War & Philosophy
Operation Z through the eyes of Vladimir Solovyov
Portrait of the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov by Nikolai Yaroshenko, 1895.
By Ljubisa Malenica for the Saker blog
At The Vineyard of the Saker on November 09, 2022 | has comments • original
By chance, while Moscow military operation was taking place, in author’s reading schedule it was turn for a book by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov entitled “Three Conversations on War, Progress and the End of World History”. The English translation, published in the second decade of the previous century, is entitled “War and Christianity from a Russian perspective”. “Three Conversations” is a philosophical work by Vladimir Solovyov, in which he addresses several important issues, by presenting his ideas in the form of a discussion among five characters.
Solovyov, from the very beginning, attracts the reader with universality of his thoughts and the plastic presentation of participants in the discussion. The garden of the villa, located on slopes of the Alps below which waters of the Mediterranean expand, serves as a meeting place for five main characters of the debate. They are all Russians and they all belong to the wealthier class. The first mentioned is an experienced military leader, whom Solovyov simply calls the General. In addition to the General, there are the Politician, the Lady, the Prince and the mysterious Mr. Z, who is described as a man of “doubtful age and social position”.
Their conversations are transmitted to us by a sixth, completely unknown person who finds himself near the group, attracted by topics being discussed. The first conversation, dedicated to war and its rightfulness, begins with the General’s critique of peace movement, demilitarization and the question of whether Russian army really still exists as “Christ-loving militancy”. From the very beginning, we can see the establishment of the relationship between God and the army on a positive basis, which is in conflict with the widespread understanding of war as a lesser or greater evil. This positive basis starts from the assumption that the soldier as a participant in conflict, and military service as one of the aspects of human activity, are not hateful to God, nor that they stand outside human society as it exists in the material world.
The General explains his criticism not by attacking the peace and disarmament movements themselves, but by looking at the ideological background of a phenomenon that, beginning to spread through society, requires soldiers to accept their vocation as “evil and damaging, contrary to God’s commandments and human intelligence, the most dreadful trouble and calamity.” The Politician, who sees military as just another element of state mechanism, responds that soldiers and officers are only asked “one thing, now as before, to fulfil out without questions orders of your superiors”. It is here that we come to significance of connection between Christ and the army formulated by the General with his phrase Christ-loving militancy. There is no doubt that Third Reich German army was justifiably known as one of the best armies in terms of training, equipment, mobility and moral, there can be no doubt about the quality of Nazi troops, but no one, except in moment of deepest insanity, could ever claim that troops of the Reich were Christ-loving.
Solovyov’s Politician would undoubtedly be fond of Wehrmacht. They were only asked to carry out their orders, and German troops did so, whether we are talking about fighting or genocidal extermination campaigns against all those who, according to parameters of the Nazi ideological thought, were defined as “untermensch”, that is, subhumans. Requiring army to only carry out orders of the supreme authorities without discussion leads to the removal of morale as a factor influencing the behavior of that army, starting from an individual soldier in the trench all the way to highest officer cadre.
One of key ideas that Solovyov is trying to convey with his work, the idea that war is lesser good and not lesser evil, is expressed by the General when he contemplates the very nature of military profession. Responding to the Politician, the senior officer points out: “Until yesterday, I knew that I had to train and confirm in our troops nothing other than just this military spirit – the readiness of each soldier to kill his enemy and be, if necessary, killed – and for that it is absolutely necessary to be perfectly sure that war is something holy”.
Solovyov’s General sees the soldier and the military calling as something more than just carrying out orders. Solovyov’s soldier, in accordance with the General’s arguments, is uplifted by his service towards the eternal ideal, the God-man. The writer’s arguments, presented through the General, actually point out that war can be understood, and therefore justified, only through God. For this reason, the General confidently states that there are only two types of persons in the saintly ranks of the Russian Orthodox Church – monks and princes, with role of prince implying skills of the warrior.
