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America’s Culture War On Russia

The other day on this blog, in a discussion of Team Trump’s dodgy relations with Russian officials, I described Russia as a “hostile foreign power.” Some of you objected to that, saying that Russia is actually friendly. That’s simply not true. I mean, I wish the US and Russia were more friendly, but we are hostile foreign powers to each other. After all, it was the United States that pushed post Cold War NATO to the Russian border. Maybe we had good reasons for that (or not), but there’s no rational way for the Russians to see it other than a hostile act.

In The Atlantic last week, Sigal Samuel wrote about Russian (and Eastern European) anxiety about America’s hostility on the culture war front [1]:

In many Central and Eastern European countries, people are concerned about America’s influence on Russia and on their own nations—and they want Russia to push back, according to a major new Pew Research Center survey.

The results of the survey [2]—released, by coincidence, just hours after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited the White House and joked [3] about Comey’s firing—reveal that in most nations with Orthodox Christian majorities, Russia is seen as an important buffer against the influence of the West. Because the study was conducted between June 2015 and July 2016, before Trump’s election, it does not capture any shifts in public opinion that his administration may have provoked. Still, the survey offers illuminating insights into how America is perceived, and about how those perceptions correlate with religious identity.

There are complex reasons why the Orthosphere nations see the West as a threat, including economic ones. However:

But the perception of clashing values goes beyond different economic models. Pheiffer Noble added that there is a widespread sense among Russians that they are safeguarding civilization, be it through the conservative gender norms and sexual norms they advocate, the literature they produce, or the soldiers they send off to war in every generation. “In Russian culture, they have their canon, and their canon is pretty impressive,” she said. “They’ve got Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. They’ve got iconography. They’ve got the idea of suffering as a cultural value—and they feel like they’re also winning at that.”

Sergei Chapnin, the former editor of the official journal of the Russian Orthodox Church, agreed that many Russians feel their country is both integral to European culture and superior to it. (Indeed, 69 percent say their “culture is superior to others,” the survey shows.) “We have a desire to cooperate with Europe and to call Europe an enemy,” he said. “These exist at the same time in the mass consciousness in Russia.” But he also warned that “politicians manipulate” this psychological tension, appealing sometimes to pro-Western feeling and sometimes to anti-Western feeling, in order to serve their own purposes.

Well, sure. But that doesn’t mean the psychological and cultural tensions aren’t real, and important. It’s very difficult for Americans to think of ourselves as anything but bearers of light and goodness to the nations of the world. Along those lines, many of us (especially secular liberals) see resistance to American values — and, more broadly, secular Western values — as a sign of irrational prejudice. The presumption that Western values are universal values is very strong.

These values are globally powerful not so much because they are true (though they may be), but because they are borne by the most economically and culturally powerful nations on earth, especially the United States. Ryszard Legutko, the Polish Catholic political philosopher, writes about how Western liberalism has come to mimic the coercive and unjust ways [4]of the communism it displaced in Eastern Europe. Cultural imperialism is a real thing, and it is no less imperialistic because it hides its aggressiveness from the aggressors. As Legutko puts it, “The liberal-democratic man, especially if he is an intellectual or an artist, is very reluctant to learn, but, at the same time, all too eager to teach.”

When it comes to Orthodox Christianity and Orthodox Christian peoples, many Westerners assume that the Orthodox are just like our Christians, except they use more incense and come in more pronounced ethnic flavors. I used to be this way too, before I entered Orthodoxy in 2006. At that time, a fellow convert in my parish told me to be patient, that it would take at least a decade for my mind to begin thinking like an Orthodox Christian. I didn’t understand that. I thought it would simply be a matter of getting used to a few doctrinal changes, and a different way of worship. Not true. Orthodoxy is not so much a set of propositions as it is a way of being in the world — a way that has for the most part not been conditioned by the experience of modernity, as Western Christianity has.

I’m not here to argue whether that’s a good or a bad thing, though I think it’s mostly a good thing. My point is that Orthodox Christian civilization is meaningfully different from Western civilization, which assumes that liberal individualism is the correct social model.

