Thoughts on Life, Love, Politics, Hypocrisy and Coming Out in Mid-Life
Saturday, April 02, 2022
Democracies Must Stand Up to Autocrats
In February 1994, in the grand ballroom of the town hall in Hamburg, Germany, the president of Estonia gave a remarkable speech. Standing before an audience in evening dress, Lennart Meri praised the values of the democratic world that Estonia then aspired to join. “The freedom of every individual, the freedom of the economy and trade, as well as the freedom of the mind, of culture and science, are inseparably interconnected,” he told the burghers of Hamburg. “They form the prerequisite of a viable democracy.” His country, having regained its independence from the Soviet Union three years earlier, believed in these values: “The Estonian people never abandoned their faith in this freedom during the decades of totalitarian oppression.”
But Meri had also come to deliver a warning: Freedom in Estonia, and in Europe, could soon be under threat. Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the circles around him were returning to the language of imperialism, speaking of Russia as primus inter pares—the first among equals—in the former Soviet empire. In 1994, Moscow was already seething with the language of resentment, aggression, and imperial nostalgia; the Russian state was developing an illiberal vision of the world, and even then was preparing to enforce it. Meri called on the democratic world to push back: The West should “make it emphatically clear to the Russian leadership that another imperialist expansion will not stand a chance.”
At that, the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, got up and walked out of the hall.
Meri’s fears were at that time shared in all of the formerly captive nations of Central and Eastern Europe, and they were strong enough to persuade governments in Estonia, Poland, and elsewhere to campaign for admission to NATO. They succeeded because nobody in Washington, London, or Berlin believed that the new members mattered.
Nobody else anywhere in the Western world felt any threat at all. For 30 years, Western oil and gas companies piled into Russia, partnering with Russian oligarchs who had openly stolen the assets they controlled. Western financial institutions did lucrative business in Russia too, setting up systems to allow those same Russian kleptocrats to export their stolen money and keep it parked, anonymously, in Western property and banks. We convinced ourselves that there was no harm in enriching dictators and their cronies. Trade, we imagined, would transform our trading partners. Wealth would bring liberalism. Capitalism would bring democracy—and democracy would bring peace.
Because of Europe’s metamorphosis—and especially because of the extraordinary transformation of Germany from a Nazi dictatorship into the engine of the continent’s integration and prosperity—Europeans and Americans alike believed that they had created a set of rules that would preserve peace not only on their own continents, but eventually in the whole world.
This liberal world order relied on the mantra of “Never again.” Never again would there be genocide. Never again would large nations erase smaller nations from the map. Never again would we be taken in by dictators who used the language of mass murder. At least in Europe, we would know how to react when we heard it.
But while we were happily living under the illusion that “Never again” meant something real, the leaders of Russia, owners of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, were reconstructing an army and a propaganda machine designed to facilitate mass murder, as well as a mafia state controlled by a tiny number of men and bearing no resemblance to Western capitalism. For a long time—too long—the custodians of the liberal world order refused to understand these changes.
Even when the Russians, having grown rich on the kleptocracy we facilitated, bought Western politicians, funded far-right extremist movements, and ran disinformation campaigns during American and European democratic elections, the leaders of America and Europe still refused to take them seriously. It was just some posts on Facebook; so what? We didn’t believe that we were at war with Russia. We believed, instead, that we were safe and free, protected by treaties, by border guarantees, and by the norms and rules of the liberal world order.
With the third, more brutal invasion of Ukraine, the vacuity of those beliefs was revealed. . . . His [Putin’s] policies aimed to create refugees so as to destabilize Western Europe. “Never again” was exposed as an empty slogan while a genocidal plan took shape in front of our eyes, right along the European Union’s eastern border. Other autocracies watched to see what we would do about it, for Russia is not the only nation in the world that covets its neighbors’ territory, that seeks to destroy entire populations, that has no qualms about the use of mass violence. North Korea can attack South Korea at any time, and has nuclear weapons that can hit Japan. China seeks to eliminate the Uyghurs as a distinct ethnic group, and has imperial designs on Taiwan.
We can’t turn the clock back to 1994, to see what would have happened had we heeded Lennart Meri’s warning. But we can face the future with honesty. We can name the challenges and prepare to meet them.
