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America has been in the grips of Russia hysteria for over two years now, and it hitting a fever pitch this past week following President Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. In Beltway circles, Russian hysteria among the commentariat has morphed into an extraordinary Putin hatred. From potential ally, to rival, enemy, thug and mass murderer, we have heard it all.
But do we even know Vladimir Putin and what drives him? Yes, he is an ex-KGB officer, that we all know. Beyond the superficial, what do we know about Putin and his geopolitical goals for Russia?
Although Putin made his career as a Soviet agent and apparatchik, it’s a mistake to view him exclusively through the lens of the Cold War. Obviously, Putin’s understanding of Russia has been shaped by the great events of the 20th century—the expansion of the Soviet empire, the bloodshed and sacrifice that Russians endured in the war against Nazi Germany, the buildup of his nation as a nuclear superpower. But in trying to understand Russia today, it is necessary to look closely at the Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet dissident, arrested for a letter he wrote home from the battlefield during World War II. He was sent to the gulag, the vast prison work camp system, where millions of Soviets met their deaths under the most horrifying of conditions. Solzhenitsyn survived and went on to write his magisterial work, The Gulag Archipelago, a detailed history of the horrors of the Soviet political prison system. He won a Nobel Prize and was one of the 20th century’s greatest historical and literary figures. Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of the Soviet Communist era was one of the critical pivots in history that helped spell doom for the Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn’s life, his faith and philosophy, his love of “Mother Russia” have become a major guiding force in Putin’s life and ideas. People have come to call Solzhenitsyn “Putin’s guru.” Solzhenitsyn was a dedicated Russian patriot; his faith in Russian Orthodoxy and his love of country were his bedrocks. That he lived to see the fall of Soviet Communism and to play a part in the revival of the idea of Russia as a great nation and a restoration of the Russian Church surely warmed him in his later years. He returned home to Russia after years living in exile in Vermont, whereupon he was visited and honored by Putin personally.
Beyond the revival of Russia and the Orthodox Church, it is also critical to understand Solzhenitsyn’s sharp criticism of the West. Read Solzhenitsyn’s famous Harvard speech of June 5, 1978. Until then, Solzhenitsyn was a darling of the conservative movement in America, and rightly lauded as one of the leading intellectual figures in the fight against Communism.
For some, he retained that status. But for many others, his remarks at Harvard and his later writings attacking America and Western culture, as well as his embrace of pre-Revolutionary Russia under the Tsars, drove many away. He became a crank and outcast.
In that Harvard address, Solzhenitsyn said the West was decadent and morally weak. He told the assembled students and faculty:
Should I be asked . . . whether I would propose the West, such as it is today, as a model to my country [Russia], I would frankly have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society as an ideal for the transformation of ours.
After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced as by a calling card by the revolting invasion of commercial advertising, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.
How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present debility?
We (the West) turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking, which has imposed on us its guidance, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs . . .
Putin wholeheartedly has embraced Solzhenitsyn’s point of view. He has spoken often about the decadence of the West, of the West’s lost spirituality and its moral decline. He has embraced not only the philosophy but also the ideas of Mother Russia, the old Russian Empire, the honoring of the Romanovs and Tsarist Russia. He has also actively helped in the incredible revival of the Russian Orthodox Church and has publicly, repeatedly, professed his faith in Eastern Christian Orthodoxy.
Russian Nation, Church Indivisible
Many will say this is just a ruse. Putin, the former KGB Communist, could not possibly be a Christian. Surely he’s using the Russian church to reignite Russian nationalism. Who knows what lies in a man’s heart? For what it’s worth, Putin has made many and repeated public claims that he is a Christian. (Although, obviously, ordering the arrest and murder of dissidents at home and abroad is not something Jesus would do.) He talks about the story of his miracle cross that survived a fire and how his mother secretly baptized him as a baby during the Soviet era and that he became a believer even before the fall of the Soviet Union.
What’s more, Russia is going through a national religious revival. In the past six years, 5,000 churches have been rebuilt, 7-in-10 Russians claim to be members of the Russian Orthodox Church, up from 37 percent in 1991. More than 10,000 new clergymen have been ordained in the last six years. Church attendance is up and there are even reports, though incomplete, of a recent increase in the birthrate of European Russians. This is in stark contrast to the numbers shown in the whole of the rest of Europe.
While this shows that Putin and modern Russia have in many ways have done a turnaround from the Communist era, it does not in any way signal the birth of an American-style open, free and pluralistic society. Religious freedom as Americans know it does not exist in Russia today; many sects are either outlawed or persecuted. Open and free elections and an American-style free press do not exist. Again, Putin is not looking to the West as a model for the future of Russia.
What Americans need to understand is Russia is not playing by the rules of the European Union and the new world order of nations. Putin sees himself as a kind of latter-day tsar, a leader of the new Russian Empire. Modern Russia is looking to its far past for its inspiration and for its meaning. It has found its true core in the revival of the Orthodox Church.
Russia has always been partly in the West, but also of the East, the East of Byzantium. It may very well now see itself as the true inheritor and now savior of Christendom in the wake of a morally declining West. The fallout from this and the implications are far-reaching, for the most part unknown and in need greater study.
Time for a Dramatic Rethinking
Just one example of this brings things into focus. Russia under Putin has once again become the protector of Orthodox Christians, everywhere but particularly in the Middle East.
On December 5, 2017, Putin met with the Patriarch of Antioch and pledged to help rebuild Christian churches and communities in Syria. Syria’s Christian community, once 30 percent of the country’s population, is now down to 10 percent. These communities have existed since the time of the Apostles, representing some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. In the past decade, many of them have been slaughtered, forcibly converted to Islam, or driven out of Syria altogether. Many of the Christians in Syria are Eastern Orthodox, but certainly not all. The question is, where is the West? Does anyone care?
Russia is no doubt a rival, yes, in many ways an adversary. One thing is for certain, so long as we “read” Russia and Putin through a Soviet and Cold War lens, we are never going to understand what Russia is thinking or why it acts in the manner it does. Wars are started through such misunderstanding, so it is time for a dramatic rethinking.
Photo credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP/Getty Images