Mishpacha, Mar. 15, 2022
Dr. Anna Geifman shocked guests at a Shabbos table last week in Jerusalem with her bold statement that Vladimir Putin sees himself as a messianic figure, and that’s a major driving force behind both his decision to invade Ukraine and his penchant for adventurism in foreign policy.
Had I been at that Shabbos table, I wouldn’t have been shocked. Six years ago, after Putin’s conquest of Crimea in southeast Ukraine had settled in, I heard Dr. Geifman lecture on Russian-style messianism at the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University, where she is a senior researcher in the political studies department. (We reported on this in “Putin’s Messianic Ambitions,” Issue #599.)
Dr. Geifman, a Shabbos-observant professor, knows both the turf and the Russian mentality. She grew up in Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad), and moved to Boston in the mid-1970s as a teenager. She keeps close contact with many Russian and Ukrainian friends. In a follow-up interview last week, she rejected theories in the mainstream media that Russian president Vladimir Putin is deranged.
“He’s not crazy — he’s messianic,” Dr. Geifman says. “What Putin says is logical, and consistent with his entire policy since 2008.”
That’s when the global financial system collapsed, followed three years later by massive election fraud in Russia. At the time, Dr. Geifman contended that while Putin did not aim to sell his people a well-formulated ideology or messianic mission, it became difficult to sustain public support without a coherent message.
“To sustain his legitimacy,” she wrote, “the regime chose to delineate a more national-patriotic and anti-Western direction, grounding its appeal on a strong conservative, Orthodox [Christian] foundation.”
Putin tied himself to a 16th-century theology that called Moscow the “Third Rome,” a concept we will explain shortly. “He may not use that term, but he talks about the corruption of the West, with its ‘everything goes’ lifestyle that no longer differentiates between good and evil.”
Not that Putin, or Russia, can serve as a moral example to the human race, but Putin has something much bigger in mind. His goal is to make Russia great again. But unlike former president Trump, who employed a similar slogan to call for harnessing America’s economic and military power for the global good, Putin means something else entirely.
“In his eyes, greatness doesn’t mean being bighearted,” Dr. Geifman explains. “In Russia, national greatness is represented by the state and its glory. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. And this is the mistake the West makes when we try to project our values onto a diametrically different culture.”
No Tikkun Olam
The concept of the “Third Rome” propels Moscow’s messianic view of itself as a central global player in the new world order.
It dates back to 1453, when the Turks defeated the Byzantine Empire, whose seat of power was Constantinople. Russia viewed the fall of Constantinople as a divine punishment to the Greeks following a centuries-old schism between the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches.
In the early 16th century, the Russian monk Philotheus wrote an epistle to Czar Vasily III, proclaiming that Moscow had supplanted Constantinople — which he called “the second Rome” — and as the third and final Rome, Moscow would serve as the spiritual center of the entire Christian world, “charged with special responsibility for the salvation of all humanity.”
Even the Bolshevik Revolution and 70 years of state-mandated atheism under Communist rule could not douse an ancient religious legend among the Russian intelligentsia.
As Dr. Geifman noted when we first discussed this six years ago: “If you look at the early writings of some of the most important poets of the Soviet era, you will see they saw the Soviet Revolution as part of a messianic process. Horrible as it was, they said, ‘This is the apocalypse, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.’”
Putin invoked this doctrine publicly for the first time in September 2013, addressing some 900 people who had gathered from more than 60 countries at the Valdai Discussion Club, a group formed in 2004 to promote dialogue between Russian and international intellectual elites.
In that speech, Putin praised Russia for rediscovering itself, and lambasted “many of the Euro-Atlantic countries [who] are rejecting their roots, including Christian values.”
English: Countries’ reactions and attitudes towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
In reaction to the scathing Western condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used similar language, scolding the “godless West, hostile to the Russians because we [remain] Christian traditionalists.”
Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea fit right into another ancient religious narrative. In the 10th century, Prince Vladimir, the founder of Russian statehood, was baptized in the Crimea — a land Putin claims is as sacred for the Russian people as the Temple Mount is for Jews and Muslims.
However, unlike the Jewish tradition, in which Mashiach ushers in a perfected world with an end to evil and sin, service to the one true G-d, and peace and prosperity for all, Russia’s brand of messianism is medieval.
“In the Russian mentality, this world cannot be fixed up after the original sin, because all have been corrupted,” Dr. Geifman says. “You can repent by following the Russian Orthodox way of worship and installing it as your way of life.”
How Ukraine Fits In
Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, was the seat of the original Russian state when it was formed more than 1,000 years ago — which makes it no less meaningful than Moscow. That’s one reason Putin is incensed with Ukraine growing closer to the West, especially when talk turns to Ukraine becoming a NATO member. Ukraine is essential to Putin, and for him, it’s a domestic issue, and not one left up to international intervention.
“Imagine Israel’s reaction,” says Dr. Geifman, “if the Jews who lived in the Jordan River Valley wanted independence and started calling themselves the ‘Jordan Valley Independent State.’ Disregarding historical evidence to the contrary, Putin views Ukraine as part of the Russian family. Their independence is a slap in the face to his ideology.”
While Putin made his first land grab in Crimea in 2014 and has supported pro-Moscow rebels in two more Ukrainian provinces that border Russia, I asked Dr. Geifman what made Putin launch a full-frontal assault now.
Here, Dr. Geifman grows cautious and mainly declines to speculate.
“There are many possibilities,” she begins. “He’s 69 years old. He’s not getting younger, and you need your full strength for this. Maybe this is his last act before he retires?”
The invasion might also serve as a distraction from Russia’s inability to compete economically with the West and offer its people a higher standard of living, even 30 years after the fall of Communism.
Russia is a major nuclear power, and one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of oil and gas. Russia knows many nations are reliant on those exports, and has exploited that as an economic weapon against the West, who in turn are seeking alternate energy sources and have slapped sanctions on Russia. Those sanctions will bite the average Citizen, some of whom still recall the Soviet era when people lacked basic consumer products like shoes, toilet paper, toothpaste, toothbrushes and spare parts for household appliances.
However, don’t expect shortages to lead to an internal revolt against the Putin regime. Despite some highly publicized anti-war demonstrators, the vast majority of Russians are afraid of criticizing their government.
This week Dr. Geifman spoke to one friend with a family member who just “disappeared,” most likely forced to fight in Ukraine.
“In Putin’s lexicon, this is a military operation, not a war, so there is no announced draft,” Dr. Geifman says. “People are just being dragged into the army.”
The Russian media still force-feeds its people propaganda, and even citizens who know foreign languages and have access to satellite television watch government channels that claim that Ukraine and the West are the aggressors.
Dr. Geifman says if you’ve embraced that viewpoint, you can be excused for believing that the Ukrainians pose a threat to Russia; then, the family member conscripted into the army is a national hero, not a victim.
Unlike Americans, who have become used to more than 400 years of freedom since Plymouth Rock, Russians have been subjected to 1,000 years of authoritarian rule, and to them, there are only two choices: authoritarianism from above or anarchy from below.
“One friend told me, ‘If we’re going to be harassed and bullied, I prefer they harass and bully us from above rather than from below, because it’s more predictable,” Dr. Geifman says. “In a way, she’s right, because there’s never been an alternative.”
She cited three very short periods in history when Russians experienced some form of political freedom, and each time, it quickly deteriorated into anarchy. Russians prefer “law and order,” and that’s a historical choice they’ve made many times since the 9th century.
How does this all end? That’s a difficult question to answer with battles still raging.
The fact that Putin is ideologically driven and messianic to a degree makes him less prone to meaningful compromises.
“I can tell you one thing,” Dr. Geifman concludes. “Putin cannot bring his troops home without a major victory that supposedly makes Russia great again.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 903)
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