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Kremlin Values: Putin’s Strategic Conservatism

After Forbes magazine named Vladimir Putin the most powerful man in the world, a status he has surely consolidated by overseeing the Winter Olympics and the invasion of Crimea, one heard a great deal of media talk about the Russian leader’s wily skills in playing the global geostrategic “game.” What one didn’t hear, what one virtually never hears, even from highly experienced Western commentators on Russian affairs, is anything about Putin acting according to principles or pursuing actions according to a coherent ideology. Not surprising, you might say, since the man obviously has no such concerns—other than a will to win, for himself and his seat of power; no vision comparable to that of the Kremlin in the old Soviet Union, which furnished it and its allies with a huge asset and a troublesome headache in the form of an armory of fully rationalized ideas that legitimized a predictable approach to international relations and even provided the regime with a perverse “morality.”

The common wisdom has it that Putin isn’t burdened by such a philosophy or set of schematic beliefs. (Walter Laqueur explored this topic in an article for the previous issue of this journal.) Or if he is, he has cannily refrained from laying them out fully. He is presumed to operate like most dictators by gaming situations ad hoc simply to prevail. But having reported on and off from the region over many years, I have come to believe that this view is crucially out-of-date; that Putin has changed, or at least changed his game over time, and now espouses a discernible, exportable, full-fledged “-ism,” one that he has evolved slowly and that the West has been even slower to identify. That “-ism” is conservatism, or at least conservatism of a particular stripe that is not wholly alien to lots of perfectly respectable, patriotic upholders of our oldest traditions in the West.

 

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A useful précis of Putin’s ideology and its appeal popped up in an astonishing article by Pat Buchanan that was, to my knowledge, the first such public identification of Putinism and conservatism to appear in the Western press. Titled “Is Putin One of Us?,” the column ran on December 17, 2013, on the conservative website Townhall. It opens with the line “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?” and goes on to attribute to the Russian leader sharp criticisms of “Barack Obama’s America”:

Nor is [Putin] without an argument when we reflect on America’s embrace of abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood
values. . . . Moreover, Putin asserts, the new immorality has been imposed undemocratically.

The “destruction of traditional values” in these countries, he said, comes “from the top” and is “inherently undemocratic because it is based on abstract ideas and runs counter to the will of the majority of people.”

Buchanan further argues:

Peoples all over the world, claims Putin, are supporting Russia’s “defense of traditional values” against a “so-called tolerance” that is “genderless and infertile.”

While his stance as a defender of traditional values has drawn the mockery of Western media and cultural elites, Putin is not wrong in saying that he can speak for much of mankind.

For those who still view Putin as merely a superb gamer of strategic options, such observations should at the very least show that he has upped his game. He has moved up from mere reflexive anti-Americanism to deploying a marketable philosophy, an evolution that Western observers have difficulty acknowledging because our news media are committed to the monochromatic view of Putin as an amoral leader, an employer of populist tricks within Russia to keep himself in power and further enable him to sin grievously against the democratic process. His recent forays against homosexuality and his lengthy courting of the national church fall into that category. As far back as 2008, we see the New York Times, in an April 24th article by Clifford J. Levy, noting “the suppression of religious freedom” for everyone except the national church, while going on to say that “this close alliance between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church has become a defining characteristic of Mr. Putin’s tenure.” This kind of reporting chimes with the standard, fully justified, critique of Putin’s authoritarian exploits in crony capitalism, the harassment of political rivals, the jailing of business tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the band Pussy Riot, the punishing of evangelical churches and pro-democracy NGOs, and much worse. It’s a far cry from Pat Buchanan’s Putin-as-global-beacon notion.

It is also true that Putin’s recent international triumphs tend to accentuate his image as nothing more than a cynical strategist. A quick recapitulation of the highlights makes the point amply: Putin’s successful long-term campaign to displace Georgia’s pro-American president, Mikheil Saakashvili; his provision of asylum for Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker; his support for the Assad regime in Syria, especially his handling of the chemical weapons crisis last year, which helped prevent a NATO attack; his triumph in turning Ukraine away from the EU, toward the Moscow-centric Eurasian Union.

There’s no doubting that he is indeed a consummate cynical operator or that when it comes to mere maneuvering he has a significant advantage over an American president who has to work with far greater restraints, both at home and abroad, because of his accountability to a domestic democratic process and also due to the incalculable burden of heading the superpower that everyone turns to wherever problems appear around the globe. Vladimir Putin has the advantage of pursuing Russia’s interests exclusively while the US gets faulted for not intervening—or for intervening wrongly—when injustice occurs anywhere. There is also the perennial problem of the free world’s oppositional news media, with its perverse determination to hold allies to much higher standards than enemies. As a powerful Ukrainian oligarch once said to me, “America has a lot more cards to play, but Putin is freer to play his better.”

