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Putin’s Philosophy

[1]Imagine that you were to pick up a textbook on American history and find no mention of Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, or Thomas Jefferson. This is pretty much the situation for anyone in the West trying to understand modern Russia. The standard textbooks have almost nothing to say about the conservative ideas currently dominating the political scene. The Soviet Union vigorously suppressed the key thinkers of the right for most of the last century, of course, but even now that it is no longer a crime for Russians to read their books the West has continued to ignore them.

There is a reason for this. Historians tend to have a teleological focus. They have in mind a defining endpoint—the telos—and wish to explain how we got there. Information that does not contribute to this explanation is ignored. In the case of Russia, the telos was, for many decades, communism. Everyone wanted to understand what it was and why it had succeeded in taking power. Studies of Russian intellectual history therefore quite understandably concentrated on the development of liberal and socialist thought. Russian conservatism, by contrast, was considered a historical dead end and unworthy of study.

As a result, Western commentators nowadays, lacking any knowledge of Russia’s conservative heritage, are unable to place contemporary Russian government within the correct intellectual context.

Analyses of Putin tend to emphasize his KGB past and portray him as bent on suppressing democratic freedoms. As the murdered journalist Anna Politovksaya put it, Putin “has failed to transcend his origin and stop behaving like a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet KGB. He is still busy sorting out his freedom-loving fellow countrymen; he persists in crushing liberty just as he did earlier in his career.” For many in the West, that’s the end of story.


In fact, contrary to this view, Putin fits into a long-standing Russian tradition of “liberal-conservatism.” Modern Russian author A.V. Vasilenko summed up this school of thought, writing that “A strong state is needed not instead of liberal reform, but for reform. Without a strong state liberal reforms are impossible.” This is the basis of what British academic Richard Sakwa calls “a unique synthesis of liberalism and conservatism” embodied in Putin’s rule.

Boris Chicherin (1828-1904) is perhaps the ideology’s founding father. According to historian Richard Pipes, he “espoused Manchester liberalism and civil rights, and, at the same time, supported autocracy.” “The Russian liberal,” Chicherin wrote, “travels on a few high-sounding words: freedom, openness, public opinion … which he interprets as having no limits. … Hence he regards as products of outrageous despotism the most elementary concepts, such as obedience to law or the need for a police and bureaucracy.” “The extreme development of liberty, inherent in democracy,” he said, “inevitably leads to the breakdown of the state organism. To counter this, it is necessary to have strong authority.”

Another major figure was the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900). Solovyov believed that Christian love, embodied in the Church, was the supreme political value, expressed through political and economic arrangements which respected the dignity and rights of individuals. Thus, while supporting a close connection between church and state, Solovyov opposed the death penalty and railed against official anti-Semitism. He was what can only be described as a “liberal theocrat.”

Yet another central character in the annals of Russian liberal-conservatism was Pyotr Struve (1870-1944). Originally a Marxist, Struve authored the first manifesto of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (the forerunner of the Communist Party), but he eventually foreswore Marxism and in exile in the 1920s became a prominent supporter of the senior surviving member of the Russian royal family. He managed this remarkable transformation while never altering his core liberal beliefs.

Perhaps the most important work in the liberal-conservative canon is a 1909 volume entitled Vekhi (Landmarks), which an official in the Russian presidential administration in 2009 called “our book.” It consists of a series of sharp denunciations of Russia’s intelligentsia by prominent liberals such as Pyotr Struve, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Sergei Bulgakov, who had been appalled by the anarchy of the 1905 revolution. Vekhi alleged that the intelligentsia had cut itself off from the Russian people by slavishly copying Western ideas and ignoring Russian ones and that it had no respect for the law. The authors concluded that the foundation of government must be a strong legal system.

Putin himself most seems to admire two contemporaries of the Vekhi authors, Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), prime minister of Russia from 1906 to 1911, and the philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954).

Stolypin took over as prime minister in the midst of revolution and did not flinch from using extreme violence to suppress it. So many radicals were hanged that the noose became known as “Stolypin’s necktie.” But at the same time he pursued liberal reforms in the social and economic spheres, most famously enacting changes to give peasants ownership of their land, with the aim of creating a society based on private property.

Putin chairs a committee organizing the creation of a monument to Stolypin in Moscow. He has called Stolypin “a true patriot and a wise politician” who “saw that both all kinds of radical sentiment and procrastination, a refusal to launch the necessary reform, were dangerous to the country, and that only a strong and effective government relying on business and the civil initiative of millions could ensure progressive development.” As one commentator has noted, “Putin could have been talking about himself.”

