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Monday, February 6, 2023

Polemic with Tine Hribar: Questions on the Russian Question

By: Dimitrij Rupel

Tine Hribar’s latest book The Russian Question, Russia-Slovenia-Europe 1821-2021 speaks at first glance and with the most words about Russian literary, philosophical, theological and political leaders: Dostoevsky, Solovyov, Berdyaev, Shestov, Frank, Lenin, Stalin and Putin. However, with the help and through the terms Slavism, All-Slavism and Pan-Europeanism, he speaks – as connoisseurs of Hribar’s writing have guessed before reading – mainly about Slovenes, so it is a Slovene question and an addition to debates which, thanks to authors such as (were) Josip Vidmar, Edvard Kardelj and Dušan Pirjevec have been going on for a hundred years or more.[1] Hribar begins the book with the Ljubljana Congress of the Holy Alliance, and dedicates it to the youngest of the three, Dušan Pirjevec, who wrote about the Karamazov Brothers many years ago and whose Question of the Nation coincides with the date when the writer graduated at a famous professor of comparative literature.

The Russian question is a demanding and challenging read, and connoisseurs of Hribar’s journalism will recognise variations on well-known topics such as global ethics, global dialogue, world ethos, values – among which Hribar emphasised many times the sanctity of life. In addition to dealing with theological and philosophical issues, Hribar’s book presents a confrontation with the field of international relations and geopolitics, and this contact ultimately leads to more or less topical programme ideas or to the proposal to redirect foreign policy in such a way that Slovenia would become more closely connected with the Slavic world, especially with Russia.

As already mentioned, Hribar’s narrative begins with the Ljubljana Congress, with which the epochal Vienna Congress (1814-1815) continued from January to May 1821. In Ljubljana, after the fall of the French Revolution and Napoleon, the European order was decided by the Austrian Emperor Franz I, Foreign Minister Prince Metterniuch, Russian Tsar Alexander, King Ferdinand of Naples, Prince Hardenberg of Prussia, Italian, French and English diplomats. Although the people of Ljubljana or Slovenes did not have any political role at the Ljubljana congress, Hribar says:

Indeed, we recently hosted the Russian and American presidents.[2] But two hundred years ago, even within Austria, we hosted the entire European political top. Today, however, we allow ourselves to be pushed into the corner or we even push ourselves into the corner…[3]

Would Slovenians like to become (like) Russians?

From Iskra Čurkina’s book on Russian-Slovene cultural contacts[4] – that is, second-hand – Hribar states the assumption from the liberal Slovene nation (April 1869) that “every Slovene would rather become a Russian than a Prussian”. Hribar does not say that the Young Slovene camp was a short-lived discouragement, also mentioned by Ivan Prijatelj and expressed by Fran Levec in a letter to Janko Kersnik in December 1869: “Slovenes have no future! We will be Prussians or Russians!”[5] This discouragement was repeated between the two wars, e.g. in the Society of Friends of the Soviet Union, and otherwise Yugoslav and, of course, Slovene socialism was based on it.

Hribar rightly – especially with the help of Dostoevsky and with quotations from Russian and Soviet philosophical and historical works – emphasises Russia’s critical attitude towards Europe, relying on Russo-centric views that emphasise Russia’s merits for various European benefits, freedom, military aid, Russian suffering and sacrifice. In several places, he refers to the text by Aleksandar Dugin from 2018, which talks about Slovenes and their misguided attachment to the West.

(Slovenes), in contrast to the Orthodox Bulgarians and Serbs…, do not know the Byzantine idea of the katechon, that is, the empire and the independent patriarchy, which would take on a mission similar to Byzantium. In contrast to the Catholic Croats, with whom they are culturally closest, they also developed quite poorly the idea of creating a strong, independent Slavic or nation states …

In all other respects, Slovene culture was an extension of Western European, mainly Austro-Germanic and partly Italian, so it remained in the shadow of the Latin Logos and was at the same time an integral part of the Habsburg Empire with its conservative and medieval identity…[6]

Hribar talks in several places about the advantages of Russian philosophical/theological mentality over European or on the merits of Orthodox Christianity over Catholic. In this connection, he mentions the opposition/competition between Russian active love and modern European principles stemming from the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. The mosaic artist Marko Rupnik is particularly fond of Orthodox metaphors in Slovenia.

Hribar intentionally or accidentally misses an important circumstance in Slovene-Russian relations, which dates back to May 1991, when the Prime Minister of Slovenia, Lojze Peterle, and I visited the President of the Russian Supreme Soviet, Boris Yeltsin. This was the time just before the declaration of independence and, of course, the time of uncertainty, what position will Russia take, which everyone considered an ally of the Serbs? Yeltsin, who did not particularly like Milošević, told us that the Soviet Union would fall apart, which really happened a few months later. Yeltsin’s Russia was a model of peaceful disintegration and independence of the Soviet republics, and above all a support for Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia. Yeltsin’s Russia recognised Slovenia in February 1992, before the United States. Yeltsin’s Russia was different from Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, whom Putin and Hribar criticise for neglecting the interests of the Great Soviet Union. It was, of course, different from Putin’s Russia, which regained some Greater Russian and communist reflexes regarding Georgia and Ukraine. Putin’s Russia is also a Russia of enormous social tensions, intelligence games, hacking, the Novichok poison, Litvinenko, Navalny and Skripal. Prior to developments in this direction, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev warned at an OSCE ministerial meeting in Stockholm at the end of 1992. He had prepared two speeches for the meeting. In the first, he “communicated” that Russia was turning away from Europe and the West; that it is in fact an Asian country and that it supports Slobodan Milošević. In the second speech, he explained that the first was intended as an alarm warning of the danger that would threaten in the event of Yeltsin’s departure.

