Northern Exposure
Russia's Influence on the Modern West
H. David Baer

"History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes" goes an old cliché, which is not less true for being obvious. Human affairs unfold according to patterns that persist over time to shape the future. So our own time seems to be reprising unhappy themes from the past. The reemergence of crony capitalism evokes images of the Gilded Age; the rise of populism in Europe and America calls to mind the rightist nationalism of the early twentieth century; the teetering European Union, struggling to adjudicate tensions between centralization and regional autonomy, resembles the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its final decades. None of which means we are living through 1914 redux. History reprises, it does not repeat. Old themes combine with new ones to bring on the unexpected. Today, several of history’s reprising themes have converged to produce a new kind of Republican Party, one with a contingent that sympathizes with Russia. This turn of events, while startling, is not wholly without precedent, as those familiar with modern European history can see.

The history that concerns us starts with Russia. Back in 1919, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin and his comrades founded the Communist International. The Communist International, also called the Comintern, sought to foster a worldwide communist revolution, a goal that seemed realistic given the enormous upheaval in Europe caused by World War I. Indeed, as Austro-Hungary collapsed, a communist named Bela Kun, backed by the Comintern, managed to establish a Soviet republic in Hungary that lasted 131 days. After Kun’s experiment failed, the Comintern began to reckon with the delay of the communist eschaton, and settled instead into a long-term strategy of working to undermine the political stability of non-communist countries. It did this partly through propaganda and partly through front organizations committed to leftist causes that sought to build relationships with sympathizers outside the Soviet Union. Among other things, the Comintern organized international conferences called World Congresses, to which it invited communist parties and labor unions from around the world.

Stalin dissolved the Comintern in World War II, perhaps because he sensed undermining the political systems of his wartime allies would be counterproductive. After the war, however, the Soviets again took up the work of influencing and infiltrating left-leaning Western political movements. The Russians were heavily involved, for example, in the international peace movement, which they used to try to undermine American foreign policy. Although the international peace movement predated the Soviet Union and was not a communist construction, it was supported by people on the left who were susceptible to communist propaganda. The Soviets also worked to influence Christian ecumenical bodies. The Prague Peace Conference, established in 1958, nurtured relationships with Christians in the West, but was headed by churchmen from the East who were almost certainly also secret agents for their communist governments. Under Soviet influence, the Orthodox churches, almost all of which existed behind the Iron Curtain, joined the World Council of Churches despite long-standing objections to the ecumenical movement. The purpose of all this, from a communist point of view, was to establish influence in international bodies that might criticize, and hence undermine, Western foreign policy.

These Cold War themes have returned unexpectedly with the renewal of Russian informational warfare. Russian propaganda today relies heavily on the internet, which makes it much more effective than it was during the Cold War. Slicker than Pravda, the news source Russia Today, or RT, publishes slanted English language reports on the internet that are picked up by news agencies in many parts of the world. RT offered favorable coverage of Brexit as well as supportive reports on the Catalan independence movement. As we have recently learned, Russian operatives also created Facebook and Twitter accounts for the purpose of influencing the American electorate. The Twitter account @Ten_GOP, claiming to speak for Tennessee Republicans but in fact run by Russians, posted links later retweeted by Michael Flynn and Ann Coulter, (Washington Post, Oct. 18, 2017). Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Parliament has started to investigate the possibility that Russian operatives also used Facebook and Twitter accounts to influence the Brexit vote. (New York Times, Oct. 24, 2017)

Unlike the Cold War, however, the propaganda out of Russia today targets those on the right. It seeks to tap into conservative skepticism of international institutions like the European Union and the United Nations, and hopes to stoke nationalist populism in ways that undermine the liberal international order. Not long ago, for example, the Russians hosted an international conference in Moscow for political separatists, which included participants from Northern Ireland, Catalonia, Italy, Puerto Rico, California, and Texas (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 27, 2016). If the image of California and Texas separatists attending a conference of right-wing European nationalists seems humorous, one should remember the Russian objective behind such conferences is to exacerbate discord and political disunity in the West. After Brexit and the upheaval in Catalonia, one cannot say Russia’s pursuits have been without effect. Nor are Russian efforts to influence American conservatives limited to the fringes. The Washington Post reports growing contact between Russian businessmen and the NRA (Washington Post, April 30, 2017).

