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Then we have a strange, sometimes morbid, obsession with Vladimir Putin in Russia.
I am fascinated by individuals in history who manage to reach an apex of power where they directly affect the domestic and foreign policy of entire nations. It’s not so much the politics that fascinate me, though. More interesting is the effect of that power of the individual, the interior conflicts and reality of someone who can dispose of the fates of thousands with a wave of his hand. Where does concern for one’s country begin and self-interest end? How can the personal strengths and shortcomings of such individuals help or hinder their work? Can their mistakes destroy nations?
As I started to research books 4 and 5 of my epic fantasy series, I read a fascinating character study of a man some people believed to be the real power behind the throne of Alexander III and Nicholas II. A man whose political and personal demise coincided with the demise of one of the greatest empires this world has ever seen. The rest of this post is my translation of an article from the Russian magazine Foma (here is the original Russian).
THE “GREY CARDINAL”
Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev is a significant figure in Russian history and culture. Even so, he remains a bit of a mystery, both to his contemporaries and to us. Many myths have been created around his incredible energy and activity. Some consider that he was the power behind the throne of Alexander III and Nicholas II. Others consider him to be the head of a conservative reactionary movement that championed censorship. Some say outright that he dreamed to plunge the country back into the Middle Ages. The liberal intelligentsia hated him, but plenty of conservatives couldn’t stand him either.
Pobedonostsev was born in 1827 in Moscow. His grandfather was a priest, and his father was a professor of literature at Moscow University. In 1846, he finished his study of law at the Imperial College of Law. He prepared for a political career and soon became a senator and a member of the National Council. From 1880, he became the Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod and a member of the Committee of Ministers, one of the highest political positions in the land.
Other than being the political administrator of the Church, he influenced national politics and education policy, as well as international affairs. From 1884, he energetically promoted a national program of parochial schooling for children of all social classes. By the end of the 20th century, nearly half of all children in Russia were taught at such schools. He was also personal friends with Dostoyevsky.
“WITH WINGS LIKE AN OWL”
Most Russian people know Pobedonostsev best from a poem by Alexander Blok.
In those distant, deaf years
Dream and dark ruled over hearts
With owl-like wings, Pobedonostsev
Flew over the skies of Russia.
And there was neither day, nor night,
Only the shadow of those wings.
He drew a magic circle around Russia,
Staring her in the eyes
With a glassy wizard’s stare.
And to that music of the magic story,
The beauty fell asleep with ease,
Enveloped in his magic mist,
And all her thoughts and hopes and passions slept…”
Blok understood that Pobedonostsev was something extraordinary. He never met him, but he knew people who had regular meetings with him or even were his friends. We see from the poem that Blok himself doesn’t quite know what to make of him.
Pobedonostsev was remarkably unattractive, reminiscent of Koschei the Deathless, a popular figure from fairy tales. But when he started to speak, all such comparisons faded away. He was a fabulous orator, managing to almost hypnotize people by his speech, even if they were his enemies. So this image of the wizard, sometimes frightening, but always intelligent and hypnotic, is not accidental in Blok’s poem.
CONSERVATIVE VS LIBERAL
Everything Pobedonostsev did, as indeed everything in Russia at that time, must be measured by the monumental events of the 1860’s, in particular, the abolishment of serfdom. Culturally and politically speaking, everything in Russia was a response to that event. For example, there was the liberal answer to those early reforms. Liberals clamored for Russia to follow the path of European industrial development. Then there was the revolutionary response that considered all the reforms insufficient. Finally, there was the conservative response.
One of the conservatives was Konstantin Pobedonostsev. He and many others of his ilk considered the liberal and the revolutionary responses as two sides of the same coin. In fact, Pobedonostsev considered the liberals even more dangerous than the revolutionaries, because they paved the path to revolution.
The conservative response was to come up with a complete and very attractive political and cultural program. In part, it was centered on a conception of the so-called “common folk” of Russia and an attempt to save the traditional values that they believed were being preserved in the sphere of the “folk.”
