How Putin Matters
The always-insightful American journalist Christopher Caldwell says he doesn’t intend to tell people what to think about Vladimir Putin, but rather how to think about him. Yes, by our standards, Putin is a bad man. On the other hand:
Yet if we were to use traditional measures for understanding leaders, which involve the defense of borders and national flourishing, Putin would count as the pre-eminent statesman of our time. On the world stage, who can vie with him? Only perhaps Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey.
When Putin took power in the winter of 1999-2000, his country was defenseless. It was bankrupt. It was being carved up by its new kleptocratic elites, in collusion with its old imperial rivals, the Americans. Putin changed that. In the first decade of this century, he did what Kemal Atatürk had done in Turkey in the 1920s. Out of a crumbling empire, he rescued a nation-state, and gave it coherence and purpose. He disciplined his country’s plutocrats. He restored its military strength. And he refused, with ever blunter rhetoric, to accept for Russia a subservient role in an American-run world system drawn up by foreign politicians and business leaders. His voters credit him with having saved his country.
Putin did not come out of nowhere. Russian people not only tolerate him, they revere him. You can get a better idea of why he has ruled for 17 years if you remember that, within a few years of Communism’s fall, average life expectancy in Russia had fallen below that of Bangladesh. That is an ignominy that falls on Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin’s reckless opportunism made him an indispensable foe of Communism in the late 1980s. But it made him an inadequate founding father for a modern state. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose writings about Communism give him some claim to be considered the greatest man of the twentieth century, believed the post-Communist leaders had made the country even worse. In the year 2000 Solzhenitsyn wrote: “As a result of the Yeltsin era, all the fundamental sectors of our political, economic, cultural, and moral life have been destroyed or looted. Will we continue looting and destroying Russia until nothing is left?” That was the year Putin came to power. He was the answer to Solzhenitsyn’s question.
There are two things Putin did that cemented the loyalty of Solzhenitsyn and other Russians—he restrained the billionaires who were looting the country, and he restored Russia’s standing abroad. Let us take them in turn.
So why are people thinking about Putin as much as they do? Because he has become a symbol of national self-determination. Populist conservatives see him the way progressives once saw Fidel Castro, as the one person who says he won’t submit to the world that surrounds him. You didn’t have to be a Communist to appreciate the way Castro, whatever his excesses, was carving out a space of autonomy for his country.
Do read the whole thing. It’s fascinating.
I found that piece through a link in a Mark Movsesian commentary in First Things, in which the law professor discusses the prospect of an emerging alliance between American Evangelicals and Russian Orthodox. Movsesian sees strong theological differences working against the possibility that a lasting “Evangelicals and Orthodox Together” movement will come forth. But that doesn’t mean that the two sides cannot and will not cooperate on practical matters. Excerpt:
On the global stage, Western advocates define international human rights in an increasingly progressive way, especially on issues of gender and sexuality. Traditionalist Christians like the Russian Orthodox could genuinely think that their worldviews are quickly becoming inadmissible in human-rights fora. How long will it be, they may wonder, before same-sex marriage is declared an international human right, and countries that refuse to endorse it are labeled human-rights pariahs? And how long before transgenderism is added to the categories of protected status? One can see recent standoffs in Geneva on so-called traditional values resolutions as manifestations of a conflict between two rival conceptions of human dignity: one, supported by most Western advocates, that focuses on individual autonomy; and the other, proposed by voices from the global East and South, that focuses on traditional understandings of human nature.
American Evangelicals, at least conservative Evangelicals, may genuinely admire the Russian Orthodox Church, and Putin too, for refusing to give in to the new progressive ascendancy.
