We’ve seen how far-left filmmaker Oliver Stone admires Kremlin gangster Vladimir Putin for his “new authoritarianism” that, in his view, gave Russians their “pride back.” Stone is far from the only Western cultural or intellectual figure who has a soft spot for the former KGB thug, but he’s something of an exception to the rule: most of Putin’s fans in the West, as it happens, aren’t left-wingers like Stone who like Putin because he reminds them of Fidel Castro but social conservatives who like Putin because they see him as a hero of “traditional values.” Indeed, all he has to do is say the words “traditional values” and they start salivating.
Never mind that Putin’s “traditional values” are pre-democratic and pre-modern; never mind that they’re part and parcel of all the worst chapters of both Tsarist and Soviet history – the pogroms, the Gulag. Putin’s disdain for gay rights and other such Western phenomena – a disdain shared and applauded by the likes of Pat Buchanan – is nothing new; contempt for Western “decadence” was a staple of Soviet propaganda from 1918 to 1989. What Putin is encouraging with his “traditional values” rhetoric is the perpetuation, and even revival, of a self-destructive, pathological culture whose hallmarks are maudlin self-pity, dictator-worship, a love of cruelty and physical brutality, rampant alcoholism, and the often violent oppression of Jews and other minorities.
But you’d never know that to read apologists like Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, who in September 2011, while not quite admitting that he himself celebrated Putin, was eager to provide reasons why others might do so: “he saved the country from servility”; he “[f]lout[ed] western norms”; he has “address[ed] real problems.” Caldwell dismissed Western critics of Putin, such as Le Monde, as “harsh” and “condescending.” And he suggested that if Putin is less than a saint, well, it’s largely the fault of NATO, whose “moralistic adventure in Kosovo humiliated Russia and its Serbian allies unnecessarily.”
As for Putin’s offenses, they were relegated by Caldwell to the “yes, but” category: yes, “the west can deplore” Putin’s imprisonment of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his invasion of Georgia, and his assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and dissident Aleksandr Litvinenko, “but it cannot ignore the reality of Russian sentiment.”
In his 2011 piece, Caldwell seemed hesitant to praise Putin too overtly; this hesitancy pretty much disappeared in an article he published this February, in which he scorned Obama, Hollande, and Cameron for their “ostentatious” boycott of the Sochi Olympics while praising the “level-headed” decisions of Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and Turkey’s Islamist despot Recep Tayyip Erdogan to attend the games. Caldwell dismissed attention paid to “alleged corruption around Olympic construction” as “obsessive,” calling it “a local story.” Besides, he argued, haven’t other Olympic games also been corrupt? He offered a good deal of this sort of argumentation: yes, Putin has introduced undemocratic laws, but haven’t other governments done the same?
Caldwell was more critical of the gutsy anti-Putin protesters of Pussy Riot, whom he criticized for interrupting worship at a church, than he was of the punishment Putin meted out to them. He expressed less concern about Putin’s assault on Russian freedom, as exemplified by his brutal crackdown on gays, than about rulings by U.S. judges in favor of same-sex marriage. He even trivialized Putin’s persecution, torture, and ten-year imprisonment of billionaire businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, calling it a cause “beloved of western elites.”
In short, a disgraceful performance by a guy who’s often viewed as a relatively moderate conservative and whose work appears in places like The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic Monthly.
But, as we’ll see, Caldwell is far from alone on the right.