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The loneliness of Vladimir Putin

He crushed his opposition and has nothing to show for it but a country that's falling apart.

Vladimir Putin arrives for a speech at the congress of Russia's ruling party in Moscow in 2011. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

On 19 December, Maria Baronova met me on the steps of the Nikulinsky courthouse, a squat Soviet-era building lost in a construction zone somewhere in Moscow’s eternal sprawl. Against the once-white building and dull pewter sky, Baronova was the sole splash of color, her puffy magenta jacket open to the cold afternoon.

It was an important day for the lanky, blonde 29-year-old; for six months, she had been coming to the courthouse daily to stand trial along with eleven others for their roles in protests on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration. Sixteen more were awaiting trial, and together they were known as the Bolotnaya prisoners, for the name of the square where a peaceful protest on 6 May, 2012, had turned violent. For the crime of yelling, or in Putin-era legalese, “inciting mass riots,” Baronova was facing two years in jail.

Today, however, it was rumored that, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the modern Russian constitution, Putin would free more than a thousand prisoners – including political prisoners, most famously two jailed members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot – and give some opposition defendants, such as Baronova, amnesty.

Baronova hadn’t exactly dressed up for the occasion. A motley scarf was tangled around her neck and through her uncombed hair. She clutched a small bottle of Listerine, periodically tipping it back to gargle, then swallow. Last night, she had been at the company holiday party for Dozhd (“Rain”), the last independent Russian TV channel, where Baronova is now a science correspondent. It is the only work that she, a chemist and once a well-paid sales manager at a chemical-supplies company, could get after becoming a defendant in such a public, politicised trial.

“I’m hungoooover,” she moaned to the bailiffs as we handed our bags and passports over for inspection inside the courthouse.

The two bailiffs crooned sympathetically.

“Nausea?”

“Yucky taste in your mouth?”

Baronova nodded miserably as the two men laughed almost lovingly and commiserated.

As we walked up the stairs to the courtroom, Baronova showed me the text message she had sent to one of the bailiffs from the party at five in the morning, informing him that she was in an “inadequate” state and could he please call and wake her up lest she miss her own amnesty hearing? At ten that morning, he had dutifully obliged. “It’s not Stockholm syndrome,” she explained, “but you come here every day, and you really do get used to them.”

We spent an hour waiting to get into the courtroom, maybe two. Baronova checked her Twitter for news from Putin’s press conference, now in its second hour: Had he said anything about amnesty yet? She signed a book brought over by a trilling woman in yellow who said she felt “only positive energy today! Only positive energy!”

Baronova had a good lawyer, a sharp-witted, young attorney named Sergei Badamshin. But the same couldn’t be said of most of the opposition defendants: The woman with the positive energy, it turned out, was one of their attorneys. They bickered with each other and had bizarre theories of defence. (If a police officer exceeds his authority, for instance, then he ceases being a police officer.) Baronova had long ago decided that it wouldn’t be the prosecutor who would sink the protesters; it would be their own defence team. “When I realised that, that made me really depressed,” she told me. Around then, she started to have dark thoughts. She has a seven-year-old son, whom authorities were constantly threatening to take away from her. In October, Baronova was hospitalised with stress-induced gastric ulcers.

Yet the two-year sentence Baronova was contemplating was actually on the light side. Some of the other protesters were facing up to eight years for charges of “using force against representatives of the state”. One young father was facing this sentence for throwing a lemon. It hit the Kevlar vest of a special forces officer who claimed that contact with the lemon had caused him “intolerable pain”. One defendant had already pleaded guilty and had been sentenced to indefinite confinement in a psychiatric institution. No cops had been charged with excessive use of force, of which there had been plenty involving objects far more menacing than lemons. In fact, some had been rewarded for their suffering with free apartments in the center of Moscow. The point was clear: Baronova and the others had been strung out as cautionary tales for the rest of the opposition.

A wave of applause rose through the lobby as the prisoners were paraded into the courtroom and, in modern Russian legal tradition, locked into a giant metal cage. A Rottweiler lay on the floor, legs splayed, and panting loudly. The rest of us piled into the courtroom and listened to the barely audible proceedings.

As Baronova waited to learn whether she had in fact received amnesty, Putin would free the two members of Pussy Riot still in jail as well as oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose decade-long imprisonment had transformed him from the country’s chief robber baron to its most famous prisoner of conscience. But the news hadn’t made its way inside the courtroom yet, where many of the Bolotnaya protesters, who were no cause célèbre abroad, wouldn’t be so lucky. During the Bolotnaya rally, the cops had grabbed Denis Lutskevich, then a 20-year-old former marine, tearing off his shirt as he tried to get away. There is a famous picture of him from that day, shirtless in khaki shorts, his back a canvas of red welts. One of the cops claimed Lutskevich had tried to pull his helmet off, and for this, he was facing eight years in jail, plus an additional five for participating in mass riots.

