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The moral superiority of suffering

06 March 2015

IT IS painfully dawning on Western nations that the "peace dividend" that was meant to follow the break-up of the Soviet Empire was more the product of their own wishful thinking than a genuine end to the old hostilities.

For Russians, the end of the Marxist state and the benefits of capitalism were no compensation for the loss of Russian influence; they were salt in the wound. Much has been made of Russia's age-old fear of encirclement, but there is another, more spiritual strand to the aggressive stance Russia is currently projecting to the West. This has to do with a theme dear to Slavic culture: the moral superiority that comes from the endurance of suffering. Suffering brings what philosophers call "epistemic privilege", a special kind of knowledge denied to others, which is also a source of righteousness.

It has been suggested that most Russians would prefer another Stalin to another Gorbachev. The former caused massive suffering to the Russian people, but many believe he also made them great. The Great Patriotic War (Second World War) established the moral right of Russia to the Empire it craved, whereas all that Gorbachev and Yeltsin achieved was to make a few rich at the expense of the majority.

President Putin is not afraid of Western sanctions, because he knows that many Russians have faith in the power of suffering to restore Russian greatness. Protest may come from urban liberals, but figures such as Boris Nemtsov - murdered a week ago - are easily rubbed out. Stoic endurance is written into Orthodox spirituality and, in a corrupt form, now justifies ruthless nationalism, with a powerful sense of social solidarity.

Mr Putin also knows that the West has no appetite for suffering. Its political lack of will reflects its spiritual decline. NATO's failure to maintain its military spending is the obvious moment to let the Russian bear out of its cage, its past wounds on display, and its claws ready sharpened.

The sense of privilege which lies behind Mr Putin's stance is not unknown in the West. It is attributed, in much Catholic social teaching, to the poor and oppressed - which is why, in the coming months, we shall probably see attempts to promote sympathy for Russian sensitivities, and to blame NATO for an aggression of which it is currently incapable.

A friend suggested recently that this might be the run-up to the next great war. It is not impossible. We should at least be thinking of whether we have any moral or spiritual values left, for which we would be prepared to risk confrontation with Mr Putin's Russia.

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