On Russia’s conservative revival.

William Yoder, Ph.D.

S m o l e n s k — In a series of reports on Denmark’s national public radio, the journalist and theologian Iben Thranholm raised eyebrows by praising the emergence of a conservative movement in Russia (see: “http://russia-insider.com/en/russia-and-west-have-swapped-spiritual-and-cultural-roles/ri9514”). One of Thranholm’s typical statements: “While the West is deriding and disowning Christianity and Europe revels in self-loathing, Russians are returning to Christianity.” In Russia, “Christianity is associated with being modern and progressive. It is the spirit of the young, the hip, the wise and the wealthy.”

Orthodox Christianity is at the core of this conservative revival. The British writer Lesley Chamberlain adds that Russia is by no means ruled by Vladimir Putin. “The power that rules Russia is tradition”, she concludes. “The vast majority of Russians, perhaps 80%, are intensely conservative.”

According to these conservative thinkers, the once-Christian culture of Europe is celebrating its own demise. According to Thranholm, Russians perceive the “P*-Riot” activists (let’s skip the vulgarity in the name) as modern-day Bolsheviks, as iconoclasts revelling in the destruction of tradition. Like Bolshevists of yore, they perceive salvation in the elimination of heritage. As Moscow professor Oleg Matveichev puts it: The goal of Western liberalism is “self-emancipation from the chains of the past and the dead weight of tradition”. Elsewhere, liberalism has celebrated decadence and blasphemy in the name of freedom of expression. See for ex. Paris’ “Charlie Hebdo” magazine, which directed its scorn at both the Muslim and Christian traditions.

Reactions to P*-Riot after the imprisonment of three of its members in 2012 illustrate well the cultural gap between Europe’s East and West. The group’s nomination for Germany’s “Martin-Luther-Prize” left Russians aghast: Why should Christians celebrate those committed most to the destruction of the Christian heritage?

As with the Bolshevists, modern-day liberals love social experimentation. See for ex. the liberal push for human relationships removed from the one-man-one-woman mode of traditional, Christian society. Western liberalism supports abortion-on-demand, euthanasia, self-sufficiency, independency, an open society and freedom of choice. Career outstrips the importance of offspring by far.

Pro-Russian conservatives claim the West has somehow embraced a diffuse “cultural Marxism”. If one follows this interpretation, then the tables have been shuffled crazily: A long-term, atheistic world power is now serving as the stalwart defender of Europe’s Christian heritage. Thranholm quotes Patriarch Kirill: “Do not take the path we took. We tried it and it leads to destruction!”

The diversity of Russian conservativism

In June, after attending a conference of Russian conservatives in Kaliningrad, Paul Grenier pointed out in “The American Conservative” the movement’s complexity. Russia’s “left conservativism” for ex. opposes the reduction of conservativism to a push for traditional family values while ignoring the “all-important component of economic fairness”.

He complained in the article that the anti-Western Eurasianism of Alexander Dugin was “hogging all the attention” in Western media. According to Grenier, Eurasianism is “not even the only game in town when it comes to the ‘Russian national greatness’ school of conservatism”. Other writers have pointed out that China and Russia – the two kingpins in the Eurasian movement – are by no means natural allies. Russia for its part is a “sub-set” of Europe, its culture far removed from those of central and eastern Asia. Russian-Chinese rapprochement is therefore best understood as an expression of political expediency, even if this makeshift alliance will prove to be durable. In view of Putin’s overtures to NATO 15 years ago, the present Eurasian course is Plan B, not Plan A.

Could it be that Dugin has simply served as a welcome scapegoat for Western media committed to vilifying Russian conservativism? Insiders tell me that – much to the contrary of Western reporting – he is not personally acquainted with Vladimir Putin. Putin listens to other conservative writers.

Paul Grenier concludes: “It is tempting to present Russian conservatism as always intrinsically dangerous. But I believe the loss is ours. . . . What justifies engagement with Russia is its ability to contribute to solving the problem that all of us face: how to devise a softer version of western modernity, one which allows for the preservation of tradition while simultaneously retaining what is most valuable in the liberal tradition.” Alexander Shipkov speaks of “a new modernity based on a Christian politics”. Grenier also states: “Russian conservatism, like Russia itself, embraces a contradictory collection of flaws and virtues. Both the flaws and the virtues are large.”

Grenier adds that Russia harbours “a far greater freedom of speech than it is typically given credit for”. Russian participants in Kaliningrad “demonstrated a boldness of imagination, a variety and depth of thought on alternate futures for their country that is by no means always evident in political speech in the United States”. Generally, I would add that Russians do not feel repressed. Have a look at their public discourse, which is more than just the Internet.

In stressful times, the challenge posed by the rise of Russian conservativism can be easily overstated. Ten days ago, Russiawas in stitches after two five-year-old chaps fled from a kindergarten in Magnitogorsk/Ural in search of the good life. Intending to obtain a Jaguar as the appropriate getaway car, they hurried several kilometres to the next car dealership. But instead of fulfilling the order, the saleslady brought the penniless duo to the police.

Articles warning of Russian conservatism and revanchism tend to ignore the fact that the emissaries of Hollywood, with their potent mixture of conspicuous consumption and decadence, have proven to be by far the most successful of the world’s modern missionary movements. Five-year-olds are not the sole evidence. Cash and sand, London and the French Riviera, are that which those Russians with a choice still tend to choose.

Orthodoxy may have a good name, and it’s chic to be religious, but church attendance remains miniscule. Secular and religious nationalists are not yet a team. The vast majority of communist party’s members (two-thirds) have not yet become members of the Orthodox church. Materialism remains alive in Russia.

Where does this leave the evangelicals?

Pro-Western evangelicals in Ukraine (and Moldova) like to stress their allegiance to “European” values. Some even express deference for “neocon” liberal thinkers such as Masha Gessen and Timothy Snyder. But that approval is fuelled by geopolitical interests. Ukrainian evangelicals are clearly allied only with Western evangelicals and fundamentalists, who themselves also question the West’s ruling liberal order. Ukrainians like the West’s religious freedom and its struggle against government corruption – as do Russian evangelicals. Indeed, Russian and Ukrainian evangelicals have the very same allies in the West. There are of course differences: Ukrainians are more active in politics and in the military. But essentially, the two sides are apart only in the mundane matter of geopolitics.

My commentary: I have qualms regarding an idealisation of the West’s Christian heritage, for it glosses over the crimes of the long colonialist and absolutist eras. But this conservative. Russian movement needs to be taken seriously and not demonised. “Discernment” is the order of the day.

A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #15-09. You will also find this article on the webpage “rea-moskva.org”.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 16 September 2015

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