Who Wants to Change Russia?

For much of the West in the middle of the 19th century, the idea of Russia and how to approach its people diplomatically was a matter of differentiating them as Europeans or Asians. The prevailing view at the time was a belief that Russians belonged to the latter group, and could not be considered part of Europe. The absolute role of the Russian Monarchy was an increasingly alien concept to the people of the West, a generation that was no stranger to popular upheavals and calls for political reform. Marx created the concepts of the “asiatic mode of production” and “oriental despotism” with reference to the Russian Empire, believing that their path to communistic development was different than the industrialized nations of the Atlantic. Still, the intellectual body of these same nations was divided, some believing that the people of Russia were indeed Europeans, but comparatively primitive to the rest of the continent and lacking in the necessary Enlightenment values of modern statehood. Through one form or another, this way of thought has survived to our time, and its continued existence gives credence to the vast differences between the Western and Russian cultures. Indeed, history repeats itself.

The earliest western understandings of Russia come from second-hand accounts of German historians. The relative distance and lack of interaction with the heart of Europe meant that any view of Russia would be inevitably flawed, and it is this continued misunderstanding of our culture that drives modern relations with Russia. Almost formulaically, we see in all of the last three periods of Russian history an interest by foreigners to change or redefine Russia as well as an engagement of those foreigners by activists that were exiled by the Russian government or who found no support for their ideas back home.

For the American people, the first widely-read exposition of how the Russian people lived was from the explorer George Kennan, who took on work from the Russian-American Company to help lay telegraph cables in the Far East to reach Alaska. Shortly after, his interest in Russia led him to return as a correspondent for the Associated Press, at which time he observed the outer reaches of Russian society, from its labor camps to its rural villages. After befriending several political radicals in exile, ranging from Siberian separatists to Anarchists, Kennan devoted himself to the cause of revolution in Russia, going on to lecture and write about the political state of the Russian Empire upon his return to America. Even as a man of a relatively different time, Kennan’s rhetoric echoes similar misunderstandings and personal interests found in modern critics of Russia.

For one, Kennan’s understanding of the Russian Empire outside of his travels was skewed as he was almost exclusively informed by political activists on the fringe of Russian society (literally and figuratively). He believed that Russians suffered under autocratic rule and the authority of a superstitious church, both things that offended his democratic and pluralistic sentiment. Around the same time in the cultural centers of Russia, in the midst of a renewed interest in Occidentalism, the imperial administration of Nicholas I put forth the idea of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”, which necessitated a loyalty to the Russian faith, government, and people. To the chagrin of western observers, this move was supported by a broad number of public intellectuals at the time, including the writer Nikolai Gogol. As a result of this, a rejection of European rationalism followed, and gave way for an emphasis on mysticism and Slavophilia, and a belief of Russian civilization as an entity fundamentally different from Europe. One of the most prominent philosophical circles of Russian conservative thought, the Society of the Widsom-lovers, was created around this time, of which Ivan Kireyevsky was a member. To my knowledge, these developments were not noted in Kennan’s writings at all. Whether willfully or unknowingly, modern critics of the Russian government also ignore the large amount of popular conservative philosophy that influences Kremlin policy today.

Rather unfairly, these philosophers remain untranslated in the West despite their great contributions to Russian thought. Instead, it was the socialists and anarchists who fled Russia to live in London, Paris, and America that defined Russian philosophy to an audience much more hospitable to their ideas. Figures such as Herzen, Bakunin, and Kropotkin used resources in their adopted homelands to print political material to send back to Russia while Lenin and Trotsky ingratiated themselves with potential financiers and ideologues of revolution. In 1874, the socialist revolutionary Nikolai Chaikovsky avoided opposition from former classmates and authority in Russia by leaving the country to start a commune in Kansas. In 1906, he invited the writer Maxim Gorky to come to New York and give a lecture on the need to bring democracy to Russia through revolution, an event organized by the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, Mark Twain was among the prominent Americans selected to be on the society’s head committee.

Unbeknownst to Western audiences who were swayed to support a popular upheaval, many of these Russian revolutionaries visiting or living abroad had done so to escape arrest for criminal activities against the government (Gorky himself spent much of his time at an estate in Italy), this trend was exacerbated during the mass immigration of Jews from the Russian Empire into the United States. During this time, many members of the newly-arrived Jewish migration were responsible for terrorist attacks inside the country and others became the founding members of some of the most radical left-wing groups in America. Ultimately, these radicals were opposed to authority in general, whether it was in Russia or America. We see this trend repeat itself in our time with the Tsarnaev brothers and other Islamic radicals who immigrated out of Russia and continued their criminal actions abroad.

