The Great Russian Pretence

Russian propagandists accuse Europe of having forfeited its moral values and claim that Russia is now the repository of these values. This rhetoric resonates with some conservatives. In this essay, our author examines how, far from defending European “civilization”, the Putin regime has turned into “an apocalyptic sect led by a demented guru”.

“Give them 48 hours to leave Kharkov and then destroy everything, district by district… No more fine words about ‘our brothers and sisters’. Ukrainians see talk like that as a sign of weakness. All those on our side are already in Russia… Explain to me why Kiev is still standing. Why hasn’t this Nazi city been razed to the ground?” This is how Vladimir Solovyov, the Kremlin’s Goebbels, sets the tone for official propaganda in the spring of 2024. “Kharkov must be wiped off the map until there’s no one left. But start with Kiev. The city must simply be annihilated. Everything there wiped off the face of the earth.” That is the rallying cry today, dutifully relayed by the same Solovyov. Duma MP Lugovoy details how to proceed: “Kharkov must be deprived of power to make the city uninhabitable. All the remaining 800,000 inhabitants have to do is pack their stuff and head west, by car, on foot, or by cart…”. Presenter Sergei Mardan spells out the plan: “Ukraine is to become a heap of rubble… The whole of Ukraine will be systematically transformed into a sanitary  zone, i.e. a war zone with no electricity, no bridges, no railroads, no transport, no utilities networks, no emergency services, no functioning hospitals. In short, a region of mass exodus… Russian ruling circles aren’t divided anymore between a war party and a peace party. There is only one party , the party of revenge…”. Those familiar with the Russian media will not be surprised by this genocidal rhetoric. Once again, one can’t help but be astonished at the Russian population’s lack of reaction to the abominations spewing out of its media. Any nation would find them revolting. Meanwhile, the Russian opposition never ceases to be outraged by the rampant corruption in the land. But we hardly ever hear it accusing the regime of its most serious crime, the orchestrated dehumanization of the Russian population for over two decades.

Russian claims

But the worst is that Russia has the nerve to present itself as the ultimate custodian in Europe of the European civilization that it accuses Europe of rejecting; and that it finds naïve and complicit individuals in Europe who allow themselves to be intoxicated by this propaganda. Here are a few examples. In July 2021, editorialist Vladimir Mozhegov wrote an eloquent article in Vzglyad entitled “Russia is the last Europe”: “The story of the fall of the Roman Empire is increasingly referenced these days. That’s not surprising: the period of Rome’s decline has too much in common with Europe’s current and increasingly obvious decline. The same lack of a spiritual backbone […], the same influx of barbarians flooding the streets of European capitals and turning them into junkyards, the same collapse of morality, family and traditions, the same demographic crisis. Let’s not forget that the main reason for the fall of Rome was that there was no one to fill the ranks of its legions, the driving force behind Roman civilization. Today, things are even more catastrophic. White people – the foundation of world civilization – have stopped having children altogether. […] What about us Russians? Yes, yes, of course, we’re no younger than the German Goths. We created our state and wrote our first great books in the same era as did the young Christian Europe. But then the “Iron Curtain” of the Tatar invasion came down, and we didn’t really return to Europe until five centuries later, to the sound of axes in the shipyards of Peter the Great’s Admiralty. We returned to an already deeply ill Europe, already feverishly undermining its Christian project, already hopelessly contaminated by the viruses of democracy and revolution. 

And the Russian troops of 1812 accidentally brought the European infection home on their boots. But even so, even so […] Dostoyevsky, speaking of the “stones of Europe we cherish”, wanted to say one thing: it was time to save Europe from its vulgar “democracy” and barbaric “revolution”, that is from the total destruction of spirituality and culture.”

