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  • Celebrating Russian Christmas in Brussels. High Politics and High Society Meet in the Grand Dining Room

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


    I will be very discreet in this essay and name no names, not even the venue of our gathering last night. There was no imposition of Chatham House Rules by the President of the club where it took place, but there is no point in ruffling feathers when what counts here is the overall ambiance, plus the bits and pieces of anonymous chit-chat, not the identity of the individuals who spoke freely and in confidence.

    Suffice it to say that this was a gala, black-tie dinner in honor of Russian Christmas, which under the Julian Calendar observed by the Orthodox Church, fell this past Sunday on 7 January. It was held in the most prestigious gentlemen’s club of French-speaking Belgium.

    The club has the word “Royal” in the middle of its name, and it should come as no surprise that more than a sprinkling of the 162 participants who were seated at the tables are members of Belgian nobility, the diplomatic service (retired) and others close to the monarchy. The rest are business people and patented members of local high society.

    This being a Russia-themed event, there were a certain number of sons and daughters of the illustrious Russian noble families who settled in Belgium after the Revolution of 1917. Indeed, the entire undertaking was initiated by a representative of the most illustrious of these princely families. However, most participants were purely Belgian and with no particular experience of Russia other than, possibly as tourists over the years. They came to have a good time, to enjoy an unusual cuisine for a house that is otherwise very French and to hear 19th century Russian romances performed by a group of Kuban Cossacks who had great skills in a capella singing and produced extraordinary effects from tiny and from oversized balalaikas.

    Why take your time with this unremarkable event populated by the well-to-do in their dinner jackets and long gowns? Because what was said about relations with Russia in the lounges before and after, at the tables during dinner by those with whom I came into contact, and by the body language of most everyone else in the room contradicts entirely what one might have expected in attitudes towards Russia given the fraught state-to-state relations between the EU and the big neighbor to the East.

    To be specific, my well-educated and successful Belgian interlocutors from last night’s soirée associate Russia with the best of European culture, whether music, literature or the performing arts. They see it as a dynamic country immensely rich in natural resources from which they do not want to be cut off. They view it as another European power having a long common history with their own. They accept that Russia may have a less than perfect democratic government, but they know only too well how imperfect democracy is in their own country, where there is an hereditary caste of ministers and government leaders rife with nepotism and hubris, kept in power by the fragmentation of the electorate among too many parties that the very progressive proportional representation system encourages. Like many other Continental countries, Belgian cabinets are the product of unprincipled coalitions distributing and redistributing ministerial portfolios to their own convenience to patch together majorities of deputies without regard to competence or the expressed will of the electorate. Why then throw stones at the Putin regime?

    They view with disdain and embarrassment the vassalage of their political elites before the United States, the sacrifice of national interest and the people’s welfare to keep the Americans happy. And they view NATO not as a common defense but as a mechanism by which the United States maintains the upper hand on the Continent and bullies their government officials.

    I remind the reader that this is not my interpretation of how things should be seen by the Belgians. It is the Belgians themselves speaking confidentially.

    I saw hints of such views in the past especially before and immediately after George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq but never in people of such high social standing and expressed in such explicit terms. If I had to find a reason for this, it would surely be the Trump factor: the rolling back of the ideological camouflage of democracy promotion and its replacement by the language of raw power that Trump and his administration project unashamedly under the slogan of America First. Trump has freed minds here in Belgium from their earlier reserve in speaking about the United States.

    The only question now is when finally one or another Belgian political party will understand that there is a potential groundswell of support among elites with money and social influence, not just among the hoi polloi if they call for a new foreign policy based on co-existence with Russia.