There is no natural liberal world order, and there are no rules without someone to enforce them. Unless democracies defend themselves together, the forces of autocracy will destroy them. I am using the word forces, in the plural, deliberately. Many American politicians would understandably prefer to focus on the long-term competition with China. But as long as Russia is ruled by Putin, then Russia is at war with us too. So are Belarus, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, Hungary, and potentially many others.
This fight is not theoretical. It requires armies, strategies, weapons, and long-term plans. It requires much closer allied cooperation, not only in Europe but in the Pacific, Africa, and Latin America. NATO can no longer operate as if it might someday be required to defend itself; it needs to start operating as it did during the Cold War, on the assumption that an invasion could happen at any time. Germany’s decision to raise defense spending by 100 billion euros is a good start; so is Denmark’s declaration that it too will boost defense spending. But deeper military and intelligence coordination might require new institutions—perhaps a voluntary European Legion, connected to the European Union, or a Baltic alliance that includes Sweden and Finland—and different thinking about where and how we invest in European and Pacific defense.
Much as we assembled the Department of Homeland Security out of disparate agencies after 9/11, we now need to pull together the disparate parts of the U.S. government that think about communication, not to do propaganda but to reach more people around the world with better information and to stop autocracies from distorting that knowledge. Why haven’t we built a Russian-language television station to compete with Putin’s propaganda? Why can’t we produce more programming in Mandarin—or Uyghur? Our foreign-language broadcasters—Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio Martí in Cuba—need not only money for programming but a major investment in research.
Trading with autocrats promotes autocracy, not democracy. Congress has made some progress in recent months in the fight against global kleptocracy, and the Biden administration was right to put the fight against corruption at the heart of its political strategy. But we can go much further, because there is no reason for any company, property, or trust ever to be held anonymously. Every U.S. state, and every democratic country, should immediately make all ownership transparent. Tax havens should be illegal. The only people who need to keep their houses, businesses, and income secret are crooks and tax cheats.
We need a dramatic and profound shift in our energy consumption, and not only because of climate change. The billions of dollars we have sent to Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia have promoted some of the worst and most corrupt dictators in the world. The transition from oil and gas to other energy sources needs to happen with far greater speed and decisiveness. Every dollar spent on Russian oil helps fund the artillery that fires on Ukrainian civilians.
Take democracy seriously. Teach it, debate it, improve it, defend it. Maybe there is no natural liberal world order, but there are liberal societies, open and free countries that offer a better chance for people to live useful lives than closed dictatorships do. They are hardly perfect; our own has deep flaws, profound divisions, terrible historical scars. But that’s all the more reason to defend and protect them. Few of them have existed across human history; many have existed for a time and then failed. They can be destroyed from the outside, but from the inside, too, by divisions and demagogues.
Perhaps, in the aftermath of this crisis, we can learn something from the Ukrainians. For decades now, we’ve been fighting a culture war between liberal values on the one hand and muscular forms of patriotism on the other. The Ukrainians are showing us a way to have both. . . . They demonstrated that it is possible to be a patriot and a believer in an open society, that a democracy can be stronger and fiercer than its opponents. Precisely because there is no liberal world order, no norms and no rules, we must fight ferociously for the values and the hopes of liberalism if we want our open societies to continue to exist.
Friday, April 01, 2022
DeSantis/GOP Use Children As Pawns In Cruel Political Game
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1557 — the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation that’s been nationally castigated as cruel, divisive and potentially hazardous to the mental and physical wellbeing of Florida students. The signing ceremony was staged at a Spring Hill charter school founded by the wife of DeSantis’ top education official, where boys are required to keep their hair short and only girls are allowed to wear earrings.
It was a safe space for the governor. He laughed and handed the markers he was using to the children clustered around him.
But you have to wonder about those children: How many of them will remember this event? How many will come to realize that, as they fidgeted and stared at the dark-haired man with the markers, he was enacting a law meant to intimidate teachers who might offer support to LGBTQ+ students and convince those students their voices should be silenced? Not because the students, or the teachers, were doing anything wrong. But because it was politically advantageous for Florida lawmakers and the governor to wield vicious lies, spinning false visions of child predators and erasing the identities of students who don’t conform with heterosexual norms.
