Tucker and Vladimir’s history lesson
Ancient enemies with a common heritage
“ Any fish is good if it is on the hook.” Russian proverb
During his February 6, 2024, interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, posted online February 8, Tucker Carlson was blindsided by the lengthy history lesson offered by Mr. Putin in response to his first question about why Russia had invaded Ukraine. Mr. Carlson was still talking about it in an Instagram post 24 hours later on his way out of Moscow.
Putin averred that in order to discuss the Ukraine war intelligently, he first needed to digress for “30 seconds or maybe one minute” to explain the history of Ukraine’s emergence as a nation. A 30 minute dissertation on ancient Russian and Eastern Orthodox history followed.
Not being accustomed to politicians who understand history, let alone take it seriously, Carlson and his production team thought this was a delaying tactic to avoid difficult questions about the invasion. They ultimately concluded that Putin was sincere in his historically based belief that Ukraine is part of Russia and advised viewers to see the lengthy digression in that light even if they disagreed.
Putin’s historical pedagogy, labeled a “diatribe” by the New York Times and other Western news outlets, may have been self-serving, but it is nonetheless more important than perhaps even he believes. Rather than trying to rebut or dissect his version of history, what is most important is to expand the context.
A SHARED IDEAL
In 1976, at the height of the Cold War, Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák, writing about the globalized conflict between East and West, said: “Russia no less than America is Europe’s heir.”
If any public figure in the West were to utter such a statement today, they would immediately be condemned as a Putin sympathizer, probably accused of treason and deplatformed on social media.
Yet Kohák’s recognition of Russia’s legitimacy as a co-equal heir to the Greco-Roman philosophic, cultural and political legacy bequeathed to modern Europe and the US is crucial to any hope of saving that legacy. In this sense, the war in Ukraine is civilizational. Per Kohak.
“Power is not what is at stake in the Russo-Western conflict. The Western ideal of humanity is what it is all about and that ideal, regardless of the nominal victor, would not survive a war. The Chinese alone could be victors.”
Kohák is referring to the humanitas ideal that defines humans as moral beings rather than mere beasts of the field. It is an ideal predicated on learned kindness, restraint, love of one’s neighbor (caritas) and community (communitas).
This historically unique concept, expressed institutionally through the early Catholic church, which, drawing on Judaism, added the idea of intrinsic God-given rights, is a “cultural achievement” that required three millennia of moral effort. It is not a factual given but a “moral ideal by which the human can orient [their] life.” Despotism is always lurking, progress towards the ideal always tenuous, but it is still a lodestar that demands lip service even from totalitarian dictators.
The humanitas ideal was interpreted and acted upon very differently in the East and West following Constantine’s renaming of Byzantium to Constantinople in 330 AD (Istanbul today.), which he hailed as the “New Rome.”
The vast Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople, for which Russia was the inevitable geographic outlet, drew on both the humanitas tradition and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The emphasis in actualizing a moral ideal of humanity thus fell on true faith and obedience. Humanitas was an ideal too precious to rest on free will alone. The heavy hand of both church and state were required to maintain adherence.
In the Western Empire centered in Rome, with the US as the inevitable geographic outlet, the emphasis fell on free will and the conscience of individuals as moral actors, with the political republic acting in theory as a “guardian of liberties rather than a tutor of righteousness.”
Both Russia and the US once saw themselves as guardians of the humanitas flame. Kohák characterized the global military competition between them as “a struggle between freedom and perfection” driven by differing interpretations of a common cultural heritage.
NAZISM – THE COMMON BREACH
What has become blindingly clear since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, exponentially accelerated by globalized authoritarian biopolitics and the transformation of climate ideology into eschatology, is that neither side now believes in nor trusts human freedom. The political projects of East and West have nearly reached a point of convergence. Both are predicated on forced obedience to higher authority and a reduction of humanity to biology.
After Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine, US president “Joe” Biden and Vladimir Putin both characterized the conflict as a religious war, their dire end-of-days language functioning like the neural spasms of two long amputated limbs.
Pope Francis & Patriarch Kirill have echoed the apocalyptic message with condemnation of the other side’s “evil actions.” The choice of absolutist religious language is a hollow reflection of a once historic struggle reflexively parroted in today’s headlines even as the humanitas ideal is trampled by both sides.
The irony of this polarization is heightened by the fact that less than 90 years ago, Russia and the US were united in an existential fight against Nazism, the gravest threat to their common political-religious heritage since the Roman empire split into Eastern and Western halves.
The U.S. State Department describes the alliance on their website.
[T]he U.S.-Soviet alliance of 1941–1945 was marked by a great degree of cooperation and was essential to securing the defeat of Nazi Germany. Without the remarkable efforts of the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front, the United States and Great Britain would have been hard pressed to score a decisive military victory over Nazi Germany.
Mr. Putin’s fixation on Nazism in Ukraine is self-serving, but it is also a distant historical echo, perhaps tinged with nostalgia, for a unique moment of common cause between the modern East and West. Nor does Putin’s ideological use of the problem mean that it is entirely untrue. Even mainstream corporate media in the West have been forced to acknowledge Ukraine’s deep seated problem with Nazification.
The ancient question of whether humanity would live as free moral beings or as perfectly obedient disciples is still an argument worth having, but government and media have merged in a war of polarized demonization and against free speech in both the West and East.
The difference between the two sides today is increasingly one of degree, not of kind. Questioning of official narratives is no longer permissible in either Russia or the US, and by extension NATO.
Waiting in the wings is China.
As tenuous as it has become, there is still a connecting historical tissue between Russia and the US that is worth exploring. It requires political leadership that is not blindly, reflexively ahistorical.
Mr. Putin is heir to a long line of despotic Russian leaders, running from the first tsar, Ivan the Terrible, who began his reign in 1547, through Lenin and Stalin. He may be a modern tsar, but Putin with his history lesson has nonetheless opened a window to potential dialogue. There is very little to lose by exploring the tenuous possibilities that opening implies.
The alternative is a geopolitical dead end.
NOTE: Parts of this article are adapted from my May 2, 2022, article, “Vladimir’s Sweater.”