Magazine | January 27, 2014, Issue

Vlad the Conservative

So says Pat Buchanan

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.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Which Gender Gap?

Just over a century ago, a small number of states, led by Massachusetts, established minimum wages, a policy experiment that reverberates to this day. What is striking about these early ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Green Drought

San Joaquin Valley, Calif. — “We have the greatest factory anywhere on earth,” Harris Farms’ executive vice president, William Bourdeau, tells me, as our car bumps rapidly along the dirty, ...
Politics & Policy

A New Health Safety Net

Are conservatives ready to think about health care independently of Obamacare? Because even if the Affordable Care Act achieves its goals, American health care will remain extraordinarily expensive, incomprehensibly complex, ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Generation of a Voice

In Her, the fourth film from the self-consciously idiosyncratic director Spike Jonze, the artificial-intelligence revolution finally arrives — and instead of rapturing humanity into a Singularity or wiping us out ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

The Vanishing Appalachians My only beef with Kevin Williamson’s moving Appalachian elegy (“Left Behind,” December 16) is the treatment of the coal industry, which he just briefly describes as a “bulwark ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The de Blasio administration is just aiming for a zero net impact on the city’s quantity of horse****. ‐ The revelations in the new Robert Gates memoir, Duty, may be ...
Athwart

Economics for Dummies

Perfectly timed for the first week of legal pot sales in Colorado, Rolling Stone published a manifesto called “Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For.” You could take it ...
The Long View

News from 2014

From the Washington Post, February 14, 2014: “Clintons to Renew Marriage Vows on Valentine’s Day” Citing a renewed and deeply felt commitment and joy in their long — and, some say, turbulent ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

A PASSING BREEZE Boats on the lake sang hymns of distant hum; Homage to warm winds, as the radiant fall Raised up its descant, muted, almost dumb, But yet precise. A melancholy call In minor key, ...
Happy Warrior

In to Win

America is a land of acronyms, and, useful as they are, acronyms can quickly curdle into jargon. SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation” — i.e., using legal action ...

Most Popular

Culture

Cold Brew’s Insidious Hegemony

Soon, many parts of the United States will be unbearably hot. Texans and Arizonans will be able to bake cookies on their car dashboards; the garbage on the streets of New York will be especially pungent; Washington will not only figuratively be a swamp. And all across America, coffee consumers will turn their ... Read More
National Security & Defense

The Warmonger Canard

Whatever the opposite of a rush to war is — a crawl to peace, maybe — America is in the middle of one. Since May 5, when John Bolton announced the accelerated deployment of the Abraham Lincoln carrier group to the Persian Gulf in response to intelligence of a possible Iranian attack, the press has been aflame ... Read More
World

Australia’s Voters Reject Leftist Ideas

Hell hath no fury greater than left-wingers who lose an election in a surprise upset. Think Brexit in 2016. Think Trump’s victory the same year. Now add Australia. Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison shocked pollsters and pundits alike with his victory on Saturday, and the reaction has been brutal ... Read More
NR Webathon

We’ve Had Bill Barr’s Back

One of the more dismaying features of the national political debate lately is how casually and cynically Attorney General Bill Barr has been smeared. He is routinely compared to Roy Cohn on a cable-TV program that prides itself on assembling the most thoughtful and plugged-in political analysts and ... Read More