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Then you might get something like Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War, which I’ve finally read on the recommendations of Kolya and TG. Ranging from Ermak’s subjugation of the Sibir Khanate to the rise of Rome, Turchin makes the case that the rise and fall of empires is reducible to three basic concepts: 1) Asabiya – social cohesiveness and capacity for collective action, 2) Malthusian dynamics – the tendency for population to outgrow the carrying capacity, and 3) the “Matthew Principle” – the tendency for inequality and social stratification to increase over time. The interplay between these three forces produces the historical patterns of imperial rise and fall, of war and peace and war, that were summarized by Thomas Fenne in 1590 thus:

Warre bringeth ruine, ruine bringeth poverty, poverty procureth peace, and peace in time increaseth riches, riches causeth statelinesse, statelinesse increaseth envie, envie in the end procureth deadly malice, mortall malice proclaimeth open warre and bataille, and from warre again as before is rehearsed.

Turchin, PeterWar and Peace and War (2006)
Category: history, cliodynamics, war; Rating: 4/5
Summary: Amazon reviews

Ibn Khaldun, Malthus, and Saint Matthew meet up for coffee

1) According to the Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, empires only form when a tribe, nation, or religious sect attains a high degree of asabiya, – the ability of a group’s members to cooperate with each other, to maintain their identity and discipline in the face of adversity, and to impose their beliefs, values, and control over other groups. Other similar expressions are social cohesion or “social capital”. As Ibn Khaldun wrote, “royal authority and dynastic power are attained only through a group and asabiya. This is because aggressive and defensive strength is obtained only through… mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other”. (To put this in context, this is similar to Lev Gumilev’s theories of “passionarity” / пассионарность (willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s values) or my own ideas on the sobornost’-poshlost’ / rationalism-mysticism belief matrix, in which a state of sobornost’, of course, refers to a high level of asabiya).

This is not surprising – military cooperation and morale is an important factor in military success. See the stunning successes of the early Islamic armies spreading the revelations of Mohammed, or of Nazi Germany. Later in the book, Turchin references the work of Trevor Dupuy, who showed that the Germans had a “combat efficiency” of 1.45, compared to the British 1.0 and American 1.1, in the battles on the western front of 1944 – in other words, excluding equipment and terrain, each Germany soldier was militarily “worth” 20% more than an Anglo-Saxon one.

Now why do some societies have higher asabiya than others? Ibn Khaldun’s analysis covered the dynamics of the desert / settled boundary in the North African Maghreb. Amongst the desert Bedouin tribes, constant inter-tribal warfare exerts group selective pressure favoring the emergence of tribes high in asabiya. These selective pressures are much weaker in settled civilizations with rule of law. Now these defects are more than made up for civilizations’ greater population density and better technologies, which can normally yield much bigger, better-equipped armies than anything the barbarians can muster. However, should civilization fall into a state of internal strife and social dissolution, it becomes “vulnerable to conquest from the desert” by a coalition of Bedouin tribes organized around one group with a particularly high asabiya. However, as soon as the barbarians become ensconced within their new domains, they gradually assimilate into the urban civilization, the high asabiya of the core group dissipates, and the cycle begins anew.

Turchin extends Ibn Khaldun’s beyond the Maghreb into a general theory of the rise of empires, almost all of which arise along “meta-ethnic frontiers” featuring bloody conflicts between starkly alien peoples. The constant military pressure and hatred for the Other binds the borderlanders together, fostering the relative economic equality, social solidarity, and discipline that will in time build an empire. Examples of this include the conflict of the Roman farmer-warriors against the Celtic barbarians of the Po Valley that melded the Latin peoples into the Roman Empire, the centuries-long struggle against the raiding, slave-taking steppe Hordes that incubated Muscovy’s rise, and the violent frontier wars against the Native Americans that formed the “melting pot” identity of the United States. The entire history of Europe from the Roman Empire to Poland-Lithuania has been characterized by the millennial, north-eastern drift of the meta-ethnic frontier between Rome/Christianity and tribal pagans, a frontier which repeatedly spawned new states and empires (Rome itself, the Caroliangian Empire, and the myriad Germanic and Slavic states.

