Living in the Nothingness

America’s White Nationalists, the Russian Orthodox Church and The Fascist Invasion of Ukraine

I used to be an evangelical Christian for several years, so I have a sense of what it was like to join a Church and to leave one. As I write in my book, He Walks Among Us: Christian Fascism Ushering in the End of Times:

When I was seventeen, I was an evangelical Christian. My conscience was captive to a literalist reading of scripture. But I did not always follow my conscience. I worked one summer at the Philips Electronics Exhibit of the Canadian National Exhibition. My job was to demonstrate and service the Philishave razor exhibit, brush the rotating razor cutters, and whisk them clean and then swab the famed egg-shaped ‘floating heads’ with alcohol after each person shaved. (Philips used the name Norelco in the US). Philips hired Miss World to appear at the exhibit, and I once invited her to lunch, and she accepted. All that I could afford were two hot dogs, but that seemed fine with Miss World as long as there was plenty of mustard. I told her the razor I was demonstrating could be used to shave women’s legs as well as men’s faces. She asked me to demonstrate and of course, caught in the act, I was fired. But at least I could brag that I shaved the legs of Miss World, and that gave me street credibility with my non-evangelical friends, who often ridiculed me for attending regular prayer meetings. And, of course, my stint with Miss World was not in character with being an upstanding Canadian gentleman, and that was precisely what was needed to stop the ridicule. But something else happened to me at the Canadian National Exhibition before I was fired. I met an older woman (she must have been in her early twenties) at one of the adjacent exhibits. She smoked cigars and had long pigtails and was stunningly alluring to me. For a short time, she, and not God, became my Mighty Fortress.

We started to hang out after the exhibition closed down, and I naively asked her to accompany me to a prayer meeting. Her enjoyment at agitating the mainstream ‘suits’ was partly responsible for her agreement, and she was delighted at how flabbergasted the other evangelicals appeared when she entered the parish draped on my arm, resplendent in her micro-miniskirt, spike heels, dewy skin, and vampy make-up, puffing on a cigar, topped off with a sex-kittenish pout. The sensual allure of Gilbert (not her real name as she insisted that Gilbert sounded more mysterious, so I guessed she was probably an Ann or Alice) was too much for me to resist, and I agreed to be absent for most of my prayer meetings in order to be in the arms of my new friend. But something more riveting – repugnantly riveting – occurred that caused me to break with the evangelical community. The pastor of my church (actually a mega-church that seated hundreds) gave a sermon one afternoon and told us that, if Adolf Hitler had confessed his sins, repented and accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour, he would have gone to heaven, but all the Jews he tortured and gassed in the showers of the death camps would be suffering in hell because they did not accept Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. Immediately after he finished his vile proclamation, I jumped out of my seat and made for the nearest exit. Later the next day, I was so stoked by fury that I affixed a letter condemning the pastor to an arrow, grasped my fibreglass archery bow, and stood stalwart across the street from the church. After a deep breath, I fired the arrow smack into the door of the church. (Luckily, nobody opened the door the moment I let the arrow fly). That was it for me. No more evangelical churches or church groups!

I wasn’t involved in politics at that age. That changed two years later after hitchhiking to San Francisco, meeting Timothy Leary, the Black Panthers and Allen Ginsberg. It’s flat out impossible to avoid the confluence of religion and politics, especially in these times. The war in Ukraine is not so much a character-driven narrative featuring Putin and Zelenskyy, as some proclaim, as much as a Passion Play in which the Russian Orthodox Church is playing a central role. Timofey Sergeytsev is playing the role of Pontius Pilate but comes off more like a domestic terror weapon in the person of Judge Freisler of Nazi Germany’s People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof). Patriarch Kirill, a former religious television show host and arch supporter of Putin, who has been the patriarch of Moscow and primate of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009, plays the head of the Sanhedrin. And you can argue over the other roles if you are so inclined. Russia’s brutal, unprovoked and condemnable invasion has attempted to crucify Ukraine under the command of the Butcher of Syria, Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, and proclaimed that all who support this heretical country must face the death sentence.

The Russian Orthodox Church, alternatively known as the Moscow Patriarchate, is the largest autocephalous (appointing its own leader) Eastern Orthodox Christian church in the world. Against the backdrop of the ongoing bloodshed in Ukraine, Katherine Kelaidis raises both a curious and alarming question: ‘So how do teenagers in Appalachia end up advocating for a re-imaged medieval Eastern Christian empire? And why have these people been allowed to remain in ordinary Orthodox parishes around the country?’ What is it about the Orthodox Church so beloved in Putin’s Russia that has American neo-Nazis rushing to join its American counterparts? One answer offered by Kelaidis is anti-Semitism and homophobia. But, of course, she agrees that there is more to it than that. Disturbingly, ethnonationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis are finding the ideology preached in Orthodox churches compatible with many of their beliefs. The intellectual force behind the white supremacist movement towards Orthodoxy is Matthew Raphael Johnson, who writes books and hosts a podcast on the TradYouth website, the cyber arm of the Traditionalist Workers Party. A priest in a breakaway Orthodox group called the Old Calendarist Greek Orthodox Autonomous Orthodox Metropolia, Johnson was eventually defrocked for phyletism (essentially for being a racist).

