War As Culture War
He’s done it again. The honey badger in the Kremlin just moved more advanced missiles into position on Russia’s most westerly fringe to own the Baltic Sea. This week Moscow admitted it has deployed cutting-edge Bastion anti-ship missiles to the Kaliningrad exclave, north of Poland, plus equally advanced S-400 air defense systems to shoot down aircraft and missiles as far as 250 miles out.
With this move, the Kremlin has established control over the Baltic Sea, most of Poland and the Baltic republics—NATO members all. Russia now can exert anti-access and area denial—what the Pentagon calls A2AD for short—at will, meaning that any NATO aircraft or ships entering the region can be hit long before they get close to Kaliningrad. For Western military planners, this is nothing short of a nightmare, since Moscow can now block NATO reinforcements headed east to counter, say, Russian military moves on the vulnerable Baltic republics.
Schindler is no Putin apologist, but he explains why Russia is doing what it’s doing. There is a strong cultural core driving Russian policy — one that US policymakers seem incapable of discerning:
It’s not like Putin and his minions have been hiding what they believe. Putin himself is very much a KGB man—what Russians call a Chekist—cunningly conspiratorial to his bones. Yet over the last decade, he has become an open Russian nationalist with strong religious overtones. Regime outlets pontificate nonstop about the evils of the West, castigating our decadence and depravity, reflecting a nationalism that is deeply grounded in Orthodox Christianity.
Putin has talked warmly about what he calls “spiritual security“—which means keeping versions of Christianity other than Russian Orthodoxy out of the country—even stating that Russia’s “spiritual shield” is as important to her security as its nuclear shield. His inspiration for this comes from Orthodox thinkers, above all Ivan Ilyin, who hated the West with vigor and passion. This anti-Western worldview seems strange and even incomprehensible to most Americans, its reference points are utterly foreign to us, yet is grounded in centuries of Russian history and spiritual experience.
In this viewpoint, which I have termed Orthodox Jihadism, the West is an implacable foe of Holy Russia with whom there can be no lasting peace.
This is not a new thing in Russian history, of course, but Putin has revived it powerfully. More:
The anti-Western animus of this ideology would be difficult to overstate. There are rational-sounding complaints—for instance, Russian harping on NATO expansion up to their borders—but much of it boils down to depictions of the post-modern West as Satan’s project designed to subvert traditional religion and family life. These complaints sound a lot like what hardline Muslims say about the West. Just like Islamists, Kremlin ideologists claim that, since the West is spiritually attacking Russia and Orthodoxy with feminist and LGBT propaganda, all of Moscow’s responses—including aggressive military moves—are therefore defensive.
To be fair to Putin and his ilk, we’ve been doing a good job of making their anti-Western polemics seem plausible. Under President Obama, the State Department really has pushed feminism and LGBT rights hard—including in Russia. Washington’s official effort to coerce small, impoverished countries like Macedonia into accepting our post-modern views of sexuality has raised Russian ire, not least because Macedonia is a majority-Orthodox country.
The bottom line is that Putin’s Russia is driven by a state-approved ideology which hates the post-modern West and considers us a permanent existential threat. President Obama’s insistence that we can’t be in a new Cold War with Russia because there’s no ideological component to the struggle is completely and utterly wrong. The Kremlin sees that spiritual-cum-ideological struggle clearly, and says so openly.
Here’s the deal: Putin may be a sneaky, conniving man, and a dangerous enemy to have. But he’s not entirely wrong about the postmodern West. One doesn’t have to credit Putin’s sanctity to concede this.
Depending on what you believe to be the heart and soul of a nation, we certainly are an existential threat to some nations and ways of life, whether we mean to be or not. As I’ve said before, the Islamist ideologist Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual godfather behind al Qaeda, was a cutthroat and a crackpot, but he was not wrong to say to Muslims that the West, as the bearer of what we call “modernity,” poses an existential threat to Islam. For a calm, rational explanation why this is true, read Emma Green’s recent interview with Shadi Hamid. Excerpt:
Green: You emphasize the importance of taking the “metaphysical” propositions of Islam seriously, over and above the material circumstances of violence. What is lost in focusing on the material rather than ideological factors in the politics of Muslim countries?
