Against The Normal

Within the Christianity of our time, the great spiritual conflict, unknown to almost all, is between a naturalistic/secular world of modernity and the sacramental world of classical Christianity. The first presumes that a literal take on the world is the most accurate. It tends to assume a closed system of cause and effect, ultimately explainable through science and manageable through technology. Modern Christians, quite innocently, accept this account of the world with the proviso that there is also a God who, on occasion, intervenes within this closed order. The naturalist unbeliever says, “Prove it.”

The sacramental world of classical Christianity speaks a wholly different language. It presumes that the world as we see it is an expression of a greater reality that is unseen. It presumes that everything is a continuing gift and a means of communion with the good God who created it. The meaning and purpose of things is found in that which is not seen, apart from which we can only reach false conclusions. The essential message of Christ, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” is a proclamation of the primacy of this unseen world and its coming reign in the restoration of all things (apokatastasis, cf. Acts 3:21).

The assumptions of these two worldviews could hardly be more contradictory. The naturalistic/secular model has the advantage of sharing a worldview with contemporary culture. As such, it forms part of what most people would perceive as “common sense” and “normal.” Indeed, the larger portion of Christian believers within that model have no idea that any other Christian worldview exists.

The classical/sacramental worldview was the only Christian worldview for most of the centuries prior to the Reformation. Even then, that worldview was only displaced through revolution and state sponsorship. Nonetheless, the sacramental understanding continues within the life of the Orthodox Church, as well as many segments of Catholicism. Its abiding presence in the Scriptures guarantees that at least a suspicion of “something else” will haunt some modern Christian minds.

An assumption of the secular/naturalist worldview is that information itself is “objective” in character: it is equally accessible to everyone. The classical worldview assumes something quite different. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Christ says, “for they shall see God.” The Kingdom of God is not an inert object that yields itself to public examination. The knowledge of God and of all spiritual things requires a different mode of seeing and understanding. St. Paul says it this way: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1Co 2:14).

This understanding disturbs the sensibilities of many contemporary Christians. Some go so far as to suggest that it is “gnostic” (by this they mean that the very notion of spiritual knowledge that is less than democratic is suspect). Sola Scriptura is a modern concept that posits the Scriptures as subject to objective interpretation. The Scriptures thus belong to the world of public, democratic debate, whose meaning belongs within the marketplace of opinion. The Scriptures are “my Bible.”

The classical model is, in fact, the teaching found in the Scriptures. It utterly rejects the notion of spiritual knowledge belonging to the same category as the naturalistic/secular world. It clearly understands that the truth of things is perceived only through the heart (nous) and that an inward change is required. It is impossible to encounter the truth and remain unchanged.

The classical model, particularly as found within Orthodoxy, demands repentance and asceticism as a normative part of the spiritual life. These actions do not earn a reward, but are an inherent part of the cleansing of the heart and the possibility of perceiving the truth.

The rationalization (secular/rationalist) of the gospel has also given rise to modern “evangelism.” If no particular change is required in a human being in order to perceive the truth of the gospel, then rational argument and demonstration becomes the order of the day. Indeed, modern evangelism is largely indistinguishable from modern marketing. They were born from the same American social movements.

The classical model tends to be slower in its communication, for what is being transmitted is the fullness of the tradition and the transformation of each human life. Evangelism, in this context, has little to no relationship with marketing. The primary form for the transmission of the gospel is the community of the Church. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is properly only seen in an embodied community of believers living in sacramental union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. In the early Church, the catechumenate generally lasted for as much as three years. The formation that took place was seen as an essential preparation for the Christian life. “Making a decision” was almost beside the point.

The struggle between classical/sacramental Christianity and modernity (including its various Christianities) is not a battle over information. The heart of the struggle is for sacramental Christianity to simply remain faithful to what it is. That struggle is significant, simply for the fact that it takes place within a dominant culture that is largely its antithesis.

A complicating factor in this struggle is the fact that the dominant culture (naturalistic/secular) has taken up traditional Christian vocabulary and changed its meaning. This creates a situation in which classical Christianity is in constant need of defining and understanding its own language in contradistinction to the prevailing cultural mind. The most simple terms, “faith, belief, Baptism, Communion, icon, forgiveness, sin, repentance,” are among those things that have to be consistently re-defined. Every conversation outside a certain circle requires this effort, and, even within that circle, things are not always easy.

Such an effort might seem exhausting. The only position of relaxation within the culture is the effortless agreement with what the prevailing permutations tell us on any given day. Human instinct tends towards the effortless life – and the secular mentality constantly reassures us that only the effortless life is normal. Indeed, “normal, ordinary, common,” and such terms, are all words invented by modernity as a self-description. Such concepts are utterly absent from the world of Scripture. Oddly, no one lived a “normal” life until relatively recently.

That which is “normal” is nothing of the sort. It is the purblind self-assurance that all is well when nothing is well.

God have mercy on us.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows a marginal pen-and-ink drawing from a letter by Olaf Stapledon, written to his fiance, dated October 3, 1918.

Tsar Nicholas II And Thailand

An Orthodox parish appeared in the Thai city of Hua Hin about seven years ago. Hua Hin is situated near Bangkok and it is one of the residences of the King of Thailand. When the members of the Russian Orthodox mission were discussing who to dedicate the new church to, the Orthodox community from the island of Phuket proposed that the church be dedicated to the Royal Martyrs.

When St. Nicholas II was the tsarevich (crown prince), he visited the Kingdom of Siam during his Eastern journey, which makes him the only Orthodox saint who has ever trod this country so far. The factors contributing to the dedication of the church in honor of the Royal Family were: the importance of the monarchy for the Thai people, the Russian monarch’s holiness, and the status of the city as a royal residence. Another weighty argument was the fact that the parish on Phuket suggested donating relics associated with the Royal Family to the new church, namely a medallion which belonged to Princess Tatiana Nikolaevna and the cross that she used to wear on her neck (these were bought by Sergey Yefremov, a parishioner, at an Armand Hammer Auction).

The rector of the Holy Trinity Church on Phuket painted an icon of the Holy Princess Tatiana and donated it to the new church in Hua Hin, and Sergei Yefremov sent them another present from Russia, namely a small icon of the Protection of the Holy Theotokos from the Church of the Feodorovskaya icon in Krasnoye Selo near St. Petersburg (also from the Armand Hammer collection).

Although the community is small, the church started holding interesting annual public and church meetings and concerts, along with other events with the participation of the Russian Federation’s Ambassador Extraordinary to Thailand. Last year there were also Church-wide festivities on the occasion of the centenary of the Royal Family’s martyrdom.

Pilgrims from across Thailand came in buses and their own cars, and at least half of them were Thais—most probably because the tourist season had ended long before and all who remained in Thailand were its permanent residents and a handful of tourists.

Of all the Thais who were present at the church service, one elderly couple stood out: the former commander-in-chief of the Thai Royal Navy, Admiral Varong Songcharoen, and his wife, Vorasulisi (Bhakdikun) Songcharoen, who is related to the New Martyr Nicholas Johnson. Admiral Varong and his spouse had recently returned from Russia where they had participated in an international conference dedicated to the memory of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich and St. Nicholas Johnson.

The service was solemn, with an assembly of priests in the altar, and a male choir singing in the church which was packed. After the service Archimandrite Oleg (Cherepanin) delivered a sermon on the podvig of the last tsar and his family and on how much the monarchical system in Thailand should be valued.

After the sermon the choir performed the anthem of the Russian Empire, “God Save the Tsar”, as well as the royal anthem of Thailand, Sansoen Phra Barami [meaning, “Glorify His Prestige” in Thai.—Trans.]. Fr. Oleg spoke on the New Martyr Nicholas. Most of the parishioners knew nothing about him, and the presence of this saint’s Thai relatives in the church was both stirring and mysterious—you immediately wanted to know them better.

When all the prayers were over, the celebration continued in a freer atmosphere—during the festal meal, the choir of St. Nicholas Church sang songs, and students of Sunday schools from Pattaya and Samui Island gave performances.

The program concluded with the launch of a Thai book that was published especially for the feast. The book was composed of selected letters and diary entries of the Holy Emperor Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra. The purity of love and faith and the high standards of family relations in their correspondence demonstrates to us an example of family holiness.

The greatest impression came from the illustrations: the photographs of the Royal Family, skillfully colored by the well-known photographer Olga Shirnina (aka Klimbim). The book was launched by the project manager Xenia Bychkova who expressed her gratitude to all those who had worked on this book. The launch in Thai was prepared by a student of the Orthodox theological college in Phuket, Karl Ratchanont Teikoksung. Fr. Oleg presented each Thai who attended the service with a copy of the book.

Reflecting on the Orthodox community in Thailand, I asked myself the following questions: Do we and the Thais understand the meaning of today’s celebrations? How can residents of Thailand, a monarchical state, mark the martyrdom of a monarch of their friend-state?

Some reflections…

Hieromonk Micah (Phiasayawong), the first Laotian Orthodox priest: Today we commemorate Tsar Nicholas and his family: how much they did for the Church and the people! Both the tsar and the tsarina faithfully accepted their crosses. Apart from having the power of the State in their hands, they believed in God, and they taught us to believe in God also. This day is a sad one and a happy one at the same time. When we look at their example of a holy life, it gives us joy, but when we recall how they were killed we feel sorrow. They were the father and the mother of the entire Russian land, and now they are saints and all of us (not just Russians) love them.