According to Kelaidis, ‘Johnson’s books and podcast, The Orthodox Nationalist, push the same brand of nationalism that adherents refer to as ‘traditionalism.’ This ideology, which attempts to distance itself from more recognisable white supremacy, blends nationalism with an anti-globalist agrarianism that in many ways does not sound dissimilar to the rhetoric coming out of the [Trump] White House.’ Orthodoxy has become a new weapon in the war for America’s youth who are seeking solace amidst a politically fractious world and who are able to find communities of like-minded racists in the Orthodox world of Putin-loving militant nationalism and medieval traditionalism. Bring on the Paraclete as long as it’s adorned in Confederate grey and has a beard as white as Robert E. Lee! Katherine Kelaidis writes that

[w]hile the Neo-Nazis and Neo-Confederates may be relatively few in number, there is increasing evidence that Orthodoxy has become an integral part of the ideological and recruitment apparatus within some segments of the white supremacist movement. Importantly, these ideas and the converts to them are being tolerated, and frequently exploited, by much more powerful voices. This growing attachment to Eastern Orthodox Christianity among a segment of white nationalists has serious implications for more mainstream currents in contemporary Orthodox life.

When describing how Orthodox Christianity has become the spiritual home of white nationalism here in the United States, journalists usually begin with the story of a vile, not-too-bright Neo-Nazi organiser and creepy hate monger, Matthew Heimbach, who, in 2016, was formally received into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on Lazarus Saturday and then, a few days later, on Bright Monday, Heimbach and his goosestepping cohorts from the Traditionalist Youth Network (a white supremacist group affiliating itself with Orthodoxy) beat up a University of Indiana at Bloomington SlutWalk participant with an Orthodox wooden cross (a weapon of choice, I assume, because of its high symbolic resonance). Only after immense pressure following the online circulation of photographs in which Heimbach is shown beating the student was Heimbach excommunicated by the Antiochian bishop. Heimbach’s actions led to an outcry with people asking if racism and white supremacy were integral to Orthodoxy. Comments by Heimbach didn’t help:

As an Orthodox Christian, I believe in the separation of races into ethnically based churches. That is why, even in Orthodoxy, there is, for instance, a Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, etc. Orthodox Church. Regional and racial identity is a fundamental principle of Christianity, must to the dismay of Leftists. I believe black Christians should be in their black churches, with black priests, having black kids, going to black Christian schools, etc.

Later, Heimbach was to make the national news for shoving protester Kashiya Nwanguma at a Trump rally. Kelaidis warns that Orthodoxy has for some time been propelled

into the position of ‘go-to religion’ for the white supremacist movement that would prefer to be known as the ‘alt-right’ – not just in the United States, but around the world. When priests in Corinth sprinkle holy water around the new campaign office of the Greek Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn and the Patriarch of Moscow embraces Vladimir Putin with a gusto that might have embarrassed his tsarist predecessors, there is little doubt as to why Orthodoxy seems appealing to a white nationalist movement. This is especially true since Orthodox opposition to neo-fascism of this kind has been far less frequent and considerably less public.

Odette Yousef writes that during his brief time in the Orthodox Church,

Heimbach’s activities with other Orthodox converts on a college campus in Indiana drew scrutiny. In explaining the decision to cut Heimbach off from the church, the priest who had brought him into the church explained, ‘I did not understand at that time that he held nationalistic, segregationist views.’ Heimbach went on to join another branch of Orthodoxy.

‘And, then, after that all happened, basically, the bishops said, ‘Ok, it’s all done. There is nothing to talk about anymore and nothing here to see,’ said Inga Leonova, the founder and editor of The Wheel, a journal on Orthodoxy and culture. Leonova, a member of the Orthodox Church in America, said she began following the trend of extremists joining Orthodoxy when she became aware of Heimbach’s campus activities. When she writes about the topic, she said she receives threats from within the Orthodox community. Still, she has felt that silence on the issue has caused greater harm.

But the story gets worse.

Very Fine People

On August 11, 2017, a boisterous and spiffy-looking crowd of white men in New Balance sneakers and Fred Perry gold-striped collar black polo shirts entered the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Flashing their undercut, high-and-tight hairstyles with some carrying Nazi and confederate flags, and others clutching tiki torches and brandishing sticks and Celtic shields, they marched menacingly, shouting racist slogans and jeering at awe-struck bystanders. If only they had jaws as protruding as Mussolini’s, but, alas, life isn’t always kind. It was the beginning of the infamous Unite the Right rally. The next day, August 12, the rally led to clashes with counter-protesters and a car driven by a white supremacist James Fields mowed down a group of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring nineteen people. Inga Leonova writes: ‘Matthew Heimbach has marched in Charlottesville with the TradWorkers group, waving the “Orthodoxy or Death” banners. On August 14, he stood in front of the courthouse in Charlottesville … and promised that Charlottesville was “just the beginning,” and that the neo-Nazis will be “more active” than before.’

Yousef notes that in the wake of the Unite the Right rally, bishops across Orthodox jurisdictions ignored calls to condemn the event and the rise of extremist ideologies in the church. She notes that ‘[a]n Orthodox Church in America priest from Ohio was briefly suspended after he was seen in a video wearing his cassock on Capitol grounds on January 6, 2021, after he attended the Stop the Steal rally in Washington, DC.’ She also quotes Leonova as saying ‘[t]here is a significant number of clergy whose social media profiles sport Confederate flags and support of the Southern cause.’ Kelaidis reportsthat Heimbach may be back in the good graces of at least one Orthodox Church when she writes,

[w]hile Heimbach’s excommunication by the Antiochian bishop means that he is technically unable to receive the sacraments in any canonical Orthodox church, he claims to have found a sympathetic priest in Romania who allows him to communion with full knowledge of the priest’s bishop. It might be easy to dismiss this claim as a half-hearted attempt to save face by a self-aggrandising racist. Heimbach’s story, however, is not just plausible. It is, in light of so much of the modern Orthodox church’s relationship with the far-right, highly likely.

