Deir ez-Zor

September 7, 2017

The Empire and its minions tried to push their weight around.
They had their mercenaries and advisers on the ground.
They thought that they would win this way their dirty proxy war,
But it all was brought to nothing by the men of Deir ez-Zor.

The fog of propaganda from the media machine
Keeps telling people not to trust what their own eyes have seen.
It calls “fake news” whatever facts its narrative won’t bear
And mesmerizes millions with an empty Russian scare.

But I’ll thank God for Putin and his fighting Russian jets
That bombed the hordes of ISIS down to hell with no regrets,
And thank God for Bashar Assad, and for the SAA,
And the suffering Syrian people who have longed to see this day.

The wheel of God grinds slowly, but it grinds exceeding small.
The evil that men do rebounds and hastens their own fall.
Now the warmongers in Washington are feeling mighty sore:
They’ve had their asses walloped by the men of Deir ez-Zor.

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https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf

Above is a link to a document, released yesterday by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, titled Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution. I’ve skimmed through it; although the document asserts, without presenting any evidence, that Russia engaged in cyber espionage against US political organizations and hacked state and local electoral boards (see pp. 2-3), most of the document actually consists of a diatribe against the network RT, which it blames for consistently and publicly favoring Mr. Trump’s candidacy over Mrs. Clinton’s. E.g., on p. 4, it notes that “On 6 August, RT published an English-language video called ‘Julian Assange Special: Do WikiLeaks Have the E-mail That’ll Put Clinton in Prison?’ and an exclusive interview with Assange entitled ‘Clinton and ISIS Funded by the Same Money.'” The document says nothing as to whether it is true that Mrs. Clinton and ISIS are funded by the same money, that is, by Saudi Arabia and Qatar; it simply presents RT’s reporting this as evidence of unfair bias. Nor does it argue that e-mails possessed by WikiLeaks do not contain evidence of criminal activity by Mrs. Clinton; instead, it insinuates that a Russian media outlet has no business reporting on this possibility.

Surely most Americans who choose to watch RT are aware that that news outlet is funded by the Russian government, just as Americans who choose to watch the BBC are aware that that outlet is funded by the government of Great Britain. If in fact many Americans do find the reporting on RT of interest, it may be because they see America’s mainstream media as, in important ways, failing to do their job of keeping the public informed. Or, to put it more simply, a lot of Americans are tired of being “entertained” and lied to by news organizations that should be telling them plainly what their own government is doing; if they can get better information from abroad, so be it. In fact, the CIA has a long tradition of attempting to shape the way news is presented in this country (do a search on “Operation Mockingbird“). Read in the light of that history, Clapper’s document can be seen as expressing chagrin at the US intelligence community’s inability to shape the public narrative in ways that it used to.

Perhaps it is even the case that some Americans, reflecting on our foreign policy, are unhappy with what our government has been doing in recent years in places like Syria, Libya, and Ukraine, and would like to see a change in direction. Perhaps some Americans, seeing a choice between favoring Saudi Arabia and its jihadist proxy troops on the one hand, and a practical cooperation with Russia on the other, favor the latter policy. It is remarkable that this document nowhere considers that as a real possibility — that is, that the American public are educated enough to make up their own minds on things that matter, and might actually favor a cooperation with Russia.

The following is another extract from a Facebook discussion. I had originally posted an article by Stephen Gowans titled “How an evidence-free CIA finding alleging Russian interference in the US election was turned into an indisputable ‘truth’“; this raised objections from an old friend of mine; then (after much spilling of ink) another friend in New Jersey, who is a teacher, remarked that some of the sources I was citing would be rejected by her in her Freshman writing class as unreliable. This was my response to her.


…,

First, I would point out that, of those sources which you say would not stand the test of credibility in your freshman writing class, one of them (the consortiumnews document) was written by a group of retired intelligence professionals whose credentials include “former Technical Director, World Geopolitical & Military Analysis, NSA,” … “former United States Senator,” … “Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Middle East, CIA,” and so on; another source is a journal called the Belfast Telegraph, which basically reports the personal testimony of a career UK diplomat, Craig Murray, who says that he met the person who leaked the DNC documents to Wikileaks and that that person is an insider, not a foreigner, an American, not a Russian; if you don’t trust the Belfast Telegraph’s account of this, you can go to Craig Murray’s own webpage, and read what he has to say about it: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/…/cias-absence-conviction/ If what you tell your Freshman writing students is that statements made by former senators, ambassadors, and members of the intelligence community are not to be trusted when those statements conflict with declarations made by the CIA and the consensus opinion presented by the New York Times and NPR, then I would submit that you are teaching your Freshman students to be dutiful parrots of an officially sanctioned narrative and not critical thinkers.