Other radicals found more sophisticated supporters in American society. Leon Trotsky noted his extensive interaction with unnamed benefactors in his personal writings, and he was later documented to possess $10,000 dollars and an American passport on his way back to Russia during a brief detainment by the Canadian government in Halifax. Beyond politics, there was a great interest by businessmen in both preventing Russia from entering western markets as well as developing Russian land in the interest of extracting potential resources, the latter of which was often impeded by Russian authorities. As such, there was an even greater interest in manipulating various political factions to destabilize the country and create a ‘democratic’ republic, perhaps one more easily controlled by outside elements (this situation has already happened in Ukraine). Jacob Schiff, long known as one of the key financial contributors to Russian revolutionaries, first paid for arms to be given to the Japanese and for Marxist leaflets to be dispersed to their captive Russian prisoners during the Russo-Japanese war. Later on, he promoted Zionists in Russia and provided mass funding to the revolutionaries of 1917, even congratulating a crowd of Russian revolutionaries in New York at the time of the revolution, sending a telegraph in which he described the events as “what we had hoped and striven for these long years.” William Boyce Thompson, another American billionaire, personally financed Kerensky’s government and then Lenin as well.

What was most interesting is that many of the individuals providing financial and legal support to the revolutionaries did so through connections with the International Red Cross and other diplomatically immune organizations, Thompson was himself a member of its relief mission and was able to use his position of neutrality as a means to get his resources through to Russian revolutionaries. There were other connections to financiers in Germany and England, some of these connections were formed in the interest of manipulating the outcome of WWI and others to ensure that Russian land would be made available for foreign economic development. But most importantly, the rapid political changes in the country meant that formerly exiled revolutionaries would be allowed back in to spread their ideology. After Kerensky signed an order of amnesty to these exiles, it was estimated that at as many as 250,000 revolutionaries returned to Russia, where they were once prevented from doing political work. In our time, suspicion has been raised against the intentions of ‘human rights’ groups such as Memorial, who are among 60 others who receive funding from foreign entities, including USAID, as well as from individual benefactors outside of Russia.

In Soviet times, there was a much larger role by foreign states and their intelligence agencies in attempting to foment change in Russia, this role continues today. Former backers of the revolution looked upon people like Trotsky in advancing their interests against the hardline policies of Stalin. Much of the influence against the Soviet government was now being exerted by former members of the imperial government, who were previously the enemy of those who wished ‘democracy’ upon Russia. Throughout the Soviet era, the constant intrigues between foreign governments and the Socialist establishment led to a bad impression of both by the Russian public, invigorating the call to return to traditional values.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we see the same processes repeating themselves. Once again, we see political figures that failed to acquire power through legitimate means turn to audiences abroad to spread their message. An Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University, David S. Foglesong has studied this historical phenomenon himself, identifying three characteristic tendencies in the American approach towards Russia in the last 130 years:

1. “A messianic faith that America could inspire sweeping overnight transformation from autocracy to democracy.”

2. “A notion that despite historic differences, Russia and America are very much akin, so that Russia, more than any other country, is America’s “dark double;””

3. “An extreme antipathy to “evil” leaders who Americans blame for thwarting what they believe to be the natural triumph of the American mission. These expectations and emotions continue to affect how American journalists and politicians write and talk about Russia.”

One of the most blatant examples of the myth of an oppressive Russia is in the insistence by independent commentators and members of western governments alike that there is a lack of ‘civil society’ in Russia. In a general sense, civil society refers to the ability of individuals to express their will through independent organizations and other means outside of the government. The media will commonly cite the unpopularity of the Russian opposition as an example that there is no political freedom in the country, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Civil society, by definition, exists in Russia but does not fit the western political narrative of Russia.

Plenty of patriotic service groups have been created since the fall of the Soviet Union, where sport and healthy living is promoted by independent citizens, to fill what was once a function of the state. Groups such as the Youth Anti-Narcotics Special Forces and StopKham have taken to the internet to publicly shame drug dealers and excessively rude drivers (among others), all with visible public support. Furthermore, plenty of headway in restoring religious sites, preventing domestic abuse, and providing humanitarian relief to southeastern Ukraine has been done through the collective action of Russia’s citizens. The major delusion in presenting Russia’s opposition to the rest of the world lies in the assumption that Russians interested in social change either necessarily support the pro-western opposition in any way or that they simply lack the resources to do so. In criticizing Russians, the critics often take their own sensibilities into consideration other than our own, even mocking suggestions that the current opposition to Putin has assistance from outside, despite plenty of evidence to prove that to be true.

