Vladimir Putin, though it may sound strange to a non-Russian, embodies political predictability. This is a country not used to the orderly transfer of political power. Above all else, after the instability that defined the Yeltsin years, Putin represents stability even though it is rife with corruption and cronyism. To the Russian people, Putin represents not only their stability, but their security and their pride as a nation.
The seeds of Putin’s current actions were planted in his first stint as President of the new Russian Federation after the tumultuous and chaotic Yeltsin years. He clearly enjoyed his interactions with world leaders and attempted to gain their respect. But their overall rejection and veiled slights (the Obama administration referred to Russia as “a regional power” at best) spurred Putin to build a new domestic patriotic consensus by appealing to Russian nationalism by disrupting the post-war liberal world order.
The economic growth of his first terms has been replaced by suffering- the necessity of stagnation in order for Russia to regain their rightful place in the world. And that rightful place is gained through an assertive foreign policy. It is something that the Russian people- no strangers to suffering and stagnation- accept. It is why they willingly surrender personal freedoms for political stability. And despite the boom years under Putin, no country was aspiring to be like Russia.
Putin’s spin doctors are at the ready to connect his policies to a long line of Slavophile thought that runs back to the great philosophers of Russian history. Cameras flash as he crosses himself at Orthodox ceremonies as readily as they do his fishing expeditions bare-chested, his prowess on the shooting range, or feeding reindeer in Siberia. The fact is Putin really is no more a Slavophile than the fish he catches. As the assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya noted: “He can be anything he wants because he is nothing. He is an excellent imitator.” “Featurelessness” has become a feature in and of itself.
It is no secret that Putin is a fan of the Russian philosopher Ivan Illyin who had a unique take on Slavophilia and modernity. He saw Russia’s predicament as being one under assault from Western atheists of the militant kind. Invoking the specter of the “unique Russian soul,” Ilyin espoused an ethno-religious traditionalism. He described Communism as a Bolshevik nightmare and that Russia would and could only recover by discovering first their spirituality and then their political clout. Only then could they save the world from the decadence of modernity.
The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia … Having lost our bond with God and the Christian Tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism … In order to overcome the global moral crisis, we have to return to eternal moral values, that is faith, love, freedom, conscience, family, motherland and nation…
In social science, there is something today known as WEIRD- Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. What can be more WEIRD than the United States. In fact, WEIRD is the antithesis of the philosophy of Ilyin and Putin. The American elite have so bought into the concept of WEIRD that they fail to see or understand that there may be alternative viewpoints in the world, especially Russia.
Putin is simply a modern progressive’s worst nightmare- that manifestation of the “Old White Guy” they thought they relegated to the dustbins of the past. After all, he exudes traditional values with outdated views on just about everything, especially cultural values. What they fail to realize is that “Old White Guy” is the leader of the largest country on earth that just happens to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons. More importantly, he is “Old White Guy” who happens to hate us and will stop at nothing to undermine us and our institutions.
This is why some who are described as paleo-conservatives (like Pat Buchanan) are fond of Putin. They have, like Putin, been saying for years that the West, led by the United States, is ‘decadent’ and they have been looking for a leader to say this. To Russians, this falls under the need to restore national honor after the turbulent 1990’s. There are many in the world who dislike Putin, but are also equally happy someone has arisen to take on this decadence.
Russia is a potential powder keg that Putin has deftly managed. They are a collection of 185 ethnic groups and religions. Ethnic Russians make up 80% of the population. He has done a good job of promoting state patriotism while showing a strange respect for some multiculturalism within his borders provided they accept Kremlin rule. To be sure, it bears no resemblance to Western notions of tolerance or diversity, but a pragmatic “respect” nevertheless. It is why despite his many documented human rights abuses against dissidents, Russia under Putin has sent more ethnic nationalists to prison than there are deaths at his feet. These ethnic nationalists are the equivalents of David Duke here.
In the 1980’s under Reagan, being pro-Western meant something. It meant representative government, Judeo-Christian values and human rights. Today it means fealty before the LGBT agenda, same sex marriage, abortion on demand and the banishment of religion from life. To Putin, most Russians and many Europeans they see American diplomats supporting gay pride marches and they wince.
It is easy for us in the West to criticize and denigrate Russians for their crackdown on gay rights in that country. But this crackdown is part of an overall effort to thwart modern liberal democracy. Compared to laws in other countries, Putin’s directives are tame and do not think for a second that our hypocrisy in this area- we condemn Russia for jailing Pussy Riot yet shake the hands of Saudi kings who have put homosexuals to death- goes unnoticed in Russia. Despite these “draconian laws,” Russia continues to have a thriving homosexual scene, albeit in the closet more than in Western countries.
And like the LGBT agenda, Putin rejects feminism equally as well and for good reason. He views the acceptance of Western cultural values in the sexual realm as an existential threat to Russia. This is born of declining birth rates which is something Russia cannot afford. To wit, after enactment of his anti-LGBT and feminist laws, Russia is one of a small handful of European countries with increasing birth rates. Figuring that Putin believes the existence of Russia is at stake, one would be a fool to expect Putin to back off in this area. It is difficult for us to see how the Pussy Riot episode profoundly affected the sensibilities of the Russian character.
Many people who I have talked to- Russian immigrants to the US and some friends now in Eastern Europe- largely are tolerant of gay and women’s rights. But they also readily point out the hypocrisy of American policy in this area. They view it as more intimidation against smaller, weaker European countries evidenced by the fact we seldom if ever take larger countries like Saudi Arabia to task for worse violations of human rights.
And there is ample polling evidence that proves that although Europeans fear Russia and even hate Putin himself, their views on cultural matters are closer to those of the Kremlin than they are to those of New York or Washington, DC. For Putin, he sees Russia as being victimized by the West through their cultural imperialism for two decades. His response has been to push back and to find allies in that push back. Removing Putin or punishing Russia with sanctions will not change what Putin has set into motion. He will be reelected in 2018 and leave office in 2024. His successor will be some incarnation of Vladimir Putin. We need to accept that fact and deal with it.