As regular readers will have divined, I have a particular interest in the ideological underpinnings of the modern Russian state and its leaders, including President Vladimir Putin. Western analysts often mistakenly describe the people now governing Russia as nostalgic for the Soviet Union, an idea which Putin’s recent statements about Lenin should surely discredit. But if it’s easy enough to say what Putin is not, ideologically speaking, it is much harder to say what he is. Judging by a comment he made on Wednesday, the man himself might tell me that I am wasting my time trying to work it out. At a meeting of the Leaders’ Club business association, Putin responded to a remark that Russia needs some unifying ‘national idea’ in the following way:
We do not have and cannot have any unifying idea other than patriotism. … You said that public servants and business and all citizens in general work to make the country stronger. Because if that is the case, then each of us, each citizen will live better, and have higher incomes and be more comfortable, and so on. And that is the national idea. It isn’t ideological, it isn’t connected with any party or any stratum of society. It is connected to a general, unifying principle. If we want to live better, then the country must become more attractive for all citizens, more effective, and the public service and state apparatus and business must all become more effective. As you said, we work for the country, not understanding it in an amorphous way, like in Soviet times … when the country came first and then there was who knows what. The country is people, that’s what working ‘for the country’ means.
I consider it interesting that Putin picked on ‘patriotism’ as his key word, and not something like liberty or equality or some concept of national greatness. But his definition of patriotism is a surprisingly tame and individualistic one, and also fairly materialistic. Despite all the talk of Putin’s promotion of traditional conservative values, here his objectives are limited to people living better, having ‘higher incomes’, and being ‘more comfortable’. Although it may be wrong to draw too much from one remark, this does not accord with much recent commentary about Putin installing a scary new nationalistic ideology in Russia.
That doesn’t mean that Putin lacks personal beliefs. It’s just that he appears to draw a distinction between what he believes and what he thinks should be the ideology of the state. Take Lenin, for instance. Putin doesn’t like him. But he’s made it clear that that is his personal opinion. If other people happen to like Lenin and want to have a statue of him in their city, or name their town square after him, then Putin isn’t going to stop them .
In fact, Putin’s position corresponds with Article 13 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation which states that, ‘Ideological plurality shall be recognized in the Russian Federation’, and that, ‘No ideology may be instituted as a state-sponsored or mandatory ideology.’ Putin’s statement represents adherence to the limits of his constitutional powers. Given that he is often described as an all-powerful dictator, that recognition is worthy of note.