On Sunday, tens of thousands of Russians poured into the streets of Moscow to protest corruption and the government of President Vladimir Putin. In response, the Russian police arrested nearly a thousand people, including opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
The Moscow protest was one of more than 90 rallies that took place Sunday across the country, from Vladivostok in Siberia to Kaliningrad in the Baltics. Police cracked down on those demonstrations, too, all of which the government deemed illegal. They were the largest coordinated anti-Kremlin protests since the massive pro-democracy demonstrations of 2011-12 following national elections protesters claim were tainted by fraud.
The protests and police crackdown are a reminder of what the Putin regime really is, and why it’s dangerous for conservatives to delude themselves into thinking Putin is anything more than a drearily familiar twentieth-century-style autocrat and gangster. But that’s exactly what a growing number of conservatives are doing. It’s no secret the alt-right lionizes Putin as a defender of traditional values and ethnic nationalism. Nor is it a secret that President Trump finds much to admire in the Russian leader.
But it’s not just Trump or the alt-right. For a growing number of Christians concerned about the erosion of traditional values and issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, Putin’s cultural conservatism has a certain appeal as a bulwark against the moral relativism of progressivism. Christian leaders like Franklin Graham have praised Putin for “protecting traditional Christianity,” while Pat Buchanan has said Putin is America’s ally against ISIS.
No, Putin Is Not Atatürk
This benign view of Putin has begun to creep into mainstream conservatism, not just because of Russia’s supposed defense of traditional marriage and family values, but because of Putin’s seeming commitment to national sovereignty—an issue that resonates with Republican voters. Back in December, a poll conducted by the Economist and YouGov found 37 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of Putin, up from 24 percent in September 2016 and just 10 percent in July 2014.
Now, eminent conservative writers like The Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell have taken up the cause of explaining Putin’s appeal to fellow conservatives. In a recent speech published by Hillsdale College’s Imprimis, Caldwell—a writer and thinker of great talent and subtlety, and usually of excellent judgment—argues that by traditional standards, Putin is not, in fact, a common kleptocrat and murderer but a great leader who has saved his country from ruin. Putin, writes, Caldwell,
did what Kemal Atatürk had done in Turkey in the 1920s. Out of a crumbling empire, he rescued a nation-state, and gave it coherence and purpose. He disciplined his country’s plutocrats. He restored its military strength. And he refused, with ever blunter rhetoric, to accept for Russia a subservient role in an American-run world system drawn up by foreign politicians and business leaders. His voters credit him with having saved his country.
With all due respect to Caldwell, this is wishful thinking that borders on the delusional. For one thing, Putin didn’t “discipline” Russia’s plutocrats and billionaires, he co-opted them. A raft of books have examined how Putin and his erstwhile KGB associates, together with Russian crime syndicates, orchestrated a massive looting of their country’s wealth and secured a new regime in Moscow.
One such book, Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy (2014), ties many previous works together to chronicle in detail how this effort began long before Putin came to power in 2000. In her introduction, Dawisha writes that, “from the beginning Putin and his circle sought to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal…who used democracy for decoration rather than direction.”
Caldwell claims Putin inherited a kleptocracy from Boris Yeltsin after democracy failed to take root in deeply corrupt post-Soviet Russia. In fact, Putin helped orchestrate the failure of democracy in Russia in the 1990s, in part by doing what Caldwell accuses Yeltsin’s former communist cronies of doing: turning state assets and cash into private fortunes. Thanks to Putin and a determined group of revanchist KGB officers intent on reinstituting Soviet-style control, in collusion with organized crime, Russian democracy never really had a chance.
Moscow Doesn’t Care What The Russian People Think
All of this is well-trod ground, and no one familiar with post-Soviet Russian history should dispute it. What Caldwell and other conservatives, like Hugh Hewitt, often point to in their assessments of Putin is how well he has served his country’s “national interests.” From the invasion and annexation of Crimea to Russia’s purported intervention against ISIS in Syria’s civil war, Putin has put Russia’s national interests first, they say, and done so in the face of global opposition.
That’s one way to look at it. But what Putin and his fellow oligarchs consider Russia’s national interests are probably not what ordinary Russians think they are. For all its military might, Russia is a very poor country with huge demographic problems. A year ago, nearly 20 million Russians (13.4 percent of the population) were reportedly living in poverty, on less than $139 a month. Last year saw a spike in labor protests, mostly related to unpaid wages. Some 82 percent of Russians say they can feel the effects of their country’s economic decline, up from 61 percent in 2014.
In this context, do ordinary Russians think that propping up the Assad regime in Syria, or preventing Ukraine from joining NATO, or meddling in other countries’ elections, are core national interests? Probably not, although we’ll never know because Putin’s Russia, like any run-of-the-mill autocratic regime, isn’t all that interested in what ordinary people think.
That gets to the heart of the problem. Caldwell says Putin has become “a symbol of national sovereignty in its battle with globalism.” But national sovereignty doesn’t mean much if the government doesn’t derive its powers from the consent of the governed. Conservatives, who are supposed to care about things like free speech and civil rights, shouldn’t need the spectacle of mass protests and police brutality to remind them that the Russian people are not sovereign in Putin’s empire.
That they do need such a reminder should tell us more about the state of our political discourse than it does about Russia’s.