People in Thailand know about St. Nicholas II as he did much to help Thailand avoid French and British colonization—he is perceived as the defender of Thailand’s independence. As for Laos, no one knows about the tsar there. Laos is a Communist state, and they have a negative attitude towards royal authority (The last King of Laos, Savang Vatthana, abdicated the throne, after which he and his family were sent to the “Re-education camp,” where all of them perished in about 1977).”

Nicholas Thanaboon Kebklang, a student of the Orthodox theological college on the Island of Phuket: “July 17 is a sad day for the Russians. Exactly 100 years ago [this article was published in Russian in 2018 for the tragedy’s centenary.—Trans.] they lost their beloved state—Russia. Tsar Nicholas II was brutally murdered together with his family. Some may perceive it as a shocking and tragic event—and it is really so. But the tragedy of that fateful day is our today’s joy. Tsar Nicholas and his family became holy martyrs for the Church, and this is a victory, a triumph in Christ. Who is our God? Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in Heaven… (Lk. 6:22-23).”

Archimandrite Oleg (Cherepanin), Dean of the Patriarchal Parishes in Thailand:Today in Hua Hin, apart from the exploit of the martyred Royal Family we honor Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, Many consider him the last Russian monarch, although he was never crowned. He was executed by firing squad in the city of Perm a month prior to the martyrdom of St. Nicholas II’s family. His faithful secretary, who didn’t leave the Grand Duke even in the hardest of times despite mortal danger, was martyred with him. He remained wholeheartedly faithful to Michael Alexandrovich both in the good times and during persecutions even to the point of death. This man’s name was Nicholas Johnson. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia canonized him as a new martyr. His icon lies on the analogion. It turned out that some of his relatives are Thai and reside in Thailand. Notably, one is Mrs. Vorasulisi Songcharoen, the spouse of the Thai Royal Navy Admiral Varong Songcharoen. Two months ago the couple emailed me and then came to the church on Saturday to pray at a memorial service for the repose of St. Nicholas Johnson. However, we didn’t have a memorial service because he is already ranked among the saints; instead, we held a service of intercession. It was then that the couple said that they wanted to attend the celebrations in Hua Hin.”

Vorasulisi (Bhakdikun) Songcharoen, the New Martyr Nicholas Johnson’s great-niece: “My great-uncle, Nicholas Nikolaevich Johnson, the secretary of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, was executed with him on the night of June 13, 1918, in the city of Perm, and was recognized as a new martyr afterwards. We learned about his tragic death not long ago, and on the 140th anniversary of his birth we asked Fr. Oleg (Cherepanin) to conduct a memorial service. Fr. Oleg kindly explained that we shouldn’t pray for his repose now because he is already a saint and what we can do is ask for his blessing. Fr. Oleg helped me understand and accept this tragedy from a more spiritual point of view, even if we are very sorry and sad. Now they are saints of God, and we can no longer think of them the way we would think of all other people. Fr. Oleg helped me perceive this feeling and accept this way of thinking, and I enormously appreciate that. Earlier I had thought desperately: “What a terrible tragedy! Why did it happen?” and so on. Instead of dwelling solely on the tragic aspect of the subject, we all should take into account that it was one of the most important lessons of history we must learn.

“Three weeks ago, I attended events organized in Perm to commemorate Grand Duke Michael and my great-uncle St. Nicholas Johnson. The procession of the cross walked from the city to the chapel built on the hill where the Grand Duke and his secretary are believed to have been killed. It was explained to me that it was a procession of repentance. In my view, the penitential nature of this procession is very important. With so many people and so many priests participating, it was a religious procession of people who had the same sense of remorse for what happened 100 years ago…

“I have been to Russia on three occasions: during the first visit I tried to find my mother’s grave; the second trip was last year because my son wanted to see Moscow; and this year we travelled to Perm in connection with the centenary of my great-uncle’s martyrdom. So, we walked in a cross-procession to the chapel—the supposed place of his execution, then we were present at the ceremony of the unveiling of a plaque in the building where the Grand Duke was seen for the last time; next we took part in the planting of a tree and visited a museum dedicated to the story of Grand Duke Michael and St. Nicholas Johnson. We also participated in an international conference where the tragic events of 100 years ago were discussed in detail from different perspectives: historical, legal, archeological, social and so on. It was also mentioned that it would be more correct to call Grand Duke Michael “Tsar Michael II” because in fact he was the last Emperor of Russia.

“The remains of the Grand Duke and my great-uncle haven’t been found yet, but the search will continue using the most advanced technology and instruments. My cousin and I have provided our DNA samples so the remains could be identified once they have been found. I was happy to have a chance of offering my mite and I pray that the bodies of the Grand Duke and my great-uncle could be discovered and buried in an appropriate manner.”

The original Russian version of this article was translated by Dmitry Lapa, and appears courtesy of Orthodox Christianity.

Who Was Lavrentiy Beria?

That corpulent man wearing a pince-nez remains one of the most symbolic faces of Joseph Stalin’s era. Lavrentiy Beria was calculating and vicious, hard-working and hedonist – and people feared him so much that it led to his downfall.

Just like his boss Joseph Stalin, Lavrentiy Beria (1899 – 1953) was born and bred in Georgia. An ethnic Mingrelian (a small nation closely-related to Georgians), during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) he specialized in spying and undercover operations for the Bolsheviks in neighboring Azerbaijan. Later, Beria returned to Georgia to work for the Soviet secret police, known as the Cheka – the Extraordinary Commission.

He made a great career in Georgia: in the 1930s, after Stalin got rid of the old Georgian Communists, Beria led the republic. “Beria had no values, was always ready to discard ideology or personal relations – and Stalin liked that about him,” historian Lev Lurie writes. 

Plus, Beria was indeed a good manager. “During his reign in Georgia, the republic became the main supplier of tea, grape and citrus for the entire USSR… the republic that was among the poorest turned into the most prosperous,” Lurie notes.

Cunning Beria established excellent personal relations with Stalin, who visited Georgia many times during his vacations. That helped him a lot – Beria was one of only two heads of Soviet republics ( there were 15) who survived the purges of 1937. Moreover, Stalin took Beria to Moscow, appointing him chief of the NKVD, the notorious secret police.

In Russia, it is common to associate Beria, the longest-sitting head of the NKVD during Stalin’s era, with mass repressions. In fact, it was Beria’s predecessor Nikolai Yezhov who ran the secret police during the height of the terror, 1937-1938. As far as Stalin was concerned, appointing Beria to head the NKVD was a way to scale back the extent of the executions.

“Stalin was a violent yet clever man who was well aware of the fact that further repressions would lead to the failure of his power,” wrote Sergo Beria, Lavrentiy’s son, in his memoirs. “He needed a man of a different kind [from Yezhov] to lead the NKVD.” Sergo’s objectivity can be disputed, but his father did alleviate the violence: in 1938 (the last year of Yezhov’s tenure as head of the NKVD), 328,000 people were sentenced to death in the USSR; in 1939, with Beria in charge that figure was 2,600.

Certainly, that doesn’t mean Beria was a bleeding-heart liberal: like everyone else in Stalin’s government he was always ready to spill blood if there was an order. For instance, it was Beria’s NKVD that sentenced 14,500 Polish war prisoners to death in 1940 (the infamous Katyn massacre).

Stalin appreciated Beria’s organizational skills enough to put him in charge of the manufacture of armaments, aircraft and aircraft engines during World War II – which was in addition to his duties in state security that included both coordinating the work of spies and the infamous deportations of ethnic groups accused of collaborating with the Germans – Chechens, Crimean Tatars and so on.

When the war ended, the USSR faced new challenges – the nuclear arms race, with Washington ahead of Moscow. Stalin had no doubt who could supervise the Soviet atomic project: Beria headed the Special Committee on Creating Nuclear Weapons in the shortest time possible.

The ruthless minister spent 1945 to 1949 providing Soviet scientists with everything they needed. Ninel Epatova, an engineer who used to work on the atomic project, saw Beria periodically, and she recalled: “Back then, Beria always looked exhausted… with red eyes, bags under them… It seemed he didn’t care about anything except work.”

That work consumed Beria, and historian Oleg Khlevniuk writes that: “Soviet nuclear testing could result in his triumph or, in case of failure, the end of his career or even life.” But testing was successful: in 1949, the USSR became a nuclear power, and Beria was among those who made it possible.

“Stalin’s attitude towards Beria was special. He was the only one among the top members of the Communist Party not to have an apartment but a mansion in Moscow all to himself,” Lurie states. Today, this mansion on Malaya Nikitskaya Street in the Moscow center hosts the embassy of Tunisia and… is rumored to be haunted.

There are dark legends surrounding Beria: allegedly he was something of a sexual maniac, having young girls delivered to his house, raping and (sometimes) murdering them, while his guards helped him get rid of the bodies. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no proof for this urban legend, and most historians suppose it was Beria’s posthumous bad publicity that led to such rumors.

What has been proved is that Beria had, in addition to his wife, an ‘unofficial’ one – Valentina Drozdova, who was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when they met in 1949. Their relations lasted until Beria’s death in 1953. Later, Drozdova claimed that Beria raped her, but it’s unclear if it was true or whether she wanted to distance herself from Beria’s legacy.

When Stalin died on March 5, 1953, Beria became one of the most influential people in the USSR, forming a ‘triumvirate’ with two other leaders – Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov. In that ‘collective ruling’ system Beria was in charge of state security, which, along with his dark reputation, resulted in Khrushchev and Malenkov fearing Beria and a possible plot against them.  

So, they decided to strike first. In June 1953, Beria was detained, denounced as the architect of repressions and a British spy (a fabricated accusation) and executed the same year. Beria was Stalin’s only secret police chief to outlive his boss, but not for long.

Oleg Yegorov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a Soviet poster of Lavrentiy Beria, from the 1953.

Why Eastern Europeans Do Not Want Islam

Why Eastern Europeans are much more reluctant to accept Muslim migrants than their Western counterparts can be traced back to circumstances surrounding a pivotal battle, that of Kosovo, which took place on June 15, 1389, exactly 630 years ago today.  It pitted Muslim invaders against Eastern European defenders, or the ancestors of those many Eastern Europeans today who are resistant to Islam.

Because the jihad is as old as Islam, it has been championed by diverse peoples throughout the centuries (Arabs in the Middle East, Moors (Berbers and Africans) in Spain and Western Europe, etc.). Islam’s successful entry into Eastern Europe was spearheaded by the Turks, specifically that tribe centered in westernmost Anatolia (or Asia Minor) and thus nearest to Europe, the Ottoman Turks, so-named after their founder Osman Bey.   As he lay dying in 1323, his parting words to his son and successor, Orhan, were for him “to propagate Islam by yours arms.”

This his son certainly did; the traveler Ibn Batutua, who once met Orhan in Bursa, observed that, although the jihadi had captured some one hundred Byzantine fortresses, “he had never stayed for a whole month in any one town,” because he “fights with the infidels continually and keeps them under siege.” Christian cities fell like dominos: Smyrna in 1329, Nicaea in 1331, and Nicomedia in 1337. By 1340, the whole of northwest Anatolia was under Turkic control.  By now and to quote a European contemporary, “the foes of the cross, and the killers of the Christian people, that is, the Turks, [were]  separated from Constantinople by  a channel of three or four miles.”

By 1354, the Ottoman Turks, under Orhan’s son, Suleiman, managed to cross over the Dardanelles and into the abandoned fortress town of Gallipoli, thereby establishing their first foothold in Europe: “Where there were churches he destroyed them or converted them to mosques,” writes an Ottoman chronicler: “Where there were bells, Suleiman broke them up and cast them into fires. Thus, in place of bells there were now muezzins.”

Cleansed of all Christian “filth,” Gallipoli became, as a later Ottoman bey boasted, “the Muslim throat that gulps down every Christian nation—that chokes and destroys the Christians.” From this dilapidated but strategically situated fortress town, the Ottomans launched a campaign of terror throughout the countryside, always convinced they were doing God’s work. “They live by the bow, the sword, and debauchery, finding pleasure in taking slaves, devoting themselves to murder, pillage, spoil,” explained Gregory Palamas, an Orthodox metropolitan who was taken captive in Gallipoli, adding, “and not only do they commit these crimes, but even—what an aberration—they believe that God approves them!”

After Orhan’s death in 1360 and under his son Murad I—the first of his line to adopt the title “Sultan”—the westward jihad into the Balkans began in earnest and was unstoppable. By 1371 he had annexed portions of Bulgaria and Macedonia to his sultanate, which now so engulfed Constantinople that “a citizen could leave the empire simply by walking outside the city gates.”

Unsurprisingly, then, when Prince Lazar of Serbia (b. 1330) defeated Murad’s invading forces in 1387, “there was wild rejoicing among the Slavs of the Balkans. Serbians, Bosnians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Wallachians, and Hungarians from the frontier provinces all rallied around Lazar as never before, in a determination to drive the Turks out of Europe.”

Murad responded to this effrontery on June 15, 1389, in Kosovo.  There, a Serbian-majority coalition augmented by Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian contingents—twelve thousand men under the leadership of Lazar—fought thirty thousand Ottomans under the leadership of the sultan himself. Despite the initial downpour of Turkic arrows, the Serbian heavy cavalry plummeted through the Ottoman frontlines and broke the left wing; the Ottoman right, under Murad’s elder son Bayezid, reeled around and engulfed the Christians. The chaotic clash continued for hours.

On the night before battle, Murad had beseeched Allah “for the favour of dying for the true faith, the martyr’s death.”  Sometime near the end   of battle, his prayer was granted. According to tradition, Miloš Obilić, a Serbian knight, offered to defect to the Ottomans on condition that, in view of his own high rank, he be permitted to submit before the sultan himself. They brought him before Murad and, after Milos knelt in false submission, he lunged at and plunged a dagger deep into the Muslim warlord’s stomach (other sources say “with two thrusts which came out at his back”). The sultan’s otherwise slow guards responded by hacking the Serb to pieces. Drenched in and spluttering out blood, Murad lived long enough to see his archenemy, the by now captured Lazar, brought before him, tortured, and beheaded. A small conciliation, it may have put a smile on the dying martyr’s face.

Murad’s son Bayezid instantly took charge: “His first act as Sultan, over his father’s dead body, was to order the death, by strangulation with a bowstring, of his brother. This was Yaqub, his fellow-commander in the battle, who had won distinction in the field and popularity with his troops.” Next Bayezid brought the battle to a decisive end; he threw everything he had at the enemy, leading to the slaughter of every last Christian—but even more of his own men in the process.

So many birds flocked to and feasted on the vast field of carrion that posterity remembered Kosovo as the “Field of Blackbirds.” Though essentially a draw—or at best a Pyrrhic victory for the Ottomans—the Serbs, with less men and resources to start with in comparison to the ascendant Muslim empire, felt the sting more.

In the years following the battle of Kosovo, the Ottoman war machine became unstoppable: the nations of the Balkans were conquered by the Muslims—after withstanding a millennium of jihads, Constantinople itself permanently fell to Islam in 1453—and they remained under Ottoman rule for centuries.

The collective memory of Eastern Europeans’ not too distant experiences with and under Islam should never be underestimated when considering why they are significantly more wary of—if not downright hostile to—Islam and its migrants compared to their Western, liberal counterparts.

As Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán once explained:

“We don’t want to criticize France, Belgium, any other country, but we think all countries have a right to decide whether they want to have a large number of Muslims in their countries. If they want to live together with them, they can. We don’t want to and I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country. We do not like the consequences of having a large number of Muslim communities that we see in other countries, and I do not see any reason for anyone else to force us to create ways of living together in Hungary that we do not want to see….  I have to say that when it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go “through that experience for 150 years.”

And those years—1541 to 1699, when the Islamic Ottoman Empire occupied Hungary—are replete with the massacre, enslavement, and rape of Hungarians.

This is an excerpt from Raymond Ibrahim’s book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, which was also reviewed in the Postil here.

The photo shows, “The Kosovo Maiden,” by Uroš Predić, painted in 1919. The scene illustrates a scene from the poem, “The Kosovo Maiden,” from the Kosovo-cycle of Serbian poetry.

Alfred The Great

In a new endeavor for the Postil, we will publish interesting works which have been passed over by the hurrying flow of years. We believe that such works still have the ability to teach and please, and thus deserve an afterlife. Our first offering is by John Henry Haaren (1855-1916), who a native of New York, a teacher, and president of the Brooklyn Institute. This brief biography of Alfred the Great was published in 1904.

I

The Danes were neighbors of the Norwegian Vikings, and like them were fond of the sea and piracy. They plundered the English coasts for more than a century; and most of northern and eastern England became for a time a Danish country with Danish kings.

What saved the rest of the country to the Saxons was the courage of the great Saxon king, Alfred.

Alfred was the son of Ethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. He had a loving mother who brought him up with great care. Up to the age of twelve, it is said, he was not able to read well, in spite of the efforts of his mother and others to teach him.

When Alfred was a boy there were no printed books. The wonderful art of printing was not invented until about the year 1440—nearly six hundred years later than Alfred’s time. Moreover, the art of making paper had not yet been invented. Consequently the few books in use in Alfred’s time were written by skillful penmen, who wrote generally on leaves of parchment, which was sheepskin carefully prepared so that it might retain ink.

One day Alfred’s mother showed him and his elder brothers a beautiful volume which contained a number of the best Saxon ballads. Some of the words in this book were written in brightly colored letters, and upon many of the leaves were painted pictures of gaily-dressed knights and ladies.

“Oh, what a lovely book!” exclaimed the boys.

“Yes, it is lovely,” replied the mother. “I will give it to whichever of you children can read it the best in a week.”

Alfred began at once to take lessons in reading, and studied hard day after day. His brothers passed their time in amusements and made fun of Alfred’s efforts. They thought he could not learn to read as well as they could, no matter how hard he should try.

At the end of the week the boys read the book to their mother, one after the other. Much to the surprise of his brothers, Alfred proved to be the best reader and his mother gave him the book.

