Putin and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch see the West as weak and Russia as strong. So they invaded.

In recent weeks, many analysts – especially those trying to find a logical justification for Russia’s war in Ukraine – have argued that the Kremlin was reacting to a perceived threat of NATO encroachment and the push of the Western alliance in Russia’s sphere of influence.

While this may be the case, such explanations miss an important point. Russia’s conservative elites currently in power supported the war because they see Western power as decadent and in decline. This image of the West makes Russia feel strong and invincible.

Gay Parades and Culture Cancellation

In his sermon about two weeks after the start of the war, on March 6, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church justified the invasion of Ukraine as necessary to defend Orthodox Christians against Western values ​​and the parades of the gay pride. On March 24, during a meeting with young artists, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained about the cancellation of culture, arguing that, just as JK Rowling had been criticized for her opposition to transgender rights, the West was now “trying to undo an entire 1,000-year-old culture.” , our people… Russian writers and books are now canceled.

Russia presents itself as being at the forefront of the global culture wars, leading the resistance to liberal values. Russian anti-Westernism has religious implications: according to its own narrative, Russia protects the true Christian faith, as embodied in the Eastern Orthodox Church, from Western attempts to distort it, whether through Marxism in the 20th century or liberalism in the 21st.

Ukraine plays an important role in this story. It is portrayed as part of the “Russian world”, the cradle of Russian civilization, which for many centuries was concentrated not around Moscow but around kyiv, the capital of today’s Ukraine. Ukraine’s choice to orient itself towards the West and to reconcile an orthodox Slavic identity with liberal democratic values ​​is therefore dangerous for this Russian vision of itself.

Russians think they are engaged in a heroic struggle with the West

There is nothing genuinely Russian about the arguments about gender freedoms and cultural cancellation that we hear today from Patriarch Kirill and Putin. They derive from a global ideology of the Christian right, which Russian conservatives became aware of in the 1990s.

Right after the end of the Cold War, Christian right activists, especially from the United States, poured into Russia; among them were Focus on the Family, CoMission and the World Congress of Families. From the 1990s, Russian conservatives argued that the frustrations of their collapsing society resulted from painful liberal socio-economic reforms. Their argument combines elements of a late-Soviet conservative social ethos, Russian Orthodox traditionalism, and enormous transnational influences.

Today’s Russian discourse on traditional values ​​is a hybrid of righteous Christian ideas stemming from the global culture wars and nostalgia for Russia’s great Soviet and even more imperial and Christian Orthodox past.

How popular is Putin really?

This kind of Russian cultural conservatism was marginal until around 2010, when it began to migrate to the center of Russian political life – decisively during Putin’s third term as president. For Putin, the discourse on traditional values ​​was a good pretext for political repression – illustrated in the treatment of Pussy Riot – and a shield against the rise of the opposition, which demanded more freedoms.

Traditional values ​​and the defense of Christianity were an appropriate foundation for the new mission of Russian foreign policy: to become the leader of countries and actors who were not, were no longer or had never wanted to be “liberal”. .

By “learning” from the global culture wars, Russian conservatives not only defined their national identity in relation to a global Christian conservatism, but also acquired an accurate vision of the West as spiritually hollow and failing. The Christian conservatives who flocked to Russia conveyed an image of the West torn, weak and doomed, because it had no more children, no more values ​​and did not even distinguish between men and women. As a result, many Christian conservatives in the United States and Europe looked to Russia with hope.

The image of Christian conservatives of a failing and doomed West began to dominate the views of Russian conservative elites in the late 2000s. But Russian elites viewed their Western conservative partners as part of this failing West: they too were weak and pitiful heralds of a declining West.

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This description of the West helped to give birth to a new Russian triumphalism. Russian media filled with TV shows and “documentaries” about “Gayropa” and “Sodom”. These shows evoked a caricature of weak “gay” Western men and women who lost their femininity by competing with men in areas where they could get nothing serious.

Russian media have frequently pointed out the strangeness of many Western democracies appointing women defense ministers, as if this is the ultimate proof that the West has lost its ability to defend itself. In this collective image of a weak West, Russia presented itself (inside as well as outside) as the country of strength, the bulwark of traditional families: with strong men, fertile women and healthy children. protected against subversive homosexual propaganda.

This picture is without any empirical basis, but that was not important. This resulted in an internal perception of Russia as a global messiah and a force preventing the world from sliding into the chaos of evil, with the special mission of saving the world from liberal depravities. The Patriarch’s March 6 sermon expressed precisely this vision of the world.

Fascinated by this flattering vision of Russia, the elites have apparently overestimated the strength of the nation and underestimated that of Ukraine. The Kremlin also seems to have underestimated the strength and unity of the collective West, which does not seem as corrupt and not as weak as Russia imagined. Obviously, JK Rowling, whom Putin referred to as a victim of Western cancel culture, denied his characterization and accused Putin of killing civilians instead.

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Kristina Stoeckl (@StoecklKristina) is a professor of sociology at the University of Innsbruck (Austria). She was supported for this article by her participation as a Senior Fellow in the “Orthodoxy and Human Rights” project sponsored by the Center for Orthodox Christian Studies at Fordham University, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and Leadership 100.

Dmitry Uzlaner is a senior postdoctoral researcher at the University of Innsbruck (Austria).

Together they have studied Russian moral conservatism and the ties between the American Christian right and the Russian Orthodox Church and are the authors of “The Moralist International: Russia in the Global Culture Wars(Fordham University Press, 2022).

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