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What does Moscow believe in? Russian conservatism is not necessarily the same as Western conservatism

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Article published in the Polish liberal-conservative weekly Do Rzeczy No. 13/418 of March 29.

The Kremlin presents itself as the global defender of traditional values. This is not without good reason, but the claim is based on different values than those of a Polish or Western conservative.

“Today, in many countries, moral standards are being revised, national traditions and differences between peoples and cultures are being erased. What is being required of society is not only a healthy acceptance of each person’s right to freedom of conscience, political opinion and a private life, but also an obligatory recognition of the equal value of good and evil.” This was the diagnosis made by Vladimir Putin in a speech to the joint houses of the Russian parliament in December 2013. The Kremlin leader then noted: “More and more people around the world are supporting our position in favor of traditional values that have been the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization, of every nation, for millennia.” Among those values, he mentioned the traditional family model and the true fullness of human life, which includes not only the material aspect, but also the spiritual and religious dimension.

That speech, delivered on the eve of the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, was described as the first such clear manifesto of Putinian conservatism. A few months later, in response to the victory of pro-Western forces in Kiev, the Russian army occupied Crimea, and former (at least officially) FSB officer Igor Girkin sparked a pro-Russian rebellion in the Donbass. The intervention in Ukraine led to an unprecedented level of public support for Putin. The propaganda of the Kremlin and from pro-Kremlin circles gave the Russian aggression an anti-fascist, anti-Western, anti-liberal and conservative dimension. This ideological orientation was very well reflected in the lyrics of a hip-hop song recorded by the Lugansk separatists: “We don’t need your NATO at all and we don’t want our children to watch gay parades.” Putin’s Russia is conservative not only externally but also internally. Only it is a conservatism of a completely different character than Polish or, more broadly, Western conservatism.

The abortion empire

One point of agreement is the attitude towards homosexuality. In this respect, Russian conservatives resemble Polish conservatives (but not necessarily Western conservatives, who are increasingly willing to let themselves be painted in the colors of the rainbow). The word “pyedyeras” (faggot, literally: pederast) is a commonly used, socially acceptable and still legally permitted insult in Russia. The Russian cult of traditional masculinity (it’s no coincidence that Putin poses for the cameras while hunting, at the hockey rink, or during judo practice, instead of bursting into tears [like Canadian PM Trudeau, editor’s note]) makes this name very hurtful. Significantly, this is also how a person of low morals is defined in Russia. In 1998, 68% of Russians were against homosexual “marriage”. Two decades later, this figure had risen to 83%. Since 2013, activities promoting “non-traditional sexual relations between minors” have been punishable by a fine in Russia. Similar legal measures, prohibiting “propaganda of homosexuality”, had been put in place earlier (since 2006) at the level of the federated entities.

In Poland, however, one of the main markers of right-wing thinking is the attitude towards abortion. A declaration of support for the full protection of unborn life is seen in principle as a “certificate of conservatism” for its author, with all the positive and negative consequences of such a label. This is why Polish commentators, when they challenge the sincerity of Moscow’s aspirations to play the role of the Third Rome, usually point to the attitude of the Russian state and society towards the issue of abortion, which is unacceptable from a Christian point of view. In Russia, abortion is not only legal, but it is also financed by the state. Up to the 12th week, a pregnancy can be terminated at the request of the pregnant woman. Up to the 22nd week, abortion is permitted for social reasons, which is understood to mean pregnancy resulting from rape, a decision to terminate or restrict parental rights, the pregnant woman’s stay in a place of detention, or the husband’s disability or death during pregnancy. Until birth, a child can be killed for medical reasons. The Russian law on abortion is one of the most liberal in the world. On average, more than half a million abortions are performed each year in this country. Russia is, along with China, one of the world leaders in this shameful statistic.

It is not difficult to trace the cultural and political origins of such a trend. Russia was the first country to legalize abortion, although it was Soviet Russia, since it happened in 1920, at a time when Bolshevism was still liberal (meaning progressive) and clearly anti-traditional. In 1936, under the “red conservative” Stalin, abortion was again banned, except for medical reasons. That ban was then explained on demographic grounds. Abortion was legalized again in the USSR in the 1950s. The number of abortions then increased significantly. In the atheized and secularized Soviet society, abortion became an almost inseparable part of the way of life, with virtually no controversy or moral reflection. The trend changed in the late 1980s. In post-Soviet Russia, the number of abortions began to decline. More than 1,186,000 abortions were still registered in 2010. In 2018, it was “only” 661,000. In 18 years (since the beginning of the century) the number of abortions had fallen by two-thirds. However, experts believe that the widespread use of contraception and the decrease in the number of women of childbearing age are the main reasons for the decline in the number of abortions in Russia.

In any case, the state is committed to fighting the practice. For the moment, however, this struggle is timid, which is hardly surprising: decades of communism have taken their toll and the social acceptance of “termination of pregnancy” is deeply rooted in the Russian consciousness. In 2013, abortion advertising was banned. Between 2016 and 2018, many regions imposed a temporary ban on abortions. The Russian social movement “For Life” has collected one million signatures in four years – not that many given Russia’s size – in favor of a citizens’ initiative for a total ban on abortion. The organization boasts on its website the support of Putin himself. That support was, however, expressed in a very cautious way: “What you’re doing in terms of supporting women who are making the decision to keep their babies or not is absolutely right.” In this statement, the Kremlin leader indicated that he was ready to do everything to support the movement, but only in that particular area of activity. Four years ago, the citizens’ proposal to ban abortion was officially supported by Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also by Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov and the head of the Russian Muslims, Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin. It should be noted in passing that Islam in Russia traditionally takes the side of conservative values. Muslim and Orthodox fundamentalists do not necessarily stand in each other’s way, because today they have a common enemy: “the rotten West”.

The broken spirit of the Orthodox Church

Divorce statistics are another argument against the thesis that Russian society is conservative. In 2018, there were no fewer than 63.7 separations for every 100 marriages. By comparison, in the same year in Poland, the ratio of marriages to divorces was 100 to 33. However, specific cultural differences must be taken into account here. Both the Polish Catholic Church and Russian Orthodox Churches have unequivocally defended the unborn. Therefore, the responsibility for the universality and acceptability of abortion in Russia must be laid at the door of communism, which was obviously much less harsh in Poland than in the USSR, and which also had much less time to carry out its spiritual revolution. But in the case of divorce, the difference in attitude is also perceptible at the level of faith.

While in the Catholic Church only the nullity of a marriage can be pronounced, a valid marriage remaining theoretically indissoluble, in the Orthodox Church divorce is authorized and perceived as a second chance, a lesser evil, out of indulgence for human weakness. The Russian Orthodox Church has also expanded the list of grounds for divorce: in addition to infidelity (for which a scriptural justification can be found), these include the departure of the spouse from the Orthodox Church, a long absence of the spouse who gives no sign of life, leprosy, syphilis, AIDS, medically certified chronic alcoholism or drug addiction, or an abortion carried out by a woman without the consent of her husband.

In this area, communism has not had a particularly negative impact. On the contrary, in the late 1950s, there were only four divorces for every 100 marriages in the USSR. Two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ratio was 42%. In 2002, that is, at the very beginning of Putin’s reign, before the “conservative” turn, Russians broke the sad record of 84 divorces for every 100 marriages. Since then, the statistics have become increasingly optimistic, but it is still difficult to identify a consistent trend. The decrease in the number of divorces is also related to the decrease in the number of officially registered unions.

But the liberal attitude of the Orthodox Church towards the indissolubility of marriage in comparison with the Catholic Church does not explain everything. On average, according to various studies, about 80% of citizens of the Russian Federation consider themselves to be Orthodox. This is roughly the percentage of ethnically Russian people. As in Poland, ethnic-linguistic affiliation and religious affiliation are linked. Except that in Russia the percentage of practicing believers, who regularly attend worship, is only a few percent at best. And yet, since the time of Yeltsin, the government of post-Soviet Russia has been based on an alliance between throne and altar. The current Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Kirill, adheres to the Orthodox principle of “symphony”, meaning harmonious cooperation between Church and government. He is the very embodiment of modern Russia. Proud of his grandfather, who spent more than 30 years in the gulags for fighting communist agents in the Church, he himself made a career in the government-controlled Church in the Soviet era and collaborated with the KGB. Today, he is friends with Putin and praises Stalin for “reviving and modernizing the country,” while acknowledging the criminal nature of his rule.

The communists effectively broke the spirit of the Orthodox Church, which is now a caricature of itself before the revolution. Nevertheless, it is an effective tool of power and an export product: in foreign policy, both towards its Orthodox and Eastern Slavic neighbors and towards the Western European right, the idea of Moscow being the Third Rome is a useful propaganda tool.