This quotation deserves several comments. First, it reveals a desire to play on people’s apocalyptical mindset. There’s nothing like end of the world expectations  to switch off reasoning and down to earth political deliberation. Trump enthralls his fanatics in the same way with this type of apocalyptic rhetoric, spurring them to civil war: remember his inaugural speech on January 20, 2017. In Russia’s case, we see the reemergence of a classic Eurasian1 theme, recently touched on by Putin: the period of the Mongol yoke was positive for Russia, as the invaders isolated it from the deleterious influences of Europe (supporters of the Eurasian project hailed Bolshevism for the same reason). Putin praises Prince Alexander Nevski for choosing the side of the Golden Horde, because “his main concern was to effectively prevent invasion from the West. The Horde behaved with arrogance and cruelty, but did not interfere with our language, our traditions or our culture. And that’s the most important point […]. That’s why we consider Nevski a saint, because this warrior thought about preserving the Russian people.” Thanks to that long period of isolation (1236-1480), by the time Russia returned to Europe under Peter the Great, it possessed youthful energy compared with a Europe already sliding into decadence, Mozhegov tells us. In this way, Russian backwardness became an asset.

If we compare Mozhegov’s words with a more recent statement (2023) by Andrei Beloussov, the Russian government’s #2, we see how the Slavophile cliché of a “degenerate Europe” has been transformed into a weapon  against Western democratic regimes. Beloussov’s text is a call to action. “Russia can become the guardian of the West’s traditional European values, whereas the West has turned away from these traditional values and moved onto something else.” he writes. “It is wrong to say the West is our enemy. In the West, there are elites and broad social strata who abide by traditional values. And Russia may be a lifeline for these elites.” Because of its intellectual disarray, Europe is vulnerable: “There was an English-speaking core in the world population, which old Europe joined, and between them they ruled the world. At the same time, Europe has no sovereignty…I can say that a sovereign country must necessarily have its own philosophy. Who are we, where do we come from, where are we going? Take India, for example. It is fully sovereign, even if its GDP per capita is not very high. The same goes for China at the moment. These are 100% sovereign countries.” 

As for us, Beloussov continues, “we see ourselves as a self-sufficient country with our own faith, […] our own national spirit”. “We have no other choice for our country than to acquire and replicate this national spirit. To do so, we have an immense culture. We have our own cultural code, our own cultural identity, something the vast majority of countries and peoples don’t have. In fact, Dostoyevsky sensed this very clearly.” Beloussov’s subversive design is obvious: he openly appeals to a putsch against Western democratic regimes  under the cover of his “traditional values” rhetoric: “Today, Russia is sending a signal to the West: we are not looking for a way to destroy it, but on the contrary, we can save it. Western peoples have only one thing to do: overthrow all those who promote unnatural things and, together with Russia, restore a human way of life.” 

In December 2023, political scientist Sergei Karaganov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, dotted the i’s: “The West brought down the Iron Curtain, first and foremost because we in Russia are the true Europeans. We are healthy whereas they want to isolate themselves from healthy forces.” At the same time, Karaganov recommends not slamming the door, but rather waiting for the moment when Russia can once again harness the Europeans to the Russian power machine: “Without the European transplant, without European culture, we would not have become such a great power. […] I hope that when Europe has gone through a series of crises, in twenty years or so, relatively speaking, healthy forces will prevail.”

So the Kremlin’s propagandists are doing their utmost to convince Europeans of their betrayal of Western civilization, and that civilization has been preserved only in Russia; and that by turning to Russia, Europeans will save Europe. The intention is to exploit partisan opinions so heated in wider European circles, which are fed up with wokism and the crisis of authority in our societies, that the Russian claims will be taken at face value. But their propaganda is based on a double pretence.

Russian fans at the 2018 FIFA World Cup// Screenshot

The pretence

Firstly, these propagandists hide that all the symptoms of “decadence” they like to identify in the West are present in Russia:  a quarter of Moscow’s population (3.5 million) is Muslim. The proportion of two-parent families in Russia fell from 39.7% in 2002 to 20.7% in 2021 – in France, it’s 66.3%. Russia ranks among the leaders in terms of divorces: 73% of marriages end in divorce (in France, 46%). The number of children per woman is 1.4 (in France 1.68). Homosexuality is as widespread there as anywhere, including in the upper echelons of power. The only difference is the hypocrisy that reigns in Kremlin circles. The divorced president behaves like Molière’s Tartuffe,  while homosexual members of parliament are the loudest in denouncing the West’s LGBTQ “decadence”. When all is said and done, living life according to “traditional values” can be reduced to the right of husbands to beat their wives unpunished.