    To properly understand what I have just witnessed, I must go back in time to the 1980s when I first came into contact with Belgium’s high society thanks to a club that I will name here: the Harvard Club of Belgium.  Though most of the Club members back then were unremarkable lawyers and accountants who had some Harvard schooling, there were ties to an older generation then in their 60s who had been sent by their parents to Harvard and other prestige universities in the United States in the years immediately following the end of WWII to go and understand how the new ruler of the world operated, to go and make friends who might well be useful later in life. Indeed, they came home to Belgium and made fabulous careers in business, in government, in the European Institutions which the country hosted.  One of the most successful among them who gave generously of his time to the Harvard Club and helped organize very special events exclusively for Club members was Count Etienne (Stevie) Davignon. These representatives of the elites were pro-American to a man.

    The change from then to what I saw last night is unmistakable and suggestive of important things to come in trans-Atlantic relations, possibly also in relations with Russia.

    As I have recently become aware, among the several possible scenarios which the Kremlin envisions for the evolution of international relations is wooing Europe away from the embrace of Washington, so as to form a third force in the world alongside and separate from China and the United States: a Russian-European alliance. When I first heard about this, it seemed to me to be pure illusion.  However, in light of the views I heard last night, I see some merit to this ambition.


    * * * *

    Over the past several years, I have rocked back and forth on the issue of which side of the Atlantic would be first to reject U.S. global hegemony, end sanctions on Russia and usher in a new world order that is inclusive and shares out seats at the board of directors in a more rational fashion than today.

    I initially put my money on Europe, because the voting arithmetic here on Russia-bashing resolutions that are also an indicator of adherence to US dictates, were far more favorable to change than in the USA. Fully one-third of the 751 legislators in the European Parliament abstain or vote against such measures. That compares to the less than one percent who stand up to the thundering stampede of the Russia-bashers in the U.S. Congress.

    A year into the sanctions, by the summer of 2015, it appeared that Europe might indeed crack. There were voices among politicians in Italy in France, in the Czech Republic, in Greece and elsewhere who spoke publicly against the herd instinct for survival and blind obedience to Washington. They pointed to the zero effectiveness of sanctions in changing Russian behavior, and to the serious economic harm they were doing to EU countries.  But the six-monthly votes in the EU on sanctions renewal came and went repeatedly without any breaking of the ranks. Whether thanks to high-powered visits to Europe by Joe Biden or to the effective threats of Angela Merkel, all the ducks lined up one way when it came time to be counted.  Accordingly, I gave up hope that Europeans would find their backbone and free themselves from their American overlords.

    Then along came Trump in 2016 and it seemed that the United States would be the first to turn away from the path of ever escalating confrontation with Russia. Embedded in his electoral platform was the notion that there is nothing wrong with having good relations with Putin. However, this new start did not get very far. Within months of Trump’s inauguration, General Flynn, one of his most resolute supporters on this issue was forced out of office, the jackals were nipping at Trump’s heels over allegations of collusion with the Russians, and he made no further efforts to turn around the ship of state, while his assistants loudly continued all the verbal assaults on Russia with which the Obama administration closed its tenure.

    Now as he enters his second year in office, there are no signs that this particular promise to his electorate can be fulfilled.  It appears unlikely that the United States will be a first mover.

    Let us hope, based on last night’s sampling of Belgian high society, that Europe may yet come to the rescue of itself and of mankind by repudiating the American global hegemony and recognizing Washington as just one more global competitor that happens to fight dirty.

    Time will tell…


    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

          * * * *

     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see

  • Patriarch Kirill’s interview with Dmitri Kiselyov, 7 Jan 2018: Further thoughts

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


    I prepared my essay on the Christmas Day interview of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in great haste, to be sure that this “scoop” would be mine.  As it turns out, I need not have rushed, since the topic was subsequently left untouched by all other political analysts having an interest in Russia both in country and abroad.  And while I remain persuaded that the remarks on Russia’s uniqueness by the Patriarch are of great importance to all those following the trajectory of the country’s rise on the world stage, with the benefit of time for reflection, I am not surprised they have been overlooked.

