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The Right

Neither Putin Nor Russia Are “Based”

(Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“For a start, American conservatives are either unaware of or ignore that Russia has the highest abortion rate in the world and the third highest divorce rate.”

Cultures and subcultures evolve over time and develop according to their own internal logic and external inputs. This process has sped up exponentially in the digital age, with cultural memes developing and dying in a few weeks or months, sometimes (rarely) resurfacing, often using the same terms in different contexts. One of the most common memes on the Right, now falling out of favor, has been the idea of certain ideas, beliefs, people, and a whole range of other categories being “based.” This word, used by many including myself, is representative of the shallow, banter-driven nature of online discourse and means “cool in an edgy, in-crowd way.” It began in anti-woke spaces and has since entered mainstream conversation and has died the death of the sad and lame in “normieville.” It was often applied by some on the dissident right to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russia he dominates, an application that betrays a willful ignorance of certain facts about that nation. 

Some recent articles have considered the unfortunate trend of some on the Right to either excuse and downplay President Putin’s pathologies or actively praise his regime and the Russia it controls. Some of the pieces are better than others, but it is true that figures such as J.D. Vance, Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, and others have frankly beclowned themselves on this subject. Vance made the reasonable point that Democrats have ignored the southern border of the United States and its immigration problem, but he then proclaimed his complete lack of interest or care for what President Putin was up to, saying “Spare me the performative affection for the Ukraine” on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast. Speaking of which, Bannon has said that “Putin ain’t woke,” reinforcing the point further by saying “He’s anti-woke” and, therefore, deserves respect and praise for standing up to cancel culture. 

Tucker Carlson meanwhile called Ukraine a “pure client state of the United States State Department” and downplayed the likelihood of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, calling it a “border dispute,” despite hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of tons of material arrayed along the border. He further asked: “Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?” Carlson conveniently ignored the fact that the Chinese Communist Party had not called him racist either. In any case, those who support a sovereign nation’s right not to be completely steamrollered by an imperialist power are “low-IQ stooges.”

One does not need to be a rabid Russophobe, canceling Dostoevsky from university reading lists, to see that this represents a right-wing equivalent of a left-wing phenomenon from the 20th century. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution brought revolutionary Marxism to power in the largest country on earth. The new system of government set up by Lenin and his thug cronies was based on violence from the start, as John Gray has written

“Despite many claims to the contrary, the methodical use of terror began with Lenin not Stalin, who employed Lenin’s methods on a larger scale. In his ‘Hanging Order’ of August 1918, Lenin instructed Bolsheviks to execute peasants who resisted grain requisitioning by public hanging ‘so that the people might see and tremble.’ Orders to provincial Soviets included directives to ‘shoot and deport’ sex workers who were distracting Red Army soldiers from their duties. In 1919, all of Moscow’s Boy Scouts were shot and in 1920 all members of the lawn tennis club put to death. Prominent figures who were expected to be hostile to the new regime were expelled from the country. In 1922, Lenin hired two German steamers in which hundreds of philosophers, linguists, theologians, writers and ballerinas were transported out of the country, others following in trains. The safety of those who refused to leave was not guaranteed.” 

Despite the brutality of the Soviet regime that reached to its roots, many on the Western left were overjoyed by the coming of Marxist hegemony and overawed by those who had brought it about. This led to a moral abasement before the altar of Soviet Communism, with those like Sidney and Beatrice Webb writing in The Truth About Soviet Russia and Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation that Lenin (and then Stalin’s) Russia was the way of the future, that it provided a blueprint for Western left-wing movements to follow, and that Western leftists must learn from Soviet Communism’s triumphs. They glossed over the purges, violence, surveillance, terror, starvation of Ukraine, and all the rest. Creating Heaven on Earth was a difficult task after all, so there were bound to be challenges. 

Every measure of economic decay and social stagnation that the Right has grown concerned about in the West is worse, often far worse in Russia.

This support for Soviet viciousness was furthered by media celebrities such as Lincoln Steffens, who said “I have seen the future, and it works” and Walter Duranty, who covered up Stalin’s starvation of Ukraine, leaving 3.5-7 million dead. They were joined by philosophical eminences like George Bernard Shaw, John Paul Sartre, and others and many in Western political parties, not least Britain’s Labour Party, as revealed by Giles Udy. Many on the post-modern left still covered for the Soviet Union even after the pact between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, after the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, and the 1968 Prague Spring. All of this was despite the millions dead, the millions imprisoned in gulags. 

