An Aristocracy of Means

July 7, 2016

Earlier this month I finished an engaging modern history book entitled Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War. The author provided abundant context to the contemporary crisis in Ukraine and offered a detailed glimpse into the thinking of Russia’s president, drawing carefully on the way he presents himself to his own government.

Marvin Kalb, the author, has been a diplomatic press officer and once worked under Edward R. Murrow at CBS. His account of Russian imperialism is diplomatically modest, with several disclaimers about his own biases dating from his experience of the cold war era. So when he paraphrases Putin, he inspires curiosity about what was really said, and how the president really meant it.

He cited three books that Putin referred to in a keynote speech as the cornerstones of his own political philosophy, Ilyin’s Our Tasks, Berdyaev’s The Philosophy of Inequality, and Solovyov’s The Justification of the Good. Then he went on to sum these up by putting forward the philosophy of a Tsarist advisor that Putin didn’t mention at all – emphasizing “orthodoxy, nationality and autocracy”.

This only made me want to read the books Putin had actually mentioned, two of which are available in English translations. I even found another book by the author of the third available in English. But to be fair, Putin is reportedly lobbying for the reinstatement of the royal Romanov family as an institution with special status in Russia.


This third one I read first, a book of meditations by Ilyin. Then I picked up The Philosophy of Inequality, which begins with the not-very-encouraging remarks: “These letters, in which I want to sum up all my thoughts on social philosophy, I address to my despisers, people hostile to me in spirit, against me in the feel of life, alien in thought to me … these are despisers of my faith, apostates from Christ in their spirit, betraying Him and rising up against Him in the name of earthly idols and gods.”

Naturally, I concluded that the letters were addressed to me.

I read the whole thing with as much suspension of disbelief as I could muster, with all its nostalgia for the Russian aristocracy and all its spite for the vulgar institutions of communism and democracy, only to come to a postscript at the very end in which the author himself, amending a later edition of the book, disowns the whole tirade as a reactionary outburst that failed to recognize, in communist revolution, a moral verdict on the bankruptcy of the authoritarian system of government that had come before.

This, then, is the philosophy Putin wants to be known for? Not some later, more mature work by the same author? Clearly, in Putin’s rise from KGB officer to the practice of statecraft, there has been something of the reactionary, and a deep disaffection with the communist system of government for which he worked before the “end” of the cold war.

In Berdyaev I found remarks that cut to the heart of the problems of neoliberal justice described by Martha Nussbaum as “frontiers” – boundaries defined by fee-for-service justice systems. “Power” he writes “has to be admitted as the source of rights”. He goes on to discuss ontological power, which has deep religious significance in his thinking, but on a more superficial level, this observation rings true in effect, even if it is not the way things ought to be.

Berdyaev, however, would more accurately be described as a patron saint of neoconservative Russia, preaching “tradition” as a bulwark against “savagery” and “chaos”. His philosophy of power acknowledges obligation on the side of the aristocracy, and demands that the aristocracy be preserved as a bulwark against the cynicism of special interest politics that he thinks predominate in any democracy.


In a way, Berdyaev’s thought could be loosely reconciled with the liberalism of a contemporary thinker like Richard Sennett, who likewise disowns anarchist idealism in the name of noblesse oblige. In his book Authority, Sennett writes, “The dream of the Spanish anarchists was of a society without hierarchy of power. This belief was tied to a faith in the possibility of living spontaneously – to work, fight, entertain, procreate as one is moved. Because there would be no hierarchy of power, there would be no need for authority, no need for images of the strong and the weak.”

Sennett sees this vision of utopia as sinister because, in abolishing the notion that there are distinct social roles for “the strong and the weak” respectively, an anarchist society would abdicate any responsibility on the part of the strong toward the weak. He frames authority as an obligation, not just as a privilege. And in the universal aspiration towards power, he sees the meaning of life; for (quoting Giovani Baldelli), “A life appears completely meaningless when nothing is felt to depend on it.”

Having finished his book, I’ve started Solovyov’s, and this one I’m enjoying immensely – I plan to write more about it later. This 19th century author’s vegetarianism and syncretism won me over from the very beginning, and I find much of his logic very persuasive. But I haven’t yet gotten to his discussion of political philosophy, in the second half of the book.