    In fact the vast majority of my confrères write almost exclusively about the headline issues like the candidates for Russia’s 18 March presidential election or about the Russia-Gate controversy, that is to say they focus on the same issues that are covered by The New York Times or the Washington Post, even if their political positions are 180 degrees at variance with those of this mainstream press. I offer that as an observation of the real situation, not necessarily as a criticism, for there are among them many who will justify skipping an item like the views of the Russian Patriarch as an exercise in intellectual history that is marginal to real world events. Their mind-set is as cynical as Stalin’s, encapsulated in the riposte attributed to him: “And how many divisions does the Pope have?”

    Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church is not a subject that attracts much interest among our secularist journalists and readership on both sides of the ideological divide over President Trump. Those who have looked to find influences on Russian state policy and on Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin have looked in entirely other directions. I think for example of the long fascination of so many of our pundits and even area specialists with the exotic Eurasianist theories, and of one of its most colorful exponents, professor Alexander Dugin. Until he was fired from Moscow State University, and even after that there were those who found his very existence congenial, because his quackery and seeming closeness to power could be presented as a modern day Rasputin in the Kremlin.

    By contrast, the leading Orthodox clergy who are close to Putin and the Kremlin are world class theologians and diplomats, charismatic television personalities, composers of widely respected religious music, and persons of much higher intellectual merit than your average journalist or pundit. Kirill is first among them.  Hence, the disinterest of our media. As for our specialist community, I imagine they will eventually get around to Kirill and he will yet be the subject of a doctoral dissertation or two, if only for his leadership of the traditionalist alliance with the Catholic Church against global liberalism.

    Then there is another prejudice working against any suggestion that the Orthodox Church might be influencing state policy, and not just be an instrument used by an authoritarian state to consolidate its shaky power.  The possibility that the Church might have its own power base in the population making it an ally rather than a servant of the state is not something that Russia’s detractors care to entertain.

    No sooner had I published my essay on Kirill’s interview last Sunday than I realized I had only scratched the surface. Most of my article was a summary and/or my own verbatim translation of the Patriarch’s statements that I construe as constituting a new Russian messianism. The analysis portion of the essay missed some obvious and essential points.  I became even more aware of how much there remained to say about the interview when, a few hours later, the Moscow Patriarchate put up on the web its official Russian language transcript of the interview. Reading it through, I found in the late portions of the interview, which I had not had time to transcribe myself from the youtube video, there are some further connections between the Patriarch’s views and ongoing Russian foreign policy in the Middle East.

    For all of these reasons, I return to the interview here with the following further thoughts.

    * * * *


    First and most pressing, we have to consider closely the three historical examples that Kirill cited to demonstrate how Russians have very often put the inner voice of conscience, that is, moral values, alongside and even above pragmatism in foreign affairs.  These examples were protection of Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land which got Nicholas I’s Russia embroiled in the Crimean War, the Russian campaigns in the Balkans in the 1870s under Alexander II on behalf of their Orthodox Slavic brethren and against their Ottoman oppressors, and Nicholas II’s decisions in favor of the Orthodox Serbs in 1914 that took Russia into World War I.

    It is stunning that Kirill has chosen precisely these examples, because each of them was a disaster for the Russian state, none greater than the final one, which brought down the dynasty, with all the horrors that followed.

    It is noteworthy that in at least the last two examples society imposed the course taken by the State, that is to say there were essentially bottom-up social movements that forced the hand of the Government, a scenario that runs directly counter to the commonly held notions of how Autocracy was supposed to work. But this is a cavil which does not contradict the Patriarch’s overarching idea that men can be motivated to fight and die for causes that speak to their heart, and not in defense of geopolitical objectives. That has validity across many countries and continents. In the United States, it was a key point raised by Henry Kissinger in his 1994 work Diplomacy, when he explained why the Realist Theodore Roosevelt was unable to take the United States into WWI, though he very much wanted to do so, whereas his successor, the Idealist Woodrow Wilson was able to thanks to his call “to make the world safe for democracy.”

