The tumultuous state of the current world has brought once more into focus the almost permanent battle between Western and Eastern civilisations. It is, to say the least, an unsettling situation. This situation has aroused an uneasiness which, in the relative peace of the twenty-first century, we are unfamiliar with, but we must always remember that our ancestors were forced to endure this harsh reality.
The German philosopher Oswald Spengler understood this, and he was often filled with dismay when his pessimism about the state of the world was challenged. He wrote,
“(books that state) no more war, no more distinctions between races, peoples, states, or religions, no criminals or adventurers; no conflicts arising out of superiorities and differences, no hate or vengeance anymore, but eternal comfort through the millennia. Even today, when we experience the last phases of this trivial optimism, these idiocies make one shudder.”
I share Spengler`s distaste for those who proclaim the notion of universal human values, when history has proven that these do not, and cannot exist.
It is ironic that people who advocate the most vociferously for these non existent values believe that they are “humane” and morally superior. However they are unaware that the idea that all human beings living across the globe are the same is the most dehumanising philosophy that imbues all authoritarian political movements from Nazism to Communism. Any political regime that condemns the citizens of the world to abide by a universal creed is cruelly doomed, as it fails to acknowledge the meaning that people place in their language, religion, history and nationality. When the early explorers from Europe ventured into Eastern countries there were attempts to persuade others into believing that their Western customs were superior.
However in hindsight we now realise that what constitutes cultural superiority is actually subjective, but in the West some commentators are still attached to this fantasy vision of a universal human culture. This is bizarre and dangerous because this just isn’t how the world works, and many of the problems that we continue to encounter are the inevitable product of cultural misunderstandings, some of which are hundreds of years old or even older.
This is being perpetuated in the rather simplistic coverage of the Ukraine conflict, a battle which is being framed as a progressive, righteous war to reclaim Western values. The implication behind this appears that as Russia is looking for support from its allies in the East, that it is an inherently backward and barbarian regime. It is deeply unsettling to see the ignorance on display in these reports. Russia is a complex and unique country, a hybrid civilisation of Viking and Slav and traditionally a “God bearing people” after experiencing waves of imperialism. It was once a place of grandeur but in the last two centuries it experienced humiliation and defeat.
The mediaeval kingdom of Holy Russia is a glorious myth for a demoralised people. It is difficult to emphasise the depth of sincerity proclaimed by this God bearing people when most of the West has become entirely modern and secular. People in the West now perceive themselves as superior because they feel that they have resisted older beliefs, often castigated as superstition.
However, Russia became a cruel victim of communism, an inflexible dogma that originated in Western Europe. In the dark early days of the Soviet Union no sensibility was spared. Orthodox Bishops were shot or crucified upside down. In Siberia, the followers of ancient beliefs were mocked mercilessly and faced humiliating deaths. Siberian shamans were kidnapped, taken onto planes and thrown out mid air to prove their magical abilities to fly.
Many people believe that modern secular values triumph over older spiritual ones because they are rooted in material reality but this misses a vital point about the human experience, that the true meaning of our flawed lives comes from difficulty and suffering. Older societies acknowledge this and it should be respected.