One of the most damning examples of this was a video taken around the time of the anti-Putin protests in 2012, showing some of the most prominent Kremlin critics entering and leaving the US consulate in Moscow, among them was the slain lawyer Boris Nemstov. Another man in the video, former parliament member Ilya Ponomarev, now resides in San Jose. Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia wrote in a paper titled ‘American Efforts at Promoting Regime Change in the Soviet Union and then Russia: Lessons Learned’ that

“at certain moments regarding specific issues, the United States government and various non-governmental American actors (many of which were and are funded by the American government) have been able to nudge the course of Soviet and Russian democratization in a positive way. At critical moments, senior American government officials were able to engage directly with Russian elites to help prevent autocratic moves or reverse authoritarian actions.”

What of the opposition themselves? It is said that the modern Russian liberal movement died as soon as it allied with the people who stole from Russia in the 1990’s, namely Khodorkovsky, who now lives in Zurich.  In 1992, Khodorkovsky and banker Leonid Nevzlin (who now resides in Israel) co-authored a book titled ‘Man with a Ruble’ which was essentially a manifesto of their love of money, writing that “our idol is His Financial Majesty Capital.” The reprehensible actions and beliefs of this man, including attaining his wealth through embezzlement, are the true reasons for his exile and imprisonment, despite being called a “prisoner of conscience” by the western human rights group Amnesty International. Even without the support of the people, it is claimed that Khodorkovsky has already drafted a post-Putin constitution and has announced he is intent on exerting influence on the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2016.

Most of the Russian opposition now engages its audience from other countries, following a trend of ideological defeat, one such example is the fall of the mainstream liberal Yabloko party from 45 seats in parliament during 1995 to zero in 2015. Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia society, founded with the blessings of the Chevron corporation, is based in Prague while Meduza, an English-language news site representing the Russian opposition is based in Riga. Certainly, these attempts are no longer anything totally unprecedented, and this process shows no signs of letting up. However, it’s important to view the atmosphere of antipathy towards the Russian world in a historical context and see that this was not a feud brought about during the last twenty years or even as a result of the cold war.  Ultimately, western disappointment with Russian society hardly lies with unjust government but rather its refusal to be dominated by outside values, in this instance it is a struggle between individualism and humanism on one side and regionalism and spiritualism on the other.


The Decline of Heroes

The following essay is one written by Harvard Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) on the role of the ‘uncommon man’ in modern history, in a democratic context. New Right/Traditionalist intellectual circles have birthed a renewed interest in the Nietzschean ideals of the great man and the application of said ideals in the modern world; as such, this essay comes as a very timely addition to the discussion and while some proponents of the aforementioned intellectual circles may object to what would seem to be Schlesinger’s overly individualistic approach to the subject as well as his dismissal of Spenglerian theory as mere fatalism, he nevertheless identifies a key historical phenomenon in a time of post-war comfort. Today, we see the inheritance of this social trend in our broadening of the definition of a “hero” and how such a person is considered in society. However, to reassess this position through the geopolitics of our time (bearing in mind the brazen political career of Putin in Russia or Assad’s defiance in Syria) would suggest that great men have once again returned to the world stage (but perhaps not common society). It also suggests that Mr. Schlesinger acknowledges this as well, as a version of this essay was provided by him as an introduction to a textbook on Putin from 2007; in fact, this seems to be one of Schlesinger’s most successful essays as multiple versions, each with their own omissions and additions, are found within various sources. However, the version below is, from my understanding, the original piece from 1958 which has yet to be put up online, until now. The essay below is Schlesinger’s work as it appears in ‘Adventures of the Mind, from the Saturday Evening Post’, published by Alfred A. Knopf. 

Ours is an age without heroes—and, when we say this, we suddenly realize how spectacularly the world has changed in a generation. Most of us grew up in a time of towering personalities. For better or for worse, great men seemed to dominate our lives and shape our destiny. In the United States we had Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt. In Great Britain, there were Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. In other lands, there were Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Clemenceau, Gandhi, Kemal, Sun Yat-sen. Outside of politics there were Einstein, Freud, Keynes. Some of these great men influenced the world for good, others for evil; but, whether for good of for evil, the fact that each had not died at birth made a difference, one believed, to everyone who lived after them.

Today no one bestrides our narrow world like a colossus; we have no giants who play roles which one can imagine no one else playing in their stead. There are a few figures on the margin of uniqueness, perhaps: Adenauer, Nehru, Tito, De Gaulle, Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao Tse-tung. But there seem to be none in the epic style of those mighty figures of our recent past who seized history with both hands and gave it an imprint, even a direction, which it otherwise might not have had. As De Gaulle himself once remarked on hearing of Stalin’s death, “The age of giants is over.” Whatever one thought, whether one admired or detested Roosevelt or Churchill, Stalin or Hitler, one nevertheless felt the sheer weight of such personalities on one’s own existence. We feel no comparable pressures today. Our own President, with all his pleasant qualities, has more or less explicitly renounced any desire to impress his own views on history. The Macmillans, Khrushchevs and Gronchis have measurably less specific gravity than their predecessors. Other men could be in their places as leaders of America or Britain or Russia or Italy without any change in the course of history. Why ours should thus be an age without heroes, and whether this condition is good or bad for us and for civilization, are topics worthy of investigation.

Why have giants vanished from our midst? One must never neglect the role of accident in history; and accident no doubt plays a part here. But too many accidents of the same sort cease to be wholly accidental. One must inquire further. Why should our age not only be without great men but even seem actively hostile to them? Surely one reason we have so few heroes now is precisely that we had so many a generation ago. Greatness is hard for common humanity to bear. As Emerson said, “Heroism means difficulty, postponement of praise, postponement of ease, introduction of the world into the private apartment, introduction of eternity into the hours measured by the sitting-room clock.” A world of heroes keeps people from living their own private lives.

Moreover, great men live dangerously. They introduce extremes into existence—extremes of good, extremes of evil—and ordinary men after a time flinch from the ultimates and yearn for undemanding security. The second World War was the climax of an epoch of living dangerously. It is no surprise that it precipitated a universal revulsion against greatness. The war itself destroyed Hitler and Mussolini. And the architects of victory were hardly longer-lived. After the war, the British repudiated Churchill, and the Americans (with the adoption of the 22nd Amendment), Roosevelt. In due course, the French repudiated De Gaulle (they later repented, but it took the threat of civil war to bring him back); the Chinese, Chiang Kai-shek; and the Russians, Stalin. Khrushchev, in toppling Stalin from his pedestal, pronounced the general verdict against the uncommon man: the modern world, he said, had no use for the “cult of the individual.” And, indeed, carried to the excesses to which the worshipers of Hitler and Stalin carried it, even to the much milder degree to which the admirers of Roosevelt and Churchill sometimes carried it, the cult of the individual was dangerous. No man is infallible, and every man needs to be reminded of this on occasion. Still, our age has gone further than this – it objects not just to hero worship but to heroes. The century of the common man has come into its own.

This term, “common man,” suggests the deeper problem. There is more involved than simply a dismissal of those colossi whom the world identified with a season of blood and agony. The common man has always regarded the great man with mixed feelings—resentment as well as admiration, hatred as well as love. The Athenian who refused to vote for Aristides because he was so tired of hearing him called “the Just” expressed a natural reaction. Great men make small men aware of their smallness. Rancor is one of the unavowed but potent emotions of politics; and one must never forget that the envy of the have-nots can be quite as consuming when the haves have character or intelligence as it is when they have merely material possessions.

Modern democracy inadvertently gave envy new scope. While the purpose of democracy was to give everyone a fair chance to rise, its method enabled rancorous men to invoke “equality” as an excuse for cutting all down to their own level. “I attribute the small number of distinguished men in political life,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville after visiting the United States in the 1830’s, “to the ever-increasing despotism of the majority … The power of the majority is so absolute and irresistible that one must give up one’s rights as a citizen and almost abjure one’s qualities as a human being, if one intends to stray from the track which it prescribes.” James Bryce even titled a chapter in his American Commonwealth, Why Great Men Are Not Chosen President.

History has shown these prophets unduly pessimistic. Distinguished men do enter American politics; great men have been chosen President. Democracy demonstrates a capability for heroic leadership quite as much as it does a tendency toward mediocrity. Yet Tocqueville and the others were correct enough in detecting the dislike of great men as a permanent potentiality in a democracy. And the evolution of industrial society appears to have given this sentiment new force. More and more of us live and work within great organizations; an influential book has already singled out the organization man as the American of the future. The bureaucratization of American life, the decline of the working class, the growth of the white-collar class, the rise of suburbia—all this has meant the increasing homogeneity of American society. Though we continue to speak of ourselves as rugged individualists, our actual life has grown more and more collective and anonymous. As a Monsanto Chemical film put it, showing a group of technicians at work in a laboratory: “No geniuses here; just a bunch of average Americans working together.” Our ideal is increasingly smooth absorption into the group rather than self-realization in the old-fashioned, strong-minded, don’t-give-a-damn sense. Where does the great man fit into our homogenized society?

“The greatness of England is now all collective,” John Stuart Mill wrote a century ago: “individually small, we only appear capable of anything great by our habit of combining.” He might have been writing about contemporary American; but where we Americans are inclined to rejoice over the superiority of the “team,” Mill added somberly, “It was men of another stamp than this that made England what it has been; and men of another stamp will be needed to prevent its decline.”

