Jean Doresse And The Gnostics

The Chenoboskion-Nag Hammadi manuscripts are leather-bound codices (papyri, that is), dating from the middle of the 4th century AD, and found in 1947, northwest of Luxor, by Egyptian peasants, and since then kept at the Coptic Museum of Cairo. These compromise twelve papyrus codices, plus the remains of a thirteenth, totaling nearly 1,300 pages and over fifty Coptic texts, most of them completely unknown. Only one of these codices was acquired by the Coptic Museum in Cairo, as early as October 1946; it was not until 1975 that the entire collection was assembled there.

The result of a fortuitous find, the discovery of Nag Hammadi early aroused the attention of both antique dealers in Egypt and the authorities of the Coptic Museum. It was not one of those theatrical finds, which officials, journalists and the curious flock to. As with the Desert Scrolls of Judah (commonly referred to as “the Qumran”), almost all episodes of this discovery were suppressed, and almost all details of the history and actual content of the manuscripts have long remained unknown to this day.

Be that as it may, a whole apocalyptic and Gnostic literature then emerged from the earth. The direct sources that were so sorely lacking in research were finally found.

The first Europeans to have knowledge of the discovery were French personalities or scientists. This discovery involved several things: the search for the manuscripts dispersed by the peasants who had exhumed them; field investigations to find out the location of the find; the first readings of the pages less damaged by time; the identification of the writings that came to light there and the first inventory. All of this was the work of Jean Doresse (1917-2007), the main witness to the first stages of this major event in the history of research.

After auditing the lectures of Henri Charles Puech (in the section of religious sciences of l’École pratique des Hautes Études), Doresse joined the CNRS in 1941 and became a research grant holder in October 1944. In September 1947, he found himself in Egypt, in order to carry out, as “excavator for the Louvre museum,” the first of five missions, financed by the Archaeological Excavations Commission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In October 1947 (he was thirty years old), he informed C.H. Puech of the existence of a papyrus volume,140 pages long and containing Gnostic writings in Coptic Sahidic (the current Codex III). Thus began an exchange of correspondence (which lasted until 1970) between the young researcher, who had privileged access to the manuscripts, and the recognized scholar who, although unable to read or translate the writings, was nevertheless best able to interpret them.

A scientific committee made up of various personalities was then created with a view to publication. It consisted of Doresse, of course, along with Togo Mina, curator of the Cairo Museum at the time of the discovery and who first recognized the importance of these manuscripts, Canon Drioton, renowned Egyptologist and director of the Antiquities Department of Egypt until 1952, Charles Henri Puech, arguably the best specialist in Gnosis and Manichaeism, and Walter Till, the specialist in the Berlin Codex. But bad luck of “an evil sort” (to use Doresse’s own words) would plague what concerned the acquisition and publication of these ancient documents. Two years in to the work, Togo Mina died in 1949; he was always hounded by the thought that these manuscripts would disappear from Egypt, and he thus made Doresse promise to protect them from the inevitable greed.

In 1958, Doresse published, Les livres secrets des gnostiques d’Egypte (The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics), the result of archaeological adventure with multiple twists and turns; the book went through several editions. According to Doresse, “the style [of the book] reflects the fever of the time when the characters involved in this find were still alive.” He presented the 44 unpublished Gnostic treatises, narrated the adventures of their discovery, the vicissitudes of their purchase by the Coptic Museum, and then he explained the unfortunate delays in their publication – revolutions and wars are not favorable times for archaeologists.

After gathering all the information provided by the heresiologists and quickly pinpointing the gist of the already known Gnostic treatises, he proposed a provisional classification of them into four categories: prophetic revelations; pseudepigraphic writings taking on the aspect of Christian writings; gospels of a Christianized gnosis; and finally, those treatises more or less close to hermetic writings. He summarized the content of each treatise, by first trying to identify it, often successfully, by way of the information provided by Irenaeus Epiphanes and the Philosophumena.

Doresse also spoke, in a veiled manner, in the introductions to each of the new editions, of the harmful consequences of this discovery for his own existence and his career. The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics was planned as a trilogy, the first volume of which was then titled, Introduction aux écrits gnostiques coptes découverts à Khénoboskion (Introduction to the Coptic Gnostic Writings Discovered at Chenoboskion), and published in Paris, in 1958. Two other volumes were planned. Doresse then outlined the main features of a Gnostic doctrine by taking up a suggestive study by Henri Charles Puech, la Gnose et le Temps (Gnosis and Time). From the start, Doresse understood that these texts from Chenoboskion, much more numerous and evocative than those of Qumran, had greater historical significance.

Like the Qumran manuscripts, they relate to an age which, for the development of human consciousness, remains the greatest. This is the moment when the individual found himself most intensely placed before the problems of personal destiny and the destiny of empires and civilizations, which he regarded as definitely established. The central moment for these ages is the Cross. We know this today, but that age was the first to say it – we were in the presence of a veritable library that attested to the existence of a Gnostic Church which maintained links with groups located in other regions.

Very quickly, Doresse formulated the hypothesis that in all likelihood these were documents from the library of the monastery of Saint Pachomius, hidden there at the end of the 4th century, after the prohibition on Gnostic literature by Athanasius of Alexandria, and by the decrees of Emperor Theodosius I.

The Gospel Of Thomas

Such a discovery was not without consequences. Gnostic studies were soon drawn into an ever-expanding whirlwind that was difficult to curb. The eye of the storm was the Gospel of Thomas.

The more or less Christian apocrypha, used by the sectarians of Chenoboskion, was then given the authority of well-known apostles: James, Thomas, Philip, Matthias, John and Peter. The content of these texts is often trivial, not fundamentally contradicting that of the canonical Gospels, but distorting Christian doctrine and deviating from it. In general, the Gnostics of Chenoboskion wanted to introduce into their doctrine a false Christianity by hatching so-called Gospels put under the names of the Apostles, or even by placing certain revelations in the mouth of the Savior. Basilides had also fabricated a compilation of this kind.

Among these adulterated Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas made a lot of noise and gave rise to many rumors, not always of good quality. Many newspapers of the time argued, on the strength of false, distorted, or misinterpreted news, that this was nothing less than a “fifth Gospel;” that it revealed “unknown facts” about the life of Christ; or that it seemed “almost certainly” translated from Aramaic.

C.H. Puech then pointed out, rather fittingly, that to speak of a “fifth Gospel” did not make much sense. If we believe this to be so, then we would have to exclude the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) whose authority and authenticity has been determined by the Church. Or, we would have to recognize all works of the evangelical type as “gospels,” whether or not they were canonical; and we would then be dealing with an abundance of extra-canonical texts. And in that case, why give only a fifth place to the Gospel according to Thomas, or reserve that spot just for him, rather than any other work of the same sort?

This Gospel of Thomas is, in fact, nothing more than a collection of one hundred and fourteen logia; but it is the largest collection ever transmitted of the “Sayings of Jesus,” or “Words” attributed to Jesus. After a short preamble of four and a half lines, (and which already contains the first logion), the text is just made up of a series of sentences or words independent of each other, mechanically juxtaposed, outside of any systematic narrative-frame, and most often introduced by the stereotypical formula: “Jesus said.” An exordium which itself seems fictitious (no doubt added afterwards) specifies that these are the secret words that Jesus the Living said and that Didyma Jude Thomas wrote. It is written in Sahidic Coptic, and dates possibly from the second half of the 3rd century or, according to other specialists, from the 5th century.

