This cultural anthropological study describes which characteristics have influenced life and works of the world most famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh in the countries where he lived, and vice versa his influence on the works of his foreign colleagues. An artist who only considered himself a true painter at the age of 27 and died at the age of 37, lonely and penniless.
Leading in this study will be the worldwide research of prof. Geert Hofstede into how national cultures differ in the basic values of life. Key in the article is the Dutch feminine culture, with sympathy for the unprivileged in society. This is explaining Van Gogh’s choice of themes, especially depictions of working people, often from a profound emotionalexperience of the simple and intimate life of peasant laborers, weavers and miners in the different countries where he lived and worked.
As a selftaught artist Vincent van Gogh was inspired for his artistic development by innovative ideas from colleagues. Especially in France where he learned new techniques and the use of vivid colors from his French colleagues, who had found each other in a new vision of reality: the individual experience of what the painter feels and experiences in his first impression: the impressionists.
Van Gogh had a complicated character and had a stressful life that often troubled him: unfinished studies, conflicting relations with family and friends, un unhappy love life and psychoses. After one of these psychoses he admitted himself for a year in a psychiatric institution, to relax. During this stay he detached himself from existing ideas about painting and developed his own style: the emotional reaction of the artist to his environment became his motive. Based on that he created his most famous paintings. As such we can consider him as the founding father of expressionism, with still many followers all over the world in the decades after.
Key words: Vincent van Gogh, cultural differences, Hofstede, The Hague School, individualism, impressionism, expressionism
There will be few nineteenth-century painters we know more about than that of Vincent van Gogh. During his life he lived and worked in more than twenty locations in The Netherlands, England, Belgium and France. During the ten years he considered himself a fully-fledged artist, he produced about 850 paintings and approximately 1300 drawings, of which only a few were sold during his lifetime (Nix 2018). We also know what Vincent has looked like over the years. He painted dozens of self-portraits, more than 20 of them in the two-year period he lived in Paris. Not from vanity; often he could not afford models to paint. This however offered him the opportunity to experiment with perspective, colors and light.
We can also get to know Vincent Van Gogh through the many letters he wrote. According to art historians, there must have been more than a thousand, often multi-page, to his family, in particular to his benefactor brother Theo, who was four years younger. But also to other family members and colleagues. Many of his letters, often with sketches of the work in progress with detailed color descriptions, have been preserved, giving us a good insight into his soul stirrings, his passion, his creative mind, but also his doubts, his struggle with loneliness, his search for love, his psychoses and his self-destructive tendencies.
The linguistic content of his letters is exceptionally high. Historians believe that if he had not become a painter, he could have become a renowned writer. More than a third of his letters are in French. Not only because he spent a lot of time in France, which he regarded as his second homeland. But also because in the world of the well-to-do bourgeoisie from which he emerged at that time it was “bon ton” to correspond with each other in French. He often signed his letters to Theo with “tout à toi, Vincent” (ever yours, Vincent). Because the French could not pronounce “Van Gogh”, he signed his paintings with “Vincent” (Hulsker, 1980). In my study I will also talk about “Vincent” in a narrative. This means that I like to share with you Vincent’s intercultural experiences throughout his life as an artist.
Letter to Theo with the sketch of a digger, September 1881
Our journey through Vincent’s life will not be from an art-historical perspective and therefore not be a complete one. In a cultural anthropological study I will try to determine which characteristics of the country’s cultures where he stayed have influenced his life, and how that translated in to his works. And vise-versa, what was Vincent’s influence on the work of his foreign colleagues. As a travel guide I will introduce Prof. Geert Hofstede, who has conducted worldwide research into how people in more than 100 countries differ in dealing with the basic values of life. Although the countries where Vincent will reside have a completely different method of management, they all have the individualistic dimension in common: the interests of the individual come first (Hofstede 2010; see the country scores at the end of this article). In the nineteenth century this becomes clearly evident when a cultural movement develops in Western society that will become known as Impressionism, with influences on painting, literature and sculpture (Wursten 2021). Nevertheless, we must bear in mind that, although the countries in which Vincent lived all share the dimension individualism, this dimension has a different interpretation in each of these cultures. In the Netherlands, for example, there is a strong link with femininity (working in order to have a good life in private), in Belgium and France it is the opposition to the dominant top-down mentality of the elite, and in England seizing opportunities for success and prestige. This will become clear further on in this article.
In my study I take the Dutch culture in which Vincent grows up as the starting point for our observations, after which we follow him in England, Belgium and France.
In Hofstede’s research, Dutch culture has a low score on Power Distance (Hofstede 2010), that is, in general, a less dominant attitude of parents, teachers and bosses towards subordinates. Children are seen by parents as equals and are challenged to express their own opinions. Teachers and employers also accept this way of dealing with each other. How different is that in Belgium and France, for example, where contradiction by children, students or employees is absolutely not tolerated. How does Vincent experience this hard learning experience?
The Dutch are generally regarded as individualistic (Hofstede 2010). Mind you, that’s not the same as being selfish! Privacy is of paramount importance: the right to be let alone. The company of close family and a few friends usually suffices, in an atmosphere with the untranslatable term “gezellig” (is far more than cozy). Example: The Netherlands has the highest camper- and touring caravan density in the world, with which families anytime can go wherever they want (Kooyman 2020). Loyalty to a very extended family up to and including great-nephews and -nieces in exchange for their protection, as in a lot of collectivist societies, does not play any role in Dutch society.
The Netherlands also have a feminine culture (Hofstede 2010): working for having a good life, good relations with boss and colleagues and sufficient free time to be able to do nice things are the essence of life. Working part time by both the partners is accepted.
Sympathy for the underprivileged in society is also part of this Dutch way of life. We will see that the latter will mainly be the common thread in Vincent’s life. How will Vincent experience this in a competitive and prestige – masculine – oriented society like the UK?.
Finally, the Dutch are less likely to panic when unexpected events occur, this means a low score on uncertainty avoidance (Hofstede 2010). They always look for a reliable solution. But it should also not be too casual. Social life must remain clear and structured. How does Vincent experience this in countries of residence such as Belgium and France, where uncertainty avoidance and the desire for control and – excessive – regulation play a major role in society? What does that mean for his emotional life and his work?
Dutch culture has some similarities with the Scandinavian cultures, but differs in all respects from all other cultures in the world. The above-mentioned characteristics (“dimensions” according to Hofstede) cannot be viewed separately from each other. They should always be studied in conjunction. Wursten describes the Dutch cluster of dimensions as a “network society”: “equality for all is the defining value. All stakeholders are treated equally, are autonomous and participate in decision-making. Decisions are made based on consensus i.e. a shared-interest”(Wursten 2019, p.33).
The Young Vincent (1853 – 1869)
Nienke Denekamp and colleagues from the Van Gogh Museum describe Vincent’s boyhood years in “De Grote Van Gogh Atlas”. A summary (Denekamp et al., 2015, p. 13-23): Vincent was born on March 30, 1853 in the village of Zundert, in the southern Dutch province of Brabant, where farm life on the poor arable land is very difficult. He is the son of a protestant clergyman, his mother is a well-born housewife. Vincent is named after his grandfather and after his older brother who died at birth exactly a year earlier. Vincent is followed by five more children, including his brother Theo, who is four years younger, with whom he will maintain close contact throughout his life.
The Van Gogh family belongs to the upper-middle-class. At home they have a maid, two cooks, a gardener and a governess. Every Sunday, the whole family walks through the village in their best clothes, humbly greeted by the rural residents. The clergyman is very popular amongst the poor farmers. Together with his wife, he often visits the sick and leaves money with the grocer for customers who cannot afford their groceries. This social character undoubtedly has influenced Vincent. In his wanderings through the area, he may already gain first impressions of the hard life of the agricultural residents, including many arable farmers and weavers. For many, it is hard to maintain a dignified existence.
Vincent is a quiet boy at school. At the age of 11, his parents take him out of school because they fear that he will be influenced too much by the behavior of the farmers’ sons in the area. From that moment on he is taught by his father and the governess. His mother teaches him to draw, crafts and sing, and instills a love for nature. At that time it is not yet clear that he has talent or motivation for this.
For his further development, Vincent is sent to a boarding school in Zevenbergen, where he will stay for two years. After that, at the age of 13, he attends the Hogere Burger School (high school) in Tilbury. Because of the enormous traveling time (three hours walk and then another twenty minutes by train) he is living with a host family. After two years, Vincent suddenly leaves school for unclear reasons and comes back to live at home. (end of summary).
Vincent as a young adult (1869 – 1879)
At the age of sixteen, his parents decide that it is in Vincent’s best interest to lead a working life, but at a socially acceptable level. He is hired as the youngest employee in the international art dealership Goupil & Cie in The Hague, which is co-owned by his uncle Vincent. His brother Theo is placed at the Brussels office. The two agree to remain loyal to each other from that moment on (Denekamp et al.).
After four years, Vincent is transferred to the London office. At that time, England is the first country in Europe to have an industrial revolution. In a period without wars, with abundant raw materials (from the many colonies), fuels (coal mines) and labor, all preconditions are present to undergo an explosive economic development. An open competition with plenty of possibilities to explore leads to many new initiatives. Inventions such as the steam engine (rationalization of the production process) and the steam train (transport) boost prosperity. London grows into a global city and becomes the financial heart of a leading nation with a lasting influence on surrounding countries. Vincent is introduced to the masculine English culture in which pursuing and showing success is an important occupation (Hofstede 2010). On Sundays he can often be found on Rotten Row in Hyde Park, where his eyes are on the many luxurious carriages, in which the rich like to show their successful existence to the people (Bailey, 2019). During his walks he makes sketches of the environment that he sends to his parents. These sketches have unfortunately been lost.
During his stay in London, Vincent also often visits The British Museum and The National Gallery. He admires the famous painters of farmers life Franҫois Millet and Jules Breton. But he is also very impressed by the 19th century British romantic painters John Constable who has a preference for working people on the land, and William Turner who is considered the greatest British landscape painter ever. In his most famous work, Turner sketches an unparalleled connection between the past and the present: during a flaming sunset, a steamboat brings an old warship to his last location to be scrapped. The extreme light conditions in this painting will inspire Vincent in his work later on.
William Turner: The Fighting Temeraire, 1839
Vincent is also confronted with the downside of the turbulent economy. The traditional English class society is rapidly transforming into a society with “haves and have nots”. He sees poverty in the streets and is impressed by writers such as Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol) who denounce social injustice, abject poverty and the relationship between them. Deep in his heart he undoubtedly wonders whether his social motivation lies with the less fortunate. His decision to follow a calling as a lay priest may already be sown here. An unwanted reason to do so soon follows. He falls head over heels in love with his landlady’s 19-year-old daughter, whom he proposes to marry. She rejects him on the grounds that she is already secretly engaged to someone else. He has no choice but to leave his landlady’s house immediately. Because of this enormous love drama, he falls into a deep depression. He looks for comfort in the Bible. As a result, he increasingly does not show up for work and is fired.
His parents decide it might be better for him to leave England and get him a job at Goupil’s headquarters in Paris. Here too he immerses himself completely in the Bible and writes whole pieces about it for his brother Theo. Eventually, he is also fired there due to disinterest in the work.
Through his Bible study, Vincent sees a future for himself as a missionary for the poor and oppressed. He tries a theology course, but can’t see this through. To continue his missionary urge, he applies as a lay preacher in the Borinage, a very poor mining region in Belgium, near the French border. By then he is 25 years old. He descends seven hundred meters (!) deep into the dangerous mine and sees how miners, their children and old workhorses are at work under gruesome conditions. This affects him enormously and he cares diligently for the well-being of these least fortunate. He gives away his own belongings, cares for the sick and the poor, and gives Bible readings to bring comfort. In the meantime, he draws miners and their families in his spare time to show this poor existence to the world.
Miners in the snow to go at work, September 1880
Vincent is here confronted with the typical characteristics of Belgian culture. On the one hand, it is characterized by a steep hierarchy from bosses to subordinates with a super bureaucratic structure as the organizational principle. On the other hand, a very high score for individualism (Hofstede 2010). Deep in their hearts, the Belgians try to avoid the consequences of the hierarchy: ‘drawing your own plan’ (Wursten, 2019, p. 50), often explained by historians as a protest against the many foreign occupations that have gripped the country for hundreds of years. This is no different in the Borinage. On the one hand, the miners and their families passively suffer the fate of unscrupulous exploitation by the mine owners, even after serious accidents. On the other hand, they each try to keep their existence bearable in some way. Vincent’s involvement, however well-intentioned, is regarded by the authorities as harming their governance in the region (Tate, Seven things). After six months his contract will not be renewed. “Mr.Van Gogh does not have the gift of the word” is the motivation of the Committee (Denekamp et al.).
Yet Vincent can’t let their poor existence go. He will and must record this and draw attention to it. He stays in the region for a while and records almost day and night his hundreds of observations on paper, which he mainly donates to his landlady as a contribution to the costs of lodging. Not knowing that his landlady will light the stove with it the next day.
Women carrying sacks of coal in the snow, November 1882
All things considered, the seed was sown here for his birth as an observant artist: outspoken recordings of emotional events from daily life, unconsciously at that time as one of the forerunners of what will later become known as Impressionism. However, he no longer has a source of income. How long does he want to live on the money of his family, his brother Theo tells him. This leads to a break between the two brothers of more than a year.
The breakthrough! Vincent feels like an artist (1880 – 1886)
After a year, the relationship between Vincent and Theo recovers. Vincent writes to him that he has decided to become a painter. In an emotional letter to Theo, he describes what he himself considers as his “liberation”:
“A bird in a cage in the spring knows very well that there is something it could do for. He feels very well that there is something to do, but he cannot do it. What is it? He doesn’t remember well. Then he has vague ideas and says, “The others make their nests and bring forth and raise young ones,” and then he hits his head against the bars of the cage. But the cage remains and the bird is mad with pain. “Look what a idler,” says another bird flying by. “That one there is a kind of rentier”. Yet the prisoner remains alive, he does not die, nothing can be seen from the outside of what is going on inside him, he is doing well, he is rather cheerful in the rays of the sun. But then comes the time of the trek. Bouts of depression. “But,” say the children who take care of him in the cage, “doesn’t he have everything he needs?” But he sits out looking at the sky where a thunderstorm is threatening and he feels the rebellion against his fate within. “I am in a cage, I am in a cage, so I am not missing anything, you fools! I have everything I need! Oh, freedom, please, let me be a bird like any other! “( Letter to Theo, in French language, July 1880. Hulsker 1980).
He is now 27 years old and realizes that he has no time to lose to be able to make a career as a selftaught artist. His favorite hero is Jean Francois Millet, a French painter who is famous throughout Europe for his scenes about the harsh life of peasants. Vincent asks Theo to send as many prints as possible so that he can practice with anatomy and perspective. To his delight, he progresses quickly: “I have been making scribbles for quite a long time without making much progress, but lately, it seems to me, things are getting better, and I have high hopes that it will go even better” (Denekamp et al., p. 68). To make salable work, he has to develop even further. Theo offers to regularly send him money until then, in exchange for selling works afterwards.