Hamid: As political scientists, when we try to understand why someone joins an Islamist party, we tend to think of it as, “Is this person interested in power or community or belonging?” But sometimes it’s even simpler than that. It [can be] about a desire for eternal salvation. It’s about a desire to enter paradise. In the bastions of Northeastern, liberal, elite thought, that sounds bizarre. Political scientists don’t use that kind of language because, first of all, how do you measure that? But I think we should take seriously what people say they believe in.
It’s interesting that we’re having this conversation at a time when many people, including outside the Middle East, are loosing faith in technocratic, liberal democracy. There’s a desire for a politics of substantive meaning. At the end of the day, people want more than economic tinkering.
I think classical liberalism makes a lot of sense intellectually. But it doesn’t necessarily fill the gap that many people in Europe and the U.S. seem to have in their own lives, whether that means [they] resort to ideology, religion, xenophobia, nationalism, populism, exclusionary politics, or anti-immigrant politics. All of these things give voters a sense that there is something greater.
What we can learn from the Middle East can also apply to some extent to other regions that are struggling with similar questions of what are the ultimate purposes of politics.
“A politics of personal meaning.” And: “A sense that there is something greater.” And: “ultimate purposes” This is exactly right. The thing is, we don’t want to derive ultimate meaning in life through politics. That way lies madness. But we want our politics to embody some sense of meaning, to reflect a sense that there is something greater. In short, as someone (Kirk, I think) once said, all political problems are at bottom religious problems.
The Polish Catholic philosopher Ryszard Legutko is deeply not a fan of Vladimir Putin, but he has written (in his brilliant new book The Demon in Democracy) and said in this interview he did with me in TAC, that the liberal democratic West comes up quite short in the politics of meaning. Excerpt:
The problem is a more fundamental one because it touches upon the controversy about what constitutes the Western civilization. The liberal progressives have managed to impose on our minds a notion that Christianity, classical metaphysics, etc., are no longer what defines our Western identity. A lot of conservatives – intellectuals and politicians – have readily acquiesced to this notion. Unless and until this changes and our position of what constitutes the West becomes an integral part of the conservative agenda and a subject of public debate, there is not much hope things can change.
You can’t resist Putin’s weaponized Russian Orthodoxy or the weaponized Islam of the Muslim world’s violent radicals with Justice Kennedy’s Sweet Mystery Of Life™ philosophy. Here’s Stanley Hauerwas:
Consider, for example, the hallmark sentence of the Casey decision on abortion: “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.” This is exactly the view of freedom that John Paul II so eloquently condemns in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. A view of freedom like that embodied in Casey assumes, according to John Paul II, that we must be able to create values since freedom enjoys “a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom.”
In contrast, John Paul II, who is not afraid to have enemies, reminds us that the good news of the Gospel, known through proclamation, is that we are not fated to be determined by such false stories of freedom. For the truth is that since we are God’s good creation we are not free to choose our own stories. Freedom lies not in creating our lives, but in learning to recognize our lives as a gift. We do not receive our lives as though they were a gift, but rather our lives simply are a gift: we do not exist first and then receive from God a gift. The great magic of the Gospel is providing us with the skills to acknowledge our life, as created, without resentment and regret. Such skills must be embodied in a community of people across time, constituted by practices such as baptism, preaching, and the Eucharist, which become the means for us to discover God’s story for our lives.
If you ask people if they want to live in a social order that requires them to pass no judgment when a feminist punk rock band invades a cathedral and desecrates it by turning a sacred space into a stage for political protest, you should not be surprised when they don’t consider that free speech of that sort is inviolable. It is not obvious to everyone that all decent people must be on the side of Pussy Riot, even if it means, in effect, standing alongside Vladimir Putin. It is not self-evident that the value of free speech, which Pussy Riot supposedly defended by its stunt in the church, is more important that the value of honoring God in a holy temple.