Complete and written with admirable care, the Gospel of Thomas is the second of seven writings in the collection, where it appears between the long version of John’s Apokryphon and another apocryphal piece, the Gospel According to Philip. It is “apocryphal;” in other words, an esoteric text, or which takes itself as such, and which claims to record hidden, secret words, namely, words of Jesus. It is also a pseudepigraphic work since, despite its title and its preamble, both obviously fictitious, the writing cannot be traced back to the apostle, Didymus Judas Thomas. Far from uncovering unknown aspects of the life of Jesus, it presents no historical or narrative character; nor does it contain any account. And, if it relates some act of Christ, it is in an exception and merely schematic. Apart from the few lines at the beginning, it is exclusively made up of a series of words attributed to Jesus and placed end to end. Not a single one of these Words has any chance of going back to an Aramaic prototype.

Indirect sources knew of the existence of this gospel, but what is said is very vague or confusing. According to a tradition reported in the Pistis Sophia, Jesus would have, after his resurrection, entrusted to Thomas, as well as to Philip and to Matthew (or rather, as Theodor Zahn conjectures, to Matthias), the charge of relating all his actions and to record all his words. The three apostles, or disciples, would be the three witnesses whose testimony, according to Deuteronomy 19:15, and the Gospel of Matthew, would be necessary for the establishment of the truth. Thus transformed, at the whim of the Gnostics, into those of essential intermediaries, if not exclusive guarantors, of the authentic transmission of the integral and hidden teaching of Christ, their names – one could imagine – must have served to legitimize the fundamentals of the Gospels.

The introductory lines of the Gospel of Thomas can also be read, exactly reproduced in Greek, on the back of a papyrus of the 3rd century, unearthed in 1903, namely, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus No. 654. The papyri of Nag Hammadi, in fact, have made it possible to complete and rectify the Oxyrhynchus texts.

But are both the 3rd century papyrus and the Gospel of Thomas inspired by the same tradition? This is the first important question. Another is even more crucial – are all the words of Jesus collected in this Gospel, or, at least, some of them, “authentic?” Can they be traced back to Christ himself? Origen asked himself this; and with regard to one of the Sayings in this collection, Saint Jerome had to admit that there could be “gold in this mud.”

Although refusing all canonical authority to the apocrypha because of the falsehood that abounds in them (propter multa falsa), Augustine recognized that we sometimes find “some truth” in there. Puech’s response is cautious. If there are strong reasons to be assured of the inauthenticity of many of these new Sayings, all that we can do about those ones that give us pause is to establish, by more or less fragile criteria, that it is not impossible to suppose them to come from the tradition – written or oral – of contemporary Christian communities or close to the apostolic age. But, from that to concluding that they go back to Jesus Himself is leap into the unknown, the unverifiable. The Christian Church is founded primarily on authority, as was the Synagogue. The truth is what was taught by the founder and which is binding on the believer. Hence the need to know what Jesus said and what his immediate disciples heard.

However, a good number of Manichean texts exhumed, either in Central Asia or in Fayum, cite Words of Jesus which are found exactly, or with some variations, in the Nag Hamadi Library. In particular, we have only to compare the beginning of the Letter of Foundation (Epistola Fundamenti) of Mani, and the prologue to the Gospel according to Thomas, as it is restored to us, to be convinced that the founder of Manichaeism knew the same writing and was inspired by it on occasion.

But to work on a text, you need a translation, and the translation of the Gospel of Thomas was slow to appear. Years passed and the editorial work still had not borne fruit. In 1959, Jean Doresse then published L’Evangile selon Thomas (The Gospel According to Thomas), Volume II of work that began with Les livres secrets des gnostiques d’Egypt (The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics). This scholarly work of his provided researchers with a working text. Three other editions were published at the same time as the French edition: English, German and Dutch.

But by publishing this work, Doresse pulled the rug out from under Puech. The following year, Puech published a so-called “critical” edition with three other researchers, all well-known scholars. They were in such a hurry to publish that they did not wait to include with the text and its translation the critical commentary which they were preparing or claimed they were preparing. The stakes were indeed high as to which would be the preferred scholarly reference edition, cited in prestigious journals, along with the name of the editor or editors.

By this time, however, Jean Doresse had already moved on from all this, having understood that it was all needlessly contentious, and had begun work on Ethiopia.

International Greed And The End Of Certain French Research

The first editorial project was not brought to a halt by Togo Mina’s death in 1949, as Professor James M. Robinson claimed. Rather, the project was hijacked by international passions, in particular Anglo-Saxon, which also put an end to French research that had remained of Christian and Catholic inspiration.

In the early 1960s, the Director General of UNESCO, the Frenchman, René Maheu, concluded an agreement with Saroite Okasha, the Minister of Culture, and the National Council of the United Arab Republic, to publish a complete edition, edited by an international committee, chosen by Egypt and UNESCO. But when it became known that several of the selected texts were already the subject of a publication project, the UNESCO endeavor was reduced to a facsimile edition which, in turn, remained more or less dormant.

Progress was not made until 1966, with the first International Colloquium on the Origins of Gnosticism, organized in Messina, at the initiative of Professor Bianchi, and which came at the end of three years of preparation. At the Colloquium, held from April 13 to 18, 1966, sixty-four topics, all mimeographed and distributed three months earlier to all registered participants, were discussed at length.

During one week and in general assembly, ten areas of research were reviewed: the current state of Gnostic texts; the definition of Gnosticism; Gnosticism and Iran; Gnosticism and Mesopotamia; Gnosticism and Egypt; Gnosticism and Qumran; Gnosticism and Judaism; Gnosticism and Christianity; Gnosticism and Hellenism; Gnosticism and Buddhism. The result was a document, which was first submitted for discussion and then went to approval by the participants. Then it was published in Italian, French, English and German, with a series of proposals concerning the scientific use of the terms, “gnosis” and “Gnosticism:”

“Gnosticism” – a term of modern creation – defines a movement of thought centered on the notion of “knowledge” (in Greek, gnôsis) which developed in the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. On the other hand, the term “gnosis” – whose use is attested since the 2nd century indicates universal tendencies of thought which has in common the notion of knowledge, from which, for example, also derive movements as diverse as the Kabbalah, Manichaeism or Mandaeism.

While relevant, this distinction is not widely accepted today. A pity, as it does reflect the historical reality of the great constructions restored by the Apologists; and it does make it possible to account for gnosis as an anthropological phenomenon – the same leaven making bread of different shapes, often bewildering, baked with adulterated flour, and in general, largely inedible.

The Colloquium, at least, gave occasion for direct contact with the vestiges of Egyptian monasticism: an immense religious domain, extending over twenty kilometers in length and which contains the ruins of a set of more than seven hundred monasteries and hermitages erected from the 4th to the 9th century. The delegates spent a day in Wadi Natrun and visited three of the four Coptic monasteries that remain in the Nitrian Desert. They were delighted that the monastery of Saint Macarius, reduced to six old monks by 1969, had then more than forty. What now remains, however, is a long way from the fifty convents, most of which founded in the 4th century, which covered the site, and attested to the flowering of Christianity, as well as to the destructive power of Islam.

