Vladimir Putin’s slow-rolling conquest of Ukraine has restarted openly today, with calls for an “independence referendum” for the newly declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk” in the East. It’s clear that Moscow intends to conquer something like half of Ukraine – through quasi-covert means if possible, by overt invasion if necessary. Regardless, this will place the West on a course for something like the Cold War 2.0 I’ve written about.
That notion is not accepted yet by many in the West, who seem not to understand Putin’s agenda. Among the doubters is President Obama, who dismissed the idea of a new Cold War with Russia, on the grounds that Putin has no ideology, so what’s there to fight about? As Obama put it recently, “This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations. No global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.”
While it’s certainly true that the U.S. and NATO don’t seek confrontation with Russia, it’s worthwhile remembering Trotsky’s line that you might not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you. As for the rest of Obama’s statement, it’s simply wrong, and that matters, because the U.S. and many of its allies at present are unable to see the rising conflict with Russia and its friends for what it actually is. And it’s hard to craft a counter-strategy when one side doesn’t even understand the stakes or the issues.
Putinism is a far cry from the Marxism-Leninism that animated the Soviet Union, Putin’s Sovietisms and undisguised affection for some aspects of the USSR notwithstanding. That said, it’s good to remember that Soviet ideology, as practiced, was a pretty cobbled-together edifice too that only had intellectual coherence if you were standing firmly inside the bubble.
I’ll elaborate what Putinism actually is, but before I do, it’s important to understand why President Obama and countless other Westerners cannot see what is right before them. Putin and the Kremlin actively parrot their propaganda, they are doing anything but hide it, yet we still cannot make it out.
This is simply because we are WEIRD. That’s social science shorthand for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – and nobody is WEIRDer than Americans. In the last several decades many Americans, and essentially all our elites, have internalized a worldview based on affluence, individualism, and secularism that makes us unique, globally speaking. So much so that we seem unable to comprehend that there actually are opposing viewpoints out there.
Barack Obama, by virtue of his diverse ethnic and religious background and elite education, is almost an ideal stand-in for the WEIRD demographic, as he embodies so many things WEIRDos admire: education, affluence, diversity, progressive social views, etc. He comes close to being almost the perfect post-modern American, which perhaps is why so many Americans of that bent adore him deeply. Thus when President Obama says he detects no ideological rivalry with Putin’s Russia, he undoubtedly speaks the truth as he sees it.
Americans of all stripes have a well-honed ability to ignore inconvenient facts, and our better educated citizens seem particularly prone to this (as I noted with our “expert” inability to see what North Korea believes, even though they aren’t shy about it). At root, I suspect Obama and many Americans refuse to accept the in-our-face reality of Putin and his regime because they represent a past version of ourselves, caught up in retrograde views that are entirely unacceptable to our elites, therefore they pretend they do not exist, because they don’t actually exist in their world.
Simply put, Vladimir Putin is the stuff of Western progressive nightmares because he’s what they thought they’d gotten past. He’s a traditional male with “outmoded” views on, well, everything: gender relations, race, sexual identity, faith, the use of violence, the whole retrograde package. Putin at some level is the Old White Guy that post-moderns fear and loathe, except this one happens to control the largest country on earth plus several thousand nuclear weapons – and he hates us.
Of course, this also happens to explain why some Westerners who loathe post-modernism positively love Putin, at least from a safe distance. Some far-right Westerners – the accurate term is paleoconservatives – have been saying for years that the West, led very much by America, has become hopelessly decadent and they’ve been looking for a leader to counter all this, and – lo and behold – here he is, the new “leader of global conservatism.” Some paleocons have stated that, with the end of the Cold War, America has become the global revolutionary power, seeking to foist its post-modern views on the whole planet, by force if necessary, and now Putin’s Russia has emerged as the counterrevolutionary element. Cold War 2.0, in this telling, has the sides reversed.