Vincent returns to live with his parents, who have since moved to Etten. He sets up a small studio next to the presbytery. During that period he is also apprenticed to his cousin by marriage Anton Mauve in The Hague, at that time a highly respected Dutch painter in mostly somber colors, in an art movement known as The Hague School.
Anton Mauve Women from Laren with Lamb 1885
Because of Anton’s prominent position in the artist world, Vincent also gains access to other highly esteemed painters such as Willem Maris and Hendrik Willem Mesdag, whose techniques he studies closely. Anton gives Vincent instructions for making drawings and paintings. He encourages Vincent to experiment with oil paint as well and provides him with all the necessities. In a letter to Theo, Vincent writes: “Because Theo, with that painting starts my actual career, you don’t think it’s good to just look at it like that?” (Denekamp et al., p.77). However, Mauve ends the collaboration abruptly when he learns that Vincent is taking in a pregnant prostitute and her five-year-old daughter. She frequently poses for him. Although this brings him into contact with the physical and moral poverty of the poor and underprivileged in the city, this coexistence does not last longer than a year (Thomson 2007).
Vincent visits workers at home in order to be able to work from a model, often in work clothes. He is looking for a way to show his aptitude, as it were. To this end he intensely studies the peasant life and experiments, inspired by Rembrandt and Turner, with light and dark. For his studies he is welcome with a simple farming family in the immediate vicinity. In April 1885 he paints The Potato Eaters, his first large-scale figure work piece. He is very proud of that !
The Potato Eaters, April-May 1885
A few months later, the single daughter of the house turns out to be pregnant. Vincent has nothing to do with that, but the local catholic priest forbids his parishioners to pose for him any longer. Disillusioned, Vincent leaves this region and also his homeland, never to return. He travels to Antwerp to study painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. He does not last long there and travels on to his brother Theo in Paris.
From dark to light: Paris (1886 – 1888)
France, with successively a Sun King, an Emperor and a few post-revolutionary regimes, turned over the centuries into a centralist nation-state, which developed very rapidly in the 19th century. All power is concentrated in Paris. The departments into which the country is divided have very little autonomy from the central government, comparable to a solar system in which numerous satellites are constantly orbiting the core (Wursten 2019).
In this ‘zeitgeist’, Paris profiles itself as the undisputed world capital of art. The yearly Salon is the annual pinnacle of bourgeois cultural life, where the top paintings are exhibited and traded. Academic painting depicting intimate landscapes is regarded by the general public as clear proof of artistic quality.
During this period, however, a kind of “counter-movement” also develops, leading to an entirely new conception of art. A group of young artists including Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas tries to break free from the prevailing cultural elite and find each other in a new vision of reality: the individual experience of what the painter feels and experiences in his first impression. The group experiments extensively with light and color effects, with a fine, dotted or striped design and with a light brush stroke that blurs the contours, as if it were a snapshot. Great boosts are the development of new, colorful pigments and the invention of the paint tube, which allows artists to paint outdoors, en plein air, which they also do en masse. “Impressionism” is born.
In the middle of this Impressionist movement, in 1886, Vincent arrives in Paris, now 33 years old. Together with Theo, he moves into a house in the Montmartre district, the art center par excellence, with many entertainment venues, the natural environment of the bohemian. With the gray palette of The Hague School in his cultural baggage, he is confronted with the expression of his French colleagues. At first he appreciates this only moderately: “sloppily painted”, “badly drawn”,“poorly colored“(Denekamp et al.). But Vincent is also eager to learn. He tries to master the new painting techniques, with many stripes and dots. Because he cannot afford models, he makes a series of self-portraits in front of a mirror. He experiments with a variety of postures and uses brighter colors in his works. To give an example we observe his self-portrait after he just has arrived in Paris and just before he left Paris:
self-portrait, Paris 1886 self-portrait, Paris 1888
It is becoming increasingly clear that life in the modern, dynamic metropolis with an ever faster developing industrialization is not for Vincent. In addition, his health is failing him. He wants to get out of this busy, messy city, the unhealthy nightlife and the complicated artist’s world. He is friends with the painters Paul Gaugain and Émile Bernard and proposes to them to set up an artist colony in the south of the country in which artists inspire each other and exchange works with each other.
The highlight: Arles (1888-1889)
In general, the natural borders of a country also determine the ethnografic borders. However, there are also many subcultures within countries. This is also the case in France, where the sober, strict social culture in the north contrasts sharply with the more optimistic way of life in the south, described by Hofstede as ‘indulgence’: a tendency to allow relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun’ (Hofstede 2010, p. 281). In what the French themselves consider as “joie de vivre “. Indulgence has a negative correlation with the dimension Power Distance (hierarchy), which ties in very well with the low score for this dimension in Dutch culture: considering each other as equal (Hofstede 2010).
It is in this culture where Vincent ends up when he takes the train to the south and finally arrives in Arles, a village in Provence about a thousand kilometers from Paris. Vincent quickly feels at home here and makes many friends, with whom he drinks many glasses of absinthe on the terrace of the cafe on the Place du Forum.
Vincent’s greedily absorption of the colorful farmland and the vibrant provincial life inspires him to an almost insane productivity. In the 15 months he stays here, he produces about 200 paintings and more than 100 drawings and paintings using watercolors (Hetebrügge 2009).
Vincent’s way of painting is becoming increasingly impulsive and intuitive. The colors are becoming more and more exuberant, with the use of many variations in the complementary colors yellow and blue, the colors of the Provencal summer.
Bridge at Arles with washing women (Pont de Langlois), 1888
Vincent is also welcome with the postal worker Joseph Roulin (with an extreme beard) who allows him to paint many portraits of him and his family members.
Joseph Roulin, Arles 1889 son Camille Roulin, Arles 1888
This period can rightly be called the peak of his career. He still dreams of a “Studio of the South” where artists feel at home and inspire each other, where he can live with his friends Émile Bernard and Paul Gaugain and possibly with Theo. And indeed Gaugain comes to Arles. Vincent prepares for his guest with a fully furnished bedroom, but also with many paintings that Gaugain will certainly like, including vases with sunflowers.
Vincent is not doing well (1888 – 1890)
Gaugain’s arrival in Arles will dramatically change Vincent’s life. Initially they get along well and also paint a lot together in the same places. But their artistic interpretations increasingly degenerate into fierce discussions and even arguments. Their characters turn out to be incompatible. Finally, on December 23, 1888, one of the arguments ran high. Nobody knows exactly what happened between the two at that moment. The fact is that Gaugain flees the house never to return and that Vincent is left with a largely cut off ear. He is badly injured, ends up in hospital and has a serious nervous breakdown (Denekamp et al.). Two more nervous breakdowns follow after discharge from the hospital. Vincent becomes a nuisance in the neighborhood and he is re-admitted to hospital by order of the mayor. He is delusional and even ends up in solitary confinement. His idealized world of an artist colony is over.
After consultation with Theo, Vincent has himself admitted to a psychiatric institution not far from Arles, to relax. He stays in this institution for a year. He is given the opportunity to paint and he paints the lilacs and irises in the garden, but also the distant mountains. From his room he paints the almond blossom just behind the wall of the garden. During his stay in the institution he produces 150 paintings and as many drawings.
Vincent also increasingly detaches himself from existing ideas about painting and creates a free role for himself. He develops his own style, uses larger lines and his works become more abstract. Not the representation of reality but the emotional reaction of the artist to his environment becomes his motive. The Starry Night is the best example of this. It is an imaginary night scene with yellow stars above a small village with a church tower with on the left a flaming cypress and on the right alive trees against the hills. Creating this freedom of role Vincent in a way becomes one of the forerunners of “expressionism”, which will have many more followers afterwards in the decades to become.
The Starry Night, Saint Rémy June 1889
Vincent “returns home” (1890)
Vincent has lost the figment of the imagination in the south. He longs to go back north. Theo proposes him to move to Auvers-sur-Oise, a small artists’ village not far from Paris. There lives a homeopathic doctor who is also an art lover who wants to guide Vincent in his recovery. In 1890 Vincent moves into a simple inn. He likes the environment very well. It reminds him of the countryside in Brabant, Arles and Saint-Rémy, where farmers from the area grew potatoes, corn and beans. In a letter to Theo dated 11 May 1890: “It is extraordinarily beautiful, it is the real countryside, characteristic and picturesque” (Hulsker 1980, p. 559). Vincent feels he has returned home again. He loves painting the area around Auvers.
Vincent notices that he is an ever increasing financial burden for Theo, who is not doing well in terms of health and finance. His obsession with art has yielded nothing to him. He thinks he has failed in life. On July 27 1890 he paints what will turn out to be his last work: the jagged shapes of the tree roots in a logging forest. He does not finish the painting and returns to the inn. Several hours later he enters the cornfields of Auvers for the last time and tries to end his life with a pistol. However, he hits his chest but misses his heart. Badly injured, he stumbles into the inn. Theo rushes to Auvers, but cannot prevent Vincent from dying in his arms on July 29, 1890, only 37 years old. Just six months later, Theo also dies, succumbed to the effects of syphilis. Both brothers are buried next to each other in the cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise.
Tree roots, Auvers-sur-Oise, unfinished, July 27 1890
Postscript: what has Vincent brought us?
The relationship between culture and art
In the introduction to this article, I committed a cultural anthropological research in which I would try to find out which cultural dimensions in countries where Vincent stayed have influenced his life, and what we see in his works.
As a starting point for our anthropological research, we looked at the Dutch network society, in which equality for everyone is the core value and in which all stakeholders can have a say in everything. We have emphatically experienced that this is absolutely not the case in both Belgium and France, where the dominant elite rules. These experiences deeply moved Vincent both emotionally and artistically. His experiences in the Borinage in particular have fueled the realization in him that he could mean more to society as a creative missionary than an apostolic missionary. In France we saw that it took him a lot of effort at first to break away from the familiar, safe view of society as he had learned it in the best traditions of The Hague School, towards a more challenging, more impulsive view of everyday life. But afterwards also went for it!
I indicated that all countries where Vincent has lived have a western, individualistic culture in which the interests of the individual take precedence over the interests of the group. We have found that these characteristics, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, have also had a lasting influence on painting in England, Belgium and France, in what I have termed the rise of ‘Impressionism’.
In many biographies about Vincent, his difficult character and fragile state of mind are discussed: emotional, impulsive and easily hurt, with an unbridled zest for work that was alternated with delusions, nervous breakdowns and depression. Many psychologists and psychiatrists have considered the background of this. Is the fact that he is named after his brother who died on the exact same day the year before being the reason he had to live up to what his brother could never achieve for himself? Is it the stress of constant money problems, hardly sold anything paintings and remained financially dependent on his younger brother? Or were there deeper problems that ultimately resulted in his suicide in 1890? In 2020, a group of psychiatrists attempted to analyse this on the basis of his letters. This shows that it must have been a combination of negatively influencing factors: a bipolar disorder combined with a borderline personality disorder, a heavy alcohol addiction (absinthe at that time had 72% alcohol) and brain damage due to his physically and mentally exhausting lifestyle (Nolen et al.). Despite these disorders, he had a tremendous willpower and great perseverance. In several letters he wrote that painting had therapeutic significance for him. This belief has led him to be particularly productive in his active periods. What we can still enjoy today.
The vulnerable human beings as an object of study
It is important to notice that Vincent, as an exponent of the Dutch feminine culture in which care for the least fortunate is of paramount importance to everyone, has steadfastly adhered to his intention to report on this from the very first moment. In all his studies, the hard life of agricultural workers was his great source of inspiration. His life in the Borinage only fueled that. Also in his later works he never denied the recording of the life of the humble man, which we can see in his many sketches and paintings on this theme. He has never been tempted to paint technological highlights or industrial objects.
Inspirator for many artists after him
Vincent has also been a major influencer of innovations in painting, for which he only received recognition after his death. Once he has chosen a life as a painter, he shows an enormous eagerness to learn to master as many painting techniques as possible, with pencil, chalk, water color and oil paint as well as composition, and he experiments with this particularly in numerous self-portraits. After his Parisian period, as a post-impressionist, he increasingly detached himself from existing ideas about painting and created a free role for himself: the artist’s emotional reaction to his environment becomes his ultimate motivation. His fellow artist Pissarro predicted that Vincent would “… be either go mad or leave the impressionists far behind’ (Bailey, 2021).
Vincent is one of the forerunners of expressionism at the beginning of the twentieth century. In it, the perspective is largely abandoned, with high-profile painters such as Edvard Munch (“The Scream”), Egon Schiele and Paula Modersohn. Also in 20th and 21th century artists are still inspired by Vincent.
Vincent has also had a great influence on many of his colleagues in terms of color use. His exuberant use of bright colors, particularly in his Provencal period, has inspired, among others, many British artists like Harold Gilman who applied Van Gogh’s use of bold colors and expressive brushwork to English motivs, the French Fauvists, a group of painters using unmixed primary colors (Matisse is the main representative of this group) and the German expressionists. Painters all over the world have followed this in many decades after.
After all Vincent posthumously has achieved what his intention was for life:
being meaningful to society
What are we left with here? An extensive oeuvre that is still highly appreciated all over the world. For the less fortunate among us who cannot afford a Van Gogh at home, there is still plenty to admire. I recommend you to visit:
– Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (NET), with 200 paintings and 500 drawings
– Kröller-Müller museum in Otterlo (NET), with 90 paintings and 180 drawings
– almost every renowned museum in the world with at least one of Vincent’s works
Country scores on a scale 1-100 based on the research of prof. Geert Hofstede
Power Distance Low
Power Distance High
Femininity (MAS -)
Masculinity (MAS +)
Uncertainty Avoidance low
Uncertainty Avoidance high
Short Term Orientation
Long Term Orientation
Restraint (IVR -)
Indulgence (IVR +)
About the author
Carel Jacobs is a Dutch social scientist. He is a certified trainer in intercultural communication based on the worldwide research of professor Geert Hofstede on cultural differences. Specialization of Carel Jacobs is the health care sector: lectures and training activities for doctors, case managers dementia and nurses about how to be effective in communication with patients and their families from non-western cultures.
This article is written on personal interest.
Bailey, M.: How Van Gogh fell in love with London. Tate Gallery, February 4, 2019
Bailey, M: Pissarro predicted that Van Gogh ’would either go mad or leave the impressionists far behind’. Blog: theartsonnewspapar.com/blog/Pissarro-on-van-gogh. February 19, 2021
Butterfield: The troubled life of Vincent van Gogh and the birth of expressionism. (2011). Bonniebutterfield.com
Denekamp, N.,Van Blerk, R, Meedendorp, T.: De Grote Van Gogh Atlas. (2015). Van Gogh Museum, Rubenstein, Amsterdam.