So much has been said about the wreckage that this new law will create. There’s the immeasurable, but seemingly inevitable economic damage as companies remove Florida from their lists for potential expansion or relocation. The move put many of Florida’s biggest corporations in the crosshairs of controversy and many — including Disney, which recently trumpeted inclusion as one of its keys to guest relations — added to the trauma by not speaking out in a timely and decisive fashion. These companies stayed silent when they should have been demanding the return of campaign contributions from politicians who chose to capitalize on hate.
The new law allows parents to sue school boards over any teacher-led discussions of gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade. Those discussions aren’t taking place, Florida educational leaders have said. However, the bill goes on to ban any discussions with older students that are not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” – a highly subjective standard.
The new law was stripped of its most corrosive language, which could have required school officials to “out” students who identify as LGBTQ+ at school. But it does force schools to notify parents if a student needs additional services for “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being” — ignoring the fact that family strife, including anger or denial over a child’s sexuality, is a heartbreakingly common cause of depression or suicidal thoughts.
And that goes to the heart of the anguish that will be caused by this bill. It is aimed directly at students who are suffering because of their sexuality. Lawmakers might have been offended by outspoken students like Winter Park High School student Maddie Zornek, who helped stage that school’s protest walkout and said in a letter to the Orlando Sentinel “This bill is a direct target of the LGBTQ+ community. It is riddled in homophobia and bigotry and it has no place in our schools.”
They certainly overlooked the outspoken trepidation of Ellie Zucker, an eighth grade student in Broward County, who told the Sun Sentinel: “This law being passed basically says we are not allowed to speak to teachers in class who can help me find my way when I’m really lost and really sad about being myself. I feel like my rights are being taken away as a human being.”
Prior to signing this bill, DeSantis didn’t meet with any of the courageous students leading the protests. He didn’t talk to mental-health professionals about why gender-divergent youth are at such high risk for suicide. He didn’t visit shelters for LGBTQ+ students who have been thrown away by their parents. He didn’t even curb the scurrilous dishonesty of his chief spokeswoman, who repeatedly connected non-heterosexual orientation to pedophilia.
Instead, this governor — who has often said how much he despises political theater — sat down in front of students holding signs that said “Protect Children.” And signed legislation that actively, knowingly, purposefully puts children in danger.
The children at Monday’s bill signing, used as scene-setting pawns in a war they didn’t understand, may someday feel shame. We doubt DeSantis will. But he should.
Sadly, Glenn Youngkin and most Virginia Republicans are no better than DeSantis. Come 2023, Republicans in the General Assembly need to be punished and voted from office.
Thursday, March 31, 2022
Signs of a Housing Bubble are Brewing
US home prices have soared to new heights and they keep on climbing, and some researchers and economists say they have seen signs of a housing bubble brewing.
Home prices are rising faster than market forces would indicate they should and are becoming "unhinged from fundamentals," according to a new blog post written by researchers and economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Until recently, the possibility of a bubble wasn't widely supported. But after looking at housing markets across the US, the Fed researchers said new evidence is emerging.
"Our evidence points to abnormal US housing market behavior for the first time since the boom of the early 2000s," the researchers wrote. "Reasons for concern are clear in certain economic indicators ... which show signs that 2021 house prices appear increasingly out of step with fundamentals."
Many Americans are still scarred by the last housing crash in 2007, which was fueled by cheap credit and lax lending standards that resulted in millions of homeowners owing more on their homes than they were worth.
But this time, the economists said they are worried about a different scenario.
Just because home prices are rising wildly does not always mean housing is in a bubble. And there are lots of reasons why home prices have risen steadily over the past decade and shot up even more significantly in the past two years, including supply and demand imbalances in the market, rising labor and construction costs and how high or low the interest rates are for a mortgage, the researchers pointed out.
But they said prices may be rising to a point they call "exuberance," in which prices become increasingly out of sync with the economic fundamentals underpinning the market.
One possible reason, they suggested, is that buyers may believe prices will continue to climb and fear they will miss out on snagging a lower price on a home now and get stuck paying more later.
This fear of missing out, or FOMO, effect can drive up prices and heighten expectations of higher prices ahead. That can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, researchers said, in which price growth can become exponential.
The consequences of housing market exuberance can include overpriced homes, investments based on distorted expectations of returns and reduced economic growth and employment.
The cycle is interrupted when policymakers intervene, spurring investors to become cautious and causing the flow of money into housing to dry up. This could cause a housing correction or possibly even a bust, according to the blog post.
The researchers recommended policy makers and market participants closely watch local markets for booms in prices in order to better respond, "before misalignments become so severe that subsequent corrections produce economic upheaval."
The behavior of homebuyers and sellers over the past two years has been anything but normal, the researchers pointed out. Prices are at record highs and continue to move higher because there has been record low inventory. Still, homebuyers keep buying. Interest rates fell to record lows during the pandemic, but that does not alone explain the housing market frenzy, they wrote.
Fed researchers also looked at the relationship between home prices and rents. They found that since 2020, the home price-to-rent ratio has rapidly skyrocketed beyond what market fundamentals can explain and began showing signs of exuberance in 2021.
Another indicator the researchers examined was the ratio of home prices to disposable income, which is closely tied to affordability. This home price-to-income ratio is increasing quickly, but not yet exuberant, the researchers said.
A lot was learned from the last housing crash, which has led to better early detection and warning indicators of housing bubbles, the researchers wrote. If these concerning trends continue, banks, policymakers and regulators ought to be better equipped to quickly react to avoid the most severe, negative consequences of a correction.
In addition, they wrote, there is no reason to expect any resulting correction would impact homeowners or the economy as significantly as the last housing crash. Americans are generally in better financial shape, homeowners have stronger equity positions and excessive borrowing is not as rampant as it was in the mid-2000s.
Wednesday, March 30, 2022
Missing White House Phone Logs: What Trump Is Hiding?
At noon on January 6, 2021,
then-PresidentDonald Trump spoke to supporters at a rally near the White House. Journalists often quote his incendiary language from the speech: “Fight like hell”; “We will not take it anymore.” But Trump also laid out a precise plan of action for the crowd:
If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election. All he has to do, all this is, this is from the No. 1, or certainly one of the top, constitutional lawyers in our country. He has the absolute right to do it …
Trump told the crowd how they could force Pence to act on Trump’s plan.
After this, we’re going to walk down—and I’ll be there with you—we’re going to walk down, we’re going to walk down. . . . . Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated.
Trump promised the crowd that if they did as he urged—if they marched on Congress, if they showed strength—they could force a change of the election result.
About 45 minutes before Trump delivered this speech, he made his last call for nearly eight hours on the White House phone system. From 11:17 a.m. until almost 7 p.m., Trump made all of his phone calls on a nongovernment phone.
We know [Trump]
the presidentspoke by phone during that gap. As the crowd came crashing toward the office of the Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy, McCarthy called the president to demand he stop the violence. Trump instead excused it. “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” Witnesses reported seeing the president on the phone many other times during the day.
As president, Trump often avoided using official lines. He used multiple phones of his own. He borrowed phones from other people.
Trump did not grab phones at random. He thought tactically about which phone to use. . . . . Trump’s phone choices were powerfully intentional. What was he intending on January 6? The answer is obvious: concealment. But concealment of what?
Trump’s actions that day were not secret. They all happened in full public view. He incited a crowd to attack Congress in order to overturn by violence his election defeat. He refused to act to protect Congress and the Constitution when the attack began, and for a long time afterward. When he finally did act, he did so ineffectively: a tweet at 2:38 p.m. faintly suggesting that the crowd be more peaceful, another at 3:13 saying so more emphatically—all following a tweet at 2:24 p.m. once again condemning Pence for not indulging the fantasy that his vice president could overturn the election for him.
Trump did not order the National Guard to the Capitol until past 3:30. He did not release a video statement against the violence until past 4 p.m.
But the world does not know everything about January 6—not yet, anyway—and Trump’s phone behavior may suggest the answer to the most important remaining questions:
- Did Trump in any way authorize the attack in advance?
- Did Trump in any way communicate or coordinate with the attackers as the attack unfolded?
Trump’s phone choices sought to conceal the answers to those questions. Why? One of the pivotal moments during the Watergate scandal of 1972 was the revelation that President Richard Nixon’s secretary had erased 18 and a half crucial minutes of a tape recorded three days after the break-in. The erasure suggested consciousness of guilt by the president, and helped end his presidency.
Trump’s 7.5-hour gap likewise suggests consciousness of something. And it sure smells like guilt.
A column in the Washington Post stresses the need for investigator and prosecutors - including pathetic Attorney General Merrick Garland - to act with speed and force witnesses to testify and get to the bottom of Trump's crimes and at a minimu put him in prison. There is no time to waste:
The Post’s Bob Woodward and CBS News’s Robert Costa revealed Tuesday that the White House call records turned over to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack are stunningly incomplete, showing no calls between 11:17 a.m. and 6:54 p.m. — that is, when a pro-Trump mob smashed its way into the Capitol. But Mr. Trump was not incommunicado. Voluminous reporting established long ago that he reached out to Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) and spoke with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) during this period.
Did Mr. Trump or his aides purge the records, or did the then-president avoid using official channels to skirt record-keeping? In either case, how — and why? The White House records gap underlines questions about who else Mr. Trump spoke with, or tried to, and what he said.
The public needs answers. Even if Mr. Trump or one of his enablers does not run for president in 2024, history requires a complete record of Jan. 6’s horror. The Capitol invasion was itself dreadful; the apparent indifference, or perhaps even approval, of the commander in chief, who should have acted swiftly to protect Congress, was another national tragedy that can never be repeated.
Any kind of corrupt White House record-keeping is also a major problem. If presidents can ignore or evade record-keeping requirements with impunity, they could engage in extensive wrongdoing and bet that investigators will never find enough evidence to expose them.
The Jan. 6 committee must redouble its efforts to establish the definitive story about one of the darkest days in the nation’s history — and any possible attempt to manipulate the record. The panel will require more help from the Justice Department and the courts. Prosecutors must bring swift cases against all those held in contempt for failing to cooperate with the committee. Judges must adjudicate these cases with all possible speed.
Tuesday, March 29, 2022
Federal Judge: Trump Likely Committed Crimes in Coup Attempt
On its face, the ruling that California District Court Judge David O. Carter issued on Monday might appear unexceptional: He rejected Donald Trump lawyer John Eastman’s claims of attorney-client privilege, requiring him to provide documents to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
But the ruling is so much more than that. It represents the first time a federal court has found that the defeated former president likely committed multiple felonies.
In his opinion, Carter recites the events surrounding the armed insurgency, reaffirming that Trump knew that the election was not stolen. As he writes, “Numerous credible sources — from the President’s inner circle to agency leadership to statisticians — informed President Trump and Dr. Eastman that there was no evidence of election fraud.” The judge then explains he reviewed batches of documents to determine whether any of the material falls within the crime-fraud exception of attorney-client privilege. On this, he finds 11 documents that the Jan. 6 committee should be able to view.
And this is where Trump gets a rude awakening: “The Court first analyzes whether President Trump and Dr. Eastman likely committed any of the crimes alleged by the Select Committee, and then whether the eleven remaining documents relate to and further those crimes,” he begins. He bluntly concludes, “President Trump attempted to obstruct an official proceeding by launching a pressure campaign to convince Vice President Pence to disrupt the Joint Session on January 6.” These efforts included two meetings to persuade Mike Pence to disrupt the electoral count process, some tweets sent on Jan. 6 and Trump’s speech at the “Stop the Steal" rally ahead of the insurrection. “These actions more likely than not constitute attempts to obstruct an official proceeding,” the judge finds.
Note that in a criminal proceeding, the prosecution would need to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But in such a case, the prosecution could supply witnesses and documents demonstrating that long before Jan. 6, Trump had set out to stop Joe Biden from taking office.
On the critical issue of intent, Carter writes, “Because President Trump likely knew that the plan to disrupt the electoral count was wrongful, his mindset exceeds the threshold for acting ‘corruptly’. . . . President Trump likely knew the justification was baseless, and therefore that the entire plan was unlawful.”
Again, the standard in a criminal trial would be beyond a reasonable doubt, but Carter’s argument is compelling:
The plan not only lacked factual basis but also legal justification. Dr. Eastman’s memo . . . declared Dr. Eastman’s intent to step outside the bounds of normal legal practice: “we’re no longer playing by Queensbury Rules.” In addition, Vice President Pence “very consistent[ly]” made clear to President Trump that the plan was unlawful, refusing “many times” to unilaterally reject electors or return them to the states. . . .
Disagreeing with the law entitled President Trump to seek a remedy in court, not to disrupt a constitutionally-mandated process. And President Trump knew how to pursue election claims in court — after filing and losing more than sixty suits, this plan was a last-ditch attempt to secure the Presidency by any means.
The illegality of the plan was obvious. Our nation was founded on the peaceful transition of power, epitomized by George Washington laying down his sword to make way for democratic elections. Ignoring this history, President Trump vigorously campaigned for the Vice President to single-handedly determine the results of the 2020 election. . . . Every American — and certainly the President of the United States — knows that in a democracy, leaders are elected, not installed. With a plan this “BOLD,” President Trump knowingly tried to subvert this fundamental principle.
It’s easy to imagine a jury agreeing with Carter’s contention that Trump must have known his scheme was wrong and illegal.
Carter also goes through charges for conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and conspiracy to commit fraud. Here, again, there was plainly an agreement between Trump and Eastman to upset the election and an understanding that this was not supported by any precedent or law.
“The evidence also demonstrates that Dr. Eastman likely knew that the plan was unlawful. Dr. Eastman heard from numerous mentors and like-minded colleagues that his plan had no basis in history or precedent." Moreover, “Dr. Eastman himself repeatedly recognized that his plan had no legal support. The evidence shows that Dr. Eastman was aware that his plan violated the Electoral Count Act.” He added, "Dr. Eastman likely acted deceitfully and dishonestly each time he pushed an outcome-driven plan that he knew was unsupported by the law.”
Carter wraps up with this damning conclusion:
Dr. Eastman and President Trump launched a campaign to overturn a democratic election, an action unprecedented in American history. Their campaign was not confined to the ivory tower—it was a coup in search of a legal theory. . . .
Carter has issued a clear invitation — almost a plea — for the Justice Department to pursue charges against both Eastman and Trump. Attorney General Merrick Garland has already said he will follow the facts, but the Jan. 6 committee and now Carter are not only laying out the facts but also connecting the dots. Garland will have an exceptionally hard time justifying a decision not to prosecute.
The facts and law are there. All Garland needs do now is apply them to the case at hand.
Its far past time that indictments be brought against Trump.
Monday, March 28, 2022
Sunday, March 27, 2022
Religion's Toxic Role in Putin's Russia
ON MARCH 22ND, in a penal colony 1,000km north-east of the front lines around Kyiv, Alexei Navalny, the jailed leader of Russia’s opposition, was sentenced to another nine years imprisonment. . . . . The crime for which he was sentenced is fraud. His true crime is one of common enterprise with that for which the people of Ukraine are now suffering collective punishment. The Ukrainians want to embrace many, if not all, the values held dear by other European nations. Mr Navalny wants the same for Russia. Vladimir Putin cannot countenance either desire. As Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, told The Economist, “If Russia wins, there will be no Ukraine; if Ukraine wins, there will be a new Russia.” That new Russia is as much a target of Mr Putin’s war as Ukraine is. Its potential must be crushed as surely as Mr Navalny’s.
This crusade against a liberal European future is being fought in the name of Russkiy mir—“the Russian world”, a previously obscure historical term for a Slavic civilisation based on shared ethnicity, religion and heritage. The Putin regime has revived, promulgated and debased this idea into an obscurantist anti-Western mixture of Orthodox dogma, nationalism, conspiracy theory and security-state Stalinism.
The war is the latest and most striking manifestation of this revanchist ideological movement. And it has brought to the fore a dark and mystical component within it, one a bit in love with death. . . . . The legitimacy of the state is now grounded not in its public good, but in a quasi-religious cult.”
The cult was on proud display at Mr Putin’s first public appearance since the invasion—a rally at the Luzhniki stadium packed with 95,000 flag-waving people, mostly young, some bused in, many, presumably, there of their own volition. An open octagonal structure set up in the middle of the stadium served as an altar. Standing at it Mr Putin praised Russia’s army with words from St John’s gospel: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
His oration, delivered in a $14,000 Loro Piana coat, made much of Fyodor Ushakov, a deeply religious admiral who, in the 18th century, helped win Crimea back from the Ottomans. In 2001 he was canonised by the Orthodox church; he later became the patron saint of nuclear-armed long-distance bombers.
In both his broad appeals to religion and his specific focus on the saintly Ushakov Mr Putin was cleaving to Stalin’s example. After the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany in 1941, the sometime seminarian turned communist dictator rehabilitated and co-opted the previously persecuted Orthodox church as a way of rallying the people.
This was not a mere echo or emulation; there is a strand of history which leads quite directly from then to now. Links between the church and the security forces, first fostered under Stalin, grew stronger after the fall of Communism. Whereas various western European churches repented and reflected after providing support for Hitler, the Moscow Patriarchate has never repented for its collusion with Stalin in such matters as the repression of Ukrainian Catholics after 1945.
The allegiance of its leaders, if not of all its clergy, has now been transferred to Mr Putin. Kirill, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church, has called his presidency “a miracle of God”; he and others have become willing supporters of the cult of war. An early indication of this possibility was seen in 2005, when the orange and black ribbons of the Order of St George, a military saint venerated by the Orthodox church, were given a new pre-eminence in commemorations of the 1941-45 struggle against Germany, known in Russia as the “great patriotic war”. Its garish culmination can be seen in the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces in Kubinka . . . . The cathedral is a Byzantine monstrosity in khaki, its floor made from melted-down German tanks. But it is not devoted solely to the wars of the previous century. A mosaic commemorates the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the country’s role in Syria’s civil war: angels smile down on the soldiers going about their holy work.
In keeping with this attitude Kirill has declared the current war a Godly affair and praised the role it will play in keeping Russia safe from the horrors of gay-pride marches. More zealous churchmen have gone further. Elizbar Orlov, a priest in Rostov, a city close to the border with Ukraine, said the Russian army “was cleaning the world of a diabolic infection”.
As the cathedral shows, the Russian people’s sacrifice and victories in the great patriotic war, which saw both the loss of 20m Soviet citizens and the creation of an empire greater in extent than any of the Tsars’, are central to Mr Putin’s new ideology of the Russian world. Today, though, the foes and allies of the 1940s have been shuffled around, allowing the war to be reframed as part of an assault on Russia’s civilisation in which the West has been engaged for centuries. The main culprits in this aggression are Britain and America
More important to the cult even than the priests are the siloviki of the security services, from whose ranks Mr Putin himself emerged. Officers of the FSB, one of the successors to the KGB, have been at the heart of Russian politics for 20 years. . . . . Anti-Westernism and a siege mentality are central to their beliefs. Mr Putin relies on the briefs with which they supply him, always contained in distinctive red folders, for his information about the world
In this realm, too, a turn towards the ideology now being promulgated was first seen in 2005, when a faction within the FSB produced an anonymous book called “Project Russia”. It was delivered by courier services to various ministries dealing with security and Russia’s relationship with the world, warning them that democracy was a threat and the West an enemy.
In his Munich speech in 2007 Mr Putin formally rejected the idea of Russia’s integration into the West. In the same year he told a press conference in Moscow that nuclear weapons and Orthodox Christianity were the two pillars of Russian society, the one guaranteeing the country’s external security, the other its moral health.
After tens of thousands of middle-class city dwellers marched through Moscow and St Petersburg in 2011-12 demanding “Russia without Putin” the securocrats and clerics started to expand their dogma into daily life. A regime which sustained, and was sustained by, networks of corruption, rent extraction and extortion required religion and an ideology of national greatness to restore the legitimacy lost during the looting.
[T]he onset of the covid-19 pandemic two years ago brought a raising of the ideological stakes. At the time, the most discussed aspect of the constitutional changes that Mr Putin finagled in July 2020 was that they effectively removed all limits on his term in office. But they also installed new ideological norms: gay marriage was banned, Russian enshrined as the “language of the state-forming people” and God given an official place in the nation’s heritage.
Mr Putin’s long subsequent periods of isolation seem to have firmed up the transformation. He is said to have lost much of his interest in current affairs and become preoccupied instead with history, paying particular heed to figures like Konstantin Leontyev, an ultra-reactionary 19th-century visionary who admired hierarchy and monarchy, cringed at democratic uniformity and believed in the freezing of time.
Hence a war against Ukraine which is also a war against Russia’s future—or at least the future as it has been conceived of by Russia’s sometimes small but frequently dominant Westernising faction for the past 350 years. As in Ukraine, the war is intended to wipe out the possibility of any future that looks towards Europe and some form of liberating modernity. In Ukraine there would be no coherent future left in its place. In Russia the modernisers would leave as their already diminished world was replaced by something fiercely reactionary and inward looking.
The Russian-backed “republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk may be a model. There, crooks and thugs were elevated to unaccustomed status, armed with new weapons and fitted with allegedly glorious purpose: to fight against Ukraine’s European dream. In Russia they would be tasked with keeping any such dream from returning, whether from abroad, or from a cell.