Putin is quite clearly using traditional morality and religion as a geopolitical strategic weapon — but again, that does not make us right and him wrong about the fundamentals. Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox patriarch, told Russian media recently:
What’s happening in the Western countries is that, for the first time in human history, legislation is at odds with the moral nature of human beings. What’s good and evil? Sin and righteousness? These could be defined in both religious terms and non-religious terms. If you take a good character from English, American, or Russian fiction, you will see that all of them possess the same qualities. Why? We have different cultures and different political systems, but for all of us good is good, and evil is evil, and everyone understands who the good guys are, and who the bad guys are. So how do we distinguish? With our heart, with our moral nature. This moral nature, created by God, served as a foundation for the legislation which is designed. Laws defined moral values in legal terms, telling us what’s good and what’s bad. We know that stealing is bad and helping people is good, and laws define what stealing is and what the suitable punishment for it is.
Now, for the first time in human history, the law allows something that doesn’t correspond to our moral nature. The law contradicts it. It’s not the same thing, of course, but we could compare this to an extent to the apartheid in Africa or Nazi laws – when the law went against inherent moral values, people rebelled. They knew it wasn’t right; it was artificial; it was part of some ideology and not in sync with their moral nature. So the Church can never approve of this. We say that the Church can never redefine good and evil, sin and righteousness, but we don’t condemn people who have different sexual preferences. It’s on their conscience and it’s their business, but they shouldn’t be discriminated against or punished, as used to be common practice in some states. However, under no circumstances should this be accepted as a social norm no different from the social norm that stems from our moral nature, meaning marriage between a man and wife who create a family and have children. That’s why we believe this new trend poses a significant threat for the existence of the human race. The Church has to address this and say it’s a bad thing, but we’ve seen that authorities in some countries have been trying to silence clergymen. One Protestant pastor went to jail for calling same-sex marriage a sin in his sermon. Again, this is very reminiscent of what was happening under Soviet totalitarianism. In the countries that declare their commitment to freedom of speech, you can get punished for expressing your opinion. That’s a dangerous trend, and I hope it will peter out and the natural order of things will prevail. I don’t even want to think about what might happen to us otherwise. Our prayers and our work are so that humanity lives on and follows the principles dictated by our moral nature.
Patriarch Kirill does not have to be the second coming of his predecessor St. Tikhon of Moscow to be correct in this assessment. And he is correct. Meanwhile, the United States government is preparing American scholars to go abroad and undermine local traditions in the name of LGBT liberation. The United States government has contracted with George Soros to recruit culture-war janissaries to tear down traditional Orthodox culture in the Federal Republic of Macedonia. Let’s take a look at John Schindler’s 2014 post about Putin as head of the global “anti-WEIRD coalition.” Excerpt:
That’s social science shorthand for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – and nobody is WEIRDer than Americans. In the last several decades many Americans, and essentially all our elites, have internalized a worldview based on affluence, individualism, and secularism that makes us unique, globally speaking. So much so that we seem unable to comprehend that there actually are opposing viewpoints out there.
Barack Obama, by virtue of his diverse ethnic and religious background and elite education, is almost an ideal stand-in for the WEIRD demographic, as he embodies so many things WEIRDos admire: education, affluence, diversity, progressive social views, etc. He comes close to being almost the perfect post-modern American, which perhaps is why so many Americans of that bent adore him deeply. Thus when President Obama says he detects no ideological rivalry with Putin’s Russia, he undoubtedly speaks the truth as he sees it.
Americans of all stripes have a well-honed ability to ignore inconvenient facts, and our better educated citizens seem particularly prone to this (as I noted with our “expert” inability to see what North Korea believes, even though they aren’t shy about it). At root, I suspect Obama and many Americans refuse to accept the in-our-face reality of Putin and his regime because they represent a past version of ourselves, caught up in retrograde views that are entirely unacceptable to our elites, therefore they pretend they do not exist, because they don’t actually exist in their world.
