There are two threads to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disruption of Western democracies. One is to make sure that democratic government as a political system appears unstable. Thus, he makes it seem like countries are better off with some form of totalitarian government such as he represents. Putin has been pushing this idea throughout the countries of the former Soviet bloc for some time.
A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that in Russia, where he has almost total control of the media, he has been successful in manipulating the opinion that democracy is not always preferable. Currently, 41% of Russians believe that sometimes some form of government other than democracy may be necessary. More importantly, that’s more than those who say democracy is preferable (31%).
The second thread in Putin’s efforts to undermine democracy is to push conservative Christianity. He reports that he became religious in the 1990s after escaping a house fire and car accident. It’s impossible to know whether his religiosity is real, or whether he just recognizes he needs the Orthodox Church to achieve maximum power. Either way, conservative Christianity is increasingly becoming part of Russian national identity, and it’s also the way Putin is gaining support from many within Western democracies. The face of Russian religion, and how that attracts some right-leaning groups is the US is the topic of this post.
The View of Putin in the USA
The closeness of the Trump administration to the Putin administration is one that baffles many around the world. However, given the fact that both the Alt-Right and Christian far right are such powerful voices in Trump’s Republican party, it’s not something that should surprise us. Supporters of Putin and Russia are Trump’s core supporters.
Current US Views of Putin
During the administration of President Obama, the view of USians towards Russia grew to its highest unfavourability level ever. Since Trump became president, there has been a sharp rise in the favourability of Putin amongst Republicans. Democrats, on the other hand, see Putin even less favourably than before.
According to Right Wing Watch, Richard Spencer, the notorious head of the alt-right movement, refers to Putin as the “sole” and “most powerful white power in the world”. Other white supremacist leaders have made similar statements about him. Also from Right Wing Watch:
Harold Covington, the white supremacist head of the secessionist Northwest Front, recently described Russia as the “last great White empire.” And former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke has said he believes Russia holds the “key to white survival.”
Right Wing Watch provides examples of more white supremacist leaders saying things along the same lines at the link.
Putin Speaks out in Support of Christian Values
The Christian right frequently heaps praise on Russia in relation to their anti-gay legislation in particular. The Washington Times reports Putin saying:
“Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values… Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”
In his state of the nation address in mid-December , Mr. Putin also portrayed Russia as a staunch defender of “traditional values” against what he depicted as the morally bankrupt West. Social and religious conservatism, the former KGB officer insisted, is the only way to prevent the world from slipping into “chaotic darkness.”
Putin’s words were music to the ears of the Christian far-right, especially coming as they did during the Obama administration. Without exception those groups are now supporters of President Trump, and their recent statements are frankly scary to behold:
Lance Wallnau Says That God Is Behind Trump’s Tweets And Ignorance Of World Events
Jim Bakker: Satan Is Out To Destroy Trump, Maybe Kill Him
Jim Bakker: Trump Opponents Have Triggered The Apocalypse
Pat Robertson: God Put Donald Trump In The White House
Gordon Klingenschmitt: The Democratic Party Requires Its Members To Be Demon-Possessed And ‘Serve The Devil’
Jim Bakker: God Will Judge America If We ‘Destroy’ Trump
US Views of Russia During the Cold War Era
Quite by coincidence I was watching an episode of the original Hawaii Five-O TV series the other day. Steve McGarrett and his team were up against a group of Nazis who were trying to stop the election of a native Hawaiian to the US Senate. Throughout the episode, McGarrett was referring to the Nazis with contempt and as losers. However, he also made much of the fact that “this is still America, thank God, and we have freedom of speech”. ( A laudable statement, though we could have done without the “thank God”. God doesn’t have anything to do with it.)
Of course, at the climax we saw Five-O prevail and the inevitable sight of the Nazis being taken away in handcuffs. Throughout the show, both sides were sure they were doing their best for Christian America. Then came McGarrett’s final words of wisdom. He spoke with a passion and intensity I’d never previously heard from the actor:
There’ll always be fanatics Danno – Nazis and communists and atheists.
Presumably whoever wrote the script saw fit to associate atheists with Nazis and communists and label them fanatics. The show ran from 1968 to 1980, during the Cold War era.
