Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past.
Social conservatives in the West believe, with some justice, that they are the objects of scorn on the part of progressive elites. Barack Obama, in his first campaign for the presidency ten years ago, said of small-town Americans that “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” His competitor for the Democratic nomination, Hilary Clinton, criticised him for that: but in her campaign for the Presidency in September 2016, described half of Donald Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables”.
In Britain, Gordon Brown, campaigning in April 2010 for a second, full, term as Labour Prime Minister, said of an elderly woman, Gillian Duffy, whom he had encountered at a meet-the-public stop, that she was “just a bigoted woman” because she had said to him, during their brief talk, that “You can’t say anything about the immigrants… these eastern Europeans what (sic) are coming in, where are they flocking from?” He had not noticed, as he was driven away from the campaign stop, that a radio microphone, attached from a previous TV interview, was still on his lapel—and still live. These remarks were likely deeply damaging: Obama weathered the storm and won; both Clinton and Brown lost.
But if Western liberal leaders and elites see many millions of those whose votes they seek as reactionary, Vladimir Putin, now President of Russia for a fourth, six-year term with a higher vote than he achieved in 2012, appears to understand the “bitter” small towners, the “deplorables” and the “bigots.” In the his previous six-year term he brought in a raft of legislation and initiatives popular with many Russians—measures which also speak to many of the fears and preferences of Western social conservatives, especially those in the working and lower middle classes. Like his Soviet predecessors, he is inviting the workers of the world to cast off their chains—of political correctness.
Since the vanguard radicalism of the sixties, deeply felt attitudes in the West have changed; often, in recent decades, by law and by exhortation. Gays, especially gay men, were —even after discriminatory legislation was repealed—marginalised, bullied and at times assaulted, pressure which led many of them to disguise their orientation. Now, legislation in most democratic states penalise discrimination against gays and transsexuals. People of visibly different ethnic groups, as those of African or Asian heritage, many of them descendants of slaves, or immigrants, were denied jobs, housing and membership of many institutions, often with a blind eye turned by police and politicians. Now, once again, it is discrimination, or refusal of service, which leads to a fine, even to jail.
Liberalism has, over the past three decades, developed a muscular side as well as one which protects sexual and racial minorities. Since the 1980s, Western states have sought to turn their disapproval of brutal treatment by authoritarian leaders of their citizens into action, arguing for and effecting intervention in former Yugoslavia, in Sierra Leone, in Iraq and in Libya. Under a UN commitment made in 2005 under the rubric of “a Responsibility to Protect”, states commit to save populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. That has not been limited to rhetoric: savage wars have been fought under its aegis.
In the past two decades, Western states’ foreign aid budgets have increased substantially, and Western NGOs which dispense aid and act, with the United Nations, to provide aid to refugees from war or ethnic cleansing, or victims of natural disasters, has grown greatly. From 2013, the British government has spent 0.7 percent of its GDP on foreign aid, a commitment made legally binding in 2015, by some way proportionately more than any other major state.
These initiatives now find increasing opposition. Any large-scale interventions in foreign conflicts, or to stop the brutalising of sections of the population by the country’s ruler, are now hotly contested and more rarely attempted. The continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is a partial exception, though the strength of the deployment has been drawn down from some 100,000 in Obama’s presidency to around 12,000 now. In the summer of 2013, an attempt by the Conservative-dominated UK coalition government to intervene in the Syrian conflict was voted down in the House of Commons—and celebrated as a triumph by the opposition Labour Party, and by many conservatives.
In a document leaked to Foreign Policy earlier this month, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, proposes to cut aid to those countries voting against America in the U.N.—a move towards an “American First” aid policy called for by the president, and a reflection of the suspicion with which the Trump administration views foreign aid – beyond its serving American interests. In 2016, an opinion poll in the Daily Telegraph showed that nearly two thirds of respondents disapproved of the relatively high British aid expenditure, most believing that the money—between £13 and £14 billion—should be spent at home.