While still very young Alfred was sent by his father to Rome to be anointed by His Holiness, the Pope. It was a long and tiresome journey, made mostly on horseback.

With imposing, solemn ceremony he was anointed by the Holy Father. Afterwards he spent a year in Rome receiving religious instruction.

II

In the year 871, when Alfred was twenty-two years old, the Danes invaded various parts of England. Some great battles were fought, and Alfred’s elder brother Ethelred, king of the West Saxons, was killed. Thus Alfred became king.

The Danes still continued to fight the Saxons, and defeated Alfred in a long and severe struggle. They took for themselves the northern and eastern parts of England.

Moreover, Danes from Denmark continued to cross the sea and ravage the coast of Saxon England. They kept the people in constant alarm. Alfred therefore determined to meet the pirates on their own element, the sea. So he built and equipped the first English navy, and in 875 gained the first naval victory ever won by the English.

A few years after this, however, great numbers of Danes from the northern part of England came pouring into the Saxon lands. Alfred himself was obliged to flee for his life.

For many months he wandered through forests and over hills to avoid being taken by the Danes. He sometimes made his home in caves and in the huts of shepherds and cowherds. Often he tended the cattle and sheep and was glad to get a part of the farmer’s dinner in pay for his services.

Once, when very hungry, he went into the house of a cowherd and asked for something to eat. The cowherd’s wife was baking cakes and she said she would give him some when they were done.

“Watch the cakes and do not let them burn, while I go across the field to look after the cows,” said the woman, as she hurried away. Alfred took his seat on the chimney-corner to do as he was told. But soon his thoughts turned to his troubles and he forgot about the cakes.

When the woman came back she cried out with vexation, for the cakes were burned and spoiled. “You lazy, good-for-nothing man!” she said, “I warrant you can eat cakes fast enough; but you are too lazy to help me bake them.”

With that she drove the poor hungry Alfred out of her house. In his ragged dress he certainly did not look like a king, and she had no idea that he was anything but a poor beggar.

III

Some of Alfred’s friends discovered where he was hiding and joined him. In a little time a body of soldiers came to him and a strong fort was built by them. From this fort Alfred and his men went out now and then and gave battle to small parties of the Danes. Alfred was successful and his army grew larger and larger.

One day he disguised himself as a wandering minstrel and went into the camp of the Danes. He strolled here and there, playing on a harp and singing Saxon ballads. At last, Guthrum (Guth’-rum), the commander of the Danes, ordered the minstrel to be brought to his tent.

Alfred went. “Sing to me some of your charming songs,” said Guthrum. “I never heard more beautiful music.” So the kingly harper played and sang for the Dane, and went away with handsome presents. But better than that, he had gained information that was of the greatest value.

In a week he attacked the Danish forces and defeated them with great slaughter in a battle which lasted all day and far into the night. Guthrum was taken prisoner and brought before Alfred.

Taking his harp in his hands, Alfred played and sang one of the ballads with which he had entertained Guthrum in the camp. The Dane started in amazement and exclaimed:

“You, then, King Alfred, were the wandering minstrel?”

“Yes,” replied Alfred, “I was the musician whom you received so kindly. Your life is now in my hands; but I will give you your liberty if you will become a Christian and never again make war on my people.”

“King Alfred,” said Guthrum, “I will become a Christian, and so will all my men if you will grant liberty to them as to me; and henceforth, we will be your friends.”

Alfred then released the Danes, and they were baptized as Christians.

An old road running across England from London to Chester was then agreed upon as the boundary between the Danish and Saxon kingdoms; and the Danes settled in East Anglia, as the eastern part of England was called.

Years of peace and prosperity followed for Alfred’s kingdom. During these years the king rebuilt the towns that had been destroyed by the Danes, erected new forts, and greatly strengthened his army and navy.

He also encouraged trade; and he founded a school like that established by Charlemagne. He himself translated a number of Latin books into Saxon, and probably did more for the cause of education than any other king that ever wore the English crown.

The photo shows King Alfred, from a 14th-century roll chronicle.

Yoga Of Deception

What attracts people to yoga? In my case, it was a thirst for something mysterious, some teaching that would allow me to develop some superpowers, such as telepathy, breath-holding, etc. I discovered yoga as a primary school student back in the early 1980s thanks to my elder cousin.

I would sit in the lotus position at the lessons, and the teacher would rebuke me, telling me “to sit like a human.” And my last mentor was a yoga fitness instructor, under whose guidance between 2008 and 2009 I refreshed my skills in the fundamentals of Ashtanga yoga that I had largely forgotten over the years of my office work. And there were a great number of books, groups, seminars, and teachers between these two “mentors.”

When I was in my thirties, I wanted to comprehend the essence of yoga, and I was more interested in meditative practices than in physical exercises (asanas). The fact is that if someone starts yoga and doesn’t quit it, sooner or later he will find that it is boring to sit in the same positions and do the same exercises day in and day out.

One day he will inevitably ask himself: “Why do I need all of this”? And this is precisely what happened to me: I wanted to find the meaning. And at last I discovered the concept of pralaya in Hinduism which (to put it simply) means “cyclical destruction of the universe.”

No matter what you did (whether you practiced yoga or something else), what you strove for, how many times you were born, which class or caste you belonged to, all the souls (whether they like it or not) will ultimately unite into one “golden egg”, into which the whole universe will contract, once one “day of Brahma” has changed into a “night of Brahma” next time. It will be the end of the universe, and all will disappear.

From the yogis’ point of view, there is no such thing as immortality of an individual soul because with the beginning of a “new day of Brahma” the souls will come into being again, but these will be absolutely different souls (not those destroyed). Only Brahman, the impersonal absolute, is immortal.

There are many similarities between all of this and the materialist conception of the world, the “pulsating universe theory”, and so forth. However, there are quite a few tendencies in Hinduism (of which yoga is a part), from atheistic and agnostic to pantheistic, those recognizing many deities and close to paganism.

Then what is the object pursued by a yogi? He seeks to attain the state of Moksha, or Samadhi, approximately meaning “being released.” This is the “liberation” from the cyclic existence, this suffering-laden cycle of life. A yogi believes in reincarnation, in the rebirth cycle, but he tries his best to avoid this continued suffering.

When I came to realize that, according to yoga, death awaits you in any case (both the physical death and the death of your soul, once it has escaped the vicious birth-death-rebirth cycle and united with the indifferent absolute), I lost interest in this teaching.

Later, in the summer of 2010, I ended up at the Monastery of St. Paphnutius in Borovsk [in the Kaluga region south of the Moscow region] completely “by chance” (in fact, providentially), and my life was gradually transformed.

But why not practice yoga as we do gymnastics, without becoming absorbed in its mysterious and occult depths? I am quite sure that this is impossible (except when someone is fortunate enough in having a transient passion for yoga). Yoga is part of the Hindu religion, and there’s no getting away from it.

The very word “yoga” derives from the Sanskrit root word “yuj”, meaning “to yoke”, “to unite”, “to join.” Meanwhile the word “religion” derives from the Latin verb “religare”, meaning “to tie”, “to bind together.” In both cases you connect to God or some other invisible forces that interact with you. So at very least it would be illogical to state that yoga is not religious as the words “religion” and “yoga” are almost synonyms. The problem is that people seldom take the trouble to grasp the hidden meaning of words.

Websites dedicated to yoga often contain quotations from the Gospel and portray Christ as a yogi. This “message” is addressed to the nominal, unchurched “Orthodox” who make up the vast majority in Russia.

According to the statistics, between seventy and eighty percent of Russian residents call themselves Orthodox; those who take Communion at least once a year make up less than thirty per cent; and the true children of the Church, who know the Creed by heart, are fully integrated into Church life, and regularly take Communion make up less than five per cent.

Of course, yogis make use of some similar element in Christian teaching and the teaching of yoga to attract these “liberal faithful” who consider themselves Christians and may sincerely want to be followers of Christ, wear crosses on their necks, but know virtually nothing about Christ and His Church.

The question of the key difference between Orthodoxy and yoga really concerned me after my visit to the Monastery of St. Paphnutius in Borovsk. I kept asking the spiritual fathers there: “May I practice yoga? Why is it a bad idea?” While they answered the first question with confidence, they skirted the second one. So I wanted to find out the truth for myself.

It eventually became the subject of my seminary thesis and even developed into the book, An Orthodox Perspective on Yoga, which was published by the Simvolik publishing house not long ago.

On the face of it, yoga’s ethical principles are very similar to the commandments of the Bible. Thus, the principle of Ahimsa (“not to injure”, “nonviolence”) seems to be equivalent to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Brahmacharya (“continence”) is consonant with the commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Asteya (“non-stealing”) is in harmony with the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”

But this is what the Holy Hierarch Gregory Palamas said about similarities like these: “A lie that is not far from the truth gives rise to a double delusion. Since a tiny difference escapes the majority’s notice, they either take the lie for the truth or, on account of its closeness to the lie, take the truth for the lie, in both cases completely falling away from the truth.”

These words are true about Christianity and yoga: The difference becomes manifest when you make it as simple and clear as you can.

Yoga has no principle of humility at all, though this fact is often overlooked. Yogis will argue with this statement, but the collections of Yoga Sutras, the main sources of yoga, don’t say a single word about humility, whereas in Christianity the commandment of humility is the greatest one. Blessed are the poor in spirit (Mt. 5:3) – the Savior’s Sermon on the Mount begins with these words. No virtue has any value without humility.

From personal communication with adherents of yoga whom I held in respect I was convinced that the absence of pride is fine for yogis, but they won’t need it until they reach the “spiritual heights.”

While they are on their way “to the top”, they need to be motivated by pride (among other things) to speed up their progress. Thus ego becomes an “engine of progress.” Although humility is essential, they will first “achieve holiness” and then get rid of their pride. But will they succeed?

That is why Christians start with humility, relying on the will of God and not their own will.

However, someone can argue and say that while pride moves you to pursue new goals over and over again, traditional yogis aim to reach nothingness—a goal that seemingly has nothing to do with pride.

It should be stressed that classical yoga no longer exists—one won’t find it, not only in Europe, but also in India, the motherland of this teaching. I concede that there may be two or three gurus in the Himalayas preaching “true yoga”, though that is very unlikely.

As a matter of fact, yoga is a motley collection of various schools and tendencies. Some of them do understand that gaining supernatural powers feeds your pride and hinders your spiritual growth. Then the question arises: when do the Yoga Sutras devote so much attention (a special section) to these supernatural abilities?

Back in the 1960s, the documentary, “Indian Yogis, Who Are They?” was released in the USSR. Its authors presented yoga as a philosophy, a moral teaching, and health and fitness gymnastics. This film contributed to the popularization of yoga in the Soviet society, as did some publications in Soviet popular science magazines, The Razor’s Edge science fiction novel by the Soviet writer Ivan Yefremov (1907-1972), along with a number of other arts and cultural events in the Soviet Union.

And what is interesting is that the modern sequel of that film, “Indian Yogis, Who Are They? Forty Years Later”, tells the viewers plainly that yoga “is a tool for awakening of your energy potential and obtaining super-normal powers.” Formerly this side of yoga was not emphasized, but it is obvious that today this way of advertising yoga works.

Man wants to become like God. It is a matter of the path he chooses. If Adam had obeyed the commandment of God, he would have remained immortal and with time could have become like God, cultivating and caring for the Garden of Eden with which God had entrusted him and growing in love. But Adam preferred the easy path, namely “to become like gods”, by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was “magic”, something that was not blessed by God and “outside” God.

Many people see yoga precisely as entering the spiritual world “from the backdoor.” They think: “In Christianity I am obliged to obey the moral commandments, keep the fasts, go to church and so on. But why? I would rather go to a yoga center, perform asanas and pranayamas, and will get what I need!”

Nevertheless, I do hope that one way or another the Lord will bring the yogis who sincerely seek Him to His Church, the only ark of salvation. I believe that even committed adherents of yoga have simply strayed from the right path while searching for the true God. I have a feeling that many of them may become devout members of the Holy Church. After all, they are seekers of God and are not lukewarm (cf. Rev. 3:15-16).

The main area of divergence between Christianity and yoga is dogmas. What is a dogma for the majority? It is something the Church calls on them to believe in, while giving no proof of it. But yogis have their own dogmas, something they unconditionally believe in, too. And their basic tenets are very different from Christian ones.

Though it is hard to perceive it, Christians confess the faith in the God Who is one in essence and three in personhood: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—the Consubstantial and Undivided Trinity. He is the Triune, One, Personal God. It is extremely difficult for Christians to comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, to say nothing of yogis and Hindus, for many of whom the Supreme Being cannot be personal. Hindus recognize the existence of rational spiritual beings and even refer to some of them as to “gods”, yet they see the absolute, Brahman, as impersonal.

The concept of reincarnation that is prevalent among yogis contradicts all the Christological dogmas and is in opposition to the Christian doctrine that life is given to us only once, and it will be followed by death, resurrection, and judgment (cf. Heb. 9:27).

The Holy Church has never raised this very important idea to a dogma because there has never been a slightest doubt about this in the minds of Christians. The first argument that proponents of reincarnation usually put forward is that the belief in metempsychosis is widely spread and its origins allegedly date back to ancient times. They contend that “Christianity appeared only 2,000 years ago, whereas people had believed in transmigration of the soul for thousands of years before Christ was born.”

However, insofar as we can judge from surviving monuments, neither (traditional) ancient Greeks nor ancient Romans believed in reincarnation. We can trace back their beliefs concerning afterlife from their mythology, the earliest monuments of which go back to the time of Homer and Hesiod [c. 750 B.C.].

According to them, after death people descend to the underground kingdom—a dark place known as Hades, Erebus, and Tartarus in different traditions—where they drag out a “shadowy”, joyless, miserable existence. In fact the idea of metempsychosis didn’t appear until the time of Pythagoras and Plato (that is, the sixth to fourth centuries B.C.) and it was adopted only by some representatives of a number of schools of philosophy.

Ancient Egyptians mummified the corpses of dead people, hoping that in the future their souls would be reunited to their bodies.

Ancient Hebrews believed in the resurrection of physical bodies as well, as evidenced by the famous prophecies of Ezekiel about the valley of dry bones, which will be joined together and come to life again (see Ezek. 37:1-14); the prophecy of Isaiah about the rising of dead bodies (Is. 26:19); and the prophecy in the Book of Job about the restoration of bodies from dust (Job 19:25-27).

Thus, neither ancient Egyptian books nor the books of the Old Testament mention transmigration of the soul.

We can judge the Christian attitude towards incarnation by the Parable of the rich man and Lazarus: And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom (Lk. 16:22-23).

The narrator, our Lord Jesus Christ, made it clear that after death human souls don’t transmigrate from one body to another; rather, as St. Nicholas (Velimirovich) of Serbia said, “They proceed to the abodes that they have deserved by their deeds on earth.”

Interestingly, the notion of metempsychosis didn’t exist among the ancestors of Aryan people either. At least the Rig-Veda [the oldest and principal of the Vedas, composed in the second millennium B.C. and containing a collection of hymns in early Sanskrit] has no mention of rebirth.

Let us once again return to the question of the purpose of life. The ultimate goal of Hinduism is to stop suffering, while Christians aspire to everlasting and happy life with God. The idea of theosis (union with God) which is central in Orthodox Christianity is based on awareness that both God and man are persons. Given this, our union with the Creator by no means implies that we are becoming a part of His body or a cell in His organism. Rather, we can potentially contemplate God and be in communion with Him.

But someone will surely exclaim: “I don’t care about philosophy, religious systems and other intricacies! I am interested in yoga solely as a set of physical exercises and a fitness training system which give a practical result! Can I practice yoga as mere exercises?”

The point is that yoga is not limited to only physical exercises. The fact is that when you come to a yoga center, you not only begin to train your body and practice yoga poses, but you also should be prepared for “expanding your consciousness” through special exercises, breathing exercises and meditation. Yoga practice presupposes mandatory meditation.

Can we practice yoga without all this “spirituality”? Yes, we can, but it won’t be yoga in this case. There are numerous similar types of exercises directed towards increased flexibility, muscular strength, and organism’s resistance to pathogens—in a word, towards health improvement. What about Pilates, stretching, and so on? If you are interested exclusively in physical training, you’d better opt for one of these instead of falling for yoga with its “spirituality”, which smells like sulfur…

The Russian original of this article was translated Dmitry Lapa, courtesy of Orthodox Christianity.

The photo shows the goddess Chhinnamasta, with his severed head. She is the essence of the yogic force, kundalini. The painting, in the Pahari style, dates to ca. 1750.

How Many Russians Died In WWII?

It is clear that during the most horrendous war in the history of mankind, the USSR suffered greater losses than any other country – but the exact number of victims remains disputed.

In 1946, reacting to Winston Churchill’s Fulton speech that marked the start of the Cold War, Joseph Stalin mentioned the Great Patriotic War (how Russians refer to the war with Nazi Germany) and stated that “as a result of the German invasion, the Soviet Union irrevocably lost… around 7 million people.” That was the first ever official Soviet stance on war casualties. And it was fake news.

“In fact, Stalin had knowledge of the other statistical data: 15 million casualties. This number was contained in a report delivered to him in early 1946, by the commission led by The State Planning Committee’s president Nikolai Voznesensky,” Professor Viktor Zemskov of the Institute of Russian History notes. Zemskov supposes that Stalin was eager to hide the real scale of losses from both the Soviet citizens and the world – in order not to show the USSR as a state weakened by the war.

Nevertheless, the official 7-million estimate of casualties didn’t last long, as most Soviet people believed that number to be too low. In 1965, Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Stalin as USSR’s leader, mentioned a higher number: 20 million. Essentially, this is the number that became the official evaluation for the rest of the Soviet era – Leonid Brezhnev adhered to it too, but added “more than” to the 20 million casualties.

Both Khrushchev and Brezhnev used the phrase “the war cost the country…” to lump everyone together, not separating those who died in the battlefield, victims of German occupation, those who starved to death, etc.

After the dissolution of the USSR, the estimate grew again. According to the latest statements that Russian authorities officially acknowledge, overall losses (both among soldiers and civilians) amounted to 26,6 million people. That’s the official evaluation of the losses today (in 2019) – at least, it’s the number Russian state officials mention on Victory day, commemorations and so on.