However, the “folk” is always a kind of huge, mute animal that no one really understands. What is he thinking, what is she feeling? Everyone had their own ideas, and no one really bothered to ask the folk themselves. The revolutionaries believed the folk to be the natural soil in which the revolution would be cultivated. But the conservatives saw something completely different in the “common man.”
Pobedonostsev was effectively cutting the ground from under the revolutionaries’ feet when declared that he spoke for the people, not for the narrow-minded elite that was more interested in foreign reforms than the true good of the Russian people. He said that the “common people” were nothing like the revolutionaries imagined. The Russian folk are patriarchal, he said, devoted to the Tsar, monarchist to the core, profoundly religious, seeing no possible life outside the Church.
Pobedonostsev’s grand and unprecedented political and cultural program to develop parochial schools came out of such views concerning the nature of the Russian people. As strange as it may sound, it was actually a very democratic project. He tried to give the people the opportunity to take the initiative themselves to create something that both he and they would be proud of.
This was a course of study centered on the study of religious texts first and foremost, of church chant and the Slavonic language. In this case, the school was intimately connected with the church, and education went hand in hand with active participation in the daily life of the local church. As Pobedonostsev said, “This is what the people want. I am merely expressing their will.”
PEOPLE, NOT INSTITUTIONS
Some people even go so far as to call Pobodonostsev the “ideologue of the reactionary policies of Alexander III,” when all the reforms of the 1860s were slowly scaled back. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The conservatism of Alexander III’s time had many different aspects. It was not a single, unified political ideology. Pobedonostsev represented only one of these aspects. And he was very skeptical of the reactionary policies designed to scale back the reforms of the 1860s.
This is because he was afraid of any and all kinds of change in the administration and political institutions of Russia. He believed that the 1860s had done enough damage in terms of total societal change. It was better to stay the course than to encourage any more changes, even conservative ones. It’s like zugzwang, a stalemate in chess where every move worsens your general situation.
At the same time, he was a proponent of tight control over anything that had to do with information, culture, and education. And his actions were often severe and uncompromising. Hence his popular image as a “dark wizard” or “grey cardinal.”
Still, he didn’t control the entire apparatus of government, even if he did have influence over the bureaus of censorship, culture, and education. Officially, as Ober-Procurator of the Synod, he had limited authority over the politics of censorship, but in fact, he was a kind of tsar in the censorship office, ruling it as he saw fit.
But rather than using this position arbitrarily, Pobedonostsev personally read nearly every single item that was published in official Russian channels. He was an incredibly hard-working man. At that time, if you applied yourself, you could read most of what was published in Russia in any given year. In our own time of the internet, this seems incredible.
As for Pobedonostsev’s answer to the eternal question “What is to be done?” he believed that the answer was to be found by influencing people directly. One of the aspects of his program can be defined thus: “People, not institutions.” He believed that everything would get better only if the government took an active interest in forming the inner world of people through social consciousness, schools, and the culture at large.
That’s why he was so active in censorship, not because he was interested in suppressing information, but because he was interested in cultivating minds and hearts. Another aspect of this “cultural formation” was his control over the fine arts. His influence could remove famous paintings from official galleries. For example, he had Ilya Repin’s famous “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan” removed.
At the same time, he supported many artists personally. He also encouraged many famous composers, especially when they turned to composing church music, including Tchaikovsky himself, for whom he managed to get a personal grant from Alexander III himself.
THE CHURCH AND THE GOVERNMENT
As strange as this may seem, Pobedonostsev was one of the first Ober-Procurators (government ministers in charge of the administration of the Russian Church) to actually be a pious Christian. Most of his predecessors failed to even appreciate the significance of the Church for the State. Pobedonostsev, on the contrary, saw the Church as giving a moral foundation to the nation that was indispensable, if the government were to accomplish anything at all.
His view of the government was interesting. He considered government to be part of a larger social organism, and that a large part of government’s responsibilities was to take care of the spiritual life of society. He considered that all financial growth, institutional improvement, or political projects were pointless if the spiritual foundation of the society at large has been undermined. And the spiritual foundation of Russia, he believed, was the worldview of the common people, which was founded on the Orthodox faith and Church.