Now, because Putin had said he would not amnesty those who had hurt his troops, Lutskevich would stay in the cage.

Sitting in the courtroom just in front of me, a tall brunette sat weeping quietly and looking at the prisoners. She was Stella Anton, Lutskevich’s mother. Every day, she came to the courthouse to see her only child. “I can usually keep it together,” she told me. “But I just imagined him also getting amnesty today and walking out of here, and it was like a wave hit me.”

She wiped her face as if to calm herself and asked what I was writing about.

"Russia ahead of the Olympics,” I said.

She scoffed and mashed a tissue in one manicured hand. “Good,” she almost growled. “They should know what kind of country they’re going to.”

 

On 5 December, 2011, I was working as a reporter in Moscow, when I heard there was going to be a protest demanding fair elections in Chistye Prudy, one of Moscow’s beautiful old boulevards. I wasn’t going to go: I had a story to file, it was raining, and I didn’t think more than a couple hundred glasnost-era activists would show up – that was as much of a protest as you could expect in Putin’s Russia.

But some gut feeling told me I should go, just in case. When I got out of the metro, I was totally unprepared to see some 5,000 people, most of them young, packed into Chistye Prudy. Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and other opposition leaders were delivering fiery speeches. People lined the sidewalks and clung to the boulevard’s wrought-iron fences, shouting, “Russia without Putin!” and “Putin is a thief!” It was one of the most exhilarating moments I’d ever experienced. Muscovites cared about their political future more than anyone, including themselves, expected.

After the economic collapse and chaos of the 1990s, Putin and the Russians had entered a tacit social compact: The government would provide stability and wealth, and the people would stay out of the government’s business. And, for the most part, well into the 2000s, everyone abided by it. Polls steadily indicated that some 80 per cent of Russians thought they could not influence the political process, nor did they seem to care to. The state meticulously cleared the underbrush of civil society, leaving Russians atomised and isolated from one another. Putin’s popularity, meanwhile, was stratospheric, and it was real. The television was his television, and everyone who didn’t like it congregated in the Internet ghetto and cracked jokes.

But in 2008, Putin’s two terms as president ran out and his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, replaced him. Medvedev talked about modernising the economy, fighting corruption, and easing up on the government’s routine harassment of small businesses. By 2009, when I’d moved back to Moscow (my family had emigrated to the United States in 1990), there was even a kind of renaissance in the liberal media ghetto. Russian journalists I met and became friends with were less afraid. New media outlets were popping up, both online and off, including Dozhd TV. Dark things were still happening: The horrific death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison after he uncovered a massive government corruption scheme, the savage beating of journalist Oleg Kashin, the continued imprisonment of Khodorkovsky and many of his former colleagues. It was Russia, after all. But it felt like it was – slowly, gingerly – becoming a gentler, more modern country.

And then on 24 September, 2011, at a convention of Putin’s ruling United Russia Party, Medvedev – looking very much like a man who’d spent the night crying – mounted the podium and nominated Vladimir Putin to run for president. I was in the press section up by the rafters, and I remember being almost as stunned as Andrei Kolesnikov, who traveled around with Putin for one of Russia’s biggest dailies. As I wrote at the time, Kolesnikov had not seen it coming and, despite his job – he was virtually Putin’s hagiographer – it was clearly not welcome news. “This,” he said faintly, “is for keeps.”

The Russian constitution had already been changed to lengthen the presidential term from four to six years, and people grasped immediately what Medvedev’s announcement meant. Looking down at the Twitter feed on my phone as the speechifying went on, I saw despair and bitterness beyond internet snark, beyond jokes. Instead, everyone was doing the math: How old would they be in 2024 when Putin would, theoretically, leave office? People my age had already spent their twenties with the man, and another twelve would put them well into middle age. Others realised they’d be pensioners. It was a strange way to measure mortality.

But more than anything, it was insulting. “It said very clearly to everyone that the question of government in Russia is, at most, a question to be resolved between two people,” and, more likely, one, explained Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who had helped Putin win his first presidential election, in 2000. “I didn’t think it would be done so stupidly and so provocatively. They spit in people’s faces.”

The protests came soon after that. On December 10, five days after the protest in Chistye Prudy, 50,000 came out to Bolotnaya Square, in the shadow of the Kremlin walls, most of them educated, middle-class urbanites. They wore white ribbons as a sign of protest and stood around chatting and stamping in the cold, like they were at a giant winter barbecue. Despite fears of police violence, not one shot was fired and no one was arrested. Satellite protests sprung up in dozens of cities.

