How Do We Explain Vladimir Putin?

Mar 26th, 2022 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

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It is nothing short of astonishing that a few ultra-conservatives still regard Vladimir Putin as a messianic, heroic figure.  For such people, in the early decades of the 21st century, Putin is a valuable ally because he seeks to replace the multiracial, multilingual global order with strong nation-states.  Putin’s ideologist, Alexander Dugin, writes:  “We must create strategic alliances to overthrow the present order of things, of which the core could be described as human rights, anti-hierarchy and political correctness, everything that is the face of the Beast, the Antichrist.”  Right-wing ideologist, Steve Bannon, concludes that “We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what [Putin] is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.”  In addition to Bannon’s strange take on Putin, other “Alt-Right” thinkers in Europe as well as the US have taken up Putin’s banner.  Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party, an Alt-Right group seeking to preserve the “whiteness” of Western civilization and to fight “anti-Christian degeneracy,” argues that “Russia is our biggest inspiration.  I see President Putin as the leader of the free world.”  For many such Alt-Right groups, Putin is widely revered as a kind of “white knight:” a symbol of strength, racial purity and traditional Christian values in a world under threat from Islam, immigrants and rootless cosmopolitan elites.  Indeed, Sam Dickson, white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan lawyer, writes that “I’ve always seen Russia as the guardian at the gate, as the easternmost outpost of our people.  They are our barrier to the Oriental invasion of our homeland and the great protector of Christendom.  I admire the Russian people.  They’re the strongest white people on earth.”

Jared Taylor, the founder of the white supremacist think tank American Renaissance, writes that “There is a worldwide awakening of nationalism among European countries—and I include the United States in that.  All across Europe we are seeing the rise of parties expressing the idea that Europe, in order to remain Europe, must remain European.  I have a feeling of intense kinship from those that wish to preserve their nation and their culture.”  Thus, Putin’s Russia is now the home of a new global alliance of Alt-Right groups called the World National-Conservative Movement.  Heimbach:  “Russia has already taken its place on the global stage by organizing national movements as counterparts to Atlanticist elites.  Intellectually, they’ve shown us how it works.”   Russia is “the civilizational model” that can rally all those in Russia and beyond who are fed up with the erosion of traditional values.

How should we think about all of this as Christians?  Many Christians would consider themselves part of the Alt-Right, which in itself I find distressing.  But to see Putin as a white-knight, a kind of messianic figure is silly and also dangerous.  Vladimir Putin is theological, cynical, disciplined, calculating, experienced and knowledgeable.  He is not fostering a redemptive “civilizational model” for the embattled West to follow.  He has shown his true colors by his monstrous barbarity in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is one of the most dangerous autocrats on planet earth today.  He is not a role model and he is not a worthy leader to emulate.  He is a dangerous demagogue who poses a real and potentially existential threat to the United States.  Christians must remember that we have been down this road before in history.  Each generation has nationalistic heroes who promise a return to the better days of the past, when their real agenda is conquest, power and self-aggrandizement (e.g., Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, etc.).

But how do we explain his vicious brutality in Ukraine?  How does he justify it?  Putin often repeats the claim that Russia and Ukraine are “one people.” What is his dream?  Namely, to portray his government as a reincarnation of the old czarist empire where the Russian Orthodox Church served the interests of the Russian czar.  Church and state were inextricably linked in czarist Russia.  The Kremlin used the church as an instrument of its old imperial control. Putin has the same vision for Russia in 2022.  Indeed, according to Francis X. Rocca, Patriarch Krill of the Russian Orthodox Church recently “described the war in Ukraine as nothing less than an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil.  Its outcome, he said, will determine ‘where humanity will end up, on which side of God the Savior.’”  In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church “has taken an active role in forging the ideology that undergirds Mr. Putin’s geopolitical ambitions.  It is a worldview that holds the Kremlin to be the defender of Russia’s Christian civilization, and therefore justified in seeking to dominate the countries of the former Soviet Union.”

