Like a refugee dinghy in the Channel with a broken engine and the wind getting up, we are in a perilous political situation. The destabilising Conservative by-election loss of Tiverton to the Liberal Democrats signals a move towards tactical voting and is an indicator of Tory supporters’ disenchantment with Boris Johnson and his government. Trust in the Conservative Party is evaporating to a point where it is not unreasonable for voters to discount the flurries of government announcements. So often what is announced does not happen or, when it does, provides no solution to our current multiple crises, or chips away at national values and institutions.
After twelve years of Conservative government, how many people know elderly relatives stuck in hospital while a social care package is put together? How many are waiting in pain for routine surgery, or can’t find a dentist to take them as an NHS patient, or live with the stress of waiting for a criminal case to come to trial, or have to face the indignity of foodbanks, or have lost hope of owning their own house?
All of these are features of pre-pandemic Britain and some were made worse by the pandemic. “I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, and I warn you not to grow old”. Neil Kinnock’s words, warning against voting for Margaret Thatcher in the June 1983 election, echo down the years. He might have added “and don’t be leader of the Opposition”.
Effective opposition, setting the agenda, getting policy across to a public that has lost hope in positive political change, is an obstacle race. Opposition Parties struggle to get a fair hearing for their policies and know the cost of lacking caution in their presentations. Social Democracy, even genuine One Nation Toryism, gets scant coverage, drowned out by Johnson’s empty promises and posturing. On cue comes the vox pop response “we don’t know what he stands for” commenting not on Boris Johnson but on Keir Starmer. And the Wakefield result on a turnout of only 39%, although a Labour win, tends to bear this out.
Labour proposals for practical measures to deal with Britain’s growing inequality and acute economic problems qualify for cries of fiscal irresponsibility and profligacy. These get repeated in the Mail and Sun, often the Daily Telegraph, ventriloquized by a government that has wasted billions during the pandemic and during a labour shortage is prepared to spend more than £120 million on sending asylum seekers and migrants to Rwanda. Alternatively, when strong popular support emerges for a Labour idea (Blair’s ‘windfall levy’ from 1997), the Chancellor adopts it and a windfall tax becomes “a temporary, targeted, energy profits levy”.
In Britain we have a distinctive government-media complex characterised by leaking, briefing, instant rebuttals, spinning, gas-lighting and lobbying. But the major problem is a 24-hour news cycle that reduces and fragments political discussion to the latest – transient - single issue whether real, confected or trivial. If the downright lies and routine manipulation of statistics – thank heavens for Radio 4’s More or Less – are effectively countered, the fall-back is interestingly, and often, a technique used by perpetrators of domestic abuse. DARVO is an acronym for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender based on research by Jennifer Freyd a psychologist at the University of Oregon. The dramatic finger pointing and shouting by Boris Johnson at the dispatch box during Parliamentary Question Time demonstrates how DARVO works. It distorts reality and forces the intended audience, us in this instance, to question our judgement and intuition.
When a form of gas-lighting becomes a dominant mode of political discourse, a number of things follow. Firstly a sense of helplessness. Nothing can be done. Once you have been labelled as the problem, the ‘leftie’ lawyer’, the ‘remoaner’, the ‘scrounger’, the metropolitan elite and ‘woke brigade’, you are on the back foot trying to defend yourself rather than discussing the issue. Secondly the big picture, in which the particular problem needs to be situated, disappears. Under these conditions lessons cannot be learned and incoherent policy initiatives flourish.
Climate change has immense implications for economic social and foreign policy. But, whilst contemporary problems are complex and overlap, climate change is not one in a list of problems. It is self-evidently a pending catastrophe, ‘the big picture’ itself, a picture in which large parts of planet become uninhabitable. Unlike Rishi Sunak, Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, has presented - in September 2021 - the outline of a coherent plan for Britain’s essential transition to a Green Economy. When the media noticed, the headlines focussed on cost, £28 billion.
Government response to Putin’s war, pandemics and the economic damage of BREXIT should all be fitted into, and made compatible with, the urgent demands of countering climate change. But the immediate invariably trumps the longer term and the electoral cycle doesn’t help. Any political Party wishing to rebuild public trust has to find some way of taking voters into their confidence and telling the truth about the magnitude of change needed if we are to transition to a Green Economy and a Green Society. If mishandled, a step dangerously close to electoral suicide, well done, an defining act of respect for the public that should be reciprocated.
We need the best scientific brains internationally working together to crack energy storage, carbon capture, how to make transport and agriculture climate friendly. We need at the very least the level of co-operation of the existing scientific network in Horizon Europe from which we may have excluded ourselves by BREXIT. And we need to collaborate at the political level with other States. Disregard for international law, treaties and conventions is an effective way to make our exclusion widespread and permanent.
Andrew Rawnsley wrote last Sunday in the Observer that for Sir Keir Starmer to make a cut through would require more than integrity and competence, he would need an inspiring plan. It was a variation on the need to communicate ‘the vision thing’ and it carried weight. There can be no more important plan or vision than countering climate change and charting the economic road map to transform our economy to do so. That would get the ship of State moving again. But whether Starmer can forge a new consensus, and find a new political settlement, depends on whether a significant number of voters rate good governance and leadership above politics as entertainment.
There are clerical lives that at first follow the beaten track: Hampstead Garden Suburb to Stonyhurst, two years a second lieutenant in the 6th Royal Tank Regiment, seminary training at St. Edmunds College Ware, Brasenose College Oxford for a law degree, ordination in 1958, curacy at Our Lady of Victories, Kensington and just five years later personal secretary to the new Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, John Heenan. Then the unexpected, a path less trodden, not a sudden leap into the unknown, more a developing vocation within a vocation: a priestly life of work for peace and justice including a decade as leader of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, CND. Such was the extraordinary life of Bruce Kent who has died a few weeks short of his 93rd. birthday.
Both Bruce Kent’s parents were Canadians, his mother a pious Catholic, his father, a Presbyterian with Montreal sectarian views, working in London for the Pennsylvania Armstrong Cork Company. Bruce’s warm look of approval when a cork was pulled may not have been entirely filial respect. His father had been opposed to his becoming a priest. When a Pax Christi member knocked on his door in 1958 and invited him to become its chaplain Bruce happily accepted, the first small step into his lifetime’s work.
Cardinal Heenan, easily irritated by minor lapses in protocol, moved him on to chair the Westminster Diocese Schools Commission, the beginning of Bruce’s lifelong interest in peace education. Generations of school children will remember the charming, amusing and avuncular figure who talked about peace and peace-making, the arms trade and nuclear weapons. In one prolonged burst of activity for a one-year peace education project he spoke to 150 schools. He was a great raconteur and had a gift for communicating with all age-groups addressing causes of problems not just symptoms.