So, there is a precedent for ideological excuse-making and equivocation, even enabling. The seeming infatuation of some on the Right with the contemporary Russia of Vladimir Putin is just as detached from reality as that of the rightly-derided Western socialist left. Those who claim modern Russia is an anti-woke, conservative Orthodox Christian bastion against Western decadence reveal their ignorance rooted in moral relativism of basic facts about the place. 

For a start, American conservatives are either unaware of or ignore that Russia has the highest abortion rate in the world and the third highest divorce rate. Every measure of economic decay and social stagnation that the Right has grown concerned about in the West is worse, often far worse in Russia. Russia pioneered what we now call deaths of despair, through alcohol and drug abuse, during the catastrophe of the 1990s. Male life expectancy fell to 57, now recovered to 68, but still eight years behind the United States’ at 76. Russia is also the most unequal of the world’s major economies, with the top 500 Russians wealthier than the bottom 99.8%. The situation in the United States, of an obscenely rich upper class and an increasingly precarious middle class, is well known. Meanwhile, violent crime in Russia has declined, as it did for many developed countries, but its murder rate per million people is still double that of America’s.

Regarding demographics, the total fertility rate in Russia is 1.8, below replacement levels of 2.1, and the population is set for precipitous decline. Russia has a marriage rate of 5.3 per thousand inhabitants, while the United States, having experienced an unprecedented decline, still has one of 6 per thousand. For those who look to Russia as proof against diversity, the fact is that judging by the 2011 census, Russia had a smaller ethnic Russian majority to ethnic minorities—81% to 19%—than Britain had, including significant Muslim representation, and yet it is Britain that is seen as the argument against multiculturalism. This is not to say that America and Britain’s immigration systems are good, with 2 million people illegally entering the United States over the last year, but to claim that Russia is an example of anti-diversity is simply incorrect. 

There is also the fact that Russia is not exactly a fortress of faith, with church attendance on par with secular Western European countries. It is true that rates of adherence to organized religion in the United States are falling dramatically, with less than 50% calling themselves Christian for the first time ever. However, as The Moscow Times reported in 2019, “Just 6 percent of the [Russian] population and 43 percent of believers go to church several times a month.” By contrast, 22% attend church or synagogue every week in the United States, with 31% never attending. As an aside, President Putin the defender of Eastern Orthodoxy chose to send in his Chechen forces and recruit Syrian mercenaries in his bid to squash his supposed Orthodox Ukrainian siblings. How “based” is that?

On a whole range of metrics, it would be more accurate to say that the United States has converged on Russian social and economic ills, rather than that a decadent West is facing a revitalized and confident Russia. President Putin’s time in power has seen some improvement, but it is hardly the miraculous recovery of civilizational vigor that some American right-wingers seem to think. Furthermore, how much of this is due to his supposedly innate leadership skills, an illusion dispelled by his barbarism in Ukraine, is debatable. As Rod Dreher writes in The American Conservative, the fact that President Putin maintains his control over the Russian people through force is itself a sign of decadence and is not indicative of a healthy society, where the common good is oriented toward mutual flourishing. Russia is far from “based,” and the infatuation with President Putin and Russia displayed by some on the Right is, in reality, deeply “cringe,” to use another popular Internet neologism. 

None of this means, however, that we, in the West, can look away from our own deep, structural problems. Just because Russia is no post-liberal haven does not mean we can lapse back into complacent decadence. As Ross Douthat writes, all of our “problems remain: American power is in relative decline, China’s power has dramatically increased, and none of what I, as a self-appointed expert on the subject, would classify as the key problems of American decadence—demographic decline, economic disappointment and stagnation, a social fabric increasingly shadowed by drugs and depression and suicide—have somehow gone away just because Moscow’s military is failing outside Kyiv.”

But two things can be true at once: America, Britain, and Europe are in serious trouble, but Russia is also not the answer or a positive example. The alienation from one’s own country in favor of a foreign ideological power was nearly always a left-wing phenomenon, in spite of all the contrary evidence that should have convinced those involved otherwise. A part of the Right, driven to hopelessness by the undoubtedly deep socio-cultural and economic problems in the United States and the wider West, and which I have written about before, now seems to have more affection for a country that simply got to where the United States is headed first, and had only somewhat recovered before the invasion of Ukraine. 

Russia’s fragile social order and stratified economy are just as decadent as America is becoming for these right-wingers, this fact masked by a strange idealism rooted in cynical despair at their own country. As with the leftists disillusioned with the Soviet reality over the Communist dream, these rightists are pursuing a dream that is really a dystopia to match their own view of modern America. As the historian Roger Moorhouse has said, President Putin would not welcome them with open arms: He would likely have them shot for being part of an enemy society. In any event, whether the reality of the matter of President Putin and Russia sets in on this part of the Right remains to be seen.

Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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