In 1970, UNESCO and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture founded the International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices and appointed Professor James M. Robinson, an expert in religious sciences as secretary, which made it easy for him to supervise the project, in collaboration with the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont (California). The Facsimile Edition of the Nag-Hammadi Codices was then published by Brill, and Harper and Row, in 12 volumes, between 1972 and 1984. Robinson then edited the American edition of these texts, completed in 1995. He was then closely associated, as editor general, with the publication of another collection of manuscripts of great importance for the study of Judaism and Christian origins, that of the so-called “Qumran” texts.

In 1987 a new English edition was published by the scholar Bentley Layton (Harvard University), entitled, The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations. The volume included new translations of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, and also extracts from heresiarch authors and other Gnostic texts.

UNESCO Takes Over

In 1973, a new project took shape, a French one, this time. Professor Jacques-É. Ménard made numerous visits to the theological faculty of the University of Laval, at the invitation of Professor Hervé Gagné. It was only a matter of translating and editing the texts of Nag Hammadi into French. He considers the Gospels to be a matter of literature. Administrative responsibility for the first Quebec team was entrusted to Hervé Gagné, and Jacques-É. Ménard was appointed as the first principal researcher and scientific director of the project (he did also form and lead a team in Strasbourg). Michel Roberge was appointed as the second principal researcher, with the task of leading the Quebec team. The list of company employees varied over the years, among them Louis Painchaud, Anne Pasquier, Paul-Hubert Poirier and Michel Roberge.

This joint project between France and Canada aimed to produce, in separate booklets, critical editions of each of the Coptic texts of Nag Hammadi and Berolinensis Gnosticus 8502, accompanied by original French translations, followed by commentaries, indexes and a general index to the entire collection. The delays were chronic, and in the opinion of the Quebec team the French contribution did not match their commitments. In France, Jean-Pierre Mahé, director of studies in the section of philological and historical sciences of the l’École pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, Annie Mahé, as well as Bernard Barc, of the Jean-Moulin University of Lyon were early collaborators. As well, there were Einar Thomassen from the University of Bergen, Jean-Marie Sevrin, from the Catholic University of Louvain, and John D. Turner from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Despite the delays, an international network was set up, with French, as well as Belgian, Swiss, German, Italian, Norwegian and American, researchers. More than ten Quebec researchers and as many foreign researchers, historians of religions, biblists, philologists, Hebrew scholars, linguists, or specialists in ancient Christian literature, contributed directly to the three sections of the collection, Coptic Library of Nag Hammadi, published jointly by the Presses de l’Université Laval and Peeters of Louvain.

As well, a team of German academics, located in the former GDR, and composed of Alexander Bohlig and Martin Krause, as well as New Testament specialists, Gesine Schenke, Hans-Martin Schenke and Hans-Gebhard Bethge, prepared a German translation of the texts, which appeared in 2001, under the aegis of the Humboldt University in Berlin. From 1977, Laval University worked on a French edition of these texts under the editorship of Louis Painchaud, in a collection intended for scholars, namely, le Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi (The Coptic Library of Nag Hammadi). It was not until 2007 that the Pléiade edition appeared, by Gallimard, under the editorship Jean-Pierre Mahé and Paul-Hubert Poirier.

But in 2008, there was a new publication, in French, in the form of small pamphlets authored by Professor James Robinson, in the Jardin des livres collection. The back cover blurb was oddly sensational:

In 1945, manuscripts (revolutionary for Christianity) resurfaced in Egypt, in Nag Hammadi. But since their discovery, a sort of veil has covered their content since only specialists and enthusiasts know them. However, their importance is capital, because they complete the four Gospels of Mark, John, Matthew and Luke. It took the film Stigmata and the book The Da Vinci Code for the world to discover the presence of Mary Magdalene with Christ. the Jardin des livres collection is very proud to finally publish the work of Professor James Robinson, the great world specialist.

The world was supposedly “discovering” the presence of Mary Magdalene with Christ… The world had been aware of the presence of Mary Magdalene for two thousand years already. The nature of this presence, of course, varies depending on whether it is discovered under a Christian or a Gnostic propensity.

Each booklet was preceded by a long introduction by Professor Robinson, who described, with great precision, the conditions of the discovery (which Doresse never described with such precision), and Robinson gave the framework of the research. Then more sensationalism, to say the least:

And it was precisely through the exclusion of these texts and others of the same kind that the Jewish and Christian canons were formed. The second reason is that these texts were probably considered sacred by their ancient users, on par with the canonical Scriptures, if not more so. The third, which we tend to forget, is that these texts come back to life in contemporary religious culture. The Bible and the texts of Nag Hammadi are inseparable like the inverse and the reverse of the same tradition…

This is how the idea arose that Christianity was in a way a “gnosis” which gained succeed, with the corollary that the Catholic Church carefully concealed the evidence by preventing access by the faithful to these marvelous texts which contain hidden splendors.

But undoubtedly more seriously, this orientation of research has buried real perspectives opened by Doresse and Puech on the links between Gnosticism and Manichaeism.

Gnosticism And Manichaeism

By the discovery of the Chenosbokion manuscripts, the image of founders and their great Revelations was entirely shaken: they were no longer named Valentinus and Basilides (Alexandrian Gnostics that the heresiological Fathers had fought), but Nicotheus, Zoroaster and Zostrianos, Seth and Adam. Unlike the two Hellenized Alexandrians, the men who claimed to confer on these texts a status of great revelation most often concealed themselves under prestigious names, while the others taught under their own name, and no doubt wanted to be founders of schools.

We must therefore admit two successive moments in the history of Gnosis and Gnosticisms, and which perhaps have no close links: a pre-Gnosis which did not know Christianity and is supported by great names of “initiates” (and called to a great future), and a Gnosis, which was later more closely linked to Christianity and less discreet because it assumed itself as a clear rival. Pre-Gnosis, which perhaps preceded Christianity, preferred to remain discrete and in the shadows. While this pre-Gnosis was dying out in Egypt, when Pachomius launched Coptic monasticism, the great Alexandrian Gnosticisms took off in Eurasia, where they would meet Manichaeism and perhaps even Mani or his first disciples. The Acts of Archelaus (a work dating from the first quarter of the 4th century) is one of the main Christian works directed against the Manicheans, in which the author evokes a controversy that opposed Mani himself with the bishop of Kashqar in Mesopotamia. After the presentation of these discussions, the bishop recounts the life of Mani as well as that of his writings and we find in this part of the text a very precise passage on the Persian doctrines to which Mani would have resorted, as did also the Gnostic Basilides, one of whose works the bishop quotes.

Essentially, most of the Chenoboskion manuscripts do not belong to the Gnostic currents known to the Apologetic Fathers but to a current called “Sethiianism,” named after one of the alleged editors:

What forms the primitive basis of the doctrine of our Gnostics of Chenoboslion seems to be this set of revelations of Zoroaster and Seth, initially independent of Christianity, which may have arisen from daring speculations on the Old Testament.

These Gnostics had taken, it seems, something from a very particular literature of which only scraps now remain: writings composed in Greek and placed under the names of the Magi Zoroaster, Ostanes, Hystaspes, writings inspired by Iranian beliefs. From this literature arose a number of increasingly confused traditions, where Zoroaster, on occasion, changed faces to identify with the prophet Seth, son of Adam, while his descendant Saoshyant, became a figure of Jesus. This would explain why the Gnostics put some of their now lost writings under the names of Zoroaster and Zostianos, as well as of Seth and Adam.

