TAG | Vladimir Putin
Over on his blog, Sam Harris interviews Mark Riebling, the author of Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler. The historical ground covered is interesting—how could it not be?—but these passages, in particular, caught my attention:
Conservative, even authoritarian, religious structures can prove extremely helpful against revolutionaries who want to impose a far more radical, utopian political religion. If Sunni Islam had a hierarchy, we would see many of its leaders resist ISIS more effectively. By comparison, you are seeing the Shia capable of counteraction, not just because they are anti-Sunni, but because they have a clerical hierarchy.
The Sunni conservatives will at some point have to either fight the revolutionaries or obey them. It was similar in Cambodia under Pol Pot—finally the old-line communists in that part of the world couldn’t take it anymore. Likewise, who is now sending troops to prop up an authoritarian Assad to stop ISIS?
The former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. Which should remind us that in the former Soviet Union, glasnost and perestroika did not come from “the Russian people.” They began within the most elite ranks of the Party—the KGB. I think the pope’s secret war against Hitler should be grouped with this family of phenomena—authoritarian resistance to totalitarianism.
And this (my emphasis added):
For half a century, the Marxist myth of the New Man was fairly successful in supplanting the old stories—but the magic’s gone out of that, too. So you have, unless you are mindful, a banalization of human experience. This banality is going to tempt some people to join ISIS for excitement, for re-enchantment, for remythification.
If you join ISIS, you have a story! Your life is numinous—it’s as if you’re living in the Iliad instead of, say, just playing soccer in the dust in a Bauhaus housing project in Basra. Or you’re channeling the Teutonic Knights while you’re horsewhipping Jews in 1930s Nuremburg—I think the personal hunger is the same.
As C.G. Jung said, you can chase out the devil, but he shows up somewhere else. Which is one reason why, when Jung was an agent for US intelligence in 1944, he urged propping up political Catholicism—in fact, through the Christian-socialist parties that came to dominate Cold War Europe, whose exiled leaders Pius sheltered in the Vatican. Jung was an atheist, but he preferred Christian socialism to the atheist communism he saw coming. He predicted that the freethinking atheist would fare better under the frowning brow of the Christian myth than under the trampling boot of the communist one.
Jung was a nut, but he had moments of clarity.
Writing in the American Conservative, Philip Jenkins:
After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist government savagely persecuted the Orthodox Church, killings many thousands of clergy and monastics, and closing the vast majority of churches and monasteries. When Communism fell, the church returned to visibility, and the last quarter-century has witnessed a startling and many-sided revival. Places of worship have been rebuilt, monasteries flourish again, and pilgrimage shrines have begun a new era of mass popularity. The post-Soviet religious restoration was supervised by the then-Patriarch Alexy II (1990-2008) and by his successor, Kirill.
In exchange for so many blessings, the church has of course given fervent support to the Putin government, lavishly praising it and providing ideological justifications for a strong government at home, and expansion beyond its borders. But such enthusiasm goes far beyond mere payback. Support for authoritarian regimes is deeply embedded in Orthodox political thought, and Russian Orthodoxy in particular has always been tinged with mystical and millenarian nationalism.
When Kirill presents Orthodox Russia as a bastion of true faith, besieged by the false values and immorality of a secularized West, his words are deeply appreciated by both the state and the church. The apocalyptic character of that conflict is made evident by the West’s embrace of homosexual rights, especially same-sex marriage. As so often in past centuries, Holy Russia confronts a Godless and decadent West. It is Putin, not Kirill, who has warned that “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan.”
We should not see Kirill as a rogue cleric abandoning the interests of his church to seek political favors: he really believes every word. Whether Putin and his circle literally believe the religious rhetoric is not relevant: they act as if they do. The solidly Orthodox framing of Russian nationalism also ensures that powerful Rightist groups happily rally around Putin and his not-so-ex-KGB clique.
Over the past few years, the nature of Russia’s military-ecclesiastical complex has repeatedly become evident. Kirill extended the church’s blessings to the pro-Moscow regime in Belarus after a highly troubling election. In Ukraine, Kirill completely echoed Putin’s line that the Russian-sponsored separatist guerrillas were well-intentioned local citizens who justifiably feared oppression by the Kiev regime. Kirill even granted church honors to Cuba’s Castro brothers. All is in God’s hands, it is all His will….
