Russia occupies an outsized space in the American imagination. When the Soviet Union was our ally in World War II, it was the subject of laudatory Hollywood films such as Song of Russia and Mission to Moscow. In the Cold War, the USSR stood as a hostile presence, symbolized as the unnerving “bear in the woods” in the 1984 Ronald Reagan campaign commercial. Hollywood followed suit, with movies like I Was a Communist for the FBI and Red Dawn reminding audiences of the ever-present Soviet threat.
After fading from the headlines in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia has begun to climb back into the American consciousness. Beginning with its 2008 conflict with Georgia, Russia’s interventions in former spheres of Soviet influence have drawn criticism from the United States and elsewhere in the West. By the time Russian President Vladimir Putin was authorizing an invasion of Ukraine and an intervention in Syria on behalf of dictator Bashar al-Assad, the percentage of Americans reporting an opinion of Russia that was mostly or very unfavorable had spiked from 27 percent in 2002 to 65 percent early this year.
If the realm of foreign affairs does not suffice as an indication of the grim nature of Putin’s regime, his domestic policy, in which opponents are imprisoned and killed and meaningful elections are stymied, ought to eliminate any doubt. Putin’s Russia has emerged as the quintessential illiberal democracy. It is therefore understandable that Donald Trump’s benign view of Putin and the suspected Russian involvement in the hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s emails have provoked great concern. But those who have paid attention only to the flashy headlines about the Trump-Putin “bromance” risk overlooking another important development in the saga of Russia’s relations with the West.
During the Soviet era, Moscow attempted to present itself to the world as the face of progressive leftism. To hear Soviet leaders describe it, the Soviet Union was a state in which workers were protected, women were empowered, and “reactionary” artifacts like organized religion were cast aside. Consequently, in the United States, it was leftists who were often suspected (not always groundlessly) of harboring Soviet sympathies. But in the post-Soviet present, pro-Russia sentiment is increasingly prominent in certain segments of the American right, and not simply because of Trump’s affinity for Putin. Even before Trump launched his campaign, Putin’s Russia had begun to present itself as an epicenter of cultural conservatism that won admirers from some quarters of America’s religious right.
In a recent account of the opening of a new Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris, Andrew Higgins of the New York Times wrote of Putin’s ties with the Russian Orthodox Church and his willingness to use it as an instrument for the promotion of cultural conservatism (and Russian influence more broadly). Because the Church is “a fervent foe of homosexuality and any attempt to put individual rights above those of family, community or nation,” Higgins notes that it “helps project Russia as the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism and women’s and gay rights.”
It is in the realm of gay rights that Russia’s embrace of social conservatism under Putin has been the most prominent. In 2013, the Russian parliament voted 436-0 to enact a ban on the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. (Putin then signed the bill into law.) The law has been linked to a spike in anti-gay hate crimes and the violent disruption of gay pride parades. Russian officials have also taken steps to block access to a website that supports the LGBTQ community. As James Kirchick has pointed out, Russia’s anti-gay initiatives also serve as restrictions on free speech and expression, which ought to alarm even those who view the LGBTQ community unsympathetically.
The crackdown on gay rights is part of broader expansion of cultural conservatism in Russia. Putin’s regime has placed restrictions on pornography and banned advertisements for abortion services. In 2012, Putin signed an executive order to create the Presidential Directorate for Social Projects, which seeks to “strengthen the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society.” Language of “spirituality” and “morality” is common in the Kremlin’s accounts of its conservative enterprises. Russia is depicted as an epicenter of religious faith and abiding moral commitments, in contrast to the secular materialism of Europe, Canada, and the United States. The argument is then made that Russia’s strong moral commitments allow it to offer a forceful national mission that provides a fulfilling life for citizens.
The Kremlin claims that while the decadent West dithers and cowers in the face of foreign threats, Russia’s spiritual vigor allows it to respond with the necessary force and moral clarity. A 2015 op-ed by Danish journalist Iben Thranholm for RT, a Russian state-owned news agency, carries the headline “Europe’s moral and spiritual vacuum invites acts of terrorism.” Thranholm writes that “the decline of Christianity in the West has created a spiritual and moral vacuum of colossal proportions. It is this vacuum that gives Islamism momentum and nourishment.” She goes on to add that “the spiritual vacuum is also a vacuum of true values: patriotism, honor, virile virtues, masculine values like valor, courage, self-sacrifice, and strong faith in a good and loving God. All this is urgently needed if Europe is to defeat terrorism and radical Islam.”
As is always the case where Vladimir Putin is concerned, it is important to consider how much of this push toward social conservatism reflects Putin’s sincere beliefs and how much is merely a strategy for gaining power and prominence as a rival to the West. But as W.I. Thomas reminds us, if people define situations as real, they become real in their consequences. The Russian case for the virtues of cultural conservatism has been taken quite seriously by some in the United States. Patrick Buchanan, the veteran culture warrior, is unhappy that “Western Man” has abandoned Christianity in favor of “the newer religions: egalitarianism, democratism, capitalism, feminism, One Worldism, environmentalism.” Amid this heresy and decay, Buchanan urges us to heed the example of Vladimir Putin, who “appears to understand the cruciality of Christianity to Mother Russia, and seeks to revive the Orthodox Church and write its moral code back into Russian law.”
The prominent evangelist Franklin Graham takes a similar view. “In my opinion,” he writes, “Putin is right” on issues related to homosexuality and the “gay propaganda” law. “Obviously, [Putin] may be wrong about many things,” Graham acknowledges, but “he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.” In this respect, according to Graham, Putin compares favorably to “our president and his attorney general,” who have “turned their backs on God and His standards.” The website LifeSiteNews, which promotes vehement opposition to abortion and gay rights, has run an account of the gay propaganda law that is sympathetic to Putin.
R.R. Reno of the culturally conservative journal First Things wrote an essay, “Global Culture Wars," ” with an unambiguous deck: “When it comes to culture, America and Western NGOs are global aggressors.” In addition to the events in Russia, Reno also discusses a piece of extreme anti-gay legislation recently passed in Uganda. (That bill, which proposed life sentences in prison for “aggravated homosexuality,” was later annulled.) “Whatever one thinks of the morality or wisdom of these laws,” Reno writes, “they’re not coming forward in a vacuum. They represent calculated counter-responses to Western pressure. They win praise from those in Africa who see the West as representing unalloyed libertinism…. And who could blame them?”
Pussy Riot might blame them, but Reno evinces little sympathy for the Russian punk rock group, some of whose members were imprisoned after they protested Putin’s policies at a Russian Orthodox cathedral. Reno mentions that “uninvited protest performance” with disapproval, and also takes care to alert his presumably conservative readers that “in 2008, the band participated in a staged orgy designed to mock then-presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev’s call for Russian women to have more children.” If these sorts of people are the enemies of the Russian regime, in other words, the regime must be doing something right.
Earlier this month, Peter Hitchens, the late atheist’s Christian brother, took to the pages of First Things to attempt to tamp down Western suspicions of Russia. “As all around me rage against the supposed aggression and wickedness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, I cannot join in,” Hitchens writes. He does view Putin as “a sinister tyrant,” but “this is not really the point.” We should instead take note of the fact that “Western diplomats, politicians, and media are highly selective about tyranny,” chastising Putin while downplaying the offenses of China and Saudi Arabia.
The usefulness of “whataboutism” in defenses of Russian government policy, it seems, is one thing that hasn’t changed since the Soviet era. Additionally, just as progressive apologists for the Soviet Union would find justifications for its most egregious international aggressions, cultural affinities for the new conservative Russia bleed over into excuses for its foreign policy. In contesting the “self-appointed experts” who “insist that Russia is an expansionist power,” Hitchens notes that “Oddly, this ‘expansion’ only seems to be occurring in zones that Moscow once controlled, into which the E.U. and NATO, supported by the U.S., have sought to extend their influence.” This observation is breathtaking in its audacity, in light of both the implied equivalence of Russia and the EU and the fact that many of the “zones that Moscow once controlled” were under that control only because of Soviet aggression.
To be fair, George Weigel, another First Things regular, has written harsh denunciations of Putin and his uses of cultural conservatism to win sympathizers in the West. Some American cultural conservatives have also blanched at a recent Russian anti-terrorism law that could threaten the free expression of religious denominations other than the Russian Orthodox Church. But as long as political and cultural leaders in America embrace global openness, Russia will loom as a powerful counterexample for all those with reason to be discontented with Western modernity. In the twentieth century, Russia presented itself to the world as a model of a different way of life from that of the United States—communist instead of capitalist. In this century, Russia appears to be adopting a similar pose. This time, the difference is more cultural than economic. All of us who enjoy the liberties offered by the “decadent West” would be advised to take the burgeoning conflict seriously.
Matthew Braswell is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.