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Why Make Russia Our Enemy?

Putin a 'sinister tyrant,' says Hitchens, but the West's demonization of Russia is foolish

Here’s an extraordinary essay by Peter Hitchens, who covered Russia from Moscow during the Cold War for a British newspaper, writing about how the West is behaving stupidly in its hostile approach to the Kremlin. Hitchens focuses on the staggering suffering the Russian people have endured from past invasions, and from 75 years of Communism. Excerpts:

A few miles away, near the turbulent Taganka Theatre [in Moscow], is a small park, with trees and a pond. A friend of mine, Conor O’Clery of the Irish Times, remarked in the early 1990s on how the grass grew badly there and the trees were stunted. Only as the pace of reform quickened did he discover why. Men and women still living nearby came forward to recall what they had seen there as children in 1937, in the early summer mornings, as they hid in the foliage of the trees. Silent men had dug great pits in the park. Unmarked vans had arrived, and more silent men, wearing long rubber aprons, had flung corpses into the pits, dozens of them, bloody from the execution chamber. The pits had been filled and covered over. And the children, when they climbed down from the trees and hurried home, were ordered by their frightened parents never to speak of what they had seen—at school, with friends, in shops, anywhere. Nor did they, for more than fifty years.

This, remember, was in the very center of the capital city of a great empire. Florid symbols of a new civilization stood all around. Officially there was a liberal constitution, there were law courts, things that called themselves newspapers, and supposed deliberative assemblies. Yet within sight, sound, and stink of these things men and women were murdered by the agents of the state, perhaps because they had told an unwise joke about the regime, perhaps for no reason at all. This was the culmination of a process that had begun with some of the world’s cleverest and most idealistic young men and women setting out a program for utopia. Those lucky enough never to have known the accompanying fear and uncertainty can hardly begin to understand the cynicism and darkness of the lives of normal people in such countries, or of the liberation they felt when the last traces of the Communist Party were scrubbed away.


Nobody who has seen these things could possibly compare the old Soviet Union with the new Russia. The trouble is, almost nobody has seen them. Nor, it seems, has anyone noticed the withdrawal of Moscow’s power from 700,000 square miles of territory which it once held down with boots and tanks and secret policemen. Somehow or other this unprecedented peaceful withdrawal of a power undefeated in war is being portrayed as “expansionism.” Nobody who understands history, geography, or, come to that, arithmetic can possibly accept this portrayal. There is much to criticize in Russia’s foreign policy, especially if one is a Ukrainian nationalist, but the repossession of Crimea does not signal a revival of the Warsaw Pact. It is instead a limited and minor action in the context of this conquered and reconquered stretch of soil, the ugly but unexceptional act of a regional power.

Here I risk being classified as an apologist for Vladimir Putin. I am not. I view him as a sinister tyrant. The rule of law is more or less absent under his rule. He operates a cunning and cynical policy toward the press. Criticism of the government is perfectly possible in small-circulation magazines and obscure radio stations, but quashed whenever it threatens the state and its controlled media. Several of the most serious allegations against Putin—alleged murders of journalists and politicians—have not been proven. Yet crimes like the death in prison (from horrible neglect) of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor who charged Russian officials with corruption, can be traced directly to Putin’s government, and are appalling enough by themselves.

But this is not really the point. Western diplomats, politicians, and media are highly selective about tyranny. Boris Yeltsin’s state was not much superior to Vladimir Putin’s. Yeltsin used tanks to shell his own parliament. He waged a barbaric war in Chechnya. He blatantly rigged his own re-election with the aid of foreign cash. He practically sold the entire country. Russians, accustomed to corruption as a way of life, gasped at its extent under Yeltsin’s rule. Yet he was counted a friend of the West, and went largely uncriticized. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who locks up many more journalists than does Mr. Putin, who kills his own people when they demonstrate against him, and who has described democracy as a tram which you ride as far as you can get on it before getting off, has for many years enjoyed the warm endorsement of the West. His country’s illegal occupation of northern Cyprus, which has many parallels to Russia’s occupation of Crimea, goes unpunished. Turkey remains a member of NATO, wooed by the E.U.