I appreciate your attempt to understand where I am coming from here, and I do not generally unfriend people unless they have a habit of being egregiously unfriendly. I think that, if you look through my Facebook page over a number of years, you will find that, from the beginning of the Syrian war, I was skeptical of the official American position, namely, that Assad is a tyrant and that the people trying to depose him are democracy-loving freedom fighters. One reason why I was skeptical of this is that, having worked in Albania and having known people who visited Syria in the past, I know that that country was, at least until this war began, the religiously most tolerant country in the Arab world. Very early in that war, two Orthodox bishops were abducted; they haven’t been heard from since, and have presumably been killed. This abduction was done by the people my government has been supporting and touting as freedom-fighters — people who also happen to be supported and funded by Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive, religiously intolerant countries in the world and a major US ally. It is one incident, but, for me, it had a certain decisive effect; it helped bring home to me the extent to which the American humanitarian rationale to this war is a lie. Virtually everything I have learned about the war since then has confirmed for me the utter falsity of the narrative about this war which most people accept as fact: that we are virtuous humanitarians, that the Russians, coming to the aid of the Syrian government, are bloodthirsty murderers, that we are genuinely committed to destroying ISIS, etc., etc. It’s all lies and propaganda, and most people, yourself included, seem quite oblivious of the extent to which so-called reputable media outlets like the New York Times and NPR feed their readers a steady diet of propaganda on issues like this.

That is perhaps why I am inclined to be skeptical towards the pronouncement by Mr. Obama and the CIA and the FBI that Mr. Trump’s presidential victory was due to the work of “Russian hackers.” I have learned, by long experience, that most of what comes out of the mouths of people like John Kirby, Samantha Powers, John Kerry and the like is (if you’ll pardon the expression) bullshit, and that Mr. Obama, who has hired these career liars to spread this manure far and wide, is himself a consummate liar and generally not to be trusted when he pontificates on American virtue and Russian perfidy.

Of course, you don’t have to believe me, and probably won’t. But the claim that people who do report on these things, who present other points of view differing from the approved narrative of the mainstream are, by definition, mere peddlers of “fake news,” or that, because a number of sources report a narrative that differs radically from the approved one, they “harbor biases” (perhaps they are biased towards the truth) is simply insulting to one’s intelligence. It supposes that educated people cannot make their own decisions, on the basis of reason and experience, about what sources of information they should trust; they need to have someone else make these decisions for them. If that is the attitude you are teaching your students, you are doing them a disservice.

Yesterday, a former student of mine, whom I count as a friend, requested on Facebook that any Facebook friends of hers who voted for Trump unfriend her. This is my response.

Dear …,

In compliance with your request on Facebook yesterday, I am unfriending you. But, for the sake of past friendship, I would ask that you read the following account of why I voted for Mr. Trump this past Tuesday. My decision came down to basically two issues: the issue of war, and the issue of crime.

First, the issue of war. Mrs. Clinton, as shown by her actions and statements over the past two decades, is a notorious war hawk, one of the architects of the doctrine of “humanitarian interventionism” that is essentially imperialism with a smiley face. In her concern to outdo the Republicans at their own game, she never met a war she didn’t like. As First Lady, she supported her husband’s bombing of Serbia; as senator, she voted in favor of the war on Iraq and supported the Patriot Act; as Secretary of State, she orchestrated the assault upon Libya which left that once prosperous country in ruins; she joked about the brutal sodomizing and murder of Libya’s president, Col. Gaddafi (“We came, we saw, he died”); she helped organize the “rat line” whereby the CIA illegally transported arms from Benghazi to jihadists in Syria via Turkey (one consequence of which was the murder of US Ambassador Chris Stevens, who recognized the danger he was in and had petitioned the State Department in vain for an armed guard); through her protégé Victoria Nuland she orchestrated a violent “color revolution” in Ukraine that has led to a civil war in that country and thousands of deaths; since leaving office, she has continued to back the terrorists fighting to overthrow the legitimate government of Syria – using the bogus excuse that the people we are supporting are “moderates” — and, disastrously, she has called for the implementation in Syria of a “no fly zone,” which could easily lead to a direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Many compare the current situation with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (frequently referred to as the most dangerous moment in human history), and have pointed out that, if anything, the dangers of nuclear war are greater now than then, partly because the existence of “mini-nukes” makes using nuclear weapons more thinkable, partly because the current Washington political establishment is less restrained and self-critical, more addicted to group-think, and more beholden to foreign governments for guiding US foreign policy. Mrs. Clinton is the perfect embodiment of that political establishment; she seems utterly oblivious to the dangers of war; like her neocon advisers, she is happy to support the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, place nuclear missiles on a hair trigger within easy striking distance of cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, and, at home, direct a constant stream of abuse towards the Russians, blaming them for all of America’s problems including Wikileaks’ revelations about corruption at the DNC and in her own campaign. Among these revelations, there is the fact that Mrs. Clinton received massive funding (illegally) from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar when she knew that these governments were funding ISIS and supplying it with arms to murder and rape women and children. This, then, in short, is why I publicly stated long ago that I could not vote for Mrs. Clinton. She is a person with a lot of blood on her hands, and has repeatedly demonstrated bad judgment in the very area where she thinks her credentials are strongest, foreign policy. I saw a vote for Clinton as being a vote for war, for an escalation of proxy regime change wars in Syria and elsewhere, and for the suicidal possibility of nuclear war with Russia and/or China. I rejected this by voting for Trump, who has clearly expressed his intention to end the Syrian war and cooperate with Russia in fighting Islamic terrorism, maintaining this position even in the face of the hypocritical media criticism that he is Putin’s puppet. With Trump, there is at least a possibility that the neocons who have dominated American foreign policy thinking for the past generation will be kicked out of power. I would like to see that.