From 1966 –1974, Bruce was chaplain to London University. Like other priests engaging with students during this time of heightened student activism – think of Albert Nolan at Stellenbosch in South Africa and Gustavo Gutierrez in Peru’s National University in Lima – this was a liberating and radicalising experience. Still known as Monsignor Kent, in 1967 he began a long letter-writing career denouncing the naval chaplain in The Times for blessing the new Polaris submarine at its launch on the Clyde. He later conducted an exorcism at the Faslane nuclear submarine base and called on naval personnel to disobey immoral orders. “From the willingness to murder, Good Lord, deliver us.” And he quietly practised the traditional corporal acts of mercy, visiting the sick and the imprisoned. Among the items on his desk at the time he died lay the list of prisoners to whom he was writing regularly. He never gave up.
For Bruce, visiting war-torn and starving Biafra in 1969 and in 1971, the India-Pakistan war zones during a War on Want relief initiative, was an emotional turning point. He became profoundly aware of the horror of war and the hypocrisy of governments permitting the selling of arms to belligerents on both sides. In 1974 he became chairman of War on Want and helped to found the Campaign against the Arms Trade. Cardinal Heenan’s successor, Archbishop Basil Hume, later Cardinal, took a typically softer line on his peace and justice work, while Bishop Victor Guazzelli, auxiliary bishop of East London, was an understanding supporter during Bruce’s time in St. Aloysius parish in Euston.
During the intensification of the Cold War under Thatcher and Reagan the peace movement gained in strength. In 1980 Bruce Kent began taking on leadership roles in the peace movement and, as General Secretary of CND became a national figure, demonstrating his great talent for communication on radio and television. CND under his direction experienced a renaissance, supporting the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common campaigning against the siting of Cruise Missiles at the American airbase. Following ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by Reagan and Gorbachev in June 1988, the last Ground Launched Cruise Missiles at RAF Greenham Common were removed in March 1991.
Under Bruce’s ten years of leadership CND grew its national membership from 2,000 to 100,000 and increased its 30 active local groups to nearly 1,000. In 1982 he organised lobbying of the UN Second Special Session on Disarmament in New York. From 1985 to 1992 he was President of the International Peace Bureau, one of the oldest international peace organizations founded in 1891. Foreign visits included the Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and USSR. In 1988 he undertook a 1,000 mile walk for peace from Warsaw to Brussels. His prodigious energy sustained him through innumerable journeys by sleeper and endless travels for talks.
In the early 1980s Julian Lewis, later MP and from 2020 chairman of the House of Commons Select Intelligence and Security Committee , at that time research Director of the Coalition for Peace Through Security, an organization promoting government defence policy and opposed to CND, challenged Cardinal Hume to do something about his troublesome priest. Like the anti-apartheid movement, the peace movement did have strong Communist backing. Michael Heseltine once declared all CND members were communists or fellow-travelers warning he had their names. Bruce experienced his share of this kind of calumny even from within the Church. Though, at least superficially, it didn’t seem to bother him. More disturbing was having phones tapped and the shocking revelation that an undercover agent had been planted in the CND office.
On 11 February 1987, Monsignor Kent amicably ended his diocesan employment and, in his own words, retired. He made it clear that he hadn’t stopped being a priest, in other words that he would not seek laicization. Fourteen months later he married Valerie Flessati, a fellow Catholic peace activist whom he had known for many years through Pax Christi. It was a marriage whose happiness was born of love and shared vision, a genuine partnership which brought hope and inspiration to many. He remained an active Mass going catholic for the rest of his life.
Describing this period in an autobiography he summed up his basic difficulty – frequently misinterpreted - with the Church hierarchy:
“If there was a problem for the Church it lay in the contrast between the official idea of what a priest ought to be and what a priest actually was in many parts of the world. Support for Solidarnosc in Poland was priestly. Support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua was not. To be Bishop of HM Forces was not political. To be CND Chairman was. My position was an impossible one. Many of my fellow Catholics, and other Christians, told me that what I was doing as a priest gave them hope, though I knew that most of my bishops did not think my work was priestly”.
Throughout his long life Bruce Kent responded to fresh challenges and opportunities speaking out against resort to military force and promoting the United Nations, international law, and other non-violent avenues for conflict resolution. He campaigned unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon in 1992. In debate he could more than hold his own - memorably against Sir Michael Quinlan, Permanent Secretary of State for Defence 1988-1992 and former chairman of The Tablet Trust.
Never afraid to innovate Bruce more recently began bringing environmental concerns into peace and justice issues. He accepted invitations from Muslim organisations, and, notably in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in London, supported multi-faith initiatives against Islamophobia or religious intolerance of any kind. He often pointed out parallels between the experience of Catholics persecuted in past centuries and the fomenting of suspicion about Muslims.
Much less known is his work with prisoners, visiting them, writing to them in lock-down, helping them. He co-founded and worked in Progressing Prisoners Maintaining Innocence helping prisoners claiming miscarriage of justice. His deep ingrained human sympathy is reflected in the avalanche of tributes on social media after his death – from individual Hiroshima and Nagasaki Hibukusha (atomic bomb survivors) to the Friends of Finsbury Park. Ironically he was IT-phobic and never came to terms with social media himself.
Despite the peace movement’s extensive international links Bruce was essentially a Londoner. His and Valerie’s little flat near Finsbury Park had just enough space between the books, newsletters and pamphlets for their two desks and for entertaining. Valerie, between her writing, her research into local conscientious objectors, planning the next public event or campaign, provided delicious meals from an equally small kitchen.
In 2019 Bruce Kent was awarded the Sean MacBride Peace Prize by the International Peace Bureau. In 2021 the Archbishop of Canterbury awarded him, jointly with Valerie Flessati, the Lambeth Cross for Ecumenism. He lived to see the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons enter in force the same year.
I shall think of Bruce every time a newsletter from the Movement for Abolition of War, which he founded at the turn of the century, comes through the letter box. Blessed are the peacemakers. But it is sad that that such a beautiful Catholic life should end at the beginning of a terrible European war. In the words of Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool speaking on the Sunday programme: “Bruce was a great gift to the Church and, indeed, to Society”.
Bruce Kent, priest, peace campaigner and friend born London 22 June 1929; died London 8 June 2022
See The Tablet 18/06/2022
Is it wise for Ukrainian civil courts to try Russian soldiers for war crimes? In mid-May, a sergeant from a tank division, Vadim Shishimarin, admitted killing a retired tractor driver, 62- year old Oleksandr Shelipov, outside his house in the small village of Chupakhivka. In his defence Shishimarin alleged that he was obeying an order to shoot Shelipov who was using a mobile phone and assumed to be transmitting to Ukrainian forces the location of the car in which the Russians were fleeing. If true, some might feel that his defence had some strength. The judge sentenced him to life imprisonment.