This phenomenon is not foreign to Orthodoxy or Christianity in general, although it is more pronounced in the former due to presence of universal warrior saints such as St. George, St. Theodore, St. Andrew, St. Demetrius and many others, as well as through specific national warrior-saints, such as St. Knyaz Lazar among Serbs or St. Alexander Nevsky among Russians. Moreover, inside the archbishop’s chapel in Ravenna, built by Byzantine Empire at the end of fifth century, there is a mosaic of Christ the Victor in which Jesus himself is depicted in Byzantine-style armor with a sword-like cross.
In Solovyov’s work, the idea of war as lesser good is advocated by General and Mr. Z. Nothing mentioned in discussion itself supports thesis that war is the ultimate evil or that it is exclusively evil. Since Solovyov’s characters observe war, to a significant extent, through the optics of religion, it is appropriate to pay attention here to the two teachings of Christ that are used worldwide to simplistically describe conflict as evil. Namely, in the Gospel of Matthew, when Judas betrays Jesus, one of Christ’s companions reaches for his sword and attacks the servant of the high priests. Jesus then tells him; “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” The second lesson has even greater worldly fame and is found in the Gospel of Luke, in the sixth chapter, where Christ teaches “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The significance of these lessons lies in the fact that in both cases Christ does not address only one person or several of them, but the whole of mankind. Every man is called to take action in accordance with these teachings, but they both serve not only as a call to nobler and more humane behavior but also as a warning. Since Christ, presumably, addresses all of humanity, lesson that those who unsheathe the sword die by the sword makes it clear that life of a person who voluntarily resorts to violence is completely subjected to be ended through violence, and that God, furthermore, sees nothing wrong with it, in the moral understanding of wrong. Second lesson can even change its formulation without changing the essence of its message, that is, expect others to do unto you what you have done unto others. Each of us is called to act in accordance with the above teachings, and each of us must be aware that there are consequences for behavior that deviates from these teachings.
In both cases, warning regarding use of violence is quite clear and, moreover, legitimizes the violence enacted in order to preserve oneself. From this, it undoubtedly follows that war, including all destruction and death, can be just, that is, morally good. From the perspective of Russia, and certainly the Russian Orthodox Church, such was undoubtedly the Great Patriotic War. The current conflict in Ukraine is perceived in the same manner, and therefore support that the military operation enjoys from the entire church strata is understandable. During the service for Russian soldiers, Patriarch Kirill pointed out “we absolutely do not strive for war or to do anything that could harm others. But we have been raised throughout our history to love our fatherland. And we will be ready to protect it, as only Russians can defend their country”. The conflict in Ukraine for the Russian state and church is a matter of defending their own existence, considering that the Russian Orthodox Church is a very active factor within Russian society, intertwined with that society and political structures, in accordance with the Byzantine formula of state-church symphony.
The Orthodox Church in Russia has, on previous occasions, acted in symbiosis with the Russian army and administration, for the benefit of overarching national interest, and the preservation of Russia’s nuclear arsenal immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union is a case in point of special importance. In his work “Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy”, Dmitry Adamsky describes in detail the efforts that ROC undertook to preserve and promote the Russian nuclear forces in a period when such an endeavor was highly unpopular. Today, three decades after the disappearance of the USSR, the wisdom of the Orthodox clergy regarding preservation of Russian Federation nuclear capacities is quite obvious. The culmination of mutual intertwining between Russian army and the ROC can be seen in construction and consecration of the Church of Resurrection of Christ, near Moscow, which is officially designated as the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces. Completed on the day of victory over fascism, the temple is filled with motifs from the warrior history of Russia and celebrates military feats that preserved the Russian nation and state.
The basic message of the temple, and thus of the Russian Orthodox Church itself, is obvious: Russian soldier’s profession does not make him a villain. On the contrary, he is called, by imitating ideal of his predecessors from centuries past, to become a hero and in accordance with his vocation, to stand in defense of the people, state and the church. Based on everything previously outlined above, Solovyov would completely agree with this invitation.