Then there is the issue of crime. This is a more diffuse and nebulous subject, since the reported criminality of the Clintons is prodigious and multifaceted, but the facts are less easily established; at one level, this criminality involves bribery, money laundering, kick-back schemes, vote-rigging, use of a charitable organization for private enrichment, and the illegal use of a private e-mail server for transmitting classified information; at a deeper level, there is evidence that it involves kidnapping, child abuse, and murder. Because the former allegations are better known, I will focus on the latter. Around the beginning of August this year, I became aware of a string of deaths of at least five people who had been investigating the Clintons, all of whom died within the space of a month, some murdered without apparent motive, others said to have committed suicide; among them were Seth Rich, Sean Lucas, and Victor Thorn. If one does an internet search on “Clinton Body Count” one can find a remarkable infographic chart which, if nothing else, makes it clear that possessing compromising knowledge about the Clintons’ personal activities can be hazardous to one’s health. I have read enough history to understand that the common, benign assumption that American politicians are basically good and do not murder to further their careers is false; among presidents, Lyndon Johnson and the Bushes are men who rose by this nefarious practice. If mainstream news does not report these matters, if they label any attempt to shed light upon them “conspiracy theories,” it is because people in the media would rather keep their comfortable positions by writing pabulum than end up dead like Seth Rich, Sean Lucas, Victor Thorn, Michael Hastings, and other investigative journalists who sought to expose corruption in high places (note that Mrs. Clinton, in a meeting with her staff, expressed a desire that someone would get rid of Julian Assange; at first, they thought she was joking, but it became clear she wasn’t).

More recently, just before the election, I came across a picture that juxtaposed Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta and his brother Tony Podesta with police sketches made some years ago by Scotland Yard in its investigation of the abduction of a three-year-old girl, Madeleine McCann, from a hotel room in Portugal on May 3, 2007. (See http://sli.mg/vbobS8 ) To my thinking, the resemblance of the two brothers to the faces in the police sketches is uncanny, particularly so in the case of John Podesta. Later, I read an article that pointed out that the sketch resembling Tony Podesta shows a small mole over the corner of his right eyebrow; Tony Podesta has a small mole over the corresponding corner of his left eyebrow. Other evidence: Wikileaks’ cache of John Podesta’s emails begins on the day after the abduction (May 4, 2007), suggesting that earlier emails had been erased from the server; also, it shows that John Podesta in fact had visited Portugal, and had business contacts in Praia da Luz where Madeleine McCann was kidnapped. Add to this the Podesta brothers’ acquaintance with Marina Abramovic, their invitation to one of her “Spirit Cooking” affairs (a form of “art” involving blood and semen that is essentially a satanic ritual), perverse artworks in Tony Podesta’s house depicting violence to children, the association of the brothers with the “Comet Ping Pong” nightclub in Washington, D.C., and the frequent appearance in Podesta’s e-mails of pedophile code language: the result was that I became convinced that the Podestas are involved in some form of child trafficking. Other evidence tying this activity with the Clintons: Bill Clinton’s frequent flights on the convicted pedophile Jeremy Epstein’s private jet; Hillary Clinton’s intervention to free Laura Silsby, who was in jail in Haiti after being convicted of trafficking children; the sick behavior of Andrew Wiener, the husband of Mrs. Clinton’s closest adviser, Huma Abedin. The net result of all this is that it appears likely to me that child abuse is part of the political culture to which the Clintons belong, and that the Clintons themselves belong to, and probably are at the heart of, a political child trafficking ring, in which child abuse is used, among other things, for political ends — most likely, for blackmailing potential opponents so as to silence them and keep them in line.

These revelations about the Madeleine McCann abduction were what finally tipped the balance for me. Until that point, I had seriously considered voting for Jill Stein. But, given that I live in a swing state, where the election might have been decided by a few votes, I did not want to do anything that would allow Hillary Clinton to enter the White House. I voted for Trump, with a clear conscience. There are many things that I do not like about Mr. Trump, not least his grotesque private comments about women; I also disagree with him on many matters of policy, particularly concerning the environment and economics. These are important issues, but I considered them less important than preventing nuclear war and preventing a crime syndicate from taking control of the United States government. On both these issues, I am genuinely convinced that Mrs. Clinton represented a real danger. You may disagree. But I hope that the above discussion shows that my vote for Mr. Trump was not done from motives of “racism” or “sexism,” but out of concern for the common good.

Yours truly,
Peter Gilbert

The second day of the conference, Tuesday, June 29th, fell upon the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Before the conference, I had written to one of the organizers to ask if there were plans to celebrate an Orthodox liturgy on campus on that day, and offering to help with the singing if necessary; I was told that, because the Orthodox chaplain of Fordham would be out of town, there would be no liturgy. Nevertheless, because Fr. Paul, who was staying at my house, wanted to attend mass that morning, I drove in early, and arrived at the Fordham campus about a half an hour before the conference was to begin. As it turned out, the 8:30 mass did not take place where I had assumed it would (namely, in the University Chapel), so neither of us attended liturgy that morning. Given the coinciding of the conference with the feast day of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and the importance of those apostles for the theme of Orthodoxy’s relationship with the West, it seems a little odd that more was not done to give the conference a liturgical setting; it suggests that scholarship and piety are, in the minds of some, things best kept in separate boxes. Fortunately, the presentations themselves did not encourage the idea of such a separation.


(3) Symposium II: Russian Thinkers of the 19th and 20th Centuries

The morning’s proceedings got underway promptly at 9 a.m., moderated by Dr. Mary-Jane Rubenstein of Wesleyan University, who introduced the first speaker, Dr. Vera Shevzov of Smith College. Dr. Shevzov’s lecture was titled “The Burdens of Tradition: Russia’s Orthodox Academic Theologians and ‘the West’ (late XIX-early XX cc).” As I do not read Russian, and am not particularly well versed in Russian Orthodox theology, much of the morning’s discussions concerned matters with which I am relatively unfamiliar. This was especially true of the first presentation, which dealt with the Slavophile movement and with Russian academic theology in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Dr. Shevzov began her presentation by noting that a negative view of the West was inculcated in Russia from very early times. She cited the account of Great Prince Vladimir’s baptism from the twelfth century Russian primary chronicle: the priest who baptized Vladimir is there represented as telling him: “Do not accept the teachings of the Latins, whose instruction is vicious. Avoid their doctrine. God guard you from this evil, O Prince!” (Of course, the baptism of Rus’ occurred in the year 988, at a time when the churches of Rome and Constantinople were still nominally in communion, so the historicity of this narrative may be doubted.) This inheritance of Byzantine distrust was noted in 1906 by the religious thinker Vassily Roznov: “It was as if decaying and dying Byzantium whispered to Russia all of its vexations and bequeathed [them to] Russia to guard them. Russia, at the bedside of the departing one, gave its word, mortal enmity towards the Western tribes.”

But, Dr. Shevzov pointed out, Russian attitudes towards the West were complicated; religious enmity was not the whole story. At least from the time of Peter the Great, another attitude had also been fostered, that of admiration for the West’s material accomplishments. Nineteenth century Russian religious thinkers knew that the West was a fact that had to be faced if they were to give an account of Christian Orthodoxy that related it to the realities of modern life. Their various assessments of the West, in keeping with their commitment to Orthodox faith, constituted the theme of Dr. Shevzov’s presentation. “How,” she asked, “did Russia’s academic theologians conceptualize the West during these critical decades before Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik revolution?”

From 1855, during a period of “glasnost” that occurred during the reign of Tsar Alexander II, “many Orthodox academics embarked on a conscious mission to make Orthodoxy relevant to the modern world.” In this attempt, much use was made of the writings of Aleksei Khomiakov. Some nineteenth century writers credited him with framing the subject of Orthodoxy’s relationship with the West in new terms. Shevzov summed up Khomiakov’s teaching in the following way:

“Khomiakov conceived of the religious West, not as two separate and opposed confessions of faith, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but as a single phenomenon that, culturally and historically, could be traced to the civilization of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church through the Germanic tribes and the appearance of Protestants and beyond to the emergence of the modern culture of unbelief.”

Unlike previous writers, Shevzov noted, Khomiakov did not see doctrinal issues as the primary grounds for the split, but traced it back to “relational, dispositional, and ultimately experiential” causes, to a fundamentally different way of understanding ecclesial communion.

“‘Romanism began,’ wrote Khomiakov, ‘at the moment when Christians in the West placed personal independence and regional opinions over and above a universal unity of faith.’ By its act of unilaterally changing the Creed, the Roman world, he argued, implicitly declared that in its eyes the entire East was nothing but a world of bondsmen in matters of faith and teaching. And, with it, the ecclesial life ended for an entire half of the Church. The act of inserting the Filioque into the Creed, for Khomiakov, therefore, was more significant than the meaning of that clause. Its insertion was no less than what he called ‘an act of moral fratricide in the life of the Church.’”

“The propensity for unilateral thinking and action” resulted in what Khomiakov saw as “the unavoidable decline of faith in the West.” It “deprived faith of its moral foundation, thereby making authentic faith impossible.”

Even for Khomiakov, however, this characterization of the West as the scene of a religious decline does not tell the whole story. It is significant that Khomiakov’s most influential work, the essay “The Church is One,” had to be translated into Russian out of French.

In the latter part of her lecture, Dr. Shevzov surveyed some of the responses to Khomiakov among Russian academic theologians, responses which feature as one aspect of the nineteenth century Russian debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers. Not all academic theologians agreed with Khomiakov’s account of the West and of Orthodox Christianity. While some criticized his views about the Orthodox Church, many of them criticized his identification of Christianity with “national or cultural types.” A certain Professor Tsernovsky, from Kiev, argued against drawing sharp lines between Western and Eastern spiritual dispositions. He pointed out that many religious stereotypes (the organic, spiritual-minded East; the fragmented, legal-minded West) do not hold up upon close scrutiny; he asked why, if Russia represents a spiritually higher type, is the West so successful? In 1885, one Aleksandr Lupokhin wrote of Petrine, Pauline, and Johannine types; he thought only the Johannine type fully captured the essence of Christianity. (This motif was later taken up by Vladimir Soloviev, who drew from it a somewhat different conclusion.)

