The world needs to understand Putin

The world needs to understand Putin

Liberals, to paraphrase Anna Karenina, are all alike; but conservatives are all conservative in their own way.

While liberals insist on universal human rights and pursuit of a single globalised world, Conservatives place a value on differences, uniqueness, sovereignty,  and identity, and try to guard and defend their own exceptionalism from a single, encroaching world order.

During his third term as President, Vladimir Putin has begun to distinguish himself as a conservative, a Russian conservative, and understanding what this means will have considerable value for those seeking to understand the future of Russia.

The swing towards conservative ideas is partly due to things happening in Russia, but also in large part a response to what is happening in the world: as Francis Fukuyama has shown, it is the statist right, rather than the radical left, that has won the battle of ideas in the wake  of the global financial crisis.

But the triumph of conservative ideas in Russia is in large part due to their inherent populairy in Russia itself, and unique and puzzling (to foreigners) relationship of Russian masses to their leaders.

The fundamental axiom of Russian conservatism can be traced to the time of the monarchy and is known by a simple formula: “Good tsar – bad elites”.  Russian authoritarianism has always depended on giving the leader control in exchange for reigning in the “boyars” or petty nobility.

This was true of Ivan the Terrible and Joseph Stalin, but it was no less true of the radical reformers such as Peter the Great  and Vladimir Lenin who were equally authoritarian and drastic, but approved in general by masses because they targeted the elites.

Today, one can see the echoes of this formula in Putin’s policies. In his first term, he cut Russia’s oligarchs down to size. Now, he is chastising his own coterie for owning foreign property and for petty corruption – symbolised by the firing of Anatoly Serdiukov, his defence minister.

Modern Russian conservatism is both anti-communist and anti-liberal at the same time. It is not the same as American conservativism, which sees a value in a small state. In Russia, conservatives are statists - valuing undivided political power, with economic power rooted in and subordinate to political power. Conservatives value the traditions of established religions (above all, the Russian Orthodoxy); soveriegn foreign policy; and the guarding of Russia’s great-power status.

For his first twelve years in power, Mr Putin’s inherent conservativism was been tempered by the need to appeal to a significant and influential liberal elite. But with the desertion of this class to the ranks of protesters, we are seeing a shift, and finally the true Putin is making his worldview known.

But Putin’s steps should not be interpreted as winding the clock back.  Russian society is in transition  -  from pure form of totalitarianism to something new. This conservative moment in this transition  represents more a rethinking of what the end of this transition will be rather than a refusal to change anything at all.

Russia cannot return to the old Soviet model – the premises for it are totally lacking in Russian society. It is possible only on the symbolic level – such as accent on Soviet patriotic themes like return to the Soviet anthem or socialist rhetoric.

Russia likewise will not see the rebirth of the Tsarist Empire with Orthodox Christian tradition as official ideology. We are a multi - ethnic society with a growing proportion of Islamic population.  Such an ideology is out of question.

It is also worth noting in addition that, while liberals are a numerical minority in Russia, they are disproportionately influential: the Russian government is controlled by moderates, with Dmitry Medvedev as their head. Much power is in the hands of hyper wealthy oligarch class, who are by and large adherents of liberals ideas.

If we put together all these facts, the conservative thrust of Mr Putin’s presidency leads in the direction of pragmatic syncretism: it is conservative only in the sense that it doesn’t share globalist optimism, but it is also not trying to guard an exhausted status quo. Putin’s conservative ideas by and large do not transgress the limits of the moderate form of Western type state or nation building. This kind of the conservative is not too radical, nor excessive.

Putin’s conservativism has been molded from outside by foreign pressure, and the rejection of his presidency by significant elements in the west, symbolised by the passage in the US of the Magnitsky law. It has been molded from inside by internal pressure – the desertion of the so called “middle class” from the ranks of his supporters and the growth of a liberal protest movement. 

In the face of these challenges, Putin will move in the direction of being a conservative moderniser at home and a realist abroad. He will insist on the State sovereignty, distrust globalization, limit liberalization, and keep democracy strictly within a sovereign, national framework.

The expression “balance of power” gives us the key to understand Putin’s version of conservatism that will define the Russian politics during third and presumably fourth Presidential terms. He will pursue the national interest, the acquisition of regional and eventual world scale power, protectionism and mercantilism. Having lost the Cold War, Russia will try to revise status quo ante using all the windows of opportunity.




