Putin, Russia, and Russian Orthodoxy

Sometimes one might think this upcoming election is between Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin, since Donald Trump has not concealed a measure of admiration for Putin and Hillary’s fans (including the press) have tried to hang Putin, like an albatross, on Trump.

Michael Brendan Dougherty, in irenic non-albatross mode, offers A field guide to Republicans’ tangled relationship with Vladimir Putin. Excerpt:

Russia hawks: …

The shallow anti-Obama partisans: …

The nervous realists and Russophiles: Realists and Russophiles deplore Putin’s rule, but claim to understand it. For them Russia’s behavior in Ukraine and the Middle East — even its authoritarianism — can be explained by the country’s history and geography. Land and resource empires tend not to be liberal, especially when pressed up so close to potentially powerful rivals like China, Japan, Germany, or threats like Turkey. This group tends to emphasize that Russia lost a lot of territory, access to resources, and power after the Cold War. They disagree with the shallow partisans about Russia’s strength; they see Russia becoming more desperate, not strong, over the last decade. And their fear is that the West will blunder into open hostilities by insisting on something that is of trivial interest to the West, but of vital interest to Russia. Some nervous realists opposed NATO’s post-Cold War expansion. Some regret it going beyond Poland. Many of them believe that Russia should be a useful ally against Islamic extremism. They tend to think the West was overreaching in its support of protesters in Ukraine. I would include myself in the group of nervous realists, along with the British writer Peter Hitchens.

Western Putinists: At the very hard end you will find a subset of people on the nationalist right who believe the U.S.-led liberal world order is irredeemably corrupt and corrosive of Western civilization … Sometimes Western Putinists come in a softer appearance, merely being fans of a state that publicly champions religion …

Most of the professional foreign policy debate is had between the hawks and the realists on Russia, while the other two camps are seen as irrelevant, or just crankish. But part of what people find so unnerving about Trump is that while he is not at all ideological or politically savvy, he seems to instinctively incline towards the view of the Putinists, admiring Putin precisely for his brutality and strength, and disdaining America and Europe’s liberality as a weakness. Western Putinism may not be irrelevant after all.

I, too, am among the Nervous Realists and Russophiles.

I understand that Putin is rebuilding a venerable nation in which civil society was systematically destroyed for some 70 years. Yes, Putin had a hand in that, though “KGB” wasn’t the worst of the Soviet apparatus:

Its main functions were foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, operative-investigatory activities, guarding the State Border of the USSR, guarding the leadership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Soviet Government, organization and ensuring of government communications as well as combating nationalism, dissent, and anti-Soviet activities.

(Wikipedia) According to Economist Espresso today, though,

Civil society (or what’s left of it) is feeling the squeeze [from Putin] too. The prosecutor’s office is investigating Memorial, on of Russia’s most storied human-rights groups, as a “foreign agent”. The Levada Centre, the country’s only remaining independent pollster, has been declared one, too ….

Any sensible person will recognize that Memorial and the Levada Centre might indeed be foreign agents — Economist’s use of scare-quotes isn’t reassuring of neutrality — and likewise that they might merely be threats to Putin.

Russian national health is not yet restored, Russian Orthodox identity tends to be of the even-our-atheists-are-Orthodox variety — part of national identity as much or more than a personally meaningful religion. There are tens of millions of pious exceptions to that broad-brush characterization, though.

Thus I know too much about what’s going on inside Russia to fully credit Putin’s promotion of religion — even if it’s my own Christian tradition he’s putatively pushing.

The New York Times wrote at length Wednesday on how Putin is using the Church to extend Russian influence into Western Europe and to position Russia as the last bastion of Christian society in a decadent world. I do not doubt that Putin’s motives are at best mixed, and possibly nothing but political.

Rod Dreher, also Orthodox, found that Putin’s positioning may be working:

On the other hand, as Western societies disintegrate under aggressive secularism, individualism, materialism, and hedonism, it’s hard as a traditional Christian not to sympathize with the general thrust of what Russia is doing, if not in certain particulars. When I was in Italy in the summer of 2015, I was surprised to have a couple of conversations with practicing Catholics who, when learning that I am an Orthodox Christian, assumed that I approve of Putin, and began praising him and the Russian Orthodox Church for its strong voice for traditional Christian morality. I was genuinely surprised to hear this from them, but I understand where they’re coming from. They see their own society drifting far from the faith, and the Catholic Church unable to halt the slide, and often unwilling to lift a finger to try. Put another way, they see Putin, for all his flaws, trying to protect his country from sliding into the moral and cultural abyss.

Again, I think it’s a devil’s bargain for the Church, but at the same time, I grudgingly admire Putin’s unwillingness to capitulate in the face of the worst aspects of Western liberalism. The fact that Orthodoxy is “ultraconservative and anti-modern” is a feature, not a bug — but to be clear, its conservatism is not the sort that would find much favor in the GOP.

(Bold added)

I agree with Rod with a caveat: I do hope that Orthodoxy doesn’t suffer an influx of ultraconservative anti-modernists who really have no interest in Christ. I steer clear of politics at Church precisely because it has the potential for disruption of what the Church is really about.

I have met or read some American converts to Orthodoxy who seem at least notionally Putinist if not Tsarist. In some cases, it appears a blemish on an otherwise pious and sensible life. In others, I’ve got to wonder (because I’m a sinner who can’t keep his imagination out of other people’s business) whether Orthodoxy isn’t subordinate to authoritarianism.

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Russia aside:

2.) How should we understand the beauty of Orthodox spirituality from your point of view?

Fr. Anthony: It is the way I always had hoped faith would be. Not emotional or manipulative but respective of free will while at the same time holding people to a high standard. Plus the beauty and insight about what it means to be a person. The theology of salvation is beautiful. The Liturgy and the Eucharist are at the center of our faith and the art and architecture are profound.

(From Glory to Glory: The Journey of Fr. Anthony Salzman)

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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.