But I should return to my reasons for reading these books. I picked up Imperial Gamble because from what I’d heard about the conflict in the Ukraine, the Russians were fighting neo-Nazi fascists there over the control of natural resources like oil and gas. This was a gross misapprehension of the big picture, however. As it turns out, Ukraine is a net importer of natural gas and oil from Russia, and energy prices are one of the most powerful weapons Russia has been able to leverage against the Kiev government thus far in the conflict over who will control the industrial southeastern region of the country.

If Kalb’s book raises more questions about the Ukraine conflict than it answers, I found two other books on the subject that are full of sweeping statements and incautious assertions. One of these, conveniently enough, paints Russia into a corner as an aggressor, while the other, which I picked for a fair and balanced view of the conflict, makes every effort to rehabilitate Putin from the quagmire he seems to be in.

The second book is absolutely the most unbridled display of sycophancy I’ve ever seen in the independent media. It was edited by the Progressive Radio News Hour’s Stephen Lendman, and features not expertise on Russian foreign policy but rather a smorgasbord of opinion writers on the American far left parroting press releases from Russian-backed think tanks. Every one of them should be embarrassed. I suppose they were well paid.

You could be forgiven for thinking, from the way they tried to build Putin up as a hero locked in a deadly struggle against Western imperialist encroachment, that Russia was still communist. And in a very superficial way, it is. The national newspaper still trumpets propaganda about capitalist encirclement and Western corruption, and through the FSB (which used to be called the KGB), Putin also controls the Communist Party as a puppet opposition party, the main one against which he prefers to run in periodic “elections”.

Their book can’t hold a candle to the scholarship of Andrew Wilson, whose book Ukraine Crisis attributes nearly every atrocity in the history of the Ukraine conflict to Russian false-flag operations. The exceptions are an incident in Mariupol and the Odessa massacre, the latter being (according to all accounts) a Ukrainian fascist false-flag operation.

Wilson explains that the conflict isn’t over whether Russia will annex the Ukraine – Russia annexed part of Ukraine (Crimea),  but with only one casualty (although this was done at gunpoint). The conflict is internal to the Ukraine, over federalization – which would allow certain Russian-leaning regions to secure more favorable trade relations with Russia rather than being drawn, together with the Western-leaning parts of the Ukraine, into the EU’s fold. Wilson names names to link pro-Russian forces to Russian oligarchs and pro-Kiev fighters, in some cases, to Ukrainian oligarchs who control their own private militias.

This is what “hybrid war” amounts to:

On May 2, 2014, a group of thugs belonging to a fascist political party (Right Sector) that currently controls the intelligence and security sector in the Ukraine put on red ribbons to identify themselves as pro-Russian protestors opposed to the Kiev government (i.e., the false flag operation). They attacked anti-Russian protestors outside the trade union building in Odessa to establish their credibility as pro-Russian partisans. Then they proceeded to herd pro-Russian protestors into a trap laid inside the trade union building, where doors had been barricaded with furniture.

The building was then set on fire, but photographs of the murder victims inside indicate that they were not passively consumed by the smoke an flames. Rather, individuals were shot, garroted, beaten, and killed before they were doused with a flammable substance (usually on the head and hands, which may have been bound). Then their bodies were burned, the flames were put out again, and the bodies were rearranged, sometimes with a new change of (unscorched) clothing. One murder victim, a pregnant woman who worked at the trade union building, was garroted and photographed in an image disseminated by the attackers, who compared her to the city’s nickname, “Mommy Odessa”, and under her dead body, published the words “Glory to the Ukraine!”

– Paraphrased from a Russian think tank’s press release, which was published without substantive alteration on NBC’s website.

Hybrid war is information war. Journalists are kidnapped and beaten, some activists simply “disappear”, and the feared Berkut security forces responsible for these human rights abuses under the pro-Russian government before the Ukrainian revolution installed the current Kiev government have now changed sides to work for Ukrainian oligarchs currently in power against the Russians – although the Russians claim that many of the forces that have been sent to stop them have defected to their side.

Indeed, Wilson argues that it was these same Ukrainian Berkut fighters who installed the pro-Russian government in Crimea. Wilson even believes that when the Russian-backed president of the Ukraine was first ousted, at the very beginning of the conflict, it was a Russian false-flag operation that set fire to the outgoing president’s party headquarters, where several staffers were burned alive.

None of these accounts ring true, taken together. What all commentators seem to agree on, though, is that the power of the oligarchy is here to stay, both in Russia and in the Ukraine.

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