In his first State of the Nation address since his re-election, President Putin spoke to the Federal Assembly on 12 December of Russia’s moral renewal on the basis of Russian values. A few days later, citizens rallied in Moscow by the Solovetsky Stone. They also sought renewal for their country.
The President urged Russia’s teachers, media and sections of civil society to inculcate Russian values into the nation’s consciousness. He was clear that those bent on dividing Russian people from each other, or acting on behalf of foreign interests (as shown by their willingness to accept foreign money for instance), were to be excluded. So were those who acted outside the law, presumably referring to the catch-all public order laws passed since his return to the Kremlin. He said that Russia had its own values based democracy, and that outsiders had no right to force their views on Russians. But what exactly are the Russian values he spoke of, and how do they differ from others’?
Values: universal, particular and ‘traditional’
All countries have a set of assumptions and hopes that reflect their history and their circumstances. It is natural for their citizens to suppose their values to be special in some way, and common enough for politicians to flatter them by speaking of their particular virtues. But the reality is that we learn from each other. Russia is no different from the rest of Europe in this respect. Russia has not profited from its past leaders who have tried to close Russian ears to the ideas of others. Russians can surely judge for themselves when these ideas are foolish, if allowed to take part in a wider dialogue.
President Putin would be more entitled to suppose that Russians knew and accepted what he meant by Russian values - ‘traditional values’ as he said - if Russia had developed a set of beliefs which commanded general acceptance. But given the upheavals of the past hundred years it would be surprising if that were the case. The gathering around the Solovetsky Stone on 15 December was only the latest proof that Russians are divided, and that the country is in the continuing flow of a dialogue with itself as to what it can and should be.
In his speech, the President hinted at what Russia’s particular values might be for him: the lessons of the Russian Orthodox Church, the battle honours of the Russian Armed Forces, and the legacies of Russian self-government within a tradition of strong central leadership. The outside world, according to Putin, threatens these reference points. The Russian Church has its own range of traditions and doctrines but as a celebