A New Old Game

by Robert Gear (April 2022)

Of Things to Come, Georg Scholz, 1922


At the risk of wading in where angels and many others have already trodden, here are a few thoughts relevant to the current situation in Eastern Europe.

We can glean some insight from Ludwig von Mises’s words in his 1927 work, Liberalism. He writes:

Ever since Russia was first in a position to exercise an influence on European politics, it has continually behaved like a robber who lies in wait for the moment when he can pounce upon his victim and plunder him of his possessions. At no time did the Russian Czars acknowledge any other limits to the expansion of their empire than those dictated by the force of circumstances. The position of the Bolsheviks in regard to the problem of territorial expansion of their dominions is not a whit different.

Could it be that something in the character of the inhabitants of this giant country leads them (or their dictators) to adopt an aggressive posture, ‘to push where there’s mush,’ as Lenin famously encouraged his comrades. I leave aside the question of whether or not other great powers have been ‘a whit different’ or indeed of how much responsibility they must share for this recent installment of mayhem.

The basic motives behind war in general according to Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War are three: Honor, Fear and Interest (Security, Honour and Self-Interest, in Rex Warner’s translation). Donald Kagan, in his On the Origins of War sees these as decisive elements throughout recorded history. Perhaps all three help manifest themselves in character; as may topography, geography, location, climate, historical trauma, the predilections of particular despots, and for all we know the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, and so on.

But what about the Russians? The character and proclivities of a well-known Russian despot is well attested in John Evelyn’s diary entry for February 6th, 1698. He records that:

The Czar Emp: of Moscovy [Peter the Great], having a mind to see the Building of Ships, hired my house at Sayes Court, & made it his Court & palace, lying & remaining in it …

Not altogether surprisingly, Peter, who had something of a reputation for riotous living, was far from a model guest. He proceeded to comprehensively trash Evelyn’s house—knocking a hole in the wall to allow easier access to the shipyard at Deptford. He and his entourage apparently broke over three hundred windows, twenty pictures and fifty chairs. The paintwork of Sayes Court was ruined, and the curtains, bedding and floors were smeared with ink and grease. Worst of all, the young Tsar destroyed the diarist’s pride and joy, the “impregnable” hedge in his garden, “four hundred foot in length, nine foot high, and five in diameter.” It was claimed that Peter enjoyed being pushed through the magnificent hedge in a wheelbarrow. So much for the young Czar’s merrymaking, a small-scale ‘scorched-earth policy’ practiced a few years before he really got into the swing of it in his war with Charles XII of Sweden.

Czar Peter’s performance could well be used as a pilot episode for a show to be called ‘Houseguest from Hell.’ But then, such a potential ratings triumph may already exist in the world of trivia broadcasting. Perhaps too, ‘we warranted no better, I don’t know,’ as Larkin might have put it. Indeed there are compensations for not owning a ‘goggle box,’ or as they now should be renamed ‘goggle walls.’ These permit an ‘immersive’ experience enabling one to watch the unfolding tragedies and comedies of the world from the comforts of ones own rooms (in my limited experience there being a giant flat telescreen contrivance in more than one room of the average suburban house).

So character must count for something. Peter’s foibles appear rather like the antics of British ‘yoof’ during their Mediterranean sojourns. The difference being, though, that Peter was considered ‘educated’; the yoof, not so much. Whatever the case, character sometimes truly is destiny, as Heraclitus noted about 3000 years ago.

What is the character of Russian elites and people? Theodore Dalrymple in his essay, How to Read a Society, discusses the brief visit to Russia in the 1830s of the French essayist, the Marquis de Custine. This thoughtful aristocrat enlightens the reader about the Russian character of that time and place. The maintenance of Russian despotism depended on a ‘universal vocation for untruth’ without which the population would be uncontrollable. And as is more widely known, Tocqueville, Custine’s contemporary and kindred national studied the effects of political liberty on the human character in the early United States, and broadly speaking found that such liberty produced honesty, plain dealing and enterprise: virtue without external coercion. These are qualities which are decidedly the opposite of those Custine observed in St Petersburg and environs.

