Russia And Wrath
Last night in Budapest, I went to a small dinner arranged for visiting American students. There I saw a grand Hungarian lady I know stand and raise a glass in tribute to “the Russians”. This high-spirited lady comes from an aristocratic family who had been completely dispossessed by the Soviets and their Hungarian and Czechoslovak lackeys. She suffered exile for many years, and after returning, spent many years and enormous resources (whatever she had left) reclaiming and restoring the family house that the Russians stole from her parents. Yet here she was, drinking to Russians. Why? Because she is a woman of the world, and recognizes that the greatness of Russian culture is not the same thing as the cruelty of the Russian state. And because, as she explained, even in exile she gained some good things. She ended by raising her glass, and saying, “Na Zdrovie!”
I thought: that is what it means to be cultured. This woman has all the right in the world to be consumed by hatred for all things Russian, but there she is, pointing out by example to these young Americans the value of not allowing hate to consume your understanding. The courage it took to stand at a table in these times, in front of strangers, and pay tribute to the Russian people is no small thing. But then, the immense suffering her family endured at the hands of the Russians and their Magyar and Czechoslovak servants earned her the right.
I thought about her this morning when I read Prof. Gary Saul Morson’s impassioned condemnation of those in American and European life who have lost their heads in spasms of anti-Russian bigotry. Excerpts from the Russia scholar’s essay in First Things:
There is another way to silence opponents today: Claim an issue is one of “moral clarity,” a phrase that signals the question is “settled” and allows for no further discussion. In such cases, facts don’t give rise to a narrative, the narrative determines the facts. When an issue is declared “morally clear” in this way, the implication is that only the immoral could entertain the slightest doubt. The world divides neatly into good and evil. There can be no conscientious skeptics. And when people are unqualifiedly evil, anything one says about them or does to them becomes justified.
As a specialist in Russian literature and thought, I am more than familiar with this way of thinking. It is how the Soviet Union operated. Once the Party ruled on a topic, gray areas vanished. That is why every vote of the Soviet parliament was unanimous and elections offered only one candidate. The very idea of disputable questions was a bourgeois mystification, designed to keep the working class from acting decisively in its interest. By the same token, all issues became zero-sum games. In first-year economics, one learns that in any unforced transaction both sides benefit or they would not make the exchange, but in Marxist-Leninist thinking, one side’s gain is necessarily the other side’s loss.
Yes, this is how it works under our soft totalitarianism. More:
But as with the cancel culture of recent years, the further one goes, the more virtuous one feels. Whatever assertion favors the right side must be accepted and whatever action harms opponents must be justified. True enough, official Russian propaganda transmits outrageous lies and the regime suppresses dissenting voices. Does it follow that everything said by the Ukrainian government and sympathetic observers must be true—or that anyone who calls for the skepticism normally applied to all partisan sources must be a Putin supporter? Should we, too, banish dissenting voices?
In the spirit of moral clarity, anything “Russian” has become immoral. … Some Russian performers and public figures now must publicly declare opposition to Putin in order to perform. How long before Jewish performers and academics will have to declare their opposition to Israel, or Muslim ones to whatever Muslim land we are presently fighting?
Oh, it’s coming. Morson lists a number of cancel-Russia initiatives, and outright attacks on innocent Russians in the West, of which I had not heard. One more quote:
If Russian history teaches anything, it is that such “moral clarity” has no limits. If all right is on one side, then anything—literally anything—one says or does is justified. Indeed, to stop short of the most extreme measures is to indulge evil, which means risking the charge of complicity. When Stalin sent local officials quotas of people to be arrested, they responded by demanding still higher quotas. It was the safest thing to do to prove one’s loyalty. No one ever secured his position by calling for less severity to enemies. When everything is black and white, sooner or later everyone is at risk.
It is a savage irony that the same totalitarian spirit that animated the Soviet Union, and which has been adopted by the postliberal Western left to serve its ends, is now being used against all things Russian — and people here are so busy enjoying the pleasure of hate that they don’t even see the hypocrisy. Again and again, I warn you that the kinds of things identified in Live Not By Lies are going to become more general in the wake of this Russian invasion. When I was a kid, we had an actually liberal Left that pushed back against these primitive instincts to hate indiscriminately those we identified as enemies. Now the Left leads the charge — now against Russians and their culture, but before that against races, religions, classes of people, and others they deem evil — and too many on the Right, at least in the case of Russia, are going right along.