The Origin of US Hatred for Atheists
In 1954 President Eisenhower saw fit to force Christianity on his country despite the First Amendment. He was fresh from his own baptism as a Presbyterian when he made the move – one that would surely not have met with the approval of his country’s Founding Fathers.
In that year the words “under God” became part of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Two years later “In God We Trust” became the USA’s official motto. Also in 1956, he put his signature to a Congressional bill requiring that phrase on the country’s paper currency. The first $1 bills including the phrase came out in 1957.
Eisenhower’s excuse for the move was the atheism of his Cold War opponents, the USSR.
Given that the main reasons the West won that war were science and Enlightenment ideals like freedom of speech and democracy, I find his attitude rather ironic.
It was during the Cold War era that USians began to hate atheists. For many USians, “atheist” and “communist” are all but synonymous.
The attitude of USians who were adults during the Cold War era is still extremely anti-atheist, as can be seen in the Pew Research Center survey result below.
Religion in Russia
Many assume that Russia is still atheist. However, not only has there been a religious resurgence since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but that religion is extremely conservative.
The Russian Orthodox Church in particular has come to dominate public attitudes. As a result, those attitudes are extremely anti-gay, anti-women, and generally intolerant.
With the help of the Russian government, the Orthodox Church is championing so-called traditional values. The values of the Russian Orthodox Church are becoming the values of the country as a whole.
Politicians are both taking advantage of that and tapping into it to retain power. Being seen as carrying the endorsement of the Church is apparently giving an authority that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
In addition, most Russians consider that their culture is superior to the rest of the world. (Of course, this is not unusual – many of us feel that our own culture, whatever its faults, is better than that of others.)
However, it’s not just Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party that aligns with the values of the Orthodox Church. The Communist Party is even closer. Despite forcing atheism on the population during the communist era, the Communist Party is now embraces the most conservative parts of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Atheism is now anathema to the Russian Communist Party.
The Communist Party and the Orthodox Church
Anyone who follows political developments in Russia knows there is a very close relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. However, it is the Communist Party that is specifically aligning themselves with the Church.
In 2012, Gennady Zyuganov, chairman of Russia’s Communist Party since 1993, wrote a white paper on religion. In it he says:
It is a holy duty of Communists and the Orthodox Church to unite.
As Wikipedia notes, Zyuganov considers the Bible can be read from a communist perspective.
A report from Al Jazeera on a Communist Party rally in Moscow last year gives a typical picture of such rallies in today’s Russia. There are frequent references to Jesus being the first communist. Zyuganov and his supporters call for a re-Stalinization of Russia. They have a very romantic view of Russia during the Stalin era, and completely oppose the reforms of Gorbachev. Many older Russians believe the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a very bad thing.
The State as God
Most of us would feel comfortable using the word “evil” to describe Stalin.
A hundred years ago Russia saw the deposition of Czar Nicholas II. After the initial leadership of Lenin, it was Stalin who ruled Russia at least as despotically as the Czar for three decades (1924-53). During that time, tens of millions were the victims of imprisonment for unknown reasons, torture, and murder.
Just during the Great Purge of 1936-38, around 3 million were murdered by the State police.
Another 6-8 million (at least) had died as a result of the Russian famine in 1932-33, which occurred because of ideology. The pseudo-science of Trofim Lysenko had the support of Stalin, and any questioning of his ideas was forbidden. At least 3,000 biologists lost their jobs or were even sent to prison for saying that Lysenko was wrong. Lysenkoism was the cause of the Russian famine.
During Stalin’s rule, Russia was decidedly not a good place to live.
During the time the communists were in charge of Russia, there was a requirement for all Russians to believe what they were told to believe. Communism and atheism went hand in hand. The people could have no god or gods as there could be no conflict with the state. In communist Russia, the state became God. A god whose commands everyone had to obey without question or suffer some form of punishment. This was not the atheism of the Enlightenment, which is humanist, secularist and skeptical in nature.
Russian Attitudes to Stalin
Since the dissolution of the USSR, we in the West see someone like Gorbachev and think he would be the leader Russians would most admire. However, that’s not the case. Given a choice between Gorbachev and Stalin, it is Stalin they look to with pride and admiration.
