Liberalism, in the broadest possible sense, does not mean the American left wing. Nor does it mean classically liberal or libertarian. It means a system of government based on individual rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and so on. Liberal societies are also characterized by a free press, independent courts, and checks on government power.
During the Cold War, many Western intellectuals and artists on the left sympathized with the Soviet bloc. In their opinion, the autocratic Soviet states were morally superior to the liberal West. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the exposure of the extent of Soviet atrocities against their own populations, many of the artists and intellectuals on the left who supported the Soviets have been broadly condemned for promoting authoritarian dictatorships over liberal democracies. How could they have sympathized with these mass-murdering dictators who quite possibly killed more people than Nazi Germany?
These days, we have the opposite problem, namely that many on the right express admiration for Putin and – much like the leftist intellectuals and artists of the Cold War era – are engaged in apologetics that try to make Putin’s rule out as being somehow not so bad.
Now, if you don’t think a liberal society is the most desirable form of government, you might have a consistent case. However, most pro-Putin voices on the right still profess to be liberal democrats. Many plead ignorance or outright deny what has taken place in Russia under Putin. Or when confronted with specifics on Russia, they simply avoid information that is inopportune for their argument. At the same time, a lot of them have bought into information and bluster received from Russian propaganda sources such as Russia Today.
Let’s look at the state of civil liberties in Russia. They have continually been curtailed under Putin. More than 200 critical journalists have died of non-natural causes since he assumed power. In the West, the most well-known example of Putin’s curtailment of civil liberties is the law against “propagandizing” alternative sexual orientations which has in practice been used to crack down on political protesters and people arguing that homosexuality is a case of nature over nurture.
Less well-known in the West is the ban on all religious communities preaching outside of their places of worship. In practice, this means that people can’t propagate their faith on the internet or hold religious services in their own homes. And faiths that are too small to finance their own places of worship could be left unable to cultivate their religion at all.
Likewise, laws have been passed that make it illegal to incite breaches of Russia’s territorial integrity. In practice this means that anyone criticizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea can be put in jail (as indeed many have already been).
Then there is the question of the arbitrary incarceration of people who criticize Putin’s rule. The most famous example here is the imprisonment of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovskij, which is broadly agreed by independent observers to have been politically motivated. Besides Khodorkovskij’s imprisonment, many other critics of Putin’s rule have been killed or imprisoned. Most recently, the government has taken to shutting down entire private companies and imprisoning everyone from the CEO to lowly workmen. In many cases, the rank-and-file employees never conducted any political criticism of the system whatsoever. But all are punished anyway.
While the people’s opportunities for staging political protests have been curtailed, the democratic system in Russia has also been undermined. During the elections of 2011, many public employees were forced to vote for Putin’s party and the people who counted the votes were instructed to doctor the votes in order to put Putin’s party ahead of the opposition. Exit polls showed that Putin’s party was only due to get about one third of the vote count that it officially ended up with, and Austrian researchers from the University of Vienna conducted analyses of the vote tallies which concluded, unequivocally, that election fraud in favor of Putin’s party had taken place.
Contrary to popular belief, the Russian population did not take kindly to this obvious election fraud, and popular protests against the regime persevered from 2011 and all the way to the summer of 2013. While the protests endured, the regime tried anything from deploying the military and police, to the ministry of health and the ministry of education in order to frighten and discourage the protesters.
Somewhat unfairly, in spite of these massive popular protests, it ended up being three young women who played punk in a church – members of the protest group Pussy Riot – who became the symbol of dissidence against the regime. The young women were sentenced to two years of imprisonment and alleged forced labor in a penal colony.
If you mention facts like these to Western Putin apologists, they tend to skirt them like the plague. Rather than offering a response, they very quickly try to steer the conversation onto other subjects, such as how Putin has supposedly restored national pride in Russia or brought about a Christian awakening and taken a harsh stance on Russia’s 9 to 14 million Muslims.
Concerning the so-called Christian awakening, one should remember that Christianity was all but illegal in the officially atheist Soviet Russia. When the Soviet regime fell, thousands of people came out to voluntarily contribute to the restoration of Orthodox churches all over the country. Many of these developments happened prior to Putin’s ascension to power and should more properly be credited to the population itself, and not to Putin. It’s like someone jumped in front of a parade that was already in full swing and now gets credit for having planned it all.