Dr. Shevzov ended her lecture by noting that, by the early twentieth century, Khomiakov and his views on the West were already coming to be regarded as “tradition,” and that this “tradition,” although never accepted completely uncritically (Fr. Pavel Florensky was cited as one author who saw it as raising a host of problems), continues to pose important challenges for us at the present time.

At the risk of sounding overly critical, I will add one further word. The impression was occasionally given, in the course of Dr. Shevzov’s lecture, that the necessity for her to read her paper within the allotted time overruled, in her own mind, the necessity for her audience to understand what she was saying. If (as is most unlikely) she should ever read this account of her lecture, I would urge her, in future presentations, to make a greater concession to human frailty, and speak more slowly.

* * *

Next, Professor Antoine Arjakovsky, a Russian Orthodox Christian who is Director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University at Lviv, spoke on “The Russian Religious Thinkers of the 20th Century and the Rediscovery of the West.” Dr. Rubenstein, the moderator, noted that Dr. Arjakovsky is a leader in ecumenical discussions, someone who has consistently advocated closer contacts and cooperation between Orthodox living in the West and Eastern-rite Catholics living in the East. A book of his essays has been translated into English, Church, Culture, and Identity: Reflections on Orthodoxy in the Modern World.

Dr. Arjakovsky stated at the outset of his lecture that this conference is important, not only for Orthodox identity, but for Christian identity as such. Orthodox have come to define themselves against the West; in response, Westerners have come to define themselves as not Orthodox. “But, if the consciousness of the universal Church succeeded in not opposing these two notions of West and Christian Orthodoxy, a new world,” he said, “would be outlined.” This remark was echoed again at the very end of his lecture, where he mentioned his hope for seeing the beginnings of “a post-secular world.”

Most of Dr. Arjakovsky’s lecture was organized into two parts. The first part treated of “critics of the West among Russian philosophers”; the second, longer part examined “the reversal of this criticism.”

Dr. Arjakovsky pointed out that, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, many members of the Russian emigration viewed the West as responsible for the human disaster that had just taken place. Men like Florovsky, Berdyaev, Zinkovsky, Trubetskoi, Bulgakov and others were vocal in their criticisms of the West, with its rationalism and individualism; some of them shared Oswald Spengler’s views about an inevitable decline in the civilization of Europe. Berdyaev, in an essay written in 1926 about Konstantin Leontiev, acknowledged Leontiev as one of the first to recognize the multifarious nature of Western bourgeois culture and agreed with him in looking towards the Russian soul as a source of revival for all humanity. The linguist Nikolai Trubetskoi, who had settled in Berlin in 1925, wrote of the Russian soul’s having become contaminated by the Western enlightenment, and needing to look eastward towards the Mongolian tribes of Ural and Altai; his theories became the source of something called “the Eurasian movement,” which, before this conference, I had never heard of, but which, apparently, is the source of some important currents of political thought in contemporary Russia; mention was made of a certain Aleksandr Dugin, a contemporary writer of this school who has been influential on Vladimir Putin. In the 1920’s, members of the Eurasian movement included the writers Bitsili, Savitsky, Florovsky, Zuvchinsky, and Zinkovsky (note: this is from audio transcription; it is quite possible that some of these names are misspelled).

“For these thinkers, the crisis of the West was bound to a metaphysical problem,” a problem traced to a deviation from Orthodox faith. Like the later Yannaras, Sergei Bulgakov wrote at this time of Thomas Aquinas as beginning, not from the personal, trihypostatic God, but from Aristotle’s impersonal divinity. This metaphysical analysis led, in the second generation of the Russian Orthodox diaspora, to a new self-definition as Orthodox (rather than as Russian, Serb, etc.) among men like Lossky, Schmemann, Meyendorff, and Evdokimov. An insistence upon Orthodoxy as the heart of their Christian identity, which they defined in a universal, not nationalistic, way.

At this point, Dr. Arjakovsky moved on to the second part of his lecture, his consideration of the reversal of the criticism of the West. He first pointed out that Russian thought in the twentieth century was not static or monolithic. Through their bonds of friendship with Western Christians in Germany, France, and Great Britain, many members of the Russian diaspora, in the 1920’s and 30’s, came to a new discovery of the complexity of the West, and, with that, came to reexamine certain ways of understanding the Christian East. Notions of a “Holy Russia” (Sviataya Rus’) opposed to a heretical West were seen as partaking of a certain mythologizing tendency, bordering on Manichaeism. Fedotov wrote, in 1926 in the journal Put’ (“the Way”), of his friendship with Benedictines; Bulgakov wrote in his memoir of his friendship with a Greek Catholic priest from Lithuania; likewise, there was his friendship with Bp. Gore, in connection with the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. One landmark discussion at this time was a conference held in Paris on May 27, 1930, on the subject of East and West, attended by such men as Malraux, Maritain, Berdyaev; the “East,” for the French at that time, meant, more particularly, Germany. Berdyaev was convinced that notions of “East” and “West” are “myths”: we are always to the East of somebody else. At this conference Berdyaev asserted, carelessly, that “Russia is the country of revelation; Russia will one day save the West.” To which a friend of Malraux’s, Jean Absence [?], replied: “That Christianity comes from Jerusalem does not mean that the West was not baptized.” (I would note, in passing, that this reply recalls the response given by St. Gregory the Theologian in the fourth century to those, at the Second Ecumenical Council, who were claiming that the East enjoys primacy or spiritual seniority, because that is where Christ was made man, and that is where the sun rises; St. Gregory replied that, if Christ became incarnate in the East, it was very possibly because he knew that, to work human salvation, he had also to die, and it was easier for him to get killed there.)