Let us now return to the discussion and the next important Solovyov’s idea. During the entire first conversation, Politician and the Prince take on the role of main opponents to the General’s notion of war. On several occasions, both of them point out that the attitude of the church and the people themselves, regarding the understanding of the war, has changed, which can be seen both in the official church publications and in opinion of the masses. Despite this change taking place, Politician assures the General that there is no need to protest, after all, there will always be a need for soldiers and they will always be expected to have the same military qualities which distinguished their predecessors.
After Politician makes his remark about unchanged expectations, the General colorfully explaines that his interlocutor is “asking milk from a dead cow” and asks “Who will provide you with the military qualities when the primal inspiration of these military qualities has been removed – the faith in the holiness of the work? … Once military service becomes obligatory for all and each, and at the same time this negative attitude towards military work becomes recognized throughout society, beginning with the representatives of the State, you for instance, then undoubtedly that negative attitude must be assimilated by the officers and the soldiers themselves … all those who against their will are obliged to bear arms for a while will bear them in the same spirit as penal convicts bear their chains”.
The direct connection between efficiency, presented through military qualities, and faith in the worth of one’s own vocation, presented through the General’s “primal inspiration”, is the second key idea of Vladimir Solovyov. Solovyov, through his General, essentially demands from the Politician, who represents the pro-European tendencies of a certain stratum within the Russian elite, respect for the soldier, his role and his contribution within society. Even this minimum requirement cannot be met if war is understood in terms of exclusive evil given that soldiers and officers themselves are intimately connected to war precisely through their service and actions. Solovyov’s message is quite clear – a soldier is not a criminal, nor is his skill vile, which leads to the simple conclusion that war itself cannot be understood as an exclusively evil affair.
This is confirmed in the conversation itself when Mr. Z takes a more active part. Prince ask Mr. Z if he really has any doubts that military service is anything but an “unconditional and extreme evil” from which humanity must be completely free. Mr. Z answers that he is “absolutely convinced to the opposite”, that “war is not unconditional evil, and that peace is not unconditional good, or, speaking more simply, it is possible to have a good war; it is also possible to have a bad peace”. For Mr. Z, the irreconcilable opposition between good and evil is obvious, but even then, it is quite clear that peace and war cannot be viewed in this way.
The question of efficiency, which arises from the correctness of one’s actions, also arises within the political and ideological justification for the Russian military operation in Ukraine. From the perspective of troops serving Lugansk and Donetsk republics, there is no reason to question the justification of combat operations given the events of the past eight years. For Donetsk and Lugansk, this is a question of survival within territories which both republics justifiably see as their own. The current struggle is the culmination of almost a decade of conflict and undoubtedly there is a clearly expressed, organically formed, sense of mutual support and commitment to the final victory between the military units of the people’s militias and the population of these republics.
On the other hand, the issue of morale for troops from the Russian Federation itself has long been the subject of psychological operations by Western media in conjunction with their intelligence agencies. Despite repeated statements by top Russian officials that only professional soldiers are involved in combat operations, and that all the narratives about “recruits sent by Moscow to death” are nothing but nonsense, the Western media insist, in a well-known manner, on spreading false information. Primary goal of such work is not the Western public, which only serves as an amplifier for the message, but Russian population within Russia itself, which should be encouraged to rebel against the current authorities and create a deep political crisis within the Russian Federation.
If popularity of the Russian president among his own people is any indicator, then the attempt to create divisions within Russian society has been thwarted so far. According to a poll by the Levada Center, an organization defined by Russian state as a foreign agent, support for all key institutions has increased since the start of the military operation in Ukraine. More than 80% of Russians support President Putin’s actions, 71% support Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s position, 70% of Russians trust the Russian government, while the most interesting observation is that almost 70% of respondents believe the country is moving in the right direction.
One of possible conclusions is that the Russian people and the citizens of Russia understand the importance of this conflict, of this historical moment, not only in terms of combat operations, but also in terms of reconfiguration in geopolitical, economic and ideological relations on a global level.
The same research showed an extremely high level of support, more than 80% of the respondents, by the Russian population for the military operation and soldiers of the Russian Federation. Manifestations of support for the army were held throughout Russia, Russian citizens in areas on the border with Ukraine donate food and water to soldiers, and despite complaints directed towards military leadership about manner certain aspects of the military operations were conducted, the Russian soldier himself is praised and supported by ordinary Russian citizens. This undoubtedly boosts moral and support of the average Russian citizen, when you take into account videos illustrating how Ukrainian troops treat Russian POWs, can only increase.
Given this text was originally written roughly five or six months ago, it is worthwhile to notice here that popular support for senior leadership and the SMO, especially soldiers on the front, remains high as before, even despite some issues which appeared during the last eight months in regard to military cadres in charge of the operation.
At the same time, the issue of Nazism in Ukraine and the spread of this disgusting ideology among the Ukrainian population is not exclusively a matter of philosophical debate but a matter of practical action on the ground. Only the empty heads of Western “journalists” can still claim that there is no Nazism within Ukraine or that it is a peripheral phenomenon that appears only in some military units. According to available data, Ukrainian state structures, especially the military and security, are riddled with elements that support Nazi ideology personified by Stepan Bandera. There is no real difference between Bandera and Nazism. It is in this circumstance that the holiness to which Solovyov’s General refers is appearing. From the perspective of many Slavic people, especially Russians, Nazism can be described only as evil and it is quite logical to understand the anxiety of a Russian person faced with flourishing of that same ideology in a space that was Russian not long ago and among people who until recently considered themselves, if not Russians, then very close to them.
This perception, taken together with the fact that Western countries have been openly expressing their Russophobia and arming Ukraine to the point of depletion of their own supplies for months now, has completely changed the attitude of Russians towards the main pillars of the West, the United States and the European Union. According to the earlier mentioned survey, 73% of the Russian population has a negative attitude towards America, while 67% of Russians holds the same attitude towards the European Union.
By all indications, it is clear that the Russian military enjoys the support of its people, despite the activities of a number of Russian liberals, pro-Western commentators and the fifth-column elements within Russian society. If we accept that the morale of a soldier depends on the justification of his actions, which seems logical, then it is quite clear that the Russian soldier can see the justification of his actions not only in terms of state and national interest, but also in support of the Russian population, and a part of population within Ukraine as well. Mariupol is perhaps the best example of this.
Now we come to the third and final idea in the first conversation. In the discussion, focus shifts to morality of murder and the issue of violence moves from a kind of abstraction of war into the field of concrete, that is, the crime of murder, where the Prince advocates the view that every murder is bad, which Mr. Z opposes by presenting a case where a father, to protect his daughter from rape, kills her assailant. As in the case of war, the problem addressed here lies in the question of the ultimate moral definition of murder. In his conversation with the Prince, Mr. Z takes his earlier position, expressed on the issue of war, and treats murder not as an exclusive evil but as a phenomenon that moves between two extremes of the moral spectrum.
Moreover, in the further course of the conversation, Mr. Z, quite logically, establishes a natural connection between the two phenomena, murder and war, and together subordinates them to the question of good, which, according to him, is undoubtedly extremely closely connected with God. Disputing the Prince’s view that every murder is the ultimate evil, Mr. Z points out that, following the logic of a given argument, we come to a situation where God is indifferent to good and evil. “Because if it’s all the same for the Godhead whether a savage under the influence of brutal passion destroys a weak and delicate being, then long since the Godhead must have found nothing objectionable in the man who, under the influence of compassion, destroys the savage” explains Mr.Z.
All participants in the conversation agree that the problem is not in the lack of reason and conscience, which are common to all people, but in the fact that there are people who voluntarily decide to ignore imperatives of reason and conscience. Here, a triad of importance for the whole conversation is established, that is, the existence of a attacker, the victim and the observer. He who finds himself in the role of an observer cannot remain indifferent to the act of violence. Moreover, the view that every man is endowed with reason and conscience, by nature of things, imposes action in favor of the victim as the right option. Mr. Z makes it known to those gathered that it is God’s will to save the victim, and to spare the oppressor, if possible. To provide assistance that can be provided is an obligation – a reprimand, if that is enough, if not, physical force, and only in the last resort, use of the ultimate sanction against the attacker.
Here we encounter the already mentioned final idea that Solovyov draws through a conversation dedicated to war, and that is the call to act on behalf of the victim. As Mr. Z himself points out, he is called, by God’s mandate even, to act against the assailant. War and murder, although not the only tools that can be used in a given situation, certainly belong to the set of resources available to those who step in to protect the victim.
Adding to Mr. Z’s remarks, the General points out that he has experienced complete moral satisfaction only once in his life, and that one moment resulted from an act of murder of more than a thousand people in less than fifteen minutes. Namely, during the Russo-Turkish war, the General commanded an artillery unit accompanied by cavalry. While maneuvering through Caucasus mountains, his group enters an Armenian village from which inhabitants fled before the Turks. Not far from the village, the Russians come upon the Armenians themselves, tortured and killed by Ottoman irregular troops, the bashi-bazouk. All the victims were civilians, which meant a high number of women and children. Catching up with the Turkish units, the General decimates them with three cannon volleys and leaves the rest at mercy of his cavalry, which was not in mood for mercy.
Since there were also casualties among Russian soldiers, the funeral of the dead is being organized by one of the old believers. Despite the differences between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Old Believers, the General points out that at that time there was no need for permission from a higher church authority, the permission was contained in Christ’s message about “those who lay down their lives for their friends”.
The conversation ends with Mr. Z’s remark about the nature of Christ himself. Namely, the Prince, opposing the idea of war as a lesser good, expresses his opinion that a person filled with the real spirit of the Gospel is able to find in every situation a way to reach good hidden in every human being, even the worst criminals. Mr. Z seizes the opportunity and, answering the Prince, asks why didn’t Christ himself, after “forgiving His enemies, deliver their souls from that dreadful darkness in which they then were? … Either He could not or He would not”, further stating that “in both instances it turns out, according to you, that He was not sufficiently penetrated with the true spirit of the Gospel, and as we are speaking, if I do not mistake, of the Gospel of Christ and not of any other gospel, it appears that Christ was not sufficiently penetrated with the true spirit of Christ”.
The point of Mr. Z is quite clear here. If almighty God, though certainly capable, did not act in accordance with the Prince’s assumptions, then how can this be expected from fallen human nature. As Mr. Z pointed out, since he is talking about God, there are two options, either the Almighty could not act on the nature of his enemies, as they were, or he decided not to act. All-knowing by definition, God makes a decision voluntarily, certainly aware of all the consequences of such a decision, approving them at the same time. The consequence of this decision is murder, also war, but at the same time free will. The ability to choose one’s path, regardless of whether it leads to good or evil – ability available to each element of the previously mentioned triad, the perpetrator, the victim and the observer.
It is not difficult to notice that each of the highlighted ideas actually appears in various statements of Russian officials, starting with the president himself, and Russian goals of the current operation.
