The New Yorker‘s David Remnick has a great piece out describing the scene in Russia today. Most of it is about how Michael McFaul, a liberal American academic naïf went to Putin’s Moscow as US ambassador and walked into a buzzsaw. McFaul was so overmatched by the Russians that you may end up cringing with each move of his Remnick documents. Though truth to tell, it’s hard to imagine any American ambassador being up to dealing with this stuff.

The more interesting part of the long piece, though, is Remnick’s series of interviews with prominent Russian figures in Putin’s sphere. Most of them are breathtakingly cynical, and not the least bit embarrassed by it. And then there’s Aleksandr Dugin, a popular political theorist. Read:

The world, for Dugin, is divided between conservative land powers (Russia) and libertine maritime powers (the U.S. and the U.K.)—Eternal Rome and Eternal Carthage. The maritime powers seek to impose their will, and their decadent materialism, on the rest of the world. This struggle is at the heart of history. For Dugin, Russia must rise from its prolonged post-Soviet depression and reassert itself, this time as the center of a Eurasian empire, against the dark forces of America. And this means war. Dugin rejects the racism of the Nazis, but embraces their sense of hierarchy, their romance of death. “We need a new party,” he has written. “A party of death. A party of the total vertical. God’s party, the Russian analogue to the Hezbollah, which would act according to wholly different rules and contemplate completely different pictures.”

This is not going to end well.

And yet, McFaul, who is now back in Palo Alto, concedes that Putin, for all his paranoia and power mania, has a point:

Although McFaul feels a deep sense of outrage about Putin, he also understood the mind-set of resentment and conspiracy. “I didn’t go to foment revolution,” he said. “I went to take the reset to the next stage. That was my mandate.” He added, “Obama people don’t sponsor color revolutions. Other Administrations had done this. Has the U.S. used covert operations to foment regime change? The answer is yes. I don’t want to get in trouble or go to jail, but has the U.S. supported the opposition to bring about political change? Serbia is a paradigmatic case: direct money to the opposition to destabilize things, and it was successful.”

When a Putinista tells Remnick that the downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine was likely a Western propaganda move, he adds:

“There is a history to such conspiracies. Or have you forgotten your General Colin Powell at the U.N. with his ‘evidence’ and his theories about Saddam Hussein?”

My sense from reading the piece is that Putin and his circle are paranoid, rabid nationalists, but they aren’t completely crazy. We really are out to get him.

On a philosophical tangent, I missed this quote from a Putin speech, citing the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev:

“The meaning of conservatism is not that it impedes movement forward and upward, but that it impedes movement backwards and downwards—to chaotic darkness and the return to a primitive state.”

I had not thought about it that way: conservatism as a negative force for progress. Progress as anti-regress. Stated that way, that is pretty much the kind of conservative I am. If you believe, as most Americans do, I think, that history is moving in one direction only, and that is the way of progress, this doesn’t make sense. Conservatism is only an inhibiting force for progress, in that it restrains and even blocks the unfolding of history in a progressive direction. But if you believe that history is not fated to move in the direction of things getting better and better for mankind, that civilization is fragile, and we could easily lose the gains we have made, conservatism (broadly speaking) makes sense as a way to defend the goods we have. The trick is to know when we should advance (and what constitutes advance), and when we should hold pat, or even retreat in the name of the Good. Of course that raises the question: what is the Good? You can’t measure progress, or regress, without reference to an idea of the Good.

Anyway, the Russian Hezbollah. Damn. God save the Russian Orthodox Church from this kind of thinking, and that kind of thinker.

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