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Our first hint that the Russo-Ukrainian War may have an ancient and complicated backstory appears with the discovery that the first Russian state, indeed, the first Ukrainian state, was not founded in modern day Russia. It was founded in Kiev in the ninth century. Ever since, the two countries, which are sometimes the same country, have been locked in a seemingly endless love-hate relationship. Where Zelensky wants Ukrainian independence, Soviet stalwarts Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, both Ukrainian, considered such thinking treasonous.
But that ancient and complicated history goes much deeper than a centuries-old dysfunctional relationship. Unlike the linear histories of Western nations, the histories of Russia and Ukraine are cyclical, where, to paraphrase novelist Leon Uris, there is no future, only the past repeating itself. This isn’t the sort of past you want to repeat: conquest, occupation, enslavement, conquest again, state-engineered famines, genocide, collectivization, purges, fascism, genocide again, Communism, nuclear disaster — these countries have experienced them all.
And it was in Kiev, more than a millennium ago, that the tragic course was set.
It was there in 988, a date long regarded by historians as one of the most fateful in the history of Eastern Europe, that Vladimir, Prince of Kievan Rus, gave his people a religious makeover. Paganism was becoming passé among the civilized peoples of Europe, and Kievan Rus, pagan to its core, wanted to modernize. According to The Primary Chronicle, Russia’s oldest native historical source, Prince Vladimir received emissaries from the major religious options then available.
First came the “Bulgars of Mohammedan faith,” who told him of their religious practices and that upon death each man would receive “complete fulfillment of their carnal desires.” This included “seventy fair women.” History records that “Vladimir listened to them, for he was fond of women and indulgence …” Their religion was in the running until they told Vladimir that as a member of this faith, he would not be permitted to drink alcohol. Speaking like a true Russian, his response was emphatic:
“Drinking is the joy of the Russes!”
Next came “the Germans, asserting that they were come as emissaries of the Pope.” Catholicism is given only a brief treatment in the Chronicle. Vladimir rejected that faith for reasons very similar to his rejection of Islam: his appetites. These Germans told him he must fast from time to time. Vladimir replied with a definitive nyet: “Depart hence; our fathers accepted no such principle.”
Judaism, however, receives a more extensive discussion, and, in a theme that would plague Russian-Ukrainian history, it is not without anti-Semitism:
“The Jewish Khazars heard of these missions, and came themselves saying, ‘We have learned that Bulgars and Christians came hither to instruct you in their faiths. The Christians believe in him whom we crucified …’”
This time, it was circumcision that was “disagreeable to him” and the absence of a homeland: “If God loved you and your faith, you would not be thus dispersed in foreign lands. Do you expect us to accept that fate also?”
Zero for three, a humble Greek scholar from Constantinople was all that remained. He wasted no time in attacking his predecessors’ sales pitches. He first took aim at the Roman Catholics. Although these events occurred more than a half century before “The Great Schism” (1054) which split the church into Roman and Greek factions, hints of the breach were already present. (This is probably because the Chronicle was written after the Schism.)
In explaining the sacrament of communion to Vladimir, this Greek scholar said the Romans did it wrong because they used “wafers.” One doubts Vladimir was much over-worried about such particulars since he had already rejected Catholicism on the basis of what they didn’t eat. As for the Muslims, he said they “were accursed above all men” for their “vile” practices “which out of modesty may not be written down.” Predictably, anti-Semitism appears again, and the Greek dismisses the Jews as killers of the Prophets and Jesus.
This left only the religion he had come to represent: Greek Orthodoxy. In a lengthy discourse, the Greek explained the history of the world from creation to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Impressed, Vladimir sent envoys to Constantinople to appraise the Greek faith and verify the truth of these claims. There they beheld Emperor Justinian’s marvel, Hagia Sophia. This was long before the Ottomans trashed it. Russia had no equivalent. No one did. They were understandably overawed by what they saw there. Reporting back to Prince Vladimir, they said:
“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth…. We know only that God dwells there among men.”
Whatever Vladimir’s reservations, they evaporated upon the discovery that drinking was permitted, and circumcision was not required. Vladimir knew this was the religion for him, and he was soon thereafter baptized. It is arguable that Vladimir understood the Christian ethic he had ostensibly adopted given that he ordered his subjects, upon penalty of death, to be likewise baptized. But he did make a lot of converts that way. And so, on the whims and the carnal appetites of a prince, Kievan Rus — that is, Russia and Ukraine — the course for disaster was set, reverberating down the centuries to our own time.
