INSIDE THE RUSSIAN MIND: THE CONCEPT OF KATECHON
“Perhaps Russia’s extraordinary geography played a part, or the unique historical role of Russian Orthodox Christianity in Russian state-formation, but Russian thought has lent itself to the idea of Russians being a chosen people, with a special historical role, not only in relation to the Russian nation, but in relation to humanity in general.”
David G. Lewis
Russia’s New Authoritarianism
“And now you know what is restraining (katechon), that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains (katechon) will do so until He is taken out of the way.”
2 Thessalonians 2: 6-7
“We are fighting for truth … they have nationalism, we must have Holy Empire, a katechon … and this Empire can only be Orthodox …”
January 12, 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is now over 330 days old.
In the West, the media continue to hammer out the accepted Western “party line” daily: Putin—the ultimate villain—has victimized an innocent Ukraine (a rising democratic country), such aggression has emboldened and reinvigorated the American-led NATO alliance, a global economic embargo will bring Russia’s fragile economy to its knees, and the West must provide increasing levels of weaponry to ensure Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s regime’s survival.
Prior to last Friday’s meeting in Germany of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group—the regular meeting of senior Western defense officials supporting Ukraine—the U.S. announced a new drawdown of $2.5 billion in weapons (including Stryker armored personnel carriers, hundreds of other vehicles, millions of rounds of artillery), bringing the total provided by the U.S. alone to $27 billion in military aid.
Yet a mere few weeks ago, we were being told that the Ukrainian forces were everywhere victorious, we were deluged with pictures of hundreds of bombed-out tanks and other Russian military equipment strewn across the battlefields, told the Russian troops were in complete disarray, and Putin was discouraged and perhaps very sick (today Ukrainian sources floated a story that Putin was dead). Suddenly, now there is talk of a new Russian offensive to threaten Kyiv, Zelensky is begging for tanks, and the West needs to provide the equipment necessary for a new Ukrainian offensive.
What has changed?
In my view, three things. First, Moscow switched tactics and began launching waves of missile and drone attacks on civilian infrastructure across Ukraine, leaving entire Ukrainian cities without heat, water, or electricity; all this before the onset of the worst of winter weather. Secondly, on the front lines the Russians stepped up their assault on Bakhmut and reinforced their defensive lines in the south.
But it is the third thing that has changed to which I want to devote the remainder of this missive. In the past few days, the public statements of Russian secular and ecclesiastical leaders have become more strident, defiant, and apocalyptic sounding. Last week, for example, Russia’s former president and Putin ally—Dmitry Medvedev—warned NATO leaders that a defeat of Russia on the battlefield could trigger a nuclear war. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, declared during a sermon for Epiphany, that the West’s efforts to try and destroy Russia would mean the end of the world. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, warned in Minsk last week, that NATO and the European Union needed to “sober up” before it is too late. Finally, Putin, himself, has started to repeatedly portray the conflict in Ukraine as an existential battle with an aggressive, arrogant, and decadent West.
The Western mainstream media tends to ignore these threats as mere hollow bluffs or the desperate final acts of a country and its leaders increasingly finding themselves on the wrong side of history. My purpose in this missive is certainly not to defend the actions by Putin—a thoroughly despicable thug—or to demean the brave efforts of outnumbered Ukrainian fighters. But rather to point out a thread of thought that weaves itself throughout Russian history—the concept of the katechon—which may, at least in part, be driving Russian policy decisions in Ukraine.
What is the concept of katechon?
If you look up the word in the Wikipedia, it notes that the term katechon is derived from a Greek word meaning “that which withholds (or restrains)” or one who withholds or restrains. It is a biblical word used by the Apostle Paul to denote an event that must happen before the Antichrist can be revealed. Since Paul does not explicitly mention the katechon’s identity, the passage’s interpretation has been subject to debate among theologians. Over time, this biblical concept has developed into political philosophies that have very tangible effects on today’s events.
This is especially true within the Russian thought world, where the concept of katechon fuses together with at least three other strands of historical and religious narratives. When I taught a “Modern History of Russia” class at the College of the Ozarks a few years ago, I would touch on each of these narratives at some point during the semester.
I so enjoyed teaching that class.
The first of these strands—and an understanding of the modern Russian perceptual world is incomplete without taking it into account—is Russian “messianism.” As Nikolai Berdyaev famously noted in his The Russian Idea, “Messianic consciousness is more characteristic of the Russians than of any other people except the Jews.” According to Vladimir Solovyov, this trait gives the Russians the notion that they are “the chosen bearer and perpetuator (sovershitel) of the historical fate of mankind.”