In the US, for example, our religious culture has been dramatically shaped by Evangelical Protestantism, the Enlightenment, and capitalism — all modern phenomenon that understand religion in individualistic, voluntary terms. Orthodox cultures have a much more traditional form of Christianity and morality, and see religion in far more communal terms — as it was seen in the West prior to the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has correctly described the basic principle of Western cultural life today as affirming the individual’s freedom of choice, which includes diminishing the role of religion in public life. Kirill continued:

We cannot say that we live in a completely peaceful environment. Today there are battles without roar of guns, and the enemy who threatens us does not visibly cross our borders. However, we are all involved into what the Orthodox tradition calls ‘the invisible battle’. Everyone today is involved in this battle. We are offered a chaos, but we should not be bought by these recommendations and should not participate in the creation of chaos … We are offered sin, a destruction of the moral foundations.

In an academic paper about differences between the West and the Orthodox East on the meaning of human rights [5], law professor Mark Movsesian has written:

The [Russian Orthodox Church’s social teaching’s] ambivalence about individual rights and its emphasis on the religious community reflect central themes in Orthodox thought, which distrusts Western-style individualism. It is not simply a matter of rejecting the “excesses of individualism” in the matter of Western communitarian scholars. Orthodoxy often expresses discomfort with the very idea of the autonomous individual as a rights-holder. Orthodox thought emphasizes the relational self: a person is defined by relationship to others in the body of the Church. As Daniel Payne writes, “the Orthodox tradition understands the human being ecclesially rather than individualistically.” As a consequence, the tradition has a problem with the idea of individual rights in the Western manner. “[I]f there is any concept of rights in Orthodox political culture,” Payne explains, it is not individual rights, but “group rights.”

Moreover, Orthodox thought conflates religious and national identities in a stronger way than in the West. To be sure, religion can serve as a marker of national and cultural identity in the West as well; consider Italy and Poland. And citizenship in Orthodox countries is not directly tied to religion; as a formal matter, one can be a Russian citizen and not an Orthodox Christian. But religion and nationality are intertwined in a particularly powerful way in the Orthodox world. In Russia, for example, it is a “widely accepted idea”—“shared by politicians, intellectuals and clergy”—that Orthodoxy is the fundamental factor in national identity. Other historical and ethnic factors pale in comparison. The same may be said for other Orthodox countries, like Greece.

This is hard for Westerners — including Westerners like me, who have converted to Orthodoxy — to grasp. I bristle, for example, at restrictions on religious liberty in Russia, in particular on the freedom of minority forms of Christianity. But this is because I have a Westernized view of how religion relates to society. As Movsesian says elsewhere in the same law journal paper (for which there is no link), the Catholic Church’s current teaching on religious liberty is also informed by modernity’s individualism.

My point in this blog entry is not to argue for the superiority of one model over the other. I think both have their strengths and weaknesses. I do want, however, to point out that when Orthodox countries reject liberal Western ideas (e.g., gay rights, religious liberty), they are not necessarily doing so out of bigotry, but because they have a fundamentally different view on what the human person is, what the church is, and what society is. They see the West’s war on their traditions in the name of secular liberalism as an act of aggression — and they’re right. Many of us Westerners regard our actions instead as human rights activism, as fighting for basic liberties against structures of bigotry. But doing so requires accepting the modern Western way of seeing the world as normative — and assuming so is an act of cultural imperialism.

Hey, sometimes cultural imperialism is defensible. It was a very good thing, for example, that the colonizing British in the 19th century put an end to the ancient Indian practice of suttee [6](widow-burning). Even so, we should practice self-awareness when we are being cultural imperialists, and understand how our cultural hegemony appears in the eyes of other civilizations.