 

Still, if the folks at Forbes are right that Putin has become the world’s most powerful human, or anywhere near it, he must surely be savvy enough to know this much: Money, guns, intimidation, and political opportunism only get you so far. You can affect the global balance of power, but you do so without a lasting ideology to strengthen your gains. Yet as Pat Buchanan and others have noted, Putin’s Russia is back in the ideological hunt—offering an alternative set of ideas capable of competing internationally with those of the US. Americans are still in denial about it, for many reasons, perhaps the chief among them being that, Buchananites apart, US opinionmakers on both left and right have largely written off the kinds of people that Putin appeals to both in Russia and abroad. If the paleoconservative voice has been relatively marginalized in the US media, it has a huge equivalent constituency in most countries that take traditions seriously. As Buchanan goes on to say in his article, “the decisive struggle in the second half of the twentieth century was vertical, East vs. West,” but “the twenty-first century struggle may be horizontal, with conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite.”

I first got wind of this new pan-Putinist ideology in Tbilisi, Georgia, while covering the national elections in the fall of 2012. Having reported from there during the Russian invasion of 2008 and after, I knew the population to be virulently anti-Moscow and largely pro-West. So I was astounded when the country elected an oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who had made his money in Moscow, who refused to criticize Putin, and who ran against a government headed by the volubly pro-American Mikheil Saakashvili. In the space of a few years, President Saakashvili had stamped out Georgia’s legendary corruption, driven out the mafias, notched up eight percent annual growth rates despite global banking failures and a Russian invasion, and had delivered efficiency, transparency, and foreign investment. Yet the other side won. I saw a most skillful, well-financed, pre-prepared opposition campaign with Moscow-based funds, one that deftly cooked up a prison abuse scandal with scary videos to smear the government. It convinced me that the KGB was rebooted, modernized, formidable, and once more able to redirect the destiny of its near abroad satellites as it had for years, even in democratic contests. Above all, I got a foretaste of the ideas Putin has expounded more openly and systematically since 2008.

First and foremost in Georgia, the national church, having been funded by Ivanishvili for years, took the opposition’s side. The church patriarch and others spoke darkly of Saakashvili having made Georgia “less Georgian.” The oligarch’s party floated slogans like “At least the Russians won’t make our soldiers marry other men” and complained about Tbilisi being full of foreigners. In addition, there was a pervasive resentment of globalization. Saakashvili was mocked for “Singaporizing” the country, an intentional process his admirers in the West exalted, not just for its implied financial success, but equally for its meritocracy and diversity and embodiment of globalized competitiveness. And there’s the rub. We should remember that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s great criticism of the Soviet system was precisely that it was a color-blind system, soulless, impersonal, abstract—and global—a perversion of the Russian soul and the specifically Russian civilization that this soul created. We should also remember that countries like Georgia have only just reclaimed from the Soviets their nation-state identity and destiny, their ancient Christian faith and the right to live according to their traditional customs. For years, they looked to the West for the fulfillment of such aspirations. But the West has changed, confronting them with another globalized impersonal system, albeit of a different kind but certainly not organic to their country, equally color-blind and egalitarian, in that a wealthy Indian or a Saudi or a gay American can own, say, Georgia’s electric utility because he pays more or runs it better. This was not the apotheosis such peoples had dreamed of.

Vladimir Putin has been able to appeal to the discontent this situation created by talking about undemocratic “abstract ideas” imposed from above. Russians, too, had endured the same type of regime under the USSR, an order run according to abstract ideas, an order in which Russianness was subordinated; in which men and women became interchangeable; civilization was displaced by system; the traditional family was deconstructed, national borders crumbled, and multiculturalism reigned supreme.

By a historic irony, the US took on many of those egalitarian values just as the Soviet republics grew nauseated by them and rebelled. Today, the immigrant experience, the LGBT experience, the cultures of minorities, the polemical loathing of traditional elites, relentlessly highlighted by stories of prejudice, hate speech, rape culture, and the like dominate American news reports. This is not only the agenda of the left; it is even more so a scenario inflicted by the globalization of free markets in which the outsider is forever the protagonist and the native is always the surly resister of change. It’s a world in which Western civilization ultimately risks losing its own story, its sense of place and sense of self.

