Of Orthodox Easter & Russia’s Unholy War

Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

Yesterday was Orthodox Easter. I’m not religious and haven’t celebrated since I left the paternal home, but I have fond memories of the holiday, especially the food.

We usually had company but always had roast leg of lamb cooked with potatoes for the main course. We rarely dyed eggs, but many were hard-boiled for what I called egg battles. You smash someone else’s egg with your own whilst saying, “Christos anesti,” which is Greek for Christ has risen. I didn’t care about the religious aspect, but I liked the egg battles. I suspect I made jokes about the Batman villain Egghead but don’t eggsactly remember.

My parents weren’t deeply religious. They attended church for the social aspect. My father in particular liked to schmooze with the other parishioners. I think many churchgoers are like that, but my parents were willing to admit it. It was the conventional thing to do, and they were conventional people with an unconventional son. I liked the food.

How was that for a long Rachel Maddow-style introduction? I’m glad her hiatus brought back witty engaged Rachel instead of sighing pensive Rachel. I was an apostate viewer for a while. I’m glad she’s back in form:

That brings me to the Atlantic’s Tom Nichols’ great piece about the religious aspect of Russian aggression against Ukraine. I’ve quoted his work here many times but had no idea that he was Greek American. That’s the downside of shortened Greek names: I’m glad my papou chopped ours down from Athanosopoulous but it’s led to confusion as one of his brothers changed his last name to Athan.

My hunch is that Tom’s original family name is Nicolaou, which at this point would lead my father to claim him as a relative. There are Nicolaous somewhere in my family tree. That would be the conventional Lou Athas thing to do but I’m his unconventional son, so I won’t claim cousinage. I will, however, claim him as my countryman and compatriot.

Nichols is a Russia expert, but he wrote a more personal take on the war on Orthodox Palm Sunday with a focus on Putin’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox church:

“The Western media, in my view, have not paid enough attention to the religious aspect of this war, and in particular Putin’s insistence that he is acting to unite something like an Orthodox Christian empire. (This week, The Washington Post ran an excellent piece on this.) The religious aspect of this war is difficult for Americans to understand, not only because Orthodoxy is a relatively small denomination in the United States, but because it is an explanation that runs counter to the various narratives of great power conflict, or civilizational clash, or academic realism, all of which to some extent have filled in as explanations for why Putin has launched a fratricidal war with the full approval of the Russian Patriarch.”

Earlier in the piece, Nichols nails Putin’s sick and twisted motivations:

“Nonetheless, whether friend or enemy, I have spent my life trying to understand Russia and its people. Now, like everyone, I am disgusted by Russian savagery. Fury grows in me each time I see the mutilated corpses and leveled homes—not only because of the sadistic violence, but also because I know that the Russian regime, in trying to destroy the Ukrainian nation, has destroyed a chance, at least for some years to come, for a better world.

And for what?

For the messianic dreams of a small man, a frightened and delusional thug leading a criminal enterprise masquerading as a government, who believes that he is doing God’s will.

You might be surprised at the last sentence, but Vladimir Putin really believes this. He thinks he’s on a mission.”

These are the same feelings expressed by German experts before and after World War II. They asked: how could a cultured people with a great artistic heritage act in such a bestial manner? The answer was the same: a man with messianic dreams fueled by hatred and delusions.

I had similar feelings about George W. Bush as he morphed from the goofball son of a moderate former president into a leader with messianic dreams of Middle Eastern democracy. His motivations were more benign than those of Putin or Hitler, but the result was bloodshed and what Gore Vidal called “perpetual war for perpetual peace.”

Messianic dreams often result in corruption and the hollowing out of civil society. It’s what Stalin did to Russia and the Trumpers are doing to America. Their messiah only dreams of himself but others like Steves Bannon and Miller provide the demented dreams of the MAGA mob, and the evangelicals provide the religious fervor.

The moral of the story: Beware of leaders with messianic dreams.

The last word goes to Asia:

UPDATE: Tom Nichols replied to my name speculation on Twitter.