Hetebrügge, J,: Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890. (2009) Parragon, New York
Hofstede, G, Hofstede, G-J, Minkov, M. (2010): Cultures and organizations; software of the mind. McGraw-Hill, New York
Hulsker,J, : ‘Dagboek’ van Van Gogh (1970). Meulenhoff, Amsterdam
Hulsker, J. : Vincent van Gogh; een leven in brieven. (1980). Meulenhoff, Amsterdam
Jansen, L. : Vincent van Gogh en zijn brieven (2019). Van Gogh Museum
Kletter, S: Weergave van het moment, het licht, de weersgesteldheid en de atmosfeer. www.artsalonholland.nl/kunst-stijlen/impressionisme
Kooyman, M.: “Liever op eigen wielen’’. In AD, November 18, 2020, p. 20-21
Leeman, F., Sillevis, J.: De Haagse School en de jonge Van Gogh. (2005). Waanders, Zwolle
Manoukian, M. : The tragic real-life story of Vincent van Gogh. Grunge, July 2020
Nix, Elizabeth: 7 things you may not know about Vincent van Gogh. In: History, August 22, 2018
Nolen, W, Meekeren, E.van, Voskuil, P, Tilburg, W.van: New visions on the mental problems of Vincent van Gogh; results from a bottum-up approach using (semi-)structured diagnostic interviews. International Journal of Bipolar Disorders, 30-08-2020, page 1-9
Rovers, D.: Van Gogh wilde Jezus zijn. In: Trouw, July 27 2015, page 6-7
Seven things to know about Vincent van Gogh’s time in Britain. No author mentioned. www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/vincent-van-gogh
Thomson, B: Van Gogh schilder; de meesterwerken (2007). Van Gogh Museum. Waanders, Zwolle
Walther, I.F., Metzger, R, (2006): Van Gogh, alle schilderijen. Taschen, Köln
Wikipedia: Vincent van Gogh. Wikipedia, 11-12-2020
Wursten, H. : The 7 Mental Images of National Culture; leading and managing in a globalized world. (2019) Hofstede Insights. Amazon.com
Wursten, H: Reflections on Culture, Art and Artists in Contemporary Society. In JIME, July 2021
List of illustrations
Letter with sketch of a digger September 1881
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo, September 1881
Pen in inkt on paper, 20.7 x 26.3 cm.
Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, The Netherlands
William Turner: The Fighting Temeraire, 1839
Oil on canvas, 90,7 x 121.6 cm
National Gallery, Londen, United Kindom
Miners in the snow going at work September 1880
Pencil, colored chalk, and transparant watercolor on wove paper,
44,5 x 56 cm
Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands
Women carrying sacks of coal in the snow, November 1882
Chalk, brush in ink, and opaque and transparant watercolor on wove paper
32,1 x 50,1 cm
Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands
Anton Mauve: Woman from Laren with lamb, 1885
Oil on canvas, 50 x 75 cm
Kunstmuseum, The Hague, The Netherlands
The Potato Eaters, April-May 1885
Oil on canvas, 82 x 114 cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Self-portrait, Paris, September-November 1886
Oil on canvas, 46,5 cm x 38,5 cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Self-portrait, Paris, December 1887-February 1888
Oil on canvas, 61,1 cm x 50 cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Bridge in Arles (Pont de Langlois), March 1888
Oil on canvas, 54 x 64 cm
Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands
Joseph Roulin, sitting at a table, Arles, August 1888
The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Enlightenment, was a period of intellectual and cultural movement in Europe that took place in the 18th century. It was characterized by a focus on reason, science, and individualism, and it was marked by a rejection of traditional authority and the embrace of new ideas and perspectives.
Many of the ideas and values promoted by the Enlightenment, such as democracy, the rule of law, and individual rights, continue to be central to contemporary debates about social justice and equality. The Enlightenment helped to lay the foundations for modern liberal democracies and for the protection of individual rights and freedoms, and these ideals are often cited in contemporary debates about social justice and equality.
The steps in the development of Human Rights
In an earlier paper ( Wursten.H.2021), identity was explored in the context of the development of Individualism as one of the four fundamental cultural dimensions discovered by Geert Hofstede: Individualism (Hofstede 2001)
Six defining steps were mentioned.
The first three, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Reformation, are shown to emphasize the individual as a critical autonomous actor. Who, as a result, was encouraged to investigate the world independently and look critically at what worldly and religious authorities were saying.
The fourth step is described as the big turning point that came about during the time of disruptive ideas—roughly between 1850 and 1930. People like Freud showed that the unconscious had an enormous impact on so-called conscious and rational behavior. Einstein made concepts of reality even more questionable by the relativity theory. As a result, people turned their interest from objective realism to the way individuals are subjectively experiencing reality. The 5th step in the development of Individualism is the ‘legalization’ of independent thinking and the legitimate right for all to demand equal treatment. as formulated in the “Universal Declaration of Human rights.” Repressed individuals realized that their condition was associated with the specific minority group they belong to and identified with the identity struggle of (for example) women, people of color, LGBTQ. communities, etc. As “identity groups,” they started to claim their right to be seen and recognized. The 6th step is therefore, the focus on “diversity” and “inclusion” of all repressed minority groups and their right to express themselves. This paper analyzes the consequences of this focus on identity leading to the consequent “identity wars”..
Collectivism, empathy and universal rights
Collectivism is a political and social philosophy that emphasizes the importance of group identity and the collective good over the rights and interests of individual members. In collectivist societies, the needs and goals of the group are often prioritized over the needs and goals of the individual, and the group is expected to work together for the common good.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It is a crucial component of human relationships and is often seen as a key aspect of human morality and compassion. Empathy will be analyzed later in this paper.
Based on a shared competence foe empathy one can say that human Universal rights are rights that are inherent to all human beings and are not dependent on nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to education and employment; and the right to a fair trial, among others.
There can be tensions between collectivist and individualist perspectives on human rights. Some proponents of collectivism argue that the needs of the group should take precedence over the rights of the individual, while others argue that the rights of the individual should be protected even if they may conflict with the goals of the group. Empathy can play a role in mediating these tensions by helping individuals to understand and feel the emotions and experiences of others and to recognize the importance of respecting their rights.
Is the declaration of human rights a Western concept?
The idea of human rights is not unique to the Western world, and the concept has a long history in many different cultures and traditions around the world. The modern concept of human rights as we know it today, however, has largely been shaped by the Western philosophical tradition and the experiences of Western societies.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is often considered the cornerstone of modern human rights law, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The UDHR was influenced by a variety of sources, including the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the American Bill of Rights, as well as ideas and principles from other cultures and traditions around the world.
While the UDHR has been widely accepted and adopted as a global standard for human rights, it has also been criticized by some as being a product of Western values and as failing to fully reflect the diversity of cultures and traditions around the world.
Overall, it is important to emphasize that the concept of human rights is not exclusive to any one culture or tradition, and that the universal protection of human rights is an important goal for people of all cultures and backgrounds. At the same time, it is important to continue to dialogue and engage with different cultural and philosophical perspectives on human rights in order to ensure that the concept of human rights evolves and adapts to the changing needs and realities of the world.
Democracy, human rights, and rule of law
Democracy is a form of government in which the power to make and enforce laws is held by the people, either directly or through their elected representatives. The rule of law is a fundamental principle of democracy, which holds that all people are subject to the same laws and that those laws are enforced in a fair and impartial manner.
The rule of law is essential to the functioning of a democratic society, as it ensures that all members of society are treated equally and that the laws are applied fairly and consistently. It also helps to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals, as it ensures that the laws are not arbitrary or discriminatory and that they are not used to oppress or exploit certain groups or individuals.
In a democratic society, the rule of law is upheld by an independent judiciary and a system of checks and balances that ensure that no one, including the government, is above the law. It is also supported by a culture of respect for the rule of law, which requires all members of society, including individuals, businesses, and governments, to adhere to the laws and to respect the rights and freedoms of others.
Overall, democracy, Human rights and the rule of law are closely interconnected and rely on each other for their effectiveness. The rule of law helps to ensure that democracy is fair and just, while democracy provides a framework for the rule of law to operate effectively and protect the rights and freedoms of all members of society
However, it is also important to recognize that the Enlightenment was a product of its time and that it was shaped by the cultural, social, and political context of 18th century Europe. There have been criticisms of the Enlightenment for its role in the development of white supremacy and colonialism, and these criticisms continue to be relevant in contemporary debates about social justice and equality.
Overall, while the Enlightenment was a significant period in the development of modern Western thought and culture, it is important to recognize its limitations and biases and to consider how its ideas and values can be applied in the context of contemporary debates about social justice and equality.
Overall, open societies are characterized by a commitment to individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, and they encourage the free exchange of ideas and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.
Human rights and tolerance
Jamal Greene, a constitutional law professor at Columbia Law School, argues that our conception of rights as absolutes drives us into all-or-nothing conflicts in which one side necessarily wins and the other loses. In a pluralist society in which rights often conflict, this conception fails to create room for compromise and is to blame for polarization”.
Rights should not be treated as absolute. Instead, rights may be restricted in the name of competing interests. This approach, often described as “proportionality review,” could acknowledge competing values and strike an appropriate balance between them. or, better yet, call on political institutions to strike one. Greene prefers political to judicial resolutions of rights claims, and compromise to ringing endorsements or resounding rejections.
The central reason for making rights constitutional and assigning their protection to judges is in the first place. that in a democracy, the majority prevails, so leaving disputes over minority interests to politics could mean dooming many such interests altogether. Human rights is about protecting those who cannot protect themselves through the democratic process, such as the criminally accused, dissidents, and members of minority groups.
We should have safeguards when the majority seeks to entrench itself, cut off political avenues for change, or trample on the rights of minority groups. By focusing on fundamental interests that are not well protected through majoritarian processes, we should protect democracy against the intolerant
Examples of safeguards are the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and the right not to be compelled to incriminate oneself are absolute, no matter how strong the state’s interests in punishing or investigating a particular crime. But to give a counter example: “Freedom of speech.” is a fundamental right in a democracy. But speech can be prohibited if it is libelous, incites violence, constitutes a threat, or amounts to obscenity or child pornography The challenge is to identify and enforce specific categorical rules to govern certain types of situations, while the proportionality approach applies a more generic, all-things-considered balancing test. Judges should pay attention to the facts of the parties’ dispute.”But without clear, principled guidance as to which facts are material and why, this is hardly an adequate method of adjudicating rights
There should be a commitment to insulate certain rights from the momentary impulses of the majority, and to provide reliable protection. The courts have a particular responsibility to protect minority groups and processes of democracy, largely by applying not an absolutist but a rules-based approach, is critically important to the system of justice. Reducing law to an injunction to pay attention to facts and mediate disputes through compromise risks both freeing judges to impose their own personal value judgments.
Tolerance and Multi-culturalism.
France is a rule-based democracy. All citizens are supposed to be free and equal. But France is also a muti-cultural society with minorities that based on their religious value system have a problem with homosexuality and the equal position of women.
This led to a strong societal discussion between so called Universalists and Multi- Culturalists. The latter group wants that the values of the minority cultures should be taken into account even if they don’t accept the equal rights for women and gays. Enforcing human rights is marginalizing and excluding these minority groups, is the argument.
The need for Inclusion is the central dilemma. A solution cannot take the shape of putting people in prison for not accepting the “Universal” values.
As solution could be to make a distinction between Norms and Values.
Values cannot and should not be enforced. Norms and borderlines for behavior are however in lawbooks. Trespasses can be enforced without theological discussions
A point of criticism is the so-called Receptor Method where the emphasis is on the receiving local cultural and social traditions. Too much attention for the local and culture and traditional social institutions to promote Human Rights can lead to too limited attention for victims of violations of the traditional cultural practices. The advice is to look for balance and measure.
Pressure on the Universalist nature of Human Rights
Several sources are recently waring that the Universalistic nature of human rights is in danger because of attempts to create alternatives.
1.Gandhi said that he learned from his mother that rights are preceded by obligations. Rights without obligations are not worth fighting for.
This attitude is shared by leaders from China and Eastern European countries. The emphasize is on collective values and duties. The criticism of these cultures is that the human rights are too much focusing on the rights of the Individual
2.Under the umbrella of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC; formerly the Organization of Islamic Conference), Muslim states revisited these concepts in the 1980s to draft their own instrument.
The culmination of such efforts was the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which presented a set of rights informed by conservative Islamic values and “Sharia,” or Islamic law. Within the instrument, the OIC laid out many of the rights in the UDHR, however, it neglected gender and non-Muslim rights. Not to mention, the organization co-opted the language of Sharia in the document to empower states and ensure national sovereignty. After its adoption, human rights activists in the West and some in the Muslim world claimed that the Cairo Declaration conflicted with the UDHR.
In the early 2010s, the OIC began revising the instrument and introduced the OIC Declaration on Human Rights (ODHR) almost a decade later. The document was scheduled to be approved at the organization’s Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) meeting in April 2020. However, this was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the ODHR better reflects principles rooted in international human rights law, it falls short on issues related to family values, freedom of speech, and political participation
3.China, is working on an alternative for the UN Universal Rights based on “the right of Development of States.” Centrally guided progress is given priority over individual rights of citizens
Professor Barbara Oomen says in an interview fort he Dutch paper NRC: We are worried about the development of parallel systems of Human Rights. The Universal Human Rights are meant as a bridge for all countries to keep talking to each other. If everybody is building their own bridge the conversation stops quickly
Tolerance as a universalist concept
Professor Gert Jan Hofstede once remarked that “tolerance” is also a universalist concept.
How universal is Universalist?
About the philosophical justification of Universal Rights is no consensus. Are they based on cultural practices? Or perhaps on Human Nature?
Recent Research has shown that on the level of what is common to all mankind morality predates religion. Frans de Waal, a Dutch ethologist found in his research on animals that this is not even limited to human beings. He found that morality is even shared by primates like Chimpanzees and Bonobos.
He found two basic pillars of morality:
Reciprocity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!”- This relates to a sense of fairness and a sense of justice.
Empathy: The ability to understand and to share the feelings of others.” – It is safe to say that, in general, humans everywhere share the ability to be empathetic.
This is important as this enables us all to enjoy music, books, paintings, and dance even from areas that are very remote from where we live and where we were raised. In short, to understand each other worldwide.
In this sense we can conclude that tolerance is universalistic as it reflects empathy and reciprocity.
Culture and Media Literacy. Truth, BS, and shibboleths
Huib Wursten, Author, public speaker and consultant. huib email@example.com
After Donald Trump was chosen as President of the United States, the word “alternative truth” was introduced. In response, Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post introduced fact-checks to attack these alternative truths.
For Media Literacy, it is necessary to understand both: the deliberate attempts to mislead people by spreading misinformation and the cultural context of communication.
How does culture affect media literacy
Culture can play a significant role in shaping an individual’s understanding and interpretation of media messages. It can influence how people perceive and respond to media content, the types of media they consume, and their values and beliefs about media and its role in society.
Overall, culture plays a significant role in shaping an individual’s media literacy and understanding of media messages. Therefore, it is important for individuals to be aware of their cultural backgrounds and biases and to consider the cultural context in which media is created and consumed when evaluating and interpreting media messages.
Example: Geert Hofstede on Vietnamese schools and American schools. (Hofstede 2001)
The famous scholar on Culture, Geert Hofstede, found the following message to American teachers after the Vietnam war. When in 1976, children of Vietnamese background went to regular schools in small towns in the USA, the office of Education issued an instruction for teachers “On Teaching the Vietnamese.”
Part of it runs: “Student participation was discouraged in Vietnamese schools by liberal doses of corporal punishment, and students were conditioned to sit rigidly and to speak only when spoken to. This background makes speaking freely in class hard for a Vietnamese. Therefore, don’t mistake shyness for apathy.”
Hofstede showed the cultural bias by proposing a fictional reverse statement: A Vietnamese “On Teaching the Americans”:
“Students’ proper respect for teachers was discouraged by a loose order and students were conditioned to behave disorderly and to chat all the time. This background makes proper and respectful behavior in class hard for an American student. Therefore, don’t mistake rudeness for lack of reverence.”
Is truth a cultural construct?
The research of Geert Hofstede is still the point of reference in the world of evidence-based approaches to cultural comparisons. Six culture “clusters” can be defined based on Hofstede’s research. (Wursten 2017, 2019) A culture cluster is a group of countries with similar combinations of scores on the first four dimensions of Hofstede. These value combinations also lead to a specific outlook toward the world. This value-driven outlook is called a “Mental Image.” The seven mental images we found lead to seven different views on societal and political priorities. Summarizing: Six of the mental images are shared by more countries. One mental image stands alone: Japan.
Of course, not everybody in a culture accepts the same value preferences. But the dominant culture is setting the standards and criteria for what is called “right” behavior. If others who differ want to “make it” in a certain society, they learn that you had better conform to the standards. In this sense, culture has a gravitational influence on behavior.
An earlier paper explored how the different culture clusters relate to the concept of truth. (Wursten 2015) Different “sayings “used by the dominant culture clusters illustrate and reflect the way truth is perceived.
Contest cultures. (USA, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia)
A very influential and revealing definition of truth is formulated by the father of “pragmatism,” William James:“The truth is what works.”This approach comes back in the daily use of language in sayings like: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating. “
Analysis: the emphasis is on inductive thinking and action orientation. This way of thinking focuses on” best practices” in this culture. Practitioners are getting the highest esteem. An argument labeled ” academic” in a public discussion is not a compliment.
Or, like in the case of Obama, it is deadly if your attitude is called “professorial,” In Contest cultures, it is also taking the shape of resistance towards “experts.”
Solar System: (France, Belgium, Northern Italy, Argentina)
Deductive thinking is the preferred approach; The high need for predictability leads to a tendency to look first at all available expert information before decisions are made on actions. Therefore, it is the opposite of the Contest attitude. Being called an “intellectual” is a compliment in the Solar System. Books about all kinds of subjects begin preferably with quotes from proven philosophers and experts from the past—the more abstract, the better. Truth is the result of an intellectual debate. The most representative quote about truth comes from C.P. Colardeau (1732- 1766):
Du choc des opinions jaillit la vérité! By the confrontation of opinions truth comes about!
The dominance of the intellectual process is also reflected by the famous statement of the French philosopher Descartes: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore, I exist!
Because of the high need for predictability, the cultural tendency in thinking is deduction. It is different, though, from what we see in the Solar System.
The key element is the internalization of the need for structure. Therefore, the most important concept is Planmäßigkeit (need for procedures, consistency, and planning). As a consequence, books in Germany, Austria, etc. are not beginning with “the philosophy of”, like in the Solar System countries, but rather with: “die Prinzipien von” (the Principles of).
The highest societal esteem is given to proven experts. This is visible in their use of titles: Prof., Dr., Dr., etc.
The most representative slogan about truth in this type of culture comes from the 1918 Nobel Prize winner Max Planck:
“Die Wahrheit triumphiert nie, ihre Gegner sterben nur aus”. (Truth never triumphs. Her adversaries just fade away.)
Network cultures: (Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland) Equality is the defining value in these cultures. All stakeholders are autonomous and participate in decision-making. Decisions are made based on consensus (the better word is “shared interest”).
Important sayings about truth reflect the feeling that all stakeholders are equal. Two Dutch sayings are examples:
-Truth lies in the middle (Waarheid ligt in het midden)
-Nobody can claim the truth. (Niemand heeft de waarheid in pacht).
In this thinking, there is no objective truth. The only thing to do is to find a consensus between subjective stakeholders. A famous Dutch methodologist, de Groot, promoted the idea of aiming at inter-subjectivity instead of objectivity.
Pyramid (Latin American countries, many Asian countries, most African countries, all Arab countries, and many countries in Eastern and Southern Europe) and Family (China, India, Singapore, etc.)
Concerning the attitude towards truth in the Pyramid and the Family, a distinction should be made in terms of religion. In countries with a Monotheistic religion (Islamic, Christian, Jewish), the way of thinking follows the characteristics of UAI. On the other hand, in cultures with a Polytheistic religion or a philosophy of life, people don’t believe in absolute truth. Truth is relative.
This thinking is expressed by: “different time, different context, different situation, different truth”.
As a result, the emphasis is not on absolute values but on personal virtues.
Japan: Japan stands alone. For the attitude towards truth, they share the slogan of countries with a polytheistic background: Truth depends on Time, Context, and Situation.
Culture and polarization
The influence of MAS dimension: The dominant values in feminine cultures are consensus-seeking, caring for others, and quality of life. Sympathy is for the underdog. People try to avoid situations distinguishing clear winners and losers. In masculine cultures, the focus is on winning or losing. The sympathy is for the winners. (Hofstede 1998)
As defined above, pragmatism plays an important additional role in decision-makers behavior. The Canadian politician and scholar Ignatieff illustrates this:
“What is right does not always work. What works is not always right.” (see:Morgan 2006)
This thinking has some consequences for the political arena and the way media play a role in the fight to influence the perception of “what works”.
Truth, BS and Shibboleths.
BS: Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher from Yale and Princeton, is known for his 1986 publication, On Bullshit, a philosophical investigation of the concept of “bullshit”. The book was republished in 2005. He wrote: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much Bullshit. Everyone knows this.”
What it is not”, he argues, “is lying. Both misrepresent the truth, but with entirely different intentions”. A liar is “someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood”. He or she knows the truth or could lay hands on it – but they certainly aren’t giving it to you. The “bullshitter”, on the other hand, “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”. BS-ers don’t mind about the truth. The intent is not to refer to facts or truths.” The objective is to discredit “the other side” and to enrage the other side in the meantime.
It is a variation of asking somebody in public: “why do you beat your wife?”. Denying the accusation does not help. Harm is already done. Whatever you say, the suspicion is there!
Part of Media literacy is knowing what is intended and what “effective” reactions could be. On 24 December 2022, Fox television host Tucker Carlson opened his Friday broadcast with a presentation of his “favorite lies” of the year. For example, about the blame for Covid. Carlson: “If the Chinese military unleashed a deadly manufactured flu virus on the world, Joe Biden would blame you for it and, actually, he did.” Joe Biden told us that people are dying of COVID because you have questions about an experimental mRNA shot that doesn’t really work and whose long-term effects we can’t know. You are the criminal here, not the Chinese government, because you’re “unvaccinated.” You must be punished.”
Dutch historian Beatrice de Graaf (Graaf de 2022) analyzed this behavior: they are like the “bullies in the schoolyard'”. De Graaf’s remedy: “isolate and fence off.”
In the media, some words or concepts that are basically cultural work as a Shibboleth, a watchword to distinguish the good ones (people like us) from the others. If such a watchword is used, there is no need to listen further.
During the second world war, when the Nazis occupied The Netherlands, the Dutch resistance used the name of a Dutch beach resort Scheveningen as a watchword. No German could use this name with the right guttural pronunciation. So, for the Dutch resistance, it was immediately clear who the good guys were.
It is interesting how some words are used as a watchword distinguishing “people like us” from “others”.
“Woke” is an interesting example. For progressives. It identifies the good guys. “Wokeism” is the opposite, a rallying cry for conservatives, identifying the bad guys. Something terrible. A bit like “socialist”. The word “liberal” in the Netherlands has such a function. It has the connotation of (American-style) free-market capitalism.
The shibboleths are not used to inform or persuade people. After such a watchword identifying the “other side,” immediately further interest in more information stops. Even fact checks that became fashionable in the Trump era in serious media outlets have limited effect because of the shibboleth function. It is not about knowing the right facts. It distinguishes the good guys from the others
The notion of the Common good in the media
Media plays an important role in democracy. Democracy is not about “the will of the people”. It is about accepting that there are different interest groups with different outlooks on life in every society. Democracy is a system to “balance” diverse interests and find peaceful solutions for tackling problems. The way the common good is defined is culturally sensitive. The seven culture clusters help us understand how the common good is represented in the media.
The Keywords for how the Common Good/Interest is formulated in the seven culture clusters and who is allowed to do so.
Contest cultures: Reference: common interest as formulated by the top of the dominant ingroup System: rewarding loyalty, trust , social control
Solar System: Reference: common interest as formulated by the top of the dominant ingroup System: rewarding loyalty, trust , social control
Well-oiled Machine: Reference: common interest as formulated by the top of the dominant ingroup System: rewarding loyalty, trust , social control
Network cultures: Reference: common interest as formulated by the top of the dominant ingroup System: rewarding loyalty, trust , social control
Pyramid: Reference: common interest as formulated by the top of the dominant ingroup System: rewarding loyalty, trust , social control
Family: Reference: common interest as formulated by the top of the dominant ingroup System: rewarding loyalty, trust , social control
Japan: Reference: common interest as formulated by the top of the dominant ingroup System: rewarding loyalty, trust , social control
Pragmatism versus Cartesian thinking: analysis of a scandal: Sokols Hoax
Above, the difference is described between the Contest way of thinking and communicating and the Solar System.
This difference can lead to misunderstandings and irritations if the two cultures are confronted with each other. It can even lead to nasty confrontations.
A nice example is the publication of the book Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. (Sokal, Bricmont (1999) For a good understanding, first, a little more detail about the cultural issue.
It is specifically about the preferences created by scoring high or low on Uncertainty Avoidance.
In short: in low UAI cultures, it gives status to explain issues in simple, plain language. The assumption is that you can only explain things simply if you really understand them.
In high UAI cultures, the highest credibility is for “experts” and “Intellectuals”. It gives status to explain issues in academic language. The assumption is that complexity is needed because you deal with profound and difficult ideas.
In 1999 Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont published Intellectual Impostures. It was first published in French as “Impostures intellectuelles“.
The authors said the book’s purpose is: “to warn against charlatanism.” The authors “deconstruct” the notion that some books and writers are difficult because they deal with profound and complicated ideas: “If the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing.”
They used the work of especially French “intellectuals” like Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Paul Virilio, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour, and Jean Baudrillard, who—were leading academics of critical theory, psychoanalysis, and/or the social sciences at the time of publication.
Like the book’s subject, Sokal is best known for “Sokal’s hoax” in 1996, where he published an article with randomly chosen sentences from the above authors that he submitted to Journals like Social text, a critical theory journal.
It is a necessity to understand the cultural context of Media Literacy. The empirically found fundamental dimensions of culture and the combinations thereof have a gravitational influence on people’s behavior. Self-evidently also on Media Literacy. The Mentat Images create different rules of the game for communication. Without understanding these game rules, getting the real meaning of messages is virtually impossible. Like Johan Cruijff, the verbally creative Dutch soccer star, already said: “you only see it when you know it!”
Graaf Beatrice de (3 maart 2022), RTL Nieuws. Poetins mythische wereldbeeld.
Hofstede Geert: Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations, 2nd Edition. 596 pages. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications, 2001, hardcover, ISBN 0-8039-7323-3; 2003, paperback, ISBN 0-8039-7324-
Hofstede, Geert (1998) MASCULINITY & FEMININITY: The Taboo Dimension of National Cultures: Sage publications. Inc
Morgan Michael Cotey (2006) Michael Ignatieff: Idealism and the Challenge of the “Lesser Evil” Source: International Journal , Autumn, 2006, Vol. 61, No. 4, Gidsland: Is There a Mentor State? Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd. on behalf of the Canadian International Council. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40204227
Today’s generation is much more sensitive; the more the exposure, the more they are forced to think, reflect and react critically. So young people who acquire communication and media literacy skills can use these dexterously and contribute to the culture of peace and nonviolence in a greater way. Also, by developing capacities to use different forms of media, especially the new media, young people can connect with other youth in different communities and globally and initiate dialogue.- Syeda Rumana Mehdi (Kundu, 2016)
Rumana stresses how young people with skills in media literacy can connect with other young people from communities worldwide, thereby contributing towards dialogues and a culture of peace and nonviolence. It is a marker of the intrinsic link between media literacy, a deep understanding of different cultures and the use of nonviolent communication for dialogues. She further notes (Kundu, 2016), “The problem arises when young people are not exposed to positive and nonviolent communication efficacies. The cultural differences, the deep-rooted stereotypes and lack of understanding of each other’s practices take primacy and sow seeds of conflict.”
Integrating nonviolent communication in media literacy education can provide the wherewithal to avoid cultural stereotypes and promote effective dialogues across cultures. For instance, Shazaf (2015), who has been working on using nonviolent communication in dialogues with young people from different cultures, noted in her interview with Geeta: “I tell you if we all love each other, there can never be any dispute,” Geeta told me as she showed me how she performed aarti, ‘And you doubt when they say Hindus & Muslims love each other?’ Both of us agreed that the goal of all young people like us was to work to build a ‘true human society’ where differences in culture and traditions were not an impediment but a strength for global peace and nonviolence. We were in one voice that more than ever before, we young people had a responsibility to become ‘peace warriors’ to challenge divisive forces and end conflicts in our societies.”
Shazaf underscores how young people exposed to ideas of nonviolent communication and acquiring MIL skills can be ‘key drivers of change of mindsets, institutions and stereotyped cultural traditions. She also talked about the need to assimilate principles of deep respect, understanding and acceptance of each other’s positions despite differences in identity and culture as critical elements to avoid dysfunction and conflict in communication. (Kundu, 2016)
The concerns echoed by Rumana and Shazaf on how lack of positivity, nonviolence, deep respect and understanding can lead to dysfunction and divisiveness in communication, especially when people from diverse cultural backgrounds are trying to come together takes us to the contemporary concerns hate narratives, bickering and divisive communication ecosystems. These concerns were also shared by Burcu Eke-Schneider, a peace worker living in Wuppertal, Germany. In a recent interaction with the author, Burcu talked about the stressful communication ecosystem when there are native Germans and refugees from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Africa. Complete lack of knowledge of each other’s culture and deep respect results in a trust deficit and dysfunctional communication. During the interaction, she talked about the numerous challenges that were accentuated by the rapid ‘technologization’ of our lives and society, how it impacts social relations and how new ethical questions are emerging along with the choices we need to make between values.
Rumana, Shazaf and Burcu’s perspectives provide arguments on how much of the incidences of hate speech, racism and xenophobia that we witness today can be attributed to the lack of deep understanding of each other’s cultures and the absence of nonviolent communication ecosystem. It also highlights the lack of nonviolent media literacy education.
