I listened to most of a BBC report a few days ago on the Russian volunteer troops fighting in Donetsk. The reporter had managed to get into a volunteer group, both in training in St Petersburg and at the front line itself.
Deep down I can sense where these young men are coming from, their dream to see themselves as saviours of a Christian Orthodox civilization. It is an extreme version of what I hear constantly in more conservative Russian circles: that we have a specifically Russian civilization, that Orthodox Christianity is part of this civilization, it is under threat, and it is our task to save it.
I don’t want to downplay this dream, this vision. It is part of what young men are. Young adult men have been made to be able to fight, ultimately for the means of life, for land, for women, with which to go on and produce and feed families. They also dream dreams.
That said, I cannot help sense that with a lot of these voluntary fighters, and especially the older ones (30+) – as well as that whole bank of mercenaries that seem to weave in and out of the official military and police – that ‘civilization’ is a bit of a cover-up for an emptiness and ill-adaptedness, for an inability to make proper male-female relations, and settle down in society.
Put another way a ploughshare and an AK74 are both (phallic) symbols of a maleness which has to find its place in society. When it cannot in family and farming or other soul-meaningful industry, it will seek a gun (or alcohol or anti-depressants).
‘Civilization’ is where this all comes together, in family, in industry, in sense of common purpose. Having then large number of young men on the edges of society, fighting for ‘civilization’ by destroying other people’s homes and livelihoods, is a contradiction in terms. In terms of Christian pastoral work – somehow getting people who have taken up guns in the name of Christian ‘civilization’ to ‘beat these into ploughshares’, talking into their emptiness in order to get them out of this life-destroying mode – is a very difficult but very necessary pastoral task (and let’s be honest, beyond the capacity of most run-of-the-mill priests).
An aside: I cannot help but think of the IRA fighters in Northern Ireland. They were somehow part of the Irish story, the Irish myth (and both Irish and the Russians can be good myth-makers), but I suspect that a lot of them were a load of misfits, and that the Irish government was very glad to have them wreaking havoc outside its borders rather than inside. I suspect it is the same with Putin’s government: they cannot stop these young men, they know it is part of their own myth, but they would rather have them act it out on the fringes, in Donetsk for example.