Smerdyakov's Revenge

November 27, 2014

Last October 25 in Washington, DC, on the occasion of his receiving the annual Antonovych Foundation award, historian Timothy Snyder shared his view of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In his opinion, Russia, while unable to become a great power itself, is striving to reduce the power of Europe and America. One of its methods is what Professor Snyder calls “applied post-modernism.” President Putin and his propagandists exploit post-modernist skepticism in order to disorient the West and nullify any opposition to his actions in Ukraine. Thus, for example, Russian propaganda continually characterizes the Ukrainian government as fascist. Since this can be shown to be untrue, the only possible reason for repeating it is that the general public, or at least a part of it, has become indifferent to truth. As in George Orwell’s futuristic novel “1984,” the regime neutralizes intellectual resistance to its policies by simultaneously making inconsistent assertions. Thus, it denies the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine, yet claims that by threatening Russia, the West has started a war. A war without troops?

In using Western post-modernism against the West, Vladimir Putin is not only exploiting the West’s moral and intellectual weakness. He is exacting revenge for the penetration of corrosive Western ideas into Russia. This venerable theme was strikingly illustrated by Dostoyevsky. In Ivan’s third interview with the peasant Smerdyakov in Book 11 of “The Brothers Karamazov,” we see how Smerdyakov has adopted the young Ivan’s idea that since there is no God, “everything is permitted.” Prophetically, Dostoevsky understood how morally destructive Western concepts could be taken literally by the credulous Russian masses. Meanwhile, the West itself might abandon them. While European workers left revolutionary Marxism behind and achieved progress through the trade union movement, backwards Russian workers and peasants took Karl Marx seriously and destroyed their own country. Today, Western post-modernism brings moral and intellectual paralysis not so much to the West as to underdeveloped and therefore vulnerable countries like Russia. But Vladimir Putin is turning the West’s intellectual weapons back against itself. He is using the post-modernist abandonment of truth to deceive and disarm Europe and America as he advances across Ukraine. He aims to drown the West in its own unbelief.

But where does Ukraine fit into this game of revenge? Ukraine is the negation of Mr. Putin’s theory about the West. For if today’s Russia sees the West as a danger that must be destroyed in order to preserve Orthodox Christian culture, Ukraine sees it in a more complex way. In the seventeenth century, Ukrainian churchmen opposed Western Catholicism and Protestantism, yet borrowed Catholic and Protestant learning in order to strengthen Orthodox positions. This successful strategy not only saved Ukrainian Orthodoxy, but produced the reforms of Muscovite Orthodoxy that equipped it to survive into the modern age. Similarly, today Ukrainian intellectuals borrow from Western post-modern philosophy in order to strengthen the positions of Eastern Christianity. Rather than isolating itself from the West and trying to destroy it with its own weapons, Ukraine engages with the West and in doing so, revitalizes its own Christian world view. It becomes a part of the European world without surrendering its own heritage, and even helps that world to rediscover its own values.

That, in fact, is probably what Vladimir Putin would want for Russia: to belong to Europe without ceasing to be itself, to learn from the West without succumbing to it, even to re-educate the West from its own store of wisdom. Why, then, is he intent on destroying Ukraine instead of following its example?

Andrew Sorokowski


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