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How Russian Culture Enables Vladimir Putin’s Global Aggression


Over the last six years, we have seen what an emboldened Vladimir Putin is willing to do with his military forces. In the George W. Bush years, Putin shrewdly played the ally. But at the end of the second Bush term when the American president’s unpopularity had weakened him globally, Putin took advantage and invaded Georgia—sloppily and unimpressively, but successfully. Then he hit the jackpot with the election of Barack Obama, who in demeanor, word, and deed demonstrated he had no interest in opposing a revanchist and aggressive Russia. Putin has been clawing back the standing Russia lost after the fall of Soviet Communism, and he’s doing so with gusto: from invading Ukraine to buzzing the European perimeter with fighter jets to claiming the Arctic for Russia, he creates facts on the ground.

But what is he doing on the cultural front in Russia—apart from the use of military force—which makes it possible for him to lead Russia this way? After all, even dictators need cultural support for their actions if for no other reason than to quell bothersome dissent. And how do culture and geopolitical strategy reinforce one another?

Reinforcing Authoritarian Culture in Russia

Recent events in Russian high culture tell us a lot about the state of Russian society and politics and how well Putin is likely to succeed in his project to restore Russian greatness as he and his countrymen understand it. Culture and geopolitics are indeed reinforcing one another, and in a way that is reminiscent of the Soviet state as well as the czarist one. This sad tale has to do with Russia’s academic society, religious institutions, and a national definition of democracy.

Vladimir Putin needs the force of Russian culture backing him, one imbued with an attitude of paranoia, xenophobia, and revenge.

Many people, especially those serving in the Obama administration, hoped for a better transformation of Russian society after the fall of Communism. They called conservatives cold warriors for mocking the “reset” with Russia; they blustered defensively when Obama was caught on an open mic saying to then-President Dimitri Medvedev that “I’ll have more flexibility” once re-elected; and they laughed at Mitt Romney when he said Russia was our number one geo-strategic enemy. But conservatives were right, and Putin the conqueror and intimidator has shattered Obama’s Russia policy.

Certainly, Putin’s initial success was to build an authoritarian state, and he did that by making the executive office dominant and controlling the media and all wealthy rivals. The foundation of that state is of course a rebuilt military, but it is also a reinvigorated authoritarian culture. The culture sustains the state that does the saber-rattling that makes Russia great again, in Putin’s world. Putin needs the force of Russian culture backing him, one imbued with an attitude of paranoia, xenophobia, and revenge. Now, leading cultural figures are giving us further insight into what Putin is thinking and doing. They demonstrate why his country is so easily in his control as they provide sound support for his project.

Westerners Bad, Russians Good

Start with the Russian Orthodox Church. Never a fan of democracy and human liberty—even when it was itself subjected to oppression during Soviet Communist rule—the church and Putin naturally get along very well. Under his regime the Orthodox authorities are thriving.

Everything bad has happened because of Western influence and everything good is because of Russia’s ancient insular culture shaped by a church-state partnership and Soviet Communism.

A recent sobering statement issued by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, (head of the Patriarchate’s Department of Church and Society Relations) shows just how well. Said Chaplin, Russia needs to free itself “from western models and western influence in economics, politics, and law.” Moreover, Russia should “help Europe rebel against pressure of transnational corporations, American troops, and American political dictate.” In sum, everything bad that has happened to Russia happened because of Western influence and everything good is because of Russia’s ancient insular culture shaped by a church-state partnership and Soviet Communism. Yes, Soviet Communism. Said the Archpriest: “We have a great and glorious history in which, I believe, there was (sic) three gaps—early reforms of Peter the First, 1917-1938 years and early 1990s. Everything mentioned by Mikhail Borisovich—space exploration, the nuclear shield, literature and art, high level of education and science, was created under empire, the Soviet Union in its best years and early this century.”

Putin could not have said it better himself, and these comments are not new thinking. This has been the Russian Church’s attitude for a long while as it emerged from the shadows when Soviet Communism fell.

Learning the Wrong Lessons from Nazis

Next, the Russian academy appears to be returning to its old habits of supporting the state by demonstrating the philosophical absolutism that has characterized the Russian intelligentsia for generations. At a recent Moscow conference on the history of Nazi war crimes (held bi-annually since 2006 in various Eastern European capitals), the Russian hosts kept bringing the conversations back to Ukraine so that they could compare the Ukrainian military to the Nazi occupiers of Ukraine during World War II. We have heard much from Putin and his government about the real problem in Ukraine being a resurgence of fascism that Russia is helping the “good” Ukrainians to combat. The Eastern Ukrainian separatists also make this case constantly, notwithstanding the few hundred “accidentally” killed foreigners when they shot down a Malaysian airliner. It is therefore very convenient for Putin to have leading Russian academic elites make his case even if it horrified the German academics and any serious student of history looking on.