In many white majority societies, it was largely accepted until the seventies that people from visibly different ethnic backgrounds would be in low-paid service or industrial jobs. At the same time, it was largely accepted that women would rarely be offered high paid, leadership roles; and that determined efforts by men to persuade them to have sex with them was—short of violent assault or rape—just a bit of fun. None of this is regarded as acceptable now: revelations that women’s pay is lower than men’s in comparable jobs are now regarded as scandalous, and widely reported and criticised.
In recent months, a movement in the U.S., #MeToo, which has spread quickly to many other countries, has drawn the limits of acceptability on sexual encounters tighter, to the extent that several prominent women, led by the French actor Catherine Deneuve, have protested that they risk making enjoyable flirting too much of a minefield for men to risk it.
These shifts of political, cultural and social-sexual behavior have been in a (broadly defined) liberal direction: they add up to a veritable revolution, one which the Western democracies are still digesting. Large numbers, however, are not digesting them; rather they wish to spit them out. They have increasingly rebelled through protests and via their elected representatives, through votes for Donald Trump, or for nationalist, anti-EU parties, whose leaders and many followers look to Russia as the most prominent state standing in opposition to the Western trends.
A common belief at the beginning of the nineties was that the end of communism, and in the same year of 1991 the formal end of apartheid in South Africa, dealt death blows to autocracy and political and social reaction. The European Union, which took in the central European, former communist, states, was at the high tide of its success. The British diplomat Robert Cooper, in an influential essay, posed the EU as a postmodern liberal empire, which allowed for “mutual interference in domestic affairs,” called for a rejection of force, saw borders as increasingly irrelevant, and security as best rooted in transparency and interdependence. Yet in the past few years, the trajectory of mainstream governments opposed to the populist-nationalists has been away from “mutual interference” and more power for the EU towards greater security and stronger borders.
Vladimir Putin is opposed to all of the liberal agenda. In the three terms of Presidential office and in his two terms (the first less than a year) as Prime Minister, he has been Russia’s dominant political force. He entered office as an apparent democrat, celebrating the liberalisations of the Yeltsin years, pledging to uphold the rule of law and freedom of speech, as well as a pluralistic media. Bit by bit these were whittled away, as his distrust of the West—accompanied by a recoil from liberal positions on race, sex, the family and warfare—came increasingly to the fore.
In Russia today, formal democracy remained (and remains) but genuinely independent candidates are frozen out: Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most outspoken critic who has since 2010 focussed on the corruption of the Russian elite, was denied an opportunity to run for the presidential office. The judiciary, which had shown some independence, has been brought to heel: on any matter important to the Kremlin, judges would be told, or would know, what judgement to make.
In his widely read The New Cold War (2008), The Economist writer Edward Lucas concluded that in Putin’s Russia, “Opposition is disloyalty at best, and outright treason if it is supported from abroad. The individual is a means to an end, not a bearer of inalienable rights: justice is a tool, not an ideal. The mass media are an instrument of state, not a constraint on its power. Civil society is an instrument for social consolidation, not diversity…foreign policy is solely about the promotion of national interest. Intervention is hypocrisy”.
It was in Putin’s third term—he had elongated the presidential period in office from four to six years—that the tracks have been laid for a properly conservative nationalist Russia. In his state of the nation address in 2012, soon after re-assuming the Presidency, Putin said that his aim was to ensure the state “support institutions that are the bearers of traditional values, passed on from generation to generation.” These included the Orthodox Church, a specific understanding of Russian (including Soviet) history, and the Kremlin itself, all of which were protected from criticism by increasingly draconian legislation.
The anti-Kremlin demonstrations of 2011 and 2012, mainly against corruption and ballot rigging in the 2012 elections, were a shock. Putin, apparently sincerely, believed they were provoked by interference on the part of the West, which the Russian President increasingly and somewhat contradictorily saw both a looming threat, and a collection of states lost in a desert of decadence and perversion. He has seen, at least initially, in Donald Trump, and more securely in the far-Right nationalist parties of Europe, allies in this reassertion of “civilised” values, and as opponents of mass immigration which would change the nature of their societies.