2) The author notes that Ibn Khaldun’s blaming of “luxury” and “senility” for the degeneration of civilizations is an inadequate explanation, being nothing more than a biological metaphor with questionable applicability. Instead, Turchin lays out the theory of cliodynamics, the “mathematized history” that attempts to provide a comprehensive explanation of the “secular cycles” of imperial rise and fall by modeling Malthusian dynamics, i.e., when a great empire arises the resulting stability and prosperity produce overpopulation, which results in dearth, rising inequality (i.e. the old middle-class shrinks, while oligarchs and the landless indigent veer into prominence), and an intensified struggle for scarce resources that undermines social solidarity. Eventually, a severe shock such as a disastrous harvest, peasant uprisings, civil war, or foreign invasion provokes a full-fledged Malthusian crisis that triggers the collapse of the empire. I’ve already written about cliodynamics in detail here.

(Incidentally, I’ve also connected the decline of asabiya (or in my terminology, the transition from sobornost’ to poshlost’) to the socio-demographic cycles of cliodynamics. The theme of The Ages of Man, in which the bounteous Golden Age of the first dynasties (imperial rise) degenerates into the “immorality” and dearth of the Iron Age (social atomization, Malthusian stress, decline), – finally followed by an apocalyptic “cleansing” and start again (Malthusian collapse, barbarian invasions, Dark Ages, etc), is common to all civilizational traditions. See my Musings on the decline and fall of civilizations and explanation of the Malthusian Loop.)

3) Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”. In other words, there is a natural tendency for wealth to become concentrated in the hands of the few, called the Matthew Principle. In other words, if a pre-industrial civilization enjoys socio-political stability, has ineffective redistributive mechanisms, no free land / overpopulation, and a social mentality that accepts (or even glorifies – see “conspicuous consumption”) big levels of wealth inequality, within several generatons it will develop prodigal levels of social stratification. Wealth inequality tends to reach a maximum just before a collapse of the entire system: for instance, the Roman Empire fell for the last time just decades after reaching “peak inequality” in 400AD. Similar things can be said about the end of republican Rome, the decline of medieval France, and even Russia 1917 or Iran 1979.

Why does the Matthew Principle operate so strongly in Malthusian settings? In agrarian societies, private property is the normal way of storing inherited wealth. If a family has lots of children, each one will inherit ever smaller plots. To make ends meet, they will be eventually forced to borrow loans; if they can’t, their land is taken over by their creditors, and they now have to hire themselves out as agricultural laborers or drift into the cities where they can try to join a trade (hence the reason why cities expand so much in times of subsistence stress). Meanwhile, those who have land can 1) rent it out at exorbitant rates (since the demand for it is so high in an overpopulated country) or 2) they can sell the grain their tenants or serfs produce at high prices (again because there are more mouths to feed). The resulting accumulation of drifting unemployed are matchwood for social unrest (e.g. see the role of the sans-culottes in the French Revolution).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the social spectrum, the elites or nobility grow at a faster rate than the commoners because they have better access to food and can afford more children, and die less quickly. Those with land benefit from cheaper labor and the rise in rent prices, while manufactures become easier to afford thanks to the increase in trade and urban artisans. However, intra-elite inequality also increases, and there is increasing tension as some poor nobles see peasant arrivistes rising above them in social status. Because the king depends on the nobles for governing his kingdom, state institutions must be expanded to “feed” all those nobles who are left out of inheritances, fostering corruption, aristocratic intrigues, and social stratification. Those at the very top of the social pyramid engage in the most extravagant conspicuous consumption, provoking envy amongst the have-nots. All these widening social chasms reduce the society’s asabiya.