This view receives help from state-run media.
‘Russia’s Resurgent Love for Josef Stalin‘
The above is the title of an article by Al Jazeera‘s Mansur Mirovalev, written two years ago. The article includes this:
More than 60 years after Stalin’s own death, Svanidze …, a historian [of the Soviet era] and television personality, witnesses the dictator’s return as an increasingly popular, and polarising, figure.
“I constantly see people who say ‘he purged my entire family, but I still respect him’,” Svanidze, whose documentaries on Russian history are among the few examples of television shows critical of Stalin, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a Stockholm syndrome of some kind.”
During President Vladimir Putin’s rule, the choir of Stalin’s supporters has grown bigger, stronger and louder – while critics and scholars who document his totalitarian regime’s atrocities have lost access to Kremlin-controlled media and are now branded “foreign agents”.
Public figures, lawmakers, top officials and even clerics with Russia’s dominant Orthodox Church – that suffered countless losses at the hands of atheist communists – declare their support for Stalin along with tens of millions of ordinary Russians.
Stalin in Crimea
Putin has especially made use of Stalin in Crimea. Mirovalev goes on:
In the months before and during the May 9  celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, state-run television networks and newspapers ran countless shows and stories celebrating the victory – and its architect, Stalin.
The triumph over Nazism has been constantly compared to last year’s annexation of Crimea – and Putin, who masterminded the takeover, was inevitably likened to Stalin.
“It is useful for Putin to equate the takeover of Crimea and the victory” over Nazis [said] Svanidze … over tea at a Moscow restaurant. “Crimea is today’s Berlin.”
New Stalin Statue
Mirovalev also wrote of a new statue of Stalin in occupied Crimea. The statue is of Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin. The famous picture taken at the Yalta Conference in the Crimea at the end of World War II was the model.Of course in the original, Churchill and Roosevelt weren’t looking at Stalin in quite such an admiring manner!
In recent years the Russian government has been adopting an increasingly anti-gay stance via legislation. They require the support of Putin’s majority party to get their bills into law, but it is the Communist Party that introduces most of the anti-gay bills into parliament. Wikipedia states:
Since 2006, numerous regions in Russia have enacted varying laws restricting the distribution of materials promoting LGBT relationships to minors; in June 2013, a federal law criminalizing the distribution of materials among minors in support of “non-traditional” sexual relationships, was enacted as an amendment to an existing child protection law. The law has resulted in the numerous arrests of Russian LGBT citizens publicly opposing the law and there has reportedly been a surge of homophobic propaganda, violence, and even hate crimes, many of whom use the law as justification.
It was the Communist Party that originally decriminalized homosexuality in 1917, but Stalin re-criminalized it in 1933. Same sex relationships became legal again in 1993, but the general view of Russian society is that homosexuality is unacceptable. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that 85% of Russians see homosexuality as morally wrong. In addition, 86% say homosexuality should NOT be accepted by society.
The legal definition of marriage in Russia is that it is between one man and one woman. Like everywhere else in the world though, there is a higher acceptance of same-sex marriage amongst younger people. In Russia only 9% of those 18-34 favour allowing same-sex marriage. However, that’s three times the rate of those who are 35 or older, where only 3% want same-sex marriage. (See here.)
Anti-Equality for Women
One of the features of communist Russia was that women were able to rise to positions of power. The new Communist Party, which so closely aligns itself with the Orthodox Church takes a more traditional view of a woman’s role. Owing largely to the influence of the Orthodox church, 36% of people in Russia agree, or strongly agree, with the statement, “A wife must always obey her husband.”
Russians also believe (59%) that women have a social responsibility to society to bear children.
And even when it comes to jobs, a large proportion of Russians (40%) believe that when jobs are scarce, men should get precedence.
Regular readers may also remember a recent post about FGM in which a former spokesman for the Orthodox Church came to the defence of those practicing FGM in Russia.
Russia is Morally Conservative in Multiple Areas
Abortion is legal in Russia. However, 36% of Russians believe it should be illegal, and 45% think it is morally wrong.
There’s also a fair bit of ignorance in the attitudes seen in the results below. For example, the belief that using drugs is morally wrong. Most of us these days recognize that drug use should be treated as a health issue, not a moral or criminal one.