It should also be remembered that we do not know much for sure about this mythical Zoroaster and the religion he founded, except that it is a Mazdaism reformed by a great religious genius (between a mage and prophet) about whom little has been written but much fantasized. As for Manichaeism, it is the sect founded by Mani (215-276), and which took an impressive rise in all of Eurasia. Mani claimed to be at the same time Buddha, Jesus and Zoroaster. An astonishing religious personality, he drew his doctrine from the few teachings of Baptist sects then active in Mesopotamia, (including the Elcesaites, in which he was educated, and is regarded as a Gnostic sect), as well as from Iranian mythical elements, and all blended with a very large part, the most important, of Gnosis which he knew directly.

Doresse summed up this complex story as follows: one day Manichaeism (the doctrine of Mani) came; he assimilated the main elements of expiring Gnosticism thus continuing them; he then transmitted them with his own doctrines in the Middle Ages.

At the end of the second century, with its more or less hidden multiform sects, Gnosis contaminated the entire Mediterranean world. Manichaeism appeared at the time when the great Alexandrian Gnosticisms disappeared, or more exactly spread into Eurasia where they disappeared. In reality, they undoubtedly disappeared less than melted into Manichaeism, attesting to this trait which is peculiar to it, as to Buddhism; a formidable lability, a capacity to penetrate into any apparently foreign body and to find its place there. We know that Mani claimed to be the Buddha, Jesus and Zoroaster. He thus assumed in his modest person the totality of religious history in order to bring it to the fulfillment it calls for.

When and how, then, were Christian elements, some authentic, others fictitious and fabricated, added to the oldest writings? Because it was from such a meeting that gnosis was authentically and definitively born, and without doubt, it should be pointed out, the Alexandrian Gnosticisms of the 2nd century (Basilides, Valentinus, Isidore, Marcion). There are better questions to ask. Is the Gnostic current of Chenoboskion rooted directly in Christianity already established in the manner of the great Alexandrian Gnosticisms (Basilides, Valentinus, Isidore), which founded a community after their excommunication from the Church? Is it transplanted directly into a composite, syncretistic soil? Is it related to currents of Judaism or to a specific rabbinical current, which we now know to have developed what is called “gnosis?” So-called primitive Christianity, in other words, apostolic, was already quite consistent, but it had given rise to all kinds of comments, questions, and also counterfeits. These Gnostics were able to draw inspiration either from these counterfeits or from apostolic Christianity which they then transformed substantially for their own ends, by mixing in Iranized or Egyptianized apocalypses.

The literature of these Lower Egyptian Gnostics includes great apocalypses presented as though composed in earliest times and kept under the care of fantastical powers in holy and mysterious places. The setting often presents Christian or Judeo-Christian characteristics: the Temple forecourt, the Mount of Olives. Not only that but also a geography from Iranian traditions.

Did this prepare for the advent of Manichaeism? This was the hypothesis made by Paul Monceaux in 1913. It was fair, but it was formulated at a time when only indirect sources were available (the notices of the Fathers). The hypothesis fell into the oblivion of university research, the cellars of which are deep. Puech and Doresse gave it new vigor. It was, however, buried again, thus neutralizing all research on the links between Gnosticisms and Manichaeism and their development throughout Eurasia.

Alongside this hypothesis, was the idea of a Eurasian inculturation of Christianity, parallel to the first Hellenistic inculturation which also saw itself buried for the benefit of extravagances nourished by literature and cinematographic fictions.

Gnosis: The Archetype Of Excessive Noesis

According to the historian of religions Mircéa Eliade, one of the great common denominators of all religions (or invariants), is a nostalgia for origins.

All… Except Christianity.

Gnosis claims to achieve an archetype of noetic plenitude, founded among other things on the idea of unity: it is a question of going beyond – most often by abolishing – the bipolarities and dualisms in which man finds himself a prisoner, or in which he thinks he is a prisoner; the first of these dualisms is that of spirit and matter. Gnosis implies nostalgia for a primordial Time, for a first origin where the soul is generally conceived as a divine spark which has fallen into matter and which has retained the memory of this divine origin.

This idea originated in the foothills of the Himalayas, and it gave birth to the doctrines of ensomatosis. Of all the symbol-religious systems, gnosis is the one that most often has recourse to those doctrines, thanks to which man projects himself and his destiny on to the screen of a mythical time where he relives endlessly his fall into matter and his ascent to imagined celestial origins. Hence the pervasiveness of the ideas of the circle, of paradise, of the pleroma, of hierogamy by which the pneumatic joins its ontological and transcendental “I.” It is understandable that Neo-Platonism played a preponderant role in Gnostic doctrines. We can better understand the mistrust of Christian theology, Byzantine as well as Latin, for Platonic philosophy.

Even though it is based on erratic and misleading thought, “gnosis” nonetheless responds to a powerful human need: the desire for heaven. The major idea is that of an ascent to a Primordial Unity, which implies a soul journey through which man rediscovers his soul, therefore himself. All ascension literature proceeds from this chimerical aspiration.

In fact, Christianity is the best antidote to this illusion of an archetype of noetic fullness. It frees us from images of the circle, of the obsession with origins, and when it postulates the immortality of the soul, it cannot be a divine particle, but a participating rational breath. If we admit that gnosis is knowledge, we must bring to light the fundamental Gnostic intuition which constitutes the ultimate hinge of this senseless quest, and it is of the noetic type.

However, our noetics has a complex philosophical history, since it inherited jointly, but not in the same proportions, nor at the same historical moment, from Aristotle and Plato. It was not until Thomas Aquinas that the idea of the substantial union of soul and body, and therefore of a soul (“form of the body,” animating principle, understood as an entelechy) was developed and formulated precisely, as being endowed with all that is necessary to live; that is to say to know God. But obviously the equipment is damaged by sin and it must be restored. When, in the quarrel with Averroes, Thomas Aquinas “bursts the Avicennian ceiling,” as Etienne Gilson rightly put it, he understood that the doctrine of Averroes, inherited from Avicennian gnosis, contained a Gnostic ferment.

Conclusion

Saint Irenaeus had seen with ironic perspicacity the nature of this spiritual charlatanism: “Nothing hinders any other, in dealing with the same subject, to affix names after such a fashion as the following: There is a certain Proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd; and along with this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus.”

Of all the elements of which Gnosticism is composed, none seems very original. The metaphysics is Neo-Platonism, with images and musings from the East, memories of Syria or Babylon. The moral is that of the Gospel, but often misguided, with Stoic formulas and tints of cynicism. The theories and rites of salvation, except for a few features which come from the Greek mysteries, are adventurous developments of conceptions which can be traced from Saint Paul to Origen. As for the mythology of Gnosticism, it is made up especially of borrowings from the old religions of the East, and marks a return to polytheism. Progress, if you will, but progress in reverse. And it is probably this mixture of Christianity and paganism, of religion and philosophy, East and West, which brought success to the Gnostic sects.
Gnostic pride has remained proverbial. Tertullian relates that they frowned in a mysterious manner when they said of their doctrine: “Hoc altum est” (This is profound).

Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.


The featured image shows folio 32 of Nag Hammadi Codex II, with the ending of the Apocryphon of John, and the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas, ca. 4rth century.

