How did our relations with Russia go so far wrong so quickly? The Obama administration hoped to have a “reset” of our bilateral ties by wiping the slate clean. In giving the Russians a reset, we were showing a willingness to let bygones be bygones. Or, in their case, let Putin’s 2008 invasion of neighboring Republic of Georgia be forgotten. It was exactly the wrong thing to do.
But the trouble with our Russian relations goes further back. After the collapse of Communism and the largely peaceful dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, it seemed we were headed for a new era of liberal democracy in Russia. Boris Yeltsin was the brave, bluff, buoyant President of the Russian Federation who had boldly stood atop a tank in Moscow when the Communist Party made its last-ditch effort to seize power and depose the feckless Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin was courageous, to be sure. He might easily have been killed.
Still, he represented the fresh winds of change in Russia. Perhaps, after a thousand years of despotism, the long-suffering Russian people would at last know real freedom. And the fact that the long-suppressed Russian Orthodox Church was free to worship was seen as a harbinger of a new dawn for Mother Russia.
So it seemed at the time. When jubilant crowds surged through Moscow, they tore down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the dreaded CHeKa, the Soviet Secret Police (which morphed into the KGB). “Iron Felix” was the symbol of all that was wrong with the USSR, with Communism, with Russian despotism. Surely, many of us felt, this was the end of the evil empire.
Our focus of attention soon shifted elsewhere, however. In the 1990s, America took what columnist Charles Krauthammer has sagely called “a holiday from history.” Some Americans continued to report from Russia, but few here were interested. Larry Uzzell was one intrepid reporter who wrote from Moscow. Uzzell, a former Heritage Foundation scholar and, too briefly, a Reagan administration official, was fluent in Russian and was himself a convert to Orthodox Christianity. Perhaps because of that, he was especially interested in religious freedom in Russia.
In 1993, Larry Uzzell warned that the new Russian constitution was not a good protector of freedom. It centralized too much power in the hands of the Russian Federation President and it failed to provide strong guarantees for religious freedom.
Uzzell fearlessly reported on infringements of religious freedom in Russia in the nineties. A decade later, Larry Uzzell headed up International Religious Freedom Watch. He penned a prophetic 2004 column for World Magazine in which he noted dangerous signs:
The Sept. 14 torching of the Baptist house church in Lyubuchany was more directly linked to state harassment. Yelena Kareyeva, a member of the congregation, told International Religious Freedom Watch when we visited last month that just three days before the fire her son had seen two suspicious-looking men loitering in the adjacent forest. Her son recognized one of them: In August he had taken part in a massive police operation against a gathering hosted by the congregation for several thousand Baptists from all over central Russia.
Those “suspicious looking men” were, of course, FSB agents, operating under the gaze of Vladimir Putin. The former KGB agent had pushed aside the bibulous Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve, 1999, and was now the President of the Russian Federation. It was in his firm grip that the menacing powers of the 1993 Russian constitution would be wielded.
Putin had quietly replaced a bust of Iron Felix in FSB headquarters. Few Americans were concerned in 1993, or even in 2004, when Larry Uzzell was a voice crying in the wilderness. If only Russia would honor contracts and provide a good place for American entrepreneurs to function, its leaders would be people with whom, in Margaret Thatcher’s telling phrase, “we can do business.”
Let us be bold to disagree: Religious Freedom is the First Freedom. It is, we will concede, not part of the American Founders’ inspired plan that “the free exercise of religion” is listed first in the First Amendment. They actually proposed other amendments firster. What we know as the First Amendment is simply the first one ratified.
Nonetheless, the Founders really did view religious freedom as fundamental. And it is the great error of recent administrations—of both parties—not to see it as fundamental.
Our own State Department abandoned the principle of religious freedom when it insisted on so-called “repugnancy clauses” in the newly written constitutions of Iraq and Afghanistan. These clauses say nothing can be done by the new governments that is “repugnant” to Islam. As we have seen, merely to say “Jesus is Lord” is regarded as blasphemy in these lands and governments that protect people’s right to say it are soon overthrown. A Pakistani judge, a devout Muslim who defended a Christian woman, saying she had a right to her beliefs, was himself assassinated. And his murder was widely approved in Pakistan.
Because 84% of Egyptians tell the Pew poll, year after year, that their neighbors should be killed if they convert to Christianity, the Egyptians will not have democracy. Nor should they vote if they continue to act on such beliefs.
Religious freedom is not for Christians alone. Winston Churchill had a chance to meet Adolf Hitler when both men were out of power. In a Munich hotel in 1932, Churchill was on tour, researching a book on his famous ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. Churchill told Hitler’s lapdog, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengel: “You can tell your boss for me that anti-Semitism may be a good starter, but it’s a bad sticker.” Hitler refused to meet Churchill.
Churchill rarely attended church, but he sensed that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was just the start. Many a quaint little Anglican church would be smashed by the bombs dropped by that hateful Fürer.
We are already back in the USSR. We have been there for some time. If anyone wants to know why Russian democracy failed to flower, we can answer: They burn churches, don’t they?