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putinIn these days of acrimonious political mud-slinging, there seems to be almost nothing upon which the radicals on the left and the reactionaries on the right can agree. There is, however, one thing on which both ends of the political spectrum are in absolute agreement, and that’s their univocal and unadulterated disdain for Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

For those on the left, Putin is beyond the pale because of his failure to endorse the homosexual agenda. Over the past couple of years, Putin has supported the passing of laws in Russia banning “homosexual propaganda.” For those on the right, Putin represents the resurrection of the Soviet bogeyman, a sort of reincarnation of Joseph Stalin or Nikita Khrushchev.

Considering the universal condemnation and demonization of the Russian President it might seem foolish and perhaps perilous to seek a more balanced perspective. On the other hand, the demonization of opponents seldom solves problems and the lack of balance usually exacerbates them. It is, therefore, in the spirit of Dostoyevsky’s holy foolishness (iurodstvo) that this effort at perspective is offered.

Putin is an authoritarian. He believes that big problems require the intervention of big government. As such, he has much in common with Barack Obama whose regime is seeking to impose one-size-fits-all solutions to the problems of healthcare and education, which trample on the rights of religious conscience and parental choice in the name of ideologically driven agendas. Like Obama’s America, Putin’s Russia also has a state “encouraged” common core curriculum. It is intriguing, however, that three of the major works of the anti-communist dissident and Nobel Prizewinner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, are required reading at all Russian high schools. These three works are the novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a harrowing account of the cruelty and barbarism of the Soviet labour camps; The Gulag Archipelago, a monumental history of the Soviet prison system and its inherent and endemic injustices; and Matryona’s House, a short story about the heroine’s retention of traditional Christian virtue in the face of communist tyranny. It is worthy of note that Putin is a great admirer of Solzhenitsyn. He met him in September 2000 and was at pains to emphasize that he had Solzhenitsyn’s approval for his education policies. In August 2001, Putin stated that, prior to his education reforms, he had contacted eminent people “known and respected by the country, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” In October 2010, after it was announced that Solzhenitsyn’s works would become required reading for all Russian high school students, Putin described The Gulag Archipelago as “essential reading”: “Without the knowledge of that book, we would lack a full understanding of our country and it would be difficult for us to think about the future.”

Although one might justifiably lament the usurpation of the rights of parents by central government in the setting of a common core for education, whether such usurpation takes place in Russia or the United States, it must be said that the inclusion of a moral and literary giant, such as Solzhenitsyn, in Russia’s common core serves to highlight the relative trash and trivia included in the common core in the USA. At least Russia’s common core offers real meat and gravitas whereas American kids are being fed a thin gruel of nutrient-free nonsense. The former is healthy food for the mind and soul, full of nourishing traditions; the latter is fast food and junk food for the soulless and the mindless.

In June 2007, Putin signed a decree honouring Solzhenitsyn “for exemplary achievements in the area of humanitarian activities.” This apparent rapprochement between the apparatchik and the dissident, between Putin, the former KGB operative, and Solzhenitsyn, the former victim of a failed KGB assassination attempt, has understandably puzzled many observers. Endeavouring to explain the seemingly inexplicable, Daniel Mahoney, author of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology and co-editor of The Solzhenitsyn Reader, saw the solution to the conundrum in Solzhenitsyn’s frank appraisal of Putin’s political achievements:

[Solzhenitsyn] surely credits Putin for taking on the most unsavoury of the oligarchs, confronting the demographic crisis (it was Solzhenitsyn who first warned in his speech to the Duma in the fall of 1994 that Russians were in danger of dying out), and restoring Russian self-respect (although Solzhenistyn adamantly opposes every identification of Russian patriotism with Soviet-style imperialism).

