The Valdai experts believe that President Putin is trying to pinpoint a new political tradition in Russia, where demand is growing for a European identity that differs from a Western identity. Most Russians support the idea of a “conservative revolution” as a means of standing separate from the West while remaining a European nation.
The 10th meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club is over but the main issue on its agenda – Russian identity – is still at the forefront of our minds.
The club’s foreign and Russian political analysts discussed the image of the Russian state, nation and society in the modern world. Does post-Communist Russia even need to search for a national identity? Would it not be more reasonable instead to tap into Western civilization and play by the common rules of globalization?
Western intellectuals cannot understand Russia’s quest. They believe the country should focus first on becoming a democratic state with guaranteed civil liberties and an effective legal system, and with that achieved, everything will be fine. Representatives of the Russian liberal opposition who attended the meeting share this view. They said that consumer ideology and a striving for self-realization have taken hold of Russian society so strongly that the traditional “for the czar, the homeland and our faith” formula, which the conservative part of the elite continue to tout, has become no more than a mere museum piece.
President Vladimir Putin argued against this simplistic view. He said he agreed that the authorities should be more careful in their relations with the younger generations, but that traditional Russian values must be upheld and Russian society protected from the influence of Western postmodernism.
The Valdai experts believe that President Putin is trying to pinpoint a new political tradition in Russia, where demand is growing for a European identity that differs from a Western identity and provides people with a feeling of dignity after the cataclysms of the 1990s. Most Russians support the idea of a “conservative revolution” as a means of standing separate from the West while remaining a European nation. However, this idea is based exclusively on confronting the concept of Western “liberal extremism.”
The broad discussions on Russian identity also touched on issues of Russian diversity and multiculturalism. The speakers in many roundtable discussions said Russia is divided into different groups, like rich donor regions and poor recipient regions, or secular Russian society and growing Islamism in the North Caucasus. Some divided Russia into European thinking urban residents and conservative rural dwellers, and into Moscow and the rest of Russia. A young Russian speaker concluded these debates by saying that part of Russian society lives in the 21st century and the rest are in the 16th century.
How will Russia change a few years from now? The Valdai forum also highlighted the issue of the middle class, a category of people which until recent times existed only in the West. Now all countries have developed a middle class, a sector of society which wants to take a bigger part in politics and in the development of civil society where the role of the state will diminish. Some speakers compared the “middle class revolution” with attempts to bring about a global proletarian revolution a hundred years ago. However, the Valdai experts concluded that a global middle class revolution is a myth. Russia lacks the revolutionary potential which the Bolotnaya protests in 2011 seemed to hint at, while the only thing that has been growing stronger in the Middle East following the recent protests is Islamic extremism.
We are seeing the revival of old-style geopolitics and long-forgotten civilizational boundaries. Europe has refused to cooperate with the Eurasian Union, while Russia seems ready to start a trade war with Ukraine if it opts to join the European Union. Many in the West mistrust Russian diplomacy in Syria, despite the fact that it has helped prevent a new war in the Middle East. Conflicts in Europe have acquired ideological overtones: the West claims to be protecting human rights and freedoms, while Russia is working to uphold the deeply rooted principles of international law.
The Valdai experts also engaged in lively discussions about Russia’s image. How much does a country’s image influence its status in global politics? Western experts cited the United States and Germany, which enjoy very high country image ratings. Russia has not yet found a way to win global sympathy, in part because it has not focused on its image in a sufficiently professional manner. Russia needs to offer an attractive civilizational idea. Its success will depend on the economic and moral weakening of the West as compared to Russia. On the other hand, if Russia fails to create an identity that ensures economic modernization and a healthy social environment, the pendulum will swing back.
This article was originally published in Russian in Moskovskiye Novosti