They denounce the West as a civilization that has succumbed to degeneracy and nihilism and, until recently, they glorified Vladimir Putin as a “lion of Christianity”. The US Religious Right has long toyed with the idea that Mr Putin was sent by God to turn the tide against “globohomo” liberals who are corrupting the world.
Europe’s own Right-wing, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and France’s Eric Zemmour, has dabbled in similar ideas. But this love affair between Russia’s aspiring tsar and the West’s conservatives was always doomed. Post-Bucha, it is beginning to look positively grotesque.
The basis of this coalition on the Western side has always been anxiety about the direction of travel in liberal democracies. Demographic change, statue toppling, gay rights and the transgender wars have convinced certain Christian sects that Western civilization is beyond redemption. Instead, they have bought into the idea, promoted slowly by the Russian Orthodox Church, that Mr Putin is a leader chosen by God, who is now leading a holy war to remake the old Christian empire of “Holy Rus” – and the world.
Do Russian soldiers really believe this? Lieutenant Colonel Azatbek Omurbekov, the so-called “butcher of Bucha” in charge of the Russian unit stationed in the town, is known to have been blessed by an Orthodox priest before he went off to war. In the “Holy Rus” vision of the world, Omurbekov was leading a crusade of godly warriors to regather Russian lands and restore them to righteousness. Insofar as Nazism now represents Satanic evil in the modern lexicon, he was also there to “denazify” Ukraine, as the Kremlin likes to remind us.
Instead, Ukraine states that Russian troops killed at least 300 civilians in cold-blooded attacks in Bucha. Satellite imagery and the interception of messages between Russian soldiers by German intelligence both seem to back this up. But was this a case of bloodlust running out of control or a premeditated strategy? We still don’t know the extent or the aim of such crimes.
We do know that the ranks of holy crusaders conducting this war include a surprisingly large number of rapacious mercenaries and inexperienced boys from Russian minorities, many of them Muslim or Buddhist, recruited from remote and impoverished regions of the empire. Rather than bringing back glory and God’s word, they brought only death and returned from their escapades bearing the unmistakeable portent of divine favour: looted fridges.
Meanwhile, far from “denazifying” Ukraine, Mr Putin’s regime is steeped in the ideological framework of National Socialism. Ivan Ilyin, the thinker whom Mr Putin quotes most often, was an overt admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, and saw fascism as a model for the revival of tsarism. Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, two thinkers who inspired the Kremlin-endorsed philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, were the intellectual godfathers of Nazism. Nor is Mr Putin averse to a bit of coded Aryanism. In 2005, I paid a special visit to Arkaim, an ancient archaeological site in Russia claimed by its discoverer as the true home of “the Aryans” and the prehistoric cradle of Russian civilization.
Unsurprisingly, the leaders of churches around the world have been vocal in condemning the invasion and the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in it. Archbishop Welby, the Pope and Orthodox Church leaders outside Russia, including the most senior patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul), have all called for Russia to stop this unholy war.
All of this adds up to an awkward picture for the pro-Putin Religious Right. At some point, surely, you have to ask: who is really most responsible for promoting nihilism, fascism and downright evil? It’s true that Mr Putin would never hold a gay pride parade. But he would happily preside over ruthless civilian massacres in Europe, as he has before in Syria and Chechnya. I suppose Mr Putin’s fans will have to pick their poison.