In my own book, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile, I also endeavour to put the Putin-Solzhenitsyn alliance in perspective. I note that in his discussions with Putin, Solzhenitsyn was simply pursuing the desire for dialogue which he had shown in his Letter to Soviet Leaders in 1973. The only difference was that Putin was prepared to listen to Solzhenitsyn’s wisdom, and to discuss it with him in person, whereas the communist old guard had sought to silence him. If Putin was really prepared to listen to Solzhenitsyn’s warning about the population implosion caused by the culture of death, or about the need to tackle corruption, or the necessity of strong local democracy, or the difference between true nationalism and chauvinistic imperialism, why should Putin be criticized for listening or Solzhenitsyn for speaking his mind?

Asked by the German newspaper Der Spiegel how he could have such a friendly relationship with Putin, a former KGB officer, Solzhenitsyn responded that Putin’s work was in foreign intelligence and that, therefore, he was not a KGB investigator spying on Russian dissidents, “nor was he the head of a camp in the gulag.” He also pointed to the fact that “George Bush Sr. was not much criticized for being the ex-head of the CIA.” As for Putin himself, he publicly distanced himself from his own past at the end of 2007 when he visited Butovo, just outside Moscow, the scene of mass killings of dissidents by the NKVD, the forerunners of the KGB, in the 1930s. His visit coincided with the canonization by the Russian Orthodox Church of hundreds of victims of communism. Putin’s own statement, issued on the day of his visit to Butovo, condemned the evils of ideology and paid tribute to the millions who had perished at the hands of the communist regime.

In the final analysis, and in spite of the knee-jerk reactions of commentators on the left and the right, Putin cannot be dismissed as a mere reincarnation of the Soviet bogeyman. He inherited a Russia that was economically and morally bankrupt, crippled by the kleptocracy that followed in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. He has taken on many of the worst oligarchs, has restored the Russian economy to a position of relative health, and has introduced family and child-friendly policies that have led to a significant increase in birth rates, thereby averting the imminent demographic death of Russia from population implosion. None of this justifies or excuses acts of imperialism on Russia’s borders but it does demand a more measured approach to our understanding of the Russian President. He is not a saint and none but a fool would seek to canonize him, but nor is he a tyrant and none but fools should seek to demonize him.

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The National Catholic Register

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22 replies to this post
  1. Well said! We need to stop trying to hold Russia to American standards. Russia has made noble strides away from the failed ideologies of their past, and as it seems, is drawing on their Christian past in pushing toward the future. We should cheer them on.

    • I can only assume that you are an American who has never engaged with the horrors of the Soviet rule of Eastern Europe. Your disdainful willingness to ‘stop holding Russia to American standards’ would appear to show a lack of any empathy for what that means in practice; may I recommend a visit to the KGB headquarters in Vilnius, Lithuania, now a museum, to discover what your attitude can lead to. Perhaps after that a visit to the front line in Ukraine where Russian troops rebadged as rebels continue their invasion should complete your tour.

      • a) Why is Russia blamed for all the sins of the USSR , but Ukraine magically absolved? Both were Soviet Republics. Ukraine is just as guilty of Soviet atrocities.

        b) Speaking of blame, Russia has made great strides in apologizing, commemorating and coming to terms with its Soviet past. Meanwhile the Ukrainian parliament just passed a resolution blaming Poland for committing genocide against Ukraine. This is appealing. It’s like France blaming America for invading on D-day.

        The plain fact is that Ukraine was an active NAZI ally and enabler which was so brutal that Hitler looks civilized by comparison. Ukrainians committed mass genocide against half a million Poles and to this day have not admitted it – even though Poland stood with them against Russia and helped them in their aspirations to join the West.

        Ukraine is the most corrupt and failed state in Europe. It’s government has bombed it’s own citizens and destroyed half the country. They brand half their citizens “terrorists.” There is no law and no morality in their politics.

        Yet the ignorant US ambassador there routinely praises the Nazi UPA. (Why does the State Department support Gestapo collaborators? )

        It’s time to end Ukraine – and Lithuania for that matter too.

