Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Putin’s Philosophy

The Russian leader’s paradoxical, strong-state “liberal-conservatism”

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.

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.