The government, then, should be first of all involved in fulfilling the spiritual requirement of society, even before political ones. Thus, ideological or political goals were subservient to spiritual ones. For example, in the 1860s, part of the reforms called for the closing of a certain number of parishes and priestly positions (which were government positions at the time) in the interest of fiscal economy. Pobedonostsev considered such an idea to be detrimental not so much to the church, as to the government, and he actively campaigned against it.
For him, the most important job of government was to preserve and uphold the traditional, religious worldview of the common people. If the government were to close parishes and churches, then the government would risk an upheaval in the worldview of the folk. If the government is an Orthodox one, it cannot close churches, because if it does, it ceases to be Orthodox, and it breaks its link with the common people. And if the people realize that the government is effectively no longer Orthodox, that, in Pobedonostsev’s mind, would lead to revolution.
It may seem strange to a Western mind to consider the Church being so subservient to the State. However, at that moment in time, giving the Church more independence in the social space was effectively impossible. The Church and State had become so intertwined that any change in their relationship without a complete shift in the style of government was impossible. It is enough to mention that though the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1905, the relationship with the Church didn’t change one bit.
After the Revolution of 1905, Pobedonostsev famously said, “I did warn you all.” However, he was shocked, destroyed, undone by the chaos of that first revolution. He saw no way out of the situation. He was especially shocked when several church hierarchs, including the effective head of the church, Metropolitan Anthony (Vadkovskii) of St. Petersburg, spoke out against him. After all, he had considered that everything he did, he did first of all for the good of the Church.
The irony, of course, was that he never gave the Church any freedom, keeping all authority to himself. He ruled over the Synod of bishops like an autocrat, cutting off any discussions he didn’t like even before they started. Naturally, the bishops protested. But rather than listen, he simply instituted even more draconian measures to silence them.
Paradoxically, he wanted the Church to be independent of the government, but only under his patronage and favor. He believed that he was the only person in all of Russia who truly understood the needs of the people and the Church. He thought that he alone knew what needed to be done and what direction was best.
What complicates his persona even more is that he was clearly an ambitious man who wanted power. He hated the direction the country took in the 1860’s, taking many of the reforms as a personal offense. He was, it must be said, an expert in Russian law, but his recommendations for the proper administration of reform in the 1860s were summarily ignored. So his rise to power was at least partially motivated by a desire to show everyone that they had been wrong to underestimate him.
And for all that, he had a creative or even mystical component to his personality. He thought of himself as a kind of prophet, a bearer of the truths of the principles of the common people. And he believed that quiet, efficient local reform would slowly rework the fabric of society to make it eventually a truly “Holy Russia.”
In effect, despite his conservatism, Pobedonostsev was a utopian at heart. His worldview was based on a myth, even though it was a beautiful one. This myth was that the common man was at heart religious, patriarchal, and monarchist. Another aspect of the myth was that quiet work on a local level could effect monumental societal change. It was a belief that if only he could influence the spiritual worldview of the people, he could fix all of Russia’s social problems.
At the heart of this myth was a belief that there is movement in history, that Russia is somehow equal to itself at all times and will remain the same, in some sense, forever. Because he believed that, he abhorred all change as inherently evil. But to be able to contain Russia in this stasis and yet effect small changes on the level of the human heart—this is the work of a superman. And for all his influence, Pobedonostsev was no superman, and he died a broken and disillusioned man.
Source: Nicholas Kotar
President’s decision to decline invite to centenary an ‘own goal’, says Senator
President Michael D Higgins’s decision to decline an invite to a centenary church religious commemoration of partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland has been branded an “own goal” by Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell.
The move was “uncharacteristic” of the President, who has “always been the man to step forward for reconciliation and to do his bit to try to bring this country together”, said Mr Craughwell on Saturday.
The event in Co Armagh next month is not a celebration, but a commemoration, he said, adding that the declination has brought about a “deep sense of disappointment” in some unionists.
“I think we have missed an opportunity to extend the hand of friendship to the more moderate unionists and we have actually enraged the more radical unionists,” he told RTÉ’s Saturday with Katie Hannon radio programme.
Mr Higgins was invited to a “service of reflection and hope”, the Senator noted, adding: “Any of us sitting in this country today, north or south, would want to reflect on the history of this country with the hope that we might have for the future of the new Ireland- an Ireland that would embrace all traditions.”