Television footage of the convicted Russian sergeant in a glass cage and confronted by his victim’s widow, left little doubt that the purpose of this trial was to serve as a warning that the invading Russian troops could not act with impunity. More recently, Aleksandr Ivanov and Alekandr Bobykin were given an eleven years six months sentence for shelling with a Grad multiple-launcher system ‘civilian infrastructure’, hitting notably residential tower blocks and a secondary school, near Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv. The first rape trial of a Russian soldier is pending.
Prosecution of enemy military crimes in civilian courts during hostilities is unusual though not illegal. Guilty verdicts were not in doubt but the location, timing and impartiality of the Ukrainian court’s judgements all are. Another serious problem is that such trials offer Putin an excuse for show-trials of Ukrainian prisoners, including foreign volunteers, in Russian courts. The Ukrainians themselves are systematically gathering evidence of war crimes. At the time of writing, the office of the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General has over 14,000 instances of alleged war crimes on its books. But, under the circumstances, wouldn’t it be better if an independent international body were to be the prosecutor? In fact, there is one at hand, the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Ukraine, though, has had complex legal wrangles in its Constitutional Court over ratifying the Statute of Rome, the 1998 treaty that brought the ICC into being. President Zelensky claims that he intends to ratify the Statute but this has yet to happen.
From 2014, in the context of the annexation of Crimea and the first - covert - Russian invasion of the Donbas region, Ukraine recognised the ad hoc jurisdiction of the ICC for “identifying, prosecuting and judging the authors and accomplices of acts committed on the territory of Ukraine”. In December 2017, State Parties to the ICC – members with obligations to arrest and transfer or provide access to evidence, witnesses and legal support for prosecutions - activated its jurisdiction over the crime of aggression, "the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State”. This would be the only possible approach to prosecuting Putin himself likely to gain traction.
By April 2022, 41 State Parties led by Lithuania had referred the situation after the massive Russian second invasion of Ukraine to the ICC. Currently there is an exceptionally large ICC team in the country coordinating investigations with the Ukrainian government. Britain is supporting their work financially and with legal advice.
But there are longstanding problems with ICC jurisdiction. Both the US and Russia signed the July 1998 Rome Statute in 2000 but neither became a member of the court thereby adopting its moral and legal obligations and providing it political and technical support. Russia pulled out in 2016 shortly after the ICC published a "damning verdict" on Russia's 2014 occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol. The USA is one of seven countries that initially refused to sign alongside such uncomfortable bedfellows as China and Iraq. President Bill Clinton having signed did not allow the treaty to be ratified in the Senate. Obama made some supportive moves and sent observers to the annual meeting of the governing Assembly of States Parties in The Hague. But the Trump administration told the ICC that it would revoke visas for any ICC staff seeking to investigate Americans for war crimes. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added that the same would apply to any staff involved in investigating war crimes committed by Israel or other allied nations.
The ICC currently has 123 Members. Britain is one. No thanks to the USA. I remember a fraught moment in Autumn 1998 when, at a Foreign Office reception, I found myself amongst a small group clustered deferentially around a senior civil servant. In rushed a white-faced - lowlier – official. In the heat of the moment he blurted out that Bill Clinton had just been on the line to Tony Blair trying to talk him out of signing the Rome Statute. Special relationship or not, the Prime Minister held his ground.
The exceptionalism manifested in this US position has damaging implications for future prosecution of war crimes which Fintan O’Toole, discusses with his usual caustic panache in ‘Our Hypocrisy on War Crimes’, 26 May 2022 New York Review of Books. He considers the political background to US conduct during the Vietnam War comparing it with that of the Russian Federation in Ukraine whilst acknowledging the lack of equivalence. But this doesn’t soften his conclusion. “The brutal truth is that the US abandoned its commitment to the ICC not for reasons of legal principle but from the same motive that animated Putin”. In short, neither State wanted to have its military or political leaders prosecuted for war crimes by an international institution. There is a “yawning gap”, he writes, between “Biden’s grandiloquent rhetoric about Putin’s criminality” and US reluctance to give its support to the ICC, the body created by the international community to deal with such criminality.
The Shishimarin trial’s real importance is as testimony that Oleksandr Shepilov matters as an individual and that his right to life shall not be violated with impunity. Prosecuting his killer is not Victor’s Justice, the criticism leveled against the Nuremberg Tribunals: the war in Ukraine continues with no victors. But the trial is open to the challenge that this is not impartial justice. It would have carried greater weight had it been undertaken by the ICC or by another international tribunal such as those created after the Rwandan genocide and the Balkan wars. Future trials of war crimes committed in Ukraine should not be simply exercises in exposing Putin’s brutality or part of the propaganda war fought alongside the bloody armed conflict. They need to show, despite the horror and destruction of war, that the law stands firm as the scaffolding around collapsing civilization.
See TheArticle 09/06/2022
The first casualty of war is truth. Running a good second comes reasoned discussion about a war’s legitimacy, whether it is a just war. Over the years the scale and horror of modern warfare has increasingly called into question the traditional concept of a just war. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has begun to re-surface these doubts. As yet there has been little critical discussion of Britain’s role in it.
Beginning in the 5th century Christian thinkers developed criteria for a war to be just: it must be a last resort, called by a legitimate authority, have a just cause and intention with benefits outweighing the costs (the principle of proportionality), and have a reasonable chance of success. War should be conducted so as to avoid the killing of non-combatants and any actions causing more harm than the injustice combatted. Just war considerations inform the Geneva Conventions and the need for UN approval for military interventions, and apply in practice to the rules governing military targeting. They are the positive products of centuries old attempts to limit the barbarity of war.
In 2020 Pope Francis published his wide-ranging encyclical Fratelli Tutti addressed to ‘brothers and sisters all’ - that’s not just Catholics. Its six paragraphs on war feed into the long just war tradition developed since the time of St. Augustine (354-430). One sentence in Francis’ reflections seems particularly, but not exclusively, applicable to Russia. “War can easily be chosen by invoking all sorts of alleged humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses, and even resorting to manipulation of information’. Even though European secular governments are accustomed to ignoring, or deploring, the advice and statements of Church leaders, the Pope’s thinking may still be of interest to secular readers. Just one caveat, internal debate in wartime can, and does, result in national Bishops’ Conferences taking a different position from that of Rome.
“We do not uphold Augustine’s theory in our own day” writes the Pope in a teasing, unelaborated footnote to his conviction expressed in Fratelli Tutti that the risks of war “will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits”. Weapons of mass destruction, notably tactical nuclear weapons with the threat of a nuclear war, create “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” This is the principle of proportionality, a constraint on military action emphasised by the US Catholic bishops in their 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace”. Both follow John XXIII who almost 60 years ago in Pacem in Terris wrote that war may no longer be regarded as a “fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice”.
