Apr 3rd 2014

A Radical, Romantic Conservative: Explaining Vladimir Putin

by Charles J. Reid, Jr.

Charles J. Reid, Jr. was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he majored in Latin, Classics, and History, and also did substantial coursework in classical Greek and modern European languages. It was during his undergraduate days that he developed an interest in canon law, doing a year of directed research in Roman and canon law under the supervision of James Brundage. Reid then attended the Catholic University of America, where he earned J.D. and J.C.L. (license in canon law) degrees. During his time at Catholic University, he organized a series of symposia on the bishops' pastoral letter on nuclear arms. The proceedings of these symposia were published under Reid's editorship as "Peace in a Nuclear Age: The Bishops' Pastoral Letter in Perspective" (Catholic University of America Press, 1986). This book was called by the New York Times "among the most scholarly and unsettling of responses" to the pastoral letter (December 28, 1986).Reid then attended Cornell University, where he earned a Ph.D. in the history of medieval law under the supervision of Brian Tierney. His thesis at Cornell was on the Christian, medieval origins of the western concept of individual rights. Over the last ten years, he has published a number of articles on the history of western rights thought, and is currently completing work on a book manuscript addressing this question.In 1991, Reid was appointed research associate in law and history at the Emory University School of Law, where he has worked closely with Harold Berman on the history of western law. He collaborated with Professor Berman on articles on the Lutheran legal science of the sixteenth century, the English legal science of the seventeenth century, and the flawed premises of Max Weber's legal historiography.While at Emory, Reid has also pursued a research agenda involving scholarship on the history of western notions of individual rights; the history of liberty of conscience in America; and the natural-law foundations of the jurisprudence of Judge John Noonan. He has also published articles on various aspects of the history of the English common law. He has had the chance to apply legal history in a forensic setting, serving as an expert witness in litigation involving the religious significance of Christian burial. Additionally, Reid has taught a seminar on the contribution of medieval canon law to the shaping of western constitutionalism.  Recently, Reid has become a featured blogger at the Huffington Post on current issues where religion, law and politics intersect.
Sergei Illiaronov informed the press a few days ago that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has an insatiable appetite. He intends to return to Russia's control all of the territory once held by Czar Nicholas II (reigned 1896-1918), including the independent Baltic states, Belarus, and even Finland.

Illiaronov knows Putin well. He served as Putin's chief economic advisor during his first years as President (2000-2005). We should take statements like this seriously, and we should ask what is it that motivates Putin to contemplate a return to czarist conquests.

I submit that what is driving Putin is a radical, romantic conservatism. When Americans think of conservatism, they tend to think of unfettered free markets, expanding opportunities for capital, and free trade. There is a militarist dimension to American conservatism, but it seems increasingly to be a vestigial carry-over from the Cold War. Had September 11 not happened, American conservative foreign policy would most likely resemble the Rand-and-Ron-Paul agenda much more than it already does. At its best, American conservatism takes as its calling card the principles of ordered, virtuous freedom.

Putin's conservatism is not like this. It strongly resembles nineteenth and early twentieth century conservatism. It is much more European than its American counterpart. Putin's worldview is indebted, directly or derivatively, not to Friedrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman, but to thinkers like the Frenchman Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) or the Germans Friedrich von Meinecke (1862-1954) and Carl Schmitt (1888-1985).

There are four elements to this brand of conservatism that appear to have particular appeal to Putin:

1. It is nostalgic, looking backward to past triumphs as a way to repudiate and to remedy the present broken state of affairs. As such, it seeks the restoration or at least the reenactment of a lost and cherished golden age.

2. It celebrates the nation as an ethnic, linguistic, and cultural ideal. National boundaries that do not respect this vision of the nation are seen as arbitrary and in need of tearing down.

3. It strives for a close alliance between church and state, seeking legitimacy in God's favor.  The nation, after all, has a special providential character and is predicated upon old-fashioned morality. 

4. Finally, it relies upon a strong sovereign power that aims at decisive corrective action.

Putin's words and deeds correspond neatly to each of these categories. Putin has made it plain many times that he looks fondly upon a lost golden era, famously saying, nearly a decade ago, that he considers the dissolution of the Soviet Empire to be "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century." And he has made an effort to stir Soviet-era nostalgia, reviving old medals and awards, presiding over war memorials, and minimizing Stalin's atrocities, even while eulogizing his accomplishments. He's even sought to commemorate Leonid Brezhnev's rule.

But it is not nostalgia for the Soviet Union that energizes Putin so much as it is wistful fondness for the grandeur of the czars. His most recent presidential inauguration occurred in the old czarist throne room. He has opened museums to pay homage to the memory of the Romanov dynasty. His yearning for Finland is of a piece with this. The Romanovs, after all, built their dynasty upon steady geographic expansion, from Poland and Scandinavia in the West, to the Bering Sea in the East, even claiming Alaska and colonizing parts of coastal North America. In his reminiscences, Putin is conjuring up some powerful ghosts.

Putin's commitment to the Russian nation as cultural and linguistic ideal is also evident, especially as he ratcheted up pressure on Ukraine. He acted in Crimea, he said, to protect the Russian population there. He has shown similar solicitude for Russian speakers in other parts of Ukraine and in other regions of the old Soviet Union, such as Georgia and Moldova.