But was Mill right? Do individuals really have impact on history? A powerful school of philosophers has denied any importance at all to great men. Such thinkers reject heroes as a childish hangover from the days when men ascribed everything to the action of gods. History, they assert, is not made by men, but by inexorable forces of irrevocable laws: if these forces or laws do not manifest themselves through one individual, they will do so through another. What has happened already has comprehensively and absolutely decided what will happen in the future. “If there is a single human action due to human free will,” wrote Tolstoi, “no historical law exists, and no conception of historical events can be formed.” If all this is so, obviously the presence or absence of any particular “hero” at any particular time cannot make the slightest difference.

This view of history is a form of fatalistic determinism; and Tolstoi’s War and Peace offers one of its most eloquent statements. Why, Tolstoi asked, did millions of men in the time of Napoleon, repudiating their common sense and their human feelings, move from west to east, slaughtering their fellows? The answers provided by historians seemed to him hopelessly superficial. His own answer was: “The war was bound to happen simply because it had to happen”; all previous history predetermined it. Where did this leave the great men? In Tolstoi’s view, they were the most deluded figures of all. Great men, he said, “are but the labels that serve to give a name to an event and, like labels, they have the least possible connection with the event itself.” The greater the man, “the more conspicuous is the inevitability and predestination of every act he commits.” The hero, said Tolstoi, “is the slave of history.”

There are many forms of historical fatalism. Toynbee and Spengler, with their theory of the inexorable growth and decay of civilizations, represent one form. The Marxists, with their theory that changes in the modes of production control the course of history, represent another. When Khrushchev denounced the practice of making “a hero” out of “a particular leader” and condemned the cult of the individual as “alien to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism,” he was speaking the true spirit of his faith. And Marxism is not the only form of economic determinism; there are also, for example, economic determinists of the laissez-faire school who believe that all civilization is dependent on rigid adherence to a certain theory of the sacredness of private property.

Fatalists differ greatly among themselves. But, however much they differ, they unite in the conclusion that the individual plays no role of his own in history. If they are right, then nothing could matter less whether or not this is an age without heroes.

But they are not right. The philosophy of historical fatalism rests on serious fallacies. For one thing, it supposes that, because a thing happens, it had to happen. But causation is one matter; predestination another. The construction of a causal explanation after an event merely renders that event in some sense intelligible. It does not in the least show that this particular event, and no other, had to take place; that nothing else could possibly have occurred in its stead. The serious test of the fatalist case must be applied before the event. The only conclusive proof of fatalism would lie in the accurate prediction of events that have not yet happened. And to say, with Tolstoi, that all prior history predetermines everything that follows is to say nothing at all. It is to produce an explanation which applies equally to everything—and thus becomes so vague and limitless as to explain nothing.

Fatalism raises other difficulties. Thus it imputes reality to mystical historical “forces”—class, race, nation, the will of the people, the spirit of the times, history itself. But there are no such forces. They are merely abstractions or metaphors with no existence except in the mind of the beholder. The only evidence for them is deduction from the behavior of individuals. It is therefore the individual who constitutes the basic unit of history. And, while no individual can be wholly free—and, indeed, recent discoveries of the manifold ways in which we are unconsciously conditioned should constitute a salutary check on human vanity—one must assume the reality of an area of free choice until that assumption is challenged, not by metaphysical affirmation, but by verifiable proof—that is, consistently accurate prediction of the future.

Fatalism, moreover, is incompatible with human psychology and human morality. Anyone who rigorously accepted a deterministic view of life, for example, would have to abandon all notions of human responsibility, since it is manifestly unfair to praise or punish people for acts which are by definition beyond their control. But such fatalism is belied by the assumption of free choice which underlies every move we make, every word we utter, every thought we think. As Sir Isaiah Berlin observes of determinism, “If we begin to take it seriously, then, indeed, the changes in our language, our moral notions, our attitudes toward one another, our views of history, of society and of everything else will be too profound to be even adumbrated.” We can no more imagine what the universe of the consistent determinist would be like than we can imagine what it would be like to live in a world without time or one with seventeen-dimensional space.

For the historian concerned with concrete interpretation of actual events, he can easily demonstrate the futility of fatalism by trying to apply it to specific historical episodes. According to the extreme determinist view, no particular individual can make the slightest difference. As slaves of history, all individuals are, so to speak, interchangeable parts. If Napoleon had not led his armies across Europe, Tolstoi implies, someone else would have. William James, combating this philosophic fatalism, once asked the determinists whether they really believed “the convergence of sociological pressures to have so impinged on Stratford on Avon about April 23, 1564, that a W. Shakespeare, with all his mental peculiarities, had to be born there.” And did they further believe, James continued, that “if the aforesaid W. Shakespeare had died of cholera infantum, another mother at Stratford on Avon would needs have engendered a duplicate copy of him to restore the sociologic equilibrium?” Who could believe such stuff? Yet, if the determinists do not mean exactly this, how can they read the individual out of history?