[It] is important to note that the post-modernism about cultural and social matters that has become the default setting in the West in the last couple decades has had a hard time putting down roots in Eastern Europe. It’s an odd fact that living under the Old Left (i.e. Marxism-Leninism) inoculated Eastern Europeans from much of the New Left of the 1960s and after, with its emphasis on gender, sexuality, and race. “Critical Studies” didn’t get far with people who had to live under the KGB; indeed, East Bloc secret police in the 1980s viewed all this – the feminism and the gay rights stuff especially – as bourgeois deviance and a subversive Western import. Since 1990, Western countries have made actual efforts to import that, but it’s met a lot of resistance, and doesn’t make much of an impression outside educated circles; which is why when educated Westerners meet, say, educated Poles, “they seem just like us” – because they have accepted, verbatim, what we’ve told them is normative in a “developed” society.
ROC [Russian Orthodox Church] propaganda portrays a West that is declining down to its death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused unbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church, recently explained that the “main threat” to Russia is “the loss of faith” in the Western style. The practices of “sexual minorities,” to use the Kremlin term for LGBT lifestyles, come in for harsh criticism. …
Faith aside, it’s not hard to see why Putin wants to fight off Western values based on individualism in the sexual realm that have unquestionably led to lower birthrates, which is something that Russia, which is already facing demographic disaster, cannot afford. The existence of the country itself is at stake, so we should not expect Putin to back off here, especially because he may actually believe all this as a matter of faith, not just natalist practicality.
The West, and the United States especially, have helped cause this by active promotion of the post-modernism that Russia now rejects. It is not a figment of Moscow’s imagination that the U.S. State Department encourages feminism and LGBT activism, at least in certain countries. When Washington, DC, considers having successful gay pride parades a key benchmark for “advancement” in Eastern Europe, with the full support of U.S. diplomats, we should not be surprised when the Kremlin and its sympathizers move to counter this. My friends in Eastern Europe, most of whom are comfortable with gay rights and feminism, have nevertheless noted to me many times that it’s odd that the U.S. Government promotes such things in small, poor Eastern European countries it can intimidate but never, say, in Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, there remains the question of just how universal post-modern Western values actually are outside educated elites. There is ample evidence that many average people in Eastern Europe who fear Russia nevertheless are closer to the Kremlin’s positions on cultural matters than to America’s. In Georgia, where loathing of Russians generally and Putin particularly is universal, resistance to LGBT rights and feminism remains deep and broad, with the support of the Orthodox Church, while much the same can be said of Moldova, where fears of Russian invasion are acute, but so are fears of Western social values. Neither is this resistance limited to the East. It can be found as well in Central Europe, among NATO and EU members. In Poland, the Catholic Church continues to resist post-modern sexual values – what they collectively term “gender,” meaning feminism plus gay rights – leading one bishop to term this “ a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined.” Strongly Catholic Croatia last December in a national referendum rejected same-sex marriage by a two-thirds margin, to the dismay of progressives across Europe.
As most readers know, I am an Orthodox Christian. My deep concern over the relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church is not that the ROC will exercise undue influence over the Russian state, but that the ROC will become Russian nationalism at prayer. I am extremely sympathetic to the ROC critique of the West, and see things like the opening of the new Russian Orthodox cathedral in Paris to be a blessing. On my next trip to Paris, after I make my pilgrimage to pray before the relics of St. Genevieve, the city’s patron, I will make a visit to this Russian cathedral, pray there, and give thanks to God for its witness in that magnificent Christian (or once-Christian) city. It is my prayer — really, it is — that the Russian cathedral will in some real sense bring believing Eastern and Western Christians closer together, and strengthen our common witness against the post-Christian West — such that one day, Europe may return to the widespread practice of the faith.
That said, it will not do to lament the corrupting effect of nationalism on American Christianity — as I do — while giving a pass to the same thing in Russian Christianity.
The point of all this is that Putin aside, many people outside the West look at us and do not like what they see. In fact, they see the values promoted by the West today as godless, hedonistic, and a threat to what they believe to be sacred and true. And you know what? Mostly, they’re right. American religious conservatives should at the very least ask why if you had to choose whether traditional Christian teaching would be respected and defended more by the President of Russia, an ex-KGB agent, or the President of the United States (or any other major Western nation), that the answer would be ambiguous at best.
If you put people in the position of choosing their way of life and its sacred values, as defended by an imperfect leader like Vladimir Putin, or abandoning their way of life, what do you expect?