        Lvov and Vilnus are rightfully Polish. If you really believe the Soviet Union was bad you would support ending the fiction which is Ukraine and Lithuania and restoring Poland’s pre-war eastern lands instead of supporting Hitler’s henchmen in the East.

        Also: next time you suggest someone visit the KGB museum in Vilnus maybe go back and read up on how it came about:

        Lithuania and Ukraine only exist because the Soviet Union put them on the map. If you are really against “Soviet atrocities” you would be against the atrocity that was the destruction of Poland and creation of two artificial states on the blood of half a million people and mass repatriation of millions more.

        This is the issue and has been since 1939, not some ridiculous “democratic Ukraine.”

        • While a credible (though cynical) argument could be made that Ukraine is an artificial construct as a nation-state, the same cannot be said of Lithuania, and you have laid bare your ignorance of the history of the region by suggesting as much.

          A century before the rise of the Austro-Hungarian, Prussian and Russian empires as the dominant powers of central and eastern Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest imperial power in the region. The union of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the mid-16th century was not some inconsequential ‘add-on’ of a ‘minor power’ (Lithuania). It was a formidable entity uniting two royal lines that came far closer to representative government than the crude, brutal tsarist despotism of Russia after it ever did. In fact, it was the only Western powers to have ever captured Moscow, and it even placed a Polish crown prince on the throne as Tsar of All Russia, in a period the Russians like to call the ‘Time of Troubles,’ though it was a glorious time for the rest of the world, because the Polish field crown hetmen in concert with Ukrainian Cossacks thumped the living hell out of the Russians after the tyrant Tsar Ivan IV (who had terrorized the area) finally fell off the perch.

          It’s actually Russia that should be scrapped as a fiction, because it doesn’t represent ‘Rus.’ The name ‘Russia’ is taken from the word ‘Rus’ in ‘Kyivan Rus,’ the grand principality that preceded the rise of the Muscovite empire, and which secured the allegiance and protection of the Byzantine Empire about a millennium ago through intermarriage and military service. Today’s Ukraine (with capital Kyiv) is the successor of Kyivan Rus, and that name also produced the term ‘Ruthenian,’ referring to those people of Kyivan Rus who lived in the west of today’s Ukraine, and who were oriented toward Poland and Lithuania, as opposed to the eastern ‘Rusians,’ who became today’s ‘Russians.’ While the descendants of Ruthenians did massacre Poles in the 20th century, they did so because Poland and the Stalinist tyranny alike would not countenance Ukrainian independence, and the experience of the 1932-33 Soviet state-sponsored terror-famine in Ukraine produced a vicious reaction against Soviet rule.

          You need to read up on history and stop defending Russia as some sort of great and admirable state. It isn’t.

          • I thoroughly enjoy every time someone lectures me on not knowing the history of the region I have spent most of my life in and probably know more about than most people. Thank you.

            Of course like most NAZI apologists you take the side of Hitler’s henchmen and blame Poland which was the victim.

            Frankly after two years of debating the issue I am tired of the ignorance of people who started the war in Ukraine by supporting the illegal undemocratic Maidan and blame Russia for it and then ignore 1939 and take the side of Hitler and his Ukrainian allies.

            I hope Putin makes short work of people like you. You wear the mask of “Ukrainian democracy” but pursue the goals of Hitler. Putin is the only statesman in the region who understands the complex realities and history and is the only hope for peace. Maybe elections in Germany and France will bring new better leadership to the EU but for now Putin is alone in a sea of idiots.

            Putin was right when he proposed to Poland in 2014 that the Ukraine problem be solved by restoring the old eastern border of Poland.

            I am flabbergasted that you ignore the Nazi origins of Ukraine.

            Ukraine was created by Adolf Hitler. Russia has a rich and authentic history and culture. The II Republic of Poland with Vilnus in it was an approximation of the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth and it was destroyed by Hitler and his Ukrainian allies.