Here it would be pertinent to cite Koyuncu and Chipindu (2019), who argued that culture has a role in influencing conflict by outlining people’s insights on conflict. They pointed out that culture plays two roles in conflicts. They noted, “Firstly, ethnicity and culture of a person was noted to serve as a way to establish the different groups involved in the conflict. Secondly, culture plays a role in an intragroup, which outlines people’s perception of conflicts in a society. The lack of acknowledgment of the differences among people from diverse cultures leads to clashing. The conflict that focuses on an individual’s identity has a cultural element. The different cultural disciplines through which people are accustomed to causing conflicts amongst different groups in the society often lead to relationships being strained.”
In the above context, there is a need to look at how media literacy education and understanding of culture can be used for violence prevention. In this context, Galan (2011) points out that through media education, audiences could be more critical and less vulnerable facing communication used to promote violence. Therefore, Galan argues for linking media literacy and education with strategies to achieve violence prevention, conflict transformation, peacebuilding, or intercultural understanding. He further notes that learning about peace, human rights and intercultural violence would not be effective enough if it is not complemented with media and information literacy, as the population is continuously exposed to media messages and a wide range of spirals of cultural violence.
This chapter will try to delve into the essentiality of intertwining nonviolent communication strategies in media and cultural literacy education so that the goals of the culture of peace and nonviolence can be realized. It may be stressed that every individual is responsible for contributing to a culture of peace. In this context, Anwarul K Chowdhury noted, “Each and every individual is important to the process of transformation required to secure the culture of peace in our world. Each person must be convinced that nonviolent, cooperative action is possible. If a person succeeds in resolving a conflict in a nonviolent manner at any point in time, then this individual has made a big contribution to the world because this singular act has successfully transferred the spirit of nonviolence and cooperation to another individual. When repeated, such a spirit will grow exponentially, a practice that will become easier each time the choice is made to face a situation, resolve a conflict nonviolently.” (Sheikyo Shimbun, 2019; https://sgi-peace.org/resources/building-the-culture-of-peace-anwarul-k-chowdhury)
Integrating Nonviolent Communication in Media and Cultural Literacy Education
Nagaraj and Kundu (2013) argue the necessity of developing a media and information literacy framework that can facilitate dialogues between diverse communities. They also talk about how media and information literacy can promote a culture of peace and, most importantly, facilitate sustainable development in culturally diverse countries like India. Finally, they use the perspectives of Gandhian Natwar Thakkar on the centrality of emotional bridge-building and mutual respect in the communication praxis to argue their case for the framework (2013).
Senior Gandhian Natwar Thakkar uses Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent communication model to advocate for values of pluralism, mutual respect and inclusivity. He says the communication praxis should encompass a deep understanding of each other’s culture and tradition and the work of emotional bridge building, thereby connecting people of diverse cultures (Nagaraj & Kundu, 2013). Thakkar observes unless pluralism, compassion, empathy and mutual respect become central to one’s communicative abilities, one cannot reach out to diverse communities. He opines these have to be part of any communication messages, be it person-to-person, the mass media, or the social media. (Nagaraj and Kundu, 2013).
The authors’ experience of working with groups from diverse cultures across the globe on the Gandhian approach to nonviolent communication and media literacy underlines how this can help promote deep respect for each other’s culture. Nonviolent communication is a holistic approach that underscores human interconnectedness’s significance. It encompasses our intrapersonal communication, communication with others, communication in society at large, communication with nature and communication with other living beings. Its premise is that in dysfunctional communication, whether it is destructive self-communication, interactions with others, in society, with nature, or with other living beings, there would be disruptions in our relationships. (Kundu, 2022)
For instance, FEPAIS Foundation, an Argentinian organization, has been conducting workshops for children and young people on the essence of Gandhian nonviolent communication and the construction of positive messages, whether during interpersonal communication, group communication, or in the social media. According to Marta Lescano, President, of FEPAIS, as part of the workshops, the participants undergo different simulation exercises and immersive experiences where they see the importance of respecting people from different cultures. The five pillars of Gandhian nonviolence- respect, understanding, acceptance, appreciation and compassion- are also the pillars of nonviolent communication. Lescano points out how the impact has been on the participants, wherein they start to feel how their contribution of ideas, customs and perspectives are respected and understood.
The FEPAIS experiment with the Gandhian nonviolent communication has been insightful. Lescano points out, “We are convinced that nonviolent communication helps to overcome cultural stereotypes and to equalize men and women, and cultural transformation is achieved.” She notes, “Symbolic violence occurs when behavioural and cultural patterns are transmitted that justifies unequal treatment and promotes codification, reinforcing gender differences and stereotypes of submission and domination, giving men a position of superiority. In a space of exchange, cultural patterns could be analyzed and men and women could work together to cooperate for their joint well-being. Therefore, we consider it valuable to educate these values from early childhood.”
Besides several programmes, the author facilitated a seven-day extensive orientation course on ‘Nonviolent Communication for Harmonious Coexistence’ for participants of Argentina, which FEPAIS coordinated. Some of the course participants later reflected on how the course on nonviolent communication helped them construct messages on social media with groups from other countries and develop linkages with other young people from different cultures. For instance, they said, “In a cultural exchange we had with young people from Haiti, their first question was whether they would be discriminated against in Argentina for being Afro-descendants. We used our tools of Gandhian nonviolent communication to make them feel respected and at ease for exchanging messages.” Other examples the participants talked about was their experience working with youth from Kenya and India and how they used nonviolent communication tools for emotional bridge-building from deep empathy.
Similarly, Andrew Wayuta Mshelia and Birma Mshelia, in their work with vigilante groups in Yobe State of Northeast Nigeria, talk about the transformational effects of nonviolent communication. (Mshelia and Birma, 2022) They, too, used the Gandhian approach to nonviolent communication in the training of the vigilantes. They point out how the training helped them develop values and ethics in communication with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. It underscored how the use of the strategies of nonviolent communication was critical for harmonious coexistence.
The author has constantly been collaborating with Mshelia and his team for greater use of nonviolent communication in all spheres of communication, including using these in the social media. The team talks about how a critical understanding of the media and its interlinking with nonviolent communication can be a counter-narrative to hate speeches on different media platforms. At a more individual level, Mshelia and his team talking about the transformational effects, point out how several community leaders they have trained now treat people from different ethnicities equally and how they communicate with them respectfully.
Further, the experiments of Burcu-Eke Schneider on intercultural understanding through dialogues peace road can be considered an innovative example of how messages for intercultural dialogues can be constructed. As a run-up to her dialogues peace walks, she shared the following message with people from a different cultural background in her city:
An Initiative to Promote Intercultural Understanding through Dialogues Peace Road / Friedens Trasse Eine Initiative zur Förderung des interkulturellen Verständnisses durch Dialoge ENG ( DE )
Friends, Let’s embark upon a journey to promote harmonious coexistence through intercultural understanding and a sustainable lifestyle. Let us all remember the significance of human interconnectedness. As part of this journey, we will be walking together in Nordbahntrasse and experience the beauty of different cultures. We shall explore the uniqueness of these cultures and commit ourselves to adopt a sustainable lifestyle. So come join us in this unique endeavour and contribute to a culture of peace. As Gandhi says, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.”
Finally, on how exposure to media literacy and nonviolent communication can help young people to construct their messages keeping in mind the diverse cultural background they came from can be gauged from Class X students of Anandalaya School, Madhupur, Jharkhand, India, who were child reporters of the children newspaper, The Peace Gong. Writing for the Peace Gong to mark the International Day of Nonviolence, 2012, the students pointed out, “We are here Santhali, Muslim, Dalit, Brahman, Kol in our homes, but simply students in our school and to our teachers. Every week we have Sahitya Sabhas, where we learn new things about our culture and about those of our friends; we sing and dance with each other and share our lunch….we appeal to you not to let the demons of division enter your communities or neighborhoods and follow the principle that we are following here in our school with unity through friendship, understanding, and integration.” (The Peace Gong, September 2012; cited in Kundu, 2014). These perspectives of the child reporters underline how nonviolent communication needs to be intrinsically linked to media and cultural literacy education.
The paper focused on the need to integrate nonviolent communication in media and cultural education programmes as it would enable individuals and groups to initiate dialogues overcoming stereotypes and aimed at promoting a culture of peace. Some initiatives from different countries trying to use this approach were discussed, along with their impact. In this context, it can be underlined that nonviolent communication as a strategy needs to be promoted to realize the goals of the culture of peace.
Galan, J I M (2011). The Spirals of Peace in Action: Communication, Peace Learning, Media Literacy and Non-violence towards the Alliance of Civilizations; In Eloise Nos Aldas; J. I. M. Galan &Fatuma Ahmed Ali (Eds) Communications for Peace in Action: Journalisms, Conflicts, Media Literacy and Alliance of Civilizations; UniversitatJaume 1; Castello De La Plana.
Koyuncu, Ayşe Gözde & Chipindu, Rufaro Denise (2019). How Cultural Differences Influence Conflict Within an Organization: A Case Study of Near East University; International Journal of Organizational Leadership; 8(2019) 112-128.
Kundu, Vedabhyas (2014). Promoting Media Literacy amongst Students for Intercultural Dialogue and Peace: A Global Entitlement; International Journal of Peace, Education and Development; IJEPD: 2(2 and 3): 101-105, Aug and December 2014.
Kundu, Vedabhyas (2016). Promoting Media and Information Literacy Skills amongst Young Women in India for Enhanced Participation in 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Media and Information Literacy: Reinforcing Human Rights, Countering Radicalization and Extremism; UNESCO 2016.
Kundu, V., 2022. Nonviolent Communication for Peaceful Co-existence. In: Kurtz, L.R. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict, vol. 4. Elsevier, Academic Press.
Mshelia, Andrew Wayuta and Birma, Mshelia (2022). Transformational Effect of Training in Nonviolent Communication: A Case Study of Training of Vigilante Groups in Yobe State, Northeast Nigeria; International Journal of Peace, Education and Development; 10(01): 01-07, June 2022; DOI: 10.30954/2454-9525.01.2022.2.
Masood Sidhu, Shazaf (2015). If we love each other, there cannot be any dispute: Geeta; in www.theshillongtimes.com; November 1, 2015.
Nagaraj, K V & Kundu, Vedabhyas (2013). The Role of Media and Information Literacy in promoting Mutual Respect and Sustainable Development in Culturally Diverse India; In Media and Information Literacy and Intercultural Dialogue, ed. Ulla Carlsson and Sherri Hope Culver; MILID Yearbook 2013; the International Clearinghouse on Children, Youth and Media; Nordicom, University of Gothenburg & UNITWIN Cooperation Programme on Media and Information Literacy and Intercultural Dialogue.
The Russian-Ukrainian war and media literacy. Thoughts and memories of an East-European
Anton Carpinschi, Professor Emeritus “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iași (Romania) firstname.lastname@example.org
Filtered through the memories of my childhood under the Soviet occupation and the experiences lived in the communist regime in Romania, the emotions caused by the Russian-Ukrainian war stimulated some thoughts about Soviet-Russian propaganda and the acute need for media literacy. Born out of a deep need for spiritual therapy in a well-documented and open media horizon, this essay focuses on cultivating the mind and saving the soul in the terrible times we live. Starting from the fact that a society is functional as long as it solves the major crises it faces, in an optimistic-constructive manner, it pleaded for reformative political solutions in a spiritual-religious climate freed from the dominance of the autocratic-oligarchic-ecclesiastical state ( the troika of the post-Soviet power).
Keywords: the three-faced bronze horseman; troika of the post-Soviet Power; Ukrainian resistance; cultivating the mind and saving the soul; reformative political solutions.
Flashback. How I began my media literacy under the Soviet occupation
Tulcea, September 1, 1954. I start primary school. On my way to school, I pass by the beautiful house on the corner of my street every day. I learned from my parents that the Soviet officer lived there with his family and that whenever I pass by this house, I have to be good, not make noise or other jesting as I often did with my friends. At that time, I did not understand what the Soviet officer and his family were looking for in our city and, above all, why they had to stay in the beautiful house on the corner of my street. But not a year passed, and I found out the answer. After together with my colleagues, we learned to sing the national anthem of the Soviet Union and the song “Glory to the victorious Red Army !” after seeing the movie “The Story of a Real Man” and being impressed by the heroism of Aleksei Meresiev, the pilot who manages to fly and fight again against the invading Nazis with prostheses on both legs, after admiring the courage of the girls and boys a few years older than us in the novel “The Young Guard”, it seemed natural to me that in the beautiful house in the corner of my street to live the Soviet officer together with his family.
But in the first days of summer vacation in 1958, right after finishing primary school, I suddenly noticed that the Soviet officer and his family no longer lived in the beautiful house on my street. I then learned from the news bulletins on the radio that, following the agreement between the party and state leaderships of the Soviet Union and the Romanian People’s Republic, the Soviet army was withdrawn from the territory of our country. So, gradually and cautiously, my parents began discussing political issues with me. From my father, a young doctor sent to the front in 1943 to an aviation squadron, I learned for the first time about the horrors of the war he experienced directly, both on the eastern and western fronts. Growing up, my father told me about the professionalism and courage of Romanian pilots, about those killed in the prime of their youth, about those burned and mutilated, about the behavior of Romanian commanders, but also about that of Soviet soldiers and officers. And so, the image of the heroism of the Soviet army slowly began to fade.
Now, after the passage of so many decades, against the background of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the experiences of my childhood years under Soviet occupation and the stories of the participants and eyewitnesses of the Second World War came back to my mind. Thus, my opinion was reinforced that without living the experience of war or, at least, without capitalizing on direct and credible sources, our words about war and its calamities remain just repeated words from books and television. I start from the idea that in addition to documentation from books, the Internet, or TV, a deep and authentic approach to the Russian-Ukrainian war needs direct experience or at least primary sources from direct experiences. A reasonable solution might be to appeal to the biographical narratives of war participants, survivors, and eyewitnesses, thus combining the documentation from books, the Internet, and television with an appeal to direct, verifiable, and credible sources. Beyond the natural dose of subjectivity, war testimonies have the inestimable value of personally lived truth. But let me be more explicit!
The TV programs of the Russian Federation remind me of the Soviet propaganda from Radio Moscow in Romanian
I am part of the first generations born in Romania after the Second World War. The war was for us, in our childhood years, something that had barely passed but whose consequences we were feeling every day. Traumatized, most families carried the vivid and painful memories of those killed on the front or who disappeared in captivity to the Russians. The discussions always came back to the events and happenings of the war or related to the war. In this atmosphere laden with suffering, I felt the pain of losing some family members in the battles at the front. Still, I also had the opportunity to learn from my parents and other family members, participants, and eyewitnesses, informations and significant aspects of the dramatic experiences in times of war on the front and the country.
What struck me from the beginning was the power of memories and the impact of the war’s biographical narratives on me, a child and teenager. First, of course, I was greatly impressed by my father’s war diary, the accounts of medical interventions in precarious conditions, the courage and self-control of our airmen, and the massive loss of life. Second, I learned about the terrible bombing of American aviation on April 4, 1944, from the vivid stories of my mother, a student at that time in Bucharest. To go to college in the morning and come running back through the burning ruins, among the corpses and wounded lying on the cobblestones, and instead of your house to find a huge pit full of smoking debris … To stay on the roads not knowing where you go … To live with terror in your soul, waiting for the Soviet army of occupation to enter the country and Bucharest. These memories and so many others directly from the source were imprinted in my mind for life, so now, when I talk or write about the war, it always comes to mind. I cannot refer to the terrible news and terrifying images of the invasion of the Russian Federation army in Ukraine without remembering sequences from the Second World War and the Soviet occupation of Romania as they were transmitted to me by my parents and relatives, participants, and witnesses to the horrors from those terrible times.
