By Jonathon Van Maren
Several years ago, I traveled to Russia with other journalists to research and report on the story of the Putin regime’s alleged embrace of Christianity. We interviewed priests, nuns, academics, and reporters from major newspapers; we visited Orthodox services, sacred sites, and even a rally in Red Square to celebrate Russia’s annexation of Crimea headlined by pop stars and Putin himself. Our conclusion—one that has been affirmed since—is that Putin’s embrace of Orthodoxy is part of his search for a coherent and collective post-Communist Russian identity. Putin’s support of the Russian Orthodox Church has everything to do with the fact that it is Russian and is inextricably intertwined with her history for 1,000 years. It must be noted that Putin’s regime denies religious liberty to many other Christian groups and treats missionaries with great suspicion.
Conversely, the West is in the process of rejecting its Christian heritage and replacing it with the tenets of the sexual revolution—and this has provided Putin and his propagandists with a powerful opportunity to appeal to besieged social conservatives in the West. As I noted in my examination of Putin’s regime, both he and the Orthodox patriarch regularly contrast the gender insanity gripping their geopolitical foes with Russia’s own increasingly hard line on LGBT activism. (Putin’s government has taken steps to ban LGBT propaganda in films, for example.) Combined with the culture war fog surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine—which I examined in a recent essay for The European Conservative—this has given many social conservatives a misplaced sympathy for the Russian regime, partially rooted in a well-earned suspicion of the progressive elites who condemn Hungary, Putin, and Western social conservatives in the same breath.
It is, as I noted earlier this year, the progressive elites who have created the perfect conditions for Putin’s propagandists by insisting that a key reason to despise Putin is his much-vaunted opposition to the LGBT movement’s ideology. This has created the impression among many social conservatives that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But clear thinking here is essential. It is true that Putin opposes ideologies that virtually everyone opposed a mere two decades ago (Barack Obama, remember, ran his first presidential campaign on opposition to same-sex marriage). But it is also true that Putin is a killer who has murdered journalists who oppose him; who assassinates his political opponents; and whose detractors have a very bad habit of being careless on balconies and ingesting rare poisons.
It is important that social conservatives do not fall into the trap of supporting Putin simply because he appears to get a few obvious things right. Take, for example, the recent release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, renowned for exacerbating misery across Africa and the Middle East through the sale of weapons in bloody conflicts such as the Second Congo War, for U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner (which provoked much outrage because former Marine Paul Whelan still languishes in Moscow’s custody). Upon his release, Bout went on Russian TV to discuss his experience: “What is happening in the West is simply the suicide of civilization, and if this suicide isn’t prevented, at the very least outside the Western world, in the world not controlled by the Anglo-Saxons, then the entire planet will commit suicide…Can you imagine that in American schools they’re now teaching first graders, six and seven year old first graders, that it turns out there are 72 genders!”
There are those who see this clip and might think: “Well, you do have to hand it to Viktor.” But you do not, under any circumstances, have to hand it to the Merchant of Death. This story is such a Rorschach test it could be a lab creation to see who will take the bait. On one hand, we have an almost cartoonishly evil villain, responsible for the suffering of untold numbers of innocent men, women, and children. On the other hand, we have a lesbian WNBA player who has criticized the Star-Spangled Banner and got arrested for taking illegal drugs into Russia. Conflating the Russian invaders with the Ukrainian defenders as if mutual corruption is the same thing as moral equivalence is one thing. But this choice seems starker. The Merchant of Death? Or a decadent Westerner who stands for everything most conservatives despise? But the answer is simple: We reject the ideology of both. The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend, especially when that enemy is a convicted arms dealer who is stating the obvious about gender to buttress Russia’s imperial aims against the Anglo-Saxon hordes under the guise of preventing global suicide.
Some people seem to have forgotten that many evil people parroted similar things for similar reasons. Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, who utilized rape, death squads, and torture to subjugate his country, famously condemned the LGBT movement at the UN in defence of “traditional values.” Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi vocally opposed homosexuality at the African Union while running covert rape rooms and forced abortion chambers. Chile’s Augusto Pinochet publicly opposed LGBT behavior in the name of Catholic values while murdering and torturing tens of thousands and subjecting female dissidents to unmentionable sexual crimes. Chinese Communist leader Xi Jinping is doing almost precisely the same thing as Putin in cracking down on the LGBT movement and censoring certain films, citing a defence of traditional Chinese values and a need to combat Western influence. Jinping also presides over the persecution of Christians, the murder of dissidents, and an ongoing genocide against Uyghur Muslims.
To reiterate once again: When someone claims to be defending traditional values, it matters who is saying these things. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Social conservatives who spend much time criticizing the ongoing collapse of Western civilization and documenting the dawn of the post-Christian age would do well to exercise extreme caution and discernment when violent men with bloody aims utilize rhetoric that we find familiar. Their aims are not our aims, and their ends are not our ends. They are tyrants and empire-builders who care nothing for religious liberty (again, Putin among them), and are routinely willing to murder those who disagree.
Indeed, those of us in the West who expend gallons of ink condemning our own governments would—like the thousands of arrested Russian anti-war protestors, for example—likely find ourselves in prison for doing so in countries like Russia. A few years back in Zimbabwe in a little restaurant in Bulawayo, I was working on some columns when the Aussie owner came over to chat. He began to complain about Mugabe before suddenly looking around hurriedly. “I should watch my mouth,” he said. “Secret police everywhere.” At one point, he told us, he’d been complaining about something on a phone call when four plainclothes police officers grabbed him, made him hang up, and interrogated him. He was lucky to escape arrest. Those who find jackboot totalitarianism preferable to Western decadence would do well to consider the fact that within one system, criticism and dissent is still possible—in the other, it is not.
There may be a time, of course, when that is no longer the case. In Putin’s Russia and Jinping’s China, that time has already arrived.