I’m skeptical of all that, but it is important to note that the post-modernism about cultural and social matters that has become the default setting in the West in the last couple decades has had a hard time putting down roots in Eastern Europe. It’s an odd fact that living under the Old Left (i.e. Marxism-Leninism) inoculated Eastern Europeans from much of the New Left of the 1960s and after, with its emphasis on gender, sexuality, and race. “Critical Studies” didn’t get far with people who had to live under the KGB; indeed, East Bloc secret police in the 1980s viewed all this – the feminism and the gay rights stuff especially – as bourgeois deviance and a subversive Western import. Since 1990, Western countries have made actual efforts to import that, but it’s met a lot of resistance, and doesn’t make much of an impression outside educated circles; which is why when educated Westerners meet, say, educated Poles, “they seem just like us” – because they have accepted, verbatim, what we’ve told them is normative in a “developed” society.
Resisting Western post-modernism on a cultural level is but one component of Putinism, albeit an important one. What comes first, however, is an emphasis on national sovereignty, meaning a more traditional, indeed Westphalian, view of state power and non-interference in others’ affairs. That Putin has stolen Crimea indicates that Moscow’s views on this are highly conditional. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Putin’s regular incantations of the need for respect for sovereignty, which are of course aimed directly at the United States, which Russia views as a hypocrite of the highest order in international affairs, are popular among other regional powers who fear U.S. military might, especially China and India. Moreover, Putin would no doubt argue that his seizing Crimea is in no way a violation of sovereignty since Ukraine is not a legitimate country in the first place (an interview last year where Putin referred to Ukraine as a mere “territory” did not get the attention abroad that it merited). For most Russians, all this falls under the need to restore national honor after the disasters of the 1990s, and is to be applauded heartily. Additionally, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t like Putin or Russia, yet who are happy that someone, somewhere is standing up to American hegemony.
Nationalism matters too. This is a tricky issue in Russia, which possesses some 185 recognized ethnic groups and many religions, with ethnic Russians making up but four-fifths of the population, and that figure is declining. Until recently, Putin had done a good job of promoting state patriotism and a Muscovite sort of multiculturalism that celebrates citizens of the Russian Federation, of any ethnicity or religion, as long as they accept Kremlin rule; that this bears little resemblance to post-modern Western notions of “tolerance” and “diversity” should be obvious. All the same, hardline Russian ethno-nationalists, local equivalents of David Duke, have regularly faced arrest in Putin’s Russia, which has feared setting off ethnic disputes that could turn explosive quickly.
Yet the 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 (ROC) is not the state church, de jure, in practice it functions as something close to one, enjoying a privileged position at home and abroad. Putin has explained the central role of the ROC by stating that Russia’s “spiritual shield” – meaning her church-grounded resistance to post-modernism – is as important to her security as her nuclear shield. Meanwhile, Kremlin security agencies have publicly embraced Orthodoxy too, with the FSB espousing a doctrine of “spiritual security,” which boils down to the ROC and the “special services” working together against the West and its malign influences. Where Chekists once persecuted the church with fanatical fervor, now it’s de rigeur among Russian intelligence officers to be religious, at least publicly. The FSB basically kept the old KGB logo, the famous sword and shield, with St. George slaying the dragon in place of the former red star.
Putin, of course, is a public believer, and while there’s been skepticism expressed in the West about how this onetime mid-level KGB functionary suddenly became a pious Orthodox, it’s clear that, whatever he may believe privately, Putin’s regime benefits from the ROC giving it assistance for its neo-traditionalist state ideology. The Moscow Patriarchate, to use the proper term for ROC leadership, has been anything but shy in its support for Putin and his Kremlin, offering regular expressions of what exactly it believes about the West, often quite vehemently.
ROC propaganda portrays a West that is declining down to its death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused unbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church, recently explained that the “main threat” to Russia is “the loss of faith” in the Western style. The practices of “sexual minorities,” to use the Kremlin term for LGBT lifestyles, come in for harsh criticism. Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, who is the MP’s frontman on these matters, explained about homosexuality, “it is one of the gravest sins because it changes people’s mental state, makes the creation of a normal family impossible, and corrupts the younger generation. By the way, it is no accident that the propaganda of this sin is targeted at young people and sometimes at children. It deprives people of eternal bliss.” Moreover, Chaplin explained, the triumph of same-sex marriage means that the West doesn’t even have fifty years left before its collapse, and it will be up to Russia then to save what can be saved, to “make Europe Christian again, that is, go back to the ideals that once made Europe.”
