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Putin The Paleo?

Citing a recent speech to the Russian nation by Vladimir Putin, Pat Buchanan identifies the Russian president as having a “paleoconservative moment.” Buchanan:

While much of American and Western media dismiss him as an authoritarian and reactionary, a throwback, Putin may be seeing the future with more clarity than Americans still caught up in a Cold War paradigm.

As the decisive struggle in the second half of the 20th century was vertical, East vs. West, the 21st century struggle may be horizontal, with conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite.

And though America’s elite may be found at the epicenter of anti-conservatism and anti-traditionalism, the American people have never been more alienated or more divided culturally, socially and morally.

We are two countries now.

Putin says his mother had him secretly baptized as a baby and professes to be a Christian. And what he is talking about here is ambitious, even audacious.

He is seeking to redefine the “Us vs. Them” world conflict of the future as one in which conservatives, traditionalists, and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent west.

I looked up the text of Putin’s speech. Ninety percent of it is State Of The Union blabbity-blah. Here’s the part that excites Buchanan:

Today, many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognise everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning. This destruction of traditional values from above not only leads to negative consequences for society, but is also essentially anti-democratic, since it is carried out on the basis of abstract, speculative ideas, contrary to the will of the majority, which does not accept the changes occurring or the proposed revision of values.

We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilisation in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.

Of course, this is a conservative position. But speaking in the words of Nikolai Berdyaev, the point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward, but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.

Putin may be a cold-eyed cynic, but he’s also onto something. I don’t think Buchanan is correct in his column statement that America has been de-Christianized from above. I agree with him to a limited extent, but our all-American individualism and mode of capitalism have done far more to eliminate cultural conservatism and Christianity than elites have. The real question is whether or not Russia — or any nation — can modernize without liberalizing. China has (so far) achieved great wealth and economic dynamism without embracing liberal democracy, thus disproving the view common in the US over the last generation that economic liberalization would require cultural liberalization. So, we’ll see.

Putin is faced with having to rebuild a nation that was absolutely devastated, at the cultural and social level, by Marxism-Leninism. It is hard to overstate what the destruction of civil society and the spiritual and cultural life of Russia did to the nation. My guess is that he sees no hope that rebuilding Russia along Western lines is a solution, given in part the collapse in fertility in the West, and given how grim Russia’s own fertility situation is. If Russia is going to have a future, he must figure, it must be built on organic Russian traditions, which includes Orthodox Christianity. Again, that’s just my guess as to what Putin is up to. With the Pussy Riot case, I wouldn’t suppose that Putin was religiously offended by what those punks did, but rather he believes that Russia’s rebirth depends on its rediscovery of a life-giving Christianity, which depends on rebuilding a sense of social respect for and trust in the Orthodox Church and its teachings. Orthodox Christianity is the only coherent basis for rebuilding the Russian nation from the ruins left by Bolshevism.

To paraphrase Malraux, Russia’s future will be Orthodox, or it won’t be at all. To our Western eyes, it looks like Putin is an authoritarian who hates gay people. That may be true, to a certain extent. But Putin is playing a long game here, a game that is far more serious and consequential for the survival of his country than American culture warriors can see.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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