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Post US Iconoclasm and Russian Re-Sacralization: Report from Moscow
Created by John Eipper on 09/03/17 2:56 PM

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US Iconoclasm and Russian Re-Sacralization: Report from Moscow (David A. Westbrook, USA, 09/03/17 2:56 pm)

From Moscow, a few thoughts on monuments and their destruction, and on the re-sacralization of politics here.

The current US mania for destruction is literally iconoclastic, recalling the Protestant Reformation and earlier Christian efforts to purge idolatry.

If memory serves, the museum, in its modern sense, arose in France from the wisdom of a later generation of revolutionaries. Although the Revolution was not without iconoclasm, some reasoned that while perhaps the humans of the ancien régime needed to be destroyed, their art could be spared and even enjoyed by the public. Art indeed could be incorporated into a new French national identity. The Bolsheviks took a similar attitude towards Moscow's churches and the Kremlin itself.

Much of the world was aghast at recent destruction of cultural patrimony in Mosul, Palmyra, Nimrud, Bamiyan, etc. I mean, who could be angry with statues?

My guess is that the current US mania has not resulted in the loss of great works, but that's literally a guess, and perhaps a snobbish prejudice against public art in small town squares. At any rate, the niceties of aesthetic judgment are not what is at issue for any of the participants here.

Those who think that liberals (in the American sense) are essentially "secular" may wish to think again. This is a spiritual age, albeit manifested in different ways.

I am here speaking at a conference on the crisis of liberal democracy, held at the Higher School of Economics University, one of Russia's new and well-funded "Research Universities." HSE has a reputation as "liberal," i.e., allowing a wide range of views. That said, the critique of liberalism in the American sense, tightly bound up with a critique of capitalism, and as a result the US fetishization of pleasure generally and technology in particular, has been fascinating, unrelenting, and essentially theological.

Most of the people with whom I've talked take it as given that the American century and the liberal international order were exaggerated to begin with (was never that liberal, etc.) and are already over. Trump's turning inward is a fait accompli; Americans do not recognize that the sun has set. Interestingly, nobody seemed particularly happy about this. Some of the scholars were cautiously optimistic that a multipolar order could at least be strategically, if essentially illiberal and undemocratic.

What this view means for global liberalism as such, i.e., international relations understood in Westphalian terms, and including things like global trade, I have yet to discover. For example, it is difficult to imagine Russia abandoning that liberal institution, the UN, where it enjoys a Security Council seat, or arguing that the trade in say oil should not be global, and presumably mediated on liberal terms.

Soviet political discourse, officially atheist, has been replaced by an often explicitly Christian discourse. By way of monumental expression: facing the Kremlin since 2015 is a huge statue of St. Vladimir, the ruler of Kievan Rus (Ukraine?) who adopted Christianity for himself and his people. It is difficult to imagine a more prominent site.

More subtly, and I neither really understand nor have time to try and articulate in any detail, the political imaginaries (or frames of interpretation) at work here are profoundly different from those I'm accustomed to hearing in my travels. Meanings are contested, including the meanings of; history, the Revolution, the Soviet era, and perestroika; Putin; Russia, and non-Russians inside and outside the Federation; Ukraine and Crimea and Chechnya (and still Serbia); the US, sanctions, its culture, etc.; the constitution(s) and the oligarchs/deep state/military and other loci of power; sex, technology, humanity. All this is oscillating, and I'm thinking about Dostoevsky.

High politics to one side, people have been very friendly toward me, as I struggle with the few words of Russian I barely remember and cannot pronounce correctly. And street life at the end of summer has been joyous.

JE comments:  What better place to contemplate history, monuments, and tensions between the secular and the theological than the Kremlin?  Consider St Vladimir and another Vladimir--Lenin--sharing the same public space.  Or are they competing?  A third Vladimir, Putin, completes the troika of Rulers of the World (Vladimir=Vladet' Mira, ruler/owner of the world).

An excellent set of reflections from Bert Westbrook.  Two fundamental questions for further discussion:  1)  Is the American Century already over?  And 2)  Do we have any alternative future to a fundamentally illiberal and undemocratic world order?

Enjoy Moscow, Bert, and safe travels home.


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  • Is the American Century Over? (Istvan Simon, USA 09/05/17 4:29 AM)
    Regarding the supposed death of the American Century (see David A. Westbrook, 3 September), I'd like to say that I believe that its death has been greatly exaggerated. WAISers know that I am not fond of our president, who in my view will definitely not make America greater than he encountered it. But that does not mean the death of the American Century.

    The American Century will be determined by our technological leadership in renewable forms of energy. In spite of our president consistently making all the wrong decisions, the United States is a country which has its own engine of innovation that no president can dent too much. The 21st century therefore will be much like the 20th century was--an American Century though most probably with a major Chinese accent.


    Russia is a great power and will have its place in this, as will Europe, and also Africa, the emerging giant, but the role of Russia will be moderated in my view, because Russia though rich in hydrocarbons and scientific talent, lacks engineering talent, and lacks major entrepreneurial spirit, which is also limited by an autocratic government without imagination, and headed by a little dictator. Russia also lacks population growth which will also limit what it can do.


    JE comments:  Will the rest of the 21st century be English with a Chinese accent, or Chinese with an English accent?  China is the only feasible challenger for America's hegemony.  Or do we overestimate the Middle Kingdom's power and the stability of its institutions?  Some economists argue that the Chinese model of cheap labor making cheap goods has already reached its limit.  Other nations (Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh) can always out-cheap you.

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