Another possibility of authentic information and understanding of the events appears, for example, in the discussions with the Romanian soldiers who participated in the operations under the auspices of the UN and NATO on the fronts of the last 30 years: Kosovo, North Macedonia, Bosnia, Angola, Mali, Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Proximity to the war in Ukraine also favored the opportunity to speak with refugees and special correspondents of radio and television stations. This is also an opportunity that I used. Talking to a young family of Ukrainian refugee teachers staying in the apartment of some close relatives, I felt the pain of people who now face deprivation and uncertainty, but they are determined to continue the struggle for a free life in a democratic Ukraine. Talking to this young family, I noticed the gap between the vivid account of the experiences lived under the fire of Russian guns and bombings and the delirium of the speeches of the professional propagandists always present in the television studios of the Russian Federation. How beguiling is the distance between the wooden language of propaganda and the harsh realities we always face ? And so, memories from my childhood came back to my mind when I used to listen to Radio Moscow in Romanian, the endless speeches about the great successes of the working people of the Soviet Union under the wise leadership of the Communist Party. At the same time, Romanian society was crushed under the burden of war reparations directed towards the Soviet Union.
Returning to the war between Russia and Ukraine – two political systems with their own ethno-cultural identity, but with a long common history full of political-military tensions – we note that it took the form of a regional war with global impact particularly dangerous for international security. In these circumstances we also observe that, often, the deceptive distance between the wooden language of propaganda and the surrounding blunt realities does not diminish the attractiveness and force of the impact of propaganda on different categories of the population. On the contrary, through old propaganda tricks such as — denial with serenity of facts and of the obvious evidence, transformation of Ukrainians from victims of the invasion into war crime perpetrators, creation of a false image of the enemy by declaring the leadership of the Ukrainian state as neo-Nazi — the propaganda apparatus of the Russian Federation reverses the roles. From the position of the invading state of Ukraine, the Russian Federation is quick to victimize itself by presenting itself as a state whose sovereignty is endangered by the neo-Nazi leadership of the Ukrainian state and its Western allies. As a watcher of Soviet-Russian propaganda broadcasts for the past 60 years, I have heard this discourse generated by the dictators’ fear of reality and independent thought. Beyond today’s technological-media progress, what is striking about the propaganda shows of the stars on Russia Today TV, for example, is the great similarity to the shows we used to listen to on Radio Moscow during the Soviet era. How could we explain this similarity ? Or, extending the arc of time, could we find the source of these similarities in more distant times ? So let’s start at the beginning !
The scary shadow of the three-faced bronze horseman looms over the world: a little allegorical history of Russian-Soviet expansionism
“A wave-swept shore, remote, forlorn: / Here stood he, rapt in thought and drawn / To distant prospects (…). / And he thought: / From here the Swede is ill-protected: / A city on this site, to thwart / His purposes, shall be erected / For here we may, by Nature blessed / Cut through a window to the West / And guard our seabord with conviction. /At home in waters which had been / Unknown, all flags shall here be seen. / And we shall feast without restriction.” (A. S. Pushkin, “The Bronze Horseman: A St. Petersburgh Story”, www.tyutchev.org.uk).
This is how “The Bronze Horseman” begins, the famous narrative poem by Aleksander Pushkin, whose lyrics I heard spoken for the first time by our Russian language and literature teacher. What got me thinking from the first moment of reading were the lyrics: “For here we may, by Nature blessed / Cut through a window to the West / And guard our seabord with conviction. /At home in waters which had been / Unknown, all flags shall here be seen. / And we shall feast without restriction”. This premonitory message transposed by the poet into the thoughts of Tsar Peter the Great expressed, in fact, the obsessive concern of the Russian state for the West and announced, at the same time, the future expansionist history of Russia. Then, through successive readings, I discerned in this allegorical poem and other layers rich in thoughts and meanings. Together, they helped me understand, then, in my high school years, the metaphor in the title of Pushkin’s impressive poem. Many years later, in St. Petersburg, admiring the bronze statue of Peter the Great on horseback, looking out over the Neva from the top of a huge cliff, I once again perceived the message of Russia’s imperial rise and expansionist ambitions. But, the scary shadow of the bronze horseman extends over the people of the whole of Russia because Peter the great founder is the same as Peter the great tyrant who crushes under the horse’s hooves the poor and unfortunate servant Yevgeny who gets in his way.
“But, as for my poor, hapless brother …/ His frail mind could withstand no more (…) / Yevgeny ran, and was aware / Of cumbrous hooves behind him pounding /The roadway, crashing and resounding / Like thunder in the still night air / For after him, with arm extended / The Bronze Colossus on its steed / Charged at the gallop and offended / The moonlit calm with its stampede. / And then, no matter where he wended / His way, he found that all night through / Poor haples wretch – he was attended / By bronze hooves beating their tattoo” (Ibidem.).
For me, the image of the bronze horseman with a menacing gaze towards the West and an equally menacing gaze towards his own people is the emblematic image of the violent and painful birth of the Russian Empire on the edge of Europe. Gradually, the fearsome shadow of the bronze horseman stretching over the world took the form of a myth projected in my mind against the background of the wars against the Tartars, the Teutonic Knights, the Swedes, the Turks, as well as the anti-Napoleonic wars, the Crimean War, the First World War. But, following the bourgeois revolution of February 1917 and the Bolshevik insurrection of October 25, 1917, the bronze horseman with the face of Tsarist Power disappears, and the bronze horseman with the face of Soviet Power makes its triumphant entrance to the Kremlin gate. During the 20th century, the expansionist Soviet Power placed “buffer zones” and enclaves of “frozen conflicts” around the borders of the Soviet Union, thus completing, on a world scale, the earlier feats of the bronze horseman with the face of Tsarist Power. And today, in the roar of the armed invasion of the Russian Federation in Ukraine, trampling the bodies of men, women, and children, shouting with his thundering voice, “To Europe is our will !”, the bronze horseman showed a new face: the post-Soviet expansionist Power.
Thus, the image of the violent succession of the three faces of the bronze horseman outlined in my mind a little allegorical history of Russian-Soviet expansionism. In the horizon of this allegory, we can observe how, through the skillful succession of its faces — tsarist Power in Russia, communist Power in the USSR, autocratic-oligarchic-ecclesiastical power in the Russian Federation — the bronze horseman, the symbol of the Founding Power, ensured the continuity of his dominance over a huge territory rich in physical and human resources. First, the Russia of the all-powerful tsars, of the Orthodox Church, the rapacious nobility and the oppressed people, a socially stratified Russia in the shape of a pointed pyramid, then the Soviet Union where the supreme dictator, the bureaucratic and atheistic nomenclature of the Communist Party took over the leadership of mass society through dictatorship and propaganda. The political, economic, and moral bankruptcy of the Soviet Power led to the relative liberation of the foreground of the political scene for a short time. But political actors are endowed with a terrible instinct for reproduction, so a new face of power emerged: the autocratic leader flanked by the new economic-financial oligarchy and the resuscitated Russian Orthodox Church. This is the troika of the post-Soviet expansionist Power.
From the perspective of the symbolic image of the three-faced bronze horseman, I will next evoke some experiences lived throughout my life in the propagandistic captivity of the Soviet Power and then in the vicinity of its successor, the post-Soviet expansionist Power. And so, against the background of the Russian-Ukrainian war, I remember some scenes from the ritual of communist education of children during the Soviet occupation, but also the emotional experiences occasioned by the liberation from the traps of communist propaganda in the mid-1960s.
“USSR, bastion of peace !” About the seemingly friendly face of the Soviet Power perceived by a child
The “USSR, bastion of peace “, I cheerfully chanted with my colleagues at the festivities of the great communist holidays. But, beyond the festive moments lived with the innocence of childhood, the days of November 7 (the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution), May 1 (the day of labor and the proletariat around the world), May 8 (the anniversary of the founding of the Romanian Communist Party), May 9 (the day of the victory of the Union of the Soviet Union and the Allies over Nazi Germany), August 23 (the national day of the Socialist Republic of Romania) were for us free days and some occasions for fun against the background of patriotic and popular music that resounded powerfully in the loudspeakers in the public square or the stadium.
Life, however, is not all fun and celebration. Hence, as future citizens of the young “people’s democracy,” we began the process of communist education from a young age through school programs and reading lists. But, as in any totalitarian political regime, ideological education is not limited to school hours. With the entry into the pioneer organization, around 8-9 years old, our training and education began according to the canons of communist propaganda. Impressed by the spectacular ritual of the pioneering ceremonial, alternating with the sharp sound of the trumpets and the jerky rhythm of the drums, we were singing hymns dedicated to the homeland, the party, its leaders and, of course, the eternal friendship between the Romanian people and the Soviet people. A few verses from the anthem of the Romanian People’s Republic regarding the friendship of the Romanian people with the liberating Soviet people come to my mind even today: “Our people will be eternally fraternal / With the liberating Soviet people, / Leninism is our beacon and strength and momentum / We faithfully follow the undefeated Party, / We build socialism on the land of the country”.
Then, we were reading articles from the newspapers Scânteia pionierului (The Spark of the pioneer) and Scânteia tineretului (The Spark of the youth ) about the heroic work of the working class in factories to exceed the production plan, about the diligence of the peasants in the agricultural production cooperatives in their hard work on the fields of the homeland. I also remember that in the fall of 1957, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of what was then called “the Great October Socialist Revolution”, a competition was organized between our city’s schools. On this occasion, some colleagues from our class were called to the Pioneer House for special training. In a large room filled with books, newspapers and magazines, we met the students from the other schools who had also come for the same event. A teacher spoke to us about the unfolding of the revolution, about the cannon salvo fired from the cruiser Aurora on the evening of October 25, 1917, the signal to begin the assault on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, where the provisional government was located; about his capitulation and the shameful flight of the head of the government, Kerensky; about Lenin’s role and the Peace Decree which called on the belligerent powers of the First World War to conclude peace immediately; about the Land Decree announcing the takeover of the big owners and the collectivization of agricultural lands. In the end, the teacher spoke to us about the significance of “the Great October Socialist Revolution” for the whole world, for our country and for us, the pioneers who represent the future of our homeland. Then we were assigned books, brochures and newspaper articles for reading and learning. I remember that a brochure fell into my hand, titled just like that, USSR, bastion of peace and security of peoples.
In the following years, entering with my colleagues in the Workers’ Youth Organization, our ideological education took on the systematized and controlled form of the weekly ideological circles. Within them, an important place was occupied by topics such as the unmasking of the exploitation of the working class in capitalist countries and the struggle of the Soviet Union and the socialist countries to condemn American imperialism and defend peace throughout the world. I remember the terrible propaganda condemning the aggressive policy of the United States on the occasion of the downing of the American pilot Francis Powers during a reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union. To watch the sequences filmed on the occasion of the trial of the American pilot at a court in Moscow, we were taken to the cinema with the school and then, urged by the head of our youth organization//, we condemned the aggressive policy of the USA against the Soviet Union and the socialist countries. I also remember the film’s retrospective presentation with the Romanian delegation’s participation led by the writer Mihail Sadoveanu and the scholar Constantin I. Parhon at the World Peace Congress in Moscow in 1949. In a grand setting, with thousands of participants from all over the world, the Soviet Union received on this occasion “the crown of the world champion of the struggle for peace”. And also, in the circle of ideological education, I read for the first time from the famous textbook, History of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party of the Soviet Union. The Short Course. Declared an “encyclopedia of the basic knowledge of Marxism-Leninism”, this manual became the pillar of communist ideology, its study mandatory for party and youth worker organization members.
But, the awakening from the nets of communist ideology and the lifting of the veil of propagandistically beautified surreality happened quickly. Three shocks in the mid-1960s ripped the friendly mask of Soviet Power from my mind. First, the so-called “Valev plan” after the author’s name, the Soviet professor of economic geography, Emil Borisovich Valev. Starting from the idea of specialization of the economies of the Danube regions of Bulgaria, Romania and the USSR, it was proposed to build an “interstate economic complex” in the area of the Lower Danube, Romania being assigned the role of the predominantly agricultural state (Valev, 1964). How Tulcea, my hometown at the gates of the Danube Delta, was entering the area of interest of this Soviet plan of masked seizure of a part of Romania’s territory, it is obvious that such a territorial abduction has aroused in the family, at school, in society, vivid emotions, great concern and heated discussions. Immediately, the second shock followed. Gathered in the “Great Hall”, the beautiful festival hall of our high school, we listened to someone from the District Party Committee who presented us with a document of great importance. The April Statement of the Central Committee of the Romanian Workers’ Party was perceived by us, then, as a true declaration of independence from the Soviet Union (Statement of the Central Committee of the Romanian Workers’ Party, 1964).
Finally, the third shock, the strongest and most direct for me: the political amnesty in the summer of 1964. In those days, after long years of detention, humiliation and suffering, those who had opposed the establishment of the communist regime in Romania were released from prison. With a large group of newly released ex-convicts, we traveled on the ship’s deck that had just left Tulcea and was going upriver to Galați. I plucked up the courage and started talking to some of them. They were peasants from Moldova who had opposed the forced collectivization of agriculture on the model of the Soviet collective farms. After difficult years of detention, they had been released from the forced labor and extermination camp at Periprava, in the Danube Delta, where they had worked in harsh conditions cutting reeds. They were now returning to their families, in failing health, aged and disoriented, not knowing who and what they would find there.
The three shocks of waking up from the spell of communist myths at a young age, family conversations on the big themes of history, culture, politics, and the literary and philosophical readings accumulated during those years contributed to my preparation for university studies in philosophy. Looking now through the charmed spyglass of the retrospective, I could say that it was then, as a teenager, that I began to discover in the face of Soviet Power the harsh and menacing features of the expanding bronze horseman towards Europe. And also then, under the specter of the Soviet threat, the long and permanent process of media literacy began for me.
The Kremlin, Gazprom and the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate: The power troika and the post-Soviet expansionism
Featured in poems, songs and paintings, the troika – the sleigh drawn by three horses across the endless expanses of the snowy steppe – became a symbol of the Russian soul’s longing for undefined freedom over time. Wanting, as it were, to express the terrible rupture in the human soul between the longing for freedom and the temptation to dominate, there is also a dark meaning of the word “troika” in Russian. Recorded in Soviet history, the term of sad memory “NKVD troika” (Narodnîi Komisariat Vnutrenih Del / People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) refers to those three-person commissions tasked with the extrajudicial punishment of those considered by the Soviet Power to be enemies. “The troikas were introduced as a parallel body to the official legal system for swift punishment of anti-Soviet elements. They began as an institution of the CEKA (Vserossiyskaya Chrezvychaynaya Komissiya po Borskoy Kontrrevolyutsii i Sabotazhu / All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage) but later became very important in the NKVD, where they played a major role during the period of the Great Purge in the Soviet Union” (Wikipedia). But in post-Soviet Russia, a new troika of power has emerged in the succession of the Soviet-era KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoj Bezopasnosti / State Security Committee). The Kremlin, Gazprom and, unfortunately, the Orthodox Patriarchate are the three institutional structures that articulate politically, economically and religiously the troika of absolute power, leading the Russian Federation on the risky road of a political-military adventure with an unpredictable end.
