Back in the mid 1980s, Pat Buchanan was the communications director for the Reagan White House, and Vladimir Putin was a KGB officer in East Germany. Times change: The former Soviet secret policeman — if there is such a thing as a “former” Soviet secret policeman — is, after a bogus intermission, now serving a third term as Russia’s president, and the old Cold Warrior seems to have become something of a fan. Writing in his syndicated column in December, Buchanan wondered whether, “in the culture war for mankind’s future,” Putin was in fact “one of us.”
The immediate trigger for Buchanan’s comments was Putin’s state-of-the-nation address just a few days before. Stung, probably, by criticism of gay-bashing legislation in Russia, Putin had taken aim at “the destruction of traditional values” elsewhere in the world — by which he meant the West — and, just so there could be no doubt about what he was referring to, had thrown in a reference to “so-called tolerance, neutered and barren.” No stranger to chutzpah, Putin, an unlikely champion of the ballot box, noted that these changes to “moral values and ethical norms” had come “from above” and were “contrary to the will of the majority.” As such, they were “essentially anti-democratic.”
After years of aggressive judicial activism and dramatic social change at home, those were words likely to appeal to quite a few American conservatives, some of whom might perhaps already have found themselves in unexpected agreement with the Kremlin not so long ago. After all, it was only last summer when Republican congressmen Steve King and Dana Rohrabacher made it clear that Buchanan was by no means the only figure on the American right to be offended by what he has somewhat histrionically described as “half-naked” (by Iranian standards, perhaps) and “obscene” (not so much) protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior by the feminist punk-rock group Pussy Riot.
It is, of course, hardly surprising that a protest by an altar — even if brief, and largely mimed (a soundtrack was recorded later for a music video using footage from the protest) — would appall many, and not just the religious, in this country. But Pussy Riot’s critics should have taken a closer look before jumping onto Putin’s sleigh. America is not Russia, a country where an authoritarian regime has suborned the national church for its own purposes, and where that church, bribed with privilege (ask bullied Russian Baptists how that works), a degree of power, and no small amount of mammon, has for the most part gone along. That is why Pussy Riot was protesting in a cathedral. Theirs was an infinitely lesser blasphemy.
Putin may well be a Christian of sorts (the influence of his supposed dukhovnik — spiritual father — Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov is a source of much speculation), but then again so were the Borgias. Divorce and all the rest aside, Putin might even quite genuinely, if in a rather rough-and-ready fashion, be a social conservative, but his public declarations on these topics are likely more a matter of political calculation than moral conviction. Corruption, economic slowdown, and increasingly dictatorial rule have eroded Putin’s support among the intelligentsia and in the more metropolitan centers, and so, Orthodox Church in tow, he has — what’s the term these days? — “pivoted” toward Russia’s “silent majority” (Pussy Riot didn’t have too many local fans), a maneuver that the Buchanan of the Nixon White House would have both recognized and appreciated for its savvy.
It was also a move that dovetailed neatly with a longer-term theme running through the Putin years. The defining mistake of post-Communist Russia has been an unwillingness to come to terms with the reality of its Soviet past. Putin himself infamously referred to the break-up of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Historical truth — uncomfortable, divisive, and shameful — has been replaced with a patriotic confection designed to reconcile the irreconcilable and soothe the national ego. Some excesses and mistakes — too mild words, those — are included, but other horrors are downplayed or have simply gone missing. There is, however, room for both the preservation (or restoration) of Soviet iconography and a lavish biopic about Admiral Kolchak, one of the most prominent of the anti-Bolshevik commanders in the Russian Civil War. In a large national poll organized in 2008, Stolypin, the tough, authoritarian reformer who was the last czar’s most effective prime minister (significantly, Putin gave him a shout-out during his speech), was rated the second-greatest Russian of all time. Stalin (a Georgian and a mass murderer, but no matter) came in third.
