What We Talk About When We Talk About Russia
American conservatives who find themselves identifying with Putin’s regime refuse to see the country for what it actually is.
Sherwood Eddy was a prominent American missionary as well as that now rare thing, a Christian socialist. In the 1920s and ’30s, he made more than a dozen trips to the Soviet Union. He was not blind to the problems of the U.S.S.R., but he also found much to like. In place of squabbling, corrupt democratic politicians, he wrote in one of his books on the country, “Stalin rules … by his sagacity, his honesty, his rugged courage, his indomitable will and titanic energy.” Instead of the greed he found so pervasive in America, Russians seemed to him to be working for the joy of working.
Above all, though, he thought he had found in Russia something that his own individualistic society lacked: a “unified philosophy of life.” In Russia, he wrote, “all life is focused in a central purpose. It is directed to a single high end and energized by such powerful and glowing motivation that life seems to have supreme significance.”
Eddy was wrong about much of what he saw. Joseph Stalin was a liar and a mass murderer; Russians worked because they were hungry and afraid. The “unified philosophy of life” was a chimera, and the reality was a totalitarian state that used terror and propaganda to maintain that unity. But Eddy, like others in his era, was predisposed to admire the Soviet Union precisely because he was so critical of the economics and politics of his own country, Depression-era America. In this, he was not alone.
In his landmark 1981 book, Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, Paul Hollander wrote of the hospitality showered on sympathetic Western visitors to the Communist world: the banquets in Moscow thrown for George Bernard Shaw, the feasts laid out for Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag in North Vietnam. But his conclusion was that these performances were not the key to explaining why some Western intellectuals became enamored of communism. Far more important was their estrangement and alienation from their own cultures: “Intellectuals critical of their own society proved highly susceptible to the claims put forward by the leaders and spokesmen of the societies they inspected in the course of these travels.”
Hollander was writing about left-wing intellectuals in the 20th century, and many such people are still around, paying court to left-wing dictators in Venezuela or Bolivia who dislike America. There are also, in our society as in most others, quite a few people who are paid to help America’s enemies, or to spread their propaganda. There always have been.
But in the 21st century, we must also contend with a new phenomenon: right-wing intellectuals, now deeply critical of their own societies, who have begun paying court to right-wing dictators who dislike America. And their motives are curiously familiar. All around them, they see degeneracy, racial mixing, demographic change, “political correctness,” same-sex marriage, religious decline. The America that they actually inhabit no longer matches the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant America that they remember, or think they remember. And so they have begun to look abroad, seeking to find the spiritually unified, ethnically pure nations that, they imagine, are morally stronger than their own. Nations, for example, such as Russia.
The pioneer of this search was Patrick Buchanan, the godfather of the modern so-called alt-right, whose feelings about foreign authoritarians shifted right about the time he started writing books with titles such as The Death of the Westand Suicide of a Superpower. His columns pour scorn on modern America, a place he once described, with disgust, as a “multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, multilingual ‘universal nation’ whose avatar is Barack Obama.” Buchanan’s America is in demographic decline, has been swamped by beige and brown people, and has lost its virtue. The West, he has written, has succumbed to “a sexual revolution of easy divorce, rampant promiscuity, pornography, homosexuality, feminism, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, assisted suicide—the displacement of Christian values by Hollywood values.”
This litany of horrors isn’t much different from what can be heard most nights on Fox News. Listen to Tucker Carlson. “The American dream is dying,” Carlson declared one recent evening, in a monologue that also referred to “the dark age that we are living through.” Carlson has also spent a lot of time on air reminiscing about how the United States “was a better country than it is now in a lot of ways,” back when it was “more cohesive.” And no wonder: Immigrants have “plundered” America, thanks to “decadent and narcissistic” politicians who refuse to “defend the nation.” You can read worse on the white-supremacist websites of the alt-right—do pick up a copy of Ann Coulter’s Adios America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole—or hear more extreme sentiments in some evangelical churches. Franklin Graham has declared, for example, that America “is in deep trouble and on the verge of total moral and spiritual collapse.”
What a terrible place all of these people are describing. Who would want to live in a country like that? Or, to put it differently: Who wouldn’t sympathize with the enemies of a country like that? As it turns out, many do. Certainly Buchanan does. Russian cyberwarriors work with daily determination to undermine American utilities and electricity grids. Russian information warriors are trying to deform American political debate. Russian contract killers are murdering people on the streets of Western countries. Russian nuclear weapons are pointed at us and our allies.
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Nevertheless, Buchanan has come to admire the Russian president because he is “standing up for traditional values against Western cultural elites.” Once again, he feels the shimmering lure of that elusive sense of “unity” and purpose that complicated, diverse, quarrelsome America always lacks. Impressed with the Russian president’s use of Orthodox pageantry at public events, Buchanan even believes that “Putin is trying to re-establish the Orthodox Church as the moral compass of the nation it had been for 1,000 years before Russia fell captive to the atheistic and pagan ideology of Marxism.”