Aramaic: Lingua Franca Of The Ancient World

It is only in Heaven that we will see the truth about everything. On earth, it is impossible. So, even for Sacred Scripture, isn’t it sad to see all the differences in translation. If I had been a priest, I would have learned Hebrew and Greek, I would not have been satisfied with Latin, as I would have known the real text dictated by the Holy Spirit.
(Saint Therese of Lisieux, “The Last Interviews,” in the Yellow Book of Mother Agnès, August 4, 1897).

Thérèse of Lisieux is undoubtedly right, but to learn the language in which our Lord deigned to express himself, we must ask ourselves what that language was. Jesus could not ignore the Hebrew language, that of Revelation, but it was then no more than a liturgical language, what today we would call a “dead language.” The oral language, the language of communication, was Aramaic, the history of which begins with that of the men who brought it with them.

These Aramaeans were Semites who burst out of the desert to conquer the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and Syria. They went everywhere, settling, seizing supplies, creating little kingdoms.

Then arose Assyria, the empire of war, of force, of power – the “Hitlerites of the ancient world.” As soon as Assyria awakened, the various small Aramaic kingdoms disappeared, one after the other. But they left their language and their gods to the world.

This language, the Assyrians themselves would adopt. On several figurative documents concerning Aramaic origin, in particular on one of the frescoes of Til Barsip, we see depicted side-by-side an Assyrian scribe who writes on a tablet, and an Aramaic scribe who writes on a sheet of parchment or papyrus (13th century to the 9th century BC). But what the Assyrians instituted was not a properly Mesopotamian dialect of Aramaic but common Aramaic. Thus, a body of Aramaic scribes was officially constituted inside Assyrian administration.

In 632 BC, the Assyrians disappeared from the face of the earth. Then a new power arose – the Persians.

They were called the Achaemenids, among whom the prominent name is Darius the Great. With the Achaemenids, the Iranians became “the imperial race of Asia,” to use Roman Ghirshman’s phrase. In terms of political organization, Greece hardly arose beyond the polis – the State remained the City there. The Persians, for their part, developed an entity which, in its unity, encompassed countries of various races and cultures, united by the cogs of a vast administration. and above all else, these peoples were protected by a powerful army against foreign domination (especially against the persistent threat of nomads from the North and East). This empire, which remained a warrior one, was nevertheless driven by a desire for association rather than the thirst for domination, so characteristic of Assyria that always retained a powerful fascination.

The Achaemenids also made the linguistic choice of Aramaic, for reasons, no doubt, a little different than those which motivated the Assyrians; and it indeed seems to be a more conscious choice.

The use of cuneiform for writing Old Persian dates back at least to Teipses (as evidenced by the gold tablet of his son, Ariaramnes). At the time of the transformation of the small kingdom of Pars into empire, this language and this writing were only accessible to a minority of the ruling class. However, the rapidity of the formation of the Achaemenid Empire precluded the possibility of translating Persian into all languages. It was therefore necessary to choose an already existing language. But, also, by this time, Aramaic had spread throughout anterior Asia to western Iran. It was therefore Aramaic that the Persians adopted.

The Achaemenids had three other languages of culture, but it was this fourth language that they chose. Persia owes a great deal to the Kingdom of Urartu. From Urartu came the use of the breastplate. The Urartians transmitted their arts and techniques to the Iranians, as well as their strategy of conquest in their great symbols. According to Herodotus (III, 85), Darius obtained his crown thanks to his squire and his horse, just like King Rusa of Urartu. The traditions of the Urartian chancelleries were followed by the Persians: it is only in the Urartu texts that a royal inscription is divided into parts, so each one begins with “Thus spoke King X…,” which is found in the inscriptions of Achaemenid kings.

The most famous piece of Achaemenid glyptic belongs to Darius the Great. It is inscribed with his name and bears a text written in three languages. The use of cuneiform writing was not, however, completely abandoned, though it was reduced to stone inscriptions on monuments.

Thus, being already a lingua franca throughout the Near and Middle East, with the Achaemenids, Aramaic took on the status of an official language throughout Asia; and it remained in use, in particular in state affairs, from Egypt to India, where documents written in Aramaic have been found. If in Elam, one wrote in Elamite, and in Babylon in Babylonian, then all the Persian chancelleries used Aramaic.

The Achaemenid Persians also then were the enemy to be defeated, for Alexander the Great. The archives of the Achaemenid Empire were kept in Ecbatana (the Bible makes it clear), and the excavations at Persepolis and Suza confirm this. Alexander stored there all the treasures of the capitals looted during his campaigns.

This Hellenization, which is held to be the marvelous consequence of this lightning raid of unheard-of insolence, actually began long before, and rather peacefully. It was when the ancient kingdom of Urartu was formed (ca. 800 BC) that a slow expansion of the Greeks around the coasts of Asia Minor took place. Greek merchants had found on the Pontic coast iron, wax, linen, wool, precious metals, cinnabar, bronze, wood, furniture, fabrics, as well as Elamite and Median embroidery. Iran was not excluded from trade between Greece and the East. On the contrary, there was an Irano-Urartian koine, which then extended from the Oxus to the Ganges, and indisputably linked artistic traditions (some attest to the links between Crete and Iran), and therefore to techniques, in particular, metallurgy. And all interaction was probably not in one language.

Alexander’s conquest marked a pause in the development of Persian art (constant for seven centuries), as in all likelihood the use of Aramaic also marked a pause. But Alexander’s empire did not last. Thereafter, the Parthians came to the forefront of history, firmly determined to oust the Seleucid monarchy, one of the three monarchies that were heir to Alexander, and thus to reconquer Iran. They took a little over a century to accomplish all this. At the time of the Achaemenid Empire, the region where these Parthians settled existed under the name of the “Parthian satrapy.”

The Parthian Empire was born in a great expansion of the Iranian tribes of the steppes which spread to the four corners of the horizon, from the Black Sea with the Sarmatians, to the mouth of the Indus with the Saka, and from the Euphrates with the Parthians to eastern India with the Kushans. This vast area, despite the diversity of peoples and countries, climates and landscapes that it contained, became what René Grousset called, “outer Iran,” where a composite yet enduring civilization was established. Such was the Parthian element that founded, rebuilt, enriched, and stabilized civilization in this part of the world.

Much of Parthian history took place during the reigns of thirty-two kings, all of whom bore the same name, Arsaces; hence the Arsacid dynasty If they chose the path of Iranism, it was not only because they believed it more capable of supporting them in their fight against the Seleucids, then vis-a-vis the Romans who claimed to realize in their Eastern policy the imperialist conceptions of ‘Alexander the Great, but because the Parthians were more Iranian than Greek. It was not just a political choice, but a deep affinity. It was a conscious decision, not solely a political choice.

And for this reconquest and this refoundation, the Parthians relied on the language that the Achaemenids, of whom they considered themselves to be successors, had adopted before them, namely, Aramaic, which was also then made the language of the chancellery. The ostraca that have been found are either bilingual (Indo-Aramaic, or Greco-Aramaic), or only in Aramaic. This means that Aramaic extended as far as the Kushan empire and therefore Bactria, which had long been Hellenized (historians speak of the Greco-Bactrians).

Their empire lasted five centuries, and it was nurtured by an unprecedented event.

