This is a very interesting post on Russia and what’s going on in Eurasia. It is one of the rare times an intellectual makes mention of the peculiar American habit of assuming everyone is just like America. Despite the yapping about diversity and vibrancy, American elites see the world as a reflection of their idealized selves. When they look out at the world they think, “They want what we want, they hate what we hate and they will be just like us if give the chance.”
I’ll elaborate what Putinism actually is, but before I do, it’s important to understand why President Obama and countless other Westerners cannot see what is right before them. Putin and the Kremlin actively parrot their propaganda, they are doing anything but hide it, yet we still cannot make it out.
This is simply because we are WEIRD. That’s social science shorthand for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – and nobody is WEIRDer than Americans. In the last several decades many Americans, and essentially all our elites, have internalized a worldview based on affluence, individualism, and secularism that makes us unique, globally speaking. So much so that we seem unable to comprehend that there actually are opposing viewpoints out there.
Barack Obama, by virtue of his diverse ethnic and religious background and elite education, is almost an ideal stand-in for the WEIRD demographic, as he embodies so many things WEIRDos admire: education, affluence, diversity, progressive social views, etc. He comes close to being almost the perfect post-modern American, which perhaps is why so many Americans of that bent adore him deeply. Thus when President Obama says he detects no ideological rivalry with Putin’s Russia, he undoubtedly speaks the truth as he sees it.
Americans of all stripes have a well-honed ability to ignore inconvenient facts, and our better educated citizens seem particularly prone to this (as I noted with our “expert” inability to see what North Korea believes, even though they aren’t shy about it). At root, I suspect Obama and many Americans refuse to accept the in-our-face reality of Putin and his regime because they represent a past version of ourselves, caught up in retrograde views that are entirely unacceptable to our elites, therefore they pretend they do not exist, because they don’t actually exist in their world.
Simply put, Vladimir Putin is the stuff of Western progressive nightmares because he’s what they thought they’d gotten past. He’s a traditional male with “outmoded” views on, well, everything: gender relations, race, sexual identity, faith, the use of violence, the whole retrograde package. Putin at some level is the Old White Guy that post-moderns fear and loathe, except this one happens to control the largest country on earth plus several thousand nuclear weapons – and he hates us.
Steve Sailer has pointed out quite a few times that American elites seem to have the biggest problem with Putin over homosexuals. Over the last two decades, having a homosexual on your piety bracelet has been the hallmark of Progressive fashion. It is so well established now that it is inconceivable to them that any civilized person would have a contrary opinion on homosexual marriage, homosexual rights and so forth.
Of course, this also happens to explain why some Westerners who loathe post-modernism positively love Putin, at least from a safe distance. Some far-right Westerners – the accurate term is paleoconservatives – have been saying for years that the West, led very much by America, has become hopelessly decadent and they’ve been looking for a leader to counter all this, and – lo and behold – here he is, the new “leader of global conservatism.” Some paleocons have stated that, with the end of the Cold War, America has become the global revolutionary power, seeking to foist its post-modern views on the whole planet, by force if necessary, and now Putin’s Russia has emerged as the counterrevolutionary element. Cold War 2.0, in this telling, has the sides reversed.
I’m skeptical of all that, but it is important to note that the post-modernism about cultural and social matters that has become the default setting in the West in the last couple decades has had a hard time putting down roots in Eastern Europe. It’s an odd fact that living under the Old Left (i.e. Marxism-Leninism) inoculated Eastern Europeans from much of the New Left of the 1960s and after, with its emphasis on gender, sexuality, and race. “Critical Studies” didn’t get far with people who had to live under the KGB; indeed, East Bloc secret police in the 1980s viewed all this – the feminism and the gay rights stuff especially – as bourgeois deviance and a subversive Western import. Since 1990, Western countries have made actual efforts to import that, but it’s met a lot of resistance, and doesn’t make much of an impression outside educated circles; which is why when educated Westerners meet, say, educated Poles, “they seem just like us” – because they have accepted, verbatim, what we’ve told them is normative in a “developed” society.
Since as far back as we have records, “religion” and “culture” have been tangled up together. The Vikings, for example, lacked a word for religion. They had two words that roughly meant “cult” but did not carry the connotation they do today. The word “custom” is more accurate. People had private customs for how they appeased the gods. These were limited the family, the clan and the village.