In December, 1931, a British politician, crossing Fifth Avenue in New York between 76th and 77th streets around ten-thirty at night, was knocked down and gravely injured by an automobile. Fourteen months later an American politician, sitting in an open car in Miami, Florida, was fired on by an assassin; a man standing beside him was killed. Would the next two decades of history have been the same had Contasini’s car killed Winston Churchill in 1931 and Zangara’s bullets killed Franklin Roosevelt in 1933? Suppose, in addition, that Adolf Hitler had been killed in the street fighting during the Munich Putsch of 1923, and that Lenin and Mussolini had died at birth. Where would our century be now?

Individuals, of course, must operate within limits. They cannot do everything. They cannot, for example, propel history into directions for which the environment and the human material are not prepared: no genius, however heroic, could have brought television to ancient Troy. Yet, as Sidney Hook has convincingly argued in his thoughtful book, The Hero in History, great men can count decisively “where the historical situation permits of major alternative paths of development.”

This argument between fatalism and heroism is not one on which there is a lot to be said on both sides. The issue is far too sharp to be straddled. Either history is rigidly determined and foreordained, in which case individual striving does not matter; or it is not, in which case there is an essential role for the hero. Analysis of concrete episodes suggests that history is, within limits, open and unfinished; that men have lived who did what no substitute could ever have done; that their intervention set history on one path rather than another. If this is so, the old maxim, “There are no indispensable men,” would seem another amiable fallacy. There is, then, a case for heroes.

To say that there is a case for heroes is not to say that there is a case for hero worship. The surrender of decision, the unquestioning submission to leadership, the prostration of the average man before the Great Man—these are the diseases of heroism, and they are fatal to human dignity. But, if carried too far, hero worship generates its own antidote. “Every hero,” said Emerson, “becomes a bore at last.” And we need not go too far. History amply shows that it is possible to have heroes without turning them into gods.

And history shows, too, that, when a society, in flight from hero worship, decides to do without great men at all, it gets into troubles of its own. Our contemporary American society, for example, has little use for the individualist. Individualism implies dissent from the group; dissent implies conflict; and conflict suddenly seems divisive, un-American and generally unbearable. Our greatest new industry is evidently the production of techniques to eliminate conflict, from positive thoughts through public relations to psychoanalysis, applied everywhere from the couch to the pulpit. Our national aspiration has become peace of mind, peace of soul. The symptomatic drug of our age is the tranquilizer. “Togetherness” is the banner under which we march into the brave new world.

Obviously society has had to evolve collective institutions to cope with problems that have grown increasingly complex and concentrated. But the collective approach can be overdone. If Khrushchev worried because his collectivist society developed a cult of the individual, maybe we Americans should start worrying as our so-called individualist society develops a cult of the group. We instinctively suppose that the tough questions will be solved by an interfaith conference or an interdisciplinary research team or an interdepartmental committee or an assembly of wise men meeting at Arden House. But are not these group tactics essentially means by which individuals hedge their bets and distribute their responsibilities? And do they not nearly always result in the dilution of insight and the triumph of mish-mash? If we are to survive, we must have ideas, vision, courage. These things are rarely produced by committees. Everything that matters in our intellectual and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself.

A bland society will never be creative. “The amount of eccentricity in a society,” said John Stuart Mill, “has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.” If this condition frightened Mill in Victorian England, it should frighten us much more. For our national apotheosis of the group means that we systematically lop off the eccentrics, the originals, the proud, imaginative, lonely people from whom new ideas come. What began as a recoil from hero worship ends as a conspiracy against creativity. If worship of great men brings us to perdition by one path, flight from great men brings us there just as surely by another. When we do not admire great men, then our instinct for admiration is likely to end by settling on ourselves. The one thing worse for democracy than hero worship is self-worship.

A free society cannot get along without heroes, because they are the most vivid means of exhibiting the power of free men. The hero exposes to all mankind unsuspected possibilities of conception, unimagined resources of strength. “The appearance of a great man,” wrote Emerson, “draws a new circle outside of our largest orbit and surprises and commands us.” Carlyle likened ordinary, lethargic times, with their unbelief and perplexity, to dry, dead fuel, waiting for the lightning out of heaven to kindle it. “The great man, with his free force direct out of God’s own hand, is the lightning. . . . The rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame.”