As for Ilyin, he began his intellectual career as a student of Hegel. Expelled from the Soviet Union by Lenin in 1922, he moved to Berlin. A decade and a half later, forced out of his job for refusing to teach in accordance with Nazi diktats, he then fled from Germany as well and lived the rest of his life in Switzerland.

Putin regularly quotes Ilyin in his writings and speeches. In 2005 he played a role in the return of Ilyin’s body to Russia and its reburial in Moscow with great pomp and circumstance. Later he personally paid for a new headstone for Ilyin’s grave.

Like Stolypin and the Vekhi contributors, Ilyin believed that the source of Russia’s problems was an insufficiently developed “legal consciousness” (pravosoznanie). Given this, democracy was not a suitable form of government. He wrote that “at the head of the state there must be a single will.” Russia needed a “united and strong state power, dictatorial in the scope of its powers.” At the same time, there must be clear limits to these powers. The ruler must have popular support; organs of the state must be responsible and accountable; the principle of legality must be preserved and all persons must be equal under the law. Freedom of conscience, speech, and assembly must be guaranteed. Private property should be sacrosanct. Ilyin believed that the state should be supreme in those areas in which it had competence, but should stay entirely out of those areas in which it did not, such as private life and religion. Totalitarianism, he said, was “godless.”

The reality of Putin’s Russia fits this liberal-conservative model fairly closely. For instance, Putin, like Stolypin, has made major efforts to entrench property rights, as well as to liberalize the economy. In January, Putin wrote that “the engine of growth must be and will be the people’s initiative. We are sure to lose if we rely solely on the decisions of officials and a limited number of large investors and state-owned corporations. … Russia’s growth over the next few years equals the extension of freedoms for each and every one of us.” Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have employed a series of liberal-minded finance ministers who have worked to reduce the burden of regulation on small businesses. Progress has been patchy but real, as reflected in Russia’s recent admission into the World Trade Organization. Western observers tend to miss this and focus instead on the negative, such as steps taken to bring key actors in the energy sector back under state control.

Like the liberal-conservatives, Putin has emphasized what he calls “the dictatorship of law.” Western commentators have denounced the undoubted continuing abuses of legal process. Yet as William Partlett of the Brookings Institution notes, “Putin has paid far more attention to legal reform than his predecessor … making considerable progress toward updating the contradictory Russian legal system. … Furthermore, he has been surprisingly open to implementing human rights norms from the European Convention on Human Rights in the Russian courts.”

Under the Putin doctrine of “sovereign democracy” the state is limited; it does not seek to control every aspect of life. Indeed, it regards freedom as essential for social and economic progress. But where the state does operate it should be sovereign—powerful, unified, and free from the influence of foreign powers. In the eyes of Western critics, Putin’s first-term move to rein in the powers of regional leaders was a straightforward assault on democracy. But to Putin, this was an essential step to eliminate the practice of regions disobeying federal law and to restore “legal unity” in the nation.

[2]Liberal-conservatism also underpins Putin’s attitude towards civil society. James Richter of Bates College comments that “the Putin administration was a much more consistent advocate of civil society than the Kremlin under Yeltsin, although it tried to bend the concept to its own purposes.” Since 2004, the Russian government has set up “public chambers” at all levels of government, designed to serve as a forum through which popular organizations and state bodies can work together. Participants have received generous public funding. At the same time, however, because the expectation is that the chambers will help civil society to cooperate with the state and not challenge it, some in the West doubt their value.

Russian liberal-conservatives were never democrats as understood in the West, and it is not surprising that many here reject their ideology. Richard Pipes considers that Chicherin’s philosophy “was an abstract and unrealistic doctrine.” The idea that the powerful state “could respect civil rights was plainly quixotic.” Similarly, Ilyin’s vision of a limited, law-based, and accountable dictatorship seems naïvely impractical.

But the point here is not whether liberal-conservatism is the right choice for Russia. Rather, the issue is that we in the West fail to recognize this ideology for what it is. Putin has a clear vision of a strong, centralized, law-based government with defined and limited competences, consistent with native Russian schools of thought. Our relations with Russia would be greatly improved if we were to acknowledge and engage with this reality instead of tilting at irrelevant caricatures of a police state.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, and the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Putin’s Philosophy"

#1 Comment By T. Sledge On March 28, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

Perhaps Putin just remembers how that “liberal”, drunken fool Yeltsin, in thrall to western economists, sold off the resources that the Soviet state had stolen to a bunch of Berezovskys, Gusinskys and Khodorkovskys for a tiny fraction of their market value, and empowered a handful of criminals to exercise enormous power in the kleptocracy that Yeltsin ruled over.

