The conservative-patriarchal conception of life, featuring a strong leader and state, still dominates the consciousness of the overwhelming majority of Russians - much to the chagrin of the nation’s liberals.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, presents Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill with an icon after a meeting with Orthodox clergy in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Photo: RIA Novosti

Foreign Policy recently published a curious article on a subject that is relatively new for Western political scientists studying Russia: “The Tea Party Comes to Moscow.” As mentioned in the article, some American conservatives and, in particular, representatives of the Tea Party, consider Vladimir Putin to be “one of us,” describing him as a “real leader” since he defends traditional Christian values and is a determined opponent of “homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood values.”

One can agree with the author of the Foreign Policy article that Putin’s Russia and the Tea Party share an ultra-conservative Christian view and see liberal forces both inside the country and beyond as a threat. Incidentally, in Russia itself liberal journalists that are independent from the Kremlin would similarly, without hesitation, place Putin among the adherents of the Tea Party.

According to the editor-in-chief of popular radio station Echo of Moscow Alexey Venediktov, “If Putin happened to have been born in the U.S. then he would doubtless be on the edge of the right wing of the Republican Tea Party, and would be more right wing then Senator John McCain.”

However, the attempt to place Putin within the ideological spectrum of the American political system is quite superficial. As Russian opposition leader and world chess champion Garry Kasparov says, in the United States “the conservative right ideology is not simply a mechanical selection of values but an entire organism, all its parts are closely interrelated. For the American conservative, individual freedom flows naturally from those very same traditional American protestant values.”

In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s highest priority is order, which is more important than human rights or freedom. Almost all public opinion polls within Russia show this.

There is one other fundamental difference. The Tea Party is the most isolated movement in American politics, speaking out against the extensive powers of the intelligence services, while Putin is a representative of the intelligence services and is supported by the vast majority of his compatriots. Meanwhile, the Tea Party in the United States believes it represents only about 10 percent of the population.

Clash of civilizations: Liberalism vs. conservatism

However, if we abandon this conditionality and focus only on ultra-conservatism in contemporary Russia, then one can say that the Tea Party has nowhere to go from Moscow.

In 1996 Samuel Huntington published a historic-philosophical tract, “The Clash of Civilizations,” which at that time become a standard text for many analysts studying the complicated interrelated global processes following the end of the Cold War. However, Huntington’s theory is based on the potential clash that occurs on the boundaries of civilizations.

The events taking place in the world today, the attacks on numerous fronts by Islamic fundamentalists highlight, in particular, the clash of two civilizations – Islamic and Christian. However, after almost two decades since the publication of Huntington’s book, one can state that significant clashes can take place within a single civilization.

Russia, in this sense, is a huge field of study. It was naïve to imagine that after hundreds of years of cruel monarchy and feudalism, and then after decades of bloody and pointless experiments with Communism, in the 1990s the newly independent Russia would immediately settle down on the path of civilized democratic development.

No, the conservative-patriarchal conception of life, in which a strong leader and state should protect “mere mortals,” to this day dominates the consciousness of the overwhelming majority of Russians. And increasingly, this conservatism inherited from the past comes into open conflict with liberalism, which the most progressive part of Russian society is preaching.

Charlie Hebdo in Russia’s discourse

The clearest example of this appeared in the beginning of 2015 with the reaction of the “Russian Tea Party” to the tragic events in Paris where Islamists shot and killed journalists from the satirical Charlie Hebdo publication. The following day, activists from the Orthodox God’s Will movement picketed the French embassy. They placed the blame for the tragedy in Paris on the French government and accused the Charlie Hebdo journalists of insulting religious feeling.

The police did not prevent this demonstration, although the police did arrest two demonstrators who walked down a central Moscow street with placards saying “Je Suis Charlie.”

The leader of the God’s Will movement, Dmitry Enteo, wrote on the Vkontakte social network: “Journalists from Charlie Hebdo did not simply insult Muslims, inciting them to violence, but also committed terrible blasphemy against Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity. They are blasphemers. Any blasphemer deserves the severest punishment... such caricaturists are the true terrorists.”

Shortly afterwards Enteo gave an extensive interview to online Russian media, which was published under a headline that resulted in an outburst of indignation on social networks: “Russia should become Orthodoxy’s Chechnya.” It should be added that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, which like the American Tea Party, defends the most conservative ideas on the majority of contemporary problems (same sex marriages, abortion, etc.) did not react at all to the tragedy in Paris. And the most odious figure for Russian liberals – the authoritarian leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, organized a protest march against insults to the Prophet Muhammad in the name of Muslims from all over the world.

'Leviathan' split Russia’s society

Leviathan - Official HD Trailer (with English subs). Source: YouTube / PalaceFilms

Between the ultra-conservatives and liberals, another fierce debate has flared up on a different topic, in connection with the upcoming release on the big screen of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s "Leviathan,” which won a Golden Globe in the United States, received critical praise at several prestigious European viewings, and finally, was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film.

As famous Russian film critic Yury Gladilschikov wrote in the New Times, among media loyal to the Kremlin, there is the potential for real persecution related to Zvyagintsev’s film, in which the Russian Culture Minister, Vladimir Medinsky, could play a role. “We are talking about a subtly planned intrigue by the authorities with the aim of not only discrediting Zvyagintsev’s picture, (and it really is the best Russian film in many years), but also in the end, is aimed at social-criticism in modern Russian cinematography,” states Gladilschikov.

It would seem that Russia should only be celebrating – finally a film, shot by a Russian director had entered such a prestigious category. After all, the last Russian film to receive a Golden Globe was Sergei Bondarchuk’s "War and Peace," and that was back in 1969.

So what’s the issue? It turns out that Russian conservatives are outraged largely by the depiction in Zvyagintsev’s film of the link between the church and corrupt government officials. As Gladilschikov wrote, “'Leviathan' is not simply a personal story about cruel injustice, but is a political statement about the nature of contemporary Russia - about a terrifying Leviathan, a corrupt government without honor or conscience, where the Church protects the government and Christ has been essentially privatized by gangsters.”

Perhaps this is said too sharply, but in general, the critic is correct. And if we return to our conditional comparison, one can state that Russia’s mass clerical-secular Tea Party is imposing its worldview on society.

But how successful is it?

The conclusion is unclear. Similar ultra-conservative views are clearly not shared by all representatives of Russia’s civil society, or even all priests. Recently Dr. Dmitry Tsyplakov, senior deacon and pro-rector for scientific research at the Novosibirsk Theological Seminary, spoke out in defense of “Leviathan.”

“I do not believe that Zvyaginstev’s view is that of a realist or blasphemer, and even less do I believe that it is the calculated approach of a festival bon vivant, collecting art house statuettes,” wrote the senior deacon on “This film is a warning about how fragile our life is, our family, our country and how quickly this life can turn into a war against everyone.”

Nearly 25 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, It is increasingly clear that modern Russia is at the beginning of its quest for national identity. The weight of the past weighs heavily on it, but as Russians love to say: “Hope is the last to die.”