Public customs were how everyone participated in worship of the gods. These customs were intimately tangled up in the identity of the people. It is how they defined themselves and gave meaning and purpose to their lives. It was why they got up in the morning, so to speak. It is also what bound them together, despite their private rituals and customs. It was a reflection of their blood ties as people.
The Russians had a perfectly good set of customs that defined who they were as people. Bolshevism came along and obliterated much of it, but replaced it with a new religion, Marxist-Leninism. Here we are two decades after the fall of communism and the Russians seem to be settling on a set of replacements.
They tried liberal democracy in the 1990’s and into the 2000’s. That resulted in falling birth rates, drug abuse, Americans adopting what few children they had and humiliation on the world stage. Whatever you want to call this new organizing faith, it clearly is a rejection of American Progressivism.
Resisting Western post-modernism on a cultural level is but one component of Putinism, albeit an important one. What comes first, however, is an emphasis on national sovereignty, meaning a more traditional, indeed Westphalian, view of state power and non-interference in others’ affairs. That Putin has stolen Crimea indicates that Moscow’s views on this are highly conditional. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Putin’s regular incantations of the need for respect for sovereignty, which are of course aimed directly at the United States, which Russia views as a hypocrite of the highest order in international affairs, are popular among other regional powers who fear U.S. military might, especially China and India. Moreover, Putin would no doubt argue that his seizing Crimea is in no way a violation of sovereignty since Ukraine is not a legitimate country in the first place (an interview last year where Putin referred to Ukraine as a mere “territory” did not get the attention abroad that it merited). For most Russians, all this falls under the need to restore national honor after the disasters of the 1990s, and is to be applauded heartily. Additionally, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t like Putin or Russia, yet who are happy that someone, somewhere is standing up to American hegemony.
Nationalism matters too. This is a tricky issue in Russia, which possesses some 185 recognized ethnic groups and many religions, with ethnic Russians making up but four-fifths of the population, and that figure is declining. Until recently, Putin had done a good job of promoting state patriotism and a Muscovite sort of multiculturalism that celebrates citizens of the Russian Federation, of any ethnicity or religion, as long as they accept Kremlin rule; that this bears little resemblance to post-modern Western notions of “tolerance” and “diversity” should be obvious. All the same, hardline Russian ethno-nationalists, local equivalents of David Duke, have regularly faced arrest in Putin’s Russia, which has feared setting off ethnic disputes that could turn explosive quickly.
Yet the reconquest of Crimea has caused a clear change of tone in Moscow, with celebration of old fashioned Russian nationalism coming into fashion. In his speech to the Duma announcing the triumphant annexation of Crimea, when speaking of Russians, Putin specifically used the ethnic term – russkiy – not the more inclusive rossiyskiy, which applies to all citizens of the Russian Federation. This came among incantations to the full Great Russian program, with a Moscow-centric view of Eastern Europe seemingly endorsed by mentions of great Orthodox saints. Unstated yet clearly, this was all of a piece with “Third Rome” ideology, a powerful admixture of Orthodoxy, ethnic mysticism, and Slavophile tendencies that has deep resonance in Russian history.
Westerners seemed shocked by this “Holy Russia” stuff, but Putin has been dropping unsubtle hints for years that his state ideology includes a good amount of this back-to-the-future thinking, cloaked in piety and nationalism. Western “experts” continue to state that a major influence here is Aleksandr Dugin, an eccentric philosopher who espouses “Eurasianism,” an odd blend of geopolitical theory and neo-fascism. While Dugin is not irrelevant, his star at the Kremlin actually faded a decade ago, though he gets some Kremlin attention because his father was a GRU general. Far more important to divining Putin’s worldview, however, is Ivan Ilyin, a Russian political and religious thinker who fled the Bolsheviks and died an emigre in Switzerland in 1953. In exile, Ilyin espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Germanely, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Putin’s admiration for Ilyin is unconcealed: he has mentioned him in several major speeches and he had his body repatriated and buried at the famous Donskoy monastery with fanfare in 2005; Putin personally paid for a new headstone. Yet despite the fact that even Kremlin outlets note the importance of Ilyin to Putin’s worldview, not many Westerners have noticed.
This is fundamentally why Obama has been repeatedly humiliated by Putin. It is not simply that Obama is a klutz. While it is true that American foreign policy is run by rather foolish people with little going for them other than useless credentials, the real reason is Putin needs to do it. His NYTimes piece after outfoxing Obama over Syria was more than a victory lap. It was a signal to his people that he is not just smarter than the American leader. it’s that he is leading a special people, the Russian people.