 

In 2010, I had dinner with a visiting delegation of EU members of Parliament in Tbilisi. We were discussing the indispensable role of the US as a lynchpin of the West, and a Polish member of the European Parliament asked me, pointedly, “Is America part of the West anymore?” Such a question would have seemed loony well into the post–Cold War years, but I had to take the point (although I countered with “How European is Europe anymore?”). It was a melancholy exchange with both of us tacitly acknowledging the voluntary ebbing of a civilization that had, a decade before, survived the last of a century of existential threats.

What Putin has understood is that a society formed of predominantly political values, a society where the political system creates identity rather than reflecting it, leads inevitably to a deeply troubled outcome. That’s what the Soviet system used to do. He understands that it’s an outcome many populations reject, and he has positioned himself to exploit such fears.

What Putin is trying to accomplish is a complete swapping of roles between East and West since the Cold War. The ground zero for defenders of Christian tradition, of conservatism, the nation-state, family values, and the like has reversed its geo-polarity. Even the struggle between stability and revolution has undergone a similar change. It was the Kremlin that used to incite instability and revolution around the world to overthrow juntas and dictators. It’s now the US that attacks such regimes. Putin regularly inveighs against the US for its destabilizing mono-polar deployment of power. Take his famous February 10, 2007, speech to world leaders in Munich. “Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force—military force—in international relations . . . first and foremost the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way.” He spoke about American military actions, which he termed “unilateral” and “frequently illegitimate.” He added that such actions “have not resolved any problems” but only “caused new human tragedies and created new centers of tension” and are “plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts” where “political settlement also becomes impossible.”

In another speech, the one cited by Buchanan, Putin talks about how “attempts to enforce more progressive development models” have led to “decline, barbarity, and big blood.” He is not just referring to interference in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and elsewhere, but he’s also alluding to a kind of imperviously aggressive political activism reminiscent of the radical Marxist mind-set that is bent on unraveling entire social fabrics. Putin is also signaling quietly that he stands with those who are horrified by America’s LGBT ambassadors, multiculturalists, and birth-control advocates to their countries. That, of course, resonates across the world in both conservative Christian and Islamic populations. In his celebrated New York Times op-ed to Americans last September, Putin speaks of “rich and poor” countries, “those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.” Do not presume on your exceptionalism, he is saying—less to America than to those who want an alternative to America—to bully others whose politics you don’t like. He ends by invoking the Lord’s blessing.

This is the man whose oligarchs financed, in Britain, the parliamentary lobby group titled “Conservative Friends of Russia,” which numbered quite a few top Tories as members (until they resigned over tasteless anti-gay jokes on the group’s website). He has spent a good many years refining his conservative polemics and it is now ready for prime time.

In the end, much of Putin’s crusade amounts to cynical nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. His re-Christianization of Russia merely marginalizes huge populations in non-Christian ethnic territories from the Caucasus to Tatarstan to Siberia. And inside the ethnically Russian zones too. Are those people supposed to integrate or live in excluded islands? Russians have still not lived through a post-imperial enlightenment about their non-Russian possessions, and this kind of polemic merely postpones the reckoning. Furthermore, while relentlessly chiding American interventionism, Putin has interfered all along Russia’s “near abroad,” imposing fuel and trade embargoes left and right, invading Chechnya in a bloodbath, invading Georgia and swallowing parts of it into Russia, provoking violent instability in Ukraine and Moldavia, and invading and annexing Crimea. He may do so in the name of stopping undue Western interference, but it’s never interference when he does it. Nor has he ever believed in public opinion, but rather simply bludgeoned it into submission by his control of the news media and other maneuvers as a means to legitimize his hold on power. When he invokes tolerance for places with imperfect democratic institutions, he’s really asking for the West not to upset his effort to re-imperialize the architecture of Russian power as imposed through strongmen, oligarchs, and mafias within his country and all around it. The appeal to faith, family, and tradition—and above all stability—has ever been the last recourse of dictators. Rather than offering the little guy democratic freedoms, offer him a far lesser power in his subordination of women, family, and minorities.

Having stipulated that he’s a cynic, however, we must also say that Putin is onto something big; that he has discovered a significant weapon with which to beat the West and divide its potential allies around the world. It’s a weapon we have given him gratis. He has sensed our confusion, our inability to define and preserve our traditions, to conserve our historical sense of nationhood accrued over centuries, our conservatorship of a coherent civilization that after all begins with family, loyalty to the land and the larger ethnos. He knows that when you live in thrall to a purely political scripture, you lose the moral logic by which to exalt your own particular culture. He has seen the effects of such a process firsthand in his own country and the weakness that ensues. In short, Vladimir Putin knows what he’s doing.

Melik Kaylan is a New York–based journalist who writes about culture for the Wall Street Journal and an online column for Forbes about conflict zones.

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