He is not alone. The belief that Russia is on our side in the war against secularism and sexual decadence is shared by a host of American Christian leaders, as well as their colleagues on the European far right. Among them, for example, are the movers and shakers behind the World Congress of Families, an American evangelical and anti-gay-rights organization that Buchanan has explicitly praised. One of the WCF’s former leaders, Larry Jacobs, once declared that “the Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world.” The WCF even has a Russian branch, which is run by Alexey Komov, a man in turn linked to Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch who has hosted far-right meetings all across Europe. At the WCF’s most recent meeting, in Verona, senior Russian priests mingled with leaders of the Italian far right, the Austrian far right, and their comrades from the American heartland.
Carlson’s support for Russia, by contrast, takes the form of snarling sarcasm rather than open admiration. Much as Jane Fonda once posed, just for the provocative kick of it, with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, Carlson has started teasing his viewers and his critics with his amusingly contrarian views on Russia. “Why shouldn’t I root for Russia?” he asked recently. A couple of days later, he tried it again: “I think we should probably take the side of Russia, if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine.”
Ironically, during the Reagan administration, Carlson’s father ran Voice of America, the radio station that broadcast American values into the U.S.S.R. Or maybe this is not an irony, but rather an explanation. In his book, Hollander described the prestige that Albanian communism once enjoyed in Sweden and Norway. Few Scandinavians had ever been there, but that didn’t matter: “Albania is picked up simply because it seems to be a club with a particularly sharp nail at the end of it with which to beat one’s own society, one’s own traditions, one’s own parents.” Now Carlson is using Russia as a club with which to beat his own society and his own traditions.
Fortunately for all such critics, they don’t have to spend much time in the country they are “rooting” for, because there is no greater fantasy than the idea that Russia is a country of Christian values. In reality, Russia has one of the highest abortion rates in the world, nearly double that of the United States. It has an extremely low record of church attendance, though the numbers are difficult to measure, not least because any form of Christianity outside of the state-controlled Orthodox Church is liable to be considered a cult. A 2012 survey showed that religion plays an important role in the lives of only 15 percent of Russians. Only 5 percent have read the Bible.
If American Christians would find little to cheer for in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, American white nationalists would be disappointed too. Carlson has wondered aloud about America’s racial mix, asking, “How precisely is diversity our strength?” He would have a real dilemma in Russia. Nearly 20 percent of Russian citizens do not even identify as Russian, telling pollsters that they belong to different nationalities, ranging from Tartar and Azeri to Ukrainian and Moldovan; more than 6 percent of Russians are Muslims, as opposed to 1.1 percent of the U.S. population. And that might be a gross underestimate of the actual number of Russian Muslims, since in some parts of the country, Muslims are off-limits to census takers. Remember all those phony stories about Swedish and British neighborhoods that are supposedly no-go zones ruled by Sharia law? Russia has an actual province, Chechnya, that is officially ruled by Sharia law. The local regime tolerates polygamy, requires women to be veiled in public places, and tortures gay men. It is a no-go zone, right inside Russia.
As for Putin himself, there is no evidence that this former KGB officer has actually converted, but plenty of evidence that Putin’s recent public displays of Christianity are just as cynical as Stalin’s vaunted love for the working classes. Among other things, they are useful precisely because they can hoodwink naive foreigners. But you don’t need to listen to me say so. Listen, instead, to the words of a young Russian, Yegor Zhukov, who was put on trial for publishing videos critical of the regime. In an extraordinary courtroom speech, he addressed the loud support for “the institutions of the family” that Putin often offers in Russia, and contrasted it with reality:
An impenetrable barrier divides our society in two. All the money is concentrated at the top and no one up there is going to let it go. All that’s left at the bottom—and this is no exaggeration—is despair. Knowing that they have nothing to hope for, that no matter how hard they try, they cannot bring happiness to themselves or their families, Russian men take their aggression out on their wives, or drink themselves to death, or hang themselves. Russia has the world’s [second] highest rate of suicide among men. As a result, a third of all Russian families are single mothers with their kids. I would like to know: Is this how we are protecting the institution of the family?
The reality of Russia isn’t the point, just as the reality of Stalinism wasn’t the point, not for Sherwood Eddy and not for George Bernard Shaw. The American intellectuals who now find themselves alienated from the country that they inhabit aren’t interested in reality. They are interested in a fantasy nation, different and distinct from their own hateful country. America, with its complicated social and political as well as ethnic diversity, with its Constitution that ensures we will never, ever all be forced to feel as if “all life is focused in a central purpose”—this America no longer appeals to them at all.
Most of them know that this fantasy foreign nation they admire seeks to put an end to all of that. It seeks to undermine American democracy, beat back American influence, and curtail American power. But to those who dislike American democracy, despair of American influence, and are angered by American power? That, truly, is the point.