These contacts and experiences of life in the West, Dr. Arjakovsky noted, led some of these Russian thinkers to rethink Orthodox history, a rethinking that was connected with their involvement in the ecumenical movement. He gave three concrete examples:

  1. Berdyaev’s critique of Florovsky’s voluntarist historiography;
  2. Bulgakov’s critique of the Orthodox historiography of the Council of Florence; and
  3. Nikolai Zernov’s and Mira Lot-Borodine’s criticism of the myth of Holy Rus’.

I will speak mostly about the first two of these. Berdyaev, in an article that appeared in the journal Put’ in 1937, criticized Florovsky’s Ways of Russian Theology, with its story of the fall of Russian theology from the standards of Byzantine perfection, as romanticized nostalgia for a mythical, lost paradise. Florovsky, Berdyaev wrote, “does not admit that Byzantinism either fell into decline or died by virtue of its own actions.” He saw him as uncritically accepting anti-Western Slavophile theories. According to Berdyaev, Florovsky’s failure to engage with philosophical categories of thought prevented him from appreciating many Russian authors, including Tolstoy. (Dr. Arjakovsky noted that, in a recent book on Orthodoxy, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev tries to rehabilitate Tolstoy, but he doesn’t address Tolstoy’s reasons for being dissatisfied with the Russian Orthodox culture of his day.) Moreover, Florovsky rejects Peter Moghila as a latinizer, although he can find in his works not one theological proposition that he can positively dismiss as unorthodox; in a similar vein, the Council of Jassy, which accepted Moghila’s statement of faith, was accepted by the four Eastern patriarchates, yet Christos Yannaras describes it as a “Latin council.”

In moving on to his second point, Bulgakov’s critique of the Orthodox historiography of the Council of Florence, Dr. Arjakovsky noted that, although Bulgakov later rejected “the temptation to accept papal infallibility,” he never went back on his acceptance of the ecumenicity of the Council of Florence, an acceptance first stated in 1922; even in his memoir, Quiet Thoughts, written late in his life, he still maintains this point. Bulgakov thinks that many of the problems faced by the Russian Church in its history could have been avoided if the Council of Florence had been accepted by the Orthodox people. (Among these problems: its paralysis, its support for Caesaropapism, its incapacity to set up a doctrinal authority that protects the truth of the faith….) He throws out the historiography that rejects Florence as a “pseudo-council.” All the local Churches participated in this council; all approved it. The Patriarch, the Emperor, sixteen metropolitans, signed the Decree of Union. True, Mark of Ephesus refused to sign. But never, at any previous ecumenical council, had there been total unanimity. Bulgakov did not accept the claim that “pressures” on the Greek delgation to accept union constitute sufficient grounds for rejecting the council as invalid. No previous council had allowed its delegates so much time to make up their minds (that they were not forced to stay is shown by the fact that some of the Greeks left of their own free will). No previous council had occasioned greater expenses than the pope had incurred at this council to maintain the large Greek delegation. Bulgakov questions whether a local council (Constantinople 1484) has the right to revoke the decisions of what he calls “the Eighth Ecumenical Council.” Only a new ecumenical council would possess such a right, and a new ecumenical council hasn’t occurred.

It is not only Bulgakov, among Orthodox theologians, who saw Florence as a true and canonically-valid council. Arjakovsky notes that Olivier Clément also shared this view.

Clément wrote an essay on Francis of Assisi, which, said Dr. Arjakovsky, is about to appear in print in about a month; he read a rather lengthy passage from it. The passage noted that, whereas Western (Franciscan) spirituality is commonly thought to stress the stigmata and Good Friday, Orthodox spirituality, by contrast, is seen as stressing the Taboric Light and the resurrection. But Francis’s stigmata are a reply to the glorified Lord, who, in his resurrected body, retains the marks of his crucifixion. For Clément, the holiness of St. Francis is a revelation of the Church. If Francis is a saint, it is because “the eucharist (in the West, after 1054) kept all its power of life.” This presence of holiness means, for Clément, that, in the East and in the West, there is one single eucharist, hence, one single Church. In responding to the lives of the saints, who reveal the divine-human reality of Christ in both East and West, we must not be confined to the surface level of things, but dig towards the center.

