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Sunday, March 6, 2022

Christianity, Ukraine, and Putin's Amen Corner

Anthea Butler at MSNBC:

In 2014, Putin made the cover of the evangelical magazine Decision in a piece in which Graham's son Franklin lauded his handling of the Winter Olympics and his protection of Christians. Franklin visited Russia in 2015, and ever since, has promoted Putin as a godly leader. A few days before the invasion of Ukraine, he asked people to “pray for Putin” but not for Ukrainians, creating a decent amount of backlash.
David French:
In the years since his rise, Putin has been admired as a defender of Christian civilization, as a man at the “heart” of the “post-Soviet revival of Christianity in Russia.” In 2017 Christopher Caldwell, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, delivered an address to the Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar, entitled “How to Think About Vladimir Putin.” Hillsdale, for those who don’t know, is arguably the premier conservative college in America. It reprinted Caldwell’s remarks in Imprimis, a monthly digest that reaches more than five million Americans.

Caldwell’s words are worth remembering because they describe—perhaps more eloquently than anyone else in the west—not just why Putin built a following abroad, but also how he became (at least for a time) popular at home. These three paragraphs are key:
Vladimir Vladimirovich is not the president of a feminist NGO. He is not a transgender-rights activist. He is not an ombudsman appointed by the United Nations to make and deliver slide shows about green energy. He is the elected leader of Russia—a rugged, relatively poor, militarily powerful country that in recent years has been frequently humiliated, robbed, and misled. His job has been to protect his country’s prerogatives and its sovereignty in an international system that seeks to erode sovereignty in general and views Russia’s sovereignty in particular as a threat.
After noting that Putin committed atrocities in his rise to power, Caldwell continues:
Yet if we were to use traditional measures for understanding leaders, which involve the defense of borders and national flourishing, Putin would count as the pre-eminent statesman of our time. On the world stage, who can vie with him? Only perhaps Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey.

When Putin took power in the winter of 1999-2000, his country was defenseless. It was bankrupt. It was being carved up by its new kleptocratic elites, in collusion with its old imperial rivals, the Americans. Putin changed that. In the first decade of this century, he did what Kemal Atatürk had done in Turkey in the 1920s. Out of a crumbling empire, he rescued a nation-state, and gave it coherence and purpose. He disciplined his country’s plutocrats. He restored its military strength. And he refused, with ever blunter rhetoric, to accept for Russia a subservient role in an American-run world system drawn up by foreign politicians and business leaders. His voters credit him with having saved his country.
As Caldwell notes in his essay, Putin’s fans have not been limited to right-wing figures outside Russia. One should view public opinion polls in authoritarian countries with deep suspicion, but the available evidence indicates he’s been broadly popular in Russia for two decades. One wonders how long this popularity can hold as Russian forces struggle on the battlefield, but the bottom line is still clear—tens of millions of people (including some of the most influential people in the west) have admired an objectively evil man. Why?

Throughout history we see familiar patterns, in times of stress and confusion, people cry out for salvation and strength. Success—including military success—builds a bond with the people. The victorious ruler connects not just with human pride, but also with profound human longings for protection, purpose, and identity.