However, the most receptive soil in America for Russian propaganda may well be among Christian conservatives. Many cultural conservatives are so frustrated, even panicked, by recent losses in the culture wars that they appear prepared to turn anywhere to stave the tide of liberal values. Vladimir Putin, who has built up an impenetrable kleptocratic and authoritarian regime over two decades, has learned to cloak his abuse of power under the cover of conservative cultural and Christian values. In 2013 Putin signed a “gay propaganda law,” which makes it a crime in Russia to distribute information about homosexuality. Over the years Putin has also developed a close alliance with the Orthodox Church, which he extols for defending Russia’s spiritual values, even as he clamps down on religious freedom. Russia has passed a series of “anti-extremism” laws that prevent non-Orthodox Christians from publicly professing their faith. Meanwhile, disturbing reports from Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbas recount harsh persecution of Protestants, Catholics, and Tatars.

That Putin’s defense of Christian values is disingenuous and tainted has not inured cultural conservatives to its charm. Resurrected Christian nationalism has proved a useful ideological formula for aspiring autocrats across Eastern Europe. These petty tyrants, describing their attacks on democracy as a defense against extreme liberalism, have been able to find conservative apologists abroad. If the Soviets sought to influence liberals through front organizations and peace congresses, today Putin and East European autocrats seek to influence Christian conservatives by supporting and participating in international conservative organizations. Consider the World Congress of Families (WCF). A global association of conservative groups committed to defending the traditional family, the WCF is similar in some respects to the world peace congresses of an earlier era. Like peace congresses of old, the World Congress of Families holds international conferences intended to promote a pro-family political coalition worldwide. In recent years, the venues for these conferences have been countries with poor democratic credentials.

For example, in 2017 the WCF held its world conference in Hungary, a country whose government has been dismantling democratic institutions for years while paying lip service to Christian values. Reporting on this conference for The Catholic Thing, an online journal with several conservative Catholic luminaries on its masthead, Robert Royal lists without citation a series of inaccurate statistics purporting to demonstrate a dramatic rise in Hungary’s fertility rate since the country passed its pro-family, Christian constitution in 2010. Royal next displays a map of Europe colored in with red and blue states. The blue states in the West permit gay marriage, but the red states in the East do not. “Even in decadent, declining, demographically collapsing Europe,” writes this morally sensitive Christian conservative, “there’s significant resistance” to liberal attacks on the family:

It’s probably no accident that it’s the European peripheries, the parts that were not so long ago under Communist domination, where the resistance is strongest. They still remember the old totalitarians and are not much intimidated by the new ones. (The Catholic Thing, June 1, 2017)

To support his thesis, in addition to supplying inaccurate demographic information, the author conveniently forgets to color in Russia red on his map, although Russia has some of the strongest anti-gay (or maybe they are pro-family) laws in Europe. Willful ignorance about authoritarian developments in Eastern Europe is justified, apparently, in order to defend the traditional family. No Faustian bargain costs too much if it helps to keep gay people from getting married.

Seventy years ago, as the Second World War drew to a close, the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned that naive “children of light” failed to appreciate the dangers posed to democracy by the pursuit of power by nations. Overly confident in the virtue of democracy and the inevitability of progress, the children of light underestimated the power of fascism and communism, and failed to appreciate the ways in which they themselves might be manipulated by the powers of darkness. Democracies today face similar challenges from their own domestic critics, conservative Christian idealists who fail to appreciate how fragile the achievements of democracy really are. Less ingenuous, perhaps, and more ideological than in Niebuhr’s day, today’s children of light cut an unsympathetic figure. Cultural conservatives who would defend the moral fabric of America by forging alliances with repressive authoritarian regimes have about as much credibility as a side-street swindler. Like a cheap Rolex watch, what they are selling will fail to deliver.


H. David Baer is professor of theology and philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.


Works Cited

“Michael Flynn, Nicki Minaj shared content from this Tennessee GOP account. But it wasn’t real. It was Russian.” The Washington Post, Oct. 18, 2017.

“U.K. Lawmakers Ask Facebook about Russian Influence in Brexit Vote.” The New York Times, Oct. 24. 2017.

“Moscow welcomes the (would-be) sovereign nations of California and Texas.” The Los Angeles Times, Sep. 27, 2016.

“Guns and religion: How American conservatives grew closer to Putin’s Russia.” The Washington Post, April 30, 2017.

Robert Royal, “The Other Europe” The Catholic Thing, June 1, 2017.

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