In the 1920s, ACLU founder Roger Nash Baldwin visited the Soviet Union. Baldwin was a left-wing Anarchist, in other words not exactly the type of person one would expect to praise a totalitarian state. Especially since Baldwin had rightfully fought against American conscription in World War I, and Russia gave working class men the “honor” of being forced into combat. Nonetheless, the tail wagged the dog. Baldwin gushed with praise at what he saw as the class equality in Russia in contrast to the ruthless capitalism of America. It would not be until Stalin cozied up to Hitler that Baldwin turned against the Soviet Union and became quite anticommunist. Baldwin learned his lesson far more quickly than many leftists. It was not altogether uncommon during the Cold War to see left wing Americans who fought admirably for civil rights and civil liberties in America feel extremely reluctant to condemn the Soviet Union. This problem was exacerbated by the official absence of racial discrimination in Russia, in contrast to the savage system of Jim Crow that received legal sanction until the 1960s and America’s longstanding reluctance to disassociate itself from the vicious Apartheid regime in South Africa. And Russia, which had its own history of ethnic cleansing against Jews, did provide us with “Red Westerns” that offered sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans and were a necessary corrective to the John Wayne-type fare.
Certainly, many civil libertarian leftists, Cold War liberal Democrats, and liberal Rockefeller Republicans took a strong anti-Soviet Union position. But the Right was far more unified than the Left against the Soviet Union, not primarily because of a fierce support for civil liberties but because the Soviet Union’s economic system was Communist, and its leaders a perceived threat to the U.S. Conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan could coddle brutal foreign governments such as South Africa and Iraq that were anticommunist, but they could never coddle the Soviet Union. We all know what happened at the beginning of the 1990s. The Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union split apart, and Russian Communism died an inglorious death. Many conservatives still distrusted the Russian government. In 2008, John McCain stated that when he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes, he saw the letters K, G, and B. In 2012, Mitt Romney stated that the U.S. must take a harder line against Putin. But apparently, at least when it comes to the American Right and Russia, to everything there is a season. And after 2012, things started to turn, turn, turn. In 2013, with Putin’s enthusiastic approval, Russia passed one of the most repressive antigay laws to be enacted in Europe in recent years. The law essentially makes it illegal to be an openly gay person in Russia and cracks down on gay adoptions. Russia had never been a particularly pleasant place to be a gay person. Homosexuality had been banned under the tsars, and after a brief respite, Stalin had brought the ban back with a vengeance. Post-Communism, Russia had generally lagged behind Western Europe on gay rights. But now, the Religious Right started to notice that as the United States was getting more liberal on gay rights, Russia was digging its heels in and passing harsher antigay legislation. The right-wing website WorldNetDaily devoted multiple columns to praising the antigay legislation. In one such column, the headline actually read: “Russia to Supplant U.S. As Human-Rights Leader.” Right-wing radio host and former American Family Association official, Bryan Fischer, called Putin a “lion of Christianity.”
“In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues,” Franklin Graham stated. “Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda … Isn’t it sad, though, that America’s own morality has fallen so far that on this issue – protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda – Russia’s standard is higher than our own?”
Because none of the people and institutions I mentioned, except for Franklin Graham, are exactly household names within conservatism, I did not necessarily see their statements as part of a larger trend until Donald Trump became the Republican presidential nominee. Furthermore, Democrats were often too congenial towards Putin as well. Democratic politicians generally failed to push for a trade freeze in response to Russia’s repressive policies. I love Bernie Sanders, I am proud to have voted for him, and I would happily do it again, but during the primaries, he made the absurd suggestion to team up with Russia against ISIS. Bernie Sanders is a strong, longtime ally to the LGBT community, but he failed to adequately take Russia’s homophobia into account with this proposal. But now Trump has gone far beyond Democrats in his friendly relations with Putin. He not only wants to ally with Putin, he has also praised the Russian leader, and tried to soft pedal Putin’s repression of journalists and brutal actions in Crimea. While promising to protect LGBT people from Islamic terrorists, he has nary a word to say about the persecution of LGBT people by Russia. Trump says that he has “always felt fine” about Putin and praised him as a leader. Trump’s response when asked about Putin’s violence against journalists and political opponents is telling: “I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe,” the Republican standard bearer said. “There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on. A lot of stupidity. And that’s the way it is. But you didn’t ask me [that] question, you asked me a different question. So that’s fine.” This sounds exactly like what an American Communist Party official would have said about Soviet repression during the Cold War. One of the funniest things about all of this is that Russia’s continued atrocities could provide former Cold Warriors with an opportunity to say that their criticisms of the country were correct. For example, now that Russia is no longer trying to appeal to disaffected American minorities and African and Asian nations as part of an effort to win the Cold War, we now see that Russia portraying itself as a land of racial equality was a con game. Large swathes of Russian spectators act like they are at a KKK rally during sporting events, to the point that the country’s ability to host the World Cup is in jeopardy. Athletes who engage in blatantly racist behavior are rewarded by Putin. Racial violence is rampant. But while some conservatives do draw attention to this, too many suddenly don’t seem to care about Russian atrocities anymore, because Putin is a “real leader.”
What all of this showcases is that for many conservatives, the Soviet Union was bad because it was Communist, not because it violated human rights and civil liberties per se. Certainly, plenty of conservatives still oppose the Russian government. But the most prominent, outspoken defenders of Russia now come primarily from the Right. Who would have imagined that thirty years ago?