Professor Arjakovsky concluded his lecture by asking whether, if Orthodoxy is in fact, as Florovsky and Yannaras have stated, a “life-style,” and not a religion (“the transformation of the mortal individuality into the personal relation,” as Yannaras says), it is genuinely possible to confine this experience within the boundaries of Hellenic and Russian civilization. As Sergei Bulgakov wrote in 1932, “Orthodoxy is not an institution. Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on the Earth. It is the New Life, with and in the Christ, moved by the Holy Spirit.” Thanks to this definition, Arjakovsky said, “Eastern Churches can open to Western Churches in a new and more reconciled way, and vice versa. This is, for me, the beginning of a post-secular world.”

* * *

The third lecturer that morning was Dr. Paul Gavrilyuk, associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas and an author whose recent works include The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought (Oxford 2004) and Histoire du catéchuménat dans l’Église ancienne [A history of the catechumenate in the ancient Church] (Paris: Cerf, 2007). He spoke on the theme, “The Case of ‘Westernization’ vs. Hellenization: the Methodological Limitations of Georges Florovsky’s ‘Neopatristic Synthesis.’”

Dr. Gavrilyuk wished participants at the conference a happy feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul, thanked Professors Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou for organizing the event, and noted his sense that, at this conference, “we are witnessing something new, perhaps a new trend, perhaps a new school of Orthodox theology” (the “Fordham school”?).

He added, “it is very common among us Orthodox to use the category of the West as a blanket for everything that is wrong with the world in general, and with theology in particular.” He expressed his hope that the main contribution of this conference would be to deconstruct and question “this rather facile, cavalier, and rather obviously false assertion,” together with his hope that the results of this conference (and of recent, similar conferences at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and the Volos Academy in Greece) would be disseminated among the Orthodox faithful, that we would not merely be talking amongst ourselves.

After these preliminaries, Dr. Gavrilyuk summed up the approach he would be taking to his subject. Having reminded his audience that the late Archpriest Georges Florovsky is credited with initiating a “return to the fathers” in twentieth century Orthodox theology, that Florovsky viewed Christian Hellenism as “the norm by which all modern theological proposals were to be judged,” believed Western influences had led to the “Babylonian captivity” of Eastern Orthodox thought, and offered a “Neo-Patristic synthesis” as a reform program, Dr. Gavrilyuk stated three things that he proposed to do:

”In this paper, I will discuss the polemical motivations and the constructive aspirations of Florovsky’s retrieval of the fathers.

“I will discuss how his engagement with the Eurasian movement influenced his thinking about the Ways of Russian Theology….

“I will also consider the methodological parallels between Adolph von Harnack’s view of the ‘Hellenization’ of early Christian theology and Florovsky’s account of the ‘Westernization’ of Russian theology.”

On the whole, that was a very accurate synopsis of what Dr. Gavrilyuk proceeded to speak about in the course of his lecture. Rather than recount in detail what was said in it (which would carry this already-long blog post to extraordinary lengths), I will content myself here with noting some of the main things I learned.

As a young man, Florovsky lived through a time of political crisis (a world war, two Russian revolutions, the exiling of the religious intelligentsia, the rise of Hitler in Germany), and the sense of crisis never left him. One of the ways the Russian emigrés responded to their new immersion in a foreign society was to turn their attention towards the nineteenth century Russian debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles. In the early 1920’s, Florovsky (whose family left Russia in 1920) participated in the “Eurasian movement,” a kind of updated Slavophilism, about which something already was said above. It was a movement which aimed at becoming the ideological future of Russia (and which, Dr. Gavrilyuk noted, now appears to be succeeding in the persons of Putin and Medvedev). Between the years 1921 and 1923, the Eurasians produced three volumes of collected essays, The Exodus to the East (1921), The Ways [?] (1922), and Russia and Latinity (1923); Florovsky was one of the contributors to these volumes. The Eurasians were relentless critics of “the rotten, decaying West” (an expression borrowed from the Slavophile Nikolai Danievski, later to be echoed by Nikita Khrushchev). Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West had begun to appear in the year 1918, and was read by the Eurasians and other Russian emigrés; it is from this work that Florovsky borrows his term “pseudomorphosis.”

The Eurasians were strongly critical of Roman Catholicism, to which they referred using the term “Latinity.” The harshest statements occur in their third volume of essays, Russia and Latinity, in the introduction to which it is claimed that, “for a Russian Orthodox believer in France to be converted to Roman Catholicism is worse than to be killed by the Bolsheviks in Communist Russia: the former leads to the eternal perdition of the soul, the latter, merely to the temporal destruction of the body.” When this assertion was criticized by Prince Trubetskoi in the pages of the journal Put’, the Eurasians promptly responded by publishing an open letter in defense of their comparison of Bolshevism and Catholicism, an open letter which Florovsky signed. Although Florovsky later claimed that he had never completely shared in the Eurasians’ political agenda, it seems fairly clear that, at this stage in his career, he must have shared to some extent in their anti-Western, anti-Catholic sentiments. (The charge came rather quickly from Berdyaev that the Eurasian movement had fascist tendencies.)

In 1926, Florovsky began to distance himself from the other Eurasians, and his final break with the movement came with his publication of an article, “The Eurasian Delusion” (1928). It seems that it was the political side of the movement with which he chiefly disagreed.