Gay activists in the West have latched onto all this, but it’s important to note that Russia’s ban on “homosexual propaganda” ought to be seen as part of a full-spectrum assault by the ROC, and therefore the Kremlin, on Western post-modern values. (Westerners seem not to notice that Russia’s anti-homosexual laws are mild compared to many in the Islamic world and Africa, and Moscow continues to have a thriving LGBT scene.) Putinism rejects Western-style feminism just as strongly as homosexuality. As Patriarch Kirill explained recently, “I consider this phenomenon called feminism very dangerous, because feminist organizations proclaim the pseudo-freedom of women, which must appear firstly outside of marriage and outside of family,” adding that it’s no coincidence that most feminist leaders are unmarried and childless.
Faith aside, it’s not hard to see why Putin wants to fight off Western values based on individualism in the sexual realm that have unquestionably led to lower birthrates, which is something that Russia, which is already facing demographic disaster, cannot afford. The existence of the country itself is at stake, so we should not expect Putin to back off here, especially because he may actually believe all this as a matter of faith, not just natalist practicality.
The West, and the United States especially, have helped cause this by active promotion of the post-modernism that Russia now rejects. It is not a figment of Moscow’s imagination that the U.S. State Department encourages feminism and LGBT activism, at least in certain countries. When Washington, DC, considers having successful gay pride parades a key benchmark for “advancement” in Eastern Europe, with the full support of U.S. diplomats, we should not be surprised when the Kremlin and its sympathizers move to counter this. My friends in Eastern Europe, most of whom are comfortable with gay rights and feminism, have nevertheless noted to me many times that it’s odd that the U.S. Government promotes such things in small, poor Eastern European countries it can intimidate but never, say, in Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, there remains the question of just how universal post-modern Western values actually are outside educated elites. There is ample evidence that many average people in Eastern Europe who fear Russia nevertheless are closer to the Kremlin’s positions on cultural matters than to America’s. In Georgia, where loathing of Russians generally and Putin particularly is universal, resistance to LGBT rights and feminism remains deep and broad, with the support of the Orthodox Church, while much the same can be said of Moldova, where fears of Russian invasion are acute, but so are fears of Western social values. Neither is this resistance limited to the East. It can be found as well in Central Europe, among NATO and EU members. In Poland, the Catholic Church continues to resist post-modern sexual values – what they collectively term “gender,” meaning feminism plus gay rights – leading one bishop to term this “ a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined.” Strongly Catholic Croatia last December in a national referendum rejected same-sex marriage by a two-thirds margin, to the dismay of progressives across Europe. One of the big talking points from the Kremlin and the ROC is that Russia represents the actual global consensus on such matters, while the West is the decadent outlier. Its postmodernism, proclaimed Fr. Chaplin recently, “is increasingly marginal,” adding that “it cannot cope with modern challenges,” while Orthodox Christian, Chinese, Indian, Latin American and African civilizations share opposite values and will play an active role in building peaceful relations between civilizational systems. Given recent trends in sexual matters globally, with India and countries in Africa enacting harsh anti-gay laws, it is worth considering if Moscow has a valid point.
We are entering a New Cold War with Russia, whether we want to or not, thanks to Putin’s acts in Ukraine, which are far from the endpoint of where the Kremlin is headed in foreign policy. As long as the West continues to pretend there is no ideological component to this struggle, it will not understand what is actually going on. Simply put, Putin believes that his country has been victimized by the West for two decades, and he is pushing back, while he is seeking partners. We will have many allies in resisting Russian aggression if we focus on issues of freedom and sovereignty, standing up for the rights of smaller countries to choose their own destiny.
However, too much emphasis on social and sexual matters – that is, telling countries how they must organize their societies and families – will be strategically counterproductive. Some Americans already believe that Putin, not Obama, is on God’s side in this struggle, and this will only get worse as Europe elects more far-right parties to power, many of which are sympathetic to Putinism, and some are secretly on the Kremlin payroll. If we choose to resist Russia because Putin rejects gay rights and feminism, we will have fewer allies and well-wishers than if we instead focus on matters of national sovereignty and dignity. The choice is ours. The Internationale famously promised, “this is the final struggle” (c’est la lutte finale), and now perhaps we are in that very conflict; there is no doubt that post-modern Westerners feel their social beliefs are the endpoint of all human development, and we may soon find out if they are right. The first step is accepting that we are in fact the WEIRD ones.
[As always, the opinions expressed here are the author’s alone.]