Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
So World War III may start with Russian encroachment into the Baltics. That reminds me of the Battle on the Ice of 1242 A.D. This, too, had been a battle between Russia and the West. It, too, had taken place in the Baltics. And it holds lessons on how Russia sees itself, or even how Putin sees himself, even today.
The “ice” was the frozen surface of Lake Peipus, the body of water straddling the modern border between Estonia and Russia. As a part of the so-called “northern Crusade,” an army led by the Teutonic Knights attacked the Russian state of Novgorod. Whereas the more familiar Crusade had as its aim the conquest of the Holy Land, the northern Crusade was directed against the Eastern Orthodox Slavs and their pagan neighbors. Christianity having split into two halves, the Western Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, in the Great Schism of 1054, Catholic Europe now would have the Easterners convert to their version of the religion.
So it was that on April 5, 1242, the Russians, under the command of their 21-year-old Prince Alexander Nevsky, met the Teutonic Knights on the ice. When all the hacking with swords was done, the Russians had won a resounding victory. Thus ended Catholic Europe’s attempts to convert the Russians. For his troubles, Alexander is remembered as a national hero of Russia and was made an Orthodox saint. Seemingly every Russian church abroad is named after him — I have personally visited the Alexander Nevsky churches in Copenhagen, Sofia, and Jerusalem. The famed Soviet film-maker Sergei Eisenstein commemorated Nevsky’s triumph on celluloids in 1938, with the Teutonic Knights a barely veiled allusion to Nazi Germany. The great composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote the film score.
But behind Novgorod’s victory, there was a fascinating political choice on Alexander’s part. Batu Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson and ruler of the Golden Horde, had conquered Moscow in 1238 and Kiev in 1240. And here was Alexander, the great warrior saint and prince of the Russians, NOT fighting the Mongols. In fact Alexander had made peace with the Golden Horde and acknowledged Batu’s suzerainty. Alexander knew that he could not fight the Mongols on the east and the Teutonic Knights on the west at the same time, and he decided that it was better to bow to the Mongols than to the Germans.
This decision may seem counter-intuitive. Russians are, after all, of European stock, and they shared in European civilization to a large degree. Moscow even claims to be "the third Rome," after Rome and Constantinople. And even if the Eastern and Western churches had divorced, at least they both worshipped Christ, whereas the Mongols were pagans and Buddhists and Muslims and whatnots.
But from Alexander’s perspective, it was precisely because the Germans espoused a (to the Russians) heretical form of Christianity that made them unacceptable as overlords. The Mongols demanded only tribute and cared not at all what god or gods their subjects worshipped. The Catholics, on the other hand, would abolish the Orthodox religion.
Fast forward nearly eight centuries to today. Perhaps the West no longer proselytizes Catholicism, but has it not for many years preached the gospel of liberal democracy, not least to the Slavic countries on Europe’s eastern borders? Perhaps Orthodoxy is only one aspect of Russian identity, but does Russia not fiercely guard its identity as distinct from the West? Does not that identity involve a long tradition of autocracy from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great to Stalin? And has not the West looked perplexedly upon this Russian variation on European civilization as a kind of deviation — a heresy, even? Are not our modern Western ideas of democracy, liberalism, and human rights a kind of secular religion of our day?
Perhaps the Mongol Empire is no more, but does not Russia find common cause with Eastern authoritarians from President Xi Jinping of China to the strongmen of Central Asian republics? A foundational principle of Chinese foreign policy is, after all, nonchalance toward how other countries treat their own people, just as Batu cared not how his subjects worshipped.
So if, as many are now suggesting, Russia hacked the U.S. election whether literally or figuratively and effected regime change in Washington, then would that not be, from Putin’s point of view, his personal Battle on the Ice? Would he not be a hero as Nevsky was a hero to his countrymen?
And if Putin is taking a page from the East, let’s remember Sun Tzu’s famous dictum from chapter three of The Art of War: “To defeat one’s enemy without fighting is the best of all possible outcomes” (“不戰而屈人之兵，善之善者也”).
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."