Kholmogorov is always fascinating. You can find his work on RI here. (Highly recommended)
When in Moscow a few weeks ago, I met the Russian conservative thinker Egor Kholmogorov.
Unfortunately, my interview of him was cut short after only about 5 minutes, but I was able to record an impromptu talk he gave at the conference we were both attending. So, below are the transcripts of both the short interview and Egor’s speech. In both of these, he explains his philosophy of ‘offensive isolationism.’
Paul Robinson (PR): I am writing a book on Russian conservatism and want to ask you to comment on several things that you have previously said. For instance, you say that Russia is an island and you speak of the necessity of Russian isolationism, but at the same time you talk of the strategy of ‘offensive isolationism.’ Can you comment on this apparent contradiction?
Egor Kholmogorov (EK): The point is that strategically, in terms of culture, as a civilization, as a state, Russia is interested in isolation. That is, as much as possible it shouldn’t intervene very much in world affairs. It shouldn’t be continually supporting the global balance by means of interventions in far away lands, especially as these are taking more and more absurd forms.
An example is the geopolitically-founded intervention in Syria. Now Russian Muslims are demanding that Russia should punish the regime of Myanmar. But Myanmar is completely irrelevant to the majority of Russian citizens. But there’s a problem connected with the fact that what we now call Russia came into being in 1991 in rather an absurd manner.
Russia as a subject of international law was decidedly smaller than Russia as a historical fact, as a historical territory, as a territory inhabited by Russians. Consequently, in our current objective circumstances, isolationism is impossible as we are under continual threat. American tanks are in Estonia, 100 kilometers from St Petersburg. NATO military bases might appear in Ukraine. Thus Russia is currently obliged to attack or counter-attack in some way, because it is objectively threatened.
PR: What do mean by the word ‘attack’?
EK: Spread our influence.
PR: Using soft power?
EK: Not necessarily. In some matters, I’m known as a fierce interventionist. When Ukraine is being discussed, I’ve always supported the firmest resolution of this problem, for the use of the Russian armed forces against the regime which has taken power in Kiev. Because it’s objectively criminal. It’s a country, a state, which can’t exist in its current form. Ukraine will either be an aggressor, which drags the West into war with Russia, or something will happen to it, like it will fall apart into two or more pieces.
Overall, this is indeed soft power, it’s about building a system of diplomatic coalitions, it’s about building a system of cultural influence, what’s called ‘the Russian world.’ For large parts of Asia and Europe, Russia culture is the means by which those areas are included in world culture. Take Moldova, for example. Moldova hasn’t joined the highest level of world culture via Shakespeare or Goethe, but via Pushkin, who lived for a long time in Kishinev, and so on.
If we talk about raising the quality of culture, the quality of life of the whole area known as the post-Soviet countries, a phrase I don’t like as I find the whole theme of the Soviet Union problematic, then their movement upwards, their development, are in one way or another connected with Russia, with Russian influence. Any attempt to orient them towards the West, or let’s say towards Saudi Arabia, will end in degradation, in catastrophe.
PR: But you were against the intervention in Syria.
EK: I wouldn’t say against. I was simply sceptical about it. So far nothing terrible has come of it. When I was asked if it would become a new Afganistan, I immediately replied that no, it wouldn’t, it’s a different geography, a different country. It’s just that in circumstances where Russia has a large number of urgent problems, in circumstances where it has the burdensome and still unresolved Ukrainian crisis on its borders, flying off to far off lands is senseless.
PR: What do you think of the idea that Russia is a distinct civilization? Are you are Russian nationalist who thinks ‘Russia for the Russians’ or are you a Eurasianist?
EK: I am definitely not a Eurasianist. I am a nationalist.
Egor Kholmogorov speech:
Given that I’ve been a political journalist for quite a long time, it seems to me that I can say a couple of words which won’t be at all trivial. Some time ago, about two years, I wrote an article in the journal Notebooks on Conservatism about Robert Kaplan’s book The Revenge of Geography. Robert Kaplan formulated a quite aggressive thesis that the difference between liberal political idealists and conservative political realists in American foreign policy debates is the difference between cannibals.