Dr. Gavrilyuk believes that “there is a connection between the anti-Western impulse of Eurasianism and the fundamental methodological assumption of The Ways of Russian Theology.” Any rapprochement with the West, the Eurasians held, would distort Russia’s historical destiny. Similarly, in his preface to The Ways of Russian Theology, Florovsky expressed his conviction that “all interruptions and spiritual failures in Russian development” had occurred on account of Russia’s “intellectual separation from Patristics and Byzantinism,” and his intention to narrate the history of those failures in that volume.

Prof. Gavrilyuk described Florovsky’s Ways of Russian Theology as a drama in three acts, with a significant prelude. The prelude is Medieval Russia’s fateful decision to embrace Byzantine Christianity, but, together with this, its inadequate appropriation of the Byzantine heritage. Liturgy, iconography, and asceticism were taken on; theology, as such, was not. The enormous richness of cultural material was, Florovsky stated, a heritage “too heavy and too perfect” to be absorbed.

The first act of the drama shows a Latin pseudomorphosis. It is the period of the Kievan academy, under Peter Moghila. Florovsky acknowledges that, under Moghila, the Russian Church emerged from the disorganization it had experienced in the aftermath of the Synod of Brest-Litovsk (1596). But, he said, “everything was suffused with an alien spirit,” a Latin spirit. “The very soul of the people comes to be latinized.” Gavrilyuk noted the connection of this description with the rhetoric of the Eurasian pamphlets, and the use made by Florovsky of Spengler’s notion of “pseudomorphosis.”

The second act showed a Protestantizing pseudomorphosis. It was the period of Peter the Great’s reforms, his abrogating of the Patriarchate, his instituting of the office of Prokurator in the person of Theophan Prokopovich. Everything was to be fitted to Protestant standards. The theological effect of this was a divorce between school theology and popular piety, a divorce not overcome until the nineteenth century.

The third act was seen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a pseudomorphic transformation of Orthodox theology under the influence of German philosophical idealism. In this case, Florovsky’s polemics were directed chiefly against the Orthodox Sophiologists: Soloviev, Florensky, Bulgakov, and others. He considered them as exhibiting an even greater estrangement from patristic theology than the previous aberrations — a claim which Dr. Gavrilyuk stated was quite unfair.

Later in his lecture, Prof. Gavrilyuk drew a detailed comparison between the functional role played by the idea of “westernization” in Florovsky’s thought and the idea of “hellenization” as found in the writings of the historian Adoph von Harnack (1851-1930). Both authors see an originally pure Christian state to have been corrupted: Harnack sees “hellenization” as having corrupted the primitive Christian message; Florovsky sees “westernization,” in its various manifestations, as the recurrent bane of Russian Christianity, and that from which it must be cured by a heavy dose of the fathers — for Florovsky, indeed, Russian Christianity needs to be “re-hellenized.” Although Florovsky strongly disagrees with Harnack in his assessment of the appropriateness of Greek, ontological modes of thought as applied to the Christian Gospel, he resembles him in terms of his methodology; Gavrilyuk describes him as Harnack’s “theological antidote.”

Some of the most interesting reflections in the lecture occurred towards the end, when Professor Gavrilyuk raised questions about how far Florovsky’s attitudes towards Western Christianity may have been modified by the fact of his living in the West for most of his life. He was certainly not unsensible of the virtues of the Christians among whom he lived. In a speech given at the opening of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, at a time when he had become a notable and respected figure in the ecumenical movement, Florovsky said the following:

“Orthodoxy theology has, in recent decades, been speedily recovering from the unhappy pseudomorphosis by which it was paralyzed for too long. But to regain once more its own Eastern style and temper must mean for Orthodox theology no detachment from the rest of the Christian world. What is to be rejected and repudiated, in the Westernizing school of Orthodox theology, is its blind subservience to the foreign traditions of the schools, and not its response to the challenges of other traditions, not the fraternal appreciation of what has been achieved by others. All riches of the Orthodox tradition can be disclosed and consummated only in a standing intercourse with the whole of the Christian world. The East must face and meet the challenge of the West, and the West, perhaps, has to pay more attention to the legacy of the East….”

Professor Gavrilyuk concluded his lecture with a theological meditation, which I hope I may be allowed to quote:

“The difference of the theological grammars of East and West is not a sufficient ground for guarding our theology forever against all Western influences. The distinctly Western theological beliefs are often assumed to be false merely on the grounds that they are Western. This genetic fallacy has poisoned our theological thinking for too long. Yet it is precisely the staunchly anti-Western Orthodox thinkers who end up being utterly dependent upon the West, even if this dependence is expressed in the form of a reflective rejection. If we reject the Western Other, without making an effort to understand the Other, paradoxically we are letting ourselves be more dependent on the Other. The search for truth cannot be limited by geography. It is not the cultural uniqueness of Eastern Orthodoxy, but the divine revelation, appropriated by the mind of the Church, that should serve as the main criterion of Orthodoxy. Thus, in order to fulfill Florovsky’s inspiring vision, we need to move beyond the limitations of his historiography.”

All in all, a remarkable lecture, and a remarkable session of the conference, one that I am grateful that I was able to attend.