Inga Leonova, herself a member of the Orthodox Church in America, shares that the leaders of American Orthodoxy have stretched themselves too thin over the abyss of responsibility – their call to salvation is also an injunction to remain motionless in a world that has gone off the rails:

American Orthodox episcopacy is fully capable of speaking in a unified voice when so moved. Our bishops have no issues with pronouncing upon the matters of secular law and civil rights, as they have done more than once in recent years. To this day, however, they have completely failed to speak out against racism and xenophobia expanding in our midst, in our own parishes, and spilling out into the public square. The only historical record of an American Orthodox bishop joining the fight against racism is the march of Archbishop Iakovos with Martin Luther King, Jr. – which happened in 1965, and for which the Archbishop has been much-reviled. Is this all the witness that our Church can offer to America? We are the Church which in America is largely composed of immigrants who have experienced xenophobia and ethnic discrimination in many forms. Yet we refuse to even acknowledge the growth of this cancer in our midst, the cancer that claims our ecclesiastical legacy as its fuel, to the deafening silence of those whose duty, as we are reminded at every Liturgy, is to pronounce the words of Christ’s truth….

To understand why so many right-wing fascists and neo-Nazis in America are ideologically and emotionally drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church, which includes the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), we need only examine the shocking behaviour of Patriarch Kirill, leader of Russia’s dominant religious group. According to Peter Smith, Kirill has had no compunctions justifying his country’s invasion of Ukraine, ‘describing the conflict as part of a struggle against sin and pressure from liberal foreigners to hold ‘gay parades’ as the price of admission to their ranks.’ This has, no doubt, alienated many in Ukrainian Orthodox churches who had previously stayed loyal to the Moscow patriarch during a schism in their country (the formation of a more nationalist, Kyiv-based Orthodox Church of Ukraine, occurred in 2018 and 2019), and who are now ignoring Kirill in their public prayers and holding their noses when his name is mentioned. Some are even taking their deep-seated aversion to another level and demanding independence from the Moscow church. As missiles reign down on Ukrainian hospitals and schools, it doesn’t help matters that Patriarch Kirill has called Putin’s rule a ‘miracle of God,’ and ‘holds the hope that future generations will pick up the spiritual baton from past generations and save the Fatherland from internal and external enemies.’ ‘You, Vladimir Vladimirovich, personally played a massive role in correcting this crooked twist of our history,’ Kirill said, using the President’s patronymic.

In a sermon delivered on March 6, 2022, one that surely reverberated throughout the Orthodox world, sending some listeners into spasms of trepidation and providing solace to others, Kirill ‘echoed Putin’s unfounded claims that Ukraine was engaged in the “extermination” of Russian loyalists in Donbas, the breakaway eastern region of Ukraine held since 2014 by two Russian-backed separatist groups.’ Kirill focused virtually all of his talk about the war on Donbas – with no mention of Russia’s widespread invasion and its bombardment of civilian targets. This was, of course, nothing short of preparing Orthodox Christians for the likelihood, if not the inevitability, of war. The most staggeringly obscene moment was when Kirill depicted the war as a spiritual battle:

‘We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,’ he said: He contended that some of the Donbas separatists were suffering for their ‘fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power.’ He claimed that this unnamed world power is posing a ‘test for the loyalty’ of countries by demanding they hold gay pride parades to join a global club of nations with its own ideas of freedom and ‘excess consumption.’

What quantum metaverse does Kirill inhabit to be able to speak in such apocalyptic terms – one with a temporality separate from history perhaps – without turning himself into ash as he justifies the war for his vast number of Christian followers, providing a criminal invasion – nothing short of a sinkhole of barbarism – with the imprimatur of the Orthodox Church.

Janine de Giovanni maintains that

[a]t the heart of Kirill’s support for the war is homophobia. On Forgiveness Sunday – March 6 – he delivered a sermon, where he implied that the West had been engaging in ‘the suppression and extermination of people in the Donbas’ for years because ‘in the Donbas, there is rejection, a fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power.’ Specifically, he said, the people of the Donbas had refused to hold gay pride parades; and thus, the West was trying to destroy them.

De Giovanni adds that, on that very day known as Velykden (‘Great Day’) in Ukraine,

when people are meant to pray for forgiveness, Kirill stoked the flames of hatred. He said there can’t be ‘forgiveness without justice.’ Otherwise, it’s a capitulation and weakness. He also referred to divine justice, stating that ‘by our forgiveness, we commit our offenders into the hands of God, so that both judgment and God’s mercy may be performed on them. So that our Christian attitude towards human sins, delusions, and insults would not be the cause of their death, but that the just judgment of God would be carried out on everyone.

Can you get me some planes and missiles to bless today? What, they’re all in use against those heretic Ukrainians right now? Oh, ok. How about some artillery pieces then, or some mortars? Surely you can spare a few today. I’ll even bless some cluster munitions if you want. But they can’t be small arms. I’m too important for that. Now you guys go out and restore Russky mir (‘Russian world’). Let’s get on the move. Off you go! And say hello to Vladimirovich for me. Tell him not to bomb any more maternity wards; it’s bad for his image!

