Misreading Putin

Last Saturday, President Trump stated that he thought Russian president Putin “meant what he said” when he denied interfering in the American presidential election. Whereupon Senator John McCain shot back that he was shocked that our chief executive “would take the word of a KGB official over that of the American intelligence community.” Leaving aside certain obvious questions, such as whether Trump may be justified in suspecting the trustworthiness of some past leaders of the intelligence community and whether Trump was actually agreeing with Putin’s disclaimer, let’s focus on McCain’s designation of Putin as a “KGB official.” This is the same characterization that one hears repeatedly on Fox-news; indeed Fox-news celebrity Charles Krauthammer usually begins his remarks about Putin by referring to him as the “KGB agent.

 What is being criticized is not the recognition that Putin learned political tricks while working for the KGB earlier in life. It is rather the attempt to view him and his regime as an extension of the Soviet Communist one. This is a glaring misreading of the cultural and political changes in Russia since the 1990s. There isn’t much evidence that Putin was ever anything but a Russian nationalist, who worked for the Soviet rulers of the Russian empire before they fell from power. Identifying Putin as a left-over Soviet Communist is misleading, and perhaps like characterizing Mussolini in 1930 as a Marxist, because he was a socialist before the Great War. This linkage between Putin and Soviet Communism seems especially popular among geriatric Cold Warriors who may already be nostalgic for the Cold War. It also plays well among a GOP base that like to imagine that they’re still confronting the “evil empire” that President Reagan famously denounced.

But much has changed since the early 1980s. Most of the Western fan base of the present Russian government is situated on the very conservative Right. It is certainly not found among leftists, if we make an exception for the Nation’s Steven Cohen, a leftist Russia expert whom those sympathetic to Putin like to quote. But Cohen’s efforts to show Putin in a favorable light is hardly typical of the Left or of Putin’s neoconservative critics in the U.S.  More typically we find an international gay activist like Jamie Kirchik denouncing Putin as a reactionary homophobe. This Russian despot, complains Kirchik, has banned the presentation of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle in Russian schools and has openly associated gay marriage with Western decadence. Putin has also gone out of his way to advance the moral and social teachings of the Russian Orthodox faith and attacks current Western notions of secularism. At the same time he is refurbishing Orthodox monasteries and churches throughout Russia and boasts that in the last three years atheism has declined in his country by 50%. In June, 2015 Putin announced his intention of “reinstating” what is left of the Russian royal family in their ancestral residence. This is widely regarded as the first step toward restoring the Russian monarchy.

While Western societies rush into a multicultural, PC society, Putin is presenting himself as the defender of Western Christian civilization. He is also, not incidentally, a traditional Russian nationalist pursuing the Russian policy of expansion on his country’s Western border. Although former Soviet satellites are justified in fearing Russian expansionist politics, some Eastern European heads of government now view the Cultural Marxist ideology coming out of the West as even more pernicious for their way of life than Putin’s efforts to reclaim the Soviet empire. Despite Hungary’s unhappy history with Russia, its premier Viktor Orban has expressed sympathy for “elements of Putin’s worldview.” This has also been heard from other traditionalist leaders in Eastern Europe, who, like Hungary, are interested in Russian gas deliveries as well as having a protector against a socially disruptive “Western liberalism.” A complaint made against former National Front head Marine Le Pen during her presidential campaign earlier this year was her praise of Putin’s conservatism.  

Please note that I have not come to praise the Russian president. A Russian nationalist, he seems hell-bent on geopolitical expansion, and his stirring of the pot in the Middle East should be of some concern to our country. Further, because one feels traditionalist repugnance for the cultural transformation undergone by the West in recent decades does not mean that one has to lavish praise on Putin. But it is plainly stupid or dishonest to claim that we are still fighting the Commies or the Soviet “evil empire” when Putin and his government challenge us.  Pat Buchanan has a point when he describes Putin as a “paleoconservative” who stands for a new international Right: “He is seeking to redefine the “Us vs. Them” 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.” This dialectic, according to Buchanan, changes radically the locations of the two opposing sides at the outset of the Cold War: when Soviet Russia was viewed as the champion of the international Left and the U.S. as the defender of Judeo-Christian-classical civilization locked in combat with “godless Communism.” Whether this change is good or not, I shall leave to others to decide. More relevant here is that the platitudes of the Cold War era no longer apply to the current American-Russian confrontation.