    As we see later in the interview, there is a direct connection between the examples which Kirill took from the pre-revolutionary Russian past and his vision of present day issues amounting to the Cross for Russia to bear. The commonality is Russia’s role as protector of Orthodoxy in the East, that is in the Holy Sites of Palestine and in the cradle of Orthodox Christianity, what is now Syria and Iraq.

    Half-way through the Christmas Day interview, Kirill delivers a fascinating account of the issues and of his personal involvement, as well as how they were brought to the attention of Vladimir Putin well before Russia intervened in Syria.

    Vladimir Putin has consistently presented the need to strike at the Islamic State in Syria and deal a death blow to radical Islam before it could move on Russia.  Patriarch Kirill took the same line in the past and most particularly in his January 2016 interview with Dmitri Kiselev.  However, he tells us here that Russia’s military intervention in Syria also had as motivation to save what was left of the Christian community in Syria.

    As we read these lines, we must bear in mind the long ties between Russia and this part of the world, something that is hardly ever evoked in Western media coverage of the war in Syria. As I noted in my report last year on the Mariinsky Orchestra concert in liberated Palmyra, St. Petersburg intellectual society had a self-image as a twin city of Syrian Palmyra throughout the 19th century for reasons going back to their own Catherine the Great and a female ruler of ancient Palmyra.  Oriental studies and themes for the arts may have been widespread in 19th century Europe, particularly France with its proximity to North Africa which it was then colonizing, but Russia was physically closer to the Christian East and Russian society directed its gaze there.  The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society was founded in the last quarter of the century to assist the substantial flows of pilgrims and scholars. These ties that bind must not be ignored.


    Patriarch Kirill:

    “Already in 2014, it was clear that conflicts on the territory of Syria were being incited by radical forces which, if they came to power, would begin by liquidating the Christian presence in this country. That is precisely why the Christians actively supported Assad and his government, - because in the country a certain balance of forces was secured and that is very important. People felt they were being protected.  In 2014, notwithstanding warnings about the danger, I nonetheless decided to travel to Syria. I was in Damascus and led a church service there, and I saw what enthusiasm there was among the people. In conversations both with Muslims and with Christians, meeting with politicians, I understood that if the Islamic radicals come to power in Syria, the first ones who would suffer would be the Christians. As already happened in Iraq, where 85% of the Christians were either killed or driven out of the country. I visited Iraq still under the regime of Hussein, including in the northern regions, in Mosul. I visited the ancient Christian monasteries. I saw the piety of the people and was overjoyed that in Muslim surroundings the Christian churches existed in peace. Now practically nothing of this remains – the monasteries have been destroyed, the churches were blown up. The same could happen in Syria. Therefore the participation of Russia was connected not only with solving questions about which I do not have full competence and about which I do not consider it possible to speak, relating to the stabilization of the situation, and not to allow…..military threats, not to allow power to be seized by the terrorists. There was a very important idea – to defend the Christian minority. Back in 2013, when Moscow was celebrating the 1025th anniversary of the Christian baptism of Rus’, the heads of the Orthodox Churches arrived. When they met with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, one of the strongest messages concerned precisely the request that Russia take part in the defense of Christians in the Near East. And I am happy that this happened. Thanks to the participation of Russia a genocide of Christians was averted.

    “Now there arises the question of restoring peace in this country, justice, security, solving a huge number of economic issues. And, what is especially close to us, - the restoration of churches, monasteries, monuments, including Muslim and ancient monuments.  Our Church is participating in rendering humanitarian assistance. We are working both in our own name, and in addition we have a bilateral agreement with the Catholic Church to jointly provide humanitarian assistance. In other words, we are acting in various areas, - I hope they will make their contribution to real assistance to those who are still suffering in Syria.”


    * * * *



    For the complete transcription (in Russian) of the interview, see


    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

          * * * *

     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see

  • The New Russian “Messianism” Defined: Patriarch Kirill’s Christmas Day Interview

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

    In what has now become a tradition dating back several years, the head of Russian state television and radio news services, Dmitri Kiselyov interviewed the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill for a broadcast to the nation and the world released yesterday on Orthodox Christmas Day, 7 January.