Here is the text of an address Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, effectively the foreign minister of the Russian Orthodox Church, gave at a 2011 Sunday morning service at Highland Park Presbyterian in Dallas. I was present for the service and the speech. It was very well received by the large conservative congregation. Excerpts:
Humanity today is not only godless, it is also anti-human. Inhumanity, indifference towards the suffering of others, unwillingness to help or come forward for help, egocentrism and egoism have today reached truly universal dimensions. It is ever more difficult to meet a true human being in the desert of the modern world. Everywhere people live as though they will not be called to account for their sins, as though there is no God who set commandments, established laws and ordained moral rules for His people. Many live as if there is nothing beyond the threshold of death. They live only for themselves, for their own pleasure; they live to gratify their human lusts.
Regrettably we can direct these bitter words not only to non-believers but also to the spokesmen of certain trends in modern Christianity. As such, in the presence of this erosion of the moral foundation of Christian civilization, we are faced with the paramount spiritual problem of our time.
Today we can state with deep consternation that the frontier of confrontation among the various Christian confessions lies not so much along lines of theological dispute, but rather in what hitherto seemed unthinkable, namely, marked differences among Christians in their understanding of moral law. A few decades ago disputes about what is sin and what is virtue were rare – after all, what was there to argue about? Everyone agreed that the Bible stated everything in absolutely clear terms. But now there has surfaced a desire to revise, or, to be more precise, to adjust the unambiguous commandments of God to any manifestation of human fancy: a trend that has spread out with the speed of a cancer.
Ideological and ethical dividing lines have now come to lie not between believers and non-believers but actually within the community of those who call themselves Christians. This is even evident within one and the same confession. Recently, a few months ago addressing members of the Nicean Club of the Anglican Church, I noted that differences in views held by the liberal and conservative wings of that Church are greater than between Anglicans and adherents of other confessions.
In order to cope with evil we ourselves must stand firmly on the side of goodness rather than that of abstract pluralism. But how is it possible to speak of a firm moral stand when the very foundations of morality are diluted – and that not without the approval of Christian leaders? Our task should be to unite the efforts of those Christians who hold fast to the Word of God without allowing any erosion of its moral imperatives to humour the spirit of the time.
If in a community calling itself Christian, practising homosexuals are consecrated as ‘bishops’, if a rite of blessing same-sex unions is practised and fundamental biblical norms concerning marriage, family and human sexuality are reassessed, can this community be called a church? It is salt that has lost its savour; it has ceased to be salty and is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (Mt. 5:13).
Today’s Christendom is divided along tracks that conform to a few simple yet important questions: the acceptance or rejection of the absolute value of human life and the related attitude to abortion and euthanasia; a commitment to the biblical view of the family and the related traditional view of relations between men and women; and finally, the duty, or simply the courage, to call a sin a sin.
It should now be clear what is really hidden under the masks of liberalizing Christian doctrine and of eroding ethical teachings. Why indeed has this particular aspect of Christian theology (as opposed to any other) become the object in a number of Protestant churches and communities of diverse experimentation and attempts at relativization? Why has a review of Christian ethical norms arisen in these communities at all? What forces stand behind these processes and what purposes do they pursue?
One explanation, but not the only one, is that Christianity preaches abstention, moderation and self-restriction. As such it clearly becomes an encumbrance that affects the rampant growth of consumerism on which today’s market economy is based. For this reason, there are many who wish to remove Christian ethics from social life. Circles with vested interests oppose the influence of Christian morality on the spheres of economy and business by subjecting everything to their principal market rule: ‘supply should forestall demand’. They also attempt to liberate the exploitation of human sexuality from any public control and above all to deprive Christian Churches of the right publicly to express concerns over this issue.
How can a Christianity that is disunited and riddled with contrary views in theological and anthropological teachings oppose such tendencies?
Read the entire lecture here. You’ll be able to understand why Evangelicals can find practical common ground with the Russian Orthodox. Metropolitan Hilarion (in Orthodoxy, “metropolitan” is equivalent to “archbishop”) ended his talk by calling on traditional Christians of all kinds to stand together against the liberalizers and secularizers.
The theological gaps between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism are vast — too vast to be resolved. But again, in the greatest struggle of our own time, those differences mean less than what we have in common.