Russia, Ukraine, and Us

By David Galston 3.3.2022

On Monday February 22, two days before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Kenyan Ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, addressed the Security Council. He reminded the Council of his country’s history with empire. The borders of his country, like the borders of other African countries, were not drawn by the people of Kenya today. Their borders were drawn up at the Berlin Conference in 1885 where no African representatives were present. Decisions about their fate were made in the far away metropoles of London, Paris, and Lisbon.

Despite this background of colonial violence, Ambassador Kimani stated that “at independence” had these new artificially created African nations “chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial, or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars.” He then added, “We chose to follow the rules of the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations Charter not because our borders satisfied us but because we wanted something greater forged in peace.”

Ambassador Kimani made the clear and powerful point that while we cannot change imperial history, we do not have to continue forward on the basis of imperial values. Instead, there can be a post-imperial future.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is all about “’empire,” particularly, it seems, the ninth- to thirteenth-century Kievan Rus empire that encompassed Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Both modern day Russia and Ukraine root their history in the Kievan Rus empire once ruled by another Vladimir called the Great (980–1015). It was this Vladimir who led Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus into the Eastern confession of Christianity.

Putin knows his history, and it is not a coincidence that he fills his rhetoric with notions of Ukraine not being a real country but belonging spiritually to Russia. Indeed, he goes as far as denying that Ukraine ever existed.

Russia with Putin compares to Rome with its emperors, but the difference is that Rome never denied the existence of the nations it controlled. As an empire, though, and like any empire, Rome propagated some of the same rhetoric: the nations were not civilized, they were conquered to be liberated, they needed peace to prosper, and they should thank Rome for newfound blessings.

Ambassador Kimani called Russia out on its imperial mindset and its inability to consider that real liberation for humanity lies in a post-imperial world. The history of nations living under other nations’ self-mythology has to end.

Ambassador Kimani has been both praised and criticized, but the spirit of his words is significant. What does a post-imperial world look like both in the relationship of nations and the mindset of individuals? This question invokes the world of ideas that inspire but, unfortunately, do not yet describe reality. Three exemplars of a post-imperial world come from philosophy and religion, the two homes of human vision. The exemplars are inter-subjectivity, intrinsicality, and dialectic. These are all philosophical words that have expressions in religion.

Inter-subjectivity means that no one can be a “subject,” an individual, without a relationship to someone else. The condition of being human is inter-subjective. In other words, we are all in this together. To abuse inter-subjectivity is to place yourself in control of another subject (another person). This abuse backfires because it is a breaking apart of relationship. It means suffering for others and a loss of humanity for the self. A post-imperial world will be an inter-subjective world where becoming human happens with others, not against others. The parable of the Good Samaritan is an example from religion of this lesson. It is a lesson empires never learn.

Intrinsicality is a word from process philosophy. It means that all forms of life and all matter in the universe have value. Things are valuable because of their inside or intrinsic worth. When you think about this lesson, it relates to inter-subjectivity: nothing can become what it is without the other. The other is of great value because it is other. The other holds dignity. Sharing dignity with the other is the act of becoming who you are. Nature has dignity as much as people do, and so do inanimate objects. The parable of the women putting leaven in bread is an example of intrinsicality because she values what is normally considered unclean. Empires have a habit of ignoring intrinsicality, and they create sorrow accordingly.

Dialectic is a difficult but common word in philosophy. It refers to struggle. It is often coupled with the word “negative.” A famous book in philosophy is Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. In simple terms, it means that no one can stand out from a background without being distinct from the background.

The act of being distinct is to be negatively related to the background: I am not that. To be swallowed up in the background is to be lost, and this lostness is called “bad faith” or, sometimes, “the unhappy consciousness.” Being unhappy in philosophy means that there is no dialectical relationship to your background. No questions about how you think. No bother with your family history. No doubts about your culture. No concern about your political views, and so forth. To be unhappy is to be undialectical, which is the elaborate way philosophy defines being a fundamentalist. To struggle is to be dialectical, and this is the honesty of being human.

An example from religion of dialectical honesty is the poor woman who pesters the powerful judge. The judge can’t ignore her and finally gives in to her; she is the dialectical negative who stands out from the background to awaken an otherwise corrupt figure. Empires rely on undialectical thinking. Empires do not like to be questioned. It takes the courageous and the powerless to wake up empires.

The political leaders of Russia think that re-establishing their imperial status is good news. That has never been true for any empire. It is really bad news for the world and ultimately for the empire itself. It leads us away from a post-imperial world and from some of the greatest lessons in life found in philosophy and religion.