As I write, Russia has invaded Ukraine, thousands of people have reportedly died, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country.
It’s a more comprehensive version of the invasion carried out in 2014, when president Vladimir Putin invoked a religious and Russian nationalist understanding of the history of the region to justify his actions. For the Kremlin, this stance goes hand-in-hand with the promotion of a ‘traditional values’ agenda that pits ‘Holy Russia’ against ‘the decadent West’ and ‘gayropa.’
All of this has earned Putin considerable admiration from the European far-Right and the American Christian Right in recent years. Now they’re making comments that range from enabling to outright support for Russia’s aggression, reminding their audiences that, in the words of Steve Bannon, former Trump White House chief strategist: “The Russian people still know which bathroom to use.”
A nominal Catholic, Bannon is both a promoter of the racist ‘Great Replacement’ theory and an advocate for militant Christendom. And while American evangelicals share his desire for Christian social domination, they are probably, overall, more ambivalent about the invasion.
Franklin Graham, son of the world-famous evangelist and cold warrior Billy Graham, has been one of Putin’s biggest evangelical cheerleaders since 2014, but he’s hedged, tweeting that his ministry “has many friends in both Russia and Ukraine” and urging his audience to “pray for the conflict to end quickly.”
These events have me reflecting on how, over the course of my own extensive experience in Russia, I’ve observed many similarities between Russian and American conservatism, despite the countries’ distinctive histories and important differences.
For example, those speaking foreign languages in public in the US may be stopped by bigots and told to speak English. When I was teaching English in the city of Vladimir, east of Moscow, in 2003, a colleague and I were quietly speaking English to one another as we rode the trolleybus after work. A tall, intimidating Russian man approached and informed us that we should be speaking Russian on Russian public transport.
Many Americans and Russians also eagerly embrace conspiracy theories—sometimes even the same ones. To see what I mean, just ask a pro-Putin Russian or a pro-Trump American about George Soros. And I’ve been told by both Americans (only about a third of whom have passports) and Russians that “there’s so much to see in our own country, why would I want to go anywhere else”? At least Russians have the excuse that they once lived in a country that required exit visas.
I view these attitudes as a kind of ‘imperial provincialism,’ the expression of people from large countries, with histories of brutal imperialism and colonialism, who embrace conspiracy theories, bigotry toward othered groups, and ideologies of national greatness as a means of coping with the fact that their governments actually do very little to value and protect the lives and well-being of individual citizens.
Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War has thrown both Russians and Americans off balance, but while conservative Russians keenly feel the loss of great power status, conservative Americans feel as if their country is being “taken” from them by immigrants, people of color, liberals, and sexual and gender minorities. Both have turned to Christianity to justify their bigotry and authoritarian goals.
Lessons from Moscow
In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, I was in my second year of a three-year stint teaching at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow. It was the site of the ‘Stanford in Moscow’ study abroad program, and I had a PhD in modern Russian history from Stanford.
Russian universities sought to hire foreigners from Western academic institutions for several reasons: to implement teaching reforms, to provide classes in English so that graduates would be better prepared to compete in the global economy, and to help scholars learn to navigate the English- and Western-centric, neoliberal politics of global academic publishing in order to improve the international ranking of Russian universities.
I found an apartment to rent not far off the Moscow Metro’s circle line, and taught humanities classes in both Russian and English. In my first year I enjoyed interacting with the Stanford undergraduates and teaching on an international master’s program in which students from Russia, other post-Soviet states and various Western countries got along well and became friends.
In my second year, however, a chill fell over the classroom. The Westerners sat on one side, those from Russia and Ukraine on the other—minus one Ukrainian who had dropped out—and the two student factions openly antagonized each other. The Stanford in Moscow program became officially defunct. In my third year, there were no Westerners in my international postgraduate classes.
In short, the Maidan Revolution, the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych by a coalition that involved many idealistic young Ukrainians who sought a more democratic future—and Russia’s reactionary response that culminated in the annexation of Crimea and the creation of a new “frozen conflict” in Ukraine’s more industrialized and more pro-Moscow Donbas region—changed everything. And not just in the classroom.
My ruble-denominated salary plummeted in value. French cheese slowly disappeared from store shelves as sanctions took effect. But more importantly, friends old and new, people I considered reasonable, shocked me by celebrating what I saw as a flagrant violation of international law, joining in with the nationalistic chorus of ‘Krym nash,’ Russian for ‘Crimea is ours.’ Someone painted a large mural featuring the Russian flag in the shape of Crimea and the slogan ‘Crimea and Russia together forever’ near where I lived in my first year of teaching there. This was all very disorientating.
During my time in Moscow, I had stopped going to church and had finally come to recognise and embrace my queerness—ironically, precisely at the time that the Kremlin began to scapegoate the LGBTQ community as Putin openly embraced a number of illiberal policies promoted by the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, to which he increasingly looked for legitimacy.
By contrast, LGBTQ rights seemed to be advancing in the US, which is one reason I was happy when, in 2015, I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of South Florida. I headed back to the US—only for my home country to elect Donald Trump, with enthusiastic backing from the Christian Right, and begin an assault on my rights. Once again, I found myself disoriented, watching people I thought were reasonable show me that there really was no line they wouldn’t cross in pursuit of authoritarian Christian dominance.
I am deeply disappointed in both of the countries that have most shaped my intellectual and personal development. The US push for the rapid expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union was a bad idea, but this point doesn’t wave away, let alone justify, Russia’s domestic assault on the rights of minorities, or its military assault on Ukraine. And Putin’s dismissal of the very idea of Ukrainian national self-determination was not created by NATO expansion. It has deep roots in the history of the Russian Empire.
I have hoped for a long time to see both Russia and the US become better, less violent, less aggressively ignorant versions of themselves. It seems I’m going to have to keep hoping for much longer.
Meanwhile, we should all be concerned with the unjust and unnecessary suffering of the Ukrainian people at the hands of Russia’s much larger military force and, as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy enters peace talks, with what Putin’s invasion might mean for the future.