            Modern Lithuania, like modern Ukraine, are the RESULT OF Soviet atrocities committed against Poland. Modern Ukraine insults Poland by accusing Poles of genocide and Lithuania actively oppresses it’s Polish minority thereby breaking EU laws.

            If you really believe the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was so great please put your money where your mouth is and demand the return of Lvov and Vilnus to Poland.

            If you haven’t noticed: the biggest opponents to the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth is Lithuania with its yyear-long anti-Polish policies.

            Poles in Lithuania are oppressed by Lithuania just as the Russians there are.

            Demand that the map of Europe made by Hitler and Stalin be finally erased and the territories stolen from Poland restored to her.

            This is what Putin magnanimously proposed in 2014. This was rejected in favor of the present mess.

            As for the Polish conquest of Moscow: that was a shameful act for which Poland should apologize to Russia just as Russia has and should apologize for the harm it did to Poland. Poles should not celebrate taking advantage of turmoil in the East to conquer neighbors. Likewise Russia.

            The origins of Russia , by the way, are Kievan Rus. The origin of Ukraine are in Gestapo planning rooms .

            The experiment called the state of Ukraine is a failure. Let people in the regions vote like they did in Crimea. Let the pro-Polish Ukrainians in the West dissolve their country and join Poland and the EU. Let the Russians return to mother Russia. Stop the insane war.

            Most European countries have repented for their crimes: except Ukraine. Ukraine disgustingly celebrates the murder of 400 000 Polish men women and children with axes and fire as the founding event of their state. How you can brush over this is beyond my understanding.

  2. Thank you for an interesting blog; the fact that the Gulag Archipelago is required reading in Russian schools is indeed good news. The problem is hidden in the phrase ‘Putin is an authoritarian’, along with the passing admission about renewed Russian imperialism; as with pregnancy, it’s impossible to be a little bit authoritarian, or a little bit imperialist. Once you’ve crossed the line the only way to go is to become more so – and for that reason the Baltic Republics are understandably very frightened.

    The other issue which you skate over is the degree to which Putin is personally corrupt. Given that his personal lifestyle – most clearly evidenced in the school to which his daughter went – is inconsistent with the declared income of the Russian President, it is clear that he has his trotters in the trough, even without the smoking gun provided by the Panama papers.

    The challenge therefore remains, once again, as to how to contain a Russian bear. The collapse of the USSR gives us hope that it may prove to be a paper bear in the end – but at the moment those on the receiving end of Russian bullets and bombs in Ukraine and Syria have yet to discover this. And pending that the world is faced with THREE major powers seeking to stir things up; China – in the South China Sea, Russia, and Iran.

  3. As one who has come to love Russia and Russian culture, there are very good perspectives here, to be sure, that would be valuable for Americans on the left and right of the political spectrum to consider. Unfortunately, America’s narrative on Russia is so polarized and politicized, and has been beaten into us through so much repitition that I am afraid the vast majority in our land will not be in a mental and spiritual condition to actually hear a perspective like this. From my vantage point, sadly, the author’s criticism of the Russian President for his “imperialism on Russia’s boarder” shows that he fails to consider/understand, A) Solzhenitsyn’s perspectives on the Ukrainian revolution and civil war (which he foresaw), and B) the historical scenario regarding Crimea. If America lost New England to Canada the same way Russia lost Crimea, we would take back New England in a similar scenario, ten times out of ten. To refer to the Crimean annexation as an act of Russian “imperialism,” to me, indicates a lack of knowledge of Russian perspectives or a desire to even understand them… ironically.

  4. Respectfully – then I can’t help but wonder, why designate this issue of great complexity as undeniably imperialistic? Seems to me both reactionary and unwise.