One cannibal asserts that we should take only the most beautiful and tasty young girls. And the other says that, no, we all share the same principles, we should eat everybody always. The first position is that of the typical realist. The second is that of the typical liberal: let’s eat everybody because we have principles, ideas.
We can see this in the difference between the two approaches towards, say, Yugoslavia or Iraq. One says that it all depends on how far our drones fly and how confident we are that we can carry out air strikes. The other says that, no, we should at all costs bring democracy to this or that region.
At the start of this year, after President Trump’s inauguration, there was a period in which we hoped for dialogue with American realists. Henry Kissinger was usually named as a sort of guru of this approach. And at the peak of these raptures and hopes I decided to study his latest book World Order, in order to understand the principles we could observe among American realists. And these principles were indeed revealed.
The first is unconditional orientation towards interests and the correlation of these interests through a pluralistic, so-called Westphalian system, which allows a large number of small states to form coalitions among themselves against any hegemon. In reality, this isn’t a very historical conception, because if we recall the countries who signed the Treaty of Westphalia, we notice that they all disappeared from the scene in the next 250 years and were replaced by large national states with imperial elements.
The second thing that I noticed in Kissinger was that he clearly doesn’t understand how to integrate his imagining of Russia into this Westphalian system. Russia is too big, and it’s like a big elephant suddenly entered the sandbox in which little kids are playing and tells them ‘I’m going to play with you.’ And when the elephant begins to play in the sandbox, according to the same rules, we observe that on that side of the box where he’s playing, he immediately begins to win. And so the question arises of how to get the elephant out of the sandbox and in general how to cut him up into little pieces which can’t play any games at all or at any rate would cause such a sense of anxiety.
And when Kissinger speaks about Russia, he suddenly slips into the language of the Cold War, with his key thesis being that Russia is always afraid and so is always aggressively expanding in all directions. This is an absolutely irrational process, which can’t be stopped, and so it’s quite impossible to play a high-grade game with Russia according to the rules.
Kaplan talks about the same thing, but more subtly, which surprised me. It surprised me that a man like Kaplan, who is aggressively inclined towards the world outside the borders of the USA, understands Russia with some subtlety. In particular, he understands that any collapse of Russia is only a temporary phenomenon and that after the cycle of collapse there will be a cycle of reconstitution.
We have to understand and recognize that things look very different when viewed from Russia. In the past 400 years Russia has endured four large-scale European interventions: from Poland in the 17th century; from Sweden in the 18th, which we have to admit we started; that of France and the entire European coalition in the 19th century, and that of the German Reich in the 20th. Given this, it’s somewhat comic to say that Russia has an irrational fear of invasion. It would be much more sensible to tackle the reasons which keep inducing this or that intervention into the depths of Russia, and which generally don’t turn out well for the intervenors. Nevertheless, history is coming round full circle again.
When people say that it’s impossible to reach agreement with Russia on foreign policy, I think that they are completely wrong. What do we mean by Russia? A geopolitical subject? Political subjects have no reason, no intellect, only geographical borders. Correspondingly, they can’t talk about anything. But if we’re talking about governments, or the ideological units which make up the governments, then we can see that in the second half of the twentieth century Russian foreign policy ideology drifted towards a rejection of any form of interventionism, towards an acceptance of isolationism as Russian civilization’s basic foreign policy principle.
Here, it’s enough to mention names like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vadim Tsymbursky. In the first case, a national ideologue, who in his Harvard speech sought to produce a global understanding of the Russian perspective. In the second case, a great geopolitical thinker who is sadly not well known in the West.
Reading Kaplan, I unfortunately observed that he doesn’t at all know the Russian geopolitical tradition and refers to completely unimportant figures when he interprets Russian views of geopolitics. If we look at the global interventionist conception of Eurasianism, as interpreted by Dugin, we see that it too is quite isolationist.