I can anticipate what some of you will say: “Why are you spending so much time defending Russians when Ukrainians are dying under Russian bombs?” The answer is simple: because very few people need to be convinced that Russia’s war on Ukraine is wicked, and deserves condemnation. A distressingly large number of people need to be convinced that it’s not okay to demonize all Russians, and all things Russian, in reaction to Putin’s unjust war.
Morson ends by quoting Solzhenitsyn’s warning that the line between good and evil runs not between peoples, cultures, or anything like that. The line between good and evil runs down the center of every human heart.
I saw this horrifying statement today in which a Ukrainian broadcaster, upon finding out that a friend of his in the army had been killed, wept and quoted Adolf Eichmann favorably, saying that the children of one’s enemies — in this case, Russian children — must be murdered.
fakhrudin sharafmal on ukrainian channel 24 quoting adolf eichmann & calling for the killing of russian children, translation in next tweet pic.twitter.com/WbPQYRpm9g
— Russians With Attitude (@RWApodcast) March 15, 2022
— Russians With Attitude (@RWApodcast) March 15, 2022
It’s horrifying, and nothing justifies that. One reason Russian troops are now in Ukraine, with the majority support of the Russian people, is because the Putin government has spent years propagandizing ordinary Russians to hate Ukrainians. Hatred breeds hatred. Yet watching the clip, and reading the translation, I thought about how I would feel in that situation. I remembered once sitting at my desk at National Review, back in 2002, months into writing about the Catholic sex abuse scandal. I wasn’t much older than that Ukrainian guy appears to be (which is to say, I had much less self control back then). I read about a particularly horrible case, and found myself wishing that someone would shoot the abusive priest dead. And then I let my mind drift into fantasizing about how a vigilante squad could start kneecapping clerical pederasts. That would stop the abuse, surely, and deliver justice for victims.
Then I caught myself, and repented of my evil thoughts. I was wrong to entertain those kinds of thoughts, though even from this distance in time the impulse to vengeance is not alien to me. You have read me saying here in this space since the Russian war on Ukraine began how bitterly I regret allowing my vengeful passions to overtake my judgment back in 2002-03, and therefore backing the Iraq War. Being civilized requires us to go to the utmost to restrain ourselves. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the pilgrim Dante finds himself on the terrace of Wrath as he makes his way up the mountain. There the Wrathful are purged of their tendency to indulge themselves in anger. The terrace is a ledge on the mountain where the Wrathful dwell in heavy smoke and a shower of sparks — this to mimic the effect of anger (e.g., it clouds our ability to see clearly). I wrote about it here. In this canto of his Purgatorio, Dante blames the unchecked wrathful passions of his fellow Tuscans for the war and calamity that has befallen his native land. Marco the Lombard, one of the Wrathful suffering purgation there, tells Dante that if we would restore peace and order to the world, we have to begin by restoring peace and order to our own hearts.
This is a lesson that I, personally, cannot learn often enough. I am in no position to lecture anybody about unbound wrath, because it is one of my besetting sins. All I can tell you is what I have learned from my mistakes, and what I have learned from the wisdom of literature, and the Christian religious tradition.