  5. Anyone with any conscience rejects the equation of Putin and Stalin as an affront to the millions of victims of the Stalinist tyranny. Furthermore, branding someone a ‘tyrant’ is a sketchy exercise: does a leader have to personally qualify as a tyrant in order for the system over which they preside to be legitimately considered a ‘tyranny’? In the case of Putin, it remains unclear the extent of personal power he wields over Russia, but one rather suspects it isn’t actually that much – at least in relative terms. He’s often branded a ‘dictator,’ yet after any thinking observer ponders this notion long enough, the label tends to fall away and evaporate. Putin doesn’t look like a classic secular autocrat in the mold of Stalin, Mao, Saddam Hussein or Enver Hoxha. He doesn’t look like a classic military dictator such as Franco or Pinochet either. So what is Putin?

    The best analogy that can be made, I believe, is with a ‘tsar.’ Putin is a ‘secular tsar,’ and given the historical-national context, his enduring popularity among ordinary Russians is understandable. The tsar is the sort of ‘court of last instance’: when bureaucrats further down the ‘vertical of power’ can’t figure out what to do, they ‘ask the tsar.’ He’s a ‘benevolent guy,’ isn’t he? Take when some 30 Greenpeace activists were arrested north of Murmansk a few years ago and thrown in jail, accused of ‘piracy’ (an offense that carries 15 years). After much hoo-ing and hah-ing from governments in the West about the severity of the punishment, and a few weeks after Putin himself publicly asserted his lack of any authority over the rulings of the judiciary, Putin made a public pronouncement that – in his humble opinion – the charge of piracy was too severe. Lo and behold, the sentences of all the ‘eco-terrorists’ were commuted, and they were released after 3 months.

    Now, one might look at this on its face and say, gee, the tsar really DOES have a heart. And who are we to criticize the level of democracy in Russia if all the Russians think their tsar’s a great guy? After all, he’s elected, and he doesn’t seem to be creating a Gulag or systematically starving millions of people to death. But dig a bit deeper, and the whole thing starts to smell rather bad. As a Westerner, you’re forced to make some sort of moral calculus as to whether the rest of the world should be keen about the Russian system proliferating beyond the borders of the Russian Federation. Not that Western countries are necessarily prepared to go to conventional war to stop it in every case, but one senses ‘Putinism’ is not very nice. Apart from anything, ‘kickbacks to the tsar’ are a necessary condition of doing business (investing) in Russia and most of the other ex-Soviet republics (only in most of the others, it could be a kickback to a prince, grand duke, hetman or khan instead of tsar), and who wants that to be the endpoint of business culture? So, I can come and get a license to some kind of business in Russia, but only if (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) I’m prepared to make that special ‘tip’ (‘otkat’ in Russian) to a mysterious recipient. After that, the Russian state hoodlums might leave your business to do its thing for a while before they come back and close you down, deciding you’ve had a long enough run of it. It may not be a big thing in the scheme of things, but it still stinks.

    This is quite apart from the unsolved murders, office raids, arrests, etc., that regularly happen in and in connection with Russia. So although this writer has done an ‘even-handed’ job of describing Putin and his regime, at the end of the day, Putin and his regime still stink. He might have added that at the end.

    • And I, which is why I always vote in my local school board elections. It’s a lonely experience. People complain about our schools, which are run by democratically elected school boards, but they don’t vote.

  6. Putin is a petty thug, who has gotten away with his thuggery because of the impotence of western leaders. That being said he hardly represents an existential threat to the United States as some commentators would have us believe. The mullahs of Iran are far more dangerous. Still there is a segment of the American right that has an infatuation with Putin that I just don’t understand.

    • I wouldn’t call someone who has control of several thousand nuclear weapons a petty anything. And why poke this particular bear if there’s no reason to? Just a couple weeks ago I was reading a piece (on Facebook) by some Brit who was taking a belligerent tone with regards to Putin and Russia. And my thoughts were “If the war he seems to desire actually does break out, this particular typewriter warrior (and the rest of the Pundit Class) won’t be on the front lines with a rifle in hand.”