#page#It is a narrative intended to put together what history in reality has torn apart, a fable in which czar and commissar can coexist, united in their love for the motherland and a shared sense of the messianic destiny that Holy Russia — home of Moscow, the “Third Rome,” and also the birthplace of Lenin’s radiant future — has long felt is its due, a fantasy reinforced by physical as well as intellectual distance from the Enlightenment West. The fact that such ideas have proved most congenial to authoritarian rule has not escaped Putin’s notice.
Regardless of the nods to the country’s Soviet heritage, the Commies — fear not — will not be coming back anytime soon. Too much loot is being amassed by those in charge for that. Instead, the philosophy that underpins the current regime (an admission of crude self-interest wouldn’t really do the trick) looks more and more like an updated, more subtle, more capitalist variant of the “Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality” first devised as a Russian state ideology for Czar Nicholas I (1825–55) as a response to the liberal challenge at home and abroad.
Well, Orthodoxy is back, what’s left of Russia’s nascent democracy is under pressure, and “nationality” never went away. In his speech Putin acknowledged the multi-ethnic nature of the Russian Federation (albeit with a swipe at “rowdy, insolent people from certain southern Russian regions”), but he went on to emphasize “the all-encompassing, unifying role of Russian culture, history, and language,” terminology that harks back both to czarist-era Russification and to the brutal Soviet approach to “lesser” nationalities.
But as he hymned the rebirth of a strong Russian state, Putin was careful (as Buchanan noted approvingly) to stress that Russia “does not encroach on anyone’s interests . . . or try to teach others how to live their lives.” Unfortunately, the first of those claims is nonsense. To take just a few instances, Russia has been throwing its weight about in northeastern Europe, it has grabbed a slice of Georgia, it is bullying Moldova, and, in what may be Putin’s most impressive coup yet, it may just have “bought” Ukraine. Russia is on a roll, with sporadic humiliations of a directionless America — from Snowden to Syria — for added spice. Yes, Putin’s grip may well be more fragile than it looks, but when Forbes magazine recently designated him as the most powerful person in the world, it was not without reason. The recent release of two Pussy Rioters and Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a declaration of strength, not weakness.
For a retro great power to behave like a retro great power is not particularly shocking, but it is essential to remember that Russia (even more than the U.S.) is a nation that considers that it has the right to play by its own rules. Thus Putin’s insistence that his country is not interested in trying to “teach others how to live their lives” is not only a rebuke (as Buchanan correctly notes) to Western universalism, but also a reminder that Russia has no intention of yielding its sovereignty to the emerging supranationalist order. That’s a reasonable, even commendable, position, but it is no reason for those on the foreign-policy right to think that they have found a friend in Putin. There are areas where American and Russian interests overlap (something that Buchanan has also highlighted). The fault for not taking better advantage of them lies on both sides and so far as is possible should be remedied, but a degree of rivalry, sharpened by Russia’s refusal to accept its loss of empire, is inevitable, natural, and, if handled with an appropriate degree of realism, not particularly dangerous.
And (hesitant as I am to give advice to this constituency) social conservatives should be warier still. To Buchanan, Putin “is seeking to redefine the . . . world conflict of the future as one in which conservatives, traditionalists, and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent west,” a piece of wishful thinking on Buchanan’s part that gives Putin’s pronouncements an international significance that they do not deserve and could not sustain.
History, Mark Twain is said to have observed, doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Almost exactly two centuries ago, the devout if possibly unhinged Czar Alexander I (1801–25) was peddling the notion of a reactionary “Holy Alliance” between the nations that had seen off Napoleon. When the czar explained this idea to Lord Castlereagh, Britain’s conservative foreign minister (the no less conservative Duke of Wellington was also in the room), the meeting did not go well. “It was not without difficulty,” wrote Castlereagh later, “that we went through the interview with becoming gravity.”
Translation: It was difficult to keep a straight face.
There’s a lesson there.
– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.