Putin urged young Russian historians to review the Second World War’s causes and to understand that the treaty between the Nazis and the Soviet Union was not a bad thing.

And there’s more. Putin, who considers himself a serious amateur historian, recently spoke at a conference for young Russian historians, urging them to review the Second World War’s causes and to understand that the treaty between the Nazis and the Soviet Union was not a bad thing. His comments were confusing and illogical. He claimed that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was okay because it simply showed that the Soviets didn’t want a war. He said nothing about other motivations, like the desire to carve up Eastern European nations and the killing of 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police. But the Munich Agreement, he said, was not good because it led to war, just as people like Churchill understood it would. He added that Western historians try to “hush up” discussion of the Munich Agreement.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth; plenty of Western historians have decried the agreement just as Churchill did. To say one pact was good and other bad on the grounds Putin offered is utter nonsense. Munich was truly an exercise in trying to avoid war, but it resulted in the opposite. It was Western capitulation to an aggressor in the hope that the aggressor would be appeased and take no more territory than it had already. Molotov-Ribbentrop, on the other hand, tried to not only forestall a Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union but also to deliberately carve up more free states and apportion their territory between Germany and the Soviet Union. Both were bad, but the former was foolish while the latter was clearly pure evil. And it was an error on the part of Stalin that cost him dearly. To paraphrase Talleyrand, it was not only immoral, it was a blunder. And never mind that Putin’s current statements are the reverse of his statement in 2009 that Molotov-Ribbentrop was indeed “immoral.”

Stoking Hatred for Representative Government

Finally, there is the deterioration of the Russian public’s support for liberal democracy; they do not understand democracy and representative government the way we do in the West or in many other parts of the world that have been democratizing since colonialism. Across demographic categories of age and wealth, Russians reject Western-style freedom and self-governance and embrace a more illiberal approach. Western models are not what Russia needs; it needs the Russian way. And who is happy to define that Russian way for them? Vladimir Putin, of course, as he did most recently in a speech in Sochi before a debating society that used to be a more open forum but is now seen as mainly a place for propagating Kremlin views. He took on the American system, saying it is not a true democracy and took swipes at the Electoral College, which appears to really baffle him. Such is not new, as he has been doing this since his “breakout” speech in 2007 wherein he condemned the West for trying to constrain and control Russia. But speeches like these take on new meaning when Putin has so much control of an obviously very compliant Russia. Apparently, he’s even coopted an erstwhile critic, Mikhail Gorbachev.

It is a broad-based culture and way of seeing the world among a people group that creates and empowers leaders like Putin to become popular and entrenched.

What is happening in Russia under Putin is tragic. We are not witnessing simply an authoritarian leader manipulating the levers of power to get rich and stay in power (though that is indeed happening). It is more than that. It is a broad-based culture and way of seeing the world among a people group that creates and empowers leaders like Putin to become popular and entrenched. It not only allows but provokes the perversion of cultural institutions such as religion and academia, two institutions that must function well if human liberty and flourishing are ever to be sustained. This is especially true for the academy, which is supposed to be an arena of free debate to get at the truth of any question. But with no tradition of academic freedom or private-sector support for research, the scholars know what they are supposed to think and say if they want to keep their jobs and avoid persecution.

Having once again missed the chance to build truly free markets and a free society based on a culture of liberty and progress, Russia is returning to the only thing it has ever really been: an armed and insular state guided by political absolutism (there can be only one authority) undergirded by philosophical absolutism (there can be only one truth).

I teach my foreign policy students to pay close attention to the cultural attitudes and beliefs of the citizens of any nation-state they are analyzing. I urge them to let neither left-wing nor right-wing economic or other theories blind them to the very powerful force that is culture, for it is exceedingly determinative in statecraft. It is determining Russian politics, policy, and statecraft.

No “reset” was ever going to change these facts, and serious statesmen in the United States and Europe should embrace this cold, hard reality. They should also prepare for, if not another cold war, at least a very chilly one that will last until the Russian culture that produces Putin’s style of leadership is transformed. Some hope that the bite of Western sanctions and the drop in the price of oil will shake Russians into dumping their authoritarianism. I would not bet on it.