  7. Wonderful Prof. Pearce. Neither political party in this country seems to be able to comprehend national leaders who do not fit into our narrow pigeon hole of acceptability. Putin has done wonderful things in Russia, and they need it. The way to deal with his imperial-ist behavior is not to do further damage to the Russian economy, but to talk to him and employ statesmanship. We are a long way from those heady days when he would come over to the US, and visit Bush 43 on “the ranch”. With both of them wearing cowboy hats, Bush would put his arm around him and say that he was a good man…that he had seen into his soul and that he was a good and strong leader. There was much hope in those days, for a solid alliance between the US and Russia. What a shame that opportunity was missed.

    • An excellent comment. If Nixon could shake hands with Mao, by all accounts a far worse tyrant, then there’s no reason the USA and Russia can’t work out a reasonably peaceful coexistence.

  8. To be # 1, but more importantly, to remain # 1, requires the magnaniminity of character to accept to be one among equals. The path is to understand that peace is found through the strength found in humility. Magnanimity elevates. The race to the top is not to the top of world domination as much as it is to the top of all that is achievable through magnanimity. Others will follow to the top of that hill. Putin, at the least, is a product of of a culture has suffered through the evils of monarchy and communism, only to be faced with the evils of capitalism and religious extremism, a culture that still produced a Solzhenitsyn, a Dostoyevsky and other great perceptors of the human condition. Putin is pushing his envelope towards a President who is weak, not just of character, but one who has never had to answer to humility’s call, therefore a President who does not understand strength or the hill upon which he was placed. These two faux leaders will be replaced, hopefully by those who understand their personal as well as national pilgrimage.

  9. President Putin believes in Russia as an independent sovereign nation-state. That makes him almost unique in the West today. THAT is why the Left and the Rove Republicans are so adamantly opposed to him, and to Trump as well. After all, almost every western “leader” is a One World Government enthusiast. And they want that to continue to its final goal.

    • Well, it’s fine to talk about ‘independent sovereign states,’ but we need to define some terms. What about the ‘Golden Rule’ (do unto others…)? You have to concede that, if it is OK for the Rusdian Federation to unilaterally annex the territory of a state it had hitherto regarded – formally and legally – as both independent and sovereign, then any state has the right to annex territory of the Russian Federation too, as long as that state possesses the brute force to get away with it. I don’t recall Trump having thus far advocated annexation of other states’ territory as a ‘sovereign’ right, but essentially you’re saying as long as a state can get away with it, then it’s not jus OK but principled and laudable. The law of the jungle replaces the current international order of recognized nation-states. All borders be one arbitrary and meaningless.

      • Chad,
        Do you see any difference between Crimea’s voter referendum to leave Ukraine and Britain’s “Brexit?” Brexit was supported by the West, yet Crimea’s vote was not. Why?

      • Your understanding of recent events is flawed and thus your conclusion unsound.

        I agree with you about the Golden Rule. So let’s apply it.

        The democratically elected PPresidentof Ukraine is ousted in an illegal street revolution, his supporters in Odessa are burned to death and a new unelected government takes power and brands it’s political opponents terrorists after which it holds an election while bombing the region of the country where it is polling badly.

        People in Crimea saw their state disintegrate into war and voted peacefully to join Russia. Russia, which only ceded Crimea to Ukraine on the condition of access to the naval port sees the country go up in flames and manages to secure the ports without an escalated war.

        Stop the double standard: either voting determines the government and everyone is equal under the law or one group of “democratic Ukrainians” has the right to rule through a street revolution. If the latter then all bets are off and Donbas and Luhansk can be Republics and Russia has the right to secure it’s border against the chaos engulfing Ukraine.

        Poland, which naively helped the Maidan, is now seeing Ukrainian bandits shooting at Polish soldiers and the glorification of anti-Polish genocide by the Ukrainian parliament. All of Europe and Russia must contain and resolve this crisis and focus on the threat of ISIS.

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