Republican supporters of Putin back in the US must have wept with joy. Pope Frances was alarmed, however, famously remarking: ‘The Patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.’ It is not as if Putin is holding members of Kirill’s family hostage in one of Russia’s infamous ‘correction colonies’ run by a modern-day equivalent of NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria, where prison sentences are combined with compulsory labour in mostly two-story brick buildings built at least fifty years ago. Instead, it really does appear as though Kirill believes what he is saying (unless he is a very good actor and has been pressured to support the war, which could be the case). But, if he believes Russia is fighting a just war, you can rest assured that most of his followers do, as well. Fr. Cyril Hovorun, professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism at University College Stockholm, said that Kirill’s latest comments ‘helped to “supply the ideology” that Putin has used to justify Russian hegemony over the region, and, in return, the church has received strong government support.’

If it seems to you as though the ROCOR is the sword arm of the Russian security state, you are not alone. According to Hayla Coynash,

[a] significant number of members of the Russian Orthodox Church’s hierarchy, at least after Stalin, are believed to have worked closely with the KGB. Under Putin, a former KGB officer with an imperial vision of Russia the size of a 300mm Smerch cluster rocket, the links between the state and the Moscow Patriarchate have again become very strong. This was particularly seen with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill has consistently endorsed the concept of a supposed ‘Russian World’ – encompassing Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, as well as Russia itself. In November 2009, for example, Kirill stated that ‘if we consider the Russian Federation with its present boundaries, then we have sinned against the historical truth and artificially cut off millions of people who are aware of their role in the fate of the Russian World and consider its creation their main deed.

So, here again, we have a blanket endorsement for the creation of a Russian empire – and to oppose it is to commit an egregious sin against the truth (meaning a sin against God)! And we are supposed to believe our neo-Stalinist comrades that the invasion of Ukraine is a purely defensive measure?

Splendour in the Theme Park

A massive khaki-coloured cathedral in a Russian military theme park was inaugurated on the outskirts of Moscow in June, 2020. It was built in the Patriot Park in the Odintsovsky DistrictMoscow Oblast. It is called the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, in honour of the ‘Resurrection of Christ,’ dedicated to the 75th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War. A forbidding sight, it is very different from Patriarch Kirill’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, decorated with ornate iconography and topped with giant golden onion domes, that sits adjacent to the Kremlin. As its name indicates, it is dedicated to Russia’s armed forces, but controversy erupted over initial plans to decorate its interior with mosaics depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Soviet-era leader Joseph Stalin. [https://www.dw.com/en/russia-removes-vladimir-putin-mosaic-from-military-church/a-53310239]. The cathedral was the brainchild of Russia’s Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. According to Halya Coynash,

Putin is in a prominent place on the work, as too is Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu. The only recognisable Crimean is Sergei Aksyonov, the obscure pro-Russian politician with a criminal past whom Russian soldiers installed in power at gunpoint on February 27 2014. As well as some other prominent politicians, this mosaic on a church wall includes the Head of Russia’s FSB [security service], Alexander Bortnikov. Nesterenko [who designed the mosaics] chose to show the director, and not the FSB officers who have spent the last six years persecuting Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainians in occupied Crimea for their faith, political views or civic activism.

This Godforsaken Cathedral of Glorious Warfare embodies the ideology of massive military power coupled with a militant religious nationalism that magnificently ‘connects the state, military and the Russian Orthodox Church.’ Lena Surzhko Harned describes some of the most salient ideological features: ’Archangels lead heavenly and earthly armies, Christ wields a sword, and the Holy Mother, depicted as the Motherland, lends support.’ She writes that original plans for the frescoes included ‘a celebration of the Crimean occupation, with jubilant people holding a banner that read ‘Crimea is Ours’ and ‘Forever with Russia.’ In the final version, the controversial ‘Crimea is Ours’ was replaced by the more benign ‘We are together.’ It should come as little surprise that, in 2014, when Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church referred to Crimea as ‘the cradle of Russian Christianity.’ Could one ask for a more blatant, a more vulgar merging of Church and state power? Can you smell a whiff of empire-building percolating through the cloister? Hurry off to vespers, now! In fact, there is a founding mythology attached to Crimea that ‘draws on the medieval story of Prince Vladimir, who converted to Christianity in the 10th century and was baptised in Crimea. The prince then imposed the faith on his subjects in Kyiv, and it spread from there.’ It is worth noting as well that Russia’s annexation of Crimea ‘was the first in Europe since Adolf Hitler’s seizure of Austria in 1938. It has not been recognised by any democratic state, and there can be no justification for glorifying Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and violation of international law on the walls of a place purportedly of worship.’ All glory to Prince Vladimir! Excuse me, which Vladimir are we referring to, the bare-chested, athletic, hockey-loving friend of Steven Seagal, the actor with the 7th-dan black belt in aikido, our dear Vladimirovich with the KGB past, or the guy from medieval times – wasn’t he the guy who kissed Snow White? Seems like the two have been merged into one another – but that’s precisely the point. Fortunately, the Church dropped the planned mosaics in line with ‘the wishes of the head of state,’ since, according to the Kremlin, Putin felt it was too early to celebrate the mighty accomplishments of Russia’s current leadership. I am sure this had as much to do with international public perception that Putin was setting himself up to be a God, much like the Roman Emperors of old.

It is of great significance that we recognise that it was Lenin himself during the first decade of the Soviet Union that formulated his principles of indigenisation for Ukraine, and this led to a massive revitalisation of Ukrainian culture and language, as well as healthcare and social security. Lenin put together these principles as follows:

The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, and this is exactly what the struggle for the right of self-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that ‘its own’ nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible.