The second pretence is that Kremlin propaganda equates civilization with a way of life, which enables it to deny the true essence of European civilization. It is untrue that Europeans have turned their backs on their civilization. Rather, they have left it in disrepair, as they have done with their armed forces. But civilization’s background is still with them. The proof is in Europe’s swift response to help Ukraine. Putin and the men in the Kremlin never expected it, precisely because they are strangers to European civilization and don’t know what they’re talking about when they use the term. They expected Europeans to think only of their gas bill and abandon Ukraine. Yet the basis of the European consensus to support Ukraine is our humanist heritage. Europeans were horrified by Russia’s genocidal rhetoric and practices in Ukraine. It is this moral reaction that is behind the gradual emergence of a new Europe, underway since February 24, 2022, the Europe of freedom dreamed of by the pioneers of European unity after the Second World War. The men in the Kremlin are dimly aware of this. That’s why they are trying to use the argument of decadent morals to erase the richness and vitality of our European heritage from our consciousness. Instinctively, they destroy in others what they feel is lacking in themselves. They are helped in this by our ignorance. For if we live thanks to the legacy of our civilization, we too often forget it. Our resistance to Russian aggression must go hand in hand with a rediscovery of our neglected riches.

We need to re-immerse ourselves in the humanities if we are to know why Europe deserves to be defended against Russian barbarism. In the difficult times ahead, the wisdom of Antiquity can be of great help. Alone in the tower of his castle in a France wracked by wars of religion, Montaigne talked to Plutarch, Cicero and Seneca to find the strength to withstand the devastating fanaticism of his time.

Historians and diplomats have often referred to relations between Europe and Russia as “misunderstandings”. It would be more accurate to speak of incompatible mental universes, due precisely to the fact that Europeans are still affected by the influence of their old civilization, whereas for Russians, as Pushkin’s friend Piotr Chaadaev wrote in his famous Philosophical Letter I (1830), “we are still discovering the most trivial truths elsewhere, even from peoples in some ways far less advanced than ourselves. It is because we have never walked with other peoples; we belong to none of the great families of the human race; we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we have the traditions of neither. Placed as if outside time, the universal education of the human race never reached us. This admirable linkage of human ideas in the succession of ages, this history of the human spirit, which has brought it to the state it is in today in the rest of the world, has had no effect on us.”

The humanities

Each period of European civilization has left us a legacy of concepts, currents of thought, standards and ways of perceiving humankind that inform our thinking to this day. Russia has remained on the sidelines of this heritage. This gap is at the root of the misunderstanding that characterizes its relations with Europe. Let’s take a quick look at some remnants of Western civilization whose absence in Russia condemns the country to remain captive to autocracy’s infernal cycle of succession crisis, emergence of an autocrat, bloody ravages, new succession crisis, and so on.

Our civilization was built on dialogue with Antiquity, uninterruptedly until the middle of the 20th century. Ancient Greece taught us civic freedom and law abidance. “The Greeks are free, and they have voluntarily agreed to submit to the laws of their city, unlike the Persian soldiers who fight out of fear of punishment by their all-powerful king”, writes Herodotus. This experience represents the crucible of European consciousness. Plato and Aristotle made us think about justice and injustice, about the Sovereign Good, about the different political systems – monarchy, aristocracy and democracy – and about the ways in which these systems are corrupted. Plato inaugurated a theme which became very popular: the education of princes. After him, Aristotle developed the notion of the common good, understood as the pursuit of the general interest or virtuous living.

The Stoic legacy

Two great wisdoms were born at the end of the 4th century BC, when the Greek cities, conquered by the Macedonians, lost their autonomy: Stoicism and Epicureanism. Both have had a profound influence on our civilization. In the Greek tradition, these two rival schools of thought consider mankind to be ill from its own excesses. Both taught how to find happiness in an unpredictable, often hostile world. For them, the goal of philosophy was to learn how to live well. The Greeks, deprived of civic freedom, discovered inner freedom. True possessions are those that cannot be taken from us, such as wisdom. We see the emergence of the notion of humanity that exceeds the bounds of the city and transcends the distinctions between Greeks and Barbarians, between free men and slaves.