In 105, King Mithridates II received the first Chinese embassy in his capital of Hecatompylos. He concluded a commercial treaty with China, which guaranteed him monopoly on silk. The center of gravity of the Persian world now changed – from the banks of the Tigris, it moved towards Bactria and Sogdiana. Many cities were then transformed into merchant cities, provisioning and training the leaders of the caravans, including Palmyra, which was to be called to a singular destiny.

Thus, under the pax parthica, in the first century of our era, two men set out. One was called Bartholomew, the other Thomas. In the heart of Asia, where Iran was the cultural engine, but which had chosen the Semitic language of Aramaic, and within an empire which felt a particular sympathy for the Jewish world, these two men were to go far, even to the ends of the earth, to evangelize and to found churches.

The Word not only prepared His coming, He also prepared the conditions for the dissemination of His Message. And by learning the language in which our Lord deigned to speak, we can focus on understanding the role that that language has played in history in general and in that of Christians in particular.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.

[The original article in French was translated by N. Dass]


The featured images shows “the Kandahar Sophystos Inscription,” ca. 260 BC, or later. It is a metrical, bilingual (Greek and Aramaic) inscription. The Greek acrostic down the side reads: “ΔΙΑ ΣΩΦΥΤΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΝΑΡΑΤΟΥ (Dia Sophytou tou Naratou): By Sophistos, son of Naratos.”

Moscow’s Stability Operations: A Brief History

Stability operations initiated by Moscow, whether in the Soviet or post-Cold War era contexts, are peculiar in their own history and methods from all the others set up by the UN, by other international and regional organizations and by the “coalition of the willing.”

Moscow put such military operations on two different levels: ones led by the UN, and those that can be attributed to the Community of Independent States (CIS), and considered by Moscow almost as internal affairs, and thus conceived, directed, and managed as such.

The first such operation began relatively late, in November 1973, with the dispatch of 36 military observers, all unarmed commissioned officers, to the oldest peace operation of the United Nations (UNTSO). The observers were accompanied by a further 36 “interpreters” (or controllers, likely coming from the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence service). The UNTSO, ad hoc expanded, was to operate in support of the troops of the UN interposition force deployed after the Yom Kippur War in Sinai, UNEF II.

The presence of these “interpreters” immediately created a major problem for the UN (which could not give consideration to military observers, given that they had to express themselves and write in English, the working language of the organization) – not to mention the financial, logistical, insurance and legal problems. But all this was in the midst of the Cold War and, only after a long negotiation did the “interpreters” leave, and in this way, the USSR also kept its presence in UNTSO, after the end of UNEF II, in 1979. Until 1991, members of UNTSO were the only Soviet-Russian “blue helmets.” After the liberation of Kuwait and to monitor the truce in Western Sahara, other military observers were sent, respectively, UNIKOM and MINURSO (the latter, even if in reduced strength, is still present).

Since then, there are few UN missions that have not seen a presence of military observers, police personnel, support helicopters and other specialists sent from Moscow, in accordance with the choice of opening to the world of the new Kremlin leadership. This choice sees only some small variations, given the stiff resistance by Moscow of sending formed units abroad, synthesized in a battalion of paratroopers, dispatched to the former Yugoslavia, in the framework of UNPROFOR, between 1992 and 1996; and this only after several requests and with many difficulties.

Leaving aside the presence of the two Russian battalions included in the NATO-led peacekeeping missions to Bosnia and Kosovo (I-FOR/S-FOR and K-FOR), it is useful to summarize, and as far as possible, analyze the role and function of those operating in the peripherical area of the former USSR (or “near abroad” for the new Russia). While the most recent, tasked to monitor the ceasefire line between the forces of Nagorno/Karabach and Armenia on the one side and Azerbaijan on the other is ongoing, most of those missions completed their mandate, and others are presumed to be closed soon.

According to the universally accepted doctrine of stability operations, these operations lack the fundamental principles of stability operations, such as, impartiality between opposing factions, and being a presence mutually accepted by them, with limited use of force and that only for the purpose of self-defense and within the limits of the implementation of the mandate. However, this statement, which comes from Western experts and scholars of stability operations, is partial.

As mentioned, all these operations for Moscow, since the uncertain days of the end of USSR and the more uncertain days of the beginning of the CIS (Community of Independent States, a substitute body for the immediate post-USSR), represented a very critical political value and, as such, were carefully designed and managed; all had the pivotal objective of protecting the interests of the Kremlin, starting with the protection of the Russian and/or Russian-speaking populations, and securing strategic assets and corridors. This pragmatic approach has gradually established a series of mission options, which have a solid political plan and a realistic time-line.

Where the criticism is, however, pertinent is the lack of legitimacy of the emanating body, due to the uncertain and ambiguous role and juridical status of the CIS, perceived as a mere long-arm of Moscow’s interests and objectives.

For example, the agreement which followed the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, covers a period of five years. It may seem long, but it allowed for an exist, from the various weary rituals of renewal issued, often after tedious negotiations, like the annual (or even half-yearly) meetings at the UN Security Council, a phase which put the operations under regular stress, and thus creating or exacerbating tensions on the ground, while raising expectations of the former warring parties.

Also, from observed experiences of stabilization operations carried out by the UN, the Russian forces appeared to be more heavily armed and thus had a deterrent capacity that reduced the potential threats from those who would want to break the truce and confront forces with mobility, self-protection, and hostile fire suppression capabilities far superior to those of “blue helmets.”

This deterrence discouraged the former warring parties to undertake dangerous escalations, making these operations much more effective, as is often the case for UN missions, which facilitate the political dialogue framework, by reducing the space of maneuver and blackmailing of the former warring parties.

Many of these forces (former Soviet and/or initially CIS-led) were already garrisoning in the area from the time of the existence of the USSR and often reacted to the exploding problems, applying Moscow’s guidelines in an average effective manner, given the circumstances.

The disintegration of the USSR, and the formation of 12 independent republics, had great consequences on the stability of the former federation and impacted the new born states, which inherited the distortions of Soviet times.

In fact, in areas where Soviet intervention was particularly heavy with border and population displacements, violent conflicts erupted (like in the Caucasus), as the process of political and economic restructuring of the USSR, begun in the second half of the 1980s by Gorbachov, weakened the repressive apparatus that had oppressed those regions since the mid-1920s.

After the official end of the Soviet Union, which materialized in December 1991, the need to maintain an integrated economic system favored the establishment of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), an interstate body with a vague nature, characteristic and structure.

This community, directly hegemonized by Moscow, was established on 21 December 1991 in Alma Ata/Almaty in Kazakhstan. Despite serious economic and social internal turmoil and institutional re-foundation, already in the summer of 1992, Moscow first re-started a minimum interstate dialogue, trying to circumscribe the various crisis hotspots (Transcaucasia, Central Asia and Moldova), initially using the ex-Soviet forces still in those territories. Second, Moscow established and supported these multilateral interposition contingents, including (and also integrating) military units of the warring parties; thus, creating a conceptual novelty for this type of operation (however entirely ignored in the West). This format was adopted to include and to make accountable the former warring parties and defuse the restart of conflicts.

This choice however was badly perceived by one side, especially when the other side include separatist movements/fractions, as an attempt to legitimize those elements. This was bluntly rejected by countries like Georgia, which saw these forces as a move led by Moscow to undermine the newly reached independence of Batumi.