According to Zizek,

Lenin remained faithful to this position to the end: immediately after the October Revolution, when Rosa Luxembourg argued that small nations should be given full sovereignty only if progressive forces would predominate in the new state, Lenin was in favour of an unconditional right to secede. In his last struggle against Stalin’s project for a centralised Soviet Union, Lenin again advocated the unconditional right of small nations to secede (in this case, Georgia was at stake), insisting on the full sovereignty of the national entities that composed the Soviet state – no wonder that, on September 27, 1922, in a letter to the Politburo, Stalin accused Lenin of ‘national liberalism.’

Putin’s foreign policy, according to Zizek, ‘is a clear continuation of the tsarist-Stalinist line. After the Russian Revolution, according to Putin, the Bolsheviks did serious damage to Russia’s interests.’ Consider Putin’s comments: ‘The Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons – may God judge them – added large sections of the historical south of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the south-east of Ukraine.’ It should come as no surprise that Stalin is the more popular figure among the militant nationalists in Russia.

Odette Yousef recalls the case of Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, a postdoctoral fellow in the Recovering Truth project at Arizona State University, who moved from New York City to a small Appalachian town in West Virginia in the fall of 2017, searching for an answer to why a group of conservative American Christians converted to Russian Orthodoxy? Riccardi-Swartz’s study examined a community of mostly former evangelical Christians and Catholics who had joined the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) at the West Virginia location, which boasted a church parish and was also home to the largest English-speaking Russian Orthodox monastery in the world. After a year of research, Riccardi-Swartz ‘learned that many of these converts had grown disillusioned with social and demographic change in the United States. In ROCOR, they felt they had found a church that has remained the same, regardless of place, time and politics. But Riccardi-Swartz also found strong strains of nativism, white nationalism and pro-authoritarianism, evidenced by strong admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.’ But can you bring back the past like you can bring back Brigadoon? Are Putin and his religious courtiers caught in a magical realist web of war, death and glory? Is this a kind of Russian version of the Camelot experienced during the presidency of JFK? As Riccardi-Swartz notes, ‘For many…, Putin becomes this sort of king-like figure in their narratives….They see themselves as oppressed by democracy because democracy is really diversity. And they look to Putin because democracy isn’t really, as we see right now, an option [in Russia].’

Riccardi-Swartz’s recently published book titled Between Heaven and Russia: Religious Conversion and Political Apostasy in Appalachia provides a more nuanced analysis of a nativist trend that ‘unchecked … could fundamentally alter the faith tradition in the United States.’ While the number of ROCOR adherents is declining, the number of parishes has grown. Adherents are increasingly drawn to cultural issues such as LGTBQ rights, gender equality and abortion and have adopted views of the alt-right. Yousef draws attention to former Republican US Senate candidate Lauren Witzke of Delaware, who has praised Russia as a ‘Christian nationalist nation’ and is studying to convert to ROCOR. She proclaimed on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: ‘I identify more with Russian – with Putin’s Christian values – than I do with Joe Biden.’ Recent converts, Riccardi-Swartz said, are ‘receptive to Kremlin propaganda portraying Putin as a pious defender of Orthodoxy and traditional values…. Putin also represents to them an appealing style of authoritarian leadership that challenges pluralism and liberal democracy in the United States.’ Youself writes that

Witzke, a MAGA supporter who ran on an anti-immigration platform in 2020, has appeared on Orthodox podcasts, where she has identified herself as aligned with the white nationalist America First movement. She also, at one time, seemed to support QAnon conspiracy theories but has since renounced QAnon. The media ecosystem she has participated in, a network of American converts to ROCOR who produce podcasts and live video chats online presents a highly politicised interpretation of Orthodoxy to the world and one that many believe offers a distorted view of the church.

And of course, these channels ‘revolve around themes of anti-Semitism, contempt for women’s and LGBTQ rights, xenophobia and support of white nationalists, including some who’ve been convicted of violent hate crimes.’

On the surface, it would seem that Americans joining the Orthodox Church are offering a counterweight to the idea that Russia’s traditionalism, authoritarianism and militarism are somehow to be disdained, to be avoided as part and parcel of the culture of totalitarianism, as not worthy of the Western enlightenment tradition. But Steve Bannon’s traditionalism is very much like that exemplified in the Orthodox Church. And very much like that of Dugin and Brazil’s Olavo de Carvalho. All three have advised fascist world leaders. As Benjamin Teitelbaum notes,

[a]t its core, traditionalism rejects modernity and its ideals: faith in the ability of human ingenuity to advance living standards and justice; an emphasis on the management of the economy; the coveting of individual liberty; the existence of universal truths equally valid for, and thereby equalising of, all. Repudiating the Enlightenment, traditionalists instead celebrate what they regard as timeless values. They honour precedence rather than progress, emphasise the spiritual over the material, and advocate surrender to the fundamental disparities – as opposed to equality – between humans and human destinies.

Traditionalism has its roots in the mystical, which makes it a popular belief system for both conservative Catholics as well. Erik Prince, a conservative Catholic, joined Catholic traditionalist Steve Bannon on Bannon’s infamous War Room podcast on Real America’s Voice. Prince, the brother of Betsy de Vos, former Secretary of Education under Trump, has a long list of serious accusations against him under his belt, from complicity in murder, to illegal arms dealings, to spying on Democrat politicians. The founder of the mercenary group, Blackwater USA, a company that came under increasing criticism after the Nisour Square massacre in September 2007, in which six former Blackwater guards were criminally charged in fourteen shootings of Iraqi civilians in a crowded square in Baghdad, is also is a major supporter of Putin. Bannon has urged Americans to support the ‘anti-woke’ Putin because of Putin’s long history of anti-LGBTQ politics.

Bannon showered Putin with several hours of compliments before the Russian leader launched his bloody invasion of Ukraine. The following is a sample from the vile banter between these two conservative Catholics:

‘Putin ain’t woke. He is anti-woke,’ Bannon said to private military contractor Erik Prince during the Wednesday broadcast of War Room, Bannon’s show on Real America’s Voice, a right-leaning media network.

‘The Russian people still know which bathroom to use,’ Prince replied.

‘They know how many, how many genders are there in Russia?’ Bannon asked.

‘Two,’ Prince answered.

‘They don’t have the flags, they don’t have the Pride flags outside of their…,’ Bannon continued.

‘They don’t have boys swimming in girls’ college swim meets,’ Prince responded.

‘How savage. How medieval,’ Bannon added.

Hey, wasn’t Trump perceived by his followers as a friend of the gay community? Actually, he left an atrocious record. Daniel Villarreal writes admonishingly: ‘During his presidency, Trump banned transgender people from the military, repealed previous protections allowing trans students to use school bathrooms, refused to recognise same-sex couples’ foreign-born children and spouses, wrote legal briefs supporting business owners’ discrimination against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs and discontinued recognition of June as LGBTQ Pride month.’ For those who could use some context for understanding Putin’s anti-gay agenda, Villarreal is worth quoting at length:

In June 2013, Putin signed a law banning so-called ‘gay propaganda’ in Russia. The law ostensibly seeks to ‘protect children’ from any ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships,’ according to the law’s text. The law has mostly been used to silence LGBTQ activist organisations, events, websites and media, as well as to break up families and harass teachers, according to LGBTQ Nation. The law has been roundly condemned by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and civil-rights activists around the world. Putin has also largely ignored an ongoing and years-long crackdown against gay, bisexual and lesbian people living in the semi-autonomous Russian region of Chechnya…. The crackdown, which began in December 2016, involves police and military officials arresting suspected queer people under claims of drug dealing or terrorism. The officials then use electrocution, beatings, extreme cold, starvation, dehydration, isolation, forced nudity and homophobic insults to get arrestees to reveal more suspected homosexuals, according to the Russian LGBT Network. An estimated 33 people have died in the crackdown, and hundreds have fled the region since it began.

So, well, should we all praise Putin because he is anti-gay? Is that the hallmark of his particular brand of traditionalism? Hey, wait, weren’t gay individuals accepted in certain traditional societies? Oh, don’t trust the anthropologists. That must be a modernist plot! Is this man speaking as the new emperor of Central Asia? How far would he like to go in imposing his hateful agenda? Create a Gilead, possibly? Not that far, you say. Well, I am not so sure. Perhaps, then, it is time to return to the famous quotation by the Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin:

Post-modernity shows that every so-called truth is a matter of believing. So, we believe in what we do; we believe in what we say. And that is the only way to define the truth. So, we have our special Russian truth that you need to accept. If the United States does not want to start a war, you should recognise that United States is not any more a unique master. And, [with] the situation in Syria and Ukraine, Russia says, ‘No, you are not anymore the boss.’ That is the question of who rules the world. Only war could decide, really.

Dugin’s apparent defence of cultural diversity is far from the concept of ‘indigeneity’ defended by Lenin and which supported Ukrainian sovereignty. Dugin is defending diversity ‘based on’ ethnic identities, not diversity ‘within’ ethnic identities, and this is a key insight by Zizek, who rightly observes:

The immediate question here is: but what about the people of Syria and of Ukraine? Can they also choose their truth/belief, or are they just a playground of the big ‘bosses’ and their struggle? Even some Leftists see Dugin as an opponent of global capitalist order, as an advocate for the irreducible diversity of ethnic-cultural identities. But the diversity advocated by Dugin is a diversity based on ethnic identities, not a diversity within ethnic groups, which is why ‘only war could decide really.’ The rise of fundamentalist ethnic identities is ultimately the other side of global market, not its opposite. We need more globalisation, not less: we need global solidarity and cooperation more than ever if we seriously want to cope with global warming.

America has been sliding backwards. The winds from paradise have subsided, and Benjamin’s Angel of History is now looking forward, glimpsing the perils ahead. But the Angel is suffering myopia and can’t see far enough ahead to ascertain the results of events. The Angel can only anticipate events. White supremacist and ethno-nationalist groups have grown in numbers and in strength. Armed militias can roam the streets. Access to guns has been made easier in many instances, and open carry without a permit is becoming a fashionable trend. America has brought back the wild west. Westworld is back! Religion and politics have ceased to be seen as contradictions, where belief and non-belief can be brandished, one against the other. Truth is a belief in your own opinion, regardless if it is evidence-free. Fascism – the Donald Trump version – has not been around long enough to have earned the right to win grudging approval, and Trump himself refuses to give posterity the opportunity to condemn him until at least one more run at the presidency.

So, are we headed for a war between the big bosses? Very likely. We need to step up our struggle against US politicians who hide big lies under small lies or even smaller truths. How do we give any credibility to candidates such as Lauren Witzke, who has pushed 9/11 conspiracies, flat Earthism and anti-Semitism and who has absolved thought of having any critical dimension or inner tensions and has forsaken the search for facts? She, and others like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar and Madison Cawthorn make the concession that genuine knowledge is the product of whatever you happen to believe – is this anything but a corrupted, permissive metaphysics of the will?