Question NATO’s role in the Ukraine war and you will be given short shrift as a left- wing, or right-wing, fanatic. But was the Pope so wrong when he told Corriere della Sera earlier this month that it would be going too far to say that NATO’s expansion eastwards provoked Putin’s lurch into war but that it perhaps facilitated it? Remember that Francis’ primary concern is peace-making. In a mid-March video conference with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, a supporter of Putin’s invasion, Francis, trying to reach out to Kirill while implicitly condemning Putin’s ‘special military operation’, said: “There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner. Wars are always unjust since it is the people of God who pay. Our hearts cannot but weep before the children and women killed, along with all the victims of war”.
Is this all just a utopian vision divorced from reality? The Catholic catechism itself acknowledges the right to self-defence encompassing a country’s resistance against an oppressor once “the rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy have been met”. Fratelli Tutti spells out the Christian position in terms I first heard in South Africa during the apartheid struggle of the early 1980s. “True love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use that diminishes his own humanity and that of others”. But how? This, as Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated, the Pope implies and the Christian peace movement advocates, could, and should, be active non-violent resistance. And it calls into question even the courageous self-sacrifice of Ukrainian security forces fighting for their homeland and national identity with imported NATO artillery and anti-tank weapons.
The just war principle that there must be reasonable chance of success should give us, NATO, and our Press, pause. If success means multiple Mariupols, very heavy troop losses and civilian mass graves all over the country, Ukraine destroyed, the question of proportionality becomes decisive and difficult. But can anyone predict what Putin will do – a seemingly sick man conducting a perverse legacy-war – or what the outcome of one highly motivated military force’s fight on home ground against an invading force with superior destructive power will be? Without military supplies from the West, Ukraine would be overwhelmed. Getting questions about our role right is not some abstract moral calculus but a matter of hundreds of thousands of lives potentially lost or saved, and some would argue, a stable world international order.
The only path to follow - other than into relentless destruction and loss of life - is to persevere with diplomacy. President Macron led the way on this. It will mean at some point putting into play with Putin wider and innovative concessions that do not project weakness, nor the dismemberment of Ukraine. And that in turn requires sieving scraps of truth from Putin’s and Russia’s perennial paranoia and nostalgia. If we believe with the Pope that war can no longer be a remedy, then, as Georgetown University’s Eli McCarthy and some other US academics propose, we need to begin now to use a different set of tools to build a just peace long term – not simply react to wars with further militarization.
Advocating such a parallel pathway sounds naïve, defeatist, even a national security risk. But in a world in which national security is also about climate change, famines and pandemics, it is realistic. War divides and holds back common action on such vital issues. However seductive the comparison, and though Putin’s Russia shows many features of fascist rule, this is not 1939 come round again.
As things stand, the most probable outcome of Putin’s invasion is prolonged military conflict drifting eventually into a guerrilla war, Ukrainian partisans against a brutal Russian invader, the only victors arms manufacturers, the wheat fields and cities of Ukraine the latest testing ground for new weapons systems. And these could be the very weapons of mass destruction, chemical or nuclear, whose existence calls in question the possibility of a just war.
See TheArticle 02'06/2022
In a recent interview Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked a simple yet profound question: Why this cruelty? Are Russian war crimes in Ukraine simply a further illustration of the inevitable barbarism of warfare? Only what might be expected from past experience of Russian army brutality? Yet there was something pathetic in the sight of a downcast young Russian soldier on trial last week, the first no doubt of many, pleading guilty to murdering a Ukrainian civilian. Even the mother of the victim felt sorry for the young man though said she could never forgive him.
We have become accustomed to hearing Zelensky’s voice from war-torn Ukraine, the consistency of his appeals for help and his defiant courage. So listening to him in translation when he was beamed into Chatham House, the international affairs think-tank, seemed nothing unusual. Though Zelensky’ reflections on the reason for the war crimes committed by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians were unexpected.
Zelensky’s believes that Putin’s flood of propaganda during the eight years since the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk region has had a profound effect. Russian war crimes were both “a victory” and a “collective witness” for the success of Russian propaganda and psyops. Many of the soldiers committing the atrocities would have been 10-12 year old in 2014 and since then exposed to unremitting lies and hate speech. The problem was getting hateful ideas out of soldiers’ minds, ‘cleansing this propaganda’ once it was implanted. “Goebbels is a child compared to the adults in the Kremlin machine hunting a whole nation”, was his well-chosen comparison. That Zelensky is Jewish himself made his reflections all the more powerful.
Zelensky’s sense of the power of propaganda can be applied to other mass crimes in other countries. The vicious anti-Tutsi propaganda in the months leading up to the by Radio Libre des Mille Collines controlled by Hutu extremists contributed significantly to the Rwandan genocide. The Tutsi were dehumanised, called inyenzi, cockroaches, as, of course, were Jews during the build up to the Holocaust. Unlike, for example, in many Latin American countries, the Catholic Church in Rwanda did not have a radio station able to combat the poisonous ethnic propaganda.
The active promotion of hate-speech and falsehood by governments, authoritarian or racist, is one thing. That by non-state actors is another. In liberal democratic States, the State has the apparatus to counter extremist hate-speech whether white supremacist or tending towards jihadism. Whether or not it is used effectively, and dog-whistle ‘othering’ of minority ethnic groups or migrants for political purposes outlawed, is another matter. And Zelensky’s reflections raise the question of how a political culture of lies can be combatted, the role of journalists and social media, at what point cracks appear and the public realise they have been taken for fools?
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a client State, suggests some answers. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it claimed that it was defending the 1978 April Afghan revolution to bring ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’ [sic] to the Afghan people who needed the support of ‘warrior-internationalist’ Soviet troops and air-power. Thanks to the CIA’s Operation Cyclone providing the Afghan mujahideen via Pakistan with increasingly sophisticated weaponry (from September 1986 onwards the US delivered 2,300 Stinger surface to air missiles - shades of the future Ukraine) the war dragged on until the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. While the probable number of Afghan deaths was between 600,000 and 1.5 million, crucially some 15,000 Soviet troops had died. Within four years of the invasion public opinion was turning against the war. Pre-Putin Russia was getting uncensored reports from bereaved mothers and news media, domestic and international.
In his book Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former ambassador, estimates that Soviet Russia made 6,412 criminal charges against its own troops, including 714 of murdering civilians and the rest related to drugs and weapons sales. (There was also much cover-up). The common excuse for these war crimes was retaliation for the mujahideen’s own use of torture and their violation of the rules of war. Captured Soviet troops sometimes killed themselves rather than fall into mujahideen hands. “Even senior officers could be punished for allowing their troops to commit excesses”, Braithwaite claims. For example, the commander of the 191st. Independent Motor-rifle Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Kravchenko, was court-marshalled and sentenced to ten years after Afghan prisoners were shot.
Orchestrated hate requires a conductor of the orchestra. Enter President Vladimir Putin. Prime Minister 1999, President 2000-2008, Prime Minister again from 2008-2012, and then again President, Putin’s influence soon became apparent. During the war in Chechnya 1999-2009, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the European Court of Human Rights all found that no official had ever been tried for the enforced disappearance of from between 3,000 and 5,000 Chechens, or charged with any of the 60,000 Chechens deaths. Grozny, Chechnya’s main city, had been flattened like Aleppo and Mariupol. There are no signs that Putin will be submitting troops who have committed war crimes to court-martial or punishment in Ukraine. On the contrary the Russian Parliament is talking about trying Ukrainian troops surrendering from Mariupol for war crimes labelling them as Nazis. Putin and his coterie deny and condone Russian military atrocities.
“They hate life”, Zelensky told Chatham House. And hate, history tells us, is easier to conjure up than love. Soldiers sometimes talk of an overwhelming blood-lust after comrades-in-arms have been killed or tortured (there were notable US examples in Vietnam). Add the ruthless brutality of a leader whose sensibilities have been honed in the old KGB. Add years of conditioning Russian society for hate, shutting down all uncensored sources of news, and you have mass graves again. With perhaps worse to follow.
See TheArticle 23/05/2022
Priti Patel’s announcement that Rwanda was to be given £120 million for accepting deported migrants - and refugees - has not gone down well. But undeterred the Prime Minister has said he will get it done. For a moment let’s take at face value the Government’s response to the widespread outcry.
Patel’s defense of her money-for-migrants scheme contains at least three claims. The first is that Britain has a problem: an unacceptable number of migrants and asylum seekers are crossing the channel to Britain in small boats. The second is that criminal gangs of people smugglers make a great deal of money out of organizing these crossings and that deportation to Rwanda of young male ‘illegal migrants’ who adopt this way of entering Britain is the only means of destroying the smugglers’ business model and so to prevent drownings. The third is that the passengers on these unsafe dinghies are mostly economic migrants not genuine refugees. Each of these claims sounds plausible, the second even a form of ‘tough love’. Transnational organized crime and the suffering and tragic deaths it entails are obviously a serious problem. But each claim is based on false assumptions, misinformation or simply ignores what is known from research on migration.
Compared with other European countries, Britain does not have a severe migrant problem. Some two-thirds of those making the Channel crossing turn out to be genuine asylum seekers rather than economic migrants though war, persecution and poverty do go together. If you take the number of asylum claims per 100,000 of population as a measure, Britain ranks 14th in Europe with Germany, Spain, France, Belgium and Switzerland receiving applications at double the rate of Britain’s. Between 2015 and 2016, Angela Merkel’s Germany admitted 1.25 million Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees. By 2018, according to the US Center for Global Development, 72% had gained permission to work. From 1% on arrival 44% had learnt German. By 2021 some 50% had jobs, were in training or had internships. Britain with a similarly ageing population and labour shortage might profitably study how a country can successfully turn migrants into an asset. The real problem is dog-whistling by the political Right and its supportive Press creating fear of ‘swamping’.
People smuggling, sometimes overlapping with sexual trafficking, is now firmly established as large scale transnational crime. The global estimate for 2016 was that c. 2.5 million people paid smugglers between $5.5 and $7 billion to get them across borders. The big transnational criminal gangs and smaller networks operate on the dark web in encrypted sites. Payment often is made through the traditional hawala system (in Arab countries and South Asia, money is paid to an agent who instructs a trusted associate in the relevant country or area to pay the final recipient). Like other profits from international crime, the money can then be laundered through banks. Laundering is an obvious target if the government’s aim is to undermine the business model.
The France to UK sea-crossing lies at the end of a very long and dangerous journey which involves negotiations with ruthless gangs and their collaborators often working on commission within transnational networks from hubs such as Agadez in Niger. In such poor countries the gangs provide employment for a penumbra of independent guides, drivers, recruiters and middle-men, forgers of travel documents, providers of boats and accommodation.
The smuggler’s ‘business model’ is simple: lowest risk with highest profits. The total cost per traveler with the UK as a destination is now 6,000 Euros. The more difficult it gets the higher the price. But demand is not necessarily flattened. Because they have become accustomed to taking life-threatening risks on their journey, and because the Eurotunnel route is now more or less successfully blocked along with lorry traffic being more diligently checked, on the final leg of their journey asylum seekers and migrants are prepared to risk drowning. In good weather, dinghies trucked into France from Germany, and now larger boats, set off together and, given the current maximum available deployment of 800 French police and border control staff on the long French beaches, a percentage will make it across. A year ago, the French were making some 1,500 arrests of people involved in organizing the Channel crossings - but they are soon replaced.
The young men who are most at risk from the Patel plan also have a business model. They are often ‘crowdfunded’ by their village or by relatives, becoming a cross between a human lottery ticket and a living investment made in the expectation of returns through regular remittances home. Many are burdened by the moral responsibility to reach the UK and pay back their investors. They are the product of the corruption and incompetence of their own governments, inadequate debt relief and cuts in development aid. Deportation to Rwanda addresses none of this.
Government talks in terms of supply and demand. But limiting demand for the services of smugglers, if that is the true aim, could be achieved by measures directly under our control such as increasing and broadening the channels for regular migration, simpler checking procedures, making it easier to obtain legitimate travel documents. Opportunities for authorised migration need to increase and be made more accessible in countries of origin as well as from refugee camps. The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme for Syrian refugees which ended in March 2021 should be continued with increased annual target numbers. Better staffed migration and asylum bureaux in Europe are also necessary. The shambles of the Ukrainian humanitarian visas application system is an example of how to create an incentive to pay people smugglers and risk the Channel crossing. Ratchet up government investment in authorised routes and fewer people would want to pay smugglers.
Finally, if government policy is indeed intended to interdict people smugglers, the £120 million going to Rwanda, plus other attendant transportation and accommodation costs, would be better spent on increasing the staffing of the UK’s National Crime Agency INVIGOR programme which deals with criminally organized immigration. Better liaison and cooperation with France’s OCRIEST, (L’Office central pour la répression de l’immigration irrégulière et de l’emploi d’étrangers sans titre), the French immigration and border police, and with Interpol’s Integrated Border Management Task Force (IBMTF) would also help.
With the Home Office prediction of only 300 deportations to Rwanda annually and with forthcoming legal challenges, Priti Patel’s money-for-migrants partnership seems unlikely to be implemented. The judges and ‘left-wing lawyers’ will be blamed when it is stopped. And Government headline-grabbing will continue, irresponsible, deceptive and shameless.