The CIS-led forces cooperated, to a rather limited extent, with OSCE and UN observer missions. Several of them completed their respective mandates as well, thanks to the massive diplomatic and institutional action conducted by Moscow, which tended to reabsorb these new/old nations (internationally recognized or not) in its political, economic, and strategic orbit.

Although indirectly, the Chechen question, and the brutal (and inconclusive) Russian attempts to overcome the many military crisis, constituted by the tensions within the non-Russian states of the Community which refused to participate to those operation.

This situation resulted in frequent problems between Moscow and the newly formed post-Soviet republics, which were unwilling to accept supinely the exclusive direction by the Russian side of military structures of the CIS (both of the central bodies of the organization and of the stabilization forces that were progressively formed); and the growing perplexity of some states to act as a purely rear area for the Russian and CIS forces, operating especially in Central Asia and consequently, return sic et simpliciter to the orbit of Moscow.

The establishment of these multilateral forces does not in many cases mean the automatic withdrawal from those territories of the Russian (and former USSR) contingents, often supported by large and heavily armed units of the newly constituted CIS Border Guard (the former Soviet frontier guard, a uniformed wing of the KGB).

With gradual stabilization underway in Moscow, and what emanates from it, these formations were progressively transformed into a more stable military presence, thus carrying out a function of protection of the Russian populations residing in those republics through a series of agreements that Russia progressively stipulated with these states which also granted the use of various military bases, freedom of movement and use of airspace.

In addition to military presence, Moscow’s action was accompanied by a process of institutional reorganization, characterized by a relevant ability to mediate between the conflicting needs of the parties and using the lever of the promise of economic aid to mitigate the conflicts (though limited, given the condition of the Russian financial situation).

Moscow’s determination lies in the need to have its peripherical areas as stable as possible, to maintain control over very delicate geographical and strategic junctions (Central-Western Asia, the Caucasus, Black Sea, oil pipelines, etc.), and to protect the Russian populations.

This situation created a droit de regard from Russia out towards the former Soviet republics, despite many protests in international fora and sates, such as, by the US, EU, NATO, UN and the OSCE, which saw their ability to act seriously become limited. In fact, Moscow only agreed to the presence of observation missions and good offices, and placed a very firm veto on the deployment of international military forces.

In January 1996, in the face of continuous requests for clarification by the UN, the CIS, through the Russian delegation to the UN, presented a document that clearly defined the status, nature, tasks and missions of the peacekeeping forces of this body, which until then was rather confused.

The document takes up, with some differences (especially relating to the use of force), the basic concepts of UN peacekeeping operations. It also clarifies the presence and duties of military forces, police personnel, and military observers in these missions. Guidelines were also established for relations between CIS forces and the personnel of other international bodies, such as the UN, OSCE and non-governmental, humanitarian assistance, civil and human rights monitoring bodies.

Even Moscow, in the context of the more general restructuring of its armed forces, initially faced a deficit of predesigned units for this type of operation; but it coped as best as it could by using resources already available, to then build ad hoc units for this kind of operation; and these units were precisely those sent to guard the truce line between the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, after the conflict in 2020.

Even if CIS was a structure considered by Moscow as a temporary solution (it still exists), it managed all the stabilization operations. But its architecture was also gradually supported by the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) which, established since 1993 and through a long process, lasted more than ten years. CSTO became the long-arm of Moscow in the “near abroad,” even if the participation of some states was fluctuating.

CSTO, among the numerous sub-architectures established (and largely different from CIS, which remained almost exclusively a heads-of-state council secretariat), had a more solid political and military mechanism, dedicated to stabilization (with a force of 3,000 military and police personnel), and which was ready to intervene, according to the decisions of the Council of Heads of State of the organization; or, upon request, to intervene in support of UN-led operations, though thus far it has never intervened in such a capacity (namely, a robust, mechanized infantry formation, able to impose and supervise a ceasefire, monitor road access and protect civilian populations from the actions of irregular elements, by borrowing aforementioned principles).

Tajikistan

Between 1992 and 1997, in Tajikistan, during a violent inter-ethnic conflict between non-Russian population components, there were a recorded 100,000 dead and half a million refugees. Since 1992, Russian forces basically present from the Soviet era (the 201st Motorized Rifle Division) had been formally acting as an interposition mandated by CIS, even though the behavior of its personnel was often the subject of criticism. But that was in the darkest days of the post-Soviet era and often salaries and supplies never arrived, and the personnel sold weapons and equipment to the parties.

Beyond these considerations, Russian troops were mandated by CIS to keep order. Since 1993, this decision was translated into an increased and open support of pro-Moscow leadership in the country. In August 1993, CIS gave its full mandate to Russian and some Central Asian republic forces, present in Tajikistan (at that time 25,000 soldiers), to resume forcible disarmament operations of the insurgent formations. In September of that year Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan asked (unsuccessfully) that these forces obtain UN mandate under Chapter VII of its Charter, (and thus also removing the embarrassment of CIS in allowing a one-side operation).

In allowing the UN Security Council to mandate CIS forces, it was decided to expedite the operation of disarmament and solve the issue as soon as possible. The civil war ended in 1997, with an agreement, promoted by the UN, which saw the prevalence of a line in favor of Moscow, and CIS troops gradually withdrew (the operation ended in 2000). In 1997, the Collective Peacekeeping Forces (CPF) numbered more than 12,000 soldiers (the 201st Motorized Rifle Division and three army battalions from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan), as well as 17,000 border guards (mostly Russian, with small contingents of similar Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan forces).

Abkhazia

In Abkhazia, the local independence forces, formed immediately after the independence of Georgia, clashed with the army of Tbilisi, newly formed in 1992, and defeated it. Moscow followed its policy of establishing multilateral forces and a mechanism of dialogue and coordination, but with partial success.

On May 14, 1994, after difficult negotiations, held under the aegis of the UN, the parties signed an agreement in Moscow to a ceasefire and separation of forces. The collective peacekeeping forces of the CIS, established by decision of the Council of Heads of State of the Community, included only Russian units, after the failure of the constitution of a joint force that would have included Abkhazian and Georgian elements because of the animosity between the two parties.

The JPKF (Joint Peacekeeping Force), deployed in June 1994, controlled a 24km wide security zone, along the line of contact between opposing forces. The only multilateral forum established was the JCC (Joint Consultation Committee), a consultation body and good offices, chaired by the Russian military.

On 10 October 2008, in accordance with the decision taken at the meeting of the CIS Council of Heads of State, held in Bishkek, the mandate of the JPKF, after 14 years of stay, ended; and a week later the Russian peacekeepers withdrew. Between October and early December, Russian troops replaced the JPKF and established new fortified positions on the side of the Abkhaz-controlled ceasefire line. The last Russian unit left the area in November of that year (after the short conflict between Georgia and Ossetia ended) and Abkhazian forces were deployed directly on the border with Georgia.

South Ossetia

Another autonomous region of Georgia—South Ossetia—aspired to political independence in the late 1980s. After the collapse of the USSR, that aspiration turned into an armed confrontation between self-formed local militias against the Georgian army, which was heavily defeated and Ossetia became de facto independent, but closely linked to Moscow (regardless that another conflict opposed South and North Ossetian forces).

After the ceasefire, also reached in 1994, Russian peacekeeping forces, under the auspices of the CIS, were deployed in the conflict zones. This only happened, after a previous unsuccessful attempt, because of the tough intransigence of Georgia to deploy a multilateral force formed by a Russian battalion (700) together with a Georgian battalion (320) and one of South Ossetia (470), also in this case called JPKF.

