In September John McCain, someone who seems never to have met a war he didn’t love, went before television news cameras to spew vitriol on Vladimir Putin and Russia for thwarting plans to spread freedom and democracy by means of “air strikes” on Syria. This was not surprising. McCain represents the right wing of the national liberalism that calls itself conservative but is liberal nonetheless. Had he been elected in 2008, the U.S. would have bombed Syria starting two years ago. But hatred of Putin was being voiced by our liberals, left as well as right, long before the Syrian crisis. Why?
When Putin stepped onto the world stage it was easy at first to see him as another Bonaparte, a man who came out of nowhere to impose order on the aftermath of revolution by the force of his character or, if necessary, by force, period. However, differences between the two figures, Bonaparte and Putin, soon became apparent. The most important was that Bonaparte was not opposed to the Revolution that had begun to unroll in France in 1789. In truth he proved to be its very incarnation. His achievement was to militarize it and take it international.
One way Bonaparte showed himself to be of the Revolution was in his treatment of religion. He closed convents and monasteries in the countries his army conquered, hauled two successive popes to France as prisoners (one of them died there) and eventually proclaimed his infant son King of Rome.
Under Putin Christianity in the form of the Russian Orthodox Church flourishes. It has a role in the nation’s public life it hasn’t played since the days of the tsars and that would have the ACLU and B’nai B’rith filing lawsuits in the U.S. The Russian constitution provides for religious freedom, but it is always clear that among the various faiths with official standing, the Orthodox Church is first among equals. For instance, at Putin’s inauguration in the Kremlin’s St. Andrew’s Hall, the Patriarch of Moscow was on the platform to impart a blessing but there was no rabbi or imam in sight. When cosmonauts are sent into space there’s an Orthodox priest on the launch pad to sprinkle holy water on the rocket.
Liberals exclude religion from public life or, if they allow expression of it, require an interdenominationalism that reduces every faith to meaninglessness.
Another difference between Bonaparte and Putin is that Bonaparte was an imperialist. Not simply did he spread the Revolution everywhere in Europe, or try. Except for Austria, into whose ruling Habsburg dynasty he married, all of the Continent’s kingdoms and principalities were to be dependencies of the Empire of France. Putin wants friendly nations on his country’s borders, as which leader anywhere doesn’t, but has made no attempt to abridge the independence of former Soviet republics.
One earlier leader to whom Putin might better be compared is another Frenchman, Charles de Gaulle, though not in style and certainly not in duplicity. When de Gaulle took power in 1958 France, like Russia after the USSR imploded, already had lost much colonial territory, notably Indochina, the military were in disarray and becoming bogged down in Algeria, and the very fact he had been called out of retirement and had to establish a new Republic, the Fifth, revealed a country lurching politically toward breakdown. In a word, France amounted to nothing in the world compared to what she had been formerly.
De Gaulle made her once again a nation with which other powers had to reckon. When he declared the door closed on Britain’s entry into the Common Market, a predecessor entity of today’s EU, nobody else dreamed of trying to keep it open. When he told the world France was to have a force de frappe – i.e., nuclear weapons – nobody dared to say she could not. When he told the U.S. to vacate its military bases in France, the U.S. did not demur.
In much the same way, Putin inherited a country that was a ramshackle ruin of the USSR and had become an international laughing-stock under the drunkard Boris Yeltsin and he made her more than a mere player. When he came forth in September with his proposal that averted U.S. “air strikes” against Syria, you could feel the world’s relief that at last there was somebody able to stop another Iraq or Libya before it started.
The key to Putin, which can be seen in the record of his doings during his years in power, is that he is profoundly conservative. I don’t mean ideologically. There is no evidence he subscribes to any ideology. However, there is plenty of evidence he is conservative in the sense that he dislikes instability and the kind of abrupt change that produces it. If such dislike marked the governance of Christian princes when they still existed, it also distinguishes Putin from liberals who always exalt change, as we see every four years in the U.S. when presidential candidates vie with one another as to who can trumpet it the loudest.
A speech comes to mind, some lines of which I jotted down when it was delivered precisely because it was a striking example of the liberal exaltation of change. The words are those of U.S. President Bill Clinton when he spoke to the nation via TV during the few minutes before the year 1999 gave way to 2000 AD – the beginning of a new century and new millennium. “It is the destiny of America to remain forever young,” he declaimed. Therefore, “We Americans must not fear change. Instead, let us welcome it, embrace it and create it.” Watching Big Brother on giant television screens, an Orwellian crowd of thousands gathered on Washington’s National Mall wildly applauded him.
Of course they did. What else could be expected from a people generally lacking a sense of what Russell Kirk called the permanent things or even much memory beyond the latest news cycle?
By contrast, Putin’s dislike of instability has been the basis of his popularity and thus his political success. The majority of his countrymen feel the same way he does, and it is understandable. After all, not very long ago he and they lived through a revolution that was only less disruptive of national life than 1917 insofar as it wasn’t followed by civil war.
There have been published accounts that former President Medvedev lost his chance at a second term because he permitted Russia’s UN ambassador to abstain on the Security Council’s Libya vote instead of ordering him to exercise Russia’s veto; and men who were close to Putin at the time confirm that he was horrified by the murder – what else call it? – of Muammar Gaddafi. When Bill Clinton’s wife, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, exulted over it (“We came, we saw, we killed!”) it probably deepened Putin’s obvious view of the U.S. as an agent, if not the principal source, of international instability.
Putin will continue to try to make his country a force for stability and order, and that means he will continue to be denounced by the likes of John McCain and that our media will continue to label him “anti-American”. And, yes, we’ve seen in photos that the cross he wears under his shirt is not a Catholic crucifix, but is it possible to imagine another major leader on the world stage today wearing a cross of any kind over his heart? Obama? Cameron? Hollande? Merkel? Let’s not be silly.
Doubtless Putin has his flaws. One suspects a short fuse in private. His aides probably tip-toe around him pretty carefully when he’s having a bad day. More substantively, will the winter Olympic Games in Sochi, which are very much Putin’s baby, prove worth all the effort and expense that have gone into preparing for them? And how true is it that some of the President’s friends and supporters have benefitted inordinately from the contracts awarded to them for the preparation?
It remains, whether or not history views Putin as a great man, in comparison to other heads of government in our day, and though he is short in stature physically, morally he is a giant among pygmies.
It is regrettable that his marriage recently ended in divorce, making him to that extent resemble another past leader, the idol of American “conservatives” Ronald Reagan, but I submit that in a world that has divorced itself from God serious Christians of all persuasions should be glad he’s on the scene. Only liberals, including ones who call themselves conservative, have any real reason to hate him. In fact, here’s a prediction: Apart from the charge that he tolerates or is even responsible for corruption, the main criticism of him from now until whenever will be that he resists change. It was the one leveled at Catholic statesmen like Franco and Salazar when such as they were still possible in the formerly Christian West.