During the Cold War, American conservatives used to label the Soviet Union "the godless nation" on the verge of collapse because it had purged religion from the Russian society. Two decades later, the Kremlin is occupied by a former officer of the KGB, secretly baptized, who launches the same accusation of atheism at the United States and the West.
Welcome to "Putin's covert war on Western decadence", as The Spectator defined it:
"Putin's Russia is fast becoming a very puritan place. Ever since returning to the presidency in 2012, Putin has pursued an increasingly religious-conservative ideology both at home and abroad, defining Russia as a moral fortress against sexual licence and decadence, porn and gay rights".
Recently, Russian officials censored porn websites. When the largest pornography site on the internet, PornHub, offered the Russia's official communications and media watchdog a premium account in exchange for lifting the ban, Russian officials replied: "Sorry, we are not in the market and the demography is not a commodity."
Russian President Vladimir Putin's ideological war against the West is getting cocky and self-confident. In a televised speech from a Kremlin hall, Putin declared that Russian traditional family values are a bulwark against the West's "so-called tolerance -- genderless and infertile."
"Many Euro-Atlantic countries have abandoned their roots, including Christian values," said Putin. The patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Kirill, echoed Putin by charging the West of being engaged in a "spiritual disarmament" of the Russian people, and by criticizing the European laws that prevent wearing religious symbols in public. "We have experienced an era of atheism and we know what it means to live without God", Kirill said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, May 24, 2015. (Image source: The Kremlin)
The first ten years of Putin's dominance were devoid of any religious and cultural reference. Putin and his circle never mentioned any "values", and did not try to teach any moral lessons to the West. The second Putin decade has been marked by a "conservative revolution" based on the revival of an isolated Russian Orthodox culture, separated for centuries from European civilization. "Putin wants to make Russia into the traditional values capital of the world," said Masha Gessen, author of a Putin biography, entitled The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. In the Russian media, Putin is now called "the savior of the decadent West."
Putin is now focused on a church in the heart of Paris. The Sainte-Trinité Cathedral, often referred to as "Moscow on the Seine," is under construction near the Eiffel Tower, in the Quai Branly, and will be the largest Orthodox cathedral in France. "This church is an outpost of the other Europe, conservative and anti-modern, in the heart of the country of libertinism and secularism", said Michel Eltchaninoff, a French scholar and author of the book, Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine ("Inside the Head of Vladimir Putin"), on the thoughts of the Russian president.
Are France, the United States and Ireland open to gay marriage? Putin's Russia bans "gay propaganda". Does Western Europe allow quick divorce? Putin's Russia taxes divorce. Does the West legalize abortion on demand? Putin's Russia is trying to restrict it. Russia's leading clerics have just urged Putin to ban abortion. A new Russian law also targets "foreign religions."
"Western values, from liberalism to the recognition of the rights of sexual minorities, from Protestantism to comfortable prisons for murderers, arouse in us suspicion, wonder and alienation", said Yevgeny Bazhanov, one of Putin's "intellectuals". Putin has apparently even managed to win the support of the most renowned Russian musicians, such as the conductor Valery Gergiev, superintendent at the St. Petersburg Marjinskij theater.
Even in foreign policy, Putin often justifies its decisions with references to Christianity. The New York Times explained that, in addition to strategic and economic interests, a major reason to explain Russian support for Assad's regime in Syria is the uncompromising position of the Orthodox Church. The Russian Patriarch Kirill evoked, in fact, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, with its endless "carcasses of defiled churches."
Before that, there was the historical role of Russia in defense of Armenian Christians against Turkish pro-Western Muslims, and Christian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims supported by the U.S. To try to justify the invasion of the Crimea, Putin said that is "our Temple Mount," a reference to Judaism's holiest site in Jerusalem.
Vladimir Putin has presided for years over the great revival of Orthodox Christianity. On the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian church had 50,000 parishes and 60 schools. By 1941, Stalin had eliminated the church as a public institution. Every monastery and seminary had been closed. With the fall of communism in 1991, the church began to rebuild its devastated institutional life. Putin's Russia is returning to the concept of Byzantine symphonia -- an approach in which church and state work together.
The church apparently aspires to achieve the "re-Christianization of the Russian nation." Although as much as 70% of Russians call themselves Orthodox and are baptized, only 4% take part in the liturgy. But Russia is also one of the few countries in the Western world in which religion is becoming increasingly important and not less.
To establish his authority over the Russian society, Putin has shaped a doctrine mobilizing the entire Russian society against a perceived Western "decadence." The Kremlin has closely followed the opposition to gay marriage in France and tensions over migrants in the European Union. Putin then launched a conservative offensive aimed at both Russians and Europeans. As the Wall Street Journal wrote, "Putin Depicts Russia as a Bulwark Against European Decadence."
Against a perceived Western amnesia about its own Christian past, moral relativism and political correctness, Putin affirmed the Christian roots of Russia, traditional family values, patriotism and obedience to hierarchy.
"According to him, in essence, Europe has entered a phase of decadence, while Russia is in an ascending phase of its history", Michel Eltchaninoff says of Putin.
"He relies on the pseudo-scientific model of Konstantin Leontiev, one of whose most famous concepts Vladimir Putin is fond of quoting: that of 'flourishing complexity'. According to the Russian philosopher, who took a fervently anti-European and anti-bourgeois position, any civilisation, after a period of original simplicity, reaches its apex in an era of flourishing complexity, before declining into a period of simplification and confusion. For Leontiev, ever since the Renaissance, Europe has ceased to give birth to saints and geniuses, and only engenders engineers, parliamentarians and ethics professors. It makes everything uniform, through its mode of development and its conformism. But it is also confused. Its inhabitants are lost, and no longer know how to give meaning to their lives. They show themselves to be incapable of perceiving an inspiring superior principle."
The first Cold War was a clash between Western democracy and the Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat. Western freedom crushed the Soviet gulags. The new Cold War is a one between Western liberalism and Russian conservatism.
As happened during the first Cold War, when the Soviets depicted capitalism as a Western fault, avaricious and amoral, the burden is presumably again on the West to prove it has better way of life and that its society is not just a "decadent" stereotype. Meanwhile, against the West's visible lack of self-confidence and the deterioration of Europe's élite, Putin's geopolitical and ideological hegemony is getting stronger.
Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.