For days, the Kremlin was silent. When Putin finally spoke, he talked of listening to the dissatisfied but also accused them of shadowy foreign connections. He joked that he mistook the white ribbons for condoms. After that, on 24 December, about 100,000 people came out to the next protest in Moscow, and they flew blown-up condoms as balloons.

One day during that chaotic winter, I called up Yuri Kotler, a fairly high-ranking United Russia member. I was writing a column for Foreign Policy, and I asked him how people in the Kremlin felt about the protests. He asked me if I had a pet. I replied that, yes, I had a cat. “Well, imagine if your cat came to you and started talking,” Kotler explained. “First of all, it’s a cat, and it’s talking. Second, all these years, the government fed it, gave it water, petted it, and now it’s talking and demanding something. It’s a shock. We have to get used to it.”

That winter, people began forming all kinds of social and political groups, online and off. When the presidential election rolled around in March 2012, the opposition may not have run a candidate, but tens of thousands of people who had once thought politics to be a dirty business best left to others volunteered their weekends for the tedious work of election-monitoring. The Kremlin largely ignored the talking cat, but it did toss it a few scraps, loosening up the electoral system and reintroducing gubernatorial and mayoral elections. As several of us foreign correspondents fanned out across the country ahead of the elections, we discovered that Putin was not all that popular anymore. (“He must be the most passively supported leader in the world,” a colleague said, noting that there were no viable alternatives to Putin.) Despite getting nearly two-thirds of the vote nationally, Putin got only 47 per cent in Moscow.

Tears in his eyes: Putin speaks at a rally at the Manezhnaya Square just outside the Kremlin in Moscow. Photo: Getty

On 6 May, 2012, the eve of his third inauguration, Putin went to dedicate a shrine that would pray for his health around the clock. In the meantime, some 70,000 protesters marched peacefully down to Bolotnaya again, Maria Baronova and Denis Lutskevich among them. The last time I had walked this route with protesters in February, I had tweeted, “Putin’s fucked, y’all,” and the same thought crossed my mind as I looked at all the happy faces around me.

But this time, the police had all but cut off the entrance to Bolotnaya Square. Protesters tried to push through, and, in the resulting funnel, police truncheons sliced through the air, and helmeted special forces cops – “cosmonauts,” as they came to be called – stormed into the crowd in wedge formation, randomly, brutally plucking people from the crowd and dragging them off into paddy wagons. Bottles and flares flew; tear gas seeped through the air. I caught a chunk of cement to the leg, though some of my Russian journalist friends fared worse. Nearby, a smattering of plainclothes cops and cosmonauts stood calmly pointing their camcorders at the chaos. The state had come prepared.

Putin’s fist came down hard after that. On 11 June, the homes of Navalny and other opposition leaders were searched. (That morning, Maria Baronova got a call from her terrified nanny, saying that detectives from the state’s Investigative Committee had climbed onto the apartment’s balcony and turned on an electric saw.) Then came the arrests. The CEO of VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, which had played a key part in organising the protests, was summoned for questioning and was forced to temporarily flee the country in the spring of 2013. Non-loyal media outlets began to close, and others struggled, citing solvency issues that were not totally accidental. Two of Dozhd’s biggest advertisers, owned by the same oligarch, tore up their contracts with the channel within ten minutes of each other. By the time I left Moscow in September, there were still a few opposition rallies, but they felt timid and flat. The old Russian fear that had so miraculously vanished that winter came creeping back.

This past December, I went back to Moscow to see what had become of the protest movement and the opposition leaders I had written about during those first heady days. Two Decembers later, Putin was firmly in charge, and Bolotnaya Square was empty. But the future was not quite as clear as it seemed: The opposition was in disarray, and Putin had won his battle against them. And yet, his position seemed even shakier than before.

 

I met up with the “Kermlins” at a hole-in-the-wall Georgian restaurant hidden among the clubs and hipster hangouts that now occupy the red-brick carcass of the old Red October chocolate factory. When I’d first interviewed the duo back in December 2010, they had refused to tell me their real names or show me their faces, not even off the record. At that point, they were just beginning to generate excitement with their Twitter account @KermlinRussia, the handle of a Stephen Colbert–like entity called the “Persident of Ruissia,” who savagely mocked the government for its many lies, thefts, and absurdities. “The Russian state doesn’t have to beat you with a stick,” they tweeted once, adopting the tone of a benevolent ruler addressing his subjects. “We can fuck you up with a carrot, too.”