The plagues, wars, and internal violence unleashed by Malthusian collapse tends to kill off most of the top and bottom of the social period. The landless indigent starve to death, or their weakened immune systems succumb to disease, or they get carried away as the cannon fodder in the uprisings that wrack the failed state. The nobles also die fast, thanks to their status as a military caste. Generational cycles of violence and wars and political purges carry many of them off. After the collapse, land becomes cheaper and labor becomes more expensive. Subsistence stress largely subsides and society becomes much more egalitarian. The cycle begins anew.

Criticisms and Consequences

I think Turchin’s book is a good introductory text to the new science of cliodynamics, one he himself did much to found (along with Nefedov and Korotayev). However, though readable – mostly, I suspect, because I am interested in the subject – it is not well-written. The text was too thick, there were too many awkward grammatical constructions, and the quotes are far, far too long.

More importantly, 1) the theory is not internally well-integrated and 2) there isn’t enough emphasis on the fundamental differences separating agrarian from industrial societies. For instance, Turchin makes a lot of the idea that the Italians’ low level of asabiya (“amoral familism”) was responsible for it’s only becoming politically unified in the late 19th century. But why then was it the same for Germany, the bloody frontline for the religious wars of the 17th century? And why was France able to build a huge empire under Napoleon, when it had lost all its “meta-ethnic frontiers” / marches by 1000 AD? For answers to these questions about the genesis of the modern nation-state, one would be much better off by looking at more conventional explanations by the likes of Benedict Anderson, Charles Tilly, or Gabriel Ardant.

Nowadays, modern political technologies – the history textbook, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, the radio and Internet – have long displaced the meta-ethnic frontier as the main drivers behind the formation of asabiya. Which is certainly not to say that meta-ethnic frontiers are unimportant – they are, especially in the case of Dar al-Islam, which feels itself to be under siege on multiple fronts (the “bloody borders” of clash-of-civilizations-speak), which according to Turchin’s theory should promote a stronger Islamic identity. But their intrinsic importance has been diluted by the influence of modern media.

Turchin has an interesting discussion of the future of the US, China, Russia, and the European Union based on the conclusions of War and Peace and War. In particular, one very relevant point he made is that to become a true empire, the EU requires 1) the development of a European-wide loyalty towards it, willing to shed blood for it, and 2) its core state, Germany, must continue to underwrite it financially. None of these conditions, I think it is safe to say, will be met. Germany is most emphatically not prepared to sacrifice its national interests in favor of a European project over which it does not have direct control; the Germans have their own problems, foremost among them the demographic aging of the population. Furthermore, only 37% of Germans are today prepared to fight for their own country, according to the findings of the World Values Survey*; if that is the case, then how many Germans would fight (and risk death) for the Brussels bureaucracy? 5% would probably be generous. Quite simply the EU does not have any foundations for an imperial future, nor the will to create one; it is very fragile and will start unraveling at the smallest shocks.

Another major problem with the book that makes it incomplete is that although Turchin touches and speculates about the modern world and the future – in particular, he notes that the rising inequality, crime rates, slower growth, etc, of the post-1960′s industrialized world is similar to the traditional symptoms of an emerging Malthusian crisis – he does not connect the dots with the Limits to Growth, the theory that explicitly states that we are being swept into a Malthusian crisis due to global overpopulation and resource depletion. This is a far more important development than the techno-hype he devotes much of the last chapter to.

In the end I gave a 4/5 for this book, although it could have potentially gotten 5*/5. Turchin did valuable work in emphasizing how the material (e.g. the Malthusian) interacts with the spiritual (asabiya) in history, whereas many lesser theorists regard the latter as a “mystical” factor unworthy of serious attention. However, the book suffered from 1) poor writing, 2) too many marginal details that should have been edited out, and 3) unsuccessful application of the theory to the current, post-agrarian era. He should either have left it out entirely, or spent a lot more time doing it better.

* From the latest “wave” of the World Values Survey, “Of course, we all hope that there will not be another war, but if it were to come to that, would you be willing to fight for your country?” I think this question is an excellent way of gauging asabiya in a nation, since it directly addresses the issue of life, death, and self-sacrifice. The results are very interesting.