See TheArticle 09/05/2022
Why did Priti Patel, claiming her aim is to destroy the cross-channel traffickers’ “business model”, choose Rwanda for her recent £120 million Migration and Economic Development Partnership? And from what budget does the funding come? Asylum seekers and migrants seeking a safe or better life in the UK are to be treated like toxic waste to be dumped in foreign lands, a striking illustration of the Johnson Cabinet’s moral bankruptcy. But quite likely here is a Minister playing to the Tory gallery unconcerned that their announcement can’t be implemented. Legal challenges are already being prepared. If this were just another half-baked initiative that will never happen, a Johnson specialty, there wouldn’t be much more to say. But why Rwanda and what’s in it for the Home Secretary?
The announcement provoked widespread and powerful reactions. “We pray that those who seek solutions do so with compassion, and with regard for the dignity which is innate to every human being. This week's policy announcement simply lacks these qualities” Cardinal Vincent Nichols responded. The Archbishop of Canterbury described this “subcontracting” of responsibilities as “the opposite of the nature of God” – more theological but less clear - while the civil servants union called it ‘inhumane’. Matthew Rycroft CBE, Permanent Secretary in the Home Office with a distinguished diplomatic career behind him, wrote to Priti Patel that he was not in a position to conclude there was "a deterrent effect significant enough to make the policy value for money” and therefore needing a Ministerial directive to proceed. In short, the deal was immoral, unworkable, probably illegal, and would likely cost a fortune.
Protest was strong but the choice of Rwanda and its geopolitical implications have aroused negligible in-depth comment. They should have. There is much to be learnt from Rwanda’s tragic history. My Church and Revolution in Rwanda (Manchester University Press 1977) examines the roots of the bitter political and ethnic conflict already happening 45 years ago. Following the 1994 genocide, I wrote about the failure of the international community, the complicity of the French, and the aftermath of the take-over by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Rwanda is much more than the ‘Switzerland of Africa’.
Rwanda today is economically a remarkable success story for which its President Paul Kagame is justly credited. A former military commander, in his mid-60s, trained at Fort Leavenworth, USA, he directed the RPF take-over after the genocide and today leads a tiny, poor, mountainous, densely populated country not much bigger than Wales whose population is 3.17 million. According to the World Bank, 60% of the 13 million Rwandans still survive in extreme poverty on $1.25 a day, but many of the usual poverty indicators are moving in the right direction.
The Kagame government has achieved impressive economic and social progress. 30% of Rwanda’s budget is spent on health and education. There is almost universal primary education along with innovative health measures, though malaria remains prevalent. Life expectancy increased from 49 years to 67 between 2001-2017. Significant efforts have been made to overcome the ethnic divides that lay behind the genocide. In 2008 a law against gender based violence was passed and some 62% of parliamentarians are now women. Inequality in Rwanda as measured by the Gini coefficient (Sweden 0.3, South Africa 0.63) is 0.44. According to Transparency International, Rwanda is the least corrupt country on the African continent. An extraordinary example of national regeneration after the genocide.
Foreign aid accounts for from 30-40% of Rwanda’s annual budget but, poor though the country remains, the government hopes to leap-frog into the cyber-age and make the country a regional ICT hub; 4,000 kilometres of fibre optics have been rolled out and 600,000 laptops distributed. The national university has a course on Artificial Intelligence. Rwanda – formerly Francophone now in the Commonwealth with an English language policy - has become a darling of British Development Aid. What’s not to admire?
The maggot in the apple is Kagame’s violation of individual human rights. Years ago, I was threatened by the head of Rwanda’s official human rights organization for taking too much interest in human rights violations. Opposing Kagame is dangerous. Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum (the German equivalent of the BBC World Service) reports ‘enforced disappearances’ (the official legal name used in a 2006 human rights UN International Convention) of journalists and opponents of the Rwandan government as well as mysterious deaths in South Africa and Mozambique of Rwandan exiles.
You have to be a very courageous to criticize the government. The country is ranked 155 out of 180 for Press Freedom and, placed between Angola at 122 and Zimbabwe at 133, is 128th out of 167 on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index. In the 2017 elections, after 22 years in power as President, Paul Kagame allegedly received 99% of the votes achieving a constitutional change that would allow him to stay in power until 2034. Rwanda is now amongst the world’s authoritarian one-party States.
Western governments making decisions about relations with Rwanda face a dilemma. Its work for social and economic rights inspires support and engagement. Its violations of individual rights, rights by which the West officially sets such store, call in question the fundamental opposition the West asserts between democratic governments and the growing number of authoritarian States around the world. The contemporary China-Russia alliance has made the West’s defense of democracy an overriding geopolitical priority. The Cold War between Communist States and Western democracies is resumed with once again the (false) choice between the personal freedoms of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights and the economic and social benefits of the 1966 UN International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. Does achieving the social and economic rights laid out in the 1966 UN International Covenant really depend on suppression of political opposition? Hardly. It’s a counter-factual argument but a democratic Rwanda could have done just as well.
The West sees itself championing democracy and a culture of democracy underpinned by respect for human rights, especially those violated by authoritarian regimes. So what is the UK doing planning to deport asylum seekers for ‘processing’, many of whom will be fleeing one authoritarian regime only to end up in another? This is no-one’s idea of ‘constructive engagement’. Priti Patel in her choice of Rwanda is de facto prioritizing economic rights over individual rights, reversing the West’s longstanding geopolitical position. Perhaps she simply doesn’t notice that there might be a wider problem here in the message she is giving to the world in her migrants for money partnership.
The commercialisation of higher education in Britain is, in part, a by-product of its success. “The proportion of young people in England going to university has passed the symbolic 50% mark for the first time”, the BBC reported in September 2019. “It comes almost exactly 20 years after then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, called for half of young people to go into higher education”. He recently called for the level to be pushed up to 70%.
In 1959, less than 4% of university age youth received a university education. In 1963, the Robbins Report on Higher Education recommended that university places should be available to all who were qualified by ability and attainment. During the 1960s the number of UK universities doubled, from 22 to 45. Today 130 are receiving funding from government – plus a few private universities - each competing to attract the brightest students. The cost to the tax payer has risen proportionately. The introduction of tuition fees in 1998, £1,000 then £9,250 now, to help with funding, was a crucial stage in attaching monetary value to a university education.
British universities are now large institutions serving on average 18 thousand students. But Government does not give them enough money. UK students’ tuition fees do not cover the cost of their education. For the last two years, as they switched on lap-tops in their rooms for the day’s lectures, students themselves have been clocking up debt. Students from abroad, paying £31,000 per annum, barely keeping the good ship academia afloat, are sought out by academic marketing departments. Universities little by little are turning into businesses to survive, a few of them tottering on the brink.