Why was 988 such a disaster?
The adoption of Greek Orthodoxy forever separated Russia and Ukraine, both European countries, from the Western world culturally and linguistically. It was through the Latin (i.e., Catholic) West that cultural transformation came. Hence, they never experienced the seismic changes of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution, all epochs that defined the West and Western thought. And, though the all-cultures-are-equal zeitgeist says it is unacceptable to now say so, these served to catapult the West ahead of the rest of the world technologically, militarily, and politically.
By the twentieth century, Russia and Ukraine lagged behind the West by a good two centuries. The earliest rumblings of the Industrial Revolution were first heard in England in the 1740s. They would not be heard in Russia or Ukraine until the first of the Five-Year Plans in 1928. Indeed, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar not coming until February 1918, more than 300 years after it was developed and adopted by most of Western Europe, these countries were a full thirteen days behind the West before they abandoned the Julian calendar. Thus, the much-celebrated “October Revolution” in 1917, didn’t actually occur in October at all.
The upshot of all of this is that Greek Orthodoxy as practiced by Russians and Ukrainians, who never really abandoned their paganism, has a history of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and otherworldliness in the extreme. All religions are, by definition, otherworldly. But Christianity in the West — both Catholicism and Protestantism — taught man’s dominion over nature and his earthly mission to subjugate it, thus giving birth to science, capitalism, and democracy. Russian Orthodoxy produced their antithesis.
Russian Orthodoxy didn’t even serve as an effective ideological bulwark against barbarism. The Mongols galloped across the Russian and Ukrainian steppes in 1241. They brutalized and ruled these peoples for two hundred years, firmly establishing a style of governance in the minds of both Russians and Ukrainians that has never departed, casting a dark a long shadow over not only their past, but their present, and very likely their future.
In his book A People’s Tragedy, Cambridge historian Orlando Figes makes a profound observation regarding the communist (think socialist) takeover in Russia. He states that the triumph of Marxism (think socialism) in 1917 Russia can in no small measure be attributed to the fact that there were no viable competing ideologies. Marxism had, in effect, been set loose in an ideological vacuum. When Bolshevism (think socialism) was injected into the body politic, the disease spread with little resistance. Marxism had no such monopoly in the West where it was subjected to withering criticism from free people in an uncensored press.
This reflects poorly on the Orthodox Church at the time. Having become wedded to the autocratic czarist regime, the Church’s role was largely one of ceremony and preserving the status quo. Count Sergei Witte, once prime minister and modernizer of Russia, wrote on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution:
If one takes a long view of the of the future, then, in my opinion, the greatest danger facing Russia comes from the sad state of the Orthodox Church and the decline in genuine religious spirit… Without a truly living church to give [spiritual ideals] expression, religion becomes philosophy and is unable to influence life. Without religion, the masses turn into beasts, worse than four-legged beasts because humans possess intelligence. Our church has turned into a dead, bureaucratic institution, and its services are conducted not to celebrate the God in heaven, but the earthly gods. Orthodoxy has become a kind of paganism. Herein lies our greatest danger. We have gradually become less Christian.
Western pundits and policymakers alike continually assume — as they did with Stalin, the Ayatollah, Saddam, Osama bin Laden, and now Putin — that we are dealing with people who think as we do. This isn’t so. Democracy as it is understood in the West is utterly alien to Russia and Ukraine contrary to the rosy, fawning portrayals of the latter in Western media.
In his book The Russian Tragedy — notice how “tragedy” appears a lot in discussions of these countries? — Hugh Ragsdale, the late historian of Russian history and, not coincidentally, chair of my master’s examinations committee, wrote:
Russians and students of Russia appreciate more easily than others the crucial element of religion in Russian public life, and the Western newcomer to the subject must simply prepare to contemplate what is by his own familiar patterns of thought the nearly inconceivable.
To this, Prince Vladimir would likely give a hearty da — and then throw back a shot of vodka before laying waste to yet another city.
Larry Alex Taunton is a freelance columnist contributing to USA Today, Fox News, First Things, The Atlantic, The New York Post, CNN, Daily Caller, and The American Spectator. He is also the author of The Gospel Coalition Arts & Culture Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, and the recently released Around the World in (More Than) 80 Days: Discovering What Makes America Great and Why We Must Fight to Save It. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com and find him on Twitter @larrytaunton.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.