Russia, the new Sparta; Putin, Lycurgus & Oswald Spengler

In Putin,…, Lycurgus, the Ruble, and War, Part 2, I wrote

But for someone who consciously went shopping for the constitution of a warrior state, we must look to antiquity, to Lycurgus of Sparta. His virtues are remarkably easy to understand:  equality (among citizens), military fitness, and austerity. The Spartan system was cruel by western standards of 1945 to present; not so cruel 1933-1945, and positively enlightened compared to 1 July and 18 November 1916 on the Western Front, with more than a million casualties  in the Battle of the Somme, or the two million of Stalingrad in a longer period.

This was written in 2014. Now it applies directly to Vladimir Putin, who  consciously went shopping for the constitution of a warrior state.  The reason: Russia is indefensible without resort to nuclear weapons.

  • To the south, China, a more advanced civilization with 10X the population.
  • To the west, NATO, with 5X the population.
  • In the Caucasus, a powerful internal enemy.
  • In Russia east of the Urals, emptiness.

While most historical leaders are described as constants throughout their lives, Putin is the exception. He changed in perception of these threats. Once vaguely progressive, he became illiberal in the manner defined by Hungary’s Victor Orban. See Russia’s Ethnocentric Il-liberalism; Implications for Aggression Against Ukraine.

At the start of Putin’s rule, Russians, fresh from the breakup, were short on patriotism, to the extent that civil government was impeded. And who would pick up a gun to fight for Russia? The solution was the manufacture of patriotism, which in degree seemed benign.

Russian culture was the wellspring from which patriotism could be manufactured, essential to motivation of a new military. Russia’s status as a “great power ” could then be reconstructed. The more patriotism, the more power. It became an addiction, to which pluralism, the antecedent of democracy, was obstructive. The combination of cultural supremacy, patriotism, and military power is dangerously tempting to use.

Like crime, war is the responsibility of those who make it. In 2014, Europe was at peace. Germany had become the most pacific of nations. Yet with apparent reference to the conflicts of the 19th century, Putin prioritized geopolitical alignments over the peace dividend. Ironically, the remilitarization of Germany may ultimately present Putin with the adversary of his imagination. If one continually tickles the tail of the dragon, it will wake up.

,As foretold by George F. Kennan, the West bears some responsibility; see Ukraine; Let’s Make a Deal; Suggestion to Vladimir Putin. The rest of the causation has diverse roots. As per John Donne, no man is an island. Putin is the sum of a lifetime of influences, combined with, for those who believe in it, free will. And the books he has read. For one title, see The Book Putin Read.  But Henry Kissinger’s writings are about diplomacy, not illiberal social constructs.

Putin  has not described the details of his conservative Russia. Hence my resort to Victor Orban’s “illiberalism” as an approximate substitute. There is an obvious common element, the primacy of culture. It seems as if Putin and Orban have some familiarity with Oswald  Spengler, whose book, The Decline of the West, was a hot topic circa 1918-1940.

To the typical non-specialist reader, The Decline of the West is an inaccessible waste of time, a pseudo-scientific  theory of history. Spengler’s atomic element is a culture, which he treats as a living organism with a life cycle: birth, growth, senescence, and death.  This echoes in Victor Orban, ruler of a tiny Hungary of 12 million people, who  claims primacy of culture/state over the individual as a linchpin of illiberalism.

Spengler’s culture life-cycle echoes in Putin’s growing contempt for the West, and his attempts  at CPR on the Russian cultural corpus. Elevating the cultural organism over the nation-state, it justifies Putin’s exclamation, “Ukraine is ours.” Culture does not inhabit the individual; the individual, a single living cell, belongs to the culture. The right of Ukrainians to have their own  country is alien to the concept. If people, like skin cells, must die, it’s bearable. Survival of the cultural organism is supreme; “Ukraine is ours!”

Spengler’s predictions have a mystical quality, attractive to believers who seek confirmation in current events. He asserted the life cycle of a culture to be 2000 years, with the “birth” of Western culture in the 10th century. In 1918, he saw the end of Western democracy around 2000,  followed by several hundred years of “Caesars”, a.k.a. strongmen, followed by total collapse. He knew nothing of the Technological Singularity or climate change; his reference was the glacial history before the Enlightenment. Having experienced many rebirths, Western culture now has little resemblance to then. Anyone can take a stab at the future, and occasionally be right for the wrong reasons.

Spengler is attractive to those who seek formal confirmation for intuitive notions of cultural supremacy. A romantic view of culture is a typical trait in all but the cynic. It is used by Orban to justify obligation of the individual to society.  It becomes Spenglerian poison when used to deprecate  human rights, destroy democracies, incite persecution of minority cultures, or justify war.

Spengler failed to anticipate a self-referential irony, the current resurgence of  Spengler-inspired cultural supremacy, in Russia, China, India, and even the U.S., which motivates a cycle of inter-culture conflict analogous to Hindu cosmology and the proclivities of man:

Birth of a culture–>expansion–>conflict–>death–>repeat

This is what happens when a man steeped in the conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries reintroduces the stratagems that caused those conflicts.

If one continually tickles the tail of the dragon, it will wake up.