great explanatory power regarding the specifically Russian trait, which says that a grand attempt is more valuable than success. For the basic notion is of course that success in the dealings of men are nothing compared to those things that belong to a grander scheme of history and destiny, things beyond any human enterprise except belief.
One can say that the Russian stance is a rejection of what Sloterdijk has described as the erotization (read decline) of the west, which happened when the old Greek worldview –under which it was necessary for man to be brave, defiant of death, open to mystery and to the personal exploration of the limits of existence– was supplanted with a universal system that took all this responsibility and adventure away from man and decided that peace, tranquilly and happiness were the only true goals.
A decisive point here is of course the notion of freedom. On the one hand Russians have a lot of patience regarding infringements on the structural freedoms governed by society. But on a deeper level they have a sense of freedom which in a way can be described as freedom from the “obvious” delimitations of life. Freedom is associated with defiance in the face of such factors that threat life and health. Freedom is to choose the soul and the mind rather than the body and the material. Such freedom is released by belief; in destiny and God, and by disregard for prudence and petty, worldly, material and economic pursuits.
As Rebecca West puts it, the vital thing is to learn the nature of the advantage that the universe has over us.
All this means that Russia and Russia’s attitudes towards the west and universalism is not about defiance or headstrong, stubborn opposition, but rather express the notion that Russia is far more progressed in metaphysical terms. From a Russian point of view their attitude is pragmatism and cooperation as regards global political and economic mechanisms –an attitude that undeniably has served Russia well over the past ten years. But this is a way of dealing with the current situation, and not a deeply grounded attitude; i.e. one that has adapted the basic tenets and goals of the westernized geopolitical system. On a deeper level, the Russian stance is, in its own eyes, one of patience and bearing over with the infantile, positivistic and progressive thinking of the west, which is guided and ruled by notions of success and “healthy” happiness.
The notion of destiny is a notion of being on the path of something bigger and better than happiness. Russians believe to be a chosen people in this sense; the reward completely outshines any personal reward, for it is about being part of a scheme bigger than man.
Explanation of the messianic notion:
The concept of being a chosen people is of course religious and religiously founded. Russian orthodoxy conceives of itself as the only true Christianity –an island in the surrounding heresies (of other religions to be sure, but also of corrupt Christianity).
This can be partially explained by historical developments. But more important is the actual and fundamental content of the Russian and Slav faith in comparison with western Christianity.
Without going into any analysis of this hugely complex subject matter, we can say that the essence of the way the interpretations of Christianity diverge is the holy trinity.
In brief one could say that in Russian orthodox Christianity, and perhaps in the Slav mind, there is a much greater sense of mystery and most of all of contradiction, than in the west. The notion of opposing forces, of contradiction and the disturbing (to us) idea that success in the great enterprise of society and civilisation is still undecided –i.e. that things could still, and always, go either way– means that the Russians live by the rule of making one’s own life an all-out metaphysical experiment. There are no safe and certain paths to go by, and therefore each and everyone must explore the relationship between ones own strength and the power of the world. Only thus can destiny be truthfully fulfilled, and only thus does the notion of destiny mean anything at all, for belief in destiny entails rejecting all safe, sound and certain solutions.
There is something splendid and Slav about this: They had resolved to provoke an analysis of death by their own deaths, and hastened to carry out their resolution.(Rebecca West)
Theologically this is a reflection of the orthodox emphasis on the Holy Ghost in the holy trinity.
Roman Catholicism presents a secure way to salvation; a program to be followed which does not depend on personal courage and experiment. Here the mystery is weakened by the concept of the institution of the church. And the salvation guaranteed by Jesus Christ is interpreted in a way that makes the Holy Ghost a matter of receiving the mystery of faith within the structure of Christian religion. In Russia the Holy Ghost has a different status; as a force that makes itself evident in every day and every dealing, i.e. as an omnipresent sense of mystery and challenge; as an omnipresent help and reminder in the ongoing task of discovering and exploring the metaphysical nature of human existence.
(Catholicism): A religion that has hardened and aged and committed the sin against the Holy Ghost; which is to pretend that all is now known and there can now be laid down a system of rules to guarantee salvation. (171)