The Scandinavian countries – limp-wristed feminist socialists that they are ;) – all say a resounding “yes” (Sweden 86%, Norway 88%, Finland 84%). Similarly, for all the problems of the post-Communist transition, Eastern European nations also retain high levels of asabiya (Poland 75%, Russia 83%, Georgia 70%), though Serbia 61% is lower (maybe because they’ve already fought) and so is Ukraine 69% (its Russophones aren’t as loyal as West or Central Ukrainians). Most of the Muslim countries say “yes” (Iran 81%, Egypt 80%, Morocco 77%), including a whopping 97% in Turkey. Iraq 37% is the sole outlier. Similarly, the Asian nations also have high levels of patriotism (China 87%, India 81%, South Korea 73%).

The United States 63% isn’t as high as one might think, and curiously close to France 61%, Great Britain 62%, and the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world. The nations of Latin America tend to have similar figures. The Mediterranean countries, the old countries, and the countries defeated in World War Two are the last willing to put their lives on the line for their nation (Italy 43%, Spain 45%, Japan 25%, Germany 37%).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Sean recently suggested Russianists study the history of smell in Russia. I have an even better idea: a history of sex in Russia, or rather my translation of the tabloid article Сексуальные традиции на Руси (Russian Sexual Traditions). It’s historically and culturally inaccurate in more than a few places, but will hopefully make for a light relief from Sublime Oblivion‘s usual repertoire of the meaning of life and (alleged) “academic rationalizations of murder” – and perhaps even provoke a serious discussion of sexuality in history.


Hollywood’s rules of sex, the amatory emancipation of Western Europe, and yes the exotic Kama Sutra – these are a few samples of the love life which today’s Russian couples cautiously carry off to bed.

At one time, in a nation with new-found freedom, and including – sexual freedom, all we heard was: Indian Kama Sutra, French love, Swedish family… Is it really the case that Russia never had any sexual traditions of its own?

But it did! Every people has traditions, including sexual ones. Yet on the one hand, in the East there was great respect for written sources, hence we got the ancient Indian tracts on intimacy in their virgin form; on the other hand, since Western advertising is so much better than in Russia, many of us imagine that we are doing nothing more in bed than copying the Europeans.

And Russian historians are in no great hurry to defend doctoral dissertations on the topic of fornication in old Russia – partly because during the first decades of the Romanov dynasty, many priceless annals from the old times were destroyed due to various political reasons. So we are forced to reconstruct much of the history and traditions of the Slavic peoples, including their intimate relations, using “circumstantial evidence” – through foreign eyewitness accounts.

Ancient Bacchanals

Byzantine historians considered the Slavs to be a branch of the Huns. Procopius of Caesarea described our ancestors to be men of great height, big weight, and enormous physical strength, with golden-red complexions. Already in the 6th century it is known that most Slavs were fair-haired. By then patriarchal relations and polygamy (usually from two to four wives) predominated in old Russia. That said, wives were not considered as their husbands’ chattel in any of the Slavic tribes. Furthermore, “unloved” wives had the right to officially swap husbands without shame. And if they found a young, dashing cavalier who “offered them his heart”, promising to make her his “first” wife, the young Slavic maiden would change spouses.

Another Byzantine historian of the 6th century, Maurikios the Strategist, was struck by the Slavs’ favored way of copulation – amidst water: on lakes or river shallows, or even on a flowing river. He was particularly astonished at Slavic youths’ indulgence in group sex on the festive days before betrothal and marriage – nobody cared for their virginity.

For a long time, until as late as the 12th century, our ancestors associated sexuality with festivals, laughter, singing and musical accompaniments. One of these old Slavic festivals, in honor of the goddess of love Lada, later became Ivan Kupala Day. It is hard even to imagine the sheer degree of sexual abandon in honor of Lada, if one considers what Orthodox monks wrote about the rather more respectable festival of Ivan Kupala as late as the 17th century: “And hereupon is a great falling of husbands and adolescents on the women, and swaying of maidens; and in such spirit is there also the riotous defilement of the married women”.