According to Sergei Chapnin, a former official of the Moscow Patriarch, the “post-Soviet civil religion” is a concept known as Russkiy mir (“Russian world”).  Rocca shows that “the term dates back to the 11th century, referring to the East Slavic lands that included much of today’s Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.”  Indeed, Putin used the term in 2014 to justify the annexation of Crimea, which he said reflected the “aspiration of the Russian world, of historical Russia, to re-establish unity.”  Russkiy mir, then, refers to “Moscow’s rightful sphere of influence, which includes the territories of the former Soviet Union and the Russian empire before it.”  Putin: “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us.  It is part of our history, culture, and spiritual space.”  For that reason, Russia and the Orthodox Patriarchate have framed “Ukraine’s western ties and aspirations for membership in the EU and NATO not only as a geopolitical concern but as a threat to the spiritual integrity of Russkiy mir.”  Russkiy mir is also a part of the Russian military’s identity.  For example each of the three parts of Russia’s nuclear force structure—land, sea and air—has received a patron saint.  The Russian Orthodox Church enthusiastically supported Russian brutality in Syria’s civil war as a spiritual crusade.

But the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not buying into the Russkiy mir dream of Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.  For years, Ukraine had campaigned for an independent Orthodox church, devoid of any allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church.  In mid-October 2018, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox Church, signaled his support for the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (called autocephaly).  The Russian Orthodox Church responded by severing ties with Constantinople, warning of a historic schism.  Ukrainians see a fully independent national church as an essential means of breaking from Moscow’s orbit, but Putin sees it as a challenge to his concept of Russkiy mir, united by common Orthodox roots, encompassing both Ukraine and Belarus.  The Patriarchate of Constantinople also withdrew the 1686 decision that gave Moscow some authority over the metropolitan see of Kiev, signaling that Constantinople does not regard Ukraine as Moscow’s canonical territory.  For that reason, the Russian Orthodox Church severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.  It also threatened punishment to any Orthodox church member who prayed in any church belonging to Constantinople.  Putin’s government has declared that Russia would “protect the interests of Orthodox Christians” just as it had always protected the interests of “Russian-speakers”—language Putin used ahead of his annexation of Crimea.

What is the historical context of these moves in Ukraine for independence and Putin’s determination of keep all Orthodox Churches united under Moscow’s authority?  Putin has maneuvered diligently in recent years to revive the idea that Moscow should be the capital for all Eastern Orthodox Christians, in effect making the Russian Orthodox Church an extension of his efforts to restore Russia’s superpower status.  As Neil MacFarquhar has argued, Putin “bolstered the church both to sell Russia as a bastion of ‘traditional values,’ and to paint his Kremlin as heir to the holy traditions of the czarist empire.”  But, the Ukrainian Church’s decision to break away from Moscow threatened that dream.  In effect, this dispute pits Constantinople against Moscow for control of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, has the title of “His All Holiness, Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople—New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch.”  (According to tradition, as the “first among equals,” Bartholomew, has the authority to create new, full-fledged branches of the Orthodox church).  His opponent in all this is Patriarch Kirill I, the Moscow Patriarchate, who is also a close ally of Putin.

Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that it is the one true church on earth, tracing its origins back to the apostolic church in unbroken succession.  The implication of this position is that both Roman Catholics and Protestants have departed from the true church and the true faith.  From Eastern Orthodoxy’s perspective, in the Great Schism of 1054, the Western Church centered in Rome, left the “mother Church” of the East.  From Russia’s perspective, when the Ottoman Turks succeeded in their conquest of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church shifted to Moscow, which then assumed the position of the Third Rome, insisting that it was the new center of Eastern Orthodoxy.  That perception today informs both Patriarch Krill I of Moscow and Vladimir Putin.  They do not see Ukraine’s decision to be independent from the Moscow Patriarchate as legitimate.  This development threatens entirely Putin’s vision of restoring the greatness of imperial, czarist Russia, linked forcefully with Russian Orthodoxy, the glue of the new Russian empire.  The authority of the Russian Orthodox Church is to serve the political power and goals of the new “Russian Czar”—Vladimir Putin.  This is what happens when the church is linked resolutely to the state:  The church ends up serving the state.

See David Brooks in the New York Times (10 January 2017) and Alan Feuer and Andrew Higgins, “Extremists Turn to a Leader to Protect Western Values:  Vladimir Putin,” in the New York Times (3 December 2016); The Economist (20 October 2018), p. 51; Neil MacFarquhar in the New York Times (8 October 2018); James Maron in the Wall Street Journal (12 October 2018); and Francis X. Rocca in the Wall Street Journal (19-20 March 2022).

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