Sign up to
news feeds:

Select RSS feed catergory:


The XXI century will be a сentury either of total all-embracing crisis or of moral and spiritual healing that will reinvigorate humankind. It is my conviction that all of us - all reasonable political leaders, all spiritual and ideological movements, all  faiths - must help in this transition to a triumph of humanism and justice, in making the XXI century a century of a new human renaissance.
 

     
Русский Русский

Conferences

Back to the list
15 мая 2014

The Expertise Round Table on “Project for fostering a ‘conservative’ citizen for today’s Russia: Social realities and prospects”, The Gorbachev Foundation. May 15, 2014

1/14

Round Table Discussion Summary

 
 
The turbulent political events of recent months, largely triggered by a crisis in Ukraine, have contributed to the increased ideological confrontation between “conservatives” and “liberals”. This confrontation is characterised by aggressiveness and open intolerance.
 
It is also clear that the recent manifest growth of conservative sentiment in mass consciousness has been largely stoked by a deliberate policy of the government. This policy has changed from what it was in the 2000s, when the government maintained its claim to legitimacy largely through its proclaimed policy of raising prosperity levels for the majority of the population and encouraging higher consumerist expectations. This was a policy of creating a consumerist society in Russia, aimed at the same time at integrating the nation into the “community” of Western states. Up until the electoral cycle of 2011-2012, the Russian government was proclaiming its “European choice” – with a varying degree of intensity. Today, the situation is fundamentally different. Prosperity drive has been put into question in the current economic environment. In this context, the government can establish its legitimacy in a traditionalist version of conservatism only, making sure it is presented as a tool to counter the West and its modernist culture.
 
A project to foster a “new conservative citizen” is grounded in these perceptions of modern realities. Such a citizen should be capable of sacrificing their well-being and individual choices for the sake of the state. The big question is: Is Russian society willing to commit itself to such a project?
 
There is a quite widespread view that for most Russians the recent value transformations proved to be superficial and are currently being reversed under the influence of many factors – both internal and external ones. However, even if we agreed with the argument that the majority of the population rejects modernist values, we wouldn’t fail to admit that current Russian society is different from that of the Stalin era, or the Soviet society of the Brezhnev stagnation period; it is also different from the 1990s post-Soviet society.
 
It is a consumerist society not only, and perhaps not as much, economically as socially and psychologically. It is used to getting various benefits without bothering to ponder whether its contribution matches these goods. It is used to getting easy “bread” and still hopes for some “circuses” as well. It is unlikely to be willing to sacrifice the lives of several generations for the defence of a “fortress state”. In this regard, the question about the phenomenon of modern mass conservatism can be put differently: Could it be an opportunistic phenomenon, the very emergence of which was due to a combination of various factors with time-varying influence?  E.g. a relatively stable social and economic situation and the simultaneous shattering of hopes for steady growth of prosperity in the nearest years and denial of social mobility to the majority of the population? Therefore a number of researchers and analysts doubt that the efforts to foster a “new conservative citizen” really fall under the definition of “project” and believe they are in fact an instrumental response to the problems that have recently arisen.
 
These problems were the focus of the discussion at the Expertise Round Table held at the Gorbachev Foundation and attended by social scientists, historians, and political scientists.
 
The prospects for the “project” to foster a “new conservative citizen” largely depend on the nature of the interaction between the government and society, which is in many ways complicated and conflicting. Participants in the Round Table discussion generally agreed that the ideological attitudes and preferences seen in the mass consciousness of Russians are extremely weak in their manifestations and are characteristic of very narrow population groups only. The majority of Russians are amorphous in their ideas and political beliefs.
 
In public opinion polls, people almost do not identify themselves with the more widely known political forces or ideologies like “Communism”, “liberalism”, “nationalism”, “conservatism”, or “social democracy”. In recent years, when responding to questions by social researchers people have been increasingly likely to go along with the official stance adopted by the government and promoted by the pro-government media. At the same time, the everyday behavior motivations are shaped by the goals and tasks determined by individual adaptive capacities to the realities of current Russian life.
 