The concept of a “loose woman” [bludnitsa] appeared around about the 7th century, and only signified that the girl was searching (‘wandering’) for a husband. At the end of the 8th century, when the Slavic shamans were given the hard task of defloration – that is, taking the virginity of any brides who hadn’t yet managed to lose theirs in the “girl baths” on the day before the marriage – the concept of “loose woman” changed. People started defining all women who lost their virginity under this term. From the 12th to the 17th century, unmarried women in intimate relations and widows receiving men to their homes were considered “loose women”. Only in the 18th century, thanks to the Church’s persistent efforts, did the word “loose woman” become a swear word (but not one of abuse, as the Church would have wanted). Accordingly, the level of sinfulness became subdivided linguistically and in jurisdictional practice. Blud, meant a relationship with an unmarried woman, whereas adultery [prelyubodejstwo] – meant a relationship with a married one. Prostitutes were called “shameless wenches” [sramnye devki].

Another “brand” feature of old Slavic intimate relations was the lack of zoophile or homosexual traditions, as well as a categorical aversion on the part of the men to making their carnal triumphs an object of general discussion (bragging about one’s successes with the ladies was common amongst ancient Indian heroes, and amongst Western European knights).

Sexual Taboos

The initiator of the struggle for old Russia’s “moral integrity” was probably… Princess Olga. In 953, she issued the first edict relating to the sex-wedding theme that we know of, stipulating monetary or material compensation if it was discovered that the bride was not a virgin.

However, it was only in 967 that Prince Svyatoslav came round to forbidding the shamans from taking the brides’ virginity, stating that henceforth, defloration would be the direct responsibility and pride of the husband. Svyatoslav also tried to ban dances during the “dispensable times” of the year, that is, the days when there were no all-Russian festivals. The fact of the matter is that amongst many of the world’s people, including amongst the Slavs, dances were considered to be an erotic indulgence – during the jumping and capering intimate places were revealed, that were usually covered by skirts, capes, or sweaters. But the sexual reformers clearly exceeded their mandate. The people protested and the decree had to be cancelled.

Satanic Temptations

The Russian Orthodox Church played the greatest role in curbing “Satanic temptations” in old Russia, starting its activities in earnest during the 12th century.

The shamans were liquidated as a class. Midwife wise women were proclaimed to be “God-defying witches”, to be subjected to annihilation. Even preventing conception by consuming herbal brews came to be treated as homicide.

The Tatar-Mongol yoke did not prevent Orthodoxy from beginning the struggle against bathing traditions, such as the girl baths (the day before the wedding) and the wedding baths (a shared spousal bath after the marriage). They were replaced by a mandatory and separate washing down of both spouses after indulgence in the “sin of intercourse”. Even sex between husband and wife came to be considered sinful, the exception being intercourse for reproduction.

The Church forbade women from “wearing make-up and colorings, for one’s grace lies not in beauty of the flesh”. Frequent fasting periods and fasting days (Wednesday and Friday) left married couples a window of opportunity lasting only fifty days in a year for legal sex. Furthermore, only one act of copulation was allowed per day – even on wedding days!

There was a ban on the “standing” position – since it was hard to become pregnant from this position, it was considered to be, “not for procreation, but merely to satiate weakness”, i.e. for pleasure. Those who performed sexual acts in the water were declared sorcerers and witches. Christian norms allowed a woman only one position during intercourse – face to face, lying still underneath the man. It was forbidden to kiss each other’s bodies. The Church held that a “good wife” had to be asexual, viewing sexual relations with distaste.

Newly-married youths who performed the old Slavic wedding rite to mark their loss of virginity, which involved grabbing a chicken’s legs and tearing it in half, were punished harshly. This custom was condemned as “demonic”.

During confession, everyone was expected to recount their intimate affairs. The priests were directed to ask many questions of their laity on this topic, a typical example being: “Didst thou insert thy mouth or fingers on thee-nearest, unto places uncalled-for and where thou dost not to?”