Russia, whose population continues to decline, needs immigrants at least as much as demographically-challenged European states: but it extends citizenship only to ethnic Russians, mostly living in the former Soviet states. Citizens of the Central Asian and Caucasian states, desperate for work unavailable in their still-devastated countries, can obtain permits, but are routinely accused, by police and public, of being terrorists, are frequently abused and beaten, on occasion murdered, with little apparent intervention from the state.
Minorities aren’t alone in being beaten. A law passed last January considerably relaxed penalties against wife-beating, to the point where any action against men roughing up their wives is unlikely. The law was commended by the head of the Orthodox Patriarchy’s family commission, Father Dmitry Smirnov, who said that the notion that the state should intervene in family matters was a Western imposition. Alena Popova, who led a lonely vigil outside of the parliament against the law, was accused by passers by of being a Western stooge. The popular tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, ran an article claiming that beaten women often gave birth to boys, and had reason to be proud of their bruises.
In his 2013 State of the Nation address, Putin inveighed against Western decadence, or as he put it “so-called tolerance, sexless and infertile.” Western states were forcing their people “to accept good and bad as equal… but we know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position—defending traditional values that for thousands of years have remained the basis of civilisation: values of a traditional family, religious life.”
In the aftermath of prosecutions of the Pussy Riot punk band, who in 2012 had sung an anti-Putin song on the altar of the vast Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior—two of the three women who made up the band were sentenced to prison terms—any offence against religious believers was criminalised. A 2013 law threatened fines for “spreading propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors, which effectively banned any public discussion of gay relationships, since it might be heard or read by a child.
All of these rearguard initiatives in defense of “traditional values” were attended by punchily presented, skilled propaganda in the media, especially on television. Putin, with his Kremlin colleagues and his skilled, richly rewarded TV propagandists, have successfully kept the bulk of the population in support of their policies. And the message has successfully gotten out beyond Russia’s borders.
Mainstream Western politicians and pundits, repeatedly flatfooted by the success of Russia’s “soft power,” have tended to instead focus on the harder-edged tools the Kremlin regularly employs: its funding of fellow-traveler parties, its aggressive hacking campaigns, and the existence of its propaganda TV and internet networks. The very concept of “disinformation,” so popular among analysts these days, at its heart is dismissive of the notion that the values Putin is expressing have any legitimate pull on their own, implying instead that those voters that share them are only lacking access to the “truth”. Yes, Sputnik and RT are not honest journalistic enterprises, and their stories are often riddled with falsehoods. But the worldview they espouse has broad, enduring, and even increasing appeal among disgruntled Western social conservatives.
And not just in the West. Many of the states to which Russia is reaching out—in the Middle and Far East, in Africa, in South America—share the “traditional values” Putin claims for Russia. They are their traditional values too. In an article in the Journal of Democracy in October of last year, the Berkley political scientist M. Stanley Fish wrote that “Putin aims to convey a clear message to the masses in developing societies: ‘My people and I bear no strange moral agenda. We too are offended by Western governments and NGOs who tell us to embrace homosexuality and reject traditional gender roles and identities. Our churches and mosques and temples, like yours, reject imposed liberal immorality. Join us and together we will stand strong for our cultural sovereignty and right to live as we will’.”
Putin, in his time in office, has transformed Russia from an emerging democracy and a potential ally to an entrenched authoritarian, illiberal society with a hostile attitude to the West. The tracks Vladimir Putin has laid down with such care and thoroughness since 2012 are unlikely to be ripped up in his fourth term, in large part because they clearly resonate with a conservative-minded subset of the Russian public. Western liberals ignore this reality at their peril—and would do well to recognize that similar dynamics are at play in their own politics.