Russians Turning Inward for a Galvanizing Ideology ; with Putin in Top Office, Renewed Focus on Limits of Western Liberalism

By Barry, Ellen | International Herald Tribune, November 22, 2012 | Go to article overview

Russians Turning Inward for a Galvanizing Ideology ; with Putin in Top Office, Renewed Focus on Limits of Western Liberalism


Barry, Ellen, International Herald Tribune


Six months into the leader's third term as president, conservative ideas harking back to the country's experience of Western occupation and rejecting Western liberalism are resurgent.

Over 12 years as the principal leader of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin has brought the same ruthless pragmatism to a wide range of problems -- separatist wars, gas wars, rebellious oligarchs and a collapsing ruble.

Now he is facing a problem he has never encountered before, one that is an awkward fit with his skeptical, K.G.B.-trained mind. Six months into his third presidential term, after a wave of unsettling street protests, Mr. Putin needs an ideology -- some idea powerful enough to consolidate the country around his rule.

One of the few clear strategies to emerge in recent months is an effort to mobilize conservative elements in society. Cossack militias are being revived, regional officials are scrambling to present "patriotic education" programs and Slavophile discussion clubs have opened in major cities under the slogan "Give us a national idea!"

"Definitely he is thinking about ideology," Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin's press secretary and close aide, said in an interview. "Ideology is very important. Patriotism is very important. Without dedication from people, without the trust of people, you cannot expect a positive impact of what you are doing, of your job."

Ideas are changing inside the ruling class, as well. The pro- Western, modernizing doctrine of President Dmitri A. Medvedev has been replaced by talk about "post-democracy" and imperial nostalgia. Leading intellectuals are challenging the premise, driven into the country 20 years ago, that Russia should seek to emulate liberal Western institutions. "Western values" are spoken of with disdain.

Every year, scholars from around the world gather for a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, where they sit around an opulent dinner table, peppering Mr. Putin with questions for hours. Mr. Peskov said this year there were few questions about democracy and human rights -- because those questions are no longer of interest.

"World experts nowadays are losing their interest in the traditional set of burning points," he said. "Everyone is sick and tired of this issue of human rights." He added, "It's boringly traditional, boringly traditional, and it's not on the agenda."

Events of the past year have breathed life into this anti- Western argument. The debt crisis stripped the euro zone of its attraction as an economic model, and then as a political one. The Arab uprisings have left Russia and the United States divided by an intellectual chasm. The Russian Orthodox Church casts the West as unleashing dangerous turbulence on the world.

Mr. Peskov said that Mr. Putin "understands pretty well that there are no general Western values," but that he views this as a period of severe historic crisis.

"We have a tremendous collapse of cultures in Europe, less in the States, less in South America," Mr. Peskov said. "But we have it in Africa and we have it in Europe, and they will be torn apart by these contradictions. Because there is no harmony in coexistence of different cultures, they cannot ensure this harmony."

"The wave of revolutions in Maghreb, in the Middle East, in the Gulf, in Yemen, it brought disaster," he said.

While Russia has no intention of drifting from the West in its foreign policy and seeks closer bilateral relationships, Mr. Peskov said, it will no longer tolerate interference by outsiders in its domestic affairs.

This message is unambiguous, but it is difficult to know what concrete changes it may bring in a country whose top political and business figures have homes in Western Europe and send their children to study there.

In September, during a discussion on "nationalizing the elite," a Kremlin-connected lawmaker proposed barring officials from owning property overseas, saying it makes them beholden to foreign governments and could lead them to betray Russia. …

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