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Rootin' for Putin
The Russification of the West, Ukrainian Truthers, and supporting The Current Thing
As promised, another piece from Lorenzo Warby (since his first one was so popular).
After watching various talks by Martti K Kari, a retired Colonel in Finnish military intelligence — facilitated by Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster at Triggernometry — Lorenzo suggested to me that a lot of the people who support Putin against their own governments in the West (“an oikophobia of the right” as Ed West calls it) are seeking in Russia a cure that’s not only worse than the disease, but an instance of the same thing.
I told Lorenzo he should write something about his insight; this piece is the result.
If you hate having to button your lip in public while only being able to share your real views with close friends who won’t rat you out, then copying a country where people have never known anything other than keeping their genuine views private (in case they get ratted out) is a very bad idea.
Lorenzo is on Twitter @LorenzoFrom
The Finns, for obvious reasons, keep a very close eye on Russia. It was their former imperial master, it attacked them in the Winter War (1939-40), they have a long and vulnerable border with it.
So, it is unsurprising that Martti J Kari, a former Colonel in Finnish Military Intelligence, can provide a very perceptive and informative analysis of Russian strategic culture and institutional patterns.
He analyses Russia as having a persistent political culture, one that takes various forms (Tsarism, Soviet, Putinist), but has a consistent underlying structure.
There is an autocrat, whether Tsar, General Secretary, or President of the Republic, treated as infallible. There are “boyars”, subordinates who carry out the autocrat’s will, who get blamed when things go wrong, and are allowed to skim off income within certain bounds. That is, to engage in corruption commensurate with their rank. Then there are the Russian people, who are both romanticised and repressed.
This institutional structure creates two levels of discourse. “Kitchen table” discourse, where one expresses honest opinions with people one trusts, and public discourse, full of lies, half-truths and convenient semi-fictions. The Russian language has a range of expressions for these various types of statements. Including, for instance, pravda (official truth).
Now, is some of this beginning to sound familiar? Because it should.
The Russification of the West
The West is already well into the mode where there is one thing you say to folk you trust and another thing you’re willing to say in public. The recent pandemic was full of pravda: official claims to truth, of following the science — which kept changing.
We are undergoing an age of profound moral flux. Not only moral flux, but punitive moral flux. What was once acceptable becomes a vile sin, worthy of trashing your reputation, having your career or business destroyed, your income eliminated. This punitive moral flux creates a public discourse of lies and dishonesty.
What one sees, both in the media (including the “quality” media), but also among various government and other bureaucracies, is a carelessness, often a reckless carelessness, around truth and facts; a willingness to use them instrumentally. For instance, doctoring photographs has gone from a sacking offence to ordinary journalism.
The expansion of overweening bureaucracies has entrenched authoritarian patterns even in countries where this was once unusual or non-existent. This is obvious in universities but has been dramatically clear in the systematic overriding of civil liberties in pandemic policy and, even more, in censorship of those who wish to protest about aspects of those policies.
We see a performative moral propriety, where one is allowed to cash in on one’s moral standing at a level commensurate with that moral standing. The use of moralised status, of performative propriety, as a shield for moral and intellectual (and at time real) corruption extends across exorbitant lecture fees, immense salaries for “charity” work and even the sort of straightforward cashing in on donations that BLM activists have notoriously displayed.
The failures of the mainstream media: its flawed, even at times systematically dishonest, reporting of Trump, Russiagate, Brexit and Covid-19 destroyed many people’s trust, especially those with access to alternative information sources (which themselves vary enormously in quality). This has led to the phenomenon of Ukraine “Truthers”: people who deny there’s a real war (it’s all crisis actors), who see it all as just another PsyOp.
Then there are people who are utterly revolted by the idea of being on the same side as those who support Ukraine because it’s “The Current Thing”. Or who have such a deep alienation from those who have come to dominate the cultural commanding heights in the West that they now view Putin and “traditionalist Russia” as a bulwark against moral corruption and cultural decadence.
There is thus a sense that both Ukraine War Truthers and those Rootin’ for Putin are reacting to the Russification of the West.
QAnon for the college-educated
In the case of the Ukrainian Truthers, Russia has always been notoriously prone to conspiracy theories. Any regime of censorship and pervasive carelessness with the truth is inherently likely to generate conspiracy theories, including among the censors and those tolerant of censoring. What, after all, was Russiagate but QAnon for the college-educated? There were plenty of highly educated (or, at least, credentialed) people who were all too ready to see the result of the 2016 US Presidential election and the Brexit Referendum as the result of manipulation by Russia.
In the case of those Rootin’ for Putin, this is partly due to defining themselves by who they are against within the West, coupled with seeing Putin as a model of traditionalist authority. All those inclined to see the US (in the language some of them use) as the “Zionist Occupied Government” or liberal globalism as “Globohomo” are going to view Putin positively.