‘The Democrats are the party of paedophiles,’ Greene said in early April. ‘The Democrats are the party of princess predators from Disney. The Democrats are the party of teachers, elementary school teachers trying to transition their elementary-school-age children and convince them they’re a different gender.’ Employing a farrago of smash-mouth double-dealing all too common in Greene’s antics, Greene (the true monster of this story) is offering the public sinister stereotypes from the 1970s of gay people as paedophilic monsters grooming children for gay sex and mixing them with QAnon fantasies of paedophile Democrats in league with Satan to whom they sacrifice children after first consuming their blood. These stories are deceptions of such Brobdingnagian proportions, they would qualify as laugh-out-loud fabrications if they were not rooted in such evil designed to eliminate gays as human beings, as people, rendering them exceptionally prone to being assaulted, even killed.

We often trade the search for incontrovertible and universal truth for common-sense assumptions. But Witzke, Greene, Boebert, Gosar and Cawthorn take the word ‘sense’ from common sense, which is very much the case with Orthodoxy. If the idea that Putin ‘takes care of his people’ means foisting upon reluctant and ill-equipped recruits a war decree that sends them into a field of battle to participate in slaughtering an enemy who is staking a supposedly false claim to being a citizen of what Putin regards as an illegitimate country, then we will need to redefine what ‘caring’ is all about.

I like Zizek’s suggestion: ‘Remember how, a day or two after the outbreak of the war, Putin called on TV the Ukrainian army to overthrow Zelensky’s government and take over, claiming that it would be much easier to negotiate peace with them. Maybe, it would be good for something like this to happen in Russia itself, where, in 1953, Marshall Zhukov did help Khruschev to overthrow Beria.’ And, of course, as Zizek also notes, at the same time, it would be a good idea for those of us in the liberal West (whose own regimes helped push Russia towards fascism) to look at ourselves. We in the United States are facing a crisis of liberal democracy as our democracy is being strangled by an illiberal faction of MAGA politicians who are openly racist, sexist, homophobic and fascist – and seemingly proud of that fact. The MAGA crowd is finding a good fit in evangelical churches run by pastors who speak in tongues and rage against woke culture, but they are also finding a good home in Eastern Orthodox churches where they can openly admire Putin in the comfort of others. I am sure they are unaware that, had they been living in the era of Stalin, they would most likely have been sent to the gulag or worse, a visit to Special Facility No.110, the ‘Torture Dacha’ where, after being dispatched, their bodies would be thrown into an oil-fired furnace and forgotten.

But, never mind, that was then – this is now. All they need to do is worry about those dark-skinned immigrants moving into the agrarian paradises they are trying to set up for themselves in the few acres of land they inherited from their prepper uncle. I wonder what the Orthodox Americans feel about the leaked Supreme Court memo that is a precursor to the overthrow of abortion rights. Fellow Canadian and author of The Handmaid’s Tale has something to say about that:

In the fictional theocracy of Gilead, women had very few rights, as in 17th-century New England,’ wrote Atwood. ‘The Bible was cherry-picked, with the cherries being interpreted literally. Based on the reproductive arrangements in Genesis – specifically, those of the family of Jacob – the wives of high-ranking patriarchs could have female slaves, or ‘handmaids,’ and those wives could tell their husbands to have children by the handmaids and then claim the children as theirs.’ Atwood went on to reveal that she actually stopped writing the novel multiple times because she considered its premise to be too extreme to be taken seriously. ‘Silly me,’ she commented. ‘Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past: There are a number of them on the planet today. What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them? For instance: It is now the middle of 2022, and we have just been shown a leaked opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States that would overthrow settled law of 50 years on the grounds that abortion is not mentioned in the Constitution, and is not “deeply rooted” in our “history and tradition.”’

This argument, noted Atwood, is only true because the original Constitution didn’t mention women or protect women’s rights in any form – not even being given the franchise until the 19th Amendment’s passage in the early 20th century. ‘Women were nonpersons in US law for a lot longer than they have been persons,’ wrote Atwood. ‘If we start overthrowing settled law using Justice Samuel Alito’s justifications, why not repeal votes for women?’ Moreover, she noted, the time period Alito calls back to featured witch trials, where women were powerless to prove their innocence – something that would, in effect, come back with accusations of illegal abortions. ‘If Justice Alito wants you to be governed by the laws of the 17th century, you should take a close look at that century,’ Atwood concluded. ‘Is that when you want to live?’ Yes, of course, the Orthodox Americans, just like their Russian counterparts, want to live in the 17th century. Indeed, yes. Blessed be the fruit. May the Lord Open. Under His Eye.

The war in Ukraine is handing the West a mirror with which to examine our collective morality. We play the same geopolitical games – viewing the West as civilised and Russia as a goon squad backwater where totalitarian monsters swim downstream with the current, as we as a country slouch in political kyphosis toward Gilead. The issue is not the civilised world of Europe and North America versus the totalitarian iron cage of Russia. After all, the so-called civilised countries of the world are the only ones who have deployed nuclear bombs during warfare. They are the countries that planned and perpetrated the mass killings of 6 million Jews. They are the ones who are destroying the earth’s climate along with their vassal states. Zizek makes this point when he writes:

When President Zelensky called the Ukrainian resistance a defence of the civilised world, did this mean that he was excluding the non-civilised? What about thousands arrested in Russia for protesting the military intervention? What about the fact that Nazism came to power in a country which epitomises the highest European culture? It is THERE that ‘Europeans with blue eyes and blond hair’ were doing the killing. If we just ‘defend Europe,’ we already speak Dugin’s and Putin’s language: it is the European truth versus the Russian truth. The limit between civilisation and barbarism is internal to civilisations, which is why our struggle is universal. The only true universality today is the universality of a struggle.

