02 July 2011

The Millenium-Long Cold War

The Cold War, it seems, is a construct of the Twentieth Century.  The end of the World War II marked the birth of two superpowers locked in ideological, political, and proxy military conflicts.  The dissolution of one of those superpowers, the Soviet Union, in 1991, marked the end of an era.  With it, one supposed, would come a world where Russia, a prominent world power with an immense potential, would be more tightly integrated into the Western fabric of democratic institutions.

That world may come; indeed there is recognition in some quarters of Russia that the current de facto one-party-rule and highly concentrated power structure should be reformed if Russia is to maintain her prominence.  However, there have been aspects of the Russian psyche that have puzzled me since I took residence in Moscow.  For instance, I have been puzzled about why Russia insists on defining itself is "not Western," as evidenced by its asynchronous Christmas holiday season, among other facts.

Take modern Turkey, for instance.  Turkey, a Muslim country and the remnant of the powerful and enduring Ottoman Empire, is a radically transformed nation.  Formerly using the Arabic alphabet, Turkey adopted the Latin alphabet under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.   The country also swapped its weekends from the Muslim Friday to the Christian Saturday and Sunday, in line with Western Christian powers.  Turkey is now seeking EU membership in its quest to become more tightly integrated with Europe.  Basically, there is precedence of massive realignment by a former power in order to march in a more lockstep formation with prevailing world trends.

So, what is happening in Russia?  For one, it is clear that neither Mr. Yeltsin nor Mr. Putin, Russia's most influential leaders post Soviet Union, have been the types of transformative leaders that Mr. Atatürk was. Second, Turkey's transformations came after a very long and relative rapid periods of decline that left Turkey in a very weakened state (as compared to its Ottoman days) badly in need of transformation. In other words, there have been both the lack of a sufficient reason and a lack of a right type of leader to make the transformation.  But, there is another reason:  The third reason, I believe, has to do with the strength of religion, and the culture that it brings with itself, in Russia.

And So Began The Cold War

The history of the East-West Schism of 1054 is rather long and involved to be discussed in a respectable form here.  The key elements are that Christianity's center shifted to Constantinople with the Roman's sacking of Jerusalem. As Christianity became legalized and increasingly influential in the Roman Empire, a rift started between churches in Rome and Constantinople.  Roman's adoption of Christianity were followed by a series of changes to Christian practices.  Those changes were looked upon suspiciously as potentially heretical acts by the eastern practitioners of the faith.  This multi-century rift between the East and the West became increasingly exacerbated as the Roman Empire lost control over its territory and was increasingly incapable of uniting its Latin and Greek centers through a common structure.  All this culminated with the mutual excommunications of what are now the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054. The sacking of Constantinople in 1204 and the looting of The Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) by the Fourth Crusade was also a key event that further pushed the Eastern and Western churches apart.

The Church of Holy Wisdom, Unwisely Sacked by Crusaders

While there were a few reunion attempts, such as the Second Council of Lyon and the Council of Florence, they all ultimately failed.  A subtext of these failures was an Eastern suspicion of the West; the motive, it was perceived, was less of a reunion and more of an expansion of Western Church's influence of its eastern counterpart.  That eastern sentiment was fully reinforced when Ottomans sacked Constantinople while the West failed to send any meaningful military reinforcement to defend the city against Muslim invaders.  In this context, the Eastern Church viewed the sacking of Constantinople as the West's attempt to destroy the Eastern Church once and for all.

Isolated from the West for centuries, the Eastern Orthodox Church operated independently but found new hope and influence with the rising powers of Moscow.  And with Tsar Peter I's abolishment of patriarchate in 1721, the now-Russian Orthodox Church effectively became a governmental department. With that, came the infusion of suspicious opinions of Western powers and their expansive ambitions into the Russian psyche.  It should be noted that Russia's most memorable conflicts, wars against the Poles (Catholic), Swedes (Lutheran), French (Catholic), Germans (Catholic and Lutheran), and ultimately the Cold War with Americans (Protestant and Catholic), was waged against Christians whose faith was rooted in the Rome Catholic Church and derived from there.  Conversely, there have never been lasting or memorable conflicts with a nation of Eastern Orthodox faith, like Ukraine or Bulgaria (two former empires that waged many wars).

Clearly, the above text is rife with generalizations and inaccuracies in the details, but the arc of the story holds.  Within this context, it is easier to understand why Russians are Russians first and generally suspicious of the West.  There are centuries of legacy in this point of view, and the Cold War was a modern manifestation of this backdrop heavily influenced by new factors of the evolving world.

The Sputnik Moment:  Still Keeping a Suspicious Eye On the West After All Those Years

Because the Cold War is a relatively new, powerful construct in world's history, it is natural to evaluate many current-day affairs in its context.  However, a longer perspective on the East-West rift may shed better light on why the world is today as it is.

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