Mr Higgins’s statement politicised the situation, which was “so uncharacteristic of the President it is difficult to accept”, he added.
Mr Craughwell was one of six Independent Senators who signed a letter to the President on Thursday voicing concerns that he had declined the invitation.
In their letter, the Independent Senators said: “We earnestly suggest, if possible that you should reconsider the matter with a view to attending the event as we believe your attendance has significant potential to advance the cause of reconciliation between the different traditions in Northern Ireland and on this island.”
Mr Craughwell said there will be “extreme unionists who make serious mileage out of this and the more moderate ones will be deeply hurt”.
Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane told the programme he could not see “any circumstance” where the President of Ireland would mark, commemorate or celebrate partition.
Mr Cullinane said there is a “fine line between commemoration and celebration”, and he said partition of the island is not a historical event but contemporary, as the country “is still divided and our country is still partitioned”.
Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall said she agrees with the actions of the President, who was “completely within his right” to decline the invitation.
“The partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland is not something that most people would consider good developments or something that we should celebrate in any way,” she said.
There would be a “very different discussion” to be had, with other concerns expressed, said Ms Shortall, if the President had accepted the invitation to the event with its current title, which stated it would “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”.
Minister of State for the Department of Health Mary Butler said the discussion around the issue has been “a little bit unhelpful” as it overshadowed the President’s visit to the Vatican.
“Unfortunately something that was really positive turned into a negative … The President of our country is entitled to make a decision on any invitation he receives,” she said.
OPINION: France’s Australian submarine row shows that Macron was right about NATO
First, which country is immediately west of Australia? Second, which country is immediately east of Australia? Thirdly, which country sprawls most widely over the globe?
The answer to all of these questions is the same: France.
The nasty row which has broken out between Paris, Washington, Canberra and (to an extent) London, is about more than a €60bn French contract to build 12 submarines for the Australian navy.
It is about France as a Pacific and Indian ocean nation; it is about France’s desire to play an important role in Indian-Pacific affairs, containing China without antagonising China; it is about America’s willingness to treat allies as allies, not vassals; it is about honesty and openness in international affairs.
President Emmanuel Macron has withdrawn the French ambassadors to Washington and Canberra after the US, Australia and Britain announced a new security pact, called AUKUS, after 18 months of secret talks. As part of the pact France’s 2016 deal to supply 12 diesel-powered, Barracuda-class submarines to Australia has been replaced by a US-UK promise (not yet a deal) to supply nuclear-powered, but not nuclear armed, subs.
France accuses the three English-speaking nations of a “stab in the back”. But it has not withdrawn its ambassador from London. Some commentators suggest that is because France has so many important interests in common with the UK, Brexit or no Brexit.
Other commentators and French officials suggest that, au contraire, it is because Paris regards the UK involvement in AUKUS as something “opportunistic” and irrelevant.
French officials told Le Monde that NOT withdrawing the French ambassador from London was a way of expressing contempt for Boris Johnson’s role as a “stowaway” in a US-Australian submarine.
But why is France so furious? Arms deals are a murky business. The bigger they are, the murkier they become. One friendly nation beating another to a huge arms deal is hardly new.
Let’s return to our pub quiz question. Australia’s nearest significant neighbour directly to the west is the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. To the east it is the archipelago of New Caledonia. These islands are constitutionally and legally not French colonies: they are as much part of France as Corsica or Calais.
The torpedoed submarine deal was commercially important to France but also politically important as the cornerstone of a new Pacific and Indian Ocean security partnership with Australia agreed in 2016 and re-asserted this year. That, in turn, was crucial to France’s hopes of building an Indo-Pacific strategy which would make it the most important European player in the region.
The commitment to both was restated by Paris and Canberra as recently as June 15th when the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, visited Macron in the Elysée.
“Every element of our partnership is about reinforcing the values and beliefs that we hold dearly,” Morrison said at the time. He gave Macron no hint that the submarine deal was in trouble. Problems with cost over-runs and design details appeared to have been resolved.