As for the Muslims, many right-wing Westerners are fed up with Islam and see Putin as being able to chart a tougher, sterner course than the liberal values of Western democracies allow for. Thus it is often said among Western pro-Putin conservatives that Russia and the West could unite as Christian partners in a common crusade towards Islam, or that Putin’s threat to bomb entire Muslim cities as retaliation for terrorist attacks on Russian soil should provide inspiration for politicians in the West.
Now what most Western pro-Putin conservatives seem to miss is that in spite of the stern rhetoric, Putin has not followed through on the spectacular threats made against Islam as a whole, in spite of terror attacks continuing to take place in Russian cities. Likewise, Western pro-Putin conservatives tend to miss that somewhere between 9 and 15% of the Russian population are Muslims and that, far from attempting to punish them collectively, Putin has generally struck an appeasing tone towards them.
In 2015, Putin attended the opening in Moscow of one of Europe’s biggest mosques. Flanked by the Turkish leader Erdogan and Palestinian leader Abbas, he declared that there was a “pure Islam” which had been tainted by operatives such as the Islamic State. In other words, Putin made that same so-called politically correct distinction between “pure Islam” and “radical Islam” that many Western pro-Putin pundits fault their own politicians for adhering to!
Likewise, Putin has many times praised the Muslim community in Russia. Several times he has wished the Russian Muslims happy Eid celebrations, which is another one of those things that Western pro-Putin conservatives tend to fault their own politicians for doing.
Another way to see where Putin’s allegiances lie is to look at how Russia has voted in the UN over the last ten years. Again and again, Russia has voted against the West and with the Muslim countries of the OIC. Most notably, Russia has supported the Islamic countries’ attempts to create a global resolution against insulting religions, a proposal made specifically to target criticisms of Islam in Western media and outlaw the publication of Muhammad cartoons.
Indeed, the Russian political scientist Sergej Markov, who has held many appointments under Putin’s rule, has said that while Putin welcomes the new wave of European right-wing populism, his regime does not support their fight against Islam and multiculturalism. “Russia is a multicultural society and Russia has 15% Muslims,” he said.
So Putin does not promote individual liberty for Russians, is not democratic, cannot take credit for the Christian revival in Russia, and is not especially harsh towards Islam. In fact, he appears to appease Islam and repeatedly does many of the exact same so-called “politically correct” things to appease Muslims that Western right-wing populists fault their own politicians for doing.
So why do certain voices on the Western right nevertheless idolize Putin?
Some people sympathize with him because of his perceived savviness. Through the inattention and passivity of the West, as well as his own tactical acumen, Putin has been able to re-emerge on the world-stage as a powerful leader. For some people, there seems to be the payoff that if they identify with this allegedly savvy leader, then some of that savviness supposedly rubs off on them as well.
Another segment of people seem to consider it cool and edgy to sympathize with Russia’s geopolitical aims in the face of the West. These people typically argue that the West has been too arrogant in expanding NATO and EU, right up to Russia’s borders and mingling in the Ukrainian government’s internal affairs. To these people, Russia’s invasions in Caucasus and the annexation of Crimea are entirely predictable responses to what they see as the West’s attempts to contain Russia. These people can surprisingly often be found in conspiracy circles, where many are traditionally keen to blame the West for foreign aggression. For these people, siding with Russia against the West is just one facet of a general attitude of antagonism towards the West.
But this video isn’t about those segments: It’s about Western right-wingers who profess to be adherents of liberal democracy, yet somehow think Putin is a role model for the West that our own politicians could learn from. They trivialize or ignore Putin’s very active role in curtailing civil liberties in Russia. They claim that Putin restored the Christian faith to his nation, but in fact, the Christian revival was underway before he ascended to power and recent laws have made it harder to the Orthodox Church to carry out missionary activities in Russia. The Western pro-Putin voices claim that Putin has taken a tough stance on Islam, but in fact, he buys into the very same so-called politically correct distinction between militant Islamism and a pristine “pure Islam” that Western right-wingers fault their own politicians for adopting. Russia’s votes in the UN side with the Islamic countries against the West, and Putin has abstained from following through on some of the more spectacular threats of collective punishment that he’s voiced towards Muslims.
One wonders then, whether these pro-Putin voices support him. One could certainly be forgiven for thinking that they do so based on an idealized image of what they would like Putin to be, and not on what he actually is and does.