In his recent address from the Vostochny cosmodrome, Putin pointed out that despite the fact of the common national being of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians, Russia had no choice but to launch a military operation in Ukraine. What forced Moscow to use military force against the regime in Kiev? The same urge that leads Mr. Z in Solovyov’s work, that is, urge to help the victim, even at the cost of war and murder. During his speech on February 23, the President of Russia pointed out that “one cannot look at what is happening there (Donbas) without compassion. It was simply impossible to endure all this. It was necessary to stop this nightmare immediately – the genocide against millions of people living there, who rely only on Russia, hope only in us. It was these aspirations, feelings, pain of people that were for us the main motive for deciding to recognize the people’s republics of Donbas”. An integral part of this decision is the complete liberation of the territories of both republics in their original borders, in which Moscow recognized them. Moreover, during this speech, the Russian president himself, in front of more than 200.000 people, referred to the Holy Scriptures, and indirectly to Solovyov himself, when he emphasized the Christ’s teaching that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.
Quite justifiably, one could point out that Putin’s words are pure rhetoric, used to justify Moscow’s actions, but the facts on the ground support what was said. The two Donbas republics have been under attack by Ukrainian forces for eight years. According to various sources, between ten and fourteen thousand people have died during those eight years, mostly civilians. The events in Kramatorsk showed the readiness of Ukrainian troops to sacrifice their own citizens for political goals. According to Russian sources, Kiev was preparing a large-scale attack on Donbas itself this year, aimed at complete destruction of the two republics. The presence of biological laboratories has been confirmed even by the officials in the United States, and documentation seized by Russian units further indicates a project of pathogen creation, possibly for biological attack on the Russian Federation.
Argumentation based on providing assistance to those in danger gives sense to Putin’s remark about the historical and national unit of Russians and Ukrainians, which would otherwise be paradoxical given that it emphasizes close brotherly ties between Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. However, in moments where it is necessary to defend the weak from violence, even fraternal bonds can be ignored. Something similar is explained by Solovyov’s General in his answer to the Prince, who insists on the existence of goodness in every man and universal brotherhood among people. Responding to the Prince, the old General remarks “All people are brothers. Splendid! Very glad! Yes, but what further? Brothers are of different sorts. And why not be interested to know which of my brothers is Cain and which Abel? And if before my eyes my brother Cain fall upon my brother Abel, and I then through lack of equanimity giver brother Cain such a box on the ear that he’s not likely to do it again – you suddenly reproach me that I have forgotten to be brotherly”.
Attitude of the Russian leadership corresponds to the General’s idea of fraternal obligations. Ukrainians and Russians form one national being, but the same is the case with Russians and residents of the Donbas republics. From the perspective of Moscow and Donbas, Kiev treated the republics in the east like Cain treated Abel, which, in the end, led to Russia’s reaction.
Vladimir Solovyov’s “Three Conversations” was originally published in the year of the writer’s death, 1900. Given the importance of Solovyov in the development of Russian philosophy, it is interesting to note parallels between his ideas and the political-ideological arguments of current Russian political elite, despite a 120-year gap. The fact that there are parallels at all only speaks in favor of thesis from a large number of analysts and thinkers, both from the East and the West, that the current conflict in Ukraine is a transformative moment for Russia in many respects. Possibly most important, in sense of its long-term influence, is the ideological one, considering that its main assumption is a significant deviation from Western ideas about the organization of society and human life. Here, the modern Russian is greeted, together with Dostoevsky and plethora of other Russian thinkers, by Soloviev and his philosophy, much broader than just contemplations on war and its righteousness.
Note This text was striped of the 19 footnotes that the original article had.
- On Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Vladimir Solovyov (philosopher).
- At The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Vladimir Solovyov (1853—1900).
Arise, vast country,
Arise for a fight to the death
Against the dark fascist forces,
Against the cursed hordes.
Let noble wrath
Boil over like a wave!
This is the peoples' war,
a sacred war!
We shall repulse the oppressors
Of all ardent ideas.
The rapists and the plunderers,
The torturers of people.
The black wings shall not dare
Fly over the Motherland,
On her spacious fields
The enemy shall not dare tread!
We shall drive a bullet into the forehead
Of the rotten fascist filth,
For the scum of humanity
We shall build a solid coffin!