It’s based on the inevitable contradiction of the ideas of sea and land, and crudely speaking claims no more than half the world. If you compare it to the global American concept which in principle doesn’t recognize any borders, it’s quite moderate in its pretensions. I still find it unacceptable and quite absurd, but all the same it’s comparatively quite moderate.
It’s worth remembering the story about Solzhenitsyn, when he was invited to breakfast with President Reagan and he refused in a really sharp form, because they wanted to seat him among dissidents with decidedly anti-Russian views. The Russophobic Richard Pipes was meant to be at this meeting. And Solzhenitsyn wrote a really interesting letter to Reagan, which it’s worth reading, which is one page long.
In this, he says:
Mister president your closest advisors like Pipes are systematically discrediting me saying that I’m a Russian nationalist and am preaching aggression. But if my ideas triumph, the first thing Russia will do is reject this crazy imperialist policy in the far reaches of the world. What would I put in its place?
I came here thinking that America would help free Russia from communism, and what do I see? I see American generals discussing plans for a nuclear strike on the Russian parts of Russia, in this way hoping to weaken the Soviet Union.
I had thought that you wanted to free us from a regime which carries out genocide, but you’re thinking about how best to carry out this genocide.
So, Solzhenitsyn always thought from a purely ethnic Russian point of view and this was the sense of his geopolitical thought and his disillusionment about the possibility of a dialogue with the West, which you can see in his texts, and which is very characteristic. If you’re interested in a path which leads Russian thought away from love of the West and towards alienation from it, towards what might be called a defensive point of view, then simply read Solzhenitsyn.
Today, we have to recognize the simple fact that when people talk of the revival of Russian interventionism, and say that Russia wishes to interfere in the affairs of the whole world, that Russians are once again trying to seize something, this is in reality a reaction to the fact that when Russia in 1991 ridded itself of communism, Russia was if not destroyed in a geopolitical sense then at the very least converted in part into one of these victims of the cannibals.
Large parts of it were roasted on a slow fire in order then to be eaten. And now Russian thought, which is wholly isolationist in orientation, finds itself feeling that if it makes any compromise it will be immediately attacked, and then again, and then again. A year ago, Gingrich said that Estonia is a suburb of Petersburg. Today we see tanks there. Recently we said don’t insult Russia, Ukraine is very close to it. Now we see an American naval base in Odessa.
It’s not a question of global politics. It’s that when the nation sees that it’s not master in its own house, of its borders as it understands them, then its natural aspiration is some sort of counter-attack. And we have to recognize that this urge to counter-attack isn’t a product of the reigning ideology in Russia. It’s a reaction to the feeling that that’s far enough, one step further and we’ll be eaten, destroyed. I think that we need to look for some sort of ideological and geopolitical compromise.
We are facing the problem that the West chose a very arbitrary starting point from which to orient its policy – the year 1991 – and it wants to preserve that world order at any price. And anything Russia does is interpreted as an assault on this holy world order, as a manifestation of aggression, as a game contrary to the rules. And that’s why they close their eyes when the discussion turns to Kosovo or Iraq. But in these circumstances it’s impossible to carry out any sort of dialogue with Russia, and so a mood of irritation is growing in Russia and the present isolationist trend is being replaced by an external policy based on spite. Spite towards those forces which aren’t letting us live. And it is being replaced by ideas that we must destroy the American empire with all our power and not allow the grass to ever grow again. So I’m sad that we have this situation in which Russia is being attacked.
Returning to Kissinger, in one of his previous books, Does American Need a Foreign Policy?, he says that the sole condition for dialogue with Russia is that it recognizes its current boundaries.
In other words, crudely speaking, the realistic condition is in fact an entirely unrealistic one, and the idealistic condition is the idea ‘Let’s eat you now in full.’ It seems to me that if we don’t dismantle this attitude towards Russia, then dialogue will be impossible.