Even those who see things in less extreme (in all sorts of senses) ways, who are just repelled by liberal globalism (which, of course, has become increasingly illiberal), have reasons to see Putin positively. Especially (but not only) if they have a strong authoritarian streak in their thinking.
Yet, what they are doing is not merely a moral failure, it is a profound mistake: it is precisely the Russification of the West that is producing what they are reacting against.
Not only in the various patterns noted above, but also the widespread adoption of “small l” leninism as an operational model. By this, I do not mean any form of Marxism. I mean the pattern of networks of activists working through institutions that either avoid public scrutiny, actively divert it, or actively mislead. The UK’s Stonewall is a signal example.
As theory, Leninism is just the Jacobinising of Marxism, as Lenin himself freely admitted. Leninism represented the application to Marxism of the Jacobin model of political action: highly organised, unlimited in scope (everything is politicised) and unlimited in action (anything is permitted if it advances the goal). Lenin = Marx + Robespierre.
But Leninism was first implemented in Russia and built on Russian patterns. All claims became instrumental; accepted or rejected as they served (or did not serve) the cause. This pattern was projected well beyond Russia by entryism, by popular front tactics, and the international communist movement coordinated from Moscow, including via at least one propagandist of genius: Willi Munzenberg (1889-1940).
This pattern became deeply embedded in progressive politics and has long since spread well beyond any form of Marxism. We can see it today in the amazing contortions of transactivism and the facilitators thereof, but also in how modern progressivism treats the outcomes of democratic votes very differently depending on whether, well, they serve the cause or not.
Thus, the result of the 2016 Presidential election was treated as fundamentally illegitimate, as was the Brexit referendum result. A willingness to take an instrumental response to election results that we also see in various colour revolutions.
Moreover, activism that avoids, or even subverts, democratic accountability, has also become pervasive in the West. This is especially so where the “quality” media has become invested in various prestige opinions, and is actively hostile to any form of accountability that might undermine those opinions.
So, we get social and policy changes which are not discussed honestly and openly, are not seriously subject to democratic review, but nevertheless deeply affect what government does and how it does it. This itself is disorienting. But it also creates alienation from ordinary politics that feeds into Putin’s appeal.
Still, to invoke Russia and Putin, of all people, as some bulwark against picking and choosing election results is, to put it mildly, remarkable.
Russian media culture is far more instrumentally narrative-driven than mainstream Western media at its worst. Mind you, it’s possible those Rootin’ for Putin just prefer the ostentatiously religious, authoritarian vigour of Russian media narratives. Given that young folk in the US and France (but much less in the UK) are much more pro-Russian than their elders, there are also serious questions to be asked about what “progressive” education has done to the moral sense of American and French youth. And why British youth do not seem to be similarly infected.
As a friend pointed out to me, traditionalist-minded folk would be “better off copying conservative Catholic Poland or West Ukraine if they want a religious identity that's both useful and has real meaning.” But neither model has the astriding-the-world-stage power thing Putin has got going for him.
Mind you, that’s increasingly tarnished by Russian armed forces incompetence in Ukraine.
Casting around for alternatives
So, folk see the self-serving hypocrisy and punitive moral arrogance pushing cultural agendas that revolt them, look across to Putin’s authoritarian, Christian traditionalism and see it as an alternative model. When it really, really isn’t.
On the contrary, what is striking about the world that cosmopolitan globalism — with its current ideology of Post-Enlightenment Progressivism — is creating is not how different from Putin’s Russia is it, but how similar.
Yes, it is pushing against very different institutional histories and political cultures. But one can still see the “instrumental” treatment of facts, the willingness to censor, the self-serving grifting shielded by performative moral propriety, the dishonest and furtive activism, the at times blatant propagandising, the picking and choosing of election results. These are Russifying patterns.
A large part of the problem in the West is the lack of character tests in its institutions, which lead to selection for Cluster B personalities with good executive function. This is corrosive of public and institutional norms and is, along with widening censorship and protection of prestige opinions by performative propriety, destructive of accountability and personal responsibility. But one sees the same thing in spades in Putin’s Russia.
A lot of people who live in Eastern Europe, or who have fled Russia over the years, see Russians, under a thin cultural veneer, as fundamentally barbarians. Consider the political culture and entrenched institutional patterns of Russian history. There has been no developed culture of personal responsibility. Instead, there is either fearful deference, hopeful projection, or corrupt power-climbing. Where is civilised order, and the behaviour that goes with it, supposed to germinate?
Yes, there is a great deal to be repelled about in the patterns of cosmopolitan globalism. But Putin and what he represents is no sort of solution. On the contrary, it is the underlying disease more virulently historically and institutionally entrenched.