A Radical, Romantic Conservative: Explaining Vladimir Putin
Sergei Illiaronov informed the press a few days ago that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has an insatiable appetite. He intends to return to Russia's control all of the territory once held by Czar Nicholas II (reigned 1896-1918), including the independent Baltic states, Belarus, and even Finland.
Illiaronov knows Putin well. He served as Putin's chief economic advisor during his first years as President (2000-2005). We should take statements like this seriously, and we should ask what is it that motivates Putin to contemplate a return to czarist conquests.
I submit that what is driving Putin is a radical, romantic conservatism. When Americans think of conservatism, they tend to think of unfettered free markets, expanding opportunities for capital, and free trade. There is a militarist dimension to American conservatism, but it seems increasingly to be a vestigial carry-over from the Cold War. Had September 11 not happened, American conservative foreign policy would most likely resemble the Rand-and-Ron-Paul agenda much more than it already does. At its best, American conservatism takes as its calling card the principles of ordered, virtuous freedom.
Putin's conservatism is not like this. It strongly resembles nineteenth and early twentieth century conservatism. It is much more European than its American counterpart. Putin's worldview is indebted, directly or derivatively, not to Friedrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman, but to thinkers like the Frenchman Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) or the Germans Friedrich von Meinecke (1862-1954) and Carl Schmitt (1888-1985).
There are four elements to this brand of conservatism that appear to have particular appeal to Putin:
1. It is nostalgic, looking backward to past triumphs as a way to repudiate and to remedy the present broken state of affairs. As such, it seeks the restoration or at least the reenactment of a lost and cherished golden age.
2. It celebrates the nation as an ethnic, linguistic, and cultural ideal. National boundaries that do not respect this vision of the nation are seen as arbitrary and in need of tearing down.
3. It strives for a close alliance between church and state, seeking legitimacy in God's favor. The nation, after all, has a special providential character and is predicated upon old-fashioned morality.
4. Finally, it relies upon a strong sovereign power that aims at decisive corrective action.
Putin's words and deeds correspond neatly to each of these categories. Putin has made it plain many times that he looks fondly upon a lost golden era, famously saying, nearly a decade ago, that he considers the dissolution of the Soviet Empire to be "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century." And he has made an effort to stir Soviet-era nostalgia, reviving old medals and awards, presiding over war memorials, and minimizing Stalin's atrocities, even while eulogizing his accomplishments. He's even sought to commemorate Leonid Brezhnev's rule.
But it is not nostalgia for the Soviet Union that energizes Putin so much as it is wistful fondness for the grandeur of the czars. His most recent presidential inauguration occurred in the old czarist throne room. He has opened museums to pay homage to the memory of the Romanov dynasty. His yearning for Finland is of a piece with this. The Romanovs, after all, built their dynasty upon steady geographic expansion, from Poland and Scandinavia in the West, to the Bering Sea in the East, even claiming Alaska and colonizing parts of coastal North America. In his reminiscences, Putin is conjuring up some powerful ghosts.
Putin's commitment to the Russian nation as cultural and linguistic ideal is also evident, especially as he ratcheted up pressure on Ukraine. He acted in Crimea, he said, to protect the Russian population there. He has shown similar solicitude for Russian speakers in other parts of Ukraine and in other regions of the old Soviet Union, such as Georgia and Moldova.
Nationhood for Putin is not a diverse, inclusive liberal democracy dependent upon the tidy observance of procedural norms for its strength. No. For Putin, it is the atavistic call of blood and soil, language and tradition. While one must be cautious in drawing parallels with the rise of Hitler, it is not out of place to note that this is the same battle cry that was led to so much grief and suffering in the middle twentieth century.
Perhaps most surprising, given Putin's background as a committed Communist KGB officer, is his new alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. Of course, Russian czars always enjoyed a close relationship with the Church and thus it was only natural that Putin should slide into a similar role. When Putin took the oath of office for the third time in May, 2012, the swearing in was accompanied by prayers by Russian Patriarch Kirill.
This was, however, not some pro forma prayer service that one might encounter in the West. Putin has expended large amounts of political capital in reconstructing the Russian Church into a semblance of its former glory. He has rebuilt old church buildings and commissioned new ones. When the punk rock group Pussy Riot staged a bit of performance theater in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, 2012, Putin took a hand's off attitude as the Church sought -- and obtained -- harsh, two-year-long jail terms against the women involved. Not surprisingly, Patriarch Kirill gushed his enthusiasm over Putin, calling him a "miracle of God."
Recently, as the Pussy Riot verdicts indicate, the Church has been moving in the direction of a militant social conservatism. Patriarch Kirill has denounced liberalism and feminism as grave threats to the political and moral order. But he has reserved most of his harshness for gays. In this, he has enjoyed the full cooperation of Vladimir Putin and the State Duma, which has enacted anti-gay legislation. Indeed, the word "gay" has now become a common slur in Russia, used as shorthand to denounce all sorts of perceived Western "corruption."
Putin has even acted to build alliances with social conservatives in other nations, including the United States. Personally, I see this attempt at bridge-building as driven by the genetically-encoded instincts of Putin's upbringing. Always look for a sympathetic following in the West, leftists in the Cold-War days, right-wingers today.
Finally, there is Putin the sovereign leader. He is notorious in the West for his many athletic stunts -- riding horses, hunting, fishing, hang-gliding, posing bare-chested, equal parts bravado and testosterone. But there is a method to his seeming madness. And that is the desire to present himself as the strongman so many Russians crave. More substantively, Putin's agenda aims to deliver on that expectation, most spectacularly, of course, in the wars he has helped to launch, first against Georgia and now against Ukraine. He truly aims to be the "Twenty-First Century Czar."
Does Putin really believe in a radical, romantic conservative agenda? Or is he still the clever KGB operative, manipulating symbols near and dear to the Russian soul so as to consolidate power? Or is he acting from desperation, fearful that if he does not arouse the passions of nationalism, the Russian people, already in steep demographic decline, will sink into the mire of apathy and ennui? My own guess is that he is moved by some admixture of each of these elements. Putin may not even be sure himself where the pose ends and his true political commitments begin. Still, whether he is posturing or acting from deep, sincerely-held belief, he is playing with fire.
What is the West to do? Clearly, it was appropriate to suspend Russia from membership in the G-8. The G-8 is more than a trading bloc, it is a group of nations united by a shared belief in liberal, democratic ideals. Russia has always been an uneasy fit, its membership reflective more of aspiration than reality. But continued membership now, in light of Russian conduct in Ukraine, is simply indecent. More broadly, the West must stand up for liberal values. We must defend human rights and the equality of all persons. We should reach out to western sympathizers within Russia, and there are many, in order to build common ground with those who share our values and reject the seductive, self-destructive siren song of Putinism.
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by Charles J. Reid, Jr.Added 29.03.2014
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