by Ted Lipien
January 18, 2023 02:17 AM
Those conservative Christians in the United States who delude themselves that President Vladimir Putin and Russia, under his authoritarian, corrupt, and dangerous rule, defend traditional and Christian values should take note of this statistic: Only 1.4% of declared Russian Orthodox Church members in the Russian Federation attended Christmas services this year. Orthodox Christmas Day for the year 2023 was observed on Jan. 7.
This number, reported by the Russian Interior Ministry and noted by prominent Russia expert Paul Goble, is shockingly low. How could Putin’s Russia be a bulwark against atheism and decadence, as some conservative Americans seem convinced, when so few Russians are practicing believers, even on a major Christian holiday? Anyone who accepts Putin’s claim of being a protector of Christianity has been brainwashed by his propaganda machine or corrupted by his dark money.
This is not the first time Russia’s leaders have deceived Americans, and conservative American Christians are hardly the most influential group that has been fooled. In the past, many conservatives opposed “godless communism,” while radically left-leaning Americans accepted Soviet propaganda lies as gospel truth. Communism had as one of its main objectives the destruction of religion, and Putin was for years a communist functionary in the state apparatus that specialized in persecuting Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other religious believers.
The Cold War against Soviet and Chinese communism helped to strengthen religion in the U.S. and helped Republicans win elections. President Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976 partly because of Ford’s naive view of communism in Poland, based on bad advice from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 partly because of his uncompromising opposition to Soviet communism. I’m convinced that siding with Putin out of partisan spite will cause Republicans to lose votes, especially among conservative and independent ethnic voters — the group that supported Reagan.
Still, not much has changed in Russian leaders being able to find allies among radicalized Americans on the Left and the Right. Former President Barack Obama launched the “reset” with Putin’s Russia, which Hillary Clinton implemented as his secretary of state at the expense of the security of America’s NATO allies in Eastern Europe. While now perhaps focusing more on the conservative Right, Putin’s propaganda machine is still targeting the American Left. It is done with different messages on social media for both groups to create profound divisions and weaken American institutions and democracy with doubt, confusion, and strife.
Subverting of radical groups and people has been in the arsenal of Soviet and now Russian propaganda for decades. In 1944, the KGB used a well-meaning but naive and radical Polish-American Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Stanislaus Orlemanski, to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Voice of America officials and editors in the U.S. Office of War Information that Soviet communist tyrant Joseph Stalin, who had thousands of priests, monks, and nuns murdered during and after the 1917 Bolshevik coup, suddenly became a supporter of religious freedom and would guarantee democracy in post-World War II Poland. FDR wanted to prove to conservative southern Democrats and others whose votes he needed to win elections that Stalin could be trusted. He had Orlemanski flown to Moscow on a U.S. military plane for a meeting with Stalin. Still, he withdrew public support for the priest’s propaganda mission after a deluge of protests from Polish-American leaders and Catholic bishops in the U.S. Orlemanski was controlled and manipulated by a Soviet KGB agent, Bolesław “Bill” Gebert, who had allies among Voice of America’s pro-Kremlin Roosevelt propagandists. After later publicly distancing his administration from the priest who met with Stalin, FDR still believed that Soviet Russia was moving toward democracy and religious freedom. Roosevelt kept his secret promises to Stalin to give him control over Eastern Europe and thus the ability to persecute 70 million Christians in Poland and other countries after the war.
Today, Russia still achieves its geopolitical aims less by direct propaganda by its state media sources than by getting the support of religious, political, and media figures in the U.S. and other Western nations. Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson and evangelical Christian leaders such as Pat Robertson, who give credence to Russian propaganda, are far more valuable to Putin than the Russian RT and Sputnik media channels. These conservative Americans seem not to be bothered by shockingly low church attendance in the Russian Federation, which has the highest abortion rate in the world.
Thankfully, not all evangelical Christians have been duped by Putin. Those who have been deceived should realize that they had joined the old leftist assembly of Stalin’s fools since Putin is an ex-KGB officer who uses Stalin’s favorite communist propaganda tactics in exploiting religion to corrupt and destroy it. I’m amazed how any American Christian can defend Putin when his Russian army kills Christians in Ukraine, including many civilians, women, and children. Young Russian soldiers, some Orthodox Christians, are needlessly dying for Putin. Others are raping Ukrainian women and stealing.
Perhaps conservative Americans who support Putin don’t know that church attendance in Ukraine is many times higher than in Russia. It is even more significant in Poland, where many Polish families opened their homes to over a million refugees from Putin’s war in Ukraine.
It is true that the U.S., some European countries, and even Poland are losing practicing believers, especially among young people, but not nearly at the rate seen in Russia. Any conservative Christian American who still supports Putin as a savior of religion should be deeply ashamed of such naive faith in the Russian ex-communist who had worked for the KGB spy service and secret police responsible for the death and persecution of millions of Christians. Putin defended communism and the Soviet Union, which fell partly because of the strength of religion in Poland and the determination of Christian leaders such as Pope John Paul II, Solidarity trade union chief Lech Walesa, and Reagan.
There are still many authentic Christians in Russia, but some may have boycotted this year’s church services because of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy’s support for the war in Ukraine. Pro-Putin American Christian conservatives should be siding with these anti-Putin Christian Russians — not with Putin, who is bringing death, destruction, and suffering to the people of Ukraine and who threatens Russia’s other neighbors.
Poland and Ukraine have not threatened or invaded Russia at any time in recent history. Russia, in contrast, invaded and occupied Polish, Belorussian, and Ukrainian lands in 1939 under Stalin’s agreement with Hitler. Soviet Russia also attacked Finland in 1939 and occupied the Baltic States a year later. In 1956, the Soviet Red Army suppressed the Hungarian Revolution and drove Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty into exile, and in 1968, the Kremlin ordered the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Putin, who admires Stalin, called the fall of the Soviet empire a great historic tragedy. That some American conservative Christians still think that Putin is not like Stalin but a defender of peace is proof of his phenomenal ability to deceive those blinded by partisanship and refusing to learn from history.
Ted Lipien was Voice of America’s Polish service chief during Poland’s struggle for democracy and its acting associate director. He served briefly in 2020-2021 as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s president. He is the author of Wojtyla’s Women, a book about Pope John Paul II.