The troika of absolute power is the image of the autocratic regime in post-Soviet Russia. A political regime allergic to democracy and modernizing reforms in a Russia that — after the collapse of communist totalitarian power, after a chaotic transition to wild capitalism through the plundering of the state’s assets and natural resources during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin — quickly went on the road of restoration absolute state power. This is how, in its Euro-Asian authoritarian tradition, the Russian Federation has embarked on a violent, repressive and resentful path, “Putin’s way” (Cornea, 2022). But, of course, the reformist, democratic and pro-Western “Gorbachev way” was proving unsafe and financially losing for the old, repressive and anti-Western security service leaders, for the outdated and corrupt military leadership, for the newly enriched oligarchs under the protection and complicity of the political system, but also for a good part of the revitalized ecclesiastical hierarchy concerned with the power of dominating the souls of believers in Russia and beyond.
But let’s take a closer look at what “Putin’s way” means. Beginning of September, the year 2022. A Moscow court revokes the printing license of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the banner of the fight against corruption and for freedom in Russia. The editor-in-chief, Dmitri Muratov, tells reporters that the newspaper was killed by a political decision, just as several journalists were killed in recent years, such as Igor Domnikov, Iurii Shchekocikin, Anna Politkovskaia, Anastasia Baburova, Natalia Estemirova, Orkhan Dzhemal, as reprisals for critical and exposing reports on war crimes in Chechnya and the North Caucasus or corruption in state institutions and the army. “Today [they] killed our colleagues again, who had already been killed by this state for fulfilling their professional duties” … “[But] [the newspaper] was, is and will be,” concluded the 2021 laureate of the Nobel Prize for saving freedom of expression (Radio Free Europe. Radio Liberty, September 5, 2022). A few days later, the Supreme Court of Russia also ordered the revocation of the license of the Novaia Gazeta website because it referred to organizations declared as “foreign agents” without explicitly mentioning this status. In Russia, dozens of organizations and individuals have been declared “foreign agents”, and their status must be systematically mentioned in any publication under the threat of sanctions. Externally, following failures on the fronts in Ukraine, “Putin’s way” turned out to be a losing military venture. In these circumstances, Putin announced on September 21, 2022, the “partial” mobilization, and after the partial destruction of the Crimean bridge over the Kerch Strait, the so-called “Putin’s bridge”, the Russian leader triggered a total war of destruction of civil infrastructure and Ukrainian population.
Closely related to the political-military plans of the Kremlin, Gazprom, the huge energy company controlled by the Russian state, completes the picture of the war against Ukraine and the West with the strategy of transforming natural gas into a political weapon. But in such a hybrid war, it happens that “oligarchs connected to Gazprom die on their heads” (Pora, 2022). And this is because the oligarchs, the important people from the old institutions of force (siloviki) entered by the rapid devastation of the natural and financial resources of the state into the new economic-financial elite, share vital interests and deadly secrets with the center of political power in the Kremlin. For its part, shepherding the largest number of believers in the Orthodox world, the Moscow Patriarchate expresses, in accordance with the imperialist policy of the Russian Federation, its claim to be the center of spiritual power over world Orthodoxy. If, during the totalitarian Soviet Power, the aim was to build a society modeled on “homo sovieticus”, the new man, atheist, without roots in Christian spirituality, but receptive to Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist ideological indoctrination, post-Soviet absolute power reactivated the Orthodox Church, conscious being of its ideological and propaganda importance. So, symbolically speaking, the Kremlin, Gazprom and the Orthodox Patriarchate are configuring the new face of absolute power in post-Soviet Russia. And so, looking again through the enchanted spyglass of comprehensive hindsight, we can see how the bronze horseman has taken on a third face: expansionist autocratic-oligarchic-ecclesiastical power.
Let’s ask ourselves now, why did the liberal, modernizing reforms fail in this huge, rich, beautiful country with an impressive culture nourished by the unmistakable Russian soul ?! Why the reform and modernization programs envisaged in different historical-political circumstances by Stolypin, Kerensky, Gorbachev, or Yavlinsky could not be carried out? I think that the most informed and authorized answer could come from Grigory Yavlinsky, economist and politician, leader of the social-liberal Yabloko Party, three-time candidate for the presidency of the Russian Federation, the author of the 500-days Program, a plan for the transition of the Soviet regime to a free market economy. “The cause of the problems and tragedies that Russia is going through is the abandonment of the European development model,” professor Grigory Yavlinsky was declaring on Radio Svoboda on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the victory of the followers of democratic reforms over the coup of anti-reformists in Moscow in August 1991 (Yavlinsky, 2016). The Euro-Asian course of the policy of the Russian Federation, the failure of post-Soviet modernization, the war in Ukraine and subsequent developments are the main cause of many problems and tragedies in Russian society. Grigory Yavlinsky thinks that the current system in Russia is weaker than the Soviet one and will be able to maintain itself for a certain period. Still, only until it exhausts the reserves through which it lives now, and only as long as no viable political alternative emerges. Betting on the absence of a viable political alternative, the absolute power in the Kremlin launched a so-called “special military operation”, as we know, the invasion of the territory of the sovereign and independent state, Ukraine. However, the plans of Russian political leaders and military strategists faced something they had underestimated: the resistance of the Ukrainian people.
Ukrainian resistance or how the post-Soviet power troika broke down
Autocracy, oligarchy and ecclesiastical power shook hands in post-Soviet Russia. So, the Russian troika of absolute power entered, under the pretext of defending the holy land of mother Russia, on the great and rich expanses of Ukraine. “Go bravely to fulfill your military duty and do not forget that if you die for your country, you will be with God in His kingdom, in glory and in eternal life” (Patriarch Kirill, 2022). This is how Patriarch Kiril addressed the young people, and less so the young people hunted with the arcane through the cities and villages of Russia, to be sent, poorly trained and ill-equipped, as cannon fodder in the unjust and criminal war against independence of Ukraine. That’s why I used the metaphor of the troika, which symbolizes, in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the autocratic-oligarchic-ecclesiastical power of invading Ukraine.
And because I am referring to the lessons of the war and the moral strength of the Ukrainian people, I appeal to the opinion of an informed commentator expressed on the Deutsche Welle website on the occasion of the fulfillment of a hundred days of war. “A hundred days. It’s a lot; it’s a little ? Who wins and who loses ? The well-known commentator Roman Goncearenko. was asking himself (…). A hundred days is a long time if we remember that at the beginning of the war, many commentators, especially in the West, did not see the government in Kyiv withstanding the Russian attack for more than two or three days. This was probably one of the reasons why some countries, including Germany, hesitated to supply weapons. A mistake. Others, most notably the US and Britain, have delivered weapons incessantly, thus helping to prevent an early defeat of Ukraine. Therefore, the first lesson from the beginning of the war is that rapid arms deliveries save lives” (Goncearenko, 2022). And so, thanks to the heroism of the Ukrainian people and Western financial and military aid, we can now talk about the Ukrainian armed resistance and the failure of what I have called the troika of the occupying autocratic-oligarchic-ecclesiastical power.
But, to succeed in such a political-military performance, one needs the strength of character and a clear mind able to counter the myths spread by Russian propaganda. Since the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and now during the military aggression against Ukraine, Kremlin propaganda has continued to conduct a sustained and coordinated disinformation campaign to influence public opinion from Russia and abroad. Just listing a few myths and misconceptions commented on by Chatham House specialists seems conclusive to me: “Russia was promised that NATO would not expand”; “We need to improve the relationship with Russia, even without concessions from the Russian side, because it is too important”; “Russia has the right to a defensive perimeter – a sphere of < privileged interests >, including the territory of other states”; “The peoples of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are one nation”; “Crimea has always been Russian” (Chatham House Report, May 13, 2021). President Vladimir Putin himself makes a compendium of these misleading myths in the authentic Soviet propaganda style. “I am certain that the true sovereignty of Ukraine, he was writing, is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human, and civilizational relations have been formed for centuries, come from the same sources, and hardened in the same trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship is passed down from generation to generation. It is in the hearts, in the memory of people living in Russia and Ukraine today, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together, we will always be much stronger and happier. Because we just form the same people” (Putin, 2021). What strikes me every time I read and listen to the speeches in the authoritative tone of President Putin, Patriarch Kiril, or other high representatives of the Russian autocratic-oligarchic-ecclesiastical power is their claim to impose their opinions, in other words, their personal truths, as the unique and the universal truth, the absolute truth that we, all others, must listen to and follow. Probably, when they think, write and speak in a peremptory way about their truths, these all-powerful masters of the world, considering themselves the only holders of truth, do not have in mind the usual Russian word, právda, with its sense of the particular, relative, everyday truth but, on the contrary, the word ístina, meaning the absolute, universal, undeniable truth (Právda and ístina, Teacher’s Newspaper, no. 4 of February 2, 2010 / Uchitel’skaya Gazeta).
But reading and re-reading the article about the ethnic and historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians reminded me of a lesson in history and professional honesty I learned a long time ago. During my high school years, I was particularly impressed by a distinguished teacher who came from far away. Born and educated in Chernivtsi (Bucovina) during the Austro-Hungarian imperial administration, having a rich multicultural experience acquired before and after the First World War in the lands scorched today by the Russian-Ukrainian war, Professor Viktor Dumanski told us in the early 1960s about the fact that the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are three peoples distinguished by their own ethnolinguistic and cultural identity. I then retained the idea that Ukrainians and Belarusians were embedded in complicated historical-political circumstances in Tsarist Russia and then in its successor, the Soviet Union. I also learned from our teacher that a strong patriotic and anti-Soviet feeling reigned in the Ukrainian population. In a private setting, I learned from Professor Viktor Dumanski about the strong anti-Soviet feeling that reigned in the Ukrainian population, especially following the mass starvation policy of 1932-1933 (Holodomor). Applying this criminal policy to the entire population of Ukraine explains, to a large extent, the reception of the German army, falsely perceived in June-July 1941 as liberators from the repressive Soviet yoke. Although this information seemed subversive at the beginning of the 1960s in a Romania, governed by the communist party installed in power under the Soviet occupation, our teacher spoke to us, as an eyewitness and honest historian, about the truths and experiences lived by Romanians, Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Russians in the disputed territories in the decades before and after World War II.
I remembered these history lessons learned six decades ago when I read Vladimir Putin’s propaganda article about the close historical unity between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. I realized, once again on this occasion, the trap into which a propagandist falls when he supports the illegitimate interests of imperialist, revisionist power, unable to recognize the right of peoples to self-determination and, implicitly, their state sovereignty enshrined in international treaties. For example, when they deny the current status of Ukraine and support its return to the status of a part of the Russian Federation or, at least, to that of a satellite state of the Russian Federation, we observe how the various propagandists — Putin, Medvedev, Solovyov or someone else from the political-ideological apparatus mixes and truncates, at the same time, historical facts and truths, twisting the meanings of the terms and sentences of international treaties. Unable to recognize, e.g., the spirit of resistance and fighting capacity of the Ukrainian people, they prefer to call the legitimate leadership from Kyiv, a nest of neo-Nazis in the service of the North Atlantic Treaty. And the more they strive, the more they move away from understanding the national aspirations strongly felt by the Ukrainian people, from the stipulations and clauses that enshrine the legitimacy of these aspirations in international treaties. Historical truth and international law can only be understood and reconciled when reasonableness and discernment exist. The imperialist and revisionist interests claimed propagandistically by a state unable to implement modernizing socio-economic reforms in his own country distort the truth of the facts, distancing it from the voice of truth and common sense.
Like any war, the Russian-Ukrainian war takes place at the intersection of several planes: geopolitical, military, informational, propaganda, psychological, economic, energy, food, etc. But in the case of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the ethnocultural kinship, the meanderings of history traveled by the two peoples in conflict or together, and a large number of mixed families make the perception of this war much more strange and painful. Now, memories from the 1992 – 1993 years come to my mind when I taught the course Contemporary Political Doctrines at the State University of Kishinev as a visiting professor. On that occasion, I met numerous guild colleagues with mixed families, composed of Moldovans, respectively, Ukrainians, Russians, Armenians, Georgians, Baltics, Tatars, or even Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Tajiks from Central Asia. I can say that this multicultural landscape, familiar to me from my childhood in Tulcea, maintained a pleasant and culturally elevated atmosphere. I can’t help but wonder what is happening now, how my colleagues from Kishinev feel, how they live the war in their immediate vicinity, and how their mixed families feel the war with which they are always threatened. More, I keep in touch with some of my colleagues and Ph.D. students from Kishinev. One of them, a little older, lived as a recruit in the adventure of another tragic invasion, that of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And the verdict of history was given then: themilitary invasion of Afghanistan accentuated the system crisis of the Soviet Union, hastening its collapse. After more than three decades, we can ask ourselves: is the Russian state now in a similar political-military situation? Are we somehow living at the end of another autocratic era in the expansionist history of the Russian state? Has the last hour sounded for the three-faced bronze horseman?
Russia, where are you going? The longevity of a global power depends on its capacity to innovate and develop
Skillfully combining the techniques of repression and propaganda, the absolute autocratic-oligarchic-ecclesiastical power has so far managed through its vectors the Kremlin, Gazprom, respectively, the Orthodox Patriarchate, to counteract the coagulation of any democratic political alternative with a chance of success. In this ideological-political context, I make the following observation: the propaganda of absolute power in post-Soviet Russia relies on the stability of the traditional Russian psycho-cultural model, which is impenetrable to democracy and modernizing reforms, but history shows us that the duration of a global power depends on its capacity for innovation and development, including in terms of propaganda. The propaganda of the Russian Federation took over the ideas of Russian nationalism and expansionism from the myths of Soviet propaganda and those of Tsarist Russia, counting on the fact that these, having been assimilated for centuries in the traditional psycho-cultural profile of the Russian people, will continue to function through inertia in the new political context. But as the lessons of history teach us, global powers have maintained their status as long as they have been able to respond to the major challenges and problems they have faced. Therefore, the loss of the global power status in the event of repeated failure of the economic, technological, political, propaganda innovation and development race is the alarm signal for the political leadership of the Russian Federation. Or, against the background of the unsuccessful invasion of the Russian army in Ukraine, the disorderly mobilization and the exodus of a large part of the Russian population that does not recognize the legitimacy of this invasion, we can observe the signs of the crisis of the Russian Federation as a global power and, implicitly, the symptoms of popular discontent, the nervousness of the authorities and the ideas feather of the propaganda apparatus.