The Kermlins had launched the handle in June 2010, after then-President Medvedev, who was infamous for his simpleton’s love of high-tech gadgets, traveled to the Silicon Valley offices of Twitter and set up an account, @KremlinRussia. By January, the Kermlins’ antic alternative had more than 50,000 followers, and Medvedev was forced to change his handle to @MedvedevRussia to avoid confusion. Over the next three years, the Kermlins’ fan base exploded to more than 700,000 followers. The Kermlins became celebrities among the outspoken ranks of “internet hamsters,” the denizens of the web ghetto who then became the core of the protests. Last spring, they finally unmasked themselves in a glamorous spread in Russian GQ.

The Kermlins, whom I had privately got to know even before they’d outted themselves, are really a 29-year-old econ nerd named Arseny Bobrovsky and his partner, Katya Romanovskaya, a fiercely intelligent 38-year-old beauty with a black bob. Dispensing with their anonymity has cut two ways for them. Katya, who in her non-hamster life works in corporate PR, found it to be a boon. Now, when she calls a journalist to place a story, she is Katya Kermlin, and journalists trip over themselves to accommodate her.

For Arseny, it has been a less happy journey. After the GQ story, it emerged that his boutique PR firm had worked for some rather unsavory government clients who had been trying to get the internet under control. Liberal hamster society piled on, expressing their dismay that their hero was tainted. Arseny was disappointed by their naïveté but let his company founder. Rehabilitated, he has become a well-regarded economics columnist for Russian Forbes. That doesn’t pay nearly enough, but, over dinner, Arseny expressed reluctance over finding a day job.

“I have this hang-up that I’m so cool and a huge number of people read my columns,” he said shyly. “And I’m going to work as a media manager at some shitty company –”

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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“Never be afraid of stridency”: Richard Dawkins’ interview with Christopher Hitchens

Is America heading for theocracy? How worrying is the rise of the Tea Party? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins discuss God and US politics.

The 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman was guest edited by Richard Dawkins. This is his interview with Christopher Hitchens from that issue. It was to be Hitchens' final interview; he died as it was published. A sensation at the time, it is now available to read online for the first time.

Richard Dawkins (left) and Christopher Hitchens in conversation

Richard Dawkins Do you have any memories of life at the New Statesman?

Christopher Hitchens Not that I want to impart. It seems like a different world and a different magazine and it happened to a different person. I’d love them to interview me one day about it, for an edition about the role of the Statesman, but I’d really rather you and I focus on the pulse of the issue, which is obviously our common cause.

RD I’ve been reading some of your recent collections of essays – I’m astounded by your sheer erudition. You seem to have read absolutely everything. I can’t think of anybody since Aldous Huxley who’s so well read.

CH It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth. A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.

RD As an Orwell scholar, you must have a particular view of North Korea, Stalin, the Soviet Union, and you must get irritated – perhaps even more than I do – by the constant refrain we hear: “Stalin was an atheist.”

CH We don’t know for sure that he was. Hitler definitely wasn’t. There is a possibility that Himmler was. It’s very unlikely but it wouldn’t make any difference, either way. There’s no mandate in atheism for any particular kind of politics, anyway.

RD The people who did Hitler’s dirty work were almost all religious.

CH I’m afraid the SS’s relationship with the Catholic Church is something the Church still has to deal with and does not deny.

RD Can you talk a bit about that – the relationship of Nazism with the Catholic Church?

CH The way I put it is this: if you’re writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word “fascist”, if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with “extremeright Catholic party”. Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See. It’s not denied. These understandings quite often persisted after the Second World War was over and extended to comparable regimes in Argentina and elsewhere.

RD But there were individual priests who did good things.

CH Not very many. You would know their names if there were more of them. When it comes to National Socialism, there’s no question there’s a mutation, a big one – the Nazis wanted their own form of worship. Just as they thought they were a separate race, they wanted their own religion. They dug out the Norse gods, all kinds of extraordinary myths and legends from the old sagas. They wanted to control the churches. They were willing to make a deal with them. The first deal Hitler made with the Catholic Church was the Konkordat. The Church agreed to dissolve its political party and he got control over German education, which was a pretty good deal. Celebrations of his birthday were actually by order from the pulpit. When Hitler survived an assassination attempt, prayers were said, and so forth. But there’s no doubt about it, [the Nazis] wanted control – and they were willing to clash with the churches to get it. There’s another example. You swore on Almighty God that you would never break your oath to the Führer. This is not even secular, let alone atheist.

RD There was also grace before meals, personally thanking Adolf Hitler.

CH I believe there was. Certainly, you can hear the oath being taken – there are recordings of it – but this, Richard, is a red herring. It’s not even secular. They’re changing the subject.

RD But it comes up over and over again.

CH You mentioned North Korea. It is, in every sense, a theocratic state. It’s almost supernatural, in that the births of the [ruling] Kim family are considered to be mysterious and accompanied by happenings. It’s a necrocracy or mausolocracy, but there’s no possible way you could say it’s a secular state, let alone an atheist one. Attempts to found new religions should attract our scorn just as much as the alliances with the old ones do. All they’re saying is that you can’t claim Hitler was distinctively or specifically Christian: “Maybe if he had gone on much longer, he would have de-Christianised a bit more.” This is all a complete fog of nonsense. It’s bad history and it’s bad propaganda.

RD And bad logic, because there’s no connection between atheism and doing horrible things, whereas there easily can be a connection in the case of religion, as we see with modern Islam.

CH To the extent that they are new religions – Stalin worship and Kim Il-sungism – we, like all atheists, regard them with horror.

RD You debated with Tony Blair. I’m not sure I watched that. I love listening to you [but] I can’t bear listening to . . . Well, I mustn’t say that. I think he did come over as rather nice on that evening.

CH He was charming, that evening. And during the day, as well.

RD What was your impression of him?

CH You can only have one aim per debate. I had two in debating with Tony Blair. The first one was to get him to admit that it was not done – the stuff we complain of – in only the name of religion. That’s a cop-out. The authority is in the text. Second, I wanted to get him to admit, if possible, that giving money to a charity or organising a charity does not vindicate a cause. I got him to the first one and I admired his honesty. He was asked by the interlocutor at about half-time: “Which of Christopher’s points strikes you as the best?” He said: “I have to admit, he’s made his case, he’s right. This stuff, there is authority for it in the canonical texts, in Islam, Judaism.” At that point, I’m ready to fold – I’ve done what I want for the evening. We did debate whether Catholic charities and so on were a good thing and I said: “They are but they don’t prove any point and some of them are only making up for damage done.” For example, the Church had better spend a lot of money doing repair work on its Aids policy in Africa, [to make up for preaching] that condoms don’t prevent disease or, in some cases, that they spread it. It is iniquitous. It has led to a lot of people dying, horribly. Also, I’ve never looked at some of the ground operations of these charities – apart from Mother Teresa – but they do involve a lot of proselytising, a lot of propaganda. They’re not just giving out free stuff. They’re doing work to recruit.

RD And Mother Teresa was one of the worst offenders?

CH She preached that poverty was a gift from God. And she believed that women should not be given control over the reproductive cycle. Mother Teresa spent her whole life making sure that the one cure for poverty we know is sound was not implemented. So Tony Blair knows this but he doesn’t have an answer. If I say, “Your Church preaches against the one cure for poverty,” he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t affirm it either. But remember, I did start with a text and I asked him to comment on it first, but he never did. Cardinal Newman said he would rather the whole world and everyone in it be painfully destroyed and condemned for ever to eternal torture than one sinner go unrebuked for the stealing of a sixpence. It’s right there in the centre of the Apologia. The man whose canonisation Tony had been campaigning for. You put these discrepancies in front of him and he’s like all the others. He keeps two sets of books. And this is also, even in an honest person, shady.

RD It’s like two minds, really. One notices this with some scientists.

CH I think we all do it a bit.

RD Do we?

CH We’re all great self-persuaders.

RD But do we hold such extreme contradictions in our heads?

CH We like to think our colleagues would point them out, in our group, anyway. No one’s pointed out to me in reviewing my God book God Is Not Great that there’s a flat discrepancy between the affirmation he makes on page X and the affirmation he makes on page Y.

RD But they do accuse you of being a contrarian, which you’ve called yourself . . .

CH Well, no, I haven’t. I’ve disowned it. I was asked to address the idea of it and I began by saying it’s got grave shortcomings as an idea, but I am a bit saddled with it.

RD I’ve always been very suspicious of the leftright dimension in politics.

CH Yes; it’s broken down with me.

RD It’s astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.

CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do. That has secular forms with gurus and dictators, of course, but it’s essentially the same. There have been some thinkers – Orwell is pre-eminent – who understood that, unfortunately, there is innate in humans a strong tendency to worship, to become abject. So we’re not just fighting the dictators. We’re criticising our fellow humans for trying to short-cut, to make their lives simpler, by surrendering and saying, “[If] you offer me bliss, of course I’m going to give up some of my mental freedom for that.” We say it’s a false bargain: you’ll get nothing. You’re a fool.

RD That part of you that was, or is, of the radical left is always against the totalitarian dictators.

CH Yes. I was a member of the Trotskyist group – for us, the socialist movement could only be revived if it was purged of Stalinism . . . It’s very much a point for our view that Stalinism was a theocracy.

RD One of my main beefs with religion is the way they label children as a “Catholic child” or a “Muslim child”. I’ve become a bit of a bore about it.

CH You must never be afraid of that charge, any more than stridency.

RD I will remember that.

CH If I was strident, it doesn’t matter – I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You’ve educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.

Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, “Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.” If you go on about something, the worst thing the English will say about you, as we both know – as we can say of them, by the way – is that they’re boring.

RD Indeed. Only this morning, I was sent a copy of [advice from] a British government website, called something like “The Responsibilities of Parents”. One of these responsibilities was “determine the child’s religion”. Literally, determine. It means establish, cause . . . I couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration, because, sometimes, when I make my complaint about this, I’m told nobody actually does label children Catholic children or Muslim children.

CH Well, the government does. It’s borrowed, as far as I can see, in part from British imperial policy, in turn borrowed from Ottoman and previous empires – you classify your new subjects according to their faith. You can be an Ottoman citizen but you’re a Jewish one or an Armenian Christian one. And some of these faiths tell their children that the children of other faiths are going to hell. I think we can’t ban that, nor can we call it “hate speech”, which I’m dubious about anyway, but there should be a wrinkle of disapproval.

RD I would call it mental child abuse.

CH I can’t find a way, as a libertarian, of saying that people can’t raise their children, as they say, according to their rights. But the child has rights and society does, too. We don’t allow female – and I don’t think we should countenance male – genital mutilation.

Now, it would be very hard to say that you can’t tell your child that they are lucky and they have joined the one true faith. I don’t see how you stop it. I only think the rest of society should look at it with a bit of disapproval, which it doesn’t. If you’re a Mormon and you run for office and say, “Do you believe in the golden plates that were dug up by Joseph Smith?” – which [Mitt] Romney hasn’t been asked yet – sorry, you’re going to get mocked. You’re going to get laughed at.

RD There is a tendency among liberals to feel that religion should be off the table.

CH Or even that there’s anti-religious racism, which I think is a terrible limitation.

RD Romney has questions to answer.

CH Certainly, he does. The question of Mormon racism did come up, to be fair, and the Church did very belatedly make amends for saying what, in effect, it had been saying: that black people’s souls weren’t human, quite. They timed it suspiciously for the passage of legislation. Well, OK, then they grant the right of society to amend [the legislation]. To that extent, they’re opportunists.

RD But what about the daftness of Mormonism? The fact that Joseph Smith was clearly a charlatan –

CH I know, it’s extraordinary.

RD I think there is a convention in America that you don’t tackle somebody about their religion.

CH Yes, and in a way it’s attributed to pluralism. And so, to that extent, one wants to respect it, but I think it can be exploited. By many people, including splinter-group Mormons who still do things like plural marriage and, very repulsively, compulsory dowries – they basically give away their daughters, often to blood relatives. And also kinship marriages that are too close. This actually won’t quite do. When it is important, they tend to take refuge in: “You’re attacking my fundamental right.” I don’t think they really should be allowed that.

RD Do you think America is in danger of becoming a theocracy?

CH No, I don’t. The people who we mean when we talk about that – maybe the extreme Protestant evangelicals, who do want a God-run America and believe it was founded on essentially fundamentalist Protestant principles – I think they may be the most overrated threat in the country.

RD Oh, good.

CH They’ve been defeated everywhere. Why is this? In the 1920s, they had a string of victories. They banned the sale, manufacture and distribution and consumption of alcohol. They made it the constitution. They more or less managed to ban immigration from countries that had non-Protestant, non-white majorities. From these victories, they have never recovered. They’ll never recover from [the failure of] Prohibition. It was their biggest defeat. They’ll never recover from the Scopes trial. Every time they’ve tried [to introduce the teaching of creationism], the local school board or the parents or the courts have thrown it out and it’s usually because of the work of people like you, who have shown that it’s nonsense. They try to make a free speech question out of it but they will fail with that, also. People don’t want to come from the town or the state or the county that gets laughed at.

RD Yes.

CH In all my tours around the South, it’s amazing how many people – Christians as well – want to disprove the idea that they’re all in thrall to people like [the fundamentalist preacher Jerry] Falwell. They don’t want to be a laughing stock.

RD Yes.

CH And if they passed an ordinance saying there will be prayer in school every morning from now on, one of two things would happen: it would be overthrown in no time by all the courts, with barrels of laughter heaped over it, or people would say: “Very well, we’re starting with Hindu prayer on Monday.” They would regret it so bitterly that there are days when I wish they would have their own way for a short time.

RD Oh, that’s very cheering.

CH I’m a bit more worried about the extreme, reactionary nature of the papacy now. But that again doesn’t seem to command very big allegiance among the American congregation. They are disobedient on contraception, flagrantly; on divorce; on gay marriage, to an extraordinary degree that I wouldn’t have predicted; and they’re only holding firm on abortion, which, in my opinion, is actually a very strong moral question and shouldn’t be decided lightly. I feel very squeamish about it. I believe that the unborn child is a real concept, in other words. We needn’t go there, but I’m not a complete abortion-on-demand fanatic. I think it requires a bit of reflection. But anyway, even on that, the Catholic Communion is very agonised. And also, [when] you go and debate with them, very few of them could tell you very much about what the catechism really is. It’s increasingly cultural Catholicism.

RD That is true, of course.

CH So, really, the only threat from religious force in America is the same as it is, I’m afraid, in many other countries – from outside. And it’s jihadism, some of it home-grown, but some of that is so weak and so self-discrediting.

RD It’s more of a problem in Britain.

CH And many other European countries, where its alleged root causes are being allowed slightly too friendly an interrogation, I think. Make that much too friendly.

RD Some of our friends are so worried about Islam that they’re prepared to lend support to Christianity as a kind of bulwark against it.

CH I know many Muslims who, in leaving the faith, have opted to go . . . to Christianity or via it to non-belief. Some of them say it’s the personality of Jesus of Nazareth. The mild and meek one, as compared to the rather farouche, physical, martial, rather greedy . . .

RD Warlord.

CH . . . Muhammad. I can see that that might have an effect.

RD Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?

CH No, in a funny way, I don’t worry that we’ll win. All that we can do is make absolutely sure that people know there’s a much more wonderful and interesting and beautiful alternative. No, I don’t think that Europe would fill up with Muslims as it emptied of Christians. Christianity has defeated itself in that it has become a cultural thing. There really aren’t believing Christians in the way there were generations ago.

RD Certainly in Europe that’s true – but in America?

CH There are revivals, of course, and among Jews as well. But I think there’s a very longrunning tendency in the developed world and in large areas elsewhere for people to see the virtue of secularism, the separation of church and state, because they’ve tried the alternatives . . . Every time something like a jihad or a sharia movement has taken over any country – admittedly they’ve only been able to do it in very primitive cases – it’s a smouldering wreck with no productivity.

RD Total failure. If you look at religiosity across countries of the world and, indeed, across the states of the US, you find that religiosity tends to correlate with poverty and with various other indices of social deprivation.

CH Yes. That’s also what it feeds on. But I don’t want to condescend about that. I know a lot of very educated, very prosperous, very thoughtful people who believe.

RD Do you think [Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison were deists, as is often said?

CH I think they fluctuated, one by one. Jefferson is the one I’m more happy to pronounce on. The furthest he would go in public was to incline to a theistic enlightened view but, in his private correspondence, he goes much further. He says he wishes we could return to the wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago. That’s in his discussion of his own Jefferson Bible, where he cuts out everything supernatural relating to Jesus. But also, very importantly, he says to his nephew Peter Carr in a private letter [on the subject of belief]: “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and the love of others which it will procure you.” Now, that can only be written by someone who’s had that experience.

RD It’s very good, isn’t it?

CH In my judgement, it’s an internal reading, but I think it’s a close one. There was certainly no priest at his bedside. But he did violate a rule of C S Lewis’s and here I’m on Lewis’s side. Lewis says it is a cop-out to say Jesus was a great moralist. He said it’s the one thing we must not say; it is a wicked thing to say. If he wasn’t the Son of God, he was a very evil impostor and his teachings were vain and fraudulent. You may not take the easy route here and say: “He may not have been the Son of God and he may not have been the Redeemer, but he was a wonderful moralist.” Lewis is more honest than Jefferson in this point. I admire Lewis for saying that. Rick Perry said it the other day.

RD Jesus could just have been mistaken.

CH He could. It’s not unknown for people to have the illusion that they’re God or the Son. It’s a common delusion but, again, I don’t think we need to condescend. Rick Perry once said: “Not only do I believe that Jesus is my personal saviour but I believe that those who don’t are going to eternal punishment.” He was challenged at least on the last bit and he said, “I don’t have the right to alter the doctrine. I can’t say it’s fine for me and not for others.”

RD So we ought to be on the side of these fundamentalists?

CH Not “on the side”, but I think we should say that there’s something about their honesty that we wish we could find.

RD Which we don’t get in bishops . . .

CH Our soft-centred bishops at Oxford and other people, yes.

RD I’m often asked why it is that this republic [of America], founded in secularism, is so much more religious than those western European countries that have an official state religion, like Scandinavia and Britain.

CH [Alexis] de Tocqueville has it exactly right. If you want a church in America, you have to build it by the sweat of your own brow and many have. That’s why they’re attached to them.

RD Yes.

CH [Look at] the Greek Orthodox community in Brooklyn. What’s the first thing it will do? It will build itself a little shrine. The Jews – not all of them – remarkably abandoned their religion very soon after arriving from the shtetl.

RD Are you saying that most Jews have abandoned their religion?

CH Increasingly in America. When you came to escape religious persecution and you didn’t want to replicate it, that’s a strong memory. The Jews very quickly secularised when they came. American Jews must be the most secular force on the planet now, as a collective. If they are a collective –which they’re not, really.

RD While not being religious, they often still observe the Sabbath and that kind of thing.

CH There’s got to be something cultural. I go to Passover every year. Sometimes, even I have a seder, because I want my child to know that she does come very distantly from another tradition. It would explain if she met her greatgrandfather why he spoke Yiddish. It’s cultural, but the Passover seder is also the Socratic forum. It’s dialectical. It’s accompanied by wine. It’s got the bones of quite a good discussion in it. And then there is manifest destiny. People feel America is just so lucky. It’s between two oceans, filled with minerals, wealth, beauty. It does seem providential to many people.

RD Promised land, city on a hill.

CH All that and the desire for another Eden. Some secular utopians came here with the same idea. Thomas Paine and others all thought of America as a great new start for the species.

RD But that was all secular.

CH A lot of it was, but you can’t get away from the liturgy: it’s too powerful. You will end up saying things like “promised land” and it can be mobilised for sinister purposes. But in a lot of cases, it’s a mild belief. It’s just: “We should share our good luck.”

RD I’ve heard another theory that, America being a country of immigrants, people coming from Europe, where they left their extended family and left their support system, were alone and they needed something.

CH Surely that was contained in what I just . . .

RD Maybe it was.

CH The reason why most of my friends are non-believers is not particularly that they were engaged in the arguments you and I have been having, but they were made indifferent by compulsory religion at school.

RD They got bored by it.

CH They’d had enough of it. They took from it occasionally whatever they needed – if you needed to get married, you knew where to go. Some of them, of course, are religious and some of them like the music but, generally speaking, the British people are benignly indifferent to religion.

RD And the fact that there is an established church increases that effect. Churches should not be tax-free the way that they are. Not automatically, anyway.

CH No, certainly not. If the Church has demanded that equal time be given to creationist or pseudo-creationist speculations . . . any Church that teaches that in its school and is in receipt of federal money from the faith-based initiative must, by law, also teach Darwinism and alternative teachings, in order that the debate is being taught. I don’t think they want this.

RD No.

CH Tell them if they want equal time, we’ll jolly well have it. That’s why they’ve always been against comparative religion.

RD Comparative religion would be one of the best weapons, I suspect.

CH It’s got so insipid in parts of America now that a lot of children are brought up – as their parents aren’t doing it and leave it to the schools and the schools are afraid of it – with no knowledge of any religion of any kind. I would like children to know what religion is about because [otherwise] some guru or cult or revivalists will sweep them up.

RD They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.

CH Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.

RD Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? “Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.”

CH He doesn’t!

RD He does, honestly. “Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.”

CH That’s Lamentations.

RD No, it’s Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, vanity.”

CH “Vanity, vanity.” Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.

RD I bet he did. I sometimes think the poetry comes from the intriguing obscurity of mistranslation. “When the sound of the grinding is low, the grasshopper is heard in the land . . . The grasshopper shall be a burden.” What the hell?

CH The Book of Job is the other great non-religious one, I always feel. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Try to do without that. No, I’m glad we’re on the same page there. People tell me that the recitation of the Quran can have the same effect if you understand the original language. I wish I did. Some of the Catholic liturgy is attractive.

RD I don’t know enough Latin to judge that.

CH Sometimes one has just enough to be irritated.

RD Yes [laughs]. Can you say anything about Christmas?

CH Yes. There was going to be a winter solstice holiday for sure. The dominant religion was going to take it over and that would have happened without Dickens and without others.

RD The Christmas tree comes from Prince Albert; the shepherds and the wise men are all made up.

CH Cyrenius wasn’t governor of Syria, all of that. Increasingly, it’s secularised itself. This “Happy Holidays” – I don’t particularly like that, either.

RD Horrible, isn’t it? “Happy holiday season.”

CH I prefer our stuff about the cosmos.

***

The day after this interview, I was honoured to present an award to Christopher Hitchens in the presence of a large audience in Texas that gave him a standing ovation, first as he entered the hall and again at the end of his deeply moving speech. My own presentation speech ended with a tribute, in which I said that every day he demonstrates the falsehood of the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes: “Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to muster.”