Beware of “Democracy in Danger”

The rhetoric of imminent threats to the political system has been used and abused throughout history to stifle dissent, polarize politics, ostracize opposition, and much, much worse.


Political persuasion has been an art for millennia, going back to the very earliest non-absolutist systems such as ancient Greece and republican Rome. In those days, the targets of persuasion were primarily a socially-homogenous elite oligarchy which controlled politics without real input from the majority of the people. As time went on and these systems evolved (with fits and starts) into their more modern and recognizable forms, bringing more people into the political process, the targets of persuasion broadened. This expansion of the electorate, especially after the democratic revolutions and reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries, helped lead to the simplified messaging, inflammatory rhetoric, and hyperbolized language we are so familiar with today. Perhaps the easiest message by which to persuade voters to your side is the invocation of peril, especially to the political system or “way of life.” Much of the power of this message emanates from the association of the State with the People more broadly; instead of Louis XIV’s formulation “L’état, c’est moi,” we have a more pluralistic – although no more accurate – vision, “Létat, c’est nous.” This binding of People with State makes it possible to expand a narrow political danger to encompass all of society, feeding an attitude of existential menace. This stoking of a feeling of danger to the very foundations of the nation (and thus the People) is a powerful motivator by which to get your way politically; as such, it has been used by governments repeatedly over the past two centuries to achieve their goals – often for the worse.

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The Road Not Taken: Medieval Novgorod as an Alternate Path in Russian History

Introduction

Counterfactuals and hypotheticals can be useful frames through which to examine history, as they can help scholars understand that the future is never set in stone and that contingent factors leading to diverging paths can result in wildly different potential outcomes for societies. Pre-Imperial Russian history is replete with these sorts of ‘what-if’ questions, ranging from thoughts about possible development were the Mongols to have avoided Russia to changes that may have resulted from a full Polish takeover of Muscovy during the Time of Troubles. One such question that sparks the imagination is: What would Russian history look like if the medieval statelet which anchored the nascent Russian nation was Novgorod instead of Muscovy? Would Russia have made a decisive turn towards Europe, centuries before the actions of Peter the Great? Unfortunately, historians can never know the answers to these questions; yet by studying the unique cultural aspects of medieval Novgorod, its parallel, but opposing development with respect to Muscovy, and the institutions and policies that made it different, we can envision the road not taken.

Medieval Novgorod, often styled as ‘Great Novgorod’ (Velikii Novgorod) or ‘Lord Novgorod the Great’ (gospodin Velikii Novgorod) after the mid-fourteenth century[1], was a semi-autonomous city-state located in the northwest of the lands comprising the polity of Kievan Rus’. It was distinct in nearly all attributes of state and society – economics, culture, religion, foreign relations, and internal politics – from other Russian polities of the time, particularly Muscovy. Novgorod was an essentially independent entity within greater Russia from the time of its expulsion of Prince Vsevolod Mstislavich in 1136 through its capture by Grand Prince Ivan III in 1478[2], but its history and alternative path began at least two centuries earlier. The city-state’s unusual character was reflected in its status as the only nominally republican polity in the Russian lands, as well as its ability to abstract itself from many of the typical concerns and politics that roiled its neighbors. It was able to keep its singular way of life, system of government, and ancient privileges of self-rule intact through five centuries of unmitigated chaos which completely upended the rest of Russian society. Novgorod’s history can be handily divided into four segments: the period of early settlement and development (900s to 1136), the phase of initial autonomy under Kiev (1136 to 1240), the era of local rule under the Mongols (1240 to 1387), and the final age of independence before the Muscovite takeover (1387 to 1478).[3] During this era of autonomy and self-rule, the city-state controlled more than the city of Novgorod proper and its immediate environs; it held and administered a territorial and colonial empire that, at its zenith, “stretched from the Baltic to the Urals and covered an area approximately the size of present day France, Belgium and the Netherlands combined.”[4]

Many attributes of Novgorod were remarkable when it came to the rest of Russia in the medieval period, but four key factors are the most relevant to the city-state’s development as an alternative to Muscovy: internal politics, foreign affairs, economics and commerce, and religion and culture. All of these realms of Novgorodian civilization were distinct from those of Muscovy in the medieval era and presage some of Imperial Russia’s future alignments and ideologies. From strong relations with the West, especially Germany, to the focus on commercial expansion and resource exploitation, Novgorod was reminiscent of Peter the Great’s Russia, as well as contemporary European maritime city-states. Novgorod was an outpost of high culture and religious piety in an age when neither were in large supply elsewhere in Russia; the pragmatic policies of the city-state allowed it to weather the storms of internecine Russian warfare, Mongol invasion and hegemony, and rising Muscovite autocracy – at least until 1478. It was in that fateful year that Novgorod’s nominal autonomy, independent status, and inimitable civic ethos fell to the armies of Moscow; still, Novgorodian cultural currents remained bubbling under the surface as a wellspring of the famed Russian ideology of dissent for centuries afterwards.[5] Before delving into the specific traits of Novgorodian life that made it special, it is critical to contextualize how and why Novgorod was able to develop this exceptionality.

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The End of History or a Familiar Refrain?

The River of Time

From the very beginning of recorded history through the modern day, humans have experienced radical fluctuations in our political systems, our personal ideologies, our liberties, and the way we live our lives. We have embraced the idea of change as a species, and writers and thinkers throughout the course of history have reflected this obsession. Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the earliest ancient philosophers, saw the reality of change as universal in nature and among mankind; his idea that the only constant in life is change has echoed through the millennia that have elapsed since he lived.[1] One of the trademark opaque phrases of Heraclitus that illuminates this idea states that “All things come into being through opposition and all are in flux like a river”[2]; this image of the river is useful in understanding change and our human perception of it. For as much as we can see the change that is occurring through the flow of the river, we also perceive the river as unchanging so long as it remains flowing and within its banks. This perception of change reflects a deeper reality in human affairs, as we often recycle or rediscover older ideas or paradigms and see them as novel inventions of our own time. Our language and idioms have reflected this for quite some time; the phrase ‘everything old is new again’ is common in English-speaking societies, but the feeling it expresses is universal. The French use – in their stereotypically pessimistic and existential manner – the idiom ‘plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose’, which translates roughly as ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.[3] This phrase captures a key sentiment in humanity which has been repeated through history – that of the fact that constant change generally does not truly reverse the basic order of things or change human nature. This is true for historical change in ideologies and political systems as much as it is for anything else; the only constant, which remains the same throughout time, is that things are always in a state of flux and humans tend to repeat older ideas or cycles in newly updated ways. If this is true, we should expect human societies to always be in a state of change and conflict; yet some theorists throughout history have taken an opposite approach, claiming that history itself has an endpoint or goal. Historians and thinkers who fall into this teleological camp – from Augustine and Bossuet to Hegel and Marx – vary wildly in their ideas about history, but all agree that history is progressing towards a specific end. Still, few of these thinkers saw their own time as representing the ‘end of history’, only predicting that it would come at some point in the future. For most of the human past, the idea that history had ‘ended’ would have seemed ridiculous, especially given the inexorable reality of change and the often-drastic upheavals that surrounded it. But apparently unique historical circumstances only a few decades ago led many to embrace this old philosophy anew and claim that their era was indeed the realization of the ‘end of history’.

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