The Russians see the war in Ukraine as their response to the attempted expansion of NATO to their borders. They feel that security considerations demand that they must thwart the expansion at all costs.
But there is another angle to the war. A couple of weeks ago, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry tweeted: “Ukraine and Europe were always friends. In 988, Prince Volodymyr converted the Kyiv Rus to Christianity and decided [that] we need to join the EU.” The ministry added that this was the moment when Ukraine “became part of the Western world.”
Although this tweet became an object of derision for its mention of EU (the European Union) a thousand years before its founding, there is truth in it that goes to the roots of the Ukraine War.
The current regime in Ukraine see itself civilizationally opposed not only to Russia of recent history but to what was a thousand years ago. The subtext to this is that neighbors to the West do not see Russia as fully assimilated to Europe.
To get a sense of the Russian collective mind, and to see how it might be different from that of Europe, we need to know what was going on in Rus before 988.
Prince Vladimir and Kievan Rus
The tradition religion of the Slavic people has been called the Vedic Faith (vedizm, vedicheskaia vera) for they worshiped Vedic deities, of whom they considered Perun (Skt. Parjanya, which is one of Indra’s names) to be the highest. The Western Slavs of the Baltics showed Perun as one of the four faces of their chief divinity Svetovid, whose other three faces are Svarog, Lada, and Mokosh (like Svarga, Ladah, and Moksha). The generic name for God in the Slavic world is Bog (Skt. Bhaga).
According to The Primary Chronicle, an early source of Slavic tradition that was compiled about 1111, Prince Oleg (879–912) united East Slavic lands in Kieven Rus in opposition to the Khazar empire in the east. The Khazars were a multi-ethnic group from the steppes, and they have been viewed as successors to the multi-ethnic Scythians (Saka, Śaka) (comprising of Indo-Iranians, and Turks) who had ruled Central Asian lands for centuries. At its greatest extent in the mid-11th century, Kievan Rus stretched from the White Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south and from the headwaters of the Vistula in the west to the Taman Peninsula in the east.
Vladimir, the Prince of Kiev, converted to Christianity in 988. After his baptism, he directed that the idol of Perun “be bound to a horse’s tail and pulled from the hill. He appointed twelve men to beat the idol with sticks. While it was being dragged along the stream to the Dnieper, the unbelievers wept over it.”
The struggle between the “pagan” Slavs and their Christianized neighbors was to continue for a long time. The Northern Crusades of the 13th and the 14th century were for the colonization and Christianization of the Slavic and the Finnic peoples around the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. The Teutonic Order profited from the crusades, as did German merchants who fanned out along trading routes traversing the Baltic frontier.
Kievan Rus eventually declined and in its place rose the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Ivan III consolidated the whole of northern Rus under Moscow’s dominion and was the first Russian ruler to take the title “Grand Duke of all Rus”. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow claimed succession to the legacy of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Slavs accepted Christianity superficially and popular resistance to it persisted for centuries with the Slavs regularly re-embracing their original religion (relapsi sunt denuo ad paganismus). According to some scholars, Christianity became a largely superficial over-structure which in the words of Church Slavonic vocabulary is a “double faith” (dvoeverie in Russian).
The historian George Richards wrote in 1918: “[T]he religion of Russia is broader and deeper than the creed, polity, cultus, and precepts of the Church of Russia. The life of the spirit defies definition… It consists, not of temples and sacraments, priests and monks, dogmas and canons, but of moods and motives… and ideals-all welling up from the soul’s depth.”
He added: “Her literature, art, music, philosophy, religion, theater, and dancing are something intrinsically Russian. Her dominant spirit is not the product of Byzantine Christianity. It is rooted in the Slavic nature,… and in oriental mysticism. The remote past with its passions, dreams, fears, and hopes throbs in the living present.”
Russia has made amazing contributions to the arts, music, literature, sports, and the sciences of the modern world. But despite this, the political elite in Europe have refused to see Russia as equal and used slurs such as Asiatic and Scythian for it.
Napoleon’s invasion, the Scythians
Napoleon invaded Russia on 24 June 1812. The French defeated the Russians outside Moscow on 7 September in the Battle of Borodino. The Russian army withdrew from Moscow, after burning down the Kremlin, churches and monasteries as part of scorched earth policy.
The fire deeply disturbed Napoleon who was horrified at the Russian resolution to destroy their most sacred and beloved city before surrendering it. He is recorded to have said: “What a terrible sight, and they did this themselves. So many palaces, and what an incredible solution. What kind of people, these are the Scythians!”
After five weeks, Napoleon and his army left. Suffering severely in the course of the retreat, the army that began with over 400,000 frontline troops, had fewer than 40,000 crossing the Berezina River in Poland in November 1812.
The poet and visionary Alexander Blok, who died young at the age of 40 in 1921, said this of the Russia’s relationship with Europe in a poem called The Scythians:
Millions are you — and hosts, yea hosts, are we,
And we shall fight if war you want, take heed.
Yes, we are Scythians — leafs of the Asian tree,
Our slanted eyes are bright aglow with greed.
You, the old world, now rushing to perdition,
Yet strolling languidly to lethal brinks,
Yours is the ancient Oedipean mission
To seek to solve the riddles of a sphinx.
The sphinx is Russia, sad and yet elated,
Stained with dark blood, with grief prostrate,
For you with longing she has looked and waited,
Replete with ardent love and ardent hate.
Join us! From horror and from strife
Turn to the peace of our embrace.
There is still time. Keep in its sheath your knife.
Comrades, we will be brothers to your race.
Say no — and we are none the worse.
We, too, can utter pledges that are vain.
But ages, ages will you bear the curse
Of our sons’ distant offspring racked with pain.
Advance, advance to Ural’s crest,
We offer you a battleground so neat
Where your machines of steel in serried ranks abreast
With the Mongolian savage horde will meet.
To the old world goes out our last appeal:
To work and peace invite our warming fires.
Come to our hearth, join our festive meal.
Called by the strings of our Barbarian lyres.
Blok anticipated a continuing struggle with Europe, warning that if Russians were not treated as equal, they will fight with the legendary ferocity of the Scythians.
Operation Barbarossa was the code-name of the invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany. The strategic goal was to capture Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad and lands west of the Urals (as foreseen by Blok) and expel the native Slavs and repopulate it with Germans to create more Lebensraum (living space) in their Drang nach Osten (“Drive to the East”).
The war started in June 1941. The largest military operation in history, it killed millions of civilians and soldiers. By January 1945, the Eastern Front was controlled by the Soviets, who were driving on to Berlin. The city garrison surrendered on 2 May 1945. The war in Europe ended with the total defeat and capitulation of Nazi Germany.
Russia’s dvoeverie provides resilience to its society. The West clearly misjudged Russia’s strength in the run-up to the crisis about the expansion of NATO, and also when it dissuaded Ukraine from entering negotiations with Moscow.
No matter what the outcome of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the current geopolitical order will be upended, and the world will become more multipolar.