In aligning itself so closely with the Orthodox Church, the Communist Party is consciously embracing the extremely conservative values that Church promotes.
Human Rights Violations
The social conservatism of Russians, which is already part of several Acts seen by Human Rights groups as anti-LGBT, is set to become an even greater part of official policy. According to Human Rights Watch:
In December 2015, parliament passed a law empowering Russia’s Constitutional Court to determine whether international human rights bodies’ rulings, including the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments, contradict the Russian Constitution and could therefore be deemed “non-executable.” A ruling deemed “non-executable” will not be implemented unless the constitution is amended.
According to the report in the link above, the Russian parliament has since found several human rights laws non-executable. (There is also an outline of those laws at that link.)
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights has made literally dozens of reports relating to individual Russian laws that violate human rights. These relate to women, LGBT people, journalists, lawyers, judges, police officers, and more. The actions of all are in some way under the control of the state, or the state is able to interfere in their personal lives or jobs.
Inter-Party Parliamentary Group on the Protection Of Christian Values
The Inter-Party Parliamentary Group on the Protection Of Christian Values is a new committee in the Russian parliament that met for the first time on 17 May this year. This demonstrates the commitment of Russian politicians to align themselves even more closely with the Orthodox Church.
It includes representative from all the political parties in parliament and the Orthodox Church.
It is the view of 62% of Russians that religious institutions strengthen morality and 42% think that the government should promote religion. Further, 50% of Russians think that the dominant religion should get government funding. Therefore, this committee is likely to get public support as it moves forward.
The Purpose of the Committee
The coordinator of the inter-party group, United Russia MP Dmitry Sablin said that the expert group will meet to assess legislation and draft legislation “for the support and protection of Christian values.” Sablin also said that meetings on the protection of Christian values will be organized on a regular basis.
Comments from several of the attendees show just how extreme Russia is becoming. It’s easy to see why the US groups on the religious right like those who were in attendance at the eleventh World Congress of Families in Budapest in late May have so many positive things to say about Russia.
The First Meeting
(All quotes below from MEMRI.)
Communist MP Pavel Dorokhin: President Macron is the Anti-Christ
The most bizarre statement came during comments by Communist MP Pavel Dorokhin.
… Communist MP Pavel Dorokhin made a statement about French President Emmanuel Macron. Dorokhin said: “The next variant after Trump was Macron’s victory. When we read the Holy Bible, we see that Macron very much resembles the Antichrist, the false prophet – as was predicted in the texts.”
The representatives of the Orthodox Church also made their opinions clear.
Archimandrite Theophylact: Parents Should Be Able to Hit Their Children
Archimandrite Theophylact is an Orthodox priest and governor of New Jerusalem monastery in the Moscow region. He said:
For example, [currently] it is strictly forbidden for parents to punish their kids. Here we are in a contradiction with the Holy Bible, which says: ‘For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ So any punishment, even a slap, is not a good deed, a norm, but it should be the last resort, sometimes a necessary one, a punishment, which should exist in the family space.
In accordance with his position as an Orthodox priest, he also made clear his opinion that abortion is murder.
Other Issues Under Discussion
Archpriest Sergey Zvonarev is secretary for the far abroad countries of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations.
Same-sex marriage was his bug-bear. He spoke of the “unpleasant statistics [that in] … a growing number of countries … single sex concubinage …” is legal. He went on:
There are 23 countries like that. Thanks God, there is nothing like that in Russia, but I don’t think we should rest on our laurels, since this threat is obvious and it is knocking at our doors.
First Deputy Chancellor of the Moscow Patriarchate, Bishop Voskresensky Savva apparently also worries about outside influences. His concluding comment was:
We see, take the West as an example, that Christian values are being exterminated, that wearing a cross is becoming indecent [behavior].
Russia: A Bulwark Against the West
In fact many in Russia and the former Soviet Union see Russia as necessary to push back against the West. A Pew Research Center survey done during 2016 gave the following result:
As can also be seen from this survey, having the same religion as Russia helps in the view that Russian strength is a positive.