Can this argument still be made? No doubt, many factors play into any Russian leader’s decision to ‘pounce,’ and there is plenty of blame to go around in the current imbroglio, including much meddling, whether incoherent or planned by Nato countries in a bid to influence the alliances of the large buffer state. However, the decision by Putin to invade, with all the consequent misery this has already entailed does seem to conform to Mises’s accusation and de Custine’s observations.

Of course, much of what Custine observed may now have significance beyond that vast country: the effect of despotism upon ‘human psyche and character.’ Judging by burgeoning displays of ‘cancellation’ and bullying in our own ‘law and liberal’ societies no nation is immune.

But the resolve to engage in aggressive actions seems to be strengthened by the perceived failure of potential adversaries to apply strength or deterrence.

Here are three very notable and, historically speaking, recent examples of the Russian empire ‘pouncing’ at moments when the leadership of the United States has been recognized as feeble.

Take, for example, the 1962 Kennedy/Khrushchev meeting in Vienna. The Soviet leader came away with a view of Kennedy that is less than flattering. In his opinion, Kennedy was overly cautious, and unlikely to stand up to bullying. Kennedy, himself, admitted privately to Richard Nixon that his own failure in the Bay of Pigs fiasco might have led the Chairman to the belief that “he could keep pushing us all over the world.”

Clearly, the Russians thought they were dealing with an indecisive weakling. As it turned out, of course, during the missile crisis of 1962, Kennedy showed more firmness than his Soviet counterpart had anticipated. But then, the crisis may well not have developed had the US leader shown a more forthright understanding of Communist ‘managerial style.’

Next, we had the example of President James Earl Carter Jr, whose failure to understand international affairs was glaring from the moment he stepped onto the stage of US politics. He was truly a paper tiger, or gave that impression to interested observers. Brezhnev (or Brezhnev’s handlers, for by this time the Marshal had suffered a stroke and was in poor health, not just physically. Yes, he has a modern counterpart nearer to home.) took one look at Jimmy and started preparations to ‘pounce’ on Afghanistan. True, in the longer term this turned out to be a pounce too far for the communist regime; some would argue that this was a decisive element in the eventual fall of the evil empire; History is cunning.

As a personal aside, I traveled in Afghanistan in 1974 and met several Russian ‘engineers.’ I even decisively lost a chess game to one who was enjoying the comforts of the flea-bag hotel in which I lodged in Kabul (a very small game being played in the shadow of The Great Game). And what had these engineers been required to do in Afghanistan? They were there to develop a road system on which to maneuver their military vehicles.

By the way, the reason why there were so many chess sets on the loose in Kabul was a mystery to me until I realized that Soviet citizens could barter them with Afghani tribal members in exchange for western cigarettes and other, for them at least, communistically unobtainable luxuries. What the locals thought of these strange checker-patterned boards replete with curiously plasticated and often unislamic figurines would have confounded Sherlock Holmes.

And now we have a sitting President who is perceived, by friend and foe alike, as the least competent and most feckless in modern US history; sometimes perceptions and reality do coincide. And so the current ruling Russian autocrat has pounced again.

Von Mises had an astute understanding of the perpetual aggressive posture of Russian elites. Perhaps, those who want peace should understand the same. The Great Game is an old game.


Table of Contents


Robert Gear is a Contributing Editor to New English Review who now lives in the American Southwest. He is a retired English teacher and has co-authored with his wife several texts in the field of ESL.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast


9 Responses

  1. Alas, as you hinted, one doesn’t need to be Russian or a Russo-phile to have pounce-mania. But of course if probably helps. I’m pretty sure Chairman Mao’s heirs are deep in the Great Game as well, as are the apparently ineffectual folks at Downing Street in London. Imagine a piece of jersey fabric being pulled every which way by six or seven individuals. I can only assume that it would be curiously out of shape when they let go. That was an oblique Einstein reference, by the way (make of it what you will, gravity being what it is).