    A two minute segment from  this interview, in which the Patriarch defined what I call a new Russian-Slavic messianism, was featured on the  Sunday evening Vesti news program, the most watched news program of the week. This official picking of the raisin from the cake can leave no doubt that the Kremlin endorses the concept, though what we have here are parallel state and religious forces operating from equal positions of strength in complementary ways, and not religious subordination to state direction, as will surely be the interpretation of Putin’s detractors.

    Over the years, these Kiselyov Christmas interviews with the Patriarch have touched upon various topical questions of Church dogma, relations between the Church and society, and relations with other faiths, including, for example: the Patriarch’s strong condemnation of rampant secularism in the West amounting to persecution of Christian believers in many European countries, or his condemnation of revolutions of all stripes for unleashing human passions that make it impossible to resolve the social and political problems that revolutionaries say justify their actions.  These are strong words from a powerful thinker and pastor, who otherwise has been very active mobilizing a coalition with the Roman Catholic Church and other traditionalists against the forces of liberalism across the globe.

    Less commonly, the Patriarch has spoken out about contemporary issues of state. When Russia became fully engaged in the Syrian civil war and took resolute military action against the Islamic State, Kirill responded to the question on people’s minds during the Christmas season and explained that the Russian intervention in Syria was a “just” war waged for defensive reasons.

    Yesterday’s interview was also exceptional in the same way. The Patriarch’s remarks were programmatic, not ad hoc, and were meant to address an issue of national importance.

    Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia as the legal successor state has been trying to find a new identity for itself.  The national anthem, the national flag and other symbols of the nation have been reinvented, but still there has been a void at the center that love of country or patriotism alone cannot fill.  Patriarch Kirill’s prepared remarks for the interview must be seen as a new and  serious attempt to provide the missing content which he borrows from the pre-revolutionary Russian past.

    Transcript of Dmitri Kiselyov interview with Patriarch Kirill, Russian Christmas, 7 January 2018

    Kiselyov opens with the remark that the world seems to be going mad. Against this background of uncertainty, he says there is the view that Russia will live so long as it retains its special distinguishing traits (своебразие). Kiselyov asks to what extent this is the case and, if so, what this uniqueness consists of.

    Kirill: Each person has his own distinguishing traits. No two people are alike. And so it is for countries.  Russia’s special nature was formed under the influence of various factors – its size, climate, etc.  I think the distinguishing feature is that Russia is a country which pays heed to the inner voice of conscience [совестливость]even if this has at times created problems for the country. I will give some outstanding examples of when conscience takes the upper hand over pragmatism:  Let’s take the Crimean War and the defense of Christianity in the Holy Land under Nicholas I.  Some viewers will say it was a geopolitical program.  No, geopolitical ideas did not inspire people to defend the holy places and to defend Orthodoxy on the territory. Or the Balkan Wars under Alexander II. Thousands upon thousands of simple Russian men went to fight for the Slavs. And alongside them went some not so simple men – generals, members of the tsarist family. Was that just pragmatism?  Would anyone go to die for pragmatism?  Never in your life. This movement to face danger came from people listening to their conscience. And then there was Nicholas II before the First World War.  To defend the Serbian brothers.  Again, someone could say it was pragmatism. But  would people really have gone off to fight if it were only in the name of pragmatism?  This element of heeding one’s conscience clearly shows itself in the history of Russia.

    Kiselyov: Many consider that Russia is trying to play a disproportionate role in the world. And there may even be some risks in this for our country. Can we bear this Cross?

