Back in the 1930s, the Bolsheviks and the Nazis had their admirers in the West. However, not many people this side of George Bernard Shaw admired both at the same time.
Putin is in that sense a unique figure because swarms of his fans can be found at either extreme of the political spectrum. Assorted ‘right-wing populists’ love the Russian chieftain, but then so do such undeniably left-wing figures as Corbyn.
Even people called conservatives in America, Pat Buchanan to name one, adore Putin, as do their British counterparts, such as Peter Hitchens and Christopher Booker. It’s as if some present-day Paul proclaimed “there is neither Right nor Left for you are all one in Vlad.”
Why do most people outside the political mainstream, and even some within it, fall over themselves to extol Putin’s non-existent virtues?
Some of it may be ignorance, although that’s often too simplistic an explanation. Sometimes it isn’t: I’ve talked to Putin admirers who knew shockingly little about Russia.
But surely the gentlemen I’ve mentioned know enough about the crimes committed by Putin’s regime, inside and outside Russia. They may be aware that the Russian economy is criminalised from top to bottom, that money laundering is the only growth industry there, that elementary civil liberties have been suppressed, that Russia is waging hybrid war against the West and so forth.
One suspects that even many on either political extreme know such facts, and yet their panegyrics for Putin lose none of their volume. Why?
The simple answer is that both the Right and the Left admire Putin because the former believe his propaganda and the latter don’t.
The propaganda is balm to a Right-leaning soul. Putin’s Goebbelses position Russia’s kleptofascist junta as a champion of conservative values, strong government, the vital importance of the Church and all those lovely things.
The music is so beautiful that it’s impossible to turn the radio off, and who cares about the false notes – it’s the intent that counts. The listeners either don’t realise or refuse to accept that false notes are all there is.
Traditional values are only as good as the tradition. Putin’s Russia packages Stalinism with the worst features of tsarism and calls it conservatism. So it is, but this isn’t the conservatism of Burke or Chateaubriand, nor even of Pat Buchanan.
The same goes for strong government: it all depends on how it uses its strength. Margaret Thatcher’s government was strong, so was Fidel Castro’s – can we agree that strength isn’t good ipso facto? As to Putin’s religiosity, this is indeed Pauline.
Overnight KGB officers and Party secretaries treating faith as a criminal offence became pious Christians who cross themselves before government meetings.
When I see videos of that travesty, I strain to find somewhere in the background the horse they fell off when they heard the voice of God. Taking that obscene spectacle seriously takes not just suspension but elimination of disbelief.
Forgetting Putin’s gang for a second, it’s useful to remember that when a Russian talks about the Church, he means something different from what the word connotes to a Westerner.
I’m not going to talk about filioque and other doctrinal differences between Eastern and Western Christianity, crucially important though they are. What’s relevant here is the existential difference between the civilisations the two Churches have produced, and what place they occupy in each.
If Christendom appeared at the confluence of Jerusalem and Athens, for the Russian Church these are only two of the feeding tributaries. The others, more relevant to my theme, are Byzantium and the Golden Horde.
The Byzantine Church was an aspect of absolutist government, and its important function was to sacralise the power of the Caesar. Political power, religion and wealth were so organically fused together as to become one.
Had Russia got her Christianity from the proselytising Catholic orders, her history might have taken a different course. As it was, her religion came courtesy of Byzantine theocaesarism, and her politics came from the same source, with a later admixture of Mongol absolutism.
Hence every attempt by the Russian Church to get out of the state’s clutches led to savage suppression, reaching its height under Tsar Alexis and his son Peter (the Great). Under the latter, the Church was placed under the auspices of a secular government department, the Holy Synod.
Still, under the tsars the Church was able to attend to its main business and even produce outstanding thinkers: though its supervisors were laymen, they were still Christians who had to pay spiritual fealty to the Church.
In their impetuous youth, the Bolsheviks set out to wipe out the Church altogether. Some 40,000 priests were murdered in all sorts of imaginative ways on Lenin’s watch, and that was before Stalin got going.
However, destroying the Church proved easier than destroying the religious yearning that has been with man since before he learned to build houses. As Stalin’s empire was being overrun by Nazi panzers, Lenin’s heir realised that his power could do with some sacralisation too.
The Church was brought back into the fold: it agreed to be used lest it might be abused. It then suffered the indignity of being placed not just under the government, but specifically under its secret police, which was responsible for bolstering Russian patriotism.
This fine tradition perseveres. The current patriarch Kirill (ne Vladimir Gundiaev, aka ‘Agent Mikhailov’) is a career KGB operative – as were his only two rivals for the office.
Rather than having undergone a spiritual catharsis, Putin and his jolly friends have prostituted the Church to make it serve their propaganda ends, both at home and abroad.
The propaganda sways the Western Right, who accept as real the lies peddled by Russian media. They’re so starved of Christian or any other virtues in their own governments that they are willing to believe in the Emperor’s clothes.
The left-wingers’ eyesight is better: they see that all this talk about tradition is just propaganda. Realising that Putin’s regime is a direct heir to Stalin’s, its reincarnation in different clothes at a different time, they’re prepared to overlook all that conservative camouflage woven out of a tissue of lies.
The old truism about extremes converging seems to be vindicated. But a truism is different from truth. In this case the underlying supposition is that the two extremes set out to be different and then somehow drift together.
But that’s not true: if they drift together, they weren’t that different in the first place. It’s just that their similarity lies deeper than any superficial divergences in policies and pronouncements.
Both extreme worship power as such, which is pointed out often enough. But underneath this is the same religious yearning I mentioned earlier, a craving for an ideal kingdom not of this world.
Except that modernity has trained people to accept the purely physical boundaries of this world, with nothing beyond it any longer imaginable. Hence that ideal kingdom has to be found not in heaven but elsewhere in earth.
Looking at our politics, Westerners of all political hues despair. Those on the Right and on the Left may hate their governments for different reasons, but hate them they do. Yet, as Cicero put it, dum spiro spero.
No longer capable of investing their hope in God, people are ready to invest it into any fraudulent pyramid scheme, including what Nietzsche called “brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of the non-brothers.”
Both the Right and the Left, bereft of any realistic hope of bliss at home, look at Putin’s criminal regime and see brothers where only enemies exist. They want to believe so much that they’ll believe anything.