Putin and obscurantism – Russia's new sense of mission

29 January 2014

By Jens Siegert

Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog 

An important differentiating characteristic between the Soviet Union and Putin's Russia was, until recently, the widespread freedom of its people to define their lives as they wish. This freedom, the freedom to think what you want and to say what you think, to travel where you want to go, return when you like, to live with whom you wish, to love whom you wish, to work where you wish (all within the framework of given social and economic possibilities, naturally) was, moreover, a part of the often discussed (even when not being written about) “social contract” of the 2000s. According to this "contract", Putin determines politics and controls the most important economic resources. But he also cares for the growing prosperity of as many people as possible, does not interfere in the private lives of his citizens, and does not bother about what they think and believe.

Putin once even spoke of the last part of this “social contract” himself. In his first speech on the “state of the nation” in front of both chambers of parliament in July 2000, he explained that he was “against the reintroduction of an official ideology in Russia in any form whatsoever.” There have been, time and time again since then, moments of temptation, above all in the case of recent history, to prescribe or forbid something or other. But on the whole, Putin kept his promise.

He probably actually believed that things are better that way (also or perhaps above all for himself). Because it is only in this combination that both strands of his power basis hold together: on one side the so-called “Gosudarstvenniki” (from Gosudarstvo – the state), those who always put the interests of the state first (it is towards these who Putin himself very obviously leans, ideologically and biographically). They stand for the “rise of the Russian state from its knees,” for a more self aware policy towards the West, for the uncompromising approach in the second war with Chechnya and also for the gradually strengthening limitation of citizens' participation rights.

On the other side, Putin leans on a free-market liberal elite, many of whom grew rich and influential during the 1990s. Their (as it tends to be) free-market liberal economic policy is to increase Russia's prosperity, to make it great again, and, not unimportantly, through their economic successes, to secure Putin's sovereignty and thereby his power. Furthermore, this elite serves as a counterweight to the “Gosudarstvenniki”. This all worked very well until around the end of the decade. The majority of people in Russia were certainly satisfied with the result overall.

Then came the economic crisis. Confidence in a rosy future in the country took a hit. The discourse on modernisation under the interim president Medvedev brought a bit of hope and fresh air back. But, as Medvedev stepped down in September 2011 and Putin came back, this air quickly ran out. What followed this time were the winter protests which no one thought possible and a real fear probably crept into the Kremlin that Putin's rule could soon be over.

The switch from an ideologically neutral, or better yet, only selectively and instrumentally ideological state, to one which calls for an ideological following, and, at the very least, restraint in its dissent, showed itself at first in a change of concept. Instead of president of a whole, a “single” Russia, Putin claimed to be representing only the politics of an “overwhelming majority” from early 2012 (from the peak of the protests onwards).

The outline of this form of politics was quickly sketched out. It can, very conveniently, be seen in the repressive measures against the protesting opposition. The political classes have ever since been conducting themselves, as has been conveyed to western societies, like right-wing conservatives, religious zealots, closer to or already past the limits of obscurantism. The most prominent examples are the anti-homosexuality laws, the so-called Dima Yakovlev law forbidding the adoption of Russian children by US citizens, the law to “protect religious feelings” and the increasingly hysterical public discussion of apparent falsifications of history, in particular involving the Second World War (a full list would be very long). Taken together, these events come together as a kind of antithesis to the “Western” reviled (democratic) modernity.

At first, this development looked like a new, more tactical about-turn, thought up chiefly to secure sovereignty. Hardly anyone believed that all this could really be meant seriously. However, the whole lifestyle of the, and I do not fear this choice of words, ruling political class in Russia (and all the more the economic elite) has become completely Westernised, right down to family and wealth in the West.

And with time this crude mixture of a sense of threat and resentment towards the foreign and the human, neo-religious bigotry and a geopolitical world view intensified into a kind of ideology – not yet a very consistent one, but thoroughly usable. Internally, it is employed against the opposition and externally against the West.

Vladimir Putin gave credence to this ideological substrata in detail for the first time in September of last year in a half-hour speech before the so-called Valdai Club (which in part was enthusiastically reproduced in German on the dubious Catholic website “Kreuz.net” of all things). A quick summary of the report is as follows: the West (in particular “Europe”, by which the EU is meant) has strayed from its Christian-occidental path and deteriorated into a hotbed of decadence, sin and, from Putin's view probably the very worst of all, weakness (ideas straight from the grave of Oswald Spengler, a very popular man in Russia). A textbook example of this is the apparent rise of gays everywhere, which has led to directly to discrimination against supporters of traditional sexual relationships.

A new (but essentially old) mission for Russia has arisen from this: saving the (Christian) West (even though it doesn't deserve it). This mission is leading to the discovery of interesting new allies in the West. Recently, the Front National leader Marine le Pen was received like a head of government on standby in Moscow. There were meetings with deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin and chair of the State Duma Sergei Naryshkin. It was not difficult to find common ground. Elena Mizulina, member of the State Duma and the main agitator for the anti-homosexuality laws, was enthusiastically received as a guest speaker at a conference of the German political obscurantist scene in Leipzig at the end of November, organised among others by Thilo Sarrazin. And there has also been animated and friendly contact with religious fundamentalists from the USA from the same school as Pat Buchanan, occasionally referred to as “paleo-conservative”.

There is not much fundamentally new in any of this. It was the preoccupation of the Soviet Union, not the West, to be the anti-West or the better West. A more accurate comparison in my view, however, would be with the late Russian Empire. It was then that many liberal men, like finance minister Sergei Witte from around 1890, and very conservative men, like prime minister Pyotr Stolypin in the first decade of the twentieth century (who Putin refers to time and time again with clear veneration), tried to transform the country into a kind of dictatorship of modernisation using the power of the tsarist autocracy. This approach was a reaction to the social and political rejection to which Russia (like the USA and west and central European countries before it) was submitted during the transition from an agricultural to an industrial country.

This autocratically led and controlled modernisation was thoroughly successful at the time. But the basis of the regime remained a pre-modern agricultural elite with a world view which was already very out of fashion in other places at the time (to put it mildly). This elite was perched to grab the power of the Tsars, but the opportune time passed them and their rulers by. Something similar is threatening Putin. The neo-ideological course scared off just those people – the young, (well-)educated, mobile and entrepreneurial – who could pull off a modernisation of Russia today. This is, therefore, a course which secure power for Putin for a few more additional years (but also maybe not). The whole country could go to the dogs again in the process. One hundred years ago, things did not go well for Witte and Stolypin for long.

Translated by Helen Corbett