Meanwhile, the Interpreter reports:
Activists from a radical Russian Orthodox group placed a pig’s head on the steps of the Moscow Art Theater (MKhT)on April 1, Gazeta.ru and Govoritmoskva.ru reported. Dmitry Enteo, header of Bozh’ya Volya [God’s Will] Russian Orthodox Civic Movement, said the protest was against Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.”
Over at the XX Committee, John Schindler takes a look at what he calls “Putin’s Orthodox Jihad.” Trying to make sense of Putin’s ideology, much of which appears to have been adopted on the hoof as Russia’s leader attempted to fill the vacuum left first by Communism and then by the failure of Western-style democracy to “take” in Russia, is not a straightforward process (not least because Putin’s loyalties appear to be more to institutions than to ideas) but Schindler’s intriguing analysis makes an increasing amount of sense:
Putin is a complex character himself, with his worldview being profoundly shaped by his long service as a Soviet secret policeman; he exudes what Russians term Chekism – conspiracy-based thinking that sees plots abounding and is reflexively anti-Western, with heavy doses of machismo and KGB tough-talk . . .
This year ending also saw the mask drop regarding Putin’s ideology beyond his bone-deep Chekism. In his fire-breathing speech to the Duma in March when he announced Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin included not just venerable KGB classics like warnings about the Western Fifth Column and “national traitors,” but also paeans to explicit Russian ethnic nationalism buttressed by Orthodox mysticism, with citations of saints from millennia past. This was the culmination of years of increasingly unsubtle hints from Putin and his inner circle that what ideologically motivates this Kremlin is the KGB cult unified with Russian Orthodoxy. Behind the Chekist sword and shield lurks the Third Rome, forming a potent and, to many Russians, plausible worldview. That this take on the planet and its politics is intensely anti-Western needs to be stated clearly….
Whether this faith is genuine or a well-honed pose, Putin’s potent fusion of KGB values and Orthodoxy has been building for years, though few Westerners have noticed. Early in Putin’s years in the Kremlin, the younger generation of Federal Security Service (FSB) officers embraced a nascent ideology they termed “the system” (sistema), which was a sort of elitist Chekism — toughness free of corruption and based in patriotism — updated for the new 21st century. However, this could have limited appeal to the masses, so its place was gradually taken by a doctrine termed “spiritual security.”
…It suddenly became fashionable for senior FSB officers to have conversion experiences, while “spiritual security” offered Putin’s Russia a way to defend itself against what it has long seen as the encroachment of decadent post-modern Western values. Just how seriously Putin took all this was his statement that Russia’s “spiritual shield” was as important to her security as her nuclear shield.
Nearly all Western experts, being mostly secularists when not atheists, paid no attention to these clear indications of where Putin was taking Russia…
There’s quite a bit to that aside, and there is also something of a parallel with the failure of many in the West to take the rise of militant Islam as seriously as they should have done. People (particularly in Europe) simply could not conceive that a religion could matter so much “in this day and age,” a mistake that arose from the belief held by many secularists/atheists that religious faith was something that would eventually wither safely away, a conviction that owed much to smugness and not a little to denial. There has been an unwillingness to accept the (to them) inconvenient truth that the religious instinct seems to be something with which the vast majority of people are born.
And there is something else. To believe that religion would either wither away or fade into some sort of benevolent irrelevance took a quite remarkable ignorance of history. The modern academy has been delighted to oblige.
There’s a great deal more to Schindler’s piece that’s worth mulling (so read the whole thing), not least the connection that Putin has developed with some (and I would emphasize that “some”) on the European right and the way that virulent opposition to what is only one interpretation of America has provided him with the great enemy that regimes such as his always need.
Check out also Schindler’s focus on a recent speech by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a curious character he describes as a “media gadfly cleric.” Well Chaplin is certainly that, but as Schindler points out, he is also a very senior spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church (FWIW I blogged about Chaplin at this secularist spot a few weeks back):
Chaplin minced no words, proclaiming that Russia’s God-given goal today is halting the global “American project.” As he explained:
“It is no coincidence that we have often, at the price of our own lives … stopped all global projects that disagreed with our conscience, with our vision of history and, I would say, with God’s own truth .. Such was Napoleon’s project, such was Hitler’s project. We will stop the American project too.”
We’ll see, but we should not fool ourselves that sanctions and Russia’s worsening economic plight will be enough to see off the challenge from Moscow any time soon. As Schindler observes:
[Putin’s] regime has created and nurtured a virulent ideology, an explosive amalgam of xenophobia, Chekism and militant Orthodoxy which justifies the Kremlin’s actions and explains why the West must be opposed at all costs. Given the economic crisis that Russia now finds itself in, thanks to Western sanctions, during the long and cold winter now starting, we ought to expect more, not fewer, Russians turning to this worldview which resonates with their nation’s history and explains the root of their suffering.
That is not a comforting thought.
The Aviationist reports:
A Tupolev Tu-214SR, used as a communication relay aircraft often dispatched by the Russian Air Force to accompany Putin’s presidential aircraft or other Moscow’s VIPs on their trips, has departed from St. Petersburg and it is currently circling near the border with Finland.
The orbit RSD49 (the radio callsign of the aircraft) is flying, centered on the island of Valaam, the largest in Lake Ladoga, where Putin is visiting his “spiritual mentor”, brings the Tu-214 as close as 20 km from the Finnish border.
There’s something nastily appropriate about that. The Valaam monastery is in a part of Karelia that was Finnish territory until stolen by Stalin in 1940.
In other Russian Orthodox news, note this detail from the recent account of a visit to “separatist”-occupied Slavyansk (eastern Ukraine) by the Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Halko:
[T]hey are in complete control of the city; Slavyansk is occupied.
Q: And what do they call themselves, these armed men?
A: They do not introduce themselves. They have signs everywhere saying “Donbas People’s Militia.” But no one introduced himself to us. No one said anything about himself.
The only person who spoke to us was a civilian who was standing at these roadblocks with a ribbon of St. George [symbol of loyalty to Russia] and without a mask. Some kind of hardcore Orthodox fundamentalist. Only with him was it clear who he was, that he was a local; he even showed his passport – he has retained a Soviet passport in which there was a column for nationality; in it was written: “Russian.” He is proud of this. And he says that we are all Orthodox Russians here. That means, we do not want this “European plague.”
Only he spoke with us in a normal way, and told us about his motives at least. Incidentally, among these people there are many with beards, but not because they have not shaved for many days, but really long beards, as if they were some kind of Orthodox brotherhood. Many say they are from Slavyansk, I do not know.
Here’s a thought-provoking take on, if you like, “Vladimir Putin, conservative”, from John Schindler. The piece covers too much ground to be summarized in a few excerpts, so I’ll focus on just one aspect of it, the way that Putin is looking to base the legitimacy of his regime on older, far older, notions of what the Russian state should be:
[T]he reconquest of Crimea has caused a clear change of tone in Moscow, with celebration of old fashioned Russian nationalism coming into fashion. In his speech to the Duma announcing the triumphant annexation of Crimea, when speaking of Russians, Putin specifically used the ethnic term – russkiy – not the more inclusive rossiyskiy, which applies to all citizens of the Russian Federation. This came among incantations to the full Great Russian program, with a Moscow-centric view of Eastern Europe seemingly endorsed by mentions of great Orthodox saints. Unstated yet clearly, this was all of a piece with “Third Rome” ideology, a powerful admixture of Orthodoxy, ethnic mysticism, and Slavophile tendencies that has deep resonance in Russian history.
Westerners seemed shocked by this “Holy Russia” stuff, but Putin has been dropping unsubtle hints for years that his state ideology includes a good amount of this back-to-the-future thinking, cloaked in piety and nationalism. Western “experts” continue to state that a major influence here is Aleksandr Dugin, an eccentric philosopher who espouses “Eurasianism,” an odd blend of geopolitical theory and neo-fascism. While Dugin is not irrelevant, his star at the Kremlin actually faded a decade ago, though he gets some Kremlin attention because his father was a GRU general. Far more important to divining Putin’s worldview, however, is Ivan Ilyin, a Russian political and religious thinker who fled the Bolsheviks and died an emigre in Switzerland in 1953. In exile, Ilyin espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Germanely, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Putin’s admiration for Ilyin is unconcealed: he has mentioned him in several major speeches and he had his body repatriated and buried at the famous Donskoy monastery with fanfare in 2005; Putin personally paid for a new headstone. Yet despite the fact that even Kremlin outlets note the importance of Ilyin to Putin’s worldview, not many Westerners have noticed.