Russia: Protector of Christian Values
Like many of his fans around the world, Putin sees itself as the last bastion of Christian values. He has no time for the secular humanism of the European Union and others, or the message of love and acceptance from Pope Francis. Of course, many conservative Catholics have also seen fit to reject the tolerance of the pope too. Their views are much more in line with the anti-women, anti-gay, anti-freedom message coming from the Kremlin.
Russia has sponsored and hosted multiple conferences of far-right, anti-Semitic, anti-gay, and white supremacist movements from Europe and the US.
Russia: Supporting Nationalism
Putin met with Marine Le Pen in the run-up to the French elections. She, in turn was effusive in expressing her admiration for Putin and vociferous in her support of Russia.
The former leader of the British far-right Nigel Farage of UKIP also made clear his admiration of Putin. Putin was a supporter of Brexit – the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.
There are so many occasions in which Donald Trump has heaped praise on Putin it would be difficult to count them all.
Other far right leaders in Europe have close ties with Russia. In return for the support of Putin, they push anti-EU and anti-NATO policies.
The hypocrisy of all this on Putin’s part is clear though. It’s not about supporting nations in their independence, it’s about potentially returning Russia to world power status. At the same time as he’s trying to dismantle the EU, he’s developing his own customs union which economically subordinates its members to Russia.
There are two ways to become powerful. The first is to concentrate on improving yourself and helping others to improve themselves so that you become powerful by acclamation. The second is to destroy everyone else so you’re the only one left standing. Putin has chosen the latter course.
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Great work Heather, as always.
Thanks Chris, and thanks for reading it – that’s a mission in itself given the length. I suspect I lost a lot of readers long before they got to the comments!
Heather, very thorough and enlightening, also very scary. At a time when we need western leadership we have an asshole in the White house that is moving in the opposite direction.
A couple of observations that I’ve made before seem appropriate here.
One is that the skills needed to be a good citizen of a religion and the skills needed to be a good citizen of a democracy are completely polar opposite to one another. To be a good citizen of a religion, you need to be credulous, unquestioning, and blindly obedient. You also need to believe that people outside your tribe are lacking somehow, intellectually, morally, or otherwise. To be a good citizen of a democracy, you need to be questioning, skeptical, and willing to look at relevant facts even when they contradict your preconceptions. You also need to recognize that you might learn something from others’ different viewpoints, and be willing to find solutions that accommodate the most people.
The other observation that I have made before that seems relevant here is that during the whole “cold war” phase, it always seemed to me that the only difference in the views was whether “god” existed. Communism and religion spring from an identical premise, which is: I know what’s better for you than you do. They are BOTH authoritarian systems. They both want to run the show with no dissent. Ick.
Both excellent points, and I agree.
Another one is the conflation of communism with socialism. Most modern democracies have socialist aspects to their societies to a greater or lesser extent. Paying taxes to a central authority, if only to pay for the military, is socialism. So is the principle of having laws that apply to everyone equally. Democracy is partly about deciding how much socialism there will be.
Excellent post, Heather, and extremely important.
I’d heard the notion that the thing that really irked right wing crazies in the US about Russia was its supposed atheism. I hadn’t realized that Putin’s weaponizing of it would also lead those same people to a change of heart, given certain preconditions.
Putin’s idiotic brand of white supremacy is also spreading through Europe, augmented by the ascendancy of Trump and the normalizing of stupidity.
Also an important mention of Lysenkoism — the lessons of subordinating science to propaganda.
Great post, Heather.
Although I was aware of some Orthodox-Christian ‘revival’ (backlash?), I wasn’t aware of it’s extent and depth. The degree of smooching up of the communist party I also found surprising. The whole thing appears somewhat scary.
Are we going to see an Atheist US (they are the fastest growing group there) and a deeply Christian ‘former USSR’? and inbetween an Islamic Western Europe? ? (“Predicting is difficult, especially the future”*)
Since you mention Gorbachev, is there any individual that has had a greater influence on world affairs in the last 4-5 decades? Didn’t he set all this in motion?
*[that quote has been ascribed to so many, I just won’t try]
Another wonderful post! Thanks Heather for the thoughtful detail and the helpful stats.
Thanks Stuart, and thanks so much for your ongoing support. Your constancy means a lot to me. 🙂