The second closely associated thought strand is the famous invocation of Moscow as the “Third Rome,” first enunciated in 1511 by the priest Filofei. This concept—largely scoffed at by Western thinkers—provides the Russians with a perceptual view of a unique sacral role which has subsequently morphed into geopolitical concepts.
A third thought strain—which clearly appears in many statements of today’s Russian political, intellectual, and spiritual leaders—is a view that interprets Russia not as an all-conquering imperial power, but rather as a tragic, long-suffering defender of Europe and Christianity against elements of lawlessness and external powers. Whether it be shielding Europe from the ravages of the Huns, the mystical maneuverings of Tsar Alexander I during the French Revolution and Napoleonic era, or the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, Russians view themselves as a people called to suffer for a special mission. So, when former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tells the people a few days ago that they must be prepared to suffer additional hardships to defeat a hedonistic West in Ukraine, perhaps even nuclear-related catastrophes, he has a broad audience of listeners.
Although the concept of katechon is perhaps best captured in its spiritual sense—and thus needs to be viewed through a Russian Orthodox prism—in recent years the idea has escaped its Orthodox moorings and has been used by a new family of Russian thinkers to justify the Putin regime and a new vision of Russian neo-greatness. Alexander Dugin can be numbered among this group (whose ideas I have discussed in previous missives) and who has claimed that Putin himself is the Katechon. Indeed, an influential manifesto of Russian conservatism prepared by Mikhail Remizov’s Institute of National Strategy in 2014 talks of the “traditional conception among Russian conservatives of the role of Russia as the Katechon—the ‘Restrainer’—(uderzhivaiushchii), preventing, on one hand, global anarchy, and on the other a global monopoly and hegemony, both of which … risk global consequences.”
Perceptually, Russia is snared on the twin pincers of these ideological underpinnings in the Ukraine today.
For the Russians, it is a grand existential battle being waged against a thoroughly decadent and lawless West. As one scholar notes, “the interpretation of katechon as a bulwark against dangerous illusions of salvation through the final struggle of humanity, takes on added significance in the context of the hubris of the post-Cold War period of universalist liberalism, not least in the version of Francis Fukuyama (1992), which proclaimed a teological end of history, interpreted by some conservative thinkers as a goal to be achieved primarily through the defeat of the historical katechon, Russia.”
Just something to consider the next time you read an article on Ukraine … the other side of the mirror.
 David G. Lewis, Russia’s New Authoritarianism: Putin and the Politics of Order (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). The quote is taken from Chapter Nine, “Apocalypse Delayed: Katechontic Thinking in Late Putinist Russia.” The book is a marvelous discussion of the Russian mind.
 Medvedev, former President of Russia and now Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council, posted this cryptic statement, extensively quoting Aleksandr Dugin, although readers are not sure whether Medvedev is talking about Putin as the katechon or the Russian Empire. In both interpretations, Russia is restraining the Antichrist in the West, consumed by a spirit of lawlessness.
 Karen DeYoung, et.al., “Inside the urgent push to arm Ukraine for a spring offensive,” The Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2023.
 Guy Faulconbridge and Felix Light, “Putin ally warns NATO of nuclear war if Russia is defeated in Ukraine,” Reuters, Jan. 19, 2023.
 Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica refers to a long period of teaching while he was with them, undoubtedly covering such topics as the coming Antichrist, the mystery of lawlessness and, almost certainly, what he meant by katechon (since the grammatical nature of the text hints at both an impersonal force and a personal figure). Paul assumes they know exactly what he is talking about. Unfortunately, we do not have access to this body of teaching. Subsequently, theologians have tried to fill in the gap; in the modern Western world—especially the evangelistic Protestant wing of Christianity—thinkers have fallen under the sway of dispensational thinking, with teachings that vary greatly from the more traditional tenets of Orthodoxy.
 Nikolai Berdyaev, The Russian Idea, (1948), p. 8.
 Lewis, Russia’s New Authoritarianism, p. 197.
 The three: Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow.
 See the excellent discussion at Lewis, Russia’s New Authoritarianism, pp. 199-200. Some frame this concept as obshchechelovecheskii—Russia’s “national and universal mission”—(Kozhinov).
 For a fascinating discussion of the broader implications of Medvedev’s cryptic postings on Telegram, see the on-line program of Rick Wiles, TruNews, Jan. 12, 2023.
 See Dugin’s 1997 article on “Katechon and Revolution.”
 See discussion at Lewis, Russia’s New Authoritarianism, p. 202.