They should, however, because Putinism includes a good amount of Ilyin-inspired Orthodoxy and Russian nationalism working hand-in-glove, what its advocates term symphonia, meaning the Byzantine-style unity of state and church, in stark contrast to American notions of separation of church and state. Although the Russian Orthodox Church… is not the state church, de jure, in practice it functions as something close to one, enjoying a privileged position at home and abroad…
Ilyin is a complicated figure, and perhaps more of ‘liberal’ (these things are relative) than the synopsis above might suggest, but he does play an important symbolic role in what has become the key intellectual project of the Putin regime, the reconciliation of imperial and Soviet Russia, an idea that is (I’d argue) at its core, absurd, but comes with the advantage that it spares the Russian people the necessity of a full reckoning with what was done to, and by, them in the Soviet era.
As to what Putin actually believes, well, that’s anyone guess, but there should be no doubting his willingness to make use of the ideological position he has developed to support his agenda at home, in the territories of the former USSR (‘the near abroad’) and even further afar than that. Schindler has plenty to say about what the implications of that could be, none of them reassuring.
As the saying goes: read the whole thing.
Pat Buchanan, writing in Human Events, appears to suggest that Vladimir Putin may, so to speak, be on the side of the angels:
In his Kremlin defense of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin, even before he began listing the battles where Russian blood had been shed on Crimean soil, spoke of an older deeper bond.
Crimea, said Putin, “is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”
Russia is a Christian country, Putin was saying.
This speech recalls last December’s address where the former KGB chief spoke of Russia as standing against a decadent West:
“Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”
Heard any Western leader, say, Barack Obama, talk like that lately?
…Author Masha Gessen, who has written a book on Putin, says of his last two years, “Russia is remaking itself as the leader of the anti-Western world.”
But the war to be waged with the West is not with rockets. It is a cultural, social, moral war where Russia’s role, in Putin’s words, is to “prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.”
Would that be the “chaotic darkness” and “primitive state” of mankind, before the Light came into the world?
This writer was startled to read in the Jan-Feb. newsletter from the social conservative World Council of Families in Rockford, Ill., that, of the “ten best trends” in the world in 2013, number one was “Russia Emerges as Pro-Family Leader.”
In 2013, the Kremlin imposed a ban on homosexual propaganda, a ban on abortion advertising, a ban on abortions after 12 weeks and a ban on sacrilegious insults to religious believers.
“While the other super-powers march to a pagan world-view,” writes WCF’s Allan Carlson, “Russia is defending Judeo-Christian values. During the Soviet era, Western communists flocked to Moscow. This year, World Congress of Families VII will be held in Moscow, Sept. 10-12.”
Will Vladimir Putin give the keynote?
In the new ideological Cold War, whose side is God on now?
On the corruption of the Russian Orthodox Church: nothing.
On the bullying of other (non-Orthodox) Christian denominations: nothing.
And on so much else: nothing.
People believe what they want to believe and they see what they want to see.
…Then came Russia’s takeover of Crimea, and Mr. Rohrabacher had to draw the line — in favor of Mr. Putin.
“There have been dramatic reforms in Russia that are not being recognized by my colleagues…The churches are full. There are opposition papers being distributed on every newsstand in Russia. You’ve got people demonstrating in the parks. You’ve got a much different Russia than it was under Communism, but you’ve got a lot of people who still can’t get over that Communism has fallen.”
What about Pussy Riot, the Russian protest group? Its members were jailed for criticizing Mr. Putin, released, then publicly flogged when they showed up at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
“Well, I don’t think that happens often,” Mr. Rohrabacher said with a shrug. “There are lots of people demonstrating in the streets of Russia who are perfectly free to do so.”
Don’t get me wrong, Russia has changed immensely (and generally for the better) since the fall of the Soviet Union, but there is a middle ground between accepting that the old Cold War certainties no longer apply on the one hand, and a starry-eyed enthusiasm for the emerging new Russia on the other, but that’s not where Dana Rohrabacher stands.
Meanwhile, Right Wing Watch (I know, I know) reports that Concerned Women of America will no longer be attending a ‘World Congress of Families’ summit scheduled to be held in the Kremlin later this year. The group’s CEO Penny Nance has said, “I don’t want to appear to be giving aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin.” Well, it’s taken a while for the penny to drop, Penny, but good.
