Putin’s Play for the Western Right

The Russian dictator makes his pitch to the world’s reactionaries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on stage during the Valdai International Discussion Club on October 27, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on stage during the Valdai International Discussion Club on October 27, 2022. (Contributor / Getty)

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At his annual conference with foreign international-affairs experts, Vladimir Putin ranted about cancel culture and gay-pride parades. He’s trying to unite the global right.

Also: We’re keeping an eye on the story from San Francisco about a brutal attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul. The suspect, now in custody, was apparently looking for the speaker, who was not at home. Paul Pelosi was seriously injured. For more, read my colleague David Graham’s story on the assault, ”January 6 Never Ended.”

And here are three more new stories from The Atlantic.

Culture Warrior

For nearly two decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin has held an annual event called the Valdai Discussion Club, named for the picturesque lake in Russia near where the first meeting took place in 2004. It’s a kind of Eastern Davos for influential foreigners—the Valdai website notes that this year, it included “111 experts, politicians, diplomats and economists from 41 countries”—who come for a few days of high-level discussions with the Russian political elite.

The star of the show, however, is always Putin, who gives a speech and then sits for questions. You go to such an event knowing that the regime is going to have its say—but even under a repressive government, there is value in such things, as my friend Dan Drezner wrote when he attended in 2016. (I went to conferences with Soviet colleagues in the old U.S.S.R. in the 1980s, and yes, they were worthwhile; I managed to learn things and exchange a few ideas.)

This year, Putin tailored his message to appeal to right-wing forces in the United States and Europe. The Russian president has been pursuing his own version of “Unite the Right” for some time now, but at Valdai, he didn’t even bother with the pretense of speaking to diplomats and public intellectuals. Instead, he baited Westerners into arguing with one another about the culture wars instead of opposing his criminal war in Ukraine.

It’s not hard to spot the raw meat in his speech. “If the Western elites believe they can have their people and their societies embrace what I believe are strange and trendy ideas, like dozens of genders or gay-pride parades, so be it. Let them do as they please,” he fumed. “But they certainly have no right to tell others to follow in their steps.” Putin has been attacking gay and trans people in speeches for a while, but reprising his homophobic complaints at a place like Valdai is an indication that Putin is aiming for Western televisions, not an audience of international-affairs experts.

There was, of course, the usual Soviet-era hangover in Putin’s discussions with the audience, including how the “so-called West” is seeking global superiority over the rest of the world. (To add “so-called” is a way of indicating that he is really speaking mostly of the decadent United States and its friends.) But Putin returned to the themes he no doubt hopes will show up in the Western media, including “cancel culture”—which is not exactly a source of anxiety in wartime Russia these days, but is of great interest to Western rightists:

And what is happening now? At one time, the Nazis reached the point of burning books, and now the Western “guardians of liberalism and progress” have reached the point of banning Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky. The so-called “cancel culture” and in reality—as we said many times—the real cancellation of culture is eradicating everything that is alive and creative and stifles free thought in all areas, be it economics, politics, or culture.

The mention of Dostoyevsky might be a reference to one Italian university that canceled and reinstated a course on the Russian author. And it’s true that while Putin’s forces are engaged in mass murder in Ukraine, some American orchestras have become skittish about playing the “1812 Overture,” which is a celebration of a Russian military victory. (The Boston Pops play it every summer at Tanglewood and on the Esplanade; this year, they decided to add the Ukrainian national anthem just before it.) This is not “canceling” Russian culture, and Putin knows it—but the accusation makes great material for Putin’s useful idiots outside of Russia.

(As an aside, Putin quoted from Dostoyevsky’s Demons to make his point, but in a wonderfully revealing moment, he added, “These were great thinkers and, frankly, I am grateful to my aides for finding these quotes.” Culture is important, but who has time to read those books?)

And, of course, Putin exhibited his classic chutzpah, the insulting audacity the Russians would call naglost. “I am convinced that real democracy in a multipolar world,” Putin said, “is primarily about the ability of any nation—I emphasize—any society or any civilization to follow its own path and organize its own sociopolitical system.” The Soviets used to say this too, but it’s especially galling to hear it as Russian forces continue their quest to erase an entire nation.