Universities of course differ in campus position, the ‘old civic red brick’ and Oxbridge versus those situated outside or on the edge of towns, in endowments, in ethos and reputation for a particular academic expertise, as well as their entry standards and research quality. In addition ‘student satisfaction’ is measured and graduate prospects that both feature in their - much criticised – annually published ranking. Many universities are facing significant deficits in pension funds and offering salaries that academic staff do not see as commensurate with their training and workload. Lecturers chafe at demands to shine both in teaching, in student satisfaction ratings, and research increasingly for the income it brings.
Asking what universities are for is an interesting question and the answer has changed over time. By the end of the 19th century the idea that moral and religious education should be an inseparable part of university teaching had weakened. By the end of the 20th century ‘cultivation of the intellect’ as the prime purpose of universities’ was also eclipsed. Far too ‘ivory tower’. Encouraged by government, the main purpose of the British university now is to meet the needs of an advanced economy. Universities cultivate ‘graduate prospects’, meaning the promise, or at least the expectation, of a good job after graduation – defined as a starting salary of at least £30,000-£35,000 - so easy for students to measure the return on their investment . Even the subjects taught in universities are evaluated by students and university management alike as developing, or not, future useful and lucrative professional skills. The mind-set and language of economics has infiltrated many aspects of life and the universities weren’t spared.
During and since the pandemic, much attention has rightly been given to the disruption of school life, the impact on school and pre-school children. Much less attention is given to the current state of Britain’s universities, their staff and their students. The pandemic deprived all students, whatever their age, of the social experience which being in higher education traditionally gives. But this impact on university life came on top of changes transforming the size, ethos and very idea of a university.
Size seems to matter. St. Andrew’s in Scotland and Aberystwyth in Wales have around 10,000 students each. They top the student satisfaction league. Manchester with over 40,000 and University College London (UCL) with over 45,000 – half from overseas - have opted for gigantism in response to demand and in the hope of economies of scale. Both come 104th out of 128 (no figures for Oxbridge) in student satisfaction ranking despite getting good results. Both have experienced strikes by university about pay, pay gaps, pensions, workload and casualization. But so have many others.
The University and College Union (UCU) negotiate staff pay. This year they have been campaigning against zero-hours contracts. According to UCU research, an astonishing 6,500 lecturers working in 46% of universities and 60% of colleges are on zero hours contracts. A further 68,845, many working in research programmes, are on fixed term contracts.
Graduation ceremonies have always been rites of passage. A symbolic event closing ceremonially three years of new – and lasting - friendships and rewarding study, marking entry into the adult world. This year the pandemic back-log meant that double the numbers graduated. At UCL, with its huge numbers, this meant a week of three sets of students a day graduating conveyor belt style in the drab barn-like ExCel Exhibition Centre in London’s docklands. Tickets sold at £35 each and gown hire was £47 - if you got the discounted price. A pre-recorded message from UCL’s provost appeared on a large screen. At the same time the ExCel Centre was hosting a business conference and a marine biology conference. A less than grand finale for students who missed a great deal working their passage through a disrupted university system increasingly commercialized and all at sea.
John Henry Newman, Anglican theologian who became a Catholic Cardinal, published his The Idea of a University in 1858, a compilation of nine lectures based upon his experience and thinking as Rector of a new Catholic University in Dublin. It is frankly hard-going. He wanted the university to be a place where “intellect [was] disciplined for its own sake” where ‘inutility’, as he called it, was to be cherished. But he did concede that if the utility of university education was to be considered, it should be to prepare students “to fill their respective posts in life better…. making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society”. Newman also had a prescient word on the dangers of demanding both good teaching and research from lecturers. “He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new”. Many of today’s lecturers would agree.
Learning is not a commercial transaction. Education should not embody the ethics of a business enterprise. The task of universities in national life should not be promoting only the kind of research that makes money, nor make filling the top end of the Labour Market their limited vision. They are being driven in this direction. I like to think of the small university I am associated with, St. Mary’s Twickenham, 30th in the student satisfaction tables and with distinctive Catholic values, as part of the resistance.
Why are the main fights in today’s culture wars about sex, sexuality, gender and the beginning of life? Each, particularly the latter, admittedly weighty moral issues in their own right. And how have the British managed to push BREXIT, something that has nothing to do with sex, into our culture wars making it a marker of identity? Conflicts of opinion about how to reduce climate change, pandemics and respond to Putin’s war - life-threatening both before and after birth - get prolonged public airing but, with the exception of face coverings, which have been politicised, and the anti-vaxxers, appear much less divisive, less about identity. It’s puzzling.
I bumped into these questions whilst thinking about how and why the different Abrahamic faith traditions share views that find their way into the arsenals of the culture wars. The conservative Evangelical from Montana who hates the Washington elite agrees with the traditional views about sex, sexuality and gender held by the Russian Orthodox from Moscow. Both consider that contemporary morality amounts to nothing short of culpable ‘decadence’ and identify their enemies accordingly. Both, deliberately or inadvertently, spend time undermining democracy and both promote a politics of ‘back to the future’. Ultraconservative American evangelicals seem even unwilling to denounce the violent 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol.
By far the best known and most shocking attempted return to an imaginary past is, of course, that of ISIS and the Da’esh Caliphate. But it is telling that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow imagines a former Holy Mother Russia encompassing Ukraine and Belarus, and singles out gay pride marches as evidence of ‘Western decadence’. The war in Ukraine has revealed how far Russian Orthodoxy, in part, has been co-opted, even militarised, by the Russian State. Putin, ostensibly a Russian Orthodox believer, and Patriarch Kirill, almost certainly a KGB asset, inherited a mutually beneficial relationship formed during the post-Brezhnev Soviet era. It seems no accident that extreme forms of ‘back to the future’ religion can spawn violence.
Why is yearning for a fantasy past displacing hope in the future? As in the jihadist imagining of the early Caliphates, there has to be some factual or scriptural basis for the resurgence of these nostalgic dreams. Phrases and stories from sacred writings have to be torn from their context. Text without context becomes pretext. And the pretext can easily be for coercion and violence in a binary world. Those with whom we do not agree, who reject our fantasy, are deliberately culpable, the culpable are enemies, and enemies have to be destroyed before they destroy all we believe in.
Belligerence is not all on one side. ‘Woke’ has become something of a synonym for modernity or, at least, shorthand for a major belligerent in our culture wars. In the West, vocabulary, words in themselves, have become crucial indicators of right beliefs and attitudes. But does a word, maybe an outdated word, betray reprehensible views? Much blame is attached to using or not using the right words, an absence of the required vocabulary supposedly indicating an absence of virtue and sensitivity. But does the wrong word always, or even frequently, indicate an unacceptable ‘ism’ to justify the accusation of thought-crimes? An older generation struggles to ‘curate’ a fast changing vocabulary. I’ve had a good education but it took a grandchild to tell me gently that people with disabilities want to be called just that, not ‘the disabled’. Does calling someone ‘coloured’ rather than ‘black’ really unmask the speaker as racist? Words do matter, they can anger and wound, but intention and behaviour matter more. People of good will can find it hard to keep up with what is the right word to use and can feel coerced into silence because of it.