The impact on our civilization of the Stoic school, which lasted five centuries, is immense. The fundamental idea of Stoic doctrine is that the world is a unified entity through the Reason (logos) that permeates it. Stoicism compensates for the disappearance of the free city by inserting man into a nature suffused by the organizing Reason. Man shares Reason with God and in this way accesses the universal. The Stoic is a citizen of the world. Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, said: “We should consider all men as compatriots and fellow citizens… living under a common law”2. There is a community of nature between all men because they are reasoning beings. Reason, the capacity to learn and an aptitude for virtue are indeed afforded to all men. Being endowed with reason, man has a special responsibility for bringing order to the world. For the Stoics, true freedom is moral freedom.

Stoic doctrine enjoyed great success in Rome. The closure of the public sphere to citizens, who became subjects of the prince, led to the discovery of interiority. Man takes refuge in his inner citadel, where he remains free: “The most unworthy of servitudes is voluntary servitude”3, writes Seneca. When political activity is impossible, Seneca tells us, the wise man will keep his head down and make himself useful to mankind in other ways, relying on natural law and becoming an example to the few.

From Saint Thomas to humanism

The first Christians argued with pagans but were also influenced by them. By the Middle Ages, fruitful exchanges with Antiquity were resumed. In the 13th century, Saint Thomas adopted the Aristotelian identification of reality, intelligibility and necessity. He forcefully asserted the idea of natural law, in terms reminiscent of the Stoics. For him, “the entire community of the universe is governed by divine reason. That is why reason, the principle of the government of all things, considered in God as in the supreme ruler of the universe, overrides the law.”4 Law is founded on man’s natural inclination towards aiming for the common good. Faith and reason, while distinct, are in no way in contradiction. Alain Besançon points out that “the authoritativeness of Cicero’s ideas is still invoked today in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) to justify the idea of natural law and freedom of moral choice”.

Humanism was first and foremost a rediscovery by the Ancients through a return to classical Latin and Greek. For humanists, knowledge is a panacea. They believed they could educate princes. But with the Wars of Religion, people of the 16th century were confronted with barbarism sweeping across Europe, and were led to reflect on how to preserve civilized life. In France, the crisis of the monarchy brought on by the Wars of Religion, and the shock of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, triggered a fertile political reflection, nurtured by the Ancients. It produced the concepts of tolerance, limited monarchy, contractual monarchy, absolute monarchy, and sovereignty, which were to be developed in the 18th century.

These represent just some parts of the legacy of Western civilization.

Opposition activists carrying a banner that reads “Russia is Europe!” during a pro-government demonstration on May 1, 2015. //, screenshot

The catastrophe of Bolshevism, a form of anti-humanism

Russia turned to Europe in the 18th century. It introduced private property and, under Alexander II, abolished serfdom and moved towards the rule of law. From 1905 onwards, it moved cautiously towards a constitutional monarchy. This fragile evolution was brought to an abrupt halt by the Bolshevik revolution, which destroyed the empire’s Westernized elites and implemented a program of systematic de-Europeanization. Civil freedom was discarded. The rule of law was abolished along with private property. The Bolsheviks made no secret of their intention to vanquish nature in every way: by reversing the course of rivers, destroying the family and creating the New Man. Class consciousness replaced fundamental notions of the common good and the common human condition. Ideological determinism left no room for human freedom, and hence for ethics (whereas the Stoics did their utmost to reconcile determinism and human freedom). Atheism imposed by force prevented any relationship with God. Hatred, betrayal, snitching and terror were fostered by the regime from the very first days, destroying social ties. It became a dog-eat-dog society. Russia closed in on itself, cut off from the world by the paranoid, conspiratorial logic of its leaders, who saw foreigners as the focus of an evil will bent on destroying the USSR. In this way, the entire humanist heritage, already precarious in Russia because it never experienced the intense dialogue with Antiquity that shaped Europe, was reduced to nothing. The same applied to the Judeo-Christian heritage: Bolshevism brought with it the negation of the law and systematic violation of the Ten Commandments. After the Second World War, Stalin set out to de-Europeanize the Eastern European countries he had seized by imposing a Communist regime, a feat which has earned him the admiration of Russia’s current leaders.

