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Angela Tilby: The roots of Russian paranoia

12 October 2018


LAST week was a bad week for the Russian intelligence and propaganda machine. The Dutch, American, and British authorities united to produce a stream of evidence of Russian cyber-warfare. The weekend brought new revelations, including the deliberate targeting of Western teenagers with misleading posts on social media.

It has often been said that Russia’s principal aim in this aggressive cyber-warfare is to sow division in Western democracies. But behind all that, of course, is Russia’s constant fear of encirclement by hostile powers. The fears are not without substance: Russian influence was hugely eroded by the end of the Cold War as territories that had been part of the Soviet Empire gained independence and often looked to the West for support.

The Russian Church is also involved in conflict. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is trying to break free from the Moscow Patriarchate and align itself directly with the Orthodox Patriarch in Constantinople (News, 21 September). In retaliation, the Russian Church has suspended its involvement in all Orthodox structures chaired by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. He will no longer even be mentioned in prayers.

Some have concluded that there is something in the Russian psyche that tends to paranoia. But I wonder whether the roots of this paranoia could lie in the faith of ancient Byzantium, which was adopted by Vladimir the Great in 988, “the baptism of Kiev Rus”. Look at the face of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, “the last Roman”, as he is often known. A mosaic in Ravenna, made in his lifetime, shows him staring out with a grim half-smile. He looks a bit of a thug, but there is anxiety in his eyes.

Justinian sought to re-establish the Roman Empire after its collapse in the fifth century. His achievements were many. As a ruthless champion of Christian orthodoxy, he suppressed what was left of pagan worship, and attempted to crush the last flowerings of Hellenism from the Christian Church.

Justinian tried to make the Church pure as he tried to make the Empire unassailable. For him, tolerance was weakness; diversity, a threat to integrity. There was a very dark streak to Byzantine Christianity, in spite of the glamour of its worship. Torture and assassination were routine. At its root was a fear of infection by wrong thinking and wrong belief.

President Putin has embraced Orthodox Christianity — hoping, perhaps, to find an ideology that will back up his attempt to make Russia great again. He, too, likes to pose as an icon of strength. The Russian Church supports him enthusiastically, as though to accept that no lie is too great, no dissimulation too extreme, if it is in support of the true faith.

Perhaps the GRU and the troll factories of the Kremlin are the modern face of ancient Byzantium.

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