On the other hand:
CWA’s choice is especially surprising because its senior fellow, Janice Shaw Crouse, is amember of the board of the World Congress of Families and has been a vocal defender of Putin’s social policies. Last month, Crouse even appeared at a press conference promoting the Moscow summit.
Now the question becomes whether other American groups will follow Nance’s lead. An organizing meeting for the event in October included Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, Benjamin Bull of Alliance Defending Freedom, Justin Murff of the Christian Broadcasting Network and Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute.
A draft program for the event that was obtained by Buzzfeed includes speeches by ADF president Allan Sears, Focus president Jim Daly, Mike Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association, Brown, Ruse and Murff, among others.
In addition, the World Congress of Families receives funding from “partner organizations” including the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and Americans United for Life.
The World Congress of Families’ Larry Jacobs said at last month’s press conference that members of the U.S. Congress would also attend the event, though he would not specify which ones since he said their confirmations were not yet finalized. The draft program also accounts for speeches from unidentified members of Congress. to speak.
As we’ve noted, the planned summit is more than just a trip to Moscow. It’s being held at the Kremlin with funding from key Putin allies and will include a joint forum with Russia’s parliament. In addition, the World Congress of Families itself has been working to support Putin’s crackdown on LGBT rights in Russia…
Ruse articulated the apparent attitude of many American groups when he told Buzzfeed that although the Ukraine invasion “muddied the water,” he had not been concerned about working so closely with the Putin regime until now, “because the Russian government has been quite good on our issues.”
Useful idiots, redux.
Having long lost out in his efforts to woo Russia’s liberals, and increasingly struggling with opposition in Russia’s metropolitan centers, Vladimir Putin has instead being appealing to Russia’s ‘silent majority’.
I wrote about this for National Review a week or two ago, noting how this latest pivot by Putin has been winning him some (mistaken) approval on the right over here too.
Meanwhile, the Washington Times has more on Vladimir Putin, conservative:
“Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a recent keynote speech. “Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”
In his state of the nation address in mid-December, Mr. Putin also portrayed Russia as a staunch defender of “traditional values” against what he depicted as the morally bankrupt West. Social and religious conservatism, the former KGB officer insisted, is the only way to prevent the world from slipping into “chaotic darkness.”
…Mr. Putin’s views of the West were echoed this month by Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow, the leader of the Orthodox Church, who accused Western countries of engaging in the “spiritual disarmament” of their people. In particular, Patriarch Kirill criticized laws in several European countries that prevent believers from displaying religious symbols, including crosses on necklaces, at work.
Well, Kirill may be a thoroughly disreputable figure but he is (broadly speaking) right about the stupidity of not allowing people to display religious symbols at work. That said, this claim, to put it mildly, is a stretch:
… Other figures within the Orthodox Church have gone further in criticizing the West. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a church spokesman, suggested that the modern-day West is no better for a Christian believer than the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities executed some 200,000 clergy and believers from 1917 to 1937, according to a 1995 presidential committee report. Thousands of churches were destroyed, and those that survived were turned into warehouses, garages or museums of atheism.
To argue that Christians in the West today are treated in a manner in any way comparable to that is to insult the memories of those murdered (not to speak of the countless others subjected to ‘lesser’ persecution) for their faith in the Soviet Union, and to trivialize their fate.
Back to the Washington Times:
…The Kremlin’s encouragement of traditional values has sparked a rise in Orthodox vigilantism. Fringe groups such as the Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers, an ultraconservative movement whose slogan is “Orthodoxy or Death,” are gaining prominence.
Patriarch Kirill has honored the group’s leader, openly anti-Semitic monarchist Leonid Simonovich, for his services to the Orthodox Church. The Banner Bearers, who dress in black paramilitary uniforms festooned with skulls, regularly confront gay and liberal activists on the streets of Moscow.
Although Mr. Putin has never made a secret of what he says is his deep Christian faith, his first decade in power was largely free of overtly religious rhetoric. Little or no attempt was made to impose a set of values on Russians or lecture to the West on morals.
However, since his inauguration for a third presidential term in May 2012, the increasingly authoritarian leader has sought to reach out to Russia’s conservative, xenophobic heartland for support.
It has proved a rich hunting ground.
Indeed it has.