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22 June 2015

Russia’s “Special” Conservatism

Russian conservatism: a method to convince oneself that everyday problems are a special path 

According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Levada-Center in May 2015, 86 percent of Russians approve of Vladimir Putin’s performance as President of Russia. Journalists and political scientists usually interpret this statistic to mean complete support of the current authorities, approval of the country developing its own path, and rejection of Western culture. It seems obvious that the state has taken a course towards strengthening the political reaction to ‘anti-progress’ and the popularity of the almighty State as well as conservative rhetoric. This complete loyalty to state policy is perceived as Russians’ being compliant with the actions of the state and as reflecting the expectations of a vast majority of the population. Undoubtedly, this corresponds in many ways with what is observable on the surface of Russian society. However, for social scientists, it is important to know not only what lies on the surface, but to uncover the societal basis for the actual or imagined return to conservatism.   

A Special Way to Nowhere

It is necessary to distinguish public support for the authorities’ performance in the country from support for their ideological platform. Conservatism fulfills the role of new performance measures for the political class, and compliance with them as such represents a prerequisite for achieving greater heights in the bureaucratic hierarchy. However, the tasks contributing to building a conservative society, and even more so to actively participating in it, were not put before citizens. In Russia, the prevailing culture is one of ‘spectator’ participation, in which the individual plays the role of a passive observer of all that transpires within the country. The role of this passive observer is relegated to the ceremonial approval of the existing authority during elections. It is significant that only one out of every five Russians would like to actively participate in politics, even if on the local level, and the same number consider elections a realistic instrument for resolving the country’s issues.

In fact, conservatism for ‘ordinary’ Russians appears as a set of rules, requiring them to conform to government standards and societal norms. This collection of unspoken rules is explained to Russians in a way that shows how they differ from others, and by appealing to historical circumstances. This formula of ‘conservatism is the special path of Russia’ is constantly heard on television and finds support by relying on the ground of post-soviet dissatisfaction of reality. Results from the Levada-Center’s research allows us to speak to the conversations about ‘a special path’ that do not, however, themselves hold a clear view of the ideal structure of the country, but rather justify the current turmoil in everyday life. The idea of special exclusivity and that it is not possible to be like the rest of the world appeals to the public. If Russians are offered to choose between a western approach to development or the country’s own special path, then four out of five polled would choose the latter. It is worth asking for an explanation on what really comprises this special path as we face an ideological vacuum.

In the eyes of Russian society, this special path should represent concern for the welfare and moral fabric of society, though there is no clear idea of what this looks like. Interestingly, the same society which believes in a special Russian path also desires the same material circumstances enjoyed by Western nations.

Official conservatism also fulfills another role: it gives some shape to society and provides for the internal order of its existence. An ostentatious patriotism has formed from this understanding of conservatism as loyalty to state policy. The political elite strive to establish the direction of political education. Polling in autumn 2013 showed that 42 percent of Russians noticed that bureaucrats started to speak more often about patriotism.  The state has promoted public discussions on this topic, and the geopolitical situation surrounding Russia for the last year has only played into politicians’ hands. Now already half of our compatriots believe that the necessary response to internal and external threats is the implementation of a state program to support patriotism.

But do Russians understand what it means to be a patriot? The majority considers it enough to just love one’s country, and only a third believe that one’s patriotism needs to be proven through action. And to decide whether or not to love one’s country can only be decided by people themselves. It turns out that the idea of a ‘special path’ and patriotic education impact approval on an emotional level, but the majority of Russians do not reflect on this. Without reflection, this ‘special path’ is an attractive, though not very meaningful, figure of speech for the common person.

A Return to the USSR

What is the reason for the political apathy and indifferent attitude towards state ideology? In order to have large-scale debate on what political society and governance should look like in the future requires an image of an ideal future. Without a goal, society stagnates and has nothing towards which to move. Modern day society in the West is a product of the Enlightenment which promoted a change of thought and resulted in change for the ordinary citizen. Russia requires such a vision in order for its society to evolve.

The focus groups conducted by the Levada-Center allows us to simulate the processes within society by discussing the future among invited respondents and recording collective reactions, the results of which can be applied to the rest of the country’s population. During the course of our study, we encountered a deficit of ideas for a better future, a very low ceiling of expectations, and sometimes a complete lack of a picture of the future. But in a country which has experienced political upheaval every 30 to 40 years, it is hard to expect enthusiasm, excitement or anything beyond the ‘ordinary’ in discussions about the future. Russians today feel cynical. In discussions about Russia’s domestic and foreign politics, vision and idealism only bring ironic smiles to Russians’ faces: “Only geopolitics wins in our world, not naive debates over democracy.”

In the majority’s view, the country’s welfare is only possible with conditions of control over the sphere of influence and resources; a citizen’s welfare is his material prosperity. In the world of this logic, the strong always defeat the weak, and therefore, the only way to remain a powerful country is to conduct power politics.  Exiting the geopolitical chessboard indicates a challenge to existing leaders. Being capable of challenging the United States as the world hegemon compensates for the psychological trauma resulting from the collapse of the USSR.

A similar view of the world inevitably leads to growing anti-western and primarily anti-American sentiments. For the last eight years, the number of those who consider the United States as the source of threat to Russia has grown by 12 percent. The annexation of Crimea is viewed primarily as acting in response to the global confrontation with the West: for 80 percent of Russians, the annexation of Crimea is testimony of Russia’s return to its status as ‘great power.’ Leonid Illyich Brezhnev’s era represents for Russians the ideal and ‘proper’ role of Russia in the world. Retrospectively extolling the virtues of the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, Russians consider it to be one of the best periods in the country’s history. A tough position on the international stage is viewed as a necessary condition for positive economic and social changes. For the majority, the best version of the future is a return to Brezhnev and pre-perestroika times. Paradoxically, conservative notions of the future do not permit ideology to become a mass phenomenon. 

The Dust from the Conservative Camp

For widespread adoption of a meaningful national idea (conservative, socialist or liberal), it is necessary to have the presence of social institutions on which the idea is based, and which are earthly proof of its reality and feasibility, even in the long run. For example, the institution of the family is one of the most conservative by its very nature, as a bloodline is the oldest basis of self-identification with a collective. It turns out that the state has an unprecedented impact on family functions, but its attempts to impose visible conservatism on family life are negatively perceived. In 2013, 70 percent of Russians expressed their position against the introduction of a tax on divorces, and 59 percent against a tax on abortions. The point here is not whether Russians seek to actively protect their own personal space, but rather that family life, like other institutions, should not be subject to moral criteria or judgement of the state.

Public opinion finds expression in the real behavior of citizens: according to data from the United Nations in 2013 the number of divorces per capita according to the population of Russia was the highest in the world. Sexual education is almost taboo, and discussions about serious problems, such as domestic violence, prostitution or human trafficking are absent from the public sphere. Homosexual families are the object of fierce criticism from conservative ideologues and are condemned by society. Homosexuality is not a matter for open and public discussions as it would acknowledge its very existence. Homosexuality is to be treated, re-educated, punished and to remain otherwise unacknowledged and hidden.

As a result of a more detailed study of opinions, we see that a focus on the collective is not characteristic for the vast majority of Russians (as a public institution), preservation of traditions and understanding the historical past serve as a supposedly symbolic model for modern Russia. Today with such a picture of the society, the conservative idea is viewed as a toy of the Russian elite. Against this background are the elite’s routine and systematic efforts to keep the individual in a state of subjection to the government. 

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