  2. I fully agree with Robert’s view, Tsar Vladimir needs to be removed, and I agree to the reply by Clarke above, mentioning Mao’s heir’s expansionist views, after the invasion of Tibet by Mao, the invasion of uninhabited Pacific Ocean islands nowadays…But notwithstanding the geriatric theatrics of this current “Leader of the Free World”, let’s be reminded that the “Free World” leaders have been playing a different New Old Game altogether, not called the Expansion Game, but the Destabilization Game. Let’s go back to say…1984, as an example only, to Operation GLADIO (GLADIO was set up with British help in the 1950’s with ”stay behinds”, including former Nazi officers from WW2 in order to fight bolshevism and communism, the engines of the anticipated WW3 with the invasion of Europe by the USSR, operated by the secret service and financed by the OSS, aka the CIA). In this operation, a squad of US Marines was parachuted into Belgium, that’s right, you read right, Belgium, an innocuous, democratic, law abiding Christian country and home of the EU and NATO Headquarters. That squad hid for couple of weeks in safe-houses before attacking a police station in the southern part of the country, killing a police officer and stealing weapons and ammunition. Further attacks took place elsewhere in Belgium and more weapons and ammunition were stolen to be handed over to some fascist groups. Groups of armed men, armed by these US Marines, would burst into restaurants and supermarkets and start shooting; 28 people were killed, 40 injured. Ten years later, it was confirmed by a Belgian Senate hearing that the US Gladio network operatives, with the help of the local government, were responsible for participating in ruthless terrorist attacks against their own people in order to instill fear, control the population, and frame left-wing political opponents. This was also done in France, Italy, Germany and Northern Ireland. People who believe that such things do not or cannot happen in democratic western countries, or that this is disinformation, should be forcefully made aware of such examples as Operation Gladio. In 1992, the BBC aired a documentary made by Allan Francovich in both English and French languages titled “Operation Gladio”. Since 1981, Gladio has gone global and armed gangs and counter gangs in Iraq and Syria, and now probably, in socialist Sri Lanka for refusing the American Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Aid offer. In other words, Gladio has gone global, thanks to the CIA. So, in order to complete the circle, yes, Tsar Vladimir is a psychopath, in the tradition of Ivan the Terrible, Xi Jinping is a psychopath, in the tradition of Mao Tse Tong, but Brendon is also one (with the mandatory Covid19 biological experiment) in the tradition of Andrew Jackson who, 200 years earlier, slaughtered thousands of Native Americans and supported slavery…New Old Game, same same, but different, as they say!…Q.E.D…

    1. The link between the stay-behind network Gladio and the murderous killings, attributed to the “gang of Nivelles” was never proven, nor the link with far right extremists. In fact, that Nivelles-gang was never caught by justice, and the whole thing remains in the mist

      1. …”The Nivelles Gang was never caught…” indeed, It just goes to show how well connected and “protected” they were. I wonder how much money, or how many favors the Belgian, now known as Belgistan, government received from the CIA for sweeping the whole “Nivelles Gang” affair under the carpet, like they do in all third world countries…

  3. Excellent discussion. Not sure I agree with the argument about historic “Russian” aggression when imperial policy might better be tied to regimes. Nevertheless, the bottom line is spot on. At game time, you take your shots where you can. The Biden regime is a target of opportunity, a lame duck in the crosshairs. War is as realpolitik as it gets. Ironic that we now fret about regime change in Moscow as an inept oligarchy in Washington is about to crumble into the dustbin of history.

  4. How can a country that produced so many grand masters in chess not learn from its dumb moves throughout history? By default, however, you praise the history shaking ineptitude of Carter, Biden et al. Their perceived timidness lays open a trapdoor into which these perfidious Moscow henchmen always seem to lurch. You also forgot Obama, whose goal was not only not to employ American power to its capable extent but to put American power into reverse, as some self inflicted anti imperial revanchism. Putin knows Democrat red lines are scrawled in chalk. Excellent piece, though. More like it, please…

  5. The need of greed is the seed //
    It seeks the motive force, the power //
    Once in hand as a toxic flower //
    It gives cause for weak innocents to cower.

    The ancient equation is the basis of our repeated baseness: Greed x Power = Cruelty. Cruelty is just another word for aggression, tyranny, bullying. Greed by definition is wanting more than one’s fair share, usually to be taken from a weaker other.

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