Mourning for the Soviet Union? Yugoslavia?

Apparently, Tine Hribar, together with Putin, is convinced of Mikhail Gorbachev’s guilt for the collapse of the Soviet Union and for Russia’s current state embarrassments. The reader of the Russian question may conclude that its author, like the Soviet Union, thinks about Yugoslavia and socialism in general. The writer of these lines wants to express his belief that attributing such thinking to Tine Hribar would actually be blasphemous, since the man proved to be a supporter of Demos and independence. However, some Slovene-Russian associations in our book are, of course, barely understandable, sometimes contradictory and often politically provocative.

A reader of Hribar’s work probably raises his eyebrows when he reads about comparisons between the American and Russian occupation of Afghanistan; between the Hitler-Stalin and Mussolini-Pius XI pacts. The author wants to convince us that the Soviet Union lost the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) due to Western interference, but does not ask (as in the American case) why did it go to war at all? The pacts were, in the first case, an intergovernmental treaty that significantly changed the map of Europe, and in the second case, an internal Italian matter. In this way, the author – in an indirect way – dramatizes the not exactly exemplary moves of the Vatican, so that he can later attribute them to the Slovenian Church during the Second World War. Associations and attributions do not end there, as Hribar also criticises church organisations, such as Opus dei, and the current Slovenian Church or its top officials. Hribar does not even shy away from (really hypocritical?) details like the handshake during a Catholic Mass and the polite smiles of the cashiers at the store. The author of these lines finds Hribar’s assumption that Soviet “real socialism” and “Russophilism” were necessary for the defeat of Hitler in the Second World War particularly worthy of consideration:

Only with revived Russophilism, joined, as we have seen, by the leaders of the Slovene anti-fascist Liberation Front, did Stalin – with the support of the Orthodox Church – defeat Hitler.[7]

Hribar’s assessment of the events surrounding the Arbitration Agreement on the Border with Croatia from 2009 is unusual:

Instead of the West (along with NATO) supporting us in demarcating with Croatia, it forced us to sign a completely wrong, long-term disastrous arbitration agreement for us. Although before Croatia we were members of both the EU and NATO; and we formally had the option and ultimately the right to block Croatia from joining both organisations. We resisted Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav People’s Army, and under pressure from NATO and the EU, we also knelt down under the Vatican instructions of Cardinal Franco Rodeo and the general defensiveness of Janez Janša.[8]

The matter with the Arbitration Agreement and Croatia is much more complicated, as Hribar writes. Above all, diplomacy failed: for almost the whole of 2009, threats “not to let them in” flew across the border, followed by a sudden reversal due to political inexperience and fear. The year before (2008), despite the great noise from the Croatian and our media, we systematically rejected papers that prejudged the course of the border and refused to open the chapters of the Accession Treaty. With the appearance of Pahor’s government and Foreign Minister Žbogar, who was immediately rewarded for his work, everything changed. Who could convert Greece, which has hampered Macedonia for decades? Public opinion was, of course, in favour of fashion shows and nice words, but not because of NATO and Rodeo, but mainly because of the holiday and real estate interests of citizens.

The most important point of Hribar’s book is related to geopolitics. Hribar thinks that Russia will be exposed to migration from China, or assumes that Russia will be an effective safeguard against Chinese pressures that Europe itself cannot cope with. Europe should therefore – by renouncing its connection with the Americans – connect/unite with Russia. The smart Germans would like to do that, but the Americans do not let them. The actual situation is different. Russia is increasingly connecting with China, which has the same system as Russia. Russia does not seem to want to give up its Soviet and communist past, so connecting with it is difficult and risky. Hribar is critical of the US and forgiving of Russia, ignoring the fact that the US political system (not to mention the media and universities) promptly and consistently reflects on its actions, admits mistakes and punishes those responsible, ultimately with elections. In the Russian case, of course, such conduct is not seen as we did not see it in the Yugoslav provincial implementation until 1990. Slovenia was able to become independent because communism and the Soviet Union collapsed. Other theories would be wrong.

Dr Dimitrij Rupel is a sociologist, politician, diplomat, writer, playwright, editor, publicist and former foreign minister.

[1] In 1932, Josip Vidmar wrote about the Slovene “cultural problem”, in 1939 Edvard Kardelj followed with the “national question”, in 1970 Dušan Pirjevec published a discussion on the “nation question”; only in 1987 did France Bučar, Tine Hribar, Peter Jambrek, Ivo Urbančič and e.g. the author of these lines gave “answers” ​​to the accumulated questions with Contributions for the Slovenian national programme in the 57th issue of Nova revija.

[2] This is a meeting between Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin on June 16th, 2001 in Brdo pri Kranju. At that time, the Slovenian delegation led by Milan Kučan and Janez Drnovšek also talked to the American and Russian presidents.

[3] Tine Hribar, The Russian Question, Ljubljana 2021, p. 27.

[4] Iskra Čurkina, Russian-Slovenian Cultural Contacts: From the End of the 18th Century to 1914, Ljubljana 1995.

[5] See Dimitrij Rupel, Bomo Prusi ali Rusi? Ljubljana 2018, p. 9.

[6] See Hribar, fn. cit., p. 41-42.

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