Russians are as pragmatic and devoid of ideology as they can possibly be; they almost exclusively are keen to find solutions to their personal problems. All the rest – big politics, the international situation, etc. belong to the world which is “outward” for average citizens and the interest towards it is akin to the interest of a TV audience watching a football match. It is a kind of entertainment, based on distancing themselves from the observation object and often on indifference. This is largely true even of the developments in Ukraine. Therefore, even when “conservatism” is invoked in today’s Russia, it refers above all to a certain ideological and political trend represented by small socially active groups or the government’s self-described “conservative” policy.
 
The population’s weak ideological engagement can be attributable to the fact that in the last quarter of a century, Russia has seen the melt-down of as many as two dominant ideologies – the “Soviet” (“communist”) ideology and the liberal one. The collapse of the Soviet ideology was a consequence of the historical defeat of Soviet Socialism, which lost competition to the Western Capitalism, while liberalism has lost because it was used as a cover for the chaos and injustices of the 1990s to the benefit of the new ruling minority, which essentially abandoned the ideas of equality inherent in the liberal ideological tradition. Therefore today, it looks as if the government is trying to rather fill the ideological void which has opened in society with new ideological attitudes based on its own interests.

At the same time, Russian society has been increasingly showing two dividing lines which create a breeding ground for conservative attitudes deliberately promoted to the masses.
 
Firstly, a clear division has emerged between the people whose life strategies are based on state reliance and those who see themselves as self-reliant. The former are the most likely to embrace the ideas and attitudes generated by the state. In many ways the persistence of such social division within Russian society is due to the fact that the modern middle class has ultimately failed to establish itself in Russia as a social stratum with no reliance on the state for its sustenance either economically or socially. The urban middle strata, which are sometimes perceived as the middle class, mostly comprise civil officers and some professionals paid from the state budget, with their careers and life strategies fully dependent on the state.
 
Secondly, deep-rooted and aggressive rejection of foreign (above all Western) experience has persisted among different social groups and strata of Russian society since as early the Soviet era. So the wide support for instance for the “Dima Yakovlev Law” or the negative attitudes towards LGBT people are prompted by the outright rejection of “things alien”, rather than by some deeply rooted perceived values.
 
The discussion of values widespread in Russian society and of their “conservative nature” has revealed varied views. According to one view, the conservative nature of values is often interpreted too broadly. As a result, values such as family values, shared by widely different social groups and devoid of any strict ideology, get categorized as conservative ones. At the same time political values and outlook, which are usually classified as conservative ones, are in fact aimed at rebuilding certain elements and institutions of the Soviet era. In this sense they represent a restoration effort, while conservatism is not about restoring the past but rather about maintaining the status quo, keeping in full or partially the surviving institutions and relationships.
 
It was particularly emphasized that conservatism is often equated with traditionalism. The rejection of changes taking place in the modern world characteristic of contemporary Russian conservatives brings them close to radical right political and ideological movements in Europe and the United States. However, conservatism, unlike other, most wide-spread modern ideologies, does not have a clear political or ideological substance. It is always situation-specific and cannot be taken out of the specific national context. Therefore we can assume that dislike for sexual minorities, gender equality or mass migration, which represent other cultures, can not make a solid foundation for a close and lasting collaboration between Russian and foreign conservatives. Modern Western conservatism is based on the inviolability of principles such as the private property rights, division of power and political competition. In this it is fundamentally different from its Russian “counterpart”.
 