    Kirill: You have no right to refuse the Cross. That is what the Orthodox Church teaches us. If Russia takes this Cross upon itself, then God will give it the strength to bear it. The most important thing is what we were just talking about, that the moral dimension in politics never be swallowed up by what are truly and exclusively pragmatic objectives that are remote from morality. If we, in our politics, in our lives, in our societal structures will strive for justice to triumph, for the moral feelings of people to be assuaged, then undoubtedly we will have to bear a Cross in some way. Without going into details, without a doubt there are people in this world who will not be in agreement with our position. Such people already exist. But I want to say once again, if God imposes a Cross, then he gives one the strength to bear it. And the very fact of bearing this Cross has enormous significance for the entire world, for the whole community of mankind. And however they may try to present our policies, including foreign policy, in a different light, they will be attractive for people so long as they preserve the moral dimension.

    As the next question and as a follow-up to the anxiety people are feeling in this world going mad, Kiselyov asks the Patriarch to expand on his recent invocation of the Apocalypse.

    Kirill: TheApocalypse is the end of history. Under what conditions can there be an end?  If human society loses its vitality – if it exhausts its resource to continue existing. That happens if evil achieves total domination. If evil drives away good from human society, then the end will come. Why do we have to talk about this today? Because we are now living through a special period in history. Never before did human society put good and evil on the same plane. There were attempts to justify evil, but never to say that good and evil are relative rather than absolute truths.  Under these conditions, how can the Church avoid sending up an alarm? How can it avoid warning that we are on a very dangerous path?  If the Church will not say this, then who will?


    Patriarch Kirill built his career in the Church in two domains:  pastoral work and diplomatic service. His epochal meeting with Pope Francis in Havana in February 2016, the first meeting ever of a Russian Orthodox patriarch and a Roman Catholic pope, was entirely in keeping with his long-standing experience on the world stage in defense of the conservative, traditional Christian values that he constantly promotes. He is not a believer in Ecumenism, but in strategic alliances for the benefit of core values.

    Kirill came from a Church family, entered the seminary and took his vows in the 1970s, a dark and oppressive period for the Church. He emerged from the experience of poverty and close dependence on the generosity of his parishioners to survive as a resilient and powerful spiritual figure. His closeness to Vladimr Putin is a credit to Putin, not the other way around. For all of these reasons, Kirill’s remarks about Russia’s uniqueness and its mission in the world to uphold justice and assuage the consciences of the faithful must be seen as potentially very influential.

    In his remarks cited above, we witness the rebirth of Russian messianism, something which was transmogrified under Communism to leadership of the worldwide revolution and has now returned to its pre-Revolutionary shape with emphasis on “bearing the Cross” of  leading the struggle for justice and truth in the world.

    It would be inappropriate to highlight the re-emergence of Russian messianism as a factor on the global landscape without putting this phenomenon in a broader context of national self-definition. In the immediate neighborhood of Russia, you have Poland, which from the 17th century to this day has seen itself as the bulwark of Christian European civilization against the barbaric Asiatic hordes to the East, whether they be Russian Orthodox or Islamic Turks and Mongols. Moving to the West, Europe’s leading imperial countries France and Britain invented the “White Man’s Burden,” another term for “bearing the Cross,” and to this day both countries punch above their weight as promoters of secular liberalism and “universal values.”  Then, of course, there is the United States, which has for more than a century led the fight to “make the world safe for democracy.”  These are all forms of messianism.

    However, this short list of countries with messianic ambitions is exhaustive. The vast majority of nations are content to look after their own interests and make no claims to some unique role in service of humanity.  The bystanders include the two most populous nations on earth, China and India, which alone account for one third of humankind.

    These are important considerations when we note that it has been precisely Vladimir Putin’s Russia which has taken on openly and publicly the role of challenger to America’s global hegemony.  The daring and the mission did not come from nowhere, nor would they cease if this one man were removed from the equation. For these reasons, I remind our foreign policy establishment that knowledge of history is inescapable to understand the balance of forces in the world and to master diplomacy.  Looking at GDP or demographic trends is utterly inadequate to understand who is who in this world.

    * * * *


    For the 2 minute segment in the  Vesti broadcast see the posting on starting at minute 11:

    For the full 36 minute interview see:

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

          * * * *

     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see