Against the background of the Russian-Ukrainian war, a war of attrition of the Russian Federation against the West, I make a second observation: the propaganda of the Russian Federation aims at weakening the cohesion of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty, counting on the deterioration of the psycho-mental state of the population in the West and, implicitly, on the weakening of democratic regimes. In the horizon of the previous observations, the propaganda of the Russian Federation appears as a system of transposing into the mind of its own people of the ideological corpus of an authoritarian, centralized, repressive and expansionist power and, at the same time, as a well-coordinated and financed system of spreading in the ranks of the Western population of a message of mistrust and insecurity in the principles, values, institutions and practices of democracy and, implicitly, of social and political destabilization of Western states.
But when I talk about the ideological corpus of an authoritarian, centralized, repressive and expansionist power, I am referring equally to the plans of the “bronze horseman” who successively took the faces of Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. Let us, therefore, trace the goals and obsessive political concerns of the three-faced bronze horseman as they have crystallized over the past four centuries: full political-administrative control of centralized state power over a vast territory and its immense wealth; control of the centralized state power over the entire population by the Russification of the numerous ethnic groups spread over a huge territory and limiting their right of movement; the repression of all opposition and rebellion through the violence and terror exercised by the secret political police under its various names throughout history: Tsarist Ohrana, CEKA / NKVD / KGB / FSB (Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti / Federal Security Service); the cult of personalized absolute power and the adulation of the supreme leader; the instillation in the mind of the Russian people, as a counterweight to Western Catholicism, of Orthodoxy, enshrined in the mystical aura of Eastern Christianity of Byzantine rite (except for the Soviet period dominated by Leninist-Stalinist atheism as “public religion”); the rejection of Western liberal democracy and of modernizing reforms that did not find in Russia after the era of the reforming tsar Peter the Great either the political class or the society prepared for their implementation. Concluding, we could say that the stake of the ideological corpus rooted in the mind of the three-faced bronze horseman was and remained the preservation of absolute power and its imposition through terror and propaganda on the entire population spread over a huge and rich territory.
A good connoisseur of the mechanisms of the individual and collective psyche, a skillful manipulator of human limits and weaknesses, the bronze horseman with three faces succeeded in an ideological-political combination through which he defies the principles and practice of democracy. When I refer to this phenomenon with dissatisfaction and concern, I have in mind the following fact: the combination of terror and propaganda woven around absolute/total power relies on the exploitation through submission and obedience of the natural reflexes of defense and survival of the individual and collectivity and on their emotional-affective receptivity. At the same time, the theory and practice of democracy — a product of Euro-North American culture and civilization — address the capacity for rational choice and discernment of the citizen and the educated collectivity, capable of (self) organization and leadership. So, Nature versus Culture ! And the three-faced bronze horseman has always known that nature is the basis of culture and that he can pay any amount in nature because he has, through terror and propaganda, the labor/fighting power of the masses. Absolutely possessing the labor/combat capacity of the crowd of individuals, the three-faced bronze horseman chose the simpler and cheaper route. He knew that it was too difficult and too expensive to develop economic and social policies, establish public services and explain to an uneducated and impoverished population the principles of the rule of law and representative democracy, the self-regulating mechanisms of the free market, the impossibility of increasing income without increasing investment, reducing the budget deficit without reducing public spending, balancing the trade balance without limiting imports and increasing exports of value-added (manufactured) products.
At the same time, a good psychologist of domination and manipulation, the three-faced bronze horseman understood that it was incomparably easier and more profitable for him to enchant the soul of the people with the boundless love for the great Russia transfigured in the sacred portrait of the motherland, to cultivate the quasi-religious obedience of the people to the beloved leader perceived over time under the guises of the daddy-tsar, of the general secretary of the communist party, of the president of the Russian Federation, to look for scapegoats, traitors and internal saboteurs or culprits in the politics of international companies and Western states. In other words, the rapacious, cynical and contemptuous policy of absolute/total power is delivered to the impoverished, uneducated, frightened population in the polished packaging of populism, the ideology of nationalist Orthodoxy, of the xenophobia, of the myth of the Savior, of the idolization of the leader. In turn, the impoverished and uneducated population buys the “box of poisoned candy” overpriced with the enthusiasm of unconsciousness and of the suicidal convenience. And so both parties, satisfied with this long social pact imposed through domination and manipulation, live in a sinister “cohabitation” whose end is not seen at the moment.
Could it be and otherwise?
March 15, 2022, the Russian Federation announced its withdrawal from the Council of Europe before being expelled. The same evening, during the extraordinary meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Russian Federation is officially excluded from the Council of Europe. On October 12, 2022, the UN General Assembly condemned with an “overwhelming” majority (143 states) the “illegal annexations” of Ukrainian territories by the Russian Federation. Thirty-five countries abstained, including China, India, Pakistan and South Africa. The five states that voted against the Resolution condemning the illegal annexations are the Russian Federation, Belarus, Syria, North Korea and Nicaragua. In the dry language of numbers, the isolation of the Russian Federation on the international stage is evident. In the drama of daily life, the population begins to feel more and more the loss of human lives on the front and the economic sanctions imposed by the international community. And yet, domestically, a political alternative capable of winning the elections by convincing people that, in fact, “Putin’s way” and any other variant lacking vision and reforming force will lead the Russian state and society to collapse has not yet been configured. In other words, the antidote capable of neutralizing the drunkenness of power and the virus of politicism in the leadership circle, nor the fear and fatalism in the ranks of the population, has not yet been found.
On the contrary, we are in a critical situation where the political Power of the Kremlin and the economic power of Gazprom have engaged in a criminal war of invasion of Ukraine, and the Orthodox Patriarchate, through the voice of Patriarch Kiril, has asked the Russians to enlist in this war. Engaged in a military adventure, isolated on the international scene, the troika of the post-Soviet power is heading towards an abyss where we do not know how many collateral victims there will be. Therefore, we are asking ourselves how the Russian Orthodox Church could free itself from the dominance of the autocratic state and the ideology of nationalist Orthodoxy. In other words, how could the Russian Orthodox Church earn its status as a “free church in a free state”? I am convinced that within the Russian Orthodox Church, some hierarchs and priests ask themselves such a question. “Can a critical mass be created within the Russian Orthodox Church that would lead to this paradigm shift ?” father-professor Wilhelm Dancă recently asked in a Romanian culture magazine (Dancă, 2022). Of course, “at the moment, no, because of the ideology of nationalist orthodoxy that dominates Russian society today”. There is still hope, though; the father-professor encourages us. “Just as Emmanuel, the “Prince of Peace”, “God with us” was born in Bethlehem, not in Nazareth, so the God who will save the Russian people will be born not in Moscow, but in exile if he was not born already. I state this based on two concrete facts. The first: from January to June 2022, 3.8 million inhabitants of Russia emigrated (…). The second: since June 7, 2022, Metropolitan Hilarion, the second hierarch in the Moscow Patriarchate, is in exile in Budapest because he did not support Patriarch Kiril’s decision to establish three dioceses dependent on the Russian Orthodox Church in the Crimean Peninsula. Therefore, I repeat, the God of peace for “Ruskii Mir” will be born in exile. All we have to do is meet Him. It’s important to be prepared !” (Ibidem).
Indeed, it is important to prepare our minds, soul and deeds for the implementation of modernizing reforms in the interest of the public good. The seeds of spiritual revival and renewal reforms are found, moreover, even in the recent documents of the Russian Orthodox Church. Prepared on the occasion of the Jubilee Episcopal Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in August 2000 — a period of crossroads that still was giving hope to Russian society in its post-communist transition — the document entitled The Foundations of the social conception of the Russian Orthodox Church has of major importance for the modernization of the Church (www.patriarchia.ru text/documents). In this document, the question of the relationship between Church and state, religion and politics are very clearly raised. Here is a memorable passage: “The Church maintains its loyalty to the state, but God’s command to carry out under all conditions and under all circumstances, the work of saving people is above this loyalty. If the power forces the Orthodox believers to apostasy towards Christ and His Church, forcing them to commit sins and acts harmful to the soul, the Church must refuse to submit to the state. Following the voice of his conscience, the Christian may not fulfill the commands of the state that push him to a serious sin” (Ibidem, III. 5). What a dizzying chasm between the position of moral high ground assumed by the Russian Orthodox Church in a moment of freedom, and the incitement to invasion and a war of mass destruction uttered by the current Patriarch Kiril in the name of a church enslaved to the autocratic Power of the Kremlin !
Starting from the fact that a society is functional as long as it can solve the major crises it faces, as a Romanian intellectual familiar with the Russian ethos through the comprehensive attitude of transposition into the situation, I advance the following hypothesis: freed from the dominance of the autocratic state and the ideology of nationalist Orthodoxy, the Russian Orthodox Church could contribute – through a living catechesis that appeals to the inner voice of the self – to the spiritual education of the people and, implicitly, to the preparation of a functional society capable of modernizing reforms in political, economic, cultural terms. The chances of a functional society in the Russian Federation, as well as in Romania, depend on the application of rational public policy programs in a spiritual-religious climate freed from the ideological-political enslavement. In such circumstances, by adopting the comprehensive attitude of transposition into the situation, we can perceive the exit of the Orthodox Church from the post-Soviet power troika as a necessary act of moral purification and soul salvation possible when each of us, hierarchs, clerics, the laity of good faith, we will have the courage to act by listening to the voice of our own conscience. I am aware of the complexity of such a process and the difficulties and risks assumed by the hierarchs and reforming priests in the Russian Federation. However, exceptional situations call for exceptional measures. Beyond the fears induced by the autocratic-oligarchic-ecclesiastical power to each of us, the human tragedy and gravity of the Russian-Ukrainian war can only be faced by listening to the inner voice of moral conscience. Living catechesis, synodal consultation, and the ecumenical spirit cannot occur outside the dialogue with the deep self and the assumption of moral consciousness.
Flashback. An unforgettable evening at the “Taras Shevchenko” National Museum in Kyiv
August 1973. I am on a trip to the Soviet Union, organized by the National Tourist Office (ONT, Romania). After visiting Moscow, Leningrad and Minsk, Kiev followed. Situated on both banks of the Dnieper, which flows majestically among the city’s forested hills, the Ukrainian metropolis has been adorned during the centuries with palaces, cathedrals and monasteries whose gilded domes glisten in the sunlight. We visit the Kiev Monastery of the Caves (Kiev Pechersk Lavra), the cathedrals of Saint Sophia, Saint Volodymyr, and the Holy Dormition. In the evening, we attend a memorable meeting with the poetry of Taras Shevchenko, whose literary work is the basis of the modern Ukrainian language and literature. Then, to the musical background of a nostalgic Ukrainian folk song, one hears the verses loaded with a strong premonitory message of the “cobzar” of the Ukrainian soul…
– Chatham House Report (May, 13, 2021). Myths and misconceptions in the debate on Russia. How they affect Western policy, and what can be done.
– Cornea, A. (2022). “Calea lui Gorbaciov” și “calea lui Putin” (“Gorbachev’s way” and “Putin’s way”). Dilema Veche (Old Dilemma), nr. 961, September 8. dilemaveche.ro.
– Dancă,W. (2022). Elemente religioase în conflictul ruso-ucrainean (Religious elements in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict ). Dilema Veche (Old Dilemma), nr. 955, July 28 – August 3. dilemaveche.ro › La porţile orientului
– Declarație cu privire la poziția Partidului Muncitoresc Român în problemele mișcării comuniste și muncitorești internaționale adoptată la Plenara lărgită a C.C. al P.M.R. din aprilie 1964 (Statement regarding the position of the Romanian Workers’ Party in the problems of the international communist and labor movement, adopted at the enlarged Plenary of the Central Committee of the Romanian Workers’ Party (1964). www.cnsas.ro › documente_programatice › 1964 Declaratia PMR
– Goncearenko, R. (2022). Opinie: De ce pacea în războiul din Ucraina este iluzorie în prezent (Opinion: Why peace in the Ukraine war is currently illusory). Deutche Welle, Romania. June 3.
– Osnovy sotsial’noy kontseptsii Russkoy Pravoslavnoy Tserkvi(The foundations of the social conception of the Russian Orthodox Church). Jubilee Episcopal Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, August 13-16, 2000. The original text: “Tserkov’ sokhranyayet loyal’ nost’ gosudarstvu, no vyshe trebovaniya loyal’nosti stoit Bozhestvennaya zapoved’: sovershat’ delo spaseniya lyudey v lyubykh usloviyakh i pri lyubykh obstoya tel’stvakh. Yesli vlast’ prinuzhdayet pravoslavnykh veruyushchikh k otstuple niyu ot Khrista i Yego otkazat’ gosudarstvu v povinovenii. Khristianin, sleduya veleniyu sovesti, mozhet ne ispolnit’ poveleniya vlasti, ponuzhdayushchego k tyazhkomu grekhu” (III. 5). www.patriarchia.rutext/documents.
– Patriarch Kirill (2022). “Go bravely to fulfill your military duty. And remember that if you die for your country, you will be with God in his kingdom, glory and eternal life” (“Idismelo na vypolneniye svoyego voinskogo dolga. I pomni, chto yesli ty umresh’ zasvoyu stra nu, ty budesh’ s Bogom v yego tsarstve, slave i vechnoy zhizni”). twitter.com › nexta_tv › status.
First quote: “Na beregu pustynnykh voln / Stoyal on, dum velikikh poln, / I vdal’ glyadel. Pred nim shiroko Rekaneslasya; (…) I dumal on: / Otsel’ grozit’ my budem shvedu, / Zdes’ budet gorod zalozhen / Na zlo nadmennomu sosedu. Prirodoy zdes’ nam suzhdeno / Yevropu prorubit’ okno, / Nogoyu tverdoy stat’ pri more. / Syuda po novym im volnam / Vse flagi v gosti budut k nam, / I zapiruyem na prostore”.
Second quote: “No bednyy, bednyy moy Yevgeniy… / Uvy! yego smyaténnyy um (….)./ Bezhit i slyshit za soboy / — Kak budto groma grokhotan’ye — Tyazholo-zvonkoye skakan’ye / Po potryasonnoy mostovoy. / I, ozaron lunoyu blednoy, Prostorshi ruku v vyshine, / Za nim nesotsya Vsadnik Mednyy / Na zvonko- Skachus chem kone; / I vo vsyu noch’ bezumets bednyy, / Kuda stopy ni obrashchal, Za nim povsyudu Vsadnik Mednyy / S tyazholym topo tom skakal (…)”. Alexandr S. Pushkin, Mednyy vsadnik. ilibrary.ru › text; www.culture.ru › … › Александр Пушкин — стихи.
– Valev, B. E. (1964). Problemele dezvoltării economice a raioanelor dunărene din România, Bulgaria și U.R.S.S (The problems of the economic development of the Danube districts in Romania, Bulgaria and the U.S.S.R) published as an Appendix to the paper, Probleme ale relațiilor economice dintre țările socialiste (Problems of economic relations between socialist countries) in Viața economică (Economic Life), Year II, no. 24 (43) of June 12, 1964, pp. 47-59.
– Yavlinsky, G. in dialogue with Sokolov, M. (2016). “V lyuboy rossiyskoy sisteme – lozh’ i vor ovstvo !” (“In any Russian system – lying and stealing !”). RadioSvoboda, August, 22.