Leithart on empire and Russia/Ukraine

Segments of the Christian right have flirted with a sort of schadenfreude during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The West, they believe, is so bad and the American regime so benighted that anything must be better. That anything, in this rendering, is the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. I don’t think there are very many actual partisans of Vladimir Putin in conservative Christian circles, outside of fringe groups. But I do think there is a segment of the Right that views the world’s geopolitical state as a sort of binary, wherein right and wrong have “sides” and Christians have to pick a side. Conservative evangelicals, and particularly those of Calvinist leanings, seem most wedded to this, I suppose because of the doctrine of election and the psycho-emotional need to feel like one is on God’s side. Abortion, corporate and state collusion to censor conservatives, and issues on gender and sexuality, and the general state of Western politics, it seems, have made the West appear so benighted that God could not possibly be on its “side.” Throw in a sort of folk-biblicism, and culture warrior social sectarianism, and you have a recipe for conservative Evangelicals viewing Putin’s Russia as a sort of divine judgement on the West.

            Richard Pipes’ Russia Under the Old Regime was forced on me by the late Professor Michael Finefrock at the College of Charleston and I’m eternally grateful for it. I’ve always been a bit of a Russophile. Russian novels remain one my great literary loves. There seems to me to be no “side” I want to take for Ukrainians against Russians or vice versa. On a very basic level, the principle of self-determination should guide the sympathies of Americans; Vladimir Putin is trying to destroy the Ukrainians natural right to choose their own destiny. For this reason, using the combatants as proxies in American culture war’s is specious. More accurately, the war is one of a sizable multinational empire (Russia) trying to turn back time and claim territory Russia views as its historical patrimony, in this case nation-state Ukraine. This is what conservative nationalist Eastern European governments believe is occurring. It’s also what conservative intellectuals like Yoram Hazony believe is taking place. Finally, as Joel Gehrke of The Washington Examiner notes, it is very literally what Vladimir Putin says is the aim of Russia’s invasion.

            Russia’s attempt to reconstitute empire and turn back time reflects great sins of the first imperialists, the builders of the tower of Babel. In Peter Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast he explains Babel this way: “Babel attempted to arrest scattering, and thus to stop time and history. In their passion to avoid death, they established a necropolis, a city of death because it was a city without change.” The builders of the great tower “claimed to be the end of history, the achieved goal of human development, beyond which there is nowhere to go and nothing to do.” Babel, wrote Liethart, “was the political embodiment of an overrealized eschatology, which is always also an eschatology of fear. Babel’s eternal walls were built to ward off the ravages of time.” Ages before the Roman poet Virgil, Babel declared “the formation of an imperium sine fine; long before the American Founders, Babel claimed to have founded the novus ordo saeclorum. Ultimately, however, “Babelic empires… inevitably misconstrue the cunning weave of time. It is not the case that the first remain first forever. We have it on the highest authority that the last become first, while the first are relegated to the back of the line.”

            The reflexive tendency among certain right wing Evangelicals to Americanize every conflict occurring globally represents a sort of folk-driven moral imperialism that is as reductionistic as that of Western neoliberals. Fundamentally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has very little to do with the American culture wars; it does have something to do with self-determination.


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This