This article was first published on Visegrad Insight’s website on April 8, 2015 and has been republished with permission.
This article was written in response to Johannes Preiser-Kapeller’s text “On Byzantine-Asiatic totalitarianism. Why the ‘othering’ of Russia is neither historically feasible nor helpful.”
“Russia still has a medieval mentality…We haven’t got rid of slavery. Nominally, yes, but in reality Russian people are bound by servitude – they see themselves as subjects, not citizens.” (Andrei Konchalovsky – renowned Russian theatre and film director).
Reading Johannes Preiser-Kappeller’s response to my article was like reading a manifesto from a blind follower of “Saidism” (a term that refers to Edward Said’s controversial ideas concerning the study of the Orient). To a reader with little knowledge on history, Said’s multiculturalist work Orientalism was a political anti-western polemic that masqueraded as a work of scholarship. However, its historical analysis has gradually been debunked over the years by numerous scholars of impeccable skill (among others, Bernard Lewis, Albert Hourani, Robert Irwin, Ibn Warraq, etc.).
Preiser-Kappeller’s text misleads the reader, distracting him or her through the reference of several names and useless – but influential and established – terms that have little to do with the whole picture and point of my article. Therefore, the reader might really wonder what “Saidism” or the anti-racist and postmodernist “othering” concept (which Edward Said developed in Orientalism) has to do with the reality of the centuries-long imperialism, anti-western medieval mentality, or historical development of the Russian state in the overall sense.
Concerning the “othering” concept, those unfamiliar with this term must know that it usually refers to the act of emphasizing the perceived weaknesses of marginalized groups as a way of stressing the alleged strength of those in positions of power. In short, “othering” can be done with any racial, ethnic, social, or religious category of people. It can be a powerful propaganda weapon, a method of silencing people, in the hands of politically-correct individuals, who use it when they notice that they have no further tangible proof to support their arguments or debunk someone’s analyses or views.
And this is what Preiser-Kappeller tries to do. By focusing on “othering” and on Edward Said’s “credibility” and reputation, he tries to achieve the goal of my article being considered “dangerous” and “not helpful,” or even as not actually being historical analysis. Preiser-Kappeller wants to make me (and the reader) stop focusing on the whole picture, by forcing me to defend the validity of my article through the usage of his politically-correct terms.
Us and the others
First, the “us and them” dichotomy has a familiar sound and logic in the history of humanity. History can be read in a way that detects the dynamics between “us and the others.” Besides, the world has always been determined by the experience of “otherness.” Moreover, everybody knows that it is impossible to imagine a society in which we do not divide people into “us” and “them.”
Individuals across the world are members of countless different ethnic or religious groups, which will always act as different groups at all times. Such dichotomies are natural and we cannot get away from the concept of “other.” Thus, Preiser-Kappeller should not confuse the reader by theorizing about “otherness,” implying that my analysis should not be taken into consideration. With this kind of frame of reference, Herodotus’ “othering” of Persia is also not particularly helpful, not to mention other similar examples of historical works.
If Preiser-Kappeller desires to adopt a “universalist” position, arguing for the equality of all cultures, this is not the right place to do so, as the reality is that different cultures do things differently; and when readers want to learn about the tragic effects of Russian imperialism on humanity, they will naturally expect straight answers and information on why these events took place, and do not want to be misled with the “othering” of Russia.
Regarding Russia’s Byzantine-Asiatic character, I am surprised that Preiser-Kappeller ignored to mention the works or opinions of acclaimed historians on Russia’s Byzantine heritage and Russian despotism in general. From his incomplete response, it is clear that he has limited knowledge on Russian history and culture, being unfamiliar with the historical process of this vast country. Thus, I will happily provide a few sources that will introduce readers to the centuries-old Russian despotic world.
A few sources
Let us begin with the distinguished historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who explains why Tsarist Russia was a version of a Byzantine totalitarian state in his acclaimed essay “Russia’s Byzantine heritage” (from his work Civilization on Trial).
Georgi Plekhanov describes Russian despotism and the Asiatic character of Russia in his work A New Champion of Autocracy; Peter Truscott describes why present-day Russia follows its own Tsarist anti-western agenda with profound effects on its foreign policy in Russia First: Breaking with the West.
The importance of Mongol influence on Russia is examined by Daniel Ostrowski in his excellent work Muscovy and the Mongols: Cross-Cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier, 1304-1589.
The reader is introduced to the sixteenth-century backward Russian state thanks to Lloyd E. Berry and Robert O. Crummeym, who offer edited accounts of six English voyagers and their experiences in Russia in the sixteenth century in Rude and Barbarous Kingdom: Russia in the accounts of Sixteenth Century English Voyagers.
Concerning the imperialistic “Third Rome” ideology and the Orthodox anti-western sentiment in Russia, William Bercken has the answers in his work Holy Russia and Christian Europe.
And Russia’s strong ties with Asiatic despotism are examined in Karl August Wittfogel’s monumental work Oriental Despotism, which provides the key to understand the current Russian political culture, and thus the centuries-long Byzantine-Asiatic mentality of Russian people. Even though Wittfogel’s book has been translated into many languages, it has never been translated into Russian.
Answers and information are needed when we examine the historical development of a state and try to understand its current situation, especially when that state has played a major global role for centuries. My historical analysis provides information in a simple way for the reader to better understand the harsh reality of the Russian world – for we have a Russia problem, not a Putin problem.
Preiser-Kappeller did not choose to focus on Russian messianic ideology, chauvinism, militarism, authoritarianism, and imperial mentality; instead, he chose a lame, politically correct way to attack my analysis, which was doomed to failure.
“Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret” (For Arnold J. Toynbee, the saying exemplifies Russia’s ineradicable Byzantine totalitarian heritage).