Tuesday, August 26, 2008


"I don't know why you use a French word like détente when there's a good English phrase for it - cold war." Golda Meir.

If you take a piece of meat from the freezer, thaw it to the extent where it recedes at your prodding and then proceed to replace it in the freezer, chances are that the said meat will spoil. "Spoiled" is perhaps the most apt description of the current state of the relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. From a state of chill, during the Communist era, relations between these two leviathans thawed considerably during the Yeltsin era, when Russia was poised upon the brink of collapse, only to decidedly freeze again upon Russia's re-consolidation as a Putinoid superpower. Now, with the Russian occupation of Georgia, we see that the whole relationship has gone totally off.
That there has been a deeply ingrained prejudice against Russia within the Anglo Saxonic world ever since the Crimean War, is beyond doubt. Indeed the word jingoism, signifying an extreme patriotism in the form of an aggressive foreign policy, derives from a music hall ditty pertaining to English fears of Russian expansionism: "We don't want to fight, but by Jingo if we do, We've got the ships, We've got the men, We've got the money too, 'We've fought the Bear before, and while we are Britons true, The Russians shall not have Constantinople." It is worthwhile mentioning here, that this stance prolonged the Ottoman occupation of Balkan lands, causing untold misery to its Christian subjects. Suspicion of Russia looms large in British literature during later Victorian times, when both countries were at odds with each other in the scramble for the acquisition of territories and the subjugation of peoples in Central Asia. Rudyard Kipling's novel "Kim," juxtaposes the life of a young Irish boy against the bloody cutthroat paranoiac spy-world of British and Russian agents vying for influence in Afghanistan (a case of dejavu?). Here in Melbourne, a world away from the tribulations of European politics, artillery was installed at the entrance to Port Philip Bay, in the late ninetennth century, in order to forestall a Russian invasion that never came. Anti-Russian sentiment was in fact, so ingrained within the British psyche, that during World War I, when the Russian Empire was an ally, rumours were circulating about a purported Russian invasion of Scotland.
In many respects, the United States picked up where Britain left off. During the fifty or so years of the Cold War, both the US and Russia expended billions in creating their own spheres of interest, obtaining the homage of client states and amassing vast arsenals in order to deter the other party from muscling in on its territory. As a result of the various interpretations by both sides as to the exact delineation of their perceived spheres of interest, conflicts such as the Greek Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Civil War in Angola, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan were incited, which cost the lives of millions.
The collapse of the U.S.S.R and the triumph of capitalism as an ideology, which led Francis Fukuyama to enthusiastically gush over what he saw as the "end of history," has not put an end to traditional Anglo-Saxon fear of Russia. While there may no longer be "Reds under the bed," one never quite knows when "the Russians are coming." The old great Game is resuscitated by NATO's expansion and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. US client states are carved out in Kosovo and Georgia - spheres traditionally in the Russian "interest." And all this, because it is common knowledge that Russia is a menace that must be contained.
The latest crisis in South Ossetia, is but a mere manifestation of the re-emergence of a Cold War among parties who are perpetually vying for dominance. That South Ossetia is the stag where this wider drama of world domination is being played out is also fitting, because it has formed part of the backdrop of the very first Cold War ever invented.
Indeed, Greeks invented the Cold War. Our Cold War, lasting from the time of the Persian invasion of Greece in 499BC to the defeat of the Persians by Heraclius in Jerusalem in 629 AD, was one of the longest wars ever fought, though through most of that time, it was punctuated by periods of frigid peace, in which both states used propaganda and other means to undermine each other. You know the story. Darius, Shah of Persia, obsessed with world domination, invaded Greece. He was repulsed by the Greeks, who after years of fighting and engaging with the Persians simultaneously, formed, under Philip of Macedon, a league with which to crush the Persians for ever. Though Alexander and his generals were able to conquer the Persians, thus making the East safe for Hellenic civilization, their Hellenistic successors were unable to contain the rise of first the Parthian and then the Sassanid Persian kingdoms. For centuries thereafter, the conflict between the "Greeks" whether in the guise of the Epigonoi, their Roman successors or the Byzantine Empire and the Persians, would be one of geography, given that the border between the two remained remarkably stable at the Euphrates River in Iraq. Like their Cold War successors, the two warring states, when not engaged in open conflict, would amass and foment revolts or wars in client states, such as Armenia, which was divided between the two juggernauts in the manner of North Korea, or northern Arabia, which was divided into the pro-Byzantine Ghassanid and pro-Persian Lakhimid kingdoms.
