The Kremlin’s Conservative Playbook

By: Marlene Laruelle

January 2, 2020

The Culture Wars Today

The Kremlin—a generic term that includes the presidential administration as well as the Russian government—has been using the term “conservatism” since the early 2000s. At that time, “conservatism” was operationalized as a political centrism to describe the moderate, median policy of the Putin administration against its two opponents judged “extreme,” the pro-Western liberals and the communists and nationalists nostalgic for the Soviet Union. The term began to grow in use first during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency (2008–2012) and then more visibly once Putin came back to power after the mass protests of winter 2011–2012.

Since then, “conservatism” has been exhibited in a more constructed manner as a way to express Russia’s civilizational identity and the nature of its political regime. The term was complemented by a whole new series of semantic metaphors such as spirituality (dukhovnost’), national traditions (natsional’nye traditsii), authentic roots (iskonnye korni), moral values (moral’nye and then nravestvennye tsennosti), cultural code (kul’turnyi kod), moral compass or rods (moral’nye sterzhni), spiritual staples (skrepy), cultural sovereignty (kul’turnyi suverenitet), and traditional values (traditionnye tsennosti). 

This conservative playbook is instrumental both for domestic purposes and for foreign policy. On the domestic scene, conservatism is used to fight against the liberal opposition and to marginalize the liberals, associated with a supposed decadent and morally corrupt West, and to give the floor to a so-called silent majority. This state-backed conservatism remains largely an empty content at the theoretical level: It can be summarized as a blurry combination of patriotism, support for the state over the rights of individuals, and anti-Americanism/anti-Westernism, but does not advance a more ideologically articulated doctrine. It also refuses to give a definition of what should be conserved: late-Soviet culture from Brezhnev’s decades, a return to older times, or just—more likely—a refusal of new changes to come and a call for social stability and political status quo? 

This conservative stance has materialized in a series of repressive laws related to both the regime itself and a certain number of moral values: bills against foreign agents and undesirable organizations; restrictions on the internet; laws against so-called homosexual propaganda, swears, and blasphemy; the hardening of juvenile justice; the relaxation of the fight against domestic violence; and attempts at limiting the right to abortion. 

On the foreign policy front, the notion of conservatism has been more explicitly formulated and articulated with practices. Very visible, it has been used to create a new channel of communication with the European—and, to a lesser extent, with the American—far right and the myriad of national-populist movements that emerged recently. These Russian-European connections are both a marriage of convenience and a reflection of deeper long-term ideological alliances. 

They are marriages of convenience because the Kremlin has no interest in associating with groups that are too radical in their ideology or too marginalized in their own society, logically preferring to target mainstream parties that may one day become part of the government. Its hope has always been to recruit from classical conservative circles: the CDU/CSU in Germany, the UMP/Les Républicains in France, and the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom. But given Russia’s difficulties in finding enough allies in mainstream conservative European circles, it had no choice but to consolidate ties with the only groups that were ready for a tactical alliance: the far right. 

Still, these alliances are too fundamental to be purely tactical. They also rely on deep, shared ideological foundations. Both Putin’s Russia and the European far right endorse what we might define as a political philosophy of “sovereignism.” Politically, they prioritize the nation-state and strong leaders over the European construction. Geopolitically, they have cautious attitudes toward multilateral and transatlantic institutions and defend a “Europe of nations.” Economically, they favor protectionism over globalization. And culturally, they reject immigration and call for the defense of old-fashioned national identity and so-called traditional values. Both Putin’s Russia and the European far right seek allies against the mainstream and identify themselves as outsiders challenging “the center”—what they often call the system or the establishment. Their enemies are clearly identified: the world liberal order, the “loose consensus” of parliamentary democracy, the EU supranational construction, and what they call cultural Marxism, that is individualism and the promotion of feminism and minority rights.

In a matter of years, Russia has become a noticeable exporter of illiberal doctrines to the West. Yet, it takes advantage of these new voices, consorts with them, and tries to amplify them, but it did not birth this homegrown dynamic and has no realistic influence over it. Russia acts not as a societal transformer, but rather as an echo chamber of European and American societies’ own doubts and transformations. On the domestic scene, the consensus obtained around these conservative values has guaranteed so far massive support for the regime, but one can notice its gradual erosion among younger generations, the urban middle-class, and a general fatigue toward the regime that will, one day or another, force today’s elites to reimagine a new playbook if they want to keep their cultural hegemony.

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