Commentaries by Marc Sleboda


I have added the following comment to the article's comment section on the FT website to clairify a few points:

I am an American citizens who works with the article's author, Professor Dugin, as a senior lecturer and researcher in International Relations Theory and Security Studies at Moscow State University. He has asked me to elaborate and clarify on a few points from the article, which while I believe is a very good presentation of his views, does lose a little bit in the translation and context that bears addressing.
1. First, Russians like Americans, while not adverse to hearing the opinions of foreigners when it comes to domestic politics, certainly do not or should not be expected to take them into account.

2. Russian domestic politics, like much politics in the Rest of the world, does not easily or naturally match up into the normal political right-left axis of Western politics. In Russia conservatives tend to favor Left-ish, state-centric, economic models. Even Russian communists would be considered socially conservative compared to Western Leftists. Similarly Russian liberals tend to favor what in the West would be considered pro-market or neoliberal economic models. Thus, while there are some small exceptions to this rule, generally speaking, conservatives are considered to be on the Left in Russia, while liberals/neoliberals are considered to be on the Right. This can be confusing for Westerners and has been lost in the article's editing.

3. Thus while President Putin is most definitely NOT a communist, it perhaps goes too far to characterize him as 'anti-communist'. Indeed, by the strange standard and prism of American politics, President Putin and Russian social policies in general might well indeed be considered 'communist', however much that is factually incorrect. After all, even the US President Barack Obama, who is in classical terms an economic liberal, is often characterized in American politics as a 'socialist' or 'communist'. Obviously the same would not be true in Europe. The Russian communist party (KPRF) is the second largest party in Russian politics and constitutes the main opposition in the Duma to United Russia. However, they are by and large seen as the 'loyal opposition', often supportive of President Putin, particularly on matters of foreign policy, whereas the Russian liberals, who do not have unity or public support to get representatives elected to the Duma (~5% of the population electorally), can be characterized as a 'dis-loyal opposition', having a political vision of Russia far outside the political mainstream.

4. While it is common, particularly in the Western MSM to equate the liberal opposition in Russia with the middle class and thus to claims that Putin has 'lost' the middle class, this is far from the truth. It is due to Western analysts and journalist's wishful thinking and projecting the development of Western political classes onto a quite different Russian political context. Like in China, the middle class in Russia is actually the strongest base of support by many measures for the government which created it. The large majority of the Russian middle class voted for President Putin in 2012. However much Western journalists might wish it to be so, there is no reason in Russia to expect the middle class to diverge from the current administration as they 'seek greater representation', but rather the opposite. While it might be fair to say that the majority of the Russian liberal opposition is from the middle class, this is true of most political parties and movements in all democratic countries. It is not at all the same as the (false) claim that the majority of the middle class in Russia is liberal.http://darussophil...middle-class-does/

If there are any questions or comments to be directed to me or Professor Dugin on this article or other matters, they can be addressed to

Mark Sleboda
Senior Lecturer and Researcher
Department of the Sociology of International Relations
Sociology Faculty
Moscow State University



Initially the draft of this article was


Alexandr Dugin

Putin’s Russia: conservative moment of realism


The liberals all over the world are relatively the same. It is logic – their universalism and cosmopolitism make them similar beyond their cultural and social identities. With the conservatives everything is quite different. That is also logical: whence the progressists are going toward one World as own goal, approaching it and themselves more and more, the conservatives insist on differences and try to guard and defend them. Therefore the lack of mutual understanding. So American conservatives have little in common with European ones. Not to speak about Eastern conservatives or for example Russian. There is a cognitive gap difficult to breach. But it seems that we are going to hear more about conservatism – not only in the West, but all over the world. F. Fukuyama has pointed out quite right: the experience of the economic crisis amazingly gave the arguments more to the right than to the left; instead of Marxists its consequences were appropriated more by “statists” and realists blaming the liberals for their excessive hopes on globalization.