If you are old the past is that other country where you were young, healthy, energetic and probably optimistic, and inevitably things were different. It is a place where you and people like you belonged. The imagined past is a place where you are free from present fears, fear that you are being laughed at by a modern, supercilious elite, treated with contempt, and free of the fear that much you hold dear is being swept away.
Such anxiety is the bread and butter of populism - and a key sentiment of those who violently attacked the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. The ‘Proud Boys’, ‘The Oath Keepers’, all self-revealing titles which reveal the frightening level of conflict and division in American society.
The West – and the world - badly need a cease-fire in the culture wars. Much of them feel like distractions from the potentially catastrophic problems we are now facing. We need respectful dialogue about sex, sexuality, beginning and end of life and gender, not censorious diatribes. A multi-cultural society needs some clear red lines, but it also badly needs to accommodate dissent, agreement to disagree, not coercion forcing people to change their vocabulary or lose any public voice. Above all we need to replace fantasies of the past, or unrealistic optimism, with hope for the future.
Putin’s mother may or may not have been a closet Orthodox Christian who had her son secretly baptized. Metropolitan (head of a major diocese) Tikhon, friend of Putin, first trained as a screenwriter, is known for his ultraconservative nationalist theology, his opposition to democracy and support for censorship as well as his promotion of Orthodoxy as the antidote to ‘Western decadence’. The friendship between Putin and Tikhon dates from the late 1990s and developed into a close relationship as their careers blossomed. Tikhon reached the status of Archimandrite (Grand Abbot) in 1998 and became Rector of the restored Stretensky Seminary in Moscow in 1999. Putin became President of the Russian Federation in 2000 in time to oversee the rebuilding of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
I went to Moscow in 1991 to talk to Gorbachev’s religious advisers and to visit a little catholic church and its community in the shadow of the Lubyanka. Two surveillance cameras were trained on the door. The parish priest was a resilient Ukrainian who had spent many years in prison. Catholicism is not Russia’s favourite brand of Christianity.
Gorbachev’s religious advisers wanted to talk about life after communism. They were worried about what would fill the vacuum and hold society together. “Now our communist ethics [sic] have gone what is going to replace it?” Enter Christianity seen by them as the only available solution to providing the glue for Society. I told them things weren’t quite that simple, they would need to accommodate different varieties of Christianity. I wondered privately about the future role of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Thirty years on and Russia is 70% Orthodox with quite a high level of observance. Pentecostals and Plymouth Brethren are given a very hard time and there is little love wasted on the Catholics. Orthodoxy in Russia has largely become a politicised religion.
It is difficult to assess what the Russian Orthodox Church means today for Putin’s life, thinking, imperial ambitions and legitimacy. Until Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent denunciation of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill’s collusion with the war in Ukraine, Putin’s thinking about religion hardly featured in UK media analysis of his motivations. The question remains unanswered whether Putin is simply using religion as a political tool seeing war as “a mere continuation of policy by other means."
There is nothing exceptional in a Head of State attending a thanksgiving service after their inauguration – in this instance in 2000 - Putin went straight to prayers in the Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin. We do know that Putin makes diplomatic use of his relationship with Orthodoxy. During a visit to George W. Bush in June 2001 Putin drew attention to the baptismal cross his mother allegedly gave him. “This was a very good meeting”, Bush enthused. “And I look forward to my next meeting with President Putin in July. I very much enjoyed our time together. He's an honest, straightforward man who loves his country. He loves his family. We share a lot of values. I view him as a remarkable leader”. Trump was not the only President to be enamoured. Putin knew which buttons to press.
Archimandrite Tikhon has on several occasions accompanied Putin on foreign visits and Putin has visited the impressive Russian Orthodox monastery of St. Panteleimon on the Greek peninsula of Athos at least twice. The first time was in 2005 and the last in 2016 when, with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, he joined celebrations of the thousandth anniversary of Orthodox monks establishing themselves on Athos. Recently a friend of mine on pilgrimage to Mount Athos saw about thirty men, in a small taverna in the ferry port of Ouranoupolis all in their late 20’s with shaved heads, eating supper in silence. Next day he watched them disembark in orderly fashion at the first Russian monastery on the peninsula. His immediate thought was that they were Russian soldiers from a military academy.
There is other evidence of militarisation of religion. In June 2020, Defence Minister, Sergei Soigu, opened the main church of the Russian Armed Forces on the outskirts of Moscow. The khaki-coloured Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ was dedicated for the 75th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War. Its metal floor is made from melted down Nazi ordinance and armour. It has icons of martyrs who fought for Russia, most strikingly that of Fyodor Ushakov, ‘righteous commander of the Black Sea Fleet’.
The Ukrainian capital has religious significance for Russians. In 988 Prince Vladimir was baptized in the Crimea. The conversion. of the Rus people began when he returned to Kyiv. An equally significant date for Putin is 1686 when the Orthodox Church in Ukraine was brought under the Moscow Patriarchate, only to split away in 2019 – supported by the then Ukrainian President Petro Porochenko - when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul granted it ‘autocephaly’. Patriach Kirill’s view of Kyiv as the Jerusalem of Russian Orthodoxy might explain why central Kyiv has not been shelled.
According to the Christian Think-tank, Theos, Putin does believe Grand Prince Vladimir’s ‘spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy’ “predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus”. And Patriarch Kirill sees his role as being “concerned with the maintaining and strengthening of spiritual ties between people living in these countries for the sake of preserving the system of values which the one Orthodox civilization of Holy Russia reveals to the world.” In short, for Putin, the old canonical boundaries of the Russian Orthodox Church provide the template of Russia’s rightful political boundaries, and after the catastrophe of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, justification for the resurrection of ‘the Russian World’ (Russki Mir) to challenge and defeat the ‘secular political project’ of Ukrainian politicians who are backed by a 'degenerate' Western world.
Does Putin really believe his barbarism in Ukraine is a Holy War promoting a glorious expansive, ethnic vision of Holy Mother Russia? Or is he simply instrumentalising religion? If so there are signs it is backfiring. On 13 March 2022, distinguished members of the Russian Orthodox Church signed and circulated A Declaration declaring Russki Mir a heresy. At time of writing, it has 1,280 signatories including theologians and others from different Christian traditions around the world. Some have compared it to the Declaration of Barmen which described the Nazi ‘Christian Movement’ as a heresy.
Perhaps the secular West should consider that some atavistic part of Putin really does believe in this perverse religious vision. The militarisation of Russian Orthodoxy is obvious and worrying. It has policy implications for the West, Ukraine – and the world.