The true message of Russian propaganda: universal loathsomeness

From Gorbachev onwards, and during Yeltsin’s reign, Russia seemed for a time to turn towards Western civilization. But subsequent events showed that this was only a brief interlude. The relapse under Putin was stunning.

The Greeks taught that man is wicked only through ignorance. The Kremlin preaches the opposite doctrine. During the Communist regime, Social Darwinism encouraged a ferocious hatred of others, with every person perceived as a competitor for scarce goods. The post-communist jungle experience merely reinforced that conviction, which had already been firmly established by Bolshevik practice. Clashes between oligarchs were widely publicized, as each oligarch-controlled press and TV channel used to spread incriminating information (kompromats) about rivals. “All of them just thieves, rotten bastards” was the mood among Russians at the end of Yeltsin’s reign. Putin and his team had the idea of instrumentalizing this trend and to build on it their despotism,  irreversibly abolishing democracy in Russia. For the idea of political representation only makes sense if it is assumed that people want the common good and their good, and that they have the capability to reason and perceive what is in the general interest. To make Russians apolitical, Putin’s propaganda sought to to confirm people’s conviction that man is intrinsically perverse, rapacious, primitive, being dominated by his baser instincts, and to instil in them a chronic hatred of others that can always be mobilized by the authorities. While one of the maxims of classical political thought is the importance of educating the prince, not only to govern in accordance with natural law, but also to set an example for his subjects to imitate, in Russia the rulers consciously set out to debase their subjects. They have persuaded them that it no longer matters what is true or false, since the worst is always certain among our fellow human beings. This indoctrination has been all too successful. It has led to the cancerous proliferation of obscene vocabulary (mat) and a scatological register in the Russian language, including on television and in parliament. The toxic sewage oozing of mass consciousness suffocates articulate speech.

The march towards apocalypse

The West has been oblivious to the Putin regime’s monstrous, programmed degradation of human nature. It thought that, busy making money, Russia would be an unpleasant interlocutor, but that the lure of profits would keep it on the path of coexistence. That was to ignore that the transformation of the country into a mafia state was only a transitional stage. Russia was about to undergo a far more dangerous metamorphosis: its mutation into an apocalyptical sect led by a demented guru, comparable to a large-scale Waco cult.

Alain Besançon has demonstrated how Bolshevism resembled a modern gnosis: the vilification of the existing world, seen as intrinsically evil and to be destroyed, the dictatorship of a small group of initiates working towards the salvation promised by the doctrine, in return for the annihilation of the present world – all this was reminiscent of ancient gnoses.5 Putin’s methodical denigration of the non-Russian world and human race could only lead to a resurgence of this Manichaean Gnostic configuration, which has become even more dangerous than Marxism-Leninism. The reassuring determinism of the latter encouraged the Kremlin’s leaders to be patient: the victory of the proletariat, inscribed in history, was bound to crown historical development in any case.

Not so today. Aware of its plunge into abjectness, Russia has adopted a compensatory ideology. It proclaims itself to be the possessor of a “spirituality” that other peoples are deprived of. Dostoyevsky taught it that the deeper it sank into sin and depravity, the more holy and superior it was to the rest of mankind, that it didn’t need laws because it benefited from divine grace. The Russian Orthodox religion has always favoured liturgical celebration over ethical and intellectual education. It has not passed via Thomism and has not learned to distinguish between  reason and  faith. Far from seeking intellect, faith feeds on national idolatry, and the clergy, under the authorities’ thumb, encourages stupidity. Russian Orthodoxy has always been particularly prone to sectarian aberrations.

