What has been happening since Vladimir Putin’s third coming to the Kremlin is indeed new for post-Soviet Russia. However, it is not so much a new political direction but a correction, albeit a significant one, of Kremlin’s previous attempt to build an alternative, self-sufficient civilisation to the West.
The ‘Munich’ course
Not quite so explicit before 2012, the beginnings of this alternative vision can be identified in Putin’s infamous ‘Munich speech’ at the international security conference in February 2007. In both his speech and answers to delegates’ questions, Putin warned western leaders not to try to teach Russia about democracy. His strong protest against NATO expansion and proposed anti-missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic seemed less a reaction to fear of a military threat than to a fear of a threat to Russian civilisation.
Vladimir Putin at the 2007 Munich Conference: 'We are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves'. Photo (pd) U.S. Department of Defence
'It was not necessarily the proximity of NATO tanks and planes to Russia’s borders that scared the Russian leadership, but the geographical proximity of European civilisation, whose values are incompatible with Russia’s post-Soviet political system.'
Discussions at the time about Georgia and Ukraine becoming NATO members raised the possibility of these countries adopting western democratic values, which would have presented the Kremlin with a challenge it couldn’t answer. It was not necessarily the proximity of NATO tanks and planes to Russia’s borders that scared the Russian leadership, but the geographical proximity of European civilisation, whose values are incompatible with Russia’s post-Soviet political system. After Munich, Moscow began planning for the Russo-Georgian War of August 2008, the purpose of which was to avert this threat.
What we now see in the first year of Putin’s third presidential term is a continuation of the ‘Munich’ course, adjusted to take account of a new challenge. The challenge this time is an internal rather than external one — from Russian citizens protesting in public about the rigged results of parliamentary elections.
The response to December
Who could have predicted that a mass of educated and prosperous people would be moved to protest for ‘fair elections’? The December 2011 protests represented a cultural-civilisational repudiation of governance without ethics or civil rights. It was a reaction to the progressive degeneration of civilisation in Russia.
How did the Kremlin respond to this challenge?
First, it began to talk of Russia as a ‘unique civilisation’, a ‘state-civilisation’. This was something new: until then the development of an alternative to the west had been couched in vague terms of a ‘European choice’ for Russia.
All the president's men. Patriarch Kirill (in green) conducts a ceremony to mark Vladimir Putin's 2012 inauguration. Putin has used the Russian Orthodox Church to stress Russia's differences with the West and the importance of obeying government authority. Photo (cc) www.kremlin.ru
Second, the Kremlin blasted the protesters for their alleged lack of morals while organising its own rallies which celebrated militarism and patriotism. At a pro-Putin rally before the presidential election he called the assembled crowd ‘defenders of the fatherland’ and even felt it appropriate to quote lines from Lermontov’s poem ‘The Battle of Borodino’, familiar to all Russians from their schooldays: ‘Let’s die defending Moscow, as our brothers also died!’ Naturally, all this was accompanied, and is still accompanied, by references to the external enemy in the shape of the USA’s State Department and its ‘fifth column’ of protesters and their leaders.
‘At a pro-Putin rally before the presidential election he called the assembled crowd ‘defenders of the fatherland’ and even felt it appropriate to quote lines from Lermontov’s poem ‘The Battle of Borodino’, familiar to all Russians from their schooldays: ‘Let’s die defending Moscow, as our brothers also died!’’
Third, moral pressure on the opposition was supplemented by repressive legislation, reminiscent of emergency wartime measures, and the prosecution of both opposition leaders and ordinary protesters. These measures blatantly violated both Russia’s Constitution and its international obligations. Faced with a demand that it observe its citizens’ civil rights, Putin’s ‘unique civilisation’ showed itself to be openly hostile to the very concept.
Fourth, legislation was passed to allow the Kremlin to strengthen its control over its bureaucrats and lawmakers. They are now obliged to declare not only their incomes but also their expenditures. They are also no longer permitted to have money in foreign bank accounts. In this way, the ‘unique civilisation’ is attempting to pre-empt any splits within the elite and pre-empt the appearance of groups that might show disloyalty to the Kremlin.
Praying for kings
Can all this be regarded as the establishment of some new ideology? In some senses, it can. It is, in fact, a new incarnation of the ideology of Soviet war patriotism, with the communist principles of the time replaced by Orthodox Christianity and a leading role for the Russian Orthodox Church. Its leader, Patriarch Kirill, has spent the last year reminding Russians about the differences between Russian civilisation and statehood and western civilisation, and the disparity in their core values. In support of his argument he quotes both St Paul, who in his epistle to Timothy exhorted Christians to pray ‘for kings, and for all who are in authority’, and the modern Russian philosopher Alexandr Panarin, who believed that ‘the identity of the Russian people is underpinned by the Orthodox ideal of the sacred kingdom’. The point of all this is in effect to reawaken the old idea of the ‘sacredness’ of an individual sovereign who is to be served unconditionally.
'The point of all this is in effect to reawaken the old idea of the ‘sacredness’ of an individual sovereign who is to be served unconditionally.'
The Patriarch also likes to remind Russians of their country’s wars with western countries, which he describes as the defence of ‘Russia’s cultural-civilisational borders’. He even quotes Stalin’s radio broadcast of 3rd July 1941 with its stirring call to mobilisation in the face of Nazi invasion. Old military victories must not, according to the Patriarch, be forgotten. All of this leaves us with no doubt of the intention of the Kremlin and the Church to adopt in peacetime the ideology of wartime patriotism centred on the figure of the ‘leader’.
However, if this is an ideology it is, unlike its Soviet version, a deeply conservative one. It involves no goal-setting; its image of the future is fused with an idealised past. Even the contours of this alternative civilisation — which needs, after all, to compete in today’s’ world — are missing from this ideology. By definition, it is an ideology with no future.Part of a 5-part oDR expert symposium on Putin's third term. See other contributions: