SOCIETY
Russia as a Katechon: ‘Civilizationism’ and Eschatological Discourse in Putin’s Russia
July 1, 2022
Victor Shnirelman
Senior scholar, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow
Victor Shnirelman explains the popularity of the civilizational discourse among the Russian military, security and clergy as a response to globalization, which threatens their political sovereignty. 
Babylon tower. Source: Wiki Commons
A visible trend nowadays is a longing for a civilization that replaces the nation in a certain political environment. This is what one can observe in Russia with its “civilizational nationalism,” as it is called by certain experts, or what I would call “civilizationism.” In fact, whereas in the late Soviet decades a number of ethnic groups (Tatars, Adyghe people and Sakha-Yakut among others) wanted to be viewed as nations, in the 1990s and very early 2000s they made their best to present themselves as distinct civilizations. 

However, whereas a nation is characterized by a political arrangement, institutions and state borders, the notion of civilization is more obscure. It is frequently defined by reference to a dominant religion, but it can also be a particular outlook, system of values, sacred writing system and even economic system. Its borders are fluid and fluctuating. As a result, defining civilization suffers from subjectivity. That is why it is so appealing for expansive, imperial powers.
“The logic of the Soviet political system approved by the Soviet theory of ethnos inevitably led to the racialization of ethnos as an integrated 'collective body'."
This logic proceeded from its perception as an “organism” and included such precepts as the “originality” of national (ethnic) culture, “national character” and “the unity of psychological disposition” (according to Stalin), a search for the persistence of all these elements in ethnogenesis and finally a claim of endogamy, which made ethnos a biological population. That is why in this part of the world nationalism manifested itself as an ethnic one, a view of culture as a closed body. 

The term of “civilization” seemed to follow a similar trajectory. Whereas in the late 18th century it was an integral element of an evolutionary outline, represented by the three-age system of savagery, barbarianism, and civilization, 100 years later the first cases of the civilizational paradigm appeared. Hence, humanity was viewed as a set of various civilizations, alien to each other, developing side by side and never mixing with each other. 

More than another half century would have to pass before Arnold Toynbee would look at contact between civilizations. Yet, to him as well, civilizations appeared as integrated wholes which could make contact, conduct a dialogue, bring forth one another, but were unable to merge or exchange human resources. If they tried to do this, Toynbee believed, they embarked on a great risk.

Different interpretations of “civilization” in today’s Russia

The rich civilizational discourse of the last 30 years in Russia demonstrates a great diversity. Currently, there are four general views and four ways to interpret civilization in Russia: first, there is a scholarly search for a new paradigm that overcomes the reductionism of the Marxist formational approach; second, a political project that opposes a unipolar world and, instead, wants the world to be a multipolar system consisting of a number of distinct civilizations with their own original cultures and, importantly, their own political systems; third, a geopolitical project focused on an inevitable conflict of two civilizations – terrestrial (Russian) and maritime (Western in general, or Anglo-Saxon in particular); and fourth, an eschatological view of reality as a confrontation between cosmic Good and cosmic Evil, which is perceived by the Russian Orthodox Church as the confrontation of Russia as the Katechon (i.e. restrainer) with the collective West.
“Over recent decades, Russian Orthodox radicals divided the world into two civilizations – one of Jesus Christ and one of the Antichrist."
Here I focus on the fourth interpretation, which actually blends eschatology with esotericism, geopolitics and the remnants of Soviet ideology to offer the general public a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are in high demand in contemporary Russia. They have a variety of versions, but their core idea of a global conspiracy is rooted in Russian Orthodox eschatology (for details see my book V. A, Shnirelman, Uderzhivaiushchiy: ot Apokalipsisa k Konspirologii. Moscow: Nestor-Istoria, 2022). Over the last 30 years, the Russian Orthodox radicals following Metropolitan Ioann have depicted world history as a struggle between two civilizations – a Good one (Russian Orthodox) and an Evil one (Judeo-Masonic), the former acting on behalf of Jesus Christ and the latter on behalf of the Antichrist.

Russian Orthodox radicals’ view of Russia as a Katechon

These radicals include certain priests as well as lay people – political activists, journalists and writers. They base themselves on Russian Orthodox eschatology and worry about the end of time and the Antichrist’s arrival. They view Russia as the Katechon whose mission is to rescue the world from the Antichrist who allegedly has arrived in the West. That is why the West is supposedly backsliding and rapidly disintegrating.

Moreover, according to the Russian Orthodox radicals, the Devil’s forces are aligned with the Jews, who allegedly already occupy almost an entire world, and only Russia is doing all it can to rescue it. Thus, the radicals share an obsolete medieval eschatological myth, which turned the Jews into Satan’s army.

The diversity within this interpretation can be illustrated with a few very revealing cases. Economist Oleg Platonov viewed history as a clash of two civilizations – Russian Orthodox and “Judeo-Masonic,” which has manifested itself as a 2,000-year conflict between Christianity and the “Judeo-Talmudic ideology.”
(see his book O. A, Platonov, Taina bezzakonia: iudaizm i mazsonstvo protiv Khristianskoi tsivilizatsii.Moscow: Rodnik, 1998). He presented Russia as the main Christian country. The Russian people had temporarily diverged from the faith, which led to the tragedies of the 20th century. This view made up the core of all his conspiracy theories, which claimed the Jews were the “Devil’s children” and implicated them in secret plots to murder Christian monarchs.

In addition, Platonov argued that the Pope was a stanch Jewish ally while he struggled against Christian Rus’. It is because of this that the Pope has proven himself to be an enemy of true Christianity and served the Antichrist.

Economist Valentin Katasonov, a professor at the prestigious MGIMO, also focused on two civilizations. Initially, he imagined them as a “money civilization” and a “Christian civilization,” the former filled with the “Jewish spirit” and continuously corrupting and conquering the latter (see his book V. Yu, Katasonov, Kapitalizm. Istoriia i ideologia “denezhnoi tsivilizatsii.” Moscow: Institut russkoi tsivilizatsii, 2013). He was obsessed with the “Jewish factor” and argued that the Jews, inspired by “international Zionism,” wanted to establish world dominance. Later on, he renamed the two opposing civilizations Abel and Cain. In his view, Cain’s descendants distorted the original Teaching by introducing the Talmud and Kabbala and pushed the world toward the end of time.
“Katasonov argued that Holy Rus’ belonged to Abel’s civilization and opposed its integration into Cain’s civilization."
General Ivashov at the 2005 Axis for Peace conference. Source: Wiki Commons
A secular version

Retired General Leonid Ivashov combined geopolitics with eschatology (L. G, Ivashov, Geopolitika russkoi tsivilizatsii. Moscow: Institut russkoi tsivilizatsii, 2015). Although he said the world was populated by a number of various civilizations, he focused on the struggle between the maritime (Anglo-Saxon) and terrestrial (Russian, or Eurasian). He claimed that the former viewed Russia only as “prey.” In addition, it is not just a clash of civilizations, but their eternal struggle had been predetermined. Thirdly, Ivashov explained that “Western society, precisely its elite part, being controlled by Jewish financial capital, destroyed all the principles on which the humanity has been built…” and is leading the world to death. In another talk, he made it clear that the US was ruled by “Jewish capital of the Hasidic type.” Thus, in his view the West is ruled by Jews.

Finally, he presented Russia as the Katechon. Thus, he easily shifted from geopolitics to religious dogma based on quite different ideas about the end of time. In fact, this narrative restores the Nazi Messianic myth where Good was represented by the “German spiritual civilization” and Evil was identified as the spiritless “plutocratic” Western civilization that was cover for the “world Jewish plot.” It is this very myth that is reflected in Ivashov’s geopolitical narrative about a struggle between two civilizations.

A secular version of this narrative was developed by radical journalist Maxim Kalashnikov, who depicted the opposition of two worlds: the American based on the “Jewish-Talmudic spirit” and the Aryo-Slavic with its Byzantine-Orthodox roots, represented by the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Once again, there was a struggle between the two civilizations – “Yankee-Zionist” and imperial “Aryo-Slavic” (M, Kalashnikov, Slomannyi mech imperii. Moscow: Krymsky most-9D, 1998).
“Later, Kalashnikov came to view the West and the US as an 'anti-humanity,' which could be resisted only by Russia."
Painting of the Fall of Constantinople, by Theophilos Hatzimihail, 1928. Source: Wiki Commons
One of his books has the subtitle “Russia Nearing Death. Apocalypse Now.” He depicted a battle between the Antichrist and the Katechon. To be precise, he revised his former views and presented the Russian nomenclature as the main enemy. However, coming back to the eschatological view of history, he declared that a great historical cycle was over and an Apocalyptic scenario was near. He recalled the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and lamented the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Thus, there was no “restrainer” anymore and the arrival of fascism was inevitable.

Finally, philosopher Valery Averianov and like-minded fellows from the so-called Izborsky Club presented a report in 2012 that also focused on a “struggle of civilizations,” in which Russia took part throughout its long history. Although its civilization was depicted as Orthodox, “state sovereignty” was singled out as the main sacred object. And its enemies were identified as foreign instigators who sowed discord and divided people into “Whites” and “Reds.” Notably, these enemies stood against “Russian civilization,” the bearer of the “eternal substance of the Russian tradition,” rather than against the Russian state. 

The civilizational discourse is an elite one (it is shared mainly by elements of the military, security and clergy). It is a response to globalization, which scares national elites in modernizing states, and they are doing their best to secure political sovereignty, meaning their own privileges. Although they claim that Russians share some civilizational identity, this is very far from the truth. According to opinion polls, the civilizational discourse is less popular among the general public, and despite all the efforts of the authorities, it looks very marginal in textbooks. Yet, it has been promoted by President Putin since 2012 and recently has been picked up by Russian propagandists and used to justify the Russian invasion into Ukraine as an attempt to withstand an assault from the West.
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