Since I have recently discussed how eerily events in ISIS recall events in the First Crusade about which I happen to be reading for a scholarly project, I could not help but be taken aback by seeing this theater of uncanny resemblance shift suddenly north and east. In this chilling BBC article by Tim Whewell, some Russian volunteers describe their rationale for fighting in the civil war in eastern Ukraine as a need to take part in a “holy war” aimed at recreating Russian “Empire.” It is hard to imagine a less comforting sentiment if one hopes that the violence in Eastern Ukraine might abide anytime soon: the logic of holy war and the idea of stopping the violence “only when the job’s done,” as the Pavel Rasta interviewed by Whewell says. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30518054 Getting a “job…done,” if one is, as I am, currently reading and thinking about the First Crusade, a very alarming phrase. Pavel here explicitly links himself to the logic of those engaged in the First Crusade, describing Donetsk as “Jerusalem” and the civil warriors there as engaged in “holy war.”
If the “job” of the Frist Crusaders was to take Jerusalem, to incorporate it into the control of a larger (Western) Christendom, then its conclusion was horrifying, in a mass atrocity on a truly historical scale—the Crusaders’ sacking of Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, in which warriors bent upon holy war slaughtered indiscriminately virtually all of the population of Jerusalem, not discriminating between warrior or civilian, between man or woman, adult or child. (On the sacking of Jerusalem, see Thomas Asbridge’s The First Crusade, where he dubs it “one of the most extraordinary and horrifying events of the medieval age” (316). It is also important to note that the religiously zealous Crusaders did not simply erupt in violence in sacking Jerusalem: as is well known, they killed a sickeningly large number of Jewish non-combatants in what were the first pogroms, while making their way to the Middle East [see Susan Jacoby’s New York Times discussion of this], and also killed numerous Muslims and Eastern Christians while making their way, sometimes engaging in sieges and often having to forage when supplies ran out, to Jerusalem).
Pavel is, of course, just a Russian volunteer, and so it would be wrong to link his explicit statements with the motives of, say, the Russian government. But Whewell’s framing of the interview as offering a rare insight into Russian (that is, rather than Ukrainian) volunteers in the Eastern Ukrainian insurgency is vital: we can see here the motivations of many of those non-military individuals who have been moving into what has become a regional war-zone. Much of what drove the First Crusade was the religious zeal of those who were not from the military classes: what was originally a request from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius for a contingent of military men to assist in fending off encroaching Seljuk Turks ballooned, after Pope Urban II’s infamous November 27 sermon at Clermont, into a massive movement of individuals—in the scores of thousands—into the Middle East, all bent on just the sort of “holy war” Whewell reads into ordinary Russians’ self-sacrificial decision to enter into Eastern Ukraine in a desire to join a fight that here looks like nothing less than a religiously zealous Russian nationalism.
As Whewell argues, from the perspective of Russian volunteers, the fight in Eastern Ukraine is part of a kind of defensive aggression enacted by a Russia surrounded by hostile Western forces. Russian imperial ambitions are most clearly part of their operations in Ukraine, which comes, of course, after the notoriously well-orchestrated and executed annexation of the (formerly?) Ukrainian territory Crimea. As I have discussed before, such Russian imperialism and nationalism has been a key to the conflicts in Ukraine.
Russia is hardly unique in holding such ambitions (indeed, America, the United Kingdom, France, and many other Western countries were not just historically, but remain, in my view, imperial nations)—nor is Russia unique in fomenting notions of “holy war” (just witness right-wing rhetoric in the United States since 9/11; American Pavels would not be hard to find). Western biases also need to be counteracted to clearly analyze the situation in the Ukrainian civil war. I think, for example, that the Western media has usually presented a quite biased version of the initial events leading to the explicit unrest in Ukraine (the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych was consistently presented in the West as a righteous and democratic revolution, when it could just as easily have been presented as a violent and anti-democratic coup: revolutions, after all, are usually in the eyes of the beholders). In my view, the religious and nationalist zeal of Pavel is not chilling because it is uniquely Russian, but is in fact troubling because it recalls the rhetoric of so much Western rhetoric—not just in the premodern First Crusade, but in the tendency, for example, of many modern commentators to speak of a global war against Islam, or to use the rhetoric of defense against invasion to discuss immigration. Americans don’t like to hear such criticism, even when it refers to such distant events as the Crusades: witness the fierce reaction to President Obama’s quite reasonable reminder to Western audiences that such violent episodes as the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the African slave-trade show that the West is not insulated from a violence and barbarism often projected only onto the Islamic other (see, for example, Juliet Eilperin’s initial Washington Post reporting on the incident).
From some perspectives, there is so much continuity between Russia and Ukraine, as I have argued before, that it takes some effort to create a sharp and violent distinction. From Whewell’s article, it seems, alas, that what serves so often throughout history as a force of violent division, religious zeal, is energizing the territorialist fight in Ukraine—and religion and nationalism are rarely anything but a volatile mix. I hope that cooler heads prevail there, soon—for I quake to think what can happen as people like Pavel work to get their “job…done.”