While dealing with those numbers, they didn’t take the whole World War II into account, but rather only the war between the USSR and Nazi Germany between 1941-1945, excluding the Soviet operations between 1939-1941 (the invasion of Poland and the Winter War with Finland) and the Soviet-Japanese war of 1945. 

Another important nuance is that the official estimate, given by the Ministry of Defence in 2015, separates the number of losses (26,6 million people) into the two following categories:

– Around 12 million soldiers were killed in the battlefield, captured (not having returned) or gone missing.

– The rest (approximately 14,6 million people) were civilians who died in the occupation zones, were forcefully moved to Germany (and did not come back) or lost their lives to starvation, illnesses and so on. 

The 26,6 million estimate of losses clearly is official (as of now), but far from being the only one. Though the Great Patriotic War ended almost 75 years ago, the war of numbers still goes on, with different historians proposing different ways to measure the number of losses. 

On the one hand, from time to time occurring versions suggest even bigger losses than the official estimate. For instance, in 2017, Nikolai Zemtsov, Deputy of the Russian State Duma, stated that “the USSR irrevocably lost almost 42 million people due to [the Great Patriotic] war factors.” That version, however, is very doubtful – Zemtsov included in that enormous number not only people who actually died, but children who were not born due to the war – which is incorrect, as professional demographers state. 

On the other hand, there are opinions that suggest 26,6 million is already an overestimation. In his 2015 article, Viktor Zemskov suggested that the estimation of war casualties (11,5 – 12 million) is correct, but the number of civilian losses due to war factors includes too many people: “Such statistics include the increased mortality in the Soviet home front because of malnutrition, overburdening work and so on… I disagree with such an approach.” 

According to Zemskov, it is too hard to distinguish between deaths caused by war and natural reasons in this case – so to be more precise, historians should have only included in the number of civilian deaths caused by war, i.e. those killed directly by Germans, by bombardments, those who died during the Siege of Leningrad – that amounts to 4,5 million victims. Combined with actual war casualties, that gives us 16 million people. Nevertheless, official statistics embrace a larger number of people.

While the argument on the evaluation methods can go on forever, one thing is undeniable: during the Great Patriotic War, the USSR lost a great number of people – strong and passionate men and women in their prime – but it saved the world from German Nazism. The price of victory was terrible, but the price of defeat would have been unthinkable.

Oleg Yegerov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “A Nameless Height,” by Alexey and Sergei Tkachev, painted latter part of the twentieth-century.

Walter Benjamin On Violence

“Critique of Violence” (Zur Kritik der Gewalt) is notorious for its obscurity, which, at least partly, is due to the impossibility of translating several of the key terms used by Benjamin into English.

The immediate encapsulation of the task of a critique of violence conveyed in the German title and the first couple of sentences is entirely lost in the English translation. An etymological clarification is therefore important if we aspire to understand what a critique of violence consists of.

Critique (Kritik) should not primarily be understood as a negative evaluation or condemnation, but in the Kantian tradition of judgement, evaluation, and examination on the basis of means provided by the critique itself.

A more significant problem is however the translation of Gewalt—which in German carries the multiple meanings of (public) force, (legitimate) power, domination, authority and violencewith the English “violence” which carries few of these senses (particularly, institutional relations of power, force and domination or even non-physical or ‘symbolic’ violence).

That the task of a critique of violence is to be understood as expounding the relationship of violence (Gewalt) to law (Recht) and justice (Gerechtigkeit), is thus much less artificial and obscure.

Two further etymological clarifications are however necessary to fully understand the task of Zur Kritik der Gewalt. Recht, as the Latin Ius, carries the meaning of both rights and law (as in the general system of laws), which is juxtaposed to specific laws, Gesetz corresponding to the Latin Lex. Sittliche verhältnisse, translated to “moral relations,” presents a more significant problem in terms of translation.

In English it is not immediately clear why the sphere of law and justice can be understood as the sphere of moral relations. Morality carries the Kantian tradition of an abstract universal law (Moralität) in English, than the Hegelian tradition (Sittlichkeit). In Philosophie des Rechts, Sittlichkeit is the term used for the political framework of ethical life, that is, the family, civil society and the state.

Violence is thus to be critiqued on basis of its relations to law and rights within the framework of ethical life in the state (sittliche Verhältnisse). For a cause” Benjamin writes “becomes violent, in the precise sense of the word, when it enters into moral relations.”

Benjamin is thus not interested in force or violence of nature (Naturgewalt); but the violence present within the framework of the society, and ultimately, the state.

The critique of violence can only be undertaken through the philosophy of the history of violence (or we might add, in a “deconstruction” of the philosophy of the history of violence), Benjamin argues. In his “deconstruction” of the relationship between violence, law and justice, Benjamin erects several pairs of opposition.

However, as Derrida pointed out, many of these deconstruct themselves. The first such pair of oppositions is natural law (Naturrechts) and positive law (positive Rechts), which even though they in general are understood as antithetical (natural law is concerned with the justice of ends, positive law is concerned with the justification of means) share a fundamental dogma, namely that a relationship of justification exists between means and ends.

For this reason, the two theories agree that violence as a means can be justified if it is in accordance with the law. Benjamin raises the following objections against this dogma: if the relation of justification between means and ends is presupposed, it is not possible to raise a critique of violence eo ipso but only applications of violence.

Hereby, the question of whetherviolence in principle can be a moral means even to a just end is made impossible to address. By insisting on critiquing violence in itself, Benjamin challenges the fundamental dogma of jurisprudence, namely, that justice can be attained if means and ends are balanced, that is, if justified means are used for just ends.

The question, thus, is how violence and law relate to one another? Benjamin argues that the intimate relationship of violence and law is twofold. Firstly, violence is the means by which law is instituted and preserved. Secondly, domination (violence under the name of power (Macht)) is the end of the law: “Law-making is power-making, assumption of power, and to that extent an immediate manifestation of violence.”

Benjamin distinguishes between lawmaking violence (rechtsetzend Gewalt) and law-preserving violence (rechtserhaltende Gewalt) on basis of whether the end towards which violence is used as a means is historically acknowledged, i.e., “sanctioned” or “unsanctioned” violence (named respectively “legal ends” and “natural ends”).

If violence as a means is directed towards natural ends—as in the case of interstate war where one or more states use violence to ignore historically acknowledged laws such as borders—the violence will be lawmaking. This violence strives towards a “peace ceremony” that will constitute a new historically acknowledged law; new historically acknowledged borders.

The establishment of borders after a war is a clear example of the institutionalisation of a relation of domination inherent in all lawmaking violence. In guise of equality before the law, the peace ceremony is a manifestation of violence in the name of power; “in a demonically ambiguous way,” Benjamin writes, the rights are “‘equal’ rights: for both parties to the treaty, it is the same line that may not be crossed.”

This demonically ambiguous equality of the law, Benjamin writes, is analogous to that which Anatole France satirically expressed when he said: “Rich and poor are equally forbidden to spend the night under the bridges.”

In contrast hereto, if violence as a means directed towards legal ends—exemplified by compulsory general conscription where the state forces the citizens to risk their lives to protect the state—the violence will be law-preserving.

The distinction between lawmaking violence and law-preserving violence is however deconstructed in the body of the police and in capital punishment, whereby the “rotten” core of the law is revealed, namely, that law is a manifestation of violent domination for its own sake.  In both capital punishment and police violence the distinction between lawmaking and law-preserving violence is suspended.

Capital punishment is not merely a punishment for a crime but the establishment of a new law; police violence, though law-preserving can for “security reasons” intervene where no legal situation exists whereby the police institute new laws through decrees. In capital punishment and police violence alike, the state reaffirms itself: law is an immediate manifestation of violence or force and the end of the law is the law itself.

This violence of the law—the oscillation between lawmaking and law-preserving violence visible in police violence—is explained by Benjamin with reference to the Greek myth of Niobe.

Niobe’s boastful arrogance towards Leto—she having fourteen children and Leto only two—challenges “fate,” (Schicksal). The never defined concept of “fate” seems to refer to a relation of power (Macht). What Niobe challenges is not the law, but the authority or the legitimate power of Leto. When Apollo and Artemis kill her sons and daughters, it is thus not a punishment but the establishment of a law (“neue Recht zu statuiren”).

Niobe is turned into a crying stone (a statue) which is a physical manifestation of the law (the statute) as the power of the gods instituting “a boundary stone on the frontier between men and gods.” For this reason, Benjamin writes, power (Macht) is “the principle of all mythic lawmaking.”

Having now expounded the relation between law and violence, the question of the relationship between law and justice can be raised. Benjamin is not only speaking in metaphors when he writes: “Justice is the principle of all divine end-making, power the principle of all mythic lawmaking.”

Justice is an end which in principle cannot be reached within the realm of law: justice belongs to the realm of religion and it is not something we can obtain deliberately through law or reason: “For it is never reason that decides on the justification of means and the justness of ends: fate-imposed violence decides on the former, and God on the latter.”