Contemporary America most fundamentally operates on the principle elucidated by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey opinion:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Leaving aside the legal and philosophical incoherence of this statement, and the coercion it conceals, it is nevertheless an accurate précis of the way Americans think about the relationship between society and religion, or any other source of transcendent meaning. Orthodox countries rightly reject it, because it is profoundly untrue to their own traditions and ways of living. To the Orthodox mind, what Kennedy proposes here is not liberty at all, but a form of bondage. Again, I’m not trying to convince you that the Orthodox view is correct, but only to point out that when Orthodox countries push back against Western “human rights” activists, it is a matter not only of self-defense, but defending themselves against what they genuinely believe to be lies that will destroy the fabric of society.


175 Comments (Open | Close)

175 Comments To "America’s Culture War On Russia"

#1 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On May 26, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

EngineerScotty wrote:
Surprised Rod hasn’t blogged about the whitey food cart kerfuffle which has been the talk of Portlandia the past week. It’s exposed a rather large fault line on the left, between lets-all-get-along sorts like yours truly, and the more obnoxious sort of what gets called SJWs, who are arguing with a straight face that white cooks ought not hawk tortillas. And it’s the sort of thing right up your alley…

Thanks for linking that. My pregnant wife has been craving Burmese food, but we didn’t think PDX had any. Now she can enjoy the fruits of cultural appropriation.

I’m not really sure how productive Rod’s attacks on progressive excesses are here. Most lefties will just ignore them since they’re hosted by a magazine with the word “conservative” in the title and the pieces just boost confirmation bias and tribalism for righties. It’d be nice if he could get a left wing magazine to host his complaints about attacks on religious liberty and SJW silliness.

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 26, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

Second, you fail to understand, that Russia is ruled by the same elite that ruled the ussr.

Just extend that insight a little further back in time…

#3 Comment By Lllurker On May 26, 2017 @ 8:44 pm


“Okay, but WHY is this supposed to be alarming? ”

It looks to me like we probably differ on two points.

First my focus is on the trend — the trajectory of the government if you will — and as I mentioned above for sometime things have been trending back towards the type of government that Russia once had. So how far might it regress? All the way back to totalitarianism? Part way? As I mentioned above I see nothing to hinder the drift in that direction. And keep in mind that whoever follows Putin will likely be less talented than him, and therefore more prone to need to use brute force to keep power.

Secondly, we probably differ on how we would define the point where things should be characterized as “bad” or “alarming” right? Where is that line? Should this be measured by the numbers of murders and disappearances and incarcerations of innocents initiated by those in power? Maybe it should be measured by the remaining rights of individual citizens? (To circle back towards Rod’s original post.) Or maybe it should be based on how much abuse of power local government/police officials can get away with. How nasty can the local officials make the life of a citizen if they if the official himself is particularly nasty?

What’s your take on these things?

“Now again, you’re talking in almost pure theory about a place you obviously know very little about.”

Not to diminish the value of your personal experience, but do you see why if I am judging the trajectory of the government towards or away from totalitarianism (to measure with a blunt instrument) understanding the details of the current situation on-the-ground isn’t so important?

Incidentally I would be interested in understanding how personal life and finances work in Russia today. Does the government still provide housing or do people now rent/own as they do here? Does the govt. determine pay rates or do the individual Oligarchs and business managers, Etc.

#4 Comment By Abraham On May 26, 2017 @ 10:04 pm

Many of the theological differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism/Protestantism are rooted in their different understandings of Augustine. (It’s noteworthy that while the Orthodox do consider Augustine a saint for his personal sanctity, there is considerable Orthodox debate over whether he should be considered a Church Father due to his theological errors.
In contrast, for Catholics, he is unquestionably a Doctor of the Church.)

Regarding their different views of Augustine, I recommend the following podcast:

“In this program, Steve and Kevin conduct this fascinating interview with professor and author Dr. David Bradshaw–professor of Philosophy and the Philosophy of Religion at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Bradshaw explains for us the distinction between God’s “Essence and Energies”. Understanding this distinction is the key to a major difference between eastern and western Christianity.”