Fukuyama’s remark is quite correct in the case of Russia. The return of Vladimir Putin is the clear mark of the considerable growth of conservative in this country. The West could be irritated or scandalized by that – Putin doesn’t fit the Western standards of normative politician hence the rage. But Putin is perceived quite differently from the inside. Certainly there is considerable segment of the liberals and pro-Westerners in modern Russia, first of all in the economic elites. But they are not representative for the whole of Russian citizenships. They rest extreme minority – important, but numerically insignificant. They are comprehensible for the West because they share Western criteria. But in Russia of today the others decide. The real political decisions are taken by strong hand of Vladimir Putin with the general approval of the majority of Russian population. The alliance between Putin and masses is based on conservatism. Russian modern conservatism more intuitive than rational, more emotional than strategically elaborated, more defensive and shy than self-confident or aggressive. This modern Russian conservatism is rather the situational reaction than sophisticated program based on clear political vision, so it rest empirical. Acquiring more visible and solid structure in the course of the challenge-answers game. The economical crisis plays here important role. Putin reacts on it more or less as the other do, so stressing the self-help principle and making appeal to enforce the State structures. But the main difference lays here in the particularity of Russian cultural sociological and historical identity. It is not Western and that is certain. It is not necessarily “communist, “imperialist”, “autocratic” or “totalitarian”. But don’t fit as well in the Western understanding of “human rights”, “liberal democracy”, “freedom of expression”, “free market economy” and so on. The Manichean vision doesn’t applicable here: or freedom or slavery, or democracy or dictatorship, or tolerance or oppression... It is overused rhetoric simplification that gives inevitably pejorative and caricaturised picture of present Russian conservatism. There are the shades. The Russian society is in the transition  -  from pure form of totalitarianism and dogmatism to the something new and not yet finally defined. The conservative moment in this transition means more the pause rather than step back, more rethinking of the final goal rather than refuse to change anything at all.

The ideological content of this pause is yet to define. It could not signify the direct return to the Soviet model – the premises for it totally lack. It is possible only on the symbolic level – as the recent personal visit of Putin leftist gathering organized by Stalinist S.Kurginyan. It could not be the rebirth of the zarist Empire with Orthodox Christian tradition as official ideology and the warm words of Putin during last Russian Orthodox Church Council are also quite symbolic. In the multi-ethnic society with growing proportion of Islamic population this way is out of question. Besides these symbolic actions the Russian government is controlled by moderated liberals with Dmitry Medvedev as their head. If we put together all these facts we receive the picture of the pragmatic syncretism: it is conservative only in the sense that it doesn’t share globalist optimism trying to guard status quo with partly and prudent – emotional – evocation of some pages of glorious past – in the measure not transgressing the limits of the moderate form of Western type State building or national building. This kind of the conservative is not too radical, nor excessive. What bothers the West is not too high degree of the growing Russian patriotism but the amount of Russian power and the historical precedents of its use by Russian leaders in the challenging the global balance of powers. On the cultural level we could add here the cultural differences in the Western/Russian social identities that explain certain tensions in the model we-group/they-group, the concept of dangerous other. The suspicion is mutual.

The expression “balance of power” gives us the key to understand Putin’s version of conservatism that will define the Russian politics during third and presumably fourth Presidential terms. This conservatism is likely to be bare realism in its classical forms of H. Morgentau or E. Carr. The national interests, raison d’Etat, the acquisition of regional and eventual world scale power, the certain protectionism and mercantilism – full set of traditional and well known realist concepts. Being in the position of looser in the “cold war” such realist Russia will try to revise status quo using all the windows of opportunity – economical crisis and energy issue included. Nothing personal – just realism. The initially asked question “Who is Mister Putin?” now is more or less answered: Putin is classical realist, no more, no less.

“No more than realist” means that his conservative is not likely to obtain the bright ideological form forcing to act accordingly. So his conservatism will be first of all pragmatic (nor left, nor right). “No less than realist” means Putin will insist on the State sovereignty, distrust the globalization, limit (Western type/post-modern) liberalization, held the democracy in the national frame.

We have the Gramscian concept of Cesarism immersed in the “trasformismo” process under the hegemonic pressure from outside (the West) and inside (growing middle class and the liberal opposition). That is the frame of Putin’s realist conservatism for coming years. Could he stay in this position too long? Nobody knows – that depends. That depends from so many factors that sure and disinterested prognosis is almost impossible. It is obvious: the Prince is under attack. But any Prince is in the same situation that is not fatal by itself.