That tradition includes, above all, Orthodox Christianity. It has been in Orthodoxy, which I’ve practiced for almost 17 years now, where I first learned about battling sin as an exercise in restraining the passions. (To be clear, all forms of Christianity teach the concept of sin, but in my experience, Orthodoxy has the most articulated model of sinfulness coming from disordered passions.) I first encountered it in reading the Kyriacos Markides book The Mountain Of Silence, an introductory book about Orthodox spirituality that played a key role in my own conversion. The key figure in the book is “Father Maximos,” the name Markides gave to an Athonite priest-monk who went on to become Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, Cyprus. Father Maximos explains that sin begins with negative thoughts (logismoi) that attack us, and tempt us. If we allow them to penetrate, they will plant a seed that will blossom as sin. From the book:
It’s sad for me to quote “Father Maximos” this morning. I headed out for the Budapest airport to catch a flight to Cyprus, connecting through Munich, to go interview him tomorrow. But there was an epic traffic jam as we neared the airport, and I sat in traffic for an hour, in the taxi. I missed my flight, and it wasn’t possible to rebook for today. I have missed my chance to meet and interview the great spiritual teacher. I was feeling pretty angry and disappointed over it, but then sitting down to write about the Russia thing when I got home, and going back to Father Maxime’s teaching on logismoi, set me straight. And thinking too about how the Hungarian lady paid tribute to the Russians, even though the Soviet government made her and her family suffer, because even in exile they found good things, turned me around, and now has me trying to find the blessing hidden in my botched journey to Cyprus. Though Orthodoxy is not exclusively a Russian thing — the overwhelming majority of American Orthodox are in the Greek tradition — I came to it via the Slavic path. The great gift of Orthodox spirituality, including Russian Orthodox spirituality, would have been lost to me had I chosen to demonize all things Russian.
Look, I’m not going to say that we should look for the good side of Russia’s war. That would be cruel and inhuman. (And I’m certainly not comparing frustration over a missed flight to rage over friends and family lost in a war, except in the most general way!) But I am going to say that we must somehow try to bear the grief and suffering coming from it without losing our humanity. We must do what we can to allow the Holy Spirit to transform our rage into good, as grace did in the heart of the great Hungarian lady. This is not humanly possible, but with God, all things are possible.
UPDATE: This is idiotic. What is wrong with us? Is this any way to demonstrate the West’s superiority to despotic systems like Putin’s?!
Grand slam champion Daniil Medvedev may have to jump through a few diplomatic hoops if he wants to compete at Wimbledon later this year — as Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said he may seek “assurances” that the Russian star does not support Putin. https://t.co/z8Jagod7Cw
— CNN International (@cnni) March 16, 2022
Western elites insist, on the one hand, that Putin is a totalitarian tyrant who imprisons or murders anyone who utters a peep of dissent.
Then, on the other, they demand that Russian citizens, in order to work and earn a livelihood, perform a public denunciation ritual of Putin.
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) March 16, 2022
UPDATE: A reader comments:
That Ukrainian journalist and the management of the television station have issued an apology (https://24tv.ua/ru/mne-govo… — here’s the English translation via Google Translate:
A very unfortunate incident occurred on Channel 24, which has been conducting an information marathon since the first day of the war.
Journalist Fakhrudin Sharafmal, who learned about the death of a close friend in this war, could not cope with his emotions and issued a tirade that is incompatible with the editorial policy of Channel 24, as well as with generally accepted moral principles of humanity.
Farid, in an emotional outburst, declared that he was ready to personally kill all Russians, not only invaders who came to our land … but also everyone else, along with their children. Subsequently, having mastered his emotions, the very next day, Sharafmal also apologized on the air and expressed sincere remorse that he had said such terrible things, and stated that this was incompatible with journalism and, in general, with the principles of humanity.
The reason for the breakdown the day before is the loss of a dear person. However, the Kremlin propagandists do not care about words of forgiveness! They took the disgraced words out of context, added a photo of the Nazi ideologist (!!) to the video and inflated the scandal, using this case as evidence of the “Nazification” and “nationalism” of Ukrainians.
Fakhrudin is an Afghan by nationality, and his accusations of Nazism, nazification and nationalism are just as meaningless as all Kremlin propaganda. And only an audience poisoned by this propaganda can take all this seriously. On behalf of the entire staff of channel 24, I apologize for the unfortunate incident on the air, where the host’s emotions took precedence over common sense and a real attitude to the values of life and worldview.
Farid is a young and talented journalist, the author of many high-quality television projects, including those dedicated to Russian propaganda. Ironically, he himself became the target of this propaganda and became the object of the struggle against our country, which he loves so much.
You can watch the video of Fakhrudin’s apology or reread the text. Everyone will draw their own conclusions. What you believe – in a video taken out of context of a tearful presenter with a photograph of a Nazi completed by the Russians, or in his sincere conscious repentance – you choose.
Perhaps this could be added as an update to your original post?
Here it is. Not that it matters, but I forgive him. I could have done the same thing in his situation.