#5 Comment By Theodore Harvey On May 27, 2017 @ 12:52 am

JonF doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The late Romanovs were not “doofuses,” though they faced difficult circumstances and evil enemies who had been plotting their downfall for 92 years (with help from New York towards the end) before finally succeeding. There is no Romanov “gang”–the Imperial House at present consists only of Grand Duchess Maria, who would make an excellent head of state and has done a lot to increase her visibility in Russia, and her son Grand Duke Georgiy. That there are so few monarchies today is a great tragedy, and there is never a good reason for abolishing them–in fact every revolution against monarchy has led only to misery. When monarchy is an integral part of a country’s pre-revolutionary culture and heritage, it is nonsense to imagine that there can be any kind of authentic traditional society without it.

#6 Comment By VikingLS On May 27, 2017 @ 6:03 am

“Not to diminish the value of your personal experience, but do you see why if I am judging the trajectory of the government towards or away from totalitarianism (to measure with a blunt instrument) understanding the details of the current situation on-the-ground isn’t so important?”

No I can’t see this because you can’t understand the trajectory without knowing the details. Quite a bit of your analysis reflects this. You shouldn’t be so strident in analysis based on blunt instruments.

As to your question, most people own or rent their own apartments. Russia does have minimum wage, but beyond that wages are set by the employer. Russia has a banking system and a credit system, stores offer consumer credit as well. The Russian Federation looks far more like the USA than it does the Soviet Union.

The concern over Putin’s successor is something that weighs on a lot of minds, but I don’t really see greater democracy resolving that.

#7 Comment By VikingLS On May 27, 2017 @ 7:05 am

As to petty corruption by local officials, that’s been a fact of life in Russia for centuries. It was by most accounts worse under Yeltsin. In my experience that situation has been gradually improving, but I don’t have the numbers on it.

This is part of the problem when you talk about “trajectories” without really knowing the background. If you’re looking at a situation which has been consistent, that’s not really a trajectory. If we’re talking about an erosion of rights, were there any rights gained during the same time period?

There really isn’t a time of great freedom and prosperity in Russia. There were times of greater freedom, but that freedom was accompanied by chaos not prosperity.

Finally I would point out again, in some areas Russians have more freedom than we do. What I pay in property taxes on my house in one month Ohio would cover the taxes on my wife’s apartment in Saint Petersburg for ten years.

#8 Comment By Durin On May 27, 2017 @ 9:38 am

FWIW I wanted to say that I find this kind of “political” article helpful – trying to step out of the water so that I can see that I am wet. Helps generate thoughts on what blinders I might need to adjust in living the Benedict Option. And in a more meaningful way than just copying.

(More helpful than most Trump articles. I got the Benedict option and read it as soon as it came out, and I don’t find Trump articles helpful in thinking through the sections on how we should politically engage. Maybe b/c I did not vote for him.)

#9 Comment By JonF On May 27, 2017 @ 3:11 pm

Re: The late Romanovs were not “doofuses,”

Yes they were, and the Revolution proves as much. States with successful governments do not suffer revolutions. Russia’s incompetent and often brutal government was pointed to many times by observers both in and outside the nation in the late 1800s and early 1800s. Nicholas II himself admitted to his own incapability. And blaming this on mysterious “enemies” (in New York?! Huh?) is paranoid– and I mean that in the clinical sense.

Re: he Imperial House at present consists only of Grand Duchess Maria

You are poorly informed. There are several branches of the Romanov family, with more than one pretender to the throne, albeit Maria whom you mention is generally regarded as the “official” claimant.

Re: When monarchy is an integral part of a country’s pre-revolutionary culture and heritage

As is true in other European countries as well monarchy in Russia evolved into something corrupt, decadent and alien to the culture and the traditions of history. Absolutism was NOT part of the European (East or west, north of south) tradition and it came a-cropper sooner or later in every country that attempted it– sometimes leaving the nation worse off, at least in the short run, than it had been. The proper role for a Prince (knyazh) would have been as war leader and arbiter of justice. Princes that got above themselves or too far outside that role could and were dismissed– no less than Alexander Nevsky suffered temporary banishment when he became too high and mighty.

