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Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers attends a flower-laying ceremony at the memorial complex dedicated to the end of the Russian Civil War during marking Unity Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers attends a flower-laying ceremony at the memorial complex dedicated to the end of the Russian Civil War during marking Unity Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)

Running Russia as a near-absolute monarch was never enough for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The story of his 21-year rule is equally about trying to formulate Russia’s proposition to the rest of the world - a kind of national brand message, something that was lost when the Soviet Union ceased to be the global purveyor of the far-left ideal.

The current - and likely final - edition of Russia’s brand essence is “reasonable conservatism,” as formulated by Putin at the most recent session of the Valdai Discussion Club, an annual gathering of Putin-friendly and Putin-curious intellectuals.

Ever since an oil and gas windfall in the mid-2000s allowed Russia to behave more assertively on the international stage, Putin and his propaganda machine, always attuned to the boss’s thinking, have tried on different concepts: an anti-terrorist stronghold (since 2001, when Putin famously offered his support to George W. Bush after 9/11), an “energy superpower” (a term first applied to Russia in 2006), one of the leading powers of the emerging non-Western world (it was in Russia that the BRIC, later BRICS, countries held their first official meeting in this format, also in 2006).

None of these constructs had the power of the Soviet offering, and none of them held up in the real world. The shaken but still self-confident United States of the early 2000s wasn’t prepared to treat Russia as an equal ally. “We have lots of fossil fuel” turned out to be an increasingly unsexy message. And the growth trajectories of the BRICS countries have diverged so drastically that the world’s nascent multipolarity quickly boiled down to China vs. the U.S. So Putin’s search for a message zeroed in on the conservative idea and “traditional values”: He started speaking of his Russia as a bastion of conservatism back in late 2013, in his annual speech to parliament - just months before the Crimea annexation marked his decisive break with the Western world.

In that speech, and again at the Valdai forum on Oct. 21, he paraphrased Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev, who wrote in 1918, when he felt Russians needed an intellectual alternative to Bolshevik “revolutionism”:

“The meaning of conservatism isn’t in hindering the forward and upward movement but in hindering the backward and downward movement, the backsliding toward chaotic darkness, the return to a state that preceded the formation of states and cultures.”

To Berdyayev, conservatism was defined as the exact opposite of Bolshevism, and Putin tries to dress up his brand of conservatism in the same clothes:

“As we watch what’s going on in a number of Western nations, we’re astonished to recognize our own homegrown practices that I hope we have left in the distant past. The fight for equal rights and against discrimination is turning into an aggressive dogmatism bordering on the absurd. They even stop teaching the great authors of the past - such as Shakespeare - at schools and universities, because their ideas are believed over there to be backward. The classics are declared backward because they didn’t understand the importance of gender or race. In Hollywood, they publish manuals that dictate how movies are to be made and about what, how many characters of what color or gender there should be. This is stronger stuff than we saw from the Soviet Communist Party’s Agitation and Propaganda Department.”

It’s as if the Russian leader lived in a Trumpist social network echo chamber and tried to reconcile what he read with uncomfortable memories of his Soviet youth and with Berdyayev’s century-old writings. But Putin has said he doesn’t use the internet, his Soviet memories are mostly of the misty-eyed variety, at least judging by his policies, and his paraphrases of the Berdyayev quote on the meaning of conservatism don’t include this important sentence:

“The meaning of conservatism is in the obstacles it sets for manifestations of the chaotic, animal element in human societies. This element always lurks within a human being, and it has to do with sin.”

I’m no apostle of wokeism, but linking modern progressivism with the sinful “chaotic, animal element” of human nature feels like a stretch. One can make a case for likening it to Soviet-style leftist dogmatism, but not to the manic, violent energy of the Bolshevik revolution, which was what Berdyayev rejected because to him, it was the energy of death.

When he expounds on conservatism, Putin doesn’t sound as though he’s turned into a conservative thinker as he approaches his 70s. Rather, he sounds as though he’s heard tell of certain media phenomena, mostly of U.S. origin, and used them to formulate a sales pitch, an offering to those in the Western world and beyond who reject social progressivism. That audience’s identity politics have more to do with nationality than with race or gender; it’s focused on sovereignty and safe borders, scared of feminism and disdainful of gender and sexual variety. Putin is pitching his regime to these people as a bulwark of “traditional values” simply because he appears to see a niche that Western governments and media are not serving - in the same way that Soviet rulers saw an opportunity in Western leftist and peace movements.

This search for allies was opportunistic for the Soviets once they’d stopped hoping for a world revolution, and it’s opportunistic for Putin. Nothing he’s done since he won power positions him convincingly for moral posturing, or for lecturing others on Christian values. But it’s important for him that Russia should stand for something, be a beacon to people outside its borders. Without a mission, Russia is just a normal country - and that’s a status Putin just can’t embrace. So now, with conservatives on the run politically since Donald Trump’s election defeat and a series of electoral disasters in Europe, from Spain to Germany, Putin figures that Western conservatives need a friend like him- perhaps a somewhat exotic ally, but still, you don’t “OK Boomer” somebody who can order you poisoned.

Russia’s propaganda outlets immediately picked up the sales pitch. Vesti, the state television news program, called Putin’s Valdai speech his “most important” one, a presentation of a “national idea” for Russia. Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, the government-controlled network of foreign-language broadcasters, wrote on her Telegram Channel:

“So now our ideology has been formulated. Moderate conservatism. And that’s great!”

As a moderate conservative, I can’t bring myself to share the excitement. The center-right is in such a sorry state that Putin sees a wide opening in the West on this flank - and not just on the populist far right of the political spectrum. That’s hardly anything to celebrate. There’s also Putin’s record with previous visions for Russia’s global role: He’s hardly distinguished himself by championing the most promising causes.

Besides, I feel a little sorry for those foreigners who will be taken in by Putin’s pitch - and some inevitably will. Back in 2016, before Trump was elected, I was hanging out with some Three-Percenters in Florida, people who wouldn’t part with their guns even inside their leader’s house. They spoke admiringly of Putin as a champion of law and order, someone who could keep the liberals in check. As I listened, I couldn’t shake a mental image of these guys being dragged off to jail by Russian cops after their gun cache has been confiscated; Russian terrorism laws were practically written with them in mind.

Moderate conservatives, too, might be somewhat shocked by the ways and customs of Putin’s Russia, were they to encounter them in real life. They might find their free speech muzzled in ways that the “liberal media” and Silicon Valley would find unthinkable. And if the more literary-minded of them read Berdyayev on conservatism for reference and like the emphasis he put on creativity and the rejection of violence as a means of achieving progress, they should beware: Putin’s adoption of the philosophy has always been rather selective, and not in their favor.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell’s “1984.”

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