In fact, it now emerges, the US has been involved in talks with Australia and the UK to blow both the French deal and the Franco-OZ pact out of the water for 18 months. In other words, the secret talks began under President Donald Trump and continued and were completed under President Joe Biden.
“And we thought we were mates,” the departing French ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault said in interview with Australian newspapers today. “This is not what you do a partner and even less to a friend.”
Which was more important to the United States? Stealing the submarine deal? Or destroying French hopes of playing an allied role with the US , Japan and others in Indo-Pacific affairs and coping with an increasingly aggressive and confident China?
Some people suggest that AUKUS is just a vulgar arms deal dressed up as a security pact. The US and Australia already have a security agreement. Why do they need another one? And what can Britain do to help with a tiny Royal Navy and an Army that can’t fill Wembley stadium?
Others commentators suggest that Washington was too ignorant or too inward-looking to grasp that AUKUS would humiliate and infuriate the French. Australia, they say, grew unhappy with the conventionally-powered French subs. It secretly approached Washington – even though France had offered to upgrade its own deal to nuclear-powered submarines.
One of the many oddities of this affair is that US arms companies already stood to earn more from the French deal than French ones. Only €8bn of the €60bn was to be spent in France (for the submarine hulls mostly). The rest was to be spent on US armaments and high-tech equipment and Australian labour.
The suspicion in the Elysée Palace is that AUKUS is a deliberate and well-planned hit on French ambitions in the Pacific (which precede Macron but have been emphasised since he came to power) Hence the extreme, though symbolic, measure taken by Macron to withdraw ambassadors from allied countries (and the first time ever from the US).
Macron finds himself in a strange place – both vindicated by what has happened and humiliated by it. He has been saying for almost four years that Nato is “brain dead” and Europe can no longer rely on the United States to defend, or even consider, European interests.
He wanted to strengthen France’s role in the Pacific partly because he feared that Washington – whichever President might be in power – would stumble into a confrontational approach to China. He wanted Europe to have its own voice in western-Chinese relations.
Arguably, he over-reached himself. The US has now, in effect, slapped him down.
There is nothing much he can do about it. Germany is preoccupied by its election. Most other European countries are reluctant to face the consequences of quarrelling with Uncle Sam. None of them have islands in the Pacific or Indian Oceans.
All the same, the AUKUS affair, coming so soon after the debacle of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, proves that Macron is right. Nato is brain dead. Washington doesn’t have allies, only junior partners. Britain has willingly accepted that role. It is time that for the European Union to consider how (to coin a phrase) it can take back control of its own security and prosperity.
‘No country for working parents’
Even before the pandemic, childcare was one of the biggest challenges facing young families. “It cripples families financially,” says Lucia Ryan, a school principal and parent of three-year-old twins.
Covid-19 has intensified the pressure on parents and providers, launching them into a new world of regulations, “play pods” and resulting staffing pressures.
“Our creche couldn’t find staff. So they reduced their hours to finish at 4pm,” Ryan, the principal of Hartstown Community School in Dublin, tells The Irish Times.
She was left trying to “run a school from home in the afternoons” and look after two-year-old twins, Matilda and John, though they are now enrolled in the State’s Early Childhood and Childcare Scheme, along with an afternoon childminder.
But she worries about the pressure facing parents and the “absolute heroes” who are the country’s childcare workers. Her third child is due in three weeks. She’s trying not to think about what happens when her maternity leave ends. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”
For many, the complications of the post-pandemic world of work and childcare are only beginning. A new era of flexibility is supposed to free people but, in practice, things could get worse, not better.
Up to 200,000 children are in early years services, with parents paying €800 per month for a creche place, and up to €1,200 a month in some areas. Now, some are discovering that their needs do not always align with either a childcare provider or their employer.
Michelle Walsh, who works with the Health Service Executive, recently returned to work after maternity leave with her second child, and considered herself lucky to get a place for the baby in the only creche in her rural town, where her three year old already attends. “On my first day back at work, the creche called to say they had to cut hours for my one year old and could only provide childcare until 1pm.”