There was much more, but for Americans, the most important point is that among the many ways Putin intends to pursue this disastrous war in Ukraine, he is staking at least some of his hopes on undermining unity in the United States and Europe. It’s not a bad bet; the Republicans appear poised to retake the House in November, and the putative speaker, Kevin McCarthy, has already had to walk back a gaffe in which he admitted that support for Ukraine might weaken (which I think is likely) once the GOP gets control.

Putin would much rather have us arguing over gay rights than over how many more artillery systems to send to Ukraine. His comments at Valdai might seem like hyperventilation, Soviet-era blather, or even just plain silliness, but he knows what he’s doing. It’s up to us to make sure his culture-war-propaganda gambit doesn’t work.


Today’s News
  1. Police announced that they intend to charge the man who attacked Nancy Pelosi's husband this morning with attempted homicide and other felonies.
  2. This year’s flu season in the U.S. is earlier and more severe than it has been in 13 years.
  3. Several of Twitter’s top executives and board members—including the chief executive, the chief financial officer, and the general counsel—were fired shortly after Elon Musk closed his deal to purchase the company.


Evening Read
A man dressed in an air-freshener tree costume and a woman dressed as a princess walk amidst blurred bright lights
(Alex Webb / Magnum)

Adult Halloween Is Stupid, Embarrassing, and Very Important

By Faith Hill

When I was a kid, fun felt really fun. Reading a book was completely immersive; chasing the dog around the yard was transcendent; running a fake restaurant with rocks as potatoes was the honor of a lifetime. The absolute peak, though, was Halloween. I can still recall bounding down the sidewalk in the cool October air, chuffed to be up late, drunk on the maniacal power that comes from knocking on strangers’ doors and demanding candy.

It’s not that, as an adult, I don’t do anything that could be called fun; it’s just that fun doesn’t feel quite the same as it used to. Getting dinner with friends is lovely. My little neighborhood stroll is nice. Standing around at a party and shouting over music to catch up with acquaintances is … fine. I just no longer experience the deep, whimsical joy that a rock potato could once bring.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the three witch sisters of "Hocus Pocus 2."
Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the three witch sisters of Hocus Pocus 2. (Disney+)

Read. Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, uses a fixture of Japanese life to demonstrate the difficulty of fitting into society’s tidy categories.

Or try another pick from our list of short novels you can tear through in one weekend.

Watch. Need to spice up your Halloween watch list? Try one of these 25 horror movies, ranked by scariness.

If you consider yourself proudly anti-horror, turn to one of these 10 “scary” movies—we promise you can handle them.

And there’s always Hocus Pocus, the magic of which you should never question.

Listen. Two things are exciting about Rihanna’s new ballad from the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever soundtrack: the sound of her voice, and the track’s ambition.

Play our daily crossword.


October is almost over, but before it’s done, let me suggest that it’s the perfect month to revisit (or discover) an album from 1994: the self-titled debut from a group that called itself October Project. The group split up soon after their follow-up album and tour, but October Project was a masterpiece. Beautifully structured songs, heartbreaking lyrics, and lead singer Mary Fahl’s vocals combined to make the kind of album you had not heard before and would never hear again. (The Boston Globe once said that Fahl has “a voice for the gods” that “can transport listeners to other realms,” and the Christian Science Monitor referred to her singing as “ethereal.”)

But Fahl’s voice was only part of the magic that included vocals from Marina Belica, compositions by Emil Adler, and the poetry of the lyricist Julie Flanders. It’s not enough to say that the songs are about love; they are, but there is also bravery, yearning, sadness, desire, and anger in them. (The song “Eyes of Mercy” was written for the children of Bosnia, which was in the midst of war at the time: “Hush, close your eyes … The noise in the street will soon disappear,” Fahl and Belica sing, promising to “stay here with eyes open to watch over you.”) The album is hard to explain, so instead, just give it a listen while it’s still October.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.