The new Putinism: Nationalism fused with conservative Christianity

October 25, 2012

Vladimir Putin meets with Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill (AP/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky)

Two recent stories offer a revealing  -- and, to some, unsettling -- view of Russian President Vladimir Putin's emerging state ideology. The new Putinism, you might call it, seems to be a fusion of two older Russian ideas: nationalism, sometimes with an anti-Western tinge, and conservative interpretations of Orthodox Christianity. Both stories portray the coalescing, Kremlin-pushed ideology as a response to rising dissent and, more broadly, an effort to fill an ideological vacuum that has to some extent remained since the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago.

The Financial Times' Charles Clover chronicles the new ideology's emergence in the typically vibrant city of St. Petersburg, "long regarded as Russia's liberal window to the west" but now "the testing ground for a new wave of conservative, Orthodox church-going, pro-Kremlin patriotism that has gripped much of Russian officialdom." Clover cites recent censorship of classic Russian works by Vladimir Nabokov and Sergei Rachmaninoff, as well as new law that forbids "yelping" and "stomping" at night, possibly aimed at curbing protests.

Through the previous 12 years of his hegemony, Mr. Putin observed a balance between liberals and conservatives in the ranks of the elite, catering to each group in an effort to play one off against the other. 

Today, that balance appears to have been jettisoned after liberals deserted him, with protesters taking to the streets last December and high-ranking figures – such as his finance minister – joining the dissenters.

The Kremlin has turned to the more conservative elements of society. More rural, older and less educated, they respond well to Mr Putin’s nationalist and slightly paranoid rhetoric as defender of the Orthodox faith from blasphemers and protector of the nation against foreign plots. 

In Moscow, Claire Bigg of Radio Free Europe finds indications of a Kremlin effort to institutionalize the new emphasis on nationalism: an entirely new government agency for "promoting patriotism" and safeguarding "the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society." It's hard not to be reminded of Iran's infamous censorship body, the "Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance," although Russia's Directorate for Social Projects appears more about cultivating friendly public sentiments than blocking outlawed ones.

Bigg and analysts she spoke with portrayed the agency as an outgrowth of Putin's "deepening hostility" toward foreign organizations, even comparing it to the Soviet-era propaganda department. But the most significant link to the Soviet era may have to do with the national pride many Russians felt during their country's height of power. 

The initiative is nonetheless likely to strike a chord with many Russians nostalgic for their country's lost global clout.

Advocates say the new agency could prove instrumental in both filling the ideological vacuum left by the Soviet collapse and rejuvenating the notion of patriotism, still almost exclusively tied to the Soviet Union's role in World War II. 

Russia's search for an ideology is a big deal for the populous, ethnically diverse country. This campaign's propagandistic and anti-liberal overtones aside, it does at least seem to address this issue. But nationalism is a powerful force, and in Russia has had a complicated history. As EurasiaNet's Igor Torbakov warned in February, when Putin appeared to begin his ideological campaign, Russian nationalism has at times carried ethnic overtones. About 80 percent of the country's citizens are ethnic Russian, and, with birth rates below replacement and the population aging, the Russian economy relies heavily on immigrating minority groups. Widespread harassment of migrant workers is already a problem in Russia.

“Putin feels the coming of a catastrophe, of the domination of liberal forces which threaten him with the fate of Muammer Gaddafi,” a far-right Russian newspaper editor told the Financial Times. “He is fighting back by restoring the balance between the various ideological groups. In this way, he supports us.”

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