Staunton, February 17 – Moscow’s recent moves against religious groups, the editors of Nezavisimaya gazeta say, mean that the West may again define the country centered on Moscow as “an evil empire,” a term introduced by Ronald Reagan that the paper says had more to do with religion than with ethnicity (ng.ru/editorial/2019-02-17/2_7510_red.html).
As a matter of history, that reading is not without its problems: The US president talked about the nations living under Soviet control and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Captive Nations Week resolution. But the parallels between the 1980s and now that the Moscow paper draws are important for two reasons.
On the one hand, it reflects a trend among Russian writers to treat ethnicity as a less important factor in the past and present than religion and to view what happened at the end of Soviet times as the result of religious divides more than just between ethnic ones. This notion is also not without problems, as ethnicity and religion are far from coterminous.
And on the other – and this is far and away the more important – Nezavisimaya gazeta is quite correct to point out that Reagan frequently directed his talk about the Soviet Union as “the evil empire” at American evangelicals, “having in mind,” the paper’s editors say, “the struggle of the communists with religion.”
Evangelical groups were among the most enthusiastic supporters of this idea and helped keep it alive until it became a mainstream notion – although to be accurate, Reagan’s real contribution to the struggle was to call the USSR an “evil” empire, something that allowed his liberal opponents to drop the evil but nonetheless retain the empire idea.
What the paper doesn’t say at least on this occasion is this: if evangelical Christians conclude the current Russian policies against religion make the Russian Federation the evil empire of today, they could become the basis for a tectonic shift in American opinion about Russia toward greater concern not only with religious rights but with ethnic ones as well.
And that is especially likely because the evangelical Christians in the US are the most reliable part of the base of Donald Trump, the most pro-Russian US president in history. If the current incumbent of the White House concludes that his base has turned on Russia, he is quite likely judging from his other policy shifts to follow them.
That could further intensify negative American attitudes about Russia and make it more rather than less likely that those attitudes will continue both in the population and in the political elite far longer into the future than anyone in Moscow expects, yet another way in which the Kremlin’s domestic policies are backfiring abroad.