Perhaps we would understand Russia’s situation better if we imagined that NATO has been dissolved and that the Confederate States and the territories conquered in the Mexican-American War have declared independence. The U.S. retains a precarious hold on the naval station at San Diego, sharing it with the Mexican Navy on an expensive lease that Mexico regularly threatens to cancel. Americans still living in San Diego are compelled to adopt Spanish names on their drivers’ licenses, and movie theaters are instructed to show films only in Spanish. Schools teach anti-American history. Quebec has seceded from Canada, and is being wooed by a Russo-Chinese economic union, with a pact including military and political clauses. Russian politicians are in the streets of Montreal, urging on a violent anti-American mob, which eventually succeeds in overthrowing Quebec’s pro-American president and replacing him with a pro-Russian one—violating Quebec’s constitution in the process. This brings military forces aligned with Russia right up to the border with New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

In such a case, I cannot see the U.S. sitting about doing nothing, especially if it had repeatedly warned in major diplomatic forums against this expansion of Russian power on its frontiers, and been repeatedly ignored over fifteen years or so. If a Marxist takeover in Grenada was considered good enough reason for military action, what would these circumstances provoke?

Read the whole thing.  It’s really good.

I read that piece on the same day that news broke about a young Russian atheist provocateur who got himself arrested by playing Pokemon Go inside a large Orthodox church in Yekaterinburg, his hometown. Excerpt:

This summer, Russian television broadcasters warned Pokémon Go enthusiasts that they could face three years in prison, per blasphemy laws, for playing the game in church. This disturbed [Ruslan] Sokolovsky, who wondered in a video uploaded this August: “Who can ever be offended by you walking around a church with your smartphone? Why the f‑‑k would they lock you up for that?”

He decided to investigate by playing Pokémon Go at a local Orthodox cathedral, because, in his words, “Why not?”

The video (warning: contains profanity) shows Sokolovsky playing the game on his phone in front of lit church candles, while prayers can be heard in the background. His video’s soundtrack alternated between Orthodox music and the Pokémon theme song. At the end of the clip, Sokolovsky concluded that the venture was successful because nobody “disturbed” him, though he failed to catch “the rarest Pokémon that you could find there — Jesus.”

“They say it [sic] doesn’t even exist,” Sokolovsky shrugged, “so I’m not really surprised.”

They say he faces up to five years in prison. I find that excessive, but I don’t feel sorry for this jackass. His fellow atheists committed mass murder of and terror against Orthodox Christians when they were in power during the Bolshevik tyranny. Excerpt:

Lenin outlined that the entire issue of the church valuable campaign could be used as a pretext in the public eye to attack the church and kill clergy.[53]

The sixth sector of the OGPU, led by Yevgeny Tuchkov, began aggressively arresting and executing bishops, priests, and devout worshipers, such asMetropolitan Veniamin in Petrograd in 1922 for refusing to accede to the demand to hand in church valuables (including sacred relics). Archbishop Andronik of Perm, who worked as a missionary in Japan, who was shot after being forced to dig his own grave.[54] Bishop Germogen of Tobolsk, who voluntarily accompanied the czar into exile, was strapped to the paddle wheel of a steamboat and mangled by the rotating blades. .[54]

In 1922, the Solovki Camp of Special Purpose, the first Russian concentration camp and a former Orthodox monastery, was established in the Solovki Islands in the White Sea.[55] In the years 1917–1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested; 95,000 were put to death, executed by firing squad.[56] Father Pavel Florensky, exiled in 1928 and executed in 1937, was one of the New-martyrs of this particular period.

In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, an English journalist estimated that 28 bishops and 1,215 priests were executed.[57][58] Recently released evidence indicates over 8,000 were killed in 1922 during the conflict over church valuables.[57]

Specialized anti-religious publications began in 1922, including Yemelyan Yaroslavsky’s Bezbozhnik, which later formed the basis for the League of the Militant Godless.

More from the annals of Militant Soviet Godlessness:

The Orthodox church suffered terribly in the 1930s, and many of its members were killed or sent to labor camps. Between 1927 and 1940, the number of Orthodox churches in the Russian Republic fell from 29,584 to fewer than 500. The watershed year was 1929, when Soviet policy put much new legislation in place that formed the basis for the harsh anti-religious persecution in the 1930s.

… During the purges of 1937 and 1938, church documents record that 168,300 Russian Orthodox clergy were arrested. Of these, over 100,000 were shot.[76] Many thousands of victims of persecution became recognized in a special canon of saints known as the “new martyrs and confessors of Russia”.