Boobies in Russia

The Russian people did not react well to the priests’ sermons. They developed a rich slang vocabulary to express their emotions in a world full of clerical bans. Just a mere six or seven linguistic roots yielded such a panoply of curses, that to this day could not be imagined of all the world’s other languages. These swear-words were used to compose ditties, tales, sayings, and proverbs. They were thrown around in quick quarrels, and in jokes, and in everyday conversations.

As for the Church’s bans on sexual indulgences, by the 18th century there was a common saying: sin – is when the legs go up; and once they are dropped – the Lord forgives.

The people’s reaction to the “role of the breast in Russia” is particularly interesting. The Church in its time mocked and ridiculed big female busts, to the extent that icons portrayed loose women as having hideous faces and big breasts. The men however reacted to this in a singular way – they tried to marry portly women, with size seven-eight breasts. And the girls themselves used many tricks to make their breasts bigger.

One of the recipes has come down to this day, which was used in the villages of Central Russia by girls with breasts smaller than size four. Three spoons of female breast milk, a spoon of honey, a spoon of vegetable oil, and a mug of peppermint broth. They used to say that the bust would grow instantly as a result.

I would also like to venture that the source of the strange relationship between the man and his mother-in-law could be found in the 16th century. In those days fathers wanted to marry off their daughters as early as possible, when they reached twelve or thirteen years of age. In the first night of the wedding, the girl’s caring mother would go to the bed of the bridegroom to safeguard her daughter from a possibly fatal outcome. She would continue protecting her young daughters’ health by sleeping with both her husband and her son-in-law for the next two or three years. These relations became the norm to such an extent that even the Church partially relented. Though ordinary adulterers were typically punished by up to ten years of hard labor, and sex outside marriage was punished by ten to fifteen years of daily repentance in church, the penalty for adultery between a man and his mother-in-law was a maximum of five years of repentance (which involved the sinner going to church daily, standing on their knees, and making the cross and bowing for two hours straight, beseeching forgiveness from God).

Demonic Orgy

According to the ethnographer Nikolai Galkovsky, our country reached its “sexual peak” in the 16th century – “the common folk were mired in depravity, and the nobles excelled in unnatural forms of this sin, with the acquiescence, if not the active participation, of the Church itself”.

There was intercourse not only in the taverns, but at times even on the streets. The most prominent brothels were to be found in the public baths, which in those days were mixed sex. Weddings typically lasted two to three days, and by the second day it was impossible to find anyone who was still sober. Few of the guests left without having had sexual experiences with three or four representatives of the opposite sex.

Things were even cooler at the classier gatherings. Their weddings lasted an entire week. As a rule, the oprichniks – Ivan the Terrible’s armed, black-cowled priesthood – were the heart and soul of the party. They were also the main culprits responsible for the spread of Sodom’s sin into Russia (homosexuality). Ever more deviants flocked to the monasteries. Things got so out of hand that the head of the Russian Church, Metropolitan Zosima, was observed engaging in bestiality even in the 15th century.

Grandest of all were the royal weddings, which went on for a whole two weeks. The only thing people were afraid of there was the evil eye. For instance, the third wife of Ivan the Terrible, Martha Sobakin, died two weeks after the wedding. Everyone was convinced that it was because of the evil eye. Of course, no-one had measured how much she had drunk and what she had eaten during this period, or whether she had suffered from syphilis. Speaking of which, according to the authoritative Russian historian Nikolai Kostomarov, syphilis was brought to Russia by foreigners at the start of the 16th century, and by the end of that century it had begun to affect Russians as badly as cholera or plague.

The Woman’s Arrival

The decisive struggle against Russia’s falling into sin was initiated by a woman. It’s well-known that Catherine the Great issued the decree on the formation of the first settlement in Alaska in 1784. But very few know that in that same year, she banned the mixed-sex use of public baths, ordering them to set up partitions between men and women.

However, from that same period we can date the appearance of cabinets and crannies within the baths for romantic trysts. And which continues to thrive to our days…

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.