Much like our modern Cold War, a good deal of ideology was used to mask realpolitik and muscle. Early on in the conflict, the Persians were portrayed by the Greeks as effete barbarians who had to be destroyed if Greece was to survive. Similarly, after the Parthians overthrew the Hellenized Arsacid dynasty that worshipped Greek gods and adopted Greek customs, they portrayed their expansion as necessary if Persia was to retain its national character and not be subsumed in the quagmire of effete Greekness. As time passed, the ideological positions crystallized. Persia was the devout land of those who worshipped Ahura Mazda, god of Justice and venerated his prophet, Zoroaster. Across the Euphrates lay the devout land of those who worshipped Jesus Christ, as the Son of God. Just as the Russians and the Americans attempted to undermine each other by encouraging pro-capitalist or communist movements and disseminating polemical propaganda in the areas under each other's sway, so too did Persia take dispossessed Greek pagan scholars under its wing after the forcible closure of Plato's Academy in Athens, and set them up across the border in Ctesiphon. Though Christians were considered evil and subject to heinous persecution within Persia, the Shah also harboured and encouraged heretics, such as the Nestorians, who could be sent across the border to stir the populace up against the Roman "Orthodox" position on faith. In this war of words as well as worlds, symbols were just as important as the Stars and Stripes and the Hammer and Sickle. In 614, upon his capture of Jerusalem, Shah Khosrau promptly removed the True Cross, to Nineveh, in a gesture calculated to show the ascendancy of Ahura Mazda over the Christian God. In retaliation, Byzantine Emperor Heraclius cast Khosrau as an enemy of God and his re-capture of the Cross on 14 September 628 after the battle of Nineveh is one of the most significant dates in the Orthodox and Greek calendar, serving to prove as it were, the divine righteousness of the Byzantine cause.
That the conflict between Greece and Persia was as 'global' in scope as our Cold War ca be evidenced by the 572AD war in the Caucasus, which was fought exactly in the region where the current crisis is transpiring. Byzantium encouraged Armenia and Iberia (Georgia) to revolt against the Persians, following clashes involving Byzantine and Persian proxies in Yemen and the Syrian desert, and Byzantine negotiations for an alliance with the Turks (still in Central Asia) against Persia. In retaliation, the Persians blazed a trail of destruction throughout Georgia and Azerbaijan, only to have the Byzantines subvert the son of the Shah, Khosrau into rebellion against him. As a result of the ensuing conflict, ranging from Iraq, to Syria to Ossetia, Byzantium gained half of Persian Armenia and Georgia, at least for a few decades.
As a direct consequence of these endless wars direct and indirect, comes the Christianisation of the Ossetians, an Iranian and thus Persian-related tribe that settled in the Caucasus and accepted the Byzantine way of life - a Cold War victory for us. As an aside, it should be noted that one of the earliest records of the Ossetian language is found in the Theogony of Byzantinre grammarian John Tzetzes. He records a Cold-War propaganda poem in Ossetian most likely composed by pro-Persians, that deals with priests performing cunnilingus upon respectable Ossetian ladies. It is crass and only interesting insofar as he utilises the same words as are commonly used today in his Greek translation, to denote female genitalia.
What was the consequence of the first, thousand year Cold War? It left both Empires weak and unable to withstand the onslaught of the newly converted Islamic armies from Arabia. Given that these armies managed to obliterate the Zoroastrian religion from Iran, while ours survived, technically, we may consider ourselves the victors. We certainly did survive almost a thousand years longer than our Persian adversaries, but the point is moot. The Byzantine- Persian Wars have been characterized as "futile" and both too "depressing and tedious to contemplate". Cassius Dio noted their "never-ending cycle of armed confrontations" and observed that "it is shown by the facts themselves that conquest has been a source of constant wars and great expense to us. For it yields very little and uses up vast sums; and now that we have reached out to peoples who are neighbours of the Medes and the Parthians rather than of ourselves, we are always, one might say, fighting the battles of those peoples." As Frye states: "One has the impression that the blood spilled in the warfare between the two states brought as little real gain to one side or the other as the few meters of land gained at terrible cost in the trench warfare of the First World War."
The frightening thing about the resuscitation of the modern Cold War is that as opposed to its predecessor and even its originator, it is totally devoid of ideology. There is no clash of civilizations, beliefs or ways of life here, as before. Nor is it a battle for democracy. For how else would one explain the inconsistency between Russia's championing of the separatist South Ossetians with their crushing of the separatist Chechens? How else could one reconcile the US's championing of a sovereign Kosovo, all the while insisting that South Ossetia is an integral part of Georgia? Whereas in years past, both powers played a masterful charade as they attempt once more to encircle and disengage with each other, now they make no attempt to disguise their ultimate aim: the acquisition of dominance and power. And where there is no masking ideology to assuage our resolution that the linear progression of the human destiny is one of progress, what consolation is to be offered to humanity?
If we are to be drawn into yet another paranoid fracas of subterfuge and suspicion, then appropriate lessons should be drawn from those Cold Wars that came before it. And before the icy winds of hostility send further shivers up the spine of decency, let us pray that the frozen hearts of the frigid powermongers, wherever they are, thaw, or at best, view the futility of their actions face to face and suitably vanquished, cool it and just chill out.


First published in NKEE on 26 August 2008