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
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
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