What Does the Russian Elite Really Believe in?

In the Kremlin’s world view there is no such thing as genuine political philosophy, there is only “political technology,” a very post-Soviet term which defines all political language as mere means

At a somewhat high-minded conference in Kiev this May, the west’s (slightly self-appointed) intellectuals, from Bernard Henri-Levi through Leon Wieseltier, Paul Berman and François Heisbourg, gathered to discuss “the meaning of Ukrainian pluralism for Europe, Russia and the world.” Most agreed about the importance of what is happening in and over Ukraine, and that today’s Kremlin poses a new authoritarian challenge. Many argued that Russia is the carrier of a powerful ideology based on social and religious conservatism, and that it was key for the liberals of the world to unite and stand up to it. While I agree that Russia is indeed a challenge to the global order, I think it is a grievous mistake to believe it a carrier of a genuine conservative message. The danger is that after confronting a powerful, and very real religious conservative movement in the face of radical Islam, the west now misdiagnoses Russia’s underlying, dangerous ideology, and thus uses the wrong strategy to defeat it.

While religious conservative rhetoric has become a staple in Russian propaganda, with attacks on decadent gay-Europa contrasted with invocations of Holy Russia, one should always be careful at taking the Kremlin’s words at face value. The same Russian elites who now profess themselves religious conservatives were committed democrats just a few years ago, and avowed young Communists in their youth. They might now shout about Holy Russia fighting the fallen west but the vast majority, allegedly including Putin, have their children and funds in the same west they so decry. “The same people who used to be Komsomols then became committed democrats and have now transformed into patriots—and we’re meant to believe them?” asked the dissident Alexey Navalny at his rigged trial last year.

Indeed the claim that Russia is any sort of religious bastion doesn’t stand much scrutiny: only 3% of Russians who say they are Orthodox (in itself only a certain amount of the population) go to church often; many who say they are religious also say they don’t believe in God; divorce and abortion rates are very high. Even Russian homophobia has less to do with religious values but more with the huge influence of prison culture which sees passive gays as the lowest of the low: it’s prison songs, known as “chanson,” rather than hymns, which are Russia’s most popular musical form, and Putin consciously models his language to imitate a gangster rather than a priest.

Whatever it is Russia, is not on the edge of a religious revolution a la Khomeini.

So how to understand the mind-sets of the Kremlin elite? What does Putin really believe?

To understand this generation of Russian power-brokers one needs to go back to the late Soviet period when they came of age. The Soviet 1970s and 1980s were punctuated with a very cynical attitude to the official, ruling Communist ideology. “Perestroika came much too late,” remembers Alexander Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev’s mentors, “the years of social stagnation almost killed social idealism… sowing cynicism, disbelief and social lassitude.”“Cynicism and double think was the defining emotion of the late USSR,” agrees Lev Gudkov, head of the polling group Levada Center, “exemplified by the joke “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” Homo Sovieticus learnt to live with a split consciousness: a private world with one set of values and a public one where lying was ritual. To ask what any one person “believed” was always the wrong question: Soviet citizens grew up with several narratives in their heads, and switched between them whenever necessary.

Now the people who grew up with this mind-set have grown up they have created a system which is always transforming itself according to the latest need. The Kremlin regime’s salient feature is a liquid, shape-shifting approach to power: freed from the cumbersome body of “hard” totalitarianism, the leaders of today’s Kremlin can speak like liberal modernizers in the morning and religious fanatics in the afternoon. The regime morphs from monarchist to oligarchy, from free market authoritarianism a la Pinochet to sinister populism a la Chavez, its willfully contradictory slogans taunting any attempts at definition: “conservative modernization,” “managed democracy,” “competition without change.” For the past two years a “Holy Russia” versus “decadent west” message has been useful to rebrand a new generation of domestic dissidents as “fifth columnists.” Since hundreds of thousands began to protest against Putin’s regime in 2011/2012 the Kremlin has managed to change the agenda away from domestic corruption and economic stagnation to discussion about the “clash of civilizations.” It has worked, Putin’s ratings are back up. But it is critical to understand that this rhetoric is a case of the Kremlin using the church and religious language for political purposes, rather than the church taking over the Kremlin.