Great men enable us to rise to our own highest potentialities. They nerve lesser men to disregard the world and trust to their own deepest instinct. “In picking out from history our heroes,” said William James, “each one of us may best fortify and inspire what creative energy may lie in his own soul. This is the last justification of hero worship.” Which one of us has not gained fortitude and faith from the incarnation of ideals in men, from the wisdom of Socrates, from the wondrous creativity of Shakespeare, from the strength of Washington, from the compassion of Lincoln, and above all, perhaps, from the life and the death of Jesus? “We feed on genius,” said Emerson. “Great men exist that there may be greater men.”

Yet this may be only the smaller part of their service. Great men have another and larger role—to affirm human freedom against the supposed inevitabilities of history. The first hero was Prometheus, who defied the gods and thus asserted the independence and autonomy of man against all determinism. Zeus punished Prometheus, chaining him to a rock and encouraging vulture to pluck at his vitals.

Ever since, man, like Prometheus, has warred against history. It has always been a bitter and remorseless fight; for the heavy weight of human inertia lies with fatalism. It takes a man of exceptional vision and strength and will—it takes, in short, a hero—to try to wrench history from what lesser men consider its preconceived path. And often history tortures the hero in the process, chains him to a rock and exposes him to the vulture. Yet, in the model of Prometheus, man can still hold his own against the gods. Brave men earn the right to shape their own destiny.

An age without great men is one which acquiesces in the drift of history. Such acquiescence is easy and seductive; the great appeal of fatalism, indeed, is as a refuge from the terror of responsibility. Where a belief in great men insistently reminds us that individuals can make a difference, fatalism reassures us that they can’t. It thereby blesses our weakness and extenuates our failure. Fatalism, in Berlin’s phrase, is “one of the great alibis” of history.

Let us not be complacent about our supposed capacity to get along without great men. If our society has lost its wish for heroes and its ability to produce them, it may well turn out to have lost everything else as well.

Further reading:

Berlin, Sir Isaiah: The Hedgehog and the Fox. New York: Simon and Schuster; 1953.

—: Historical Inevitability. New York: Oxford University Press; 1954.

Carlyle, Thomas: Sartor Resartus and Heroes and Hero-Worship. Everyman Library. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company.

The Iranian View on Orthodoxy

The following interview is my translation of a piece that originally appeared in issue six of Aleksandr Dugin’s journal ‘Elementy’ (Elements) in 1995. Here, the former Iranian ambassador to the Vatican, Muhammad Masjid Jamei, gives his view on the events of the Yugoslavian crisis and the Iranian understanding of the Orthodox Church.

Elements: What role, in your view, should the Orthodox Church play in the contemporary world?

Muhammad Masjid Jamei: Orthodoxy is more than a church, it is more than merely a denomination. It comprises the axis of history, culture and identity of the Orthodox peoples. It is precisely for this reason that the Orthodox Church plays or will play a crucial role. Russia and the greater part of the the former Eastern bloc countries, from a historic and cultural point of view, are truly not part of the western world nor could they be. In my view, the past rivalry between the Western and Eastern blocs was not only due to the antagonism between Capitalism and Marxism. National and ethnic factors played a key role in the conflict of the two systems. Of course now, because of the strong pressure from existing political regimes, these factors do not have the opportunity to fully demonstrate their real weight on affairs. But this does not mean that they don’t exist. On the contrary, after the fall of Marxism they found a new strength. It is this that the West fears. Marxism, regardless of what form it takes, could not pose a threat to the West since there no longer exists the danger that Marxist regimes could once again strengthen themselves within the countries of Eastern Europe. Far more likely is the resurgence of a nationalism which will oppose the West and, as in the past, give rise to a new clash of values. 

Now, a serious increase in the role of the Orthodox Church depends only on itself. Furthermore, much also depends on how many of its original features can be retained, without modernizing beyond what is necessary and staunchly opposing propaganda, through which the Mondialists would seek to westernize Orthodoxy, as has happened with other Christian denominations. It is in this sense, from my point of view, that the Orthodox Church is one of the important forces inherently opposing Mondialism.

El.: Serbs and Russians alike assume that the Yugoslavian crisis, resulting in the dismemberment of the country and the war with Bosnia, is an expression of expansion against the Orthodox Church. Do you agree with this point of view?

M.M.J.: The point here is not whether to be in agreement or disagreement. It is, rather, to understand the way of thought and sentiment of the Orthodox. This should be done, regardless of the other issues, and this will help end the crisis. From Orthodox Serbian point of view, the crisis began with the separation of Croatia from Yugoslavia, which they assume was supported by Germany, Austria, and the Vatican. They consider that the Vatican’s invasion is due to the fact that the peoples of this region are Catholic, and argue that the expansionism of the Catholic Church was at the heart of the war and led to its intensification. From their point of view, it comes down to an unfair and unequal war between two denominations. Subsequently, the war spread to Bosnia. The Orthodox Serbs first fought against the Muslims and their allies, the Croats. From the Orthodox point of view, the Muslims were provoked by the Catholics under false pretenses to fight against the Serbs with the goal of suppressing Orthodoxy. Such forms the basis of their attitude towards the war in Bosnia. Naturally, they are aware of the existence of other factors, but in relation to the role of Catholicism in this conflict they are almost unanimous in their sentiment.

El.: What do you think about the future of the Orthodox Church?

M.M.J.: Despite its factors of weakness, which it owes to the Communist regime, the Orthodox Church is internally strong and rich, especially in relation to its mystical elements and Orthodox way of thinking as well as its traditions, which have survived in a large part of the population. Conservatism and the delayed adaptation of Orthodoxy to modern conditions is at the same time a weak point and a great merit: the Orthodox Church remains true to its original principles, while other denominations have done the opposite and modernized to the point of degeneration. Moreover, the national character of the Church determines its powerful structure, which contributes to the preservation of the cultural and political independence of its flock. Today, it is those who reject the advance of the West and its humiliating attitude towards Russia and its traditions as well as those who wish to live independently and with dignity that look to the Church. We can therefore conclude that the Church will undoubtedly play a fundamental and active role in the life of the Orthodox and especially the Slavic peoples. Any regimes striving to manage the countries of Eastern Europe must take the Church into consideration, which is now going through a transitional period, but it will surely and successfully overcome all of the difficulties and, in the end, appear even stronger and more powerful than ever.

El.: What do you think about the relationship between the Orthodox Church and Islam?

M.M.J.: Despite the fact that there has been a multitude of conflicts between the Orthodox and Muslims, especially in the Balkans, the last decades have seen a trend towards an improvement in relations. These relations were not in conflict under the Communist regime, and it seems that they have remained good after the fall of the iron curtain. The situation in Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, is of course, an exception, and I hope for the fastest possible resolution of a crisis that would affect an even greater improvement in relations between Islam and Orthodoxy.

The fact is that despite their existing differences, the Orthodox and Muslims share common problems and common enemies. With the fall of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Western militarists are attempting to destroy the last few small remainders of national, cultural, and religious independence which may interfere with their aspiration towards global hegemony. From their point of view, Islam and Orthodoxy are the essence of power, whose existence is incompatible with their plans, it is for this that such effort is spent on the weakening or even destruction of these two religions.

The best way towards the accomplishment of this goal is the imposition of disputes and wars between them. Therefore, given this situation, we can safely say that there are deeply justifiable reasons for the cooperation of the Orthodox Church and Islam. The most important thing here is that both sides should deepen their ties and wisely and objectively study the international situation, thus contributing to peacemaking, agreement, and the elimination of any sort of possible conflict.

El.: What do you think about the relationship between Russia and Iran?

M.M.J.: Since ancient times, Iranians are a religious people which, as history will tell you, maintain excellent relations with other religions, especially Christians, primarily the Orthodox. Iran wants to continue to develop these good relations, and has, on the basis of such a goal, spent two religious meetings at the highest level with the Greek Orthodox Church. Iran is interested in the continuation of this dialog.

Last year, President Hashemi Rafsanjani sent a congratulatory message on the occasion of Christmas to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, and many other Iranian officials have sent congratulatory messages to other hierarchs of the Orthodox Church. I want to emphasize that Iran is very much interested in a more active dialogue with the Christian world, especially with Orthodoxy, which, in turn, should also be interested in these relationships.

Nationalists Divided

The Soul of the East

In this Jan. 28th article, Ulyana Ivanova, journalist from the magazine National Accent, surveys the diverging views of a range of nationalist figures within Russia over the latest color revolution in Ukraine. Translated by Evgeniy Filimonov.

Nationalists of all stripes residing on the territory of Russia are divided in regards to the protest in Ukraine. Some took the Ukraine uprising as an excellent example of civil engagement and self-organization. Others have labeled the protestors as “Banderite remnants” and enemies of the Russians. Still others have tried to analyze the events on the Maidan as bystanders, supporting neither side.

One of the reasons for this interest in the events on the Maidan is the active involvement of Ukrainian nationalists. Coincident with the popular opinion of the Russian media, it is precisely the ultra-right and fanatics that have become the main driving force of the protest.

The fact is that nobody has remained indifferent…

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