Benjamin is however fundamentally interested in justice; Zur Kritik der Gewalt is the closest we get to a Benjaminian “theory of justice”. The impossibility of justice within the immediate manifestation of violence/force in the mythic “power-making” of law makes the destruction of law in principle “obligatory.”

The political general strike that merely aims at a coup d’état is therefore insufficient; the “force of law” can only be overcome if law in principle, and hereby state power as such, is destroyed. What is called for is therefore a proletarian general strike that aims at the destruction of all state power.

A paradoxical perspective in Benjamin’s text is that even though justice is transcendent (it is God who decides upon the justness of ends) it does not mean that human actions cannot be an expression of divine justice. The problem, as Derrida saw, is that we can never know whether actions have been a manifestation of divine violence.

Justice is possible (but not knowable)through an act of divine violence, which in all respects stands in complete opposition to the mythic violence of law: “If mythic violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying; if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythic violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood.”

Divine violence is exemplified by God’s judgement on the company of Korah, who without warning or threat and without bloodshed is annihilated by God: the earth opens beneath them, swallows them, and closes again without leaving any mark.

In contrast to mythic violence, divine violence does not aspire to institute as law a relation of domination: divine violence accepts sacrifice. This is not sacrifice for its own sake like the murder of Niobe’s children, but “for the sake of the living” (the company of Korah is annihilated not for the sake of God but for the sake of those who are spared). “In annihilating” Benjamin writes, divine violence “also expiates” (entsühnend); it is however not the “guilt” (Schuld) that is atoned for by the divine violence; divine violence purifies the guilty, not of their guilt but of the law.

How can we understand the purification of the guilty of the law by divine violence? What is “pure” (rein) about divine violence (die göttliche reine Gewalt)? The German rein as the English pure carries the double meaning of something clean, and something absolute and unalloyed.

Firstly, divine violence is pure (meaning clean) because it has not been bastardized with law; it is pure as before the fall of man; it is pure from the guilt of the law (the guilt Niobe feels for the death of her children). Secondly, divine violence is “pure” (meaning absolute or unalloyed) because of the way it relates as a means towards an end.

Where mythic legal violence does not differentiate between mediate violence (violence as a means towards and end) and immediate violence (a manifestation of anger, or a relation of domination), divine violence is “pure” and immediate because it puts forward independent criteria for means and ends.

Where mythic violence conflates means and ends, divine violence separates means and ends. As Benjamin argues, just ends can only be decided by God, and no law can be given for justified means; what we have is only a guideline (Richtschnur).

The sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is an example of such a guideline. Benjamin’s use of the word Richtschnur is very telling in this context: “Thou shalt not kill” is exactly not a law (Recht) but a guideline (Richt-schnur). A Richtschnur (which in German also is known as a Maurerschnur) is a mason’s line: a string (schnur) which is used to measure or correct (richten) out a plane for a building by the masons or bricklayers.

A Richtschnur is an approximation used practically to build a house. To build a good house the masons, in general, would have to follow this Richschnur but sometimes, because of a broken ground, a good house could only be built if the Richtschnur is ignored.

By substituting law (Recht) with the almost homophone Richt, Benjamin establishes the fundamental difference between mythic power (mytische Gewalt) and divine power (göttliche Gewalt). The commandment is not law but a guideline which in general would have to be followed for human beings to live a good life, as the masons in general have to follow it to build a good house. There might however be situations where it would have to be ignored.

Neither is the commandment law in the sense that a judgment of an act that ignores the guideline can be derived from the commandment: “No judgment of the deed can be derived from the commandment,” Benjamin argues “and so neither the divine judgement nor the grounds for this judgment can be known in advance.

Those who base a condemnation of all violent killing of one person by another are therefore mistaken.” This misunderstanding has to do with the general misunderstanding, argues Benjamin, that just ends can be the “ends of a possible law.” This misunderstanding is grounded in the belief that just ends are capable of “generalization,” that it, in other words, is possible a priori to discriminate between right and wrong.

This “contradicts the nature of justice,” Benjamin argues, “for ends that in one situation are just, universally acceptable, and valid are so in no other situation, no matter how similar the situations may be in other respects.” For this reason, no law can incapsulate justice.

The only thing we have is the “educative power” (erziehriches Gewalt) of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” which can educate us how to live a good life in the same way the masons can learn from their Richtschnur. The commandment “exists not as a criterion of judgement, but as a guideline for the actions of persons or communities who have to wrestle with it in solitude and, in exceptional cases, to take on themselves the responsibility of ignoring it.”

What are these exceptional circumstances? For Benjamin, the decayed mythic violence of the law of the modern state seems to make up such exceptional circumstances: the destruction of all legal violence and the state becomes an “obligatory” task for the pure immediate violence; divine violence.

The proletarian general strike and the abolishment of state power which constitutes a break with the oscillation between lawmaking and law-preserving violence will lead to a foundation of a new historical epoch (neues geschichtliches Zeitalter).

Here, we see why Derrida summarizes Benjamin’s position as “messianico-marxist or archeo-eschatological” (Derrida, Force of Law). The Critique of Violence is Benjamin’s political demand for a revolution: “the existence of violence outside the law, as pure immediate violence,” Benjamin writes, “furnishes proof that revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of unalloyed violence by man, is possible, and shows by what means.”

Benjamin is “messianico-marxist” in that he argues that divine violence signals the coming of the Messiah in form of the revolutionary general strike which will bring a new historical epoch.  

He is “archeo-escatological” in that he argues that the eschatology of the revolutionary general strike, manifested in the true war (wahrend Kriege) or the multitude’s Last Judgement on the criminal (Gottesgericht der Menge am Verbrecher).

The multitude’s judgment on the state, will “expiate” the crimes committed by the mythic violence of law and return us to the time before the decay (Verfall) of the law: “Once again all the eternal forms are open to pure divine violence, which myth bastardized with law.”

In Benjamin’s final condemnation of mythic violence, the Judaeo-Christian connotations become apparent: “Verwerflich aber is alle mythische Gewalt.Verwerflich meaning unrighteous, something that has to be condemned, comes from the verb Verwerfen, to dismiss or to abolish, which again comes from the verb werfen meaning to throw: the law is thus as the Fall of man: an unrighteous and condemnable (Verwerflich) deed that has dismissed (verwerfen) the guilty from Paradise.

Divine violence, however, has the power to purify the guilty of the law. In this way, Benjamin calls for a revolution, which also carries the original astronomical meaning of the completion of a cycle: the revolution which constitutes a new historical era will return human kind to the time before divine power was bastardized with law; in a word “archeo-eschatology.”

Signe Larsen main interest lies within political theory and philosophy of law.

The photo shows Walter Benjamin’s passport photo, ca., 1928.

Of War And Islam

History is about expansion and contraction – of ideas, of economics, of ambitions, and of the pursuit of power. A crucial element in this pulsation of human action is war.

Recalling von Clausewitz’s famous observation provides a meaningful framework for discussion: “We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to War relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses…War is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.”

Earlier, von Clausewitz defines war as, “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”

Raymond Ibrahim actively engages with von Clausewitz in his latest book, Sword and Scimitar, by examining war as the fulfillment of the will of Islam. He looks at eight critical battles which marked how two worlds (one Moslem, one Western and Christian) view each other, down to the present.

Indeed, the encounters between these worlds stretch back more than a millennium, which means that Islam is not something new that suddenly burst into Western consciousness on and after 9/11. Rather, Islamic terrorism is part-and-parcel of a very ancient struggle which has expanded or contracted, sometimes favoring the West and sometimes giving the upper hand to Islam.

War in this context is to be understood as jihad, through which Islam subdues all those that oppose the will of Allah and the example of Mohammad. Ibrahim therefore defines jihad as, “warfare to spread Islam,” and quoting Emile Tyan, he explains that jihad must continue “until the whole world is under the rule of Islam . . . Islam must completely be made over before the doctrine of jihad can be eliminated.”

Here, the famous ideological two-fold division of the world, into the “House of Islam” and the “House of Faithlessness,” takes on its proper meaning. Moslems inhabit a reality which can never accommodate the Other, for to accept infidelity (kufr) as a viable way to live out a human life is the denial of Allah, and thus cannot be permitted. This gives the lie, of course, to those that would promote multiculturalism.

This outright rejection of the Other (termed the dhimmi), as unacceptable because he is innately hostile to Allah, renders no other outcome than continual conflict, until the Other is no more – either he is Islamized or annihilated. Here, the concept of the jizya is often trundled out (which is protection-money that non-Moslems must pay in order to live as second-class inhabitants inside Islamic territory).

But such a levy does not mean acceptance or accommodation of the Other. It simply means that each non-Moslem life is a “possession” of Islam, which yields monetary recompense. The dhimmi must pay to live. Ibrahim quotes from a Moslem jurist: “their [infidels’] lives and their possessions are only protected by reason of payment of jizya.”

At its core, therefore, Islam is a political ideology, constructed to change society into the House of Islam, governed by the laws of Allah and the example of Mohammad (Shariah). Accordingly, more than any other faith system in the world, it is the expansion and contraction of war, which defines the character and purpose of Islam.