Ukraine was the poorest country of all post-Soviet states. Even if they – hopefully – win, their victorious defence will be the moment of truth for them. They will have to learn the lesson that it is not enough for them to catch up with the West, since Western liberal democracy is itself in a deep crisis. The saddest thing about the ongoing war in Ukraine is that, while the global liberal-capitalist order is obviously approaching a crisis at many levels, the situation is now again falsely simplified into barbaric-totalitarian countries versus the civilised West … with global warming out of sight. If we follow this path, we are lost. The present moment is not the moment of truth when things become clear, when the basic antagonism is clearly seen. It is a moment of the deepest lie. If a Europe that excludes the ‘uncivilised’ wins, then we don’t need Russia to destroy us. We alone will successfully accomplish the task.

While we, in the ‘civilised’ West, assume the moral high ground from our suburban redoubts surrounded by a ring of In-N-Out burger joints and Denny’s, it is difficult to ascertain how we, in the US, can justify condemning Putin and his invading tank columns when the US military has destroyed numerous countries in the name of exporting our democracy. As Nigel Leaney puts it so well:

Afghanistan was invaded to find one man and his dog. Even then, he managed to evade capture and went into hiding for many years. In the meantime, one of the poorest countries in the world was made to feel the might of the richest and most powerful. Afghanistan was punished for daring to say no to the US and its allies. None of its citizens was involved in 9/11. That distinction went to … Saudi Arabia. A major customer of the US and UK. Therefore a friend and an ally. Shame about its record on human rights, its export of terrorism and all that stuff we’re supposed to care about. When Bin Laden was finally captured, it wasn’t through military action but painstaking detective work. The mastermind behind 9/11 was snatched from Pakistan in a daring raid. But Pakistan wasn’t invaded for the US to finally achieve their aim. The country was not reduced to blood and rubble. Unlike its neighbour, Pakistan is a nuclear power. ’Nuff said.

Do middle Americans who find spiritual comfort in the traditionalism and ethnic segregation of Eastern Orthodox Churches and whose congregants adore Putin with the same illustrious ferocity as a Scientologist might feel for Tom Cruise, remain unperturbed that they are following a homophobic, democracy-hating, Tzarist-Stalinist-autocracy line of march, one that fully embraces a marriage of the Orthodox Church and the state, resuscitating a militant nationalism that backs itself up with nuclear threats? If the answer is yes, and you would like to join this confederacy of traditionalists, then make sure you wear your Cossack attire to your next Church gathering and don’t forget to cheer on the Russian troops, as they undertake their next attack on a maternity ward. Pray for Donald Trump to return to office, so he can build his wall and put all his enemies in prison, beginning with Gates, Hillary, and Pelosi. And, maybe this time, he can finish the job that the January 6 coup participants were unable to, and finally leave Mike Pence swinging outside the Capitol Building.

I think there’s a good chance Donald and Vladimir will be vacationing together in 2024 after Donald drops all the sanctions against Russia. I hear Yevpatoriya in Crimea has a nice water park. And the physiognomy of St. Petersburg is legacy-chic. Melania will love the Yusupov Palace! There our dear leaders can enjoy a commodity-rich environment and be out of range of Ukrainian artillery. And they can return to the ideals that made the Soviet Union great – empire-building! – without the communism, of course. One thing you can do in the meantime is to make sure your church is the first to demand all public school teachers and other employees paid from public school funds to sign a pledge in which they acknowledge it to be their duty to inculcate students, in part, with ‘a love and devotion to the policies and institutions that have made America the finest country in the world in which to live.’ I understand from reports coming in from my office that Patriarch Kirill will be putting icons of Vladimir and Donald in cathedrals all over Russia. And there will be some great stained glass images in all of the cathedrals showing Donald playing golf and a bare-chested Vladimir riding bareback on a white unicorn. And if anything goes wrong, just remember we’re armed with nukes, enough, perhaps to keep the wolf at the door.

It is quite puzzling to me that Putin lovers in America have not fully appreciated George Orwell’s acclaimed book, 1984. Louis Menand was correct when he maintained that 1984 has been read in America not as a warning about tendencies within liberal democracies or the Sovietization of Eastern Europe but ‘as a book about loyalty oaths and McCarthyism.’ After all, Menand writes, ‘[i]n the nineteen-seventies, it was used to comment on Nixon and Watergate. There was a bounce in readership in 1983-84 – four million copies were sold that year – because, well, it was 1984. And, in 2016, it got a bump from Trump.’ And, in 2022, the prophecy that the book has described that has so terrified millions of its readers for decades will very likely reach its point of no return in November, 2024. Are we frightened yet? Well, we should be.

Meanwhile, the school in Belogorovka, a village in the Donetsk region that was hit by a Russian bomb, is still smouldering. Russia has threatened Finland for wanting to join NATO, and my friend Juha is now busy cleaning his hunting rifle.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). Living in the Nothingness: America’s White Nationalists, the Russian Orthodox Church and The Fascist Invasion of Ukraine. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/living-in-the-nothingness/

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.