The three-year-old could still stay full days. Walsh runs clinics in primary care four days a week, so “it is impossible to change hours to facilitate this. I’ve now had to find a childminder for the afternoons and start settling in again. To say the situation has been stressful is an understatement.”
The combination of a creche in the mornings and childminder in the afternoons is proving more expensive than full days in the creche would be. But it is her last option and she may have to take a career break if arrangements falter.
Other parents have similar stories, telling of the difficulty of juggling the same hours at work with reduced hours in childcare, the fees which haven’t changed and the dread felt that a child could be sent home with a sniffle.
“Our creche has reduced its hours. They haven’t reduced fees,” says Olivia, who doesn’t want to use her real name because she does not want to be perceived as critical of her creche or her employer, when she’s just frustrated by the system. “It used to be 7.30am to 6pm. Now it’s 8.00am to 5.30pm, which can be challenging . . . I know management are keen not to raise fees, but they say with the pod system, it’s impossible to have the staff for longer hours.”
Consequently, she has to finish work at 5pm. “Right now I’m still WFH [working from home] but it will be even more challenging once I go back to the office in a couple of weeks. In the old days, I used to drop three kids to creche for 7.45am, where they got breakfast and two were brought to school from there. Then I could work from 8am to 5.30pm. Now, we need to split drop-off for school and creche, make it to work for 9am and rush out of work at 5pm for pick-up.”
Her employer is understanding, but the hours have to be made up. “It’s just back to the same old juggling – logging in early morning or after kids go to bed.”
So what exactly is going on to put Ireland’s already-struggling childcare infrastructure under such additional strain? “The pre-Covid pressures are back with a bang,” says Frances Byrne, policy director with Early Childcare Ireland, which represents 3,900 childcare providers providing care for 120,000 children.
Irish parents already pay the third-highest proportion of their income on childcare of OECD countries, due, provider say, to the lack of spending over generations by successive governments.
According to the OECD, Ireland was spending just 0.1 per cent of gross domestic product on early years prior to Covid, the lowest investment of any developed country. During Covid, additional government funding “kept the show on the road” and meant that creches were able to keep staff employed and stay open, Byrne says. But as the world returns to normal, there’s no certainty over how long that funding will be available.
Meanwhile, although the pod system is supposed to offer some flexibility – allowing staff to move between pods to cover breaks for each other for example – in practice many creches feel they’ve been left with a choice of hiring more staff or reducing hours. Regina Bushell, who is the managing director of Grovelands, which operates six childcare centres in the midlands and runs the Seas Suas group representing independent childcare providers, explains how it has reduced the places available to babies.
“The regulations require a ratio of three [babies] to one [staff member]. But realistically for governance, I need a three to two ratio, because that one person has to have annual leave, lunch breaks, their comfort breaks, they may go out sick. I require those three babies to be in on a full-time basis to cover the cost.”
“Service providers would love to be able to provide as much flexibility as required. But there is a sustainability problem if parents only want to do five hours, but there are staff there who need to be paid for 10 hours.”
One mother in a different part of the country, Sinead, said her daughter used to attend after-school care from 2.30pm to 5.30pm five days a week. She had been hoping to use the care for two days, not five because of Covid-prompted changes to her work, but the provider can only do all or nothing.
Sinead is understandably annoyed, but, explains Byrne, “It’s not an inflexibility by choice; it’s an inflexibility imposed by the funding models.”
Funding is tied to attendance, says Byrne. So the National Childcare Scheme is the most flexible, but it can only offer flexibility “for up to eight weeks”, says Byrne. “If someone is saying I’m not going to need care on a Wednesday because I’m working from home or I reduced my hours, it’s really difficult for providers to offer that flexibility. Over time, their public funding will be withdrawn.”
The answer, believes Early Childhood Ireland, is more money and more flexibility. The Government has committed to doubling spending by 2028, but a five-year budget is needed, says Byrne.
And the models must adapt to post-Covid working. In Scandinavian counties, the provider is not “punished” if a parent is in a position to reduce their child’s hours. “We need to move to a Scandinavian model, where everybody pays something, but the richest pay more – but even the richest only pay up to a certain amount.”
As things stand, says Olivia, Ireland is no country for working parents and “definitely no country for working mothers.”
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