Afterwards, the situation was substantially stable, despite the permanent hostility of Georgian governments. In August 2008, the Georgian army attacked South Ossetia by surprise, killing 15 JPKF soldiers. Moscow reacted quickly, resulting in the so-called “Five Day War” between Georgia and Russia, with Abkhazia joining South Ossetia. As a result of the operation, South Ossetia and the small parts of Abkhazia that came under Georgian control on that occasion were liberated from the Tbilisi troops.

At the end of August, the two self-proclaimed republics asked Russia to recognize their independence, which was done by Moscow. In October of the same year, the JPKF withdrew and was initially replaced by Russian border guards and army units, which were gradually joined, and later replaced, by elements of the South Ossetian self-defense forces.

Armenia/Azerbaijan

The recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan followed an even more violent previous one. Like the most recent, the reason for the dispute was the control of the Armenian populated Nagorno-Karabach enclave within Azerbaijan. This dispute began, in political terms, as early as 1987; and as the authority of the USSR loosened over the whole of Transcaucasia, the conflict became more and more violent, until it led to an open war, in 1990, and caused 15,000 deaths and a million refugees, until the spring of 1992, and which saw a heavy Azerbaijani defeat.

By the summer of 1992, after an agreement between the parties, a Russian regiment was deployed as an interposition force of CIS that separated the regular forces of Yerevan and the Armenian separatists of Nagorno-Karabach from the Azerbaijani ones. However, the mutual mistrust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis did not allow for the deployment of a multilateral force with Russian, Armenian, Azerbaijani and Nagorno-Karabach separatists, as originally envisaged by the JCC (Joint Consultation Committee), a multilateral body, in charge of direction and management of the operation, which was the only one where both sides sat together. So, JPKLEF (Joint Peacekeeping and Law Enforcement Force), in charge of controlling the ceasefire, was formed, but only made up of Russian troops. This force was then withdrawn not only for the stability of the ceasefire, but also due to the decisive rapprochement between Armenia and Russia, which led to the signing of a bilateral agreement in 1997, which also provided for the establishment of a consistent Russian military presence in that country.

Moldova

On 27 August 1991, Moldova declared independence from the USSR and a few weeks later clashes broke out between the forces of the newborn republic and the self-defense formations of the Russian and Ukrainian populations residing in the Transdniestr region, which declared itself an independent republic on 2 September and called for annexation to Russia.

The clashes continued increasingly violent, and on 6 July, JPKF (Joint Peacekeeping Force) was sent by CIS decision; and in mid-July was deployed to Transnistria. The force (whose composition was the result of intense negotiations promoted by Moscow), under Russian command, comprised 2 Moldovan battalions, 2 Transnistrian battalions and 5 Russian battalions (other sources report instead 3, 3 and 6 battalions respectively) for a total of 2000 units.

Again, the JPKF depended on the JCC (Joint Consultation Committee), which brought together high-level Russian and party political and military representatives, and worked to manage the operation. The presence of the CIS force replaced the very brief presence of a multilateral observation mission made up, following a diplomatic agreement, of military observers, for the control of the truce, from Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Transnistria, and decided upon in June 1992, but which obtained no results whatsoever.

By August, the JPKF, after stabilizing the situation, allowed the return of 50,000 refugees, the reopening of the roads between the two territories and substantial normalization. In November 1994, Moscow unilaterally withdrew half of its contingent from the JPKF for budgetary reasons (despite protests from both sides), while the JCC, which cooperated with a similar OSCE mission, remained on site from the beginning of 1993. 

In the context of the Transnistrian affair, we must mention the presence in that territory of the Soviet (later Russian) XIV Army, which, despite the task of cooperating with the JPKF, carried out a clear partisan action in favor of the Russian-speaking militias, by supplying weapons and instructors to the local National Guard. By the spring of 1997, following agreements dating back to 1994, between the Moldovan government and the autonomists of Transnistria, the XIV army (in the meantime reduced from 12,000 soldiers to 7,000, while today it only numbers 1,500) began a partial withdrawal. The Russian troops, though reduced by number, continued to be stationed in Transnistria.

The Russian presence in Transnistria was however at the center of constant tensions between Chisnau (which repeatedly asked for their withdrawal), Tiraspol and Moscow. The progressive distancing of Moldova from Russian area of influence made Chisnau’s request for the withdrawal of Russian troops (including the remaining JPKF forces, now reduced to less than 400 soldiers) and the dissolution of the JCC, more vocal. Moscow tried to resist as much as it could, but the gradual rapprochement of Moldova and Ukraine to the EU and NATO made the situation of Russian troops (JPKF and the remnant of the XIV army) in Transnistria increasingly problematic.

The foreseeable solution, sponsored by the OSCE, of the end of secession of Transnistria and its return into Moldova institutional framework in exchange for a vast administrative, cultural, and linguistic autonomy, makes this presence a dossier to be resolved in the near future.

Comment

A proper analysis of the stability operations carried out by Moscow must be seen through the lens of politics. Those operations were part of a broader action of Russia to stabilize as much as possible the “near abroad: and not to lose the control of the new republics, and to maintain access to their natural resources, while keeping a strategic depth/buffer zone. Last, but not least, these operations guaranteed the safety of the Russian-speaking population (with the perspective of using them as a tool of influence in better times, while keeping a solid grip on the internal policy-making of these countries).

All these objectives were met, by various ways and means, and in time. But the evolution of the political landscape, with the progressive emergence of leadership in these countries less and less keen to cooperate with Moscow (especially Georgia, as the first example, and progressively followed by Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan)—weakened the Russian-led project which sought to save as much as possible of the gains of the then USSR.

This situation co-existed with the tireless efforts of the EU and NATO to increase their influence there, with specific programmes, like the ENP (European Neighborhood Policy) and EAPC/PfP (Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council/Partnership for Peace).

If these political considerations are not taken into account, the stability operations carried out by Moscow reached a good level of success, allowing Russia to achieve, at least for a period, its political targets.

But, given that the stability operations can be more politically profiled as any other military activity, they also cannot be considered as a fully separated entity or fact.

No doubt, that despite the failure of establishing “collective” (as termed also by Moscow) peacekeeping forces, the presence of Russian troops under the aegis of CIS, those missions did lead to the defusing, at least for a period, of tensions on the ground and blocked a further worsening.

The reliability of the Russia forces involved in the CIS-led operation was widely demonstrated by their reaction against the aggression of Georgian forces in 2008, a reaction which slowed the progression of the Batumi forces, and which gave time to Moscow to deploy more larger forces in the area, which defeated the aggression.

Like all the peacekeeping/stability missions established by other organizations, every operation is a specific case, with its own historical and political background, bilateral/multilateral; and, generally, the ones in the Caucasus went well enough, as well as the one in Tajikistan. The former was a “lesson-learned” mission for other operations for Moscow leadership (political and military).

The main lesson learned was to collocate any operation to the most proper political context (always with the perspective of reaching its own strategic objectives), and having dedicated forces, which could ensure the reach of the stability on the ground, and in parallel protect Moscow’s interests.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations.


The featured images shows, “A Letter to the Foes of Russia,” by Vasily Nesterenko, painted ca. 2017-2018.