Nationhood for Putin is not a diverse, inclusive liberal democracy dependent upon the tidy observance of procedural norms for its strength. No. For Putin, it is the atavistic call of blood and soil, language and tradition. While one must be cautious in drawing parallels with the rise of Hitler, it is not out of place to note that this is the same battle cry that was led to so much grief and suffering in the middle twentieth century.

Perhaps most surprising, given Putin's background as a committed Communist KGB officer, is his new alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church.  Of course, Russian czars always enjoyed a close relationship with the Church and thus it was only natural that Putin should slide into a similar role.  When Putin took the oath of office for the third time in May, 2012, the swearing in was accompanied by prayers by Russian Patriarch Kirill.

This was, however, not some pro forma prayer service that one might encounter in the West.  Putin has expended large amounts of political capital in reconstructing the Russian Church into a semblance of its former glory.  He has rebuilt old church buildings and commissioned new ones.  When the punk rock group Pussy Riot staged a bit of performance theater in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, 2012, Putin took a hand's off attitude as the Church sought -- and obtained -- harsh, two-year-long jail terms against the women involved.  Not surprisingly, Patriarch Kirill gushed his enthusiasm over Putin, calling him a "miracle of God."

Recently, as the Pussy Riot verdicts indicate, the Church has been moving in the direction of a militant social conservatism.  Patriarch Kirill has denounced liberalism and feminism as grave threats to the political and moral order.  But he has reserved most of his harshness for gays.  In this, he has enjoyed the full cooperation of Vladimir Putin and the State Duma, which has enacted anti-gay legislation. Indeed, the word "gay" has now become a common slur in Russia, used as shorthand to denounce all sorts of perceived Western "corruption."

Putin has even acted to build alliances with social conservatives in other nations, including the United States.  Personally, I see this attempt at bridge-building as driven by the genetically-encoded instincts of Putin's upbringing.  Always look for a sympathetic following in the West, leftists in the Cold-War days, right-wingers today.

Finally, there is Putin the sovereign leader.  He is notorious in the West for his many athletic stunts -- riding horses, hunting, fishing, hang-gliding, posing bare-chested, equal parts bravado and testosterone.  But there is a method to his seeming madness.  And that is the desire to present himself as the strongman so many Russians crave.  More substantively, Putin's agenda aims to deliver on that expectation, most spectacularly, of course, in the wars he has helped to launch, first against Georgia and now against Ukraine.  He truly aims to be the "Twenty-First Century Czar."

Does Putin really believe in a radical, romantic conservative agenda?  Or is he still the clever KGB operative, manipulating symbols near and dear to the Russian soul so as to consolidate power?  Or is he acting from desperation, fearful that if he does not arouse the passions of nationalism, the Russian people, already in steep demographic decline, will sink into the mire of apathy and ennui?  My own guess is that he is moved by some admixture of each of these elements.  Putin may not even be sure himself where the pose ends and his true political commitments begin.  Still, whether he is posturing or acting from deep, sincerely-held belief, he is playing with fire.

What is the West to do?  Clearly, it was appropriate to suspend Russia from membership in the G-8.  The G-8 is more than a trading bloc, it is a group of nations united by a shared belief in liberal, democratic ideals.  Russia has always been an uneasy fit, its membership reflective more of aspiration than reality.  But continued membership now, in light of Russian conduct in Ukraine, is simply indecent.    More broadly, the West must stand up for liberal values.  We must defend human rights and the equality of all persons.  We should reach out to western sympathizers within Russia, and there are many, in order to build common ground with those who share our values and reject the seductive, self-destructive siren song of Putinism.
 


Previous article by the author on Facts & Arts:

Explaining America's New Place in the World

by Charles J. Reid, Jr.Added 29.03.2014
There has been a near constant stream of commentary from right-wing pundits claiming that America is in a headlong retreat from the world and that it is all President Obama's fault. If the President only stood taller, if he only spoke louder, if...

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."
Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos."
Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Brood with me on the latest delay of the full release of the records pertaining to the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. That was 58 years ago." -----"Mark my words: ...... No one who remembers 1963 will live to see the US government admit the full truth about Kennedy’s murder. And the American people’s faith in democracy will continue to fade. There is only one way to prevent this, and that is to release every record, withholding nothing – and to do it now."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "..... we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is about the final issue of a magazine that specialises in long-form articles about the goings-on in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of shorts representing three of the articles. A piece by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of the abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from a young age, Rosenthaler pursued art with a dogged determination that drove him to slowly lose his mind." ---- "Like everything else, mental illness is understood within the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born Under Saturn, the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced mental alienation. This was shown by a withdrawn, slothful gloom. Such heavy sadness was considered both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration." ---- "Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often implies regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to one that is primal, impulsive, or infantile. The artist in Anderson’s film is such an example: he is noisy, impetuous, and extravagantly mad. And it is while he is at his “maddest” that he paints his best work." ---- "Here I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of the “mad artist” need not be tied up with a loss of control but rather a bid to gain it."
Oct 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "So much of Succession holds a mirror to real life, and the way that Logan Roy’s hand-picked board members allowed these abuses to continue by turning a blind eye to them is a good example. We have just published research that shows that public companies whose directors are chosen by their CEOs are statistically more likely to be involved in corporate misconduct, along with various other shortcomings. So why does this happen, and what should be done about it? "
Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."