And yes, you can have a traditional society without a monarch. The Dutch and the various city states of Italy proved as much.

#10 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On May 27, 2017 @ 3:41 pm


Thanks for the links.

#11 Comment By HP On May 28, 2017 @ 4:18 am

An acquaintance who had a brief fling with Russian Orthodoxy used to explain his returning to Catholicism because “orthodoxy is a religion for peasants who are afraid all alone in the dark”. Not very diplomatic, but there’s a nugget of truth in there, which I would imagine is more related to the Russian than to the Orthodox bit.

#12 Comment By mrscracker On May 28, 2017 @ 11:05 am

Theodore Harvey,
One of my children won a free DNA test several years ago and one of the interesting things he discovered was that his MTDNA was the same variety as Tsar Nicholas. Of course that would apply to countless other folks including Jesse James of all people, but I still thought it cool.
I always felt so terribly sorry for that poor murderered family.
In the best of all possible worlds, I think monarchies
could be a good thing. But we see so many monarchs who have put their interests first.

#13 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 28, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

“It’s very difficult for Americans to think of ourselves as anything but bearers of light and goodness to the nations of the world.”

I lost that religion, traumatic as that was. For a while, it made me the most miserable, as the Apostle says.

You could call me a Born Again evangelical, and you would be correct. You could call me an anabaptist, even though I’ve only been baptized once as an adult. Maybe you could even find me to be an Old Believer, were I in another time and place. There is the eternal in following Christ, anywhere and at any time. That is why the Russian Orthodox expression, although culturally other, still contains the core truth about what this means for all true Christians, and is orthodox.

I am very sorry to have to say, that the ascendancy of the cultural imperialism we have in this country, has no coincidence at all with the things of Christ. As citizens, we ought neither to advise, nor as Christians submit to, such arbitrary measures as are now coming.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 28, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

I’d say as his careful reader, that Augustine made some tragic theological compromises with Constantinism. Notably, his becoming partial to the idea of conversions by the sword being efficacious, since he used as his “proof” that those so converted expressed nothing but praise for it.

It goes without saying, that to protest otherwise, would have meant torture and execution.

#15 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 28, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

“I’m not really sure how productive Rod’s attacks on progressive excesses are here. Most lefties will just ignore them … and the pieces just boost confirmation bias and tribalism for righties. It’d be nice if he could get a left wing magazine to host his complaints about attacks on religious liberty and SJW silliness.”

Yeah, but “righty tighty” and “lefty loosie.”

Never gonna happen.

So be grateful for “conservative” views that don’t at the bottom turn out to be appropriated for pro-war, pro-globalist and anti-spiritual donorist elitism.

#16 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On May 29, 2017 @ 2:21 am

An acquaintance who had a brief fling with Russian Orthodoxy used to explain his returning to Catholicism because “orthodoxy is a religion for peasants who are afraid all alone in the dark”. Not very diplomatic, but there’s a nugget of truth in there, which I would imagine is more related to the Russian than to the Orthodox bit.

Your friend is not wrong, but there are two caveats.

1) Yes, I think it’s related to the “Russian” or more generally “Eastern European” bit, not the Orthodox bit. The non-Orthodox nations of Central Europe (Czechs, Hungarians, etc.) all tend to lean towards the “group survival” pole rather than the “toleration of political / sexual / ethnic diversity” pole.

2) Secondly, while your friend may be correct at the descriptive level, he’s not necessarily right at the normative level. Maybe those peasants were right (and are right) to be afraid to be all alone in the dark. I would suggest that looking at human history- and for that matter, pre-human history- indicates that there’s a whole lot to be afraid of, and that those Orthodox peasants are probably closer to the truth about the world than the more optimistic, sunny-minded westerners.

#17 Comment By JonF On May 29, 2017 @ 10:28 am

Fran, In the 5th century where were there conquests by the sword”? The Roman Empire was awfully short on military victories in those days.

#18 Comment By JonF On May 29, 2017 @ 10:32 am

Re: I always felt so terribly sorry for that poor murderered family.