Perhaps he has a thick dossier on that sock puppet Obama, and knows that he is as corrupt as Yeltsin was, and does not care to hear any lectures from him or anyone else. Perhaps, just perhaps, he loves Russia as much as we love our own country, and unlike the stooges in the congress and the White House, has no intention of putting any other country’s interests above those of Russia as he sees them.

#2 Comment By Robert Pinkerton On March 29, 2012 @ 5:34 am

From 1917 to 1991, Russia was possessed; I can think of no other word to describe the Soviet time from the beginning to the end. (Even psychotic seems inadequate, though psychopathic approaches the threshold.) My impression of Mr. Putin is that, KGB past notwithstanding, is that he is seriously trying to help Russia recover from the ordeal of possession.

#3 Comment By brians On March 29, 2012 @ 8:01 am

Great column, Mr. Robinson.

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 29, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

The Soviets were hardly psychotic madmen, else we would have seen a nuclear holocaust. Only one country, in a fit of hysteria, has actually used these weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations, and it is not that country famous for its cerebral chess players. We still boast our “first strike” nuclear capability is one of “all options on the table.”

The Russian oligarchy has become so powerful, not unlike our own American corporate and financial elites, that the government felt obligated to counter its threats. Unfortunately, the democracy movement in Russia, in which we involve ourselves – something we wouldn’t allow any foreign nation here to do – was mostly cynically bankrolled by oligarchs that Putin pushed back against and whom had no interest in it before.

It is not unlikely that some of these oligarchs have purchased political support from their fellow 1-per centers in the West who, through their own control of our politicians, are using our foreign policy to come to their aid.

#5 Comment By Petya On March 29, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

Great article, thanks.

#6 Comment By Arimathean On March 30, 2012 @ 12:49 am

“. . . the democracy movement in Russia, in which we involve ourselves – something we wouldn’t allow any foreign nation here to do . . .”

Incorrect. Example: Representatives of foreign nations, including Russia, routinely monitor US elections with our cooperation. Four years ago, Russian monitors actually criticized the utter failure of the American media to scrutinize Obama and hold him accountable, echoing earlier US criticisms of the Russian election process.

But, as corrupt as the American media and their man in the White House might be, they cannot compare to their Russian counterparts. I do not believe for a second that Putin has the best interests of Russia at heart. He cares only for the interests of himself and his cronies. They want a Russia that is strong enough and rich enough to be worth controlling (and robbing), but not one that is so strong or so rich as to escape their ability to control. Gary Kasparov was right to compare Putin to the Godfather.

#7 Comment By Worried On March 30, 2012 @ 1:34 am

Excellent piece of work; I only wish it had appeared a few years ago, when anti-Putin hysteria was at its height.

#8 Comment By Tom Adshead On March 30, 2012 @ 3:11 am

I greatly enjoyed this article, and it raises some interesting points. I was particularly impressed by the idea that the Soviets re-cast the pre-1917 debate as a precursor to Marxism-Leninism. I would also add that Western analysts tend to view Russia in reference to their own vision of what a modern Western society represents. There is a rich Russian intellectual tradition which has tried to strike a path away from the Enlightenment, and I would argue that Solzhenitsyn is firmly in this camp – not a liberal Western, but definitely not a Marxist-Leninist.
I think that the author is a little optimistic in terms of Putin’s attitude to legal reform and civil society. He came into office with a manifesto to make both of these a priority. Yet he has undermined his own rhetoric in order to achieve tactical objectives – so he has abused the court system to defeat the oligarchs (who themselves were only to happy to abuse the legal system) and has created a sort of official civil society that gets consulted, but dismisses more grass-roots organisations as Western stooges. The public chambers are all appointed by the state, and most of its officials have ambitions within the bureaucracy.
That said, Putin has shown himself willing to deal with true civil society, as shown by his reaction to the protests after the last elections, where he immediately made concessions in terms of more access to Parliament, and more scrutiny of elections. But the author is spot-on in the last paragraph – we should examine Putin’s performance not in relation to some Western ideal, but in relation to his own vision of a state that owes more to Frederick the Great than to Montesquieu.

#9 Comment By Stephen Lynch On March 31, 2012 @ 3:58 am

Dear Mr. Robinson:

Bravo! Encore please!