… Official Soviet figures reported that up to one third of urban and two thirds of rural population still held religious beliefs by 1937. However, the anti-religious campaign of the past decade and the terror tactics of the militantly atheist regime, had effectively eliminated all public expressions of religion and communal gatherings of believers outside of the walls of the few churches that still held services.[78] This was accomplished in a country that only a few decades earlier had had a deeply Christian public life and culture that had developed for almost a thousand years.

This was not merely a feature of Leninist and Stalinist times. It went on and on, until the end of the USSR. If you don’t know anything of this history, read the Wikipedia entry for just a taste of it. 

And there’s more. The church where Sokolovsky performed his blasphemous act, despite being warned not to, is a new one. It was built over Ipatiev House, the site of the execution, by atheist Bolsheviks, of Tsar Nicholas II and his family.  This is from the account of the event left behind by the executioner:

Having gone down to the room (At the entrance to the room, on the right there was a very wide window), I ordered them to stand along the wall. Obviously, at that moment they did not imagine what awaited them. [Tsaritsa] Alexandra Feodrovna said “There are not even chairs here.” Nicholas was carrying Alexei [the Tsarevich, the boy prince]. He stood in the room with him in his arms. Then I ordered a couple of chairs. On one of them, to the right of the entrance, almost in the corner, Alexandra Feodrovna sat down. The daughters and Demidova stood next to her, to the left of the entrance. Beside them Alexei was seated in the armchair. Behind him Dr. Botkin, the cook and the others stood. Nicholas stood opposite Alexei. At the same time I ordered the men to go down and to be ready in their places when the command was given. Nicholas had put Alexei on the chair and stood in such a way, that he shielded him. Alexei sat in the left corner from the entrance, and so far as I can remember, I said to Nicholas approximately this: His royal and close relatives inside the country and abroad were trying to save him, but the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies resolved to shoot them. He asked “What?” and turned toward Alexei. At that moment I shot him and killed him outright. He did not get time to face us to get an answer. At that moment disorganized, not orderly firing began. The room was small, but everybody could come in and carry out the shooting according to the set order. But many shot through the doorway. Bullets began to ricochet because the wall was brick. Moreover, the firing intensified when the victims shouts arose. I managed to stop the firing but with great difficulty.

A bullet, fired by somebody in the back, hummed near my head and grazed either the palm or finger (I do not remember) of somebody. When the firing stopped, it turned out that the daughters, Alexandra Feodrovna and, it seems, Demidova and Alexei too, were alive. I think they had fallen from fear or maybe intentionally, and so they were alive. Then we proceeded to finish the shooting. (Previously I had suggested shooting at the heart to avoid a lot of blood). Alexei remained sitting petrified. I killed him. They shot the daughters but did not kill them. Then Yermakov resorted to a bayonet, but that did not work either. Finally they killed them by shooting them in the head. Only in the forest did I finally discover the reason why it had been so hard to kill the daughters and Alexandra Feodrovna.

These murders, including the murder of innocent children, happened on the site where the church now sits in their memory. The Romanovs were only the most prominent of many millions of Russian Orthodox Christians murdered by atheism in power, and the site of their execution is considered sacred by believers — so much so that a church was built upon it. It was this church, and this sacred history, this precious treasure saved, miraculously, from the all-consuming fire of Bolshevism, that young Sokolovsky traduced to make a point to his 300,000 YouTube followers.

I’m sure Sokolovsky’s case is about to make him a free speech martyr in the liberal West, which either does not know about the historical background to his defilement of that Church, or does not care. The West doesn’t know its history and is losing its religion, considering both a hindrance to the free exercise of individual will. Russia, having lived through the terror of militant state atheism, does. Good for Russia.

UPDATE: Let me put it like this: if some alt-right joker played Pokemon Go at the Auschwitz site just to get a rise out of people, how would you feel about Polish authorities jailing him?

UPDATE.2: Since so many of you asked, I would not give this guy five years. I would not give him five weeks. I would give him five days, max. What I’m praising Russia for is defending its sacred spaces. It would be fine with me if the local priest or bishop asked the state to waive the charges, and they did so. It’s the principle. Note well that he did what he did knowing full well that he was breaking the law.