Violence is not an evil that must be neutralized by way of love (as is the Christian view), in order to win peace. Rather, bloodshed and fear are necessary, and on-going, tools to bring about the end-game of Islam, which is the subjugation of the world. In this way, the practice of Islam in the world is radically different to the practice of Christianity – love produces a certain type of civilization; fear and violence produces another.

A serious problem in the West right now is the lazy habit of assuming that all religions are exactly like Christianity and are therefore to be “handled” in the same way. This is yielding destructive results.

This further means that Islam has always sought war, in order to vanquish its enemies, since such destruction is a holy act, which will meet with much reward in heaven. Thus, a Moslem who engages in jihad is termed a ghazi, or one who raids the territory of the faithless (the kafirs), and slays the unbelieving – because they are Allah’s enemies.

Thus, each Moslem should strive to be a ghazi. Shedding the blood of non-Moslems is meritorious, and much pleasing to Allah. As one Islamic chronicler states: “The Ghazi is the sword of Allah; he is the protector and refuge of the believers. If he becomes a martyr in the way of Allah, do not believe that he has died—he lives in beatitude with Allah, he has eternal life.”

This means that without war Islam loses not only steam but its very purpose, for the world outside Islam is to be changed through violence and the fear that the threat of violence produces. In the East, Islam was, and is, in contention with paganism.

In the West, it fights Christianity (even though the West is now more pagan than Christian). As Ibrahim observes, “Muslim armies went to war against the West more often as religious rather than as national or ethnic forces, and their warring against the Westerners was so seen as mostly a monolithic struggle against Christendom rather than particular European states.”

Thus, Islam exists to wage war in the world. The winning of territory is simply the consequence of this purpose. In the words of Mohammad, “I have been made victorious with terror.”

This means that a negative view of Islam (both in the East and in the West) is a historically grounded response to the violence inherent in Islam. It is not simply “racism” or Islamophobia (both these terms become useless in the context of jihad, by virtue of which each terrorist is a ghazi).

How opposing the violence of jihad can possibly be racism or Islamophobia is never properly explained by those who deploy such terms, especially when the similar opposition brings out the same negative response to Islam among non-Moslems in the East.

Ibrahim raises such crucial issues, which makes his book that much nuanced, for it is more than a richly textured presentation of military history. Although each battle is comprehensively analyzed and detailed, with much insight into the “construction” of terror by Islamic warriors, Ibrahim also uses the subject of war to lay out a social critique (of both Islam and the West), because war also builds an outlook, a point of view, a mindset.

It is a given that Islam as a religion enjoys sociopolitical protection by the Western elite. In this regard, Ibrahim raises a very fundamental point – Islam has never changed; it is still engaged in subduing the world for Allah, by following the example of Mohammad. The West, however, has changed, and in the process has entirely abandoned its own history. This has put the West in a position of weakness, in that it has gotten into the habit of appeasing the violence of Islam.

The Islamic mindset is the same as it was over a millennium ago. The best defense that the West can now muster is multiculturalism, borderless post-nations, relentless hedonism, and appeasement. This puts the West in a perpetual posture of weakness, for it can no longer thwart Islam’s will.

In this regard, Ibrahim ends his book with a dire warning: “…if Islam is terrorizing the West today, that is not because it can, but because the West allows it to.”

A little earlier, the words of Alan G. Jamieson are highlighted: “At a time when the military superiority of the West—meaning chiefly the USA—over the Muslim world has never been greater. Western countries feel insecure in the face of the activities of Islamic terrorists…In all the long centuries of Christian-Muslim conflict, never has the military imbalance between the two sides been greater, yet the dominant West can apparently derive no comfort from that fact.”

This paradox is easily understood, of course. Islam has not lost its will and still wants to impose it on the world. The West, on the other hand, no longer has a will of its own and therefore no longer understands what it is supposed to do in the world. The only thing it can offer is endless self-indulgence and the pursuit of pleasure. All the while, Islam pursues power. Who will win? Perhaps, Islam is the West’s wakeup call. But the problem now is – what shall the West wake up to?

Raymond Ibrahim’s book should be required reading for all those interested in understanding the future of Islam in the world. It would appear that the West no longer wants a future.

The photo shows, “Bedouins Taking Aim,” by Adolf Schreyer, date unknown.

Failure Of Socialism In Russia

There are a few indisputable reasons that led to the decline of the socialist state – and its subsequent fall.

At the dawn of the USSR, hopes of the imminent global rule of communism soared high among leftists of the world. But in a few decades, it became clear that the socialistic ideals of Lenin had failed. How did this come to happen?

“It is important to distinguish socialism from communism,” says Elena Malysheva, dean at the Division of Archival Studies at the Institute for History and Archives. “While socialism was the formal type of state administration of the USSR, communism was the ruling ideology. The project of the socialist state was initially utopian and populistic.”

Rudolf Pikhoia, Doctor of historical science and the former State Archivist of Russia, argues in his paper ‘Why did the Soviet Union dissolve?’ that the main characteristic of the Soviet state was the unity of government organs and the Communist Party. The Soviet Constitution of 1977 defined the Party as “the core of the political system”. What did it mean in practice?

Lenin argued that the Soviet – the elected organs of local self-administration – was a direct democracy, so there was no need for parliament or the separation of powers (legislature, executive, and judiciary). Everything would be cared for by the members of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, which comprised of electees from local Soviets. But the elections of the Soviets were a sham. All officials were appointed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and its Central Committee was what really governed the state. All military men, civil servants, the police and the secret services belonged to the Party. State security was ensured by an army of KGB agents – in a recent interview, General Philipp Bobkov (1925 – 2019), former Deputy head of the KGB (1983-1991), estimated that in every region, there were about 300-500 undercover KGB agents, with up to 1,500-2,000 in major regions.

In such conditions, the discordant and the rebellious were intimidated with jails and labor camps. The horrible GULAG system had over half a million in camps in 1933; since 1936, there were over a million convicts, reaching numbers of 2,5 million by the beginning of the 1950s. The atrocities of the system were obvious, especially for foreign onlookers.

“The Soviet project contained elements of what we now call ‘a social state’: social mobility, civil society institutes, social support, free health services, etc. But, because of the utopian nature of the project, this all couldn’t be implemented in full,” says Elena Malysheva. “Non-separation of powers, self-administration of the people – all this demands high social responsibilities that Soviet society didn’t have.”

Indeed, Lenin and his comrades might have believed that all Party and Soviet officials would be fair and honest and wouldn’t bribe, steal or abuse their official status. Unfortunately, the reality was far from the truth. Even at the beginning of the Soviet state, the Bolsheviks would use inhumane methods to extract grain from peasant farmers who produced it. They met with strong civil resistance, sometimes bursting into rebellions like the Tambov rebellion of 1920-1921, where over 50,000 peasants were interred and tens of thousands were killed by the Red Army.

Meanwhile, people who didn’t fit in the ‘new world’, most of all, former bourgeoisie and landlords, were also to be destroyed: “Merciless extermination is necessary,” Lenin wrote. “On foreigners, don’t rush with expulsion. Maybe a concentration camp is better,” he argued. It was obvious Lenin was trying to build an idealistic state of social justice and equality, but with atrocious methods.

Eventually, to crush the peasants’ resistance, the state declared the nationalization of private property, and collectivization of land and means of agricultural production. Now, the peasants’ land, cattle, and agricultural tools belonged to kolkhozes – collective farms. Peasants were almost deprived of money. They worked for “day of labor” and were paid with natural products for the number of days worked. If historians talk about the abolition of serfdom in 1861, it had a revival in 1932-1937, when peasants were banned from leaving the kolkhoz they were assigned to.

The collective farming system led to a sharp decline in grain production. Provision had to be bought abroad. Once one of the world’s leading exporters of grain (as of 1913), Russia became one of its leading importers. Rudolf Pikhoia presents the statistics that in 1973, the USSR imported 13.2% of the amount of grain it was using, and in 1981 – already 41,4%.

And in 1987, only 24% of the country’s production was consumer goods: the state had boosted its unprecedented militarization at the expense of its own people.

But where did the income come from? From 1970 to 1980, oil production in Siberia increased 10 times (from 31 million tons to 312 million tons) while gas production increased from 9,5 billion cubic meters to 156 billion cubic meters. And this oil and gas were being exported to the West – the only lifeline for the declining Soviet economy.

“The Party apparatus and the state apparatus had merged on all levels: executive, administrative and communicative level,” Malysheva says. “In case of any crisis in either one of them – the other one would go into decline, too. So, when democracy started to develop in the late 1980s, the Party couldn’t hold the power. Although the Communist ideology in itself had the capacity for survival, the merging with the state apparatus doomed Communism.”

The Chernobyl catastrophe showed that the executive branch was rotten to the core. After Mikhail Gorbachev started social and political reforms, the unstable equilibrium of the Party and the State fell apart. After the introduction of real elections, the peoples of the Soviet republics showed a strong inclination for sovereignty and the opportunity to make their own decisions.

Meanwhile, the old Party apparatus mostly resigned: in 1986-1989, 90% of local Party officials in all republics resigned, and eventually, the Union fell apart. Unable to reform itself along with the demands of the era, the Soviet system proved to be unsustainable.

Georgy Manaev writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “The Search” by Nikolai Getman, painted ca. 1990s, which depicts the cruelty of the Gulag.