Yes. And also for Louis XVI, his wife (ditz that she was) and their children.
Nicholas and his family were canonized as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church; they are even depicted in a mural in the OCA Cathedral in Washington DC. But they are titled as “Passion-bearers”– people who bore injustice and suffering with Christian humility and faith. No one praises the quality of Nicholas’ rule.

#19 Comment By Roman in Ukraine On May 29, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

The US did not “push NATO to Russia’s border. It was pulled.

There are real people here, and we understand what each civilization offers. We know the hell on Earth created by Moscow, and want nothing to do with them.

Poland, mind you, was rejected the first two times they attempted to join NATO.

In 2013 the US removed its last tanks from Europe – FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE WWII.

The facts simply don’t support the “aggressive NATO” narrative upon Russia relies – -of course, in Russian civilization, truth is much less important. 😉

#20 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On May 29, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

Monarchism vs. Republicanism is a false dychotomy.
To last, all form of government must fit the ruled as well as the rulers.
Only time will tell whether the current Russian form of government meets this criterion.

#21 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On May 29, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

Roman in Ukraine,

It’s very difficult to know what to make of your statement since you don’t specify which country you’re talking about. If you’re speaking about the Ukraine, then you’re of course wrong. The Gallup survey from February of this year found that Ukrainians are more likely to consider NATO as a potential threat than as a protection, 29% to 35%. The same is true by much larger margins in Moldova and of course Belarus.

People in the countries further west are generally more comfortable with NATO, but except in Poland and the Baltics there isn’t an absolute majority that actively supports NATO, and outside of Poland, other Eastern European countries tend to be relatively favourable to Russia. (In Slovakia for example about equal numbers of people want to be an ally of Russia vs. the west).

In contrast to your statement, no, NATO definitely did push its way east. Pushing through persuasion and temptation is no less real than pushing by any other means.

#22 Comment By David J On May 29, 2017 @ 10:47 pm

Costica Bradatan wrote this perspective that brilliantly captures the tense ambivalence of relations of just about everyone with Russia.


#23 Comment By HP On May 30, 2017 @ 12:49 am

@Hector: There is a Russian tendency to explain their backwardness and subjection to tyranny away with grandiose talk about the “Russian soul” or their supposed spiritual superiority over the West, whatever that may mean. It’s not recent either. If it makes them feel better, fine, but I’m not impressed.

#24 Comment By Doug Spencer On May 31, 2017 @ 1:42 pm

Russia has the economy size of Italy. To take in context if the Germans let’s say wanted to up their military strength they alone could be strong enough to counter the threat, which I see has beyond way overblown.

Are the Russians our friends? Not so much. Are they going to launch nuclear missiles at the west or will we see the Russian tanks flood accross Europe? No. Now we do have real threat’s to the country when we get on an airplane and have to basically strip naked they are not doing this to protect us from the Russians, when the terror threat gets raised or they warn us on Holiday’s about being careful on the lookout, they are not warning us against Russia. Matter of fact Russia is dealing with the same threat as we are but in much larger numbers. Radical Islam in whatever country as well as North Korea are the biggest threats, anything else is much lower on the threat level. If I lived in the Ukraine I would feel different but in the U.S. it will not be the Russians who set off the next bomb, or run over people in trucks.

As for meddling in the election I think a lot of us would just like to see the proof not the allegations until then concentrate on the threat that targets Americans and the west daily.

#25 Comment By CH Boening On June 6, 2017 @ 8:54 pm

The author confuses Orthodoxy with a specific Russian point of view. This is also obvious from the title: America’s Culture War On ‘Russia’, not the Ecumenic Orthodoxy. As a born Greek Orthodox I disagree with the notion of the article as supposedly representing the perspective of Orthodox christianity. The article represents the perspective of Russia, which is very different. I do not recognize, nor do I accept, the majority of the assertions made here. I’m afraid that, even after 10 years, the author has still not arrived at the core of the concept of Orthodoxy as a worldview.