In retrospect, Russian history suggests that domestic conservatism was based on three main principles: rejection of novelties in administration of the state; interpretation of the roots of all faults and problems in the country as having a foreign origin; and a social doctrine of the Orthodox Christian Church. The Orthodox Christian tradition is unlikely to regain its full strength in the secular Russian society, which significantly hampers the promotion of conservatism in today’s Russia. Therefore some experts think that it only has an appropriate empty shell but lacks substance. In this view, the modern Russian conservatism can only be of a virtual, post-modernist nature. It is indicative that a similar picture is also true of the neo-imperialist policy traditionally linked to conservatism. In real life practice, it is not a drive to restore the empire but a kind of a simulation game.
 
Still there was also a different view expressed, according to which there can be no talk of any sustainable, established values in modern Russian society whatsoever. For values to take root in the public consciousness a link needs to exist comprising a Social Contract and the Law based on it. Only then conditions for values to crystallize are created. In fact, there was no real Contract in the post-Soviet Russia, not to speak of the legal order based on the Law accepted by everyone. In this sense, it would be more appropriate to talk of the “nihilistic” value-free attitudes firmly established in Russian society – values “take a back seat” to instrumental attitudes.
 
Some participants in the Round Table discussion expressed doubts that the current efforts to foster a “new conservative citizen” could be described as a “project”. The concept of “project” implies the existence of a certain intent, an implementation plan, and necessary resources. However, in this case, we can only talk of a situation-specific construct. And if we called it a project it would be in the post-modernist sense only.
 
There are two reasons for that. Firstly, Russian policies, both domestic and particularly foreign policies, are in many ways reactive, with the government’s decisions and actions guided by the need to respond to emerging challenges, rather than by long-term goals. In this regard, the fact that the “conservative project” is actively taking shape against the backdrop of a crisis unfolding in Ukraine is very indicative. Secondly, as mentioned before, the public consciousness is free of any lasting perceptions of values. Nevertheless, despite the clearly situation-specific nature of the “post-modernist project”, which reflects the very essence of Russian politics, similar projects will emerge from time to time in our political practice.
 
The fact is that the government’s need to strengthen its grip on society is a long-term one – there will always be new problems and challenges, and resources to stage ad-hoc responses and manipulate the public opinion are still available.
Despite differences in assessments of certain aspects of the subject, participants in the round table discussion concluded that for the government a project to foster a “new conservative citizen” has a time-bound and clearly instrumental nature. At the same time, in the short-term, the public will likely lose interest towards the themes related to the project to foster a ‘new
conservative citizen’ and shift its attention to other problems.
 
 
 
***
 
 
Participants in the round table discussion included Vasily Zharkov (the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration), Andrey Zakharov  (Russian State University for the Humanities), Grigory Kertman (the Public Opinion Foundation), Marina Krasilnikova (Levada Center), Vladimir Petukhov (Institute of Sociology, the Russian Academy of Sciences), Vladimir Rimsky (INDEM Foundation), Viktor Sheinis (Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences), Andrey Ryabov (IMEMO and the Gorbachev Foundation), Aleksandr Veber, Olga Zdravomyslova,  Georgy Ostroumov, Pavel Palazhchenko and Boris Slavin (the Gorbachev Foundation). 
 
Co-hosting the round table were Olga Zdravomyslova and Andrey Ryabov
 
Viktor Sheinis: “We see illusory, rather than conservative perceptions taking hold” 
   

 

 

   

 

 

   

 

 

Vladimir Rimsky:  “If we really start supporting and maintaining traditional values and social behavior norms, it would result in our country losing competition to developed and developing states”
   

 
   

   

   
 
   
 
   
   

 

 Photo by Dmitry Belanovsky / The Gorbachev Foundation


 
 
 

News

The eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, he was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991. 10 August 2021
Archie Brown. Re-evaluation of the huge achievements of the perestroika years, as well as the failures during them and since, is an unfinished task
This article has been publushed in Russian in Rossiya v globalnoy politike journal, #3. 2021. 11 June 2021
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden will meet in Geneva on June 16. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev told Interfax special correspondent Vyacheslav Terekhov in an interview that the main task the two presidents will have to address is restoring strategic stability. 1 June 2021

Gorbachev in the news media

Books