While the Kremlin exploits Orthodox values for its own ends, they are nonetheless an integral part of Russian identity as such. And this is true regardless of people’s attitude towards the Church. It is worth remembering that two great conservatives, outstanding Christian writers and irreducible enemies of revolutionary ideas, did not have the best relations with the Orthodox Church as an institution. Tolstoy was excluded from it, while Dostoevsky sympathized with popular rather than institutional Orthodoxy.

Echoes of Dostoievsky’s thought

The word “popular” is the key to understanding the specifics of Russian conservatism. If the Russians are a peasant nation, it is by no means because of the shedding of “blue blood” by the Bolsheviks. Count Sergey Uvarov best expressed the ideology of tsarism with his three principles: Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality. For decades, revolutionaries, raised on the doctrines of the Western Left, unsuccessfully encouraged conservative peasants, devoted to the authorities and the Orthodox Church, to raise their hands against “Holy Russia”.

There are clear echoes of Dostoevsky’s thinking among contemporary pro-Putin Russian columnists. The writer complained about the way the elites in St. Petersburg and Moscow slavishly copied Western models. He would probably agree with Putin’s view that “Russia is not a country, it is a civilization”. He saw the West as Russia’s greatest enemy. For him, the main axis of the conflict was between the Russian “spirit” and the Western “matter”. Catholics, tainted by rationalism, individualism and humanism, instead of believing in God, believed in man, replacing Christ’s kingdom of heaven with the pope’s earthly kingdom and placing conquest on earth above transcendence. It is not surprising, according to Dostoevsky, that the Catholic–Protestant West (he condemned both denominations equally) became the birthplace of atheism. The Western world has also produced socialism and liberalism, which Dostoevsky rejects to the same extent and for the same reason: because these doctrines deal with the material side of life. His ideal is a patriarchal community of Orthodox peasants who form a collective (a unity – the Orthodox notion of conciliarism) not for economic reasons, but for spiritual reasons, in the name of the rejection of “evil” individualism and a “Christ-like” openness to the other. Christ endowed man with free will, but this was so that man could voluntarily renounce his “self” and unite with others.

The categories of individual freedom or economic freedom, obvious to Western conservatism, are incomprehensible on Russian soil not only to communists but also to conservatives. Bolshevik totalitarianism fell on fertile ground prepared by the Orthodox fundamentalists of the 19th century. Even with regard to the primacy of spirit over matter, similarities can be found. After all, Stalin’s cult of personality was a kind of secular religion. From this point of view, the “red-brown” alliance in post-Soviet Russia should be a surprise to no-one. At the fall of the USSR, communists and Great Russian chauvinists joined forces to prevent the collapse of the great empire. This alliance was not merely tactical, and its roots lay not only in the shared positive feeling in both circles for Stalin’s geopolitical successes. The far right and the far left do not separate economic and social issues. They both rely on “the people”, the community, anti-individualism, and they both hate the West. The oligarchs who turn to the West are just another generation of the “elite of the rich” rejected by the people as well as by the tsar (white, red, Putin…). A similar role was played previously by the “Old Bolsheviks” (under Stalin), the socialists and liberals (before the revolution), and the boyars (earlier). Entrepreneurship and private initiative have always been suspect in Russia. From the point of view of a Russian conservative, these were always anti-traditional values.

There is no doubt that the Kremlin uses conservatism to fight the West. For it is precisely Western models, Western ideals – from Catholicism to leftist neo-Marxism – that serve as a negative point of reference for Russian traditionalists, in both foreign and domestic policy. Moscow is tempting the European right, while Polish traditionalists are resistant to this model, and not only because of history. The individualistic and libertarian conservatism of the Poles, which stems from the particular history of their country’s aristocracy and petty nobility, is simply incompatible with the peasant, communitarian and authoritarian conservatism of the Russians. For us, Moscow is not and will never be the “Third Rome”, because we believe that the “First Rome” is still there, and we never recognized the “Second Rome” (Byzantium). We have our own hammer against the liberals and we do not need the sickle of our eastern neighbor. Russia wants the “rotten liberal-progressive West” to be replaced by a red-brown East consecrated by the Orthodox patriarch, while the Poles want a liberal-conservative Christian West.


Maciej Pieczyński
Maciej Pieczyński publishes articles on the countries of the former Soviet Union in the Do Rzeczy weekly magazine and on the website. He graduated in Russian philology and holds a doctorate in literary studies. He works at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Szczecin.

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Translated from Polish into English by Olivier Bault with the permission of the author and of Do Rzeczy.