In the Kremlin’s worldview there is no such thing as genuine political philosophy, there is only “political technology,” a very post-Soviet term, which defines all political language as mere means (if another political language works better at any given time- one can switch to it). The “political technologists” are the key figures of the Russian system, modern viziers who control the political process like Wizards of Oz, creating political parties to set the agenda, scripting media and setting up faux civil society organizations to drive the national debate the way the Kremlin wants.

Perhaps the most famous political technologist is Vladislav Surkov, who ran the inner Russian political system in the first decade of the 21st century, is credited with inventing “sovereign democracy,” and now helps Putin in controlling Russia’s near abroad, including Ukraine. In a semi-autobiographical novel, “Almost Zero,” Surkov tells the story of a rotten PR man, Egor. Having grown up in the sham ideology of the late USSR, and then seen so many political models, from liberalism through mafia state, change with such blistering progression, Egor feels himself a sort of post-Soviet superman who can see through the fakery of all political language “through to the heights of creation,” filled with a triumphant cynicism, convinced all motivations are corrupt. Though the novel’s satire of contemporary Russia might seem anti-establishment, it actually feeds into the underlying mind-set used to buttress Putinism: reform in Russia, or Ukraine, is impossible as democracy everywhere is a sham. An offshoot of this cynicism is a conspiracy-laden explanation of world affairs: if all motivations are corrupt then hidden forces are behind everything.

And this liquid approach to ideology poses its own global dangers: it means the Kremlin can reach out and build alliances with quite different groups, finding the right message for each. European right-nationalists such as Hungary’s Jobbik and France’s Front Nationale are seduced with anti-EU rhetoric; the anti-globalist left with anti-Americanism. The Kremlin’s propaganda news channel, RT (formerly Russia Today) is a platform for the Kremlin’s efforts to attract a contradictory kaleidoscope of ideological friends: Julian Assange had a show on RT, 9/11 conspiracy theories are given generous space; Nigel Farage of the right-wing non-parliamentary United Kingdom Independence Party is also regularly featured. What all these groups have in common is a hatred of the west, and Russia is successfully maneuvering itself to be the leader of the world’s resentment against “western hegemony,” whatever the source of that resentment is. This is potentially a very large constituency. China and India, for example, have been slow to criticize Russia for annexing Crimea. RT is the world’s most watched news channel on YouTube, with over a billion hits. The anti-western alliance is growing: and Putin is determined to be at its helm.

So how does the west respond to this new threat? If one frames the conflict with the Kremlin as “Russian religious-conservatism” versus “liberalism” one only strengthens the Kremlins illusions, firming up sectors of its global alliances. Instead, the west has to reveal Russian cynicism for what it is, constantly showing how words and actions do not match up. To counter the underlying Kremlin message that no change is possible because all motivations are corrupt, the west should focus on positive examples of change and support those who believe it is possible.

But the west’s ability to battle Russian cynicism is badly undermined by our own readiness to launder and profit Russian money coming to the west, and ignore our own money laundering laws. Even the sanctions against Kremlin elites over the Crimea were mild, stopping at anything that would damage the Kremlin system. Practically this helps to strengthen the Kremlin system, allowing its elites to manipulate western governments by making them dependent on Russian cash, but just as importantly it reinforces the Kremlin argument that the west’s values are a sham.

This needs to change. If western governments are not prepared to squeeze the nexus between Russian money and its recipients in the west, then civil society needs to step in, investigating, naming and shaming corrupt flows and those who profit for them. At present, UK anticorruption NGOs such as Global Witness or Tax Watch barely engage with Russia: an absurdity, given that so much Russian money flows through the UK. Ultimately, international networks of anticorruption NGOs could play a similar role to that of Human Rights campaigners played in the 1970s and 80s. Russia has signed up to any number of international anti-corruption initiatives and commitments. It has at least officially pledged to fight corruption at home. It is up to an international civil society push to make these initiatives real and force both Russian and western governments to “abide by their own laws.”

This is ultimately what makes the challenge of the Kremlin’s underlying ideology so important. Two versions of globalization are at stake. One based on corruption and cynicism, which argues that all ideals are for sale and all motivations are corrupt, and the other which strives for a utopian global village. The most committed utopians are now to be found in Kiev and Moscow, prepared to risk their lives for what they believe in. In this sense Ukraine is indeed key, the theater where the clash of cynicism and idealism is most urgent.

Peter Pomerantsev

Television producer and nonfiction writer, the author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: Te Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014). He lives in London.

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