#10 Comment By CJOH On March 31, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

The Anglo-American corporatist elite has a tried and tested playbook for removing foreign leaders it doesn’t like and it seems to vary little from country to country: (1) Through your agents in the mainstream media, blacken the name of the leader in question, with all kinds of unsubstantiated allegations of abuse of power (2) Massively fund opposition movements, and use them to foment discontent. (3) If this fails to garner the required electoral gains use the media such as the BBC and CNN to accuse the incumbent regime of rigging the elections.(4) Make sure these media always depict anti-government rallies as the voice of the people. (5) By the same token always be sure to explain away any pro-government rallies as the result of bribery or intimimidation, even when such rallies are much larger than the opposition protests. (6) Fund and direct opposition military movements and when the government’s forces are compelled to take on these western backed rebel movements be sure that your media mouthpieces focus only on the atrocities, real and imaginary, of the government side. (7) Be sure also that your media mouthpieces depict the opposition activists and fighters as living saints.(8) Manufacture a wave of media hysteria about the leader “butchering his own people” and use this as a pretext for military intervention (9) Make sure the media ignore the many civilian casualties that result from this intervention.(10) When the sitting regime has been overthrown ensure that the western media depart the scene and ignore the corruption, thuggery, lawlessness and breakdown of civil society that has ensued from the overthrow. That way the public can be gulled into believing the whole operation was a great triumph of western arms and the episode can be used to justify the next “humanitarian intervention”.

#11 Comment By Marko daBeast On April 1, 2012 @ 2:20 am

The Soviet Union wasn’t Communist. Sure, they called themselves Communists, but they never got anywhere near actual, honest-to-godless Communism.

#12 Comment By Bob F. On April 1, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

What about Solzhenitsyn? He seems to fit into this mold.

A fierce critic of communism, but also not enamored of Western Democracy.

#13 Comment By John Gruskos On April 1, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

When I was in Moscow, I noticed a large, new, prominently located monument to Czar Alexander II, another ruler who fits Robinson’s description of “liberal-conservatism”.

#14 Comment By Dimitry Aleksandrovich On April 2, 2012 @ 12:04 am

I have a deep respect and admiration for President Vladimir Putin. I believe he is the right man to lead Russia. Also it must be noted that under Putin the Russian Orthodox Church has been returning to its rightful place with significant influence within Russian society.

#15 Comment By Dimitry Aleksandrovich On April 2, 2012 @ 12:11 am

Bob you are absolutely correct. Solzhenitsyn was a great Russian thinker, prolific writer,nationalist and a devout Orthodox Christian. I have been reading Solzhenitsyn lately and I believe the man understood maybe better than anyone else during the Soviet Union and after its collapse what it means to be Russian. If you get a chance read Solzhenitsyn’s “The Russian Question” written around 1993 before his return to Russia.

You are also correct to point out that in the end Solzhenitsyn was a fierce critic of Western Liberal Democracy and believed the excess of American style capitlalism could be just as destructive to Russia as godless communism.

#16 Comment By Kyle On April 3, 2012 @ 12:05 am

I agree Dimitry. You make some good points and while Putin isn’t perfect, he fits Russia very well at this moment in time. In fact I would take him over any American candidate outside of Ron Paul.

It’s great to see Russians checking in on American conservative perspective.

#17 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 4, 2012 @ 5:12 am

“Representatives of foreign nations, including Russia, routinely monitor US elections with our cooperation. Four years ago, Russian monitors actually criticized the utter failure of the American media to scrutinize Obama and hold him accountable, echoing earlier US criticisms of the Russian election process.”

Citation, please. I saw no Russian monitors or NGO democracy advocates overseeing our local elections here and I know participation and funding by foreigners in the election process is supposed to be illegal.

#18 Comment By William Manning On April 4, 2012 @ 10:20 am

Is Putin a devout Orthodox? Many of my Orthodox friends of Russian descent, while inclined to admiring the man, have their doubts. Same goes for their views on the Patriarch whom they believe is playing a dangerous game allying the Church with the government. They believe the historic “synergy” between church and state is no longer workable whilst admitting they have no solution.

#19 Comment By scott On July 9, 2012 @ 11:45 pm

Russia is European,white and basically christian. I hope Putin can achieve the goals he wants, if he is in earnest. All the hostility and negativity in the U.S. towards this country is due to the still persistent crack pot paranoid delusions of the neocons. When will this philosophy(?) be flushed down the commode where it belongs.

#20 Comment By Mightypeon On October 26, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

I would add the observation that, historically speaking, Russia has never been freer than today, and by far more people can participate in political freedoms now then under Jelzin when they were fully preoccupied with basic survival.