The metamorphosis of Putin’s Russia into an apocalyptic sect has been brewing for a long time. It will be recalled that Putin declared in November 2018 that in the event of nuclear war “we, as victims of aggression, we, as martyrs, will go to heaven, and they [Russia’s enemies] will simply die. Because they won’t even have time to repent.” Today he implicitly compares himself to Jesus Christ, inviting youth educators to become “fishers of souls“. The war against Ukraine has precipitated this process, now visible to the naked eye. The Declaration of the 25th World Council of the Russian People (created by Patriarch Kirill) adopted on March 27, 2024, entitled “The Present and Future of the Russian World”, measures the advance by evil. “From a spiritual and moral point of view, the special military operation is a holy war, in which Russia and its people, defending the unified spiritual space of Holy Russia, fulfill the mission of the “katekhon” (from Greek: ὁ κατέχων, “he who holds back”: used in an apocalyptic context, this term designates the one who prevents the revelation of the Antichrist and the advent of absolute evil), protecting the world from the onslaught of globalism and the victory of the West, which has sunk into Satanism. […] The supreme purpose of the existence of Russia, and the Russian world it has created – its spiritual mission –, is to be the world’s “katekhon”, to protect it from evil. The historical mission is to disable at every turn attempts to install universal hegemony in the world, attempts to subordinate humanity to a single evil principle.” We can see that here the enemy is universalism, in the face of which Russia is erecting a citadel cut off from outside contagion, housing a community rallying around its guru. How the leader is evolving is cause for concern. Putin is convinced that Russia cannot be the target of attacks by Islamic fundamentalists, because there is interfaith unity in the country, as he stated on April 4. It indicates how much he has strayed from reality, more than his desire to justify his genocidal war in Ukraine. Russia seems well on the way to collective suicide. Threats of a nuclear apocalypse that have become more frequent these days attest to the sect’s descent into madness: “When we feel the need to annihilate you all, we will. You Europeans have understood nothing, learned nothing… So, Paris, you don’t want to host our athletes? Welcome to our hypersonic missiles instead! Fast, reliable and they hurt a lot,” Solovyov ranted after Anne Hidalgo’s visit to Kyiv.

Like most sects, Russia engages in active recruitment and has many fanatical converts, shut off from reality: “The borders of the Russian world, as a spiritual and cultural-civilizational phenomenon, are much wider than the borders of the present-day Russian Federation and the great historical Russia. […] Russia should become a sanctuary nation for all the world’s compatriots suffering from the onslaught of Western globalism… In addition to compatriots, our country can become a refuge for millions of foreigners who uphold traditional values, are loyal to Russia and are ready to integrate linguistically and culturally into our country”, states the document quoted above. The Kremlin is proceeding abroad as it has done in Russia, seeking to expand its concept of a vile and corrupt humanity far and wide, and to inoculate trumped-up concepts that paralyze judgment to facilitate enlistment in the sect. Sovereignty has degraded into the right of the sovereign to do anything. Russian propaganda rages against the idea that there are rules that the Kremlin did not devise. It furtively legitimizes violence as a form of government. It erases the concept of the “common good” through the partisan fanaticism it nurtures. It turns the word “tolerant” into an insult. In short, to make Europe “Russia-compatible”, it has undertaken to discredit Western civilization in the eyes of Europeans themselves.

The war it is waging against us is perhaps the most dangerous of all, since it carries within it a plan of remote-controlled chaos which might converge with the internal processes of barbarization that are undermining our democracies6. But we have everything we need to defend ourselves in this area. A little history and a little philosophy will cure us of the conspiracy theories and nihilistic self-hatred that Moscow hopes to spread among us to destroy our freedoms. As Seneca said, “Help can come not only from the living, but from those who are no more.”7

She has a degree in classical literature and spent 4 years in the USSR from 1973 to 1978. She is an agrégée in Russian and teaches Soviet history and international relations at Paris Sorbonne.


  1. The birth of the Eurasian current in Russian emigration was in 1921. The Eurasians’ main idea is the rejection of Europe, their dominant passion, hatred of Western civilization. A new version of this ideology was popularized in the 1990s by Alexander Dugin. For him, Russia, supported by China and the Muslim world, must establish its domination over the European continent to confront the Anglo-Saxons.
  2. Quoted in: Robert Muller, Les Stoïciens, Vrin, 2006, 251.
  3. Letters to Lucilius, V, 41, 17
  4. Summa Theologica, I-II Questions 90 and 91
  5. By Alain Besançon, see in particular Les Origines intellectuelles du leninisme, Paris, 1977.
  6. See Françoise Thom and Isabelle Stahl, L’école des barbares, Paris 1985.
  7. Letters to Lucilius, V, 52, 7

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