The Ukraine crisis is just the latest example of how Vladimir Putin’s conservative worldview has started to shape how Russia interacts with the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia at the Grand Kremlin Palace. Photo: RIA Novosti

A series of recent developments in Russian domestic and foreign policy suggest that President Vladimir Putin has transformed from pragmatist to ideologue. Three recent developments – Putin’s annual address to the Federal Assembly last December, the Kremlin’s stand on Ukraine and the ongoing re-evaluation of Russia’s relations with the West – signal that both the President and his advisers have clearly associated themselves with the ideology of conservatism.

For example, in his 2013 address to the parliament, Vladimir Putin pointed out that the ongoing process of globalization often ends up destroying traditional national and religious values, including the respect for family values, spiritual values and humanism. The President cited the famous Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, who has praised non-political conservatism for reversing society’s downward slide and making it possible to consider a way forward to a better life.

With that speech, Putin appeared to align Russia with the non-Western nations and cultures that reject the foreign values that are being imposed by the proponents of globalization, especially as they are related to the family, religion and culture.

Sources of Putin’s conservatism

There are several sources of Putin’s conservative ideology, which is actually a “hybrid” version that draws on different schools of thought. The first source is the classical conservatism founded by the British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke in the 18th century and later developed by the Russian thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Nikolay Danilevsky, Mikhail Katkov, Mikhail Pogodin, Konstantin Leontyev, Lev Tikhomirov, Ivan Solonevich and Ivan Ilyin.

In post-Soviet Russia, the effort to revive this ideology was first undertaken by Vyacheslav Nikonov and Sergey Shakhrai, who co-authored the Conservative Manifesto in 1994.

Since 2005, the Center for Socio-Conservative Policy has taken the lead in promoting this ideology in Russia.

President Putin and his team were especially impressed by writings of Vyacheslav Nikonov, who now chairs the State Duma’s committee on education and leads Russian World, a semi-governmental agency to promote Russian culture and language abroad. Vladimir Medinsky, the Minister of Culture and the author of highly patriotic but controversial books on Russian history and cultural traditions, is another intellectual guru for the Kremlin.

The second source is the so-called neo-Eurasianism, a school of thought that has been developed since the early 1990s by theorists such as Elgiz Pozdnykov, Alexander Dugin, Natalya Narochnitskaya and Alexander Panarin.

Finally, Putin’s version of conservatism draws heavily upon contemporary Russian Orthodox thought, as represented by the Social Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church (2000), archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), the secretary of the Patriarch’s Council on Culture, father superior Serapion (Mit’ko) and various theological societies and clubs, such as Radonezh and Katekhon.

How do conservatives view Russia?

From the classical Russian conservatism and neo-Eurasianism, the hybrid version of contemporary conservatism accepted the view of Russia as a special civilization with a worldwide cultural–historical mission and equally important interests in the West and in the East. It, of course, takes the view that Russia’s own interests must predominate and Russia must not be absorbed into other civilizations.

Again, from neo-Eurasianism, the “hybrid” version of contemporary conservatism borrowed the idea of the eternal striving of the West (and other “poles of power”) to humiliate and dismember Russia. It is Moscow’s task to repel the latest assault by foreign enemies – be it the Syrian or Ukrainian crisis – and restore the geopolitical balance on terms favorable to Russia.

Similar to classical conservatism and Russian Orthodoxy, the hybrid version of conservatism began to place greater emphasis on the need for spiritual renewal – above all, of the Russian ethnic group (and other Slavic peoples) – based on the values of Orthodox Christianity.

This concept cannot be dismissed as a crude version of nationalism, because in the final analysis, this school of political thought seeks the prosperity of all Russia’s peoples and the formation of a supra-ethnic state identity (the only kind of state identity possible in a multiethnic and multi-faith country).

These authors emphasize that because the Russian ethnic group has suffered most from the dislocation of recent decades, renewal must begin there, with that ethnic group becoming a sort of “locomotive” pulling the development of the state as a whole.

Formation of Russian official ideology

The Russian president seems to stick to the ideology of conservatism. Photo: PhotoXPress

The current Russian ruling elite is attempting to make conservatism a sort of official ideology. In line with Soviet traditions, United Russia has established a party university where the leading pro-Putin experts teach various courses, including those on political ideologies.

For instance, Professor Olga Vasilyeva, deputy head of the Presidential Administration’s directorate on social projects, has recently delivered a series of lectures on conservatism for her colleagues from the directorate on domestic policy as well as for the governors and party activists from United Russia and the All-Russia Popular Front. Archimandrite Tikhon and Vyacheslav Nikonov have also helped to inculcate the party elite with this new ideology.

New generation of conservatives

However, Russia’s present-day conservatism is relevant not only for the elites, but also for many followers within Russian society. A new element of the contemporary version of conservatism is that its supporters are clearly distinct from their predecessors, who, for the most part, confined themselves to academic philosophizing and abstract appeals to politicians, who as a rule remained deaf to these appeals.

By contrast, the new generation of conservatives – as they pass through the school of practical work in various spheres of state, political, and public activity (business, the executive and legislative branches of power, public service, the mass media, NGOs, etc.) – has already gone beyond good intentions to propose quite concrete programs of action.

Like the current Russian leadership, they consider that successful reform in Russia requires the active introduction of innovative technologies – not only in the economy but also within the socio-economic sphere.  This includes, at times, the use of information technologies to influence the perception of society.

In line with Putin’s approach, supporters of this school hold that the management of innovation projects must not be left in the hands of corrupt and often incompetent bureaucrats. Instead, managers with good reputations should be recruited from the private sector and subjected to strict public oversight.

In this sense, such a grouping is not just the latest variant of the theory of conservative elitism but also a serious attempt if not to dominate Russian public and political discourse, then at least to turn from a marginal into a quite influential school that it will no longer be so easy to shrug aside.

It remains to be seen, however, to what extent President Putin’s political agenda will be compatible with those proposed by other conservatives. Moreover, it is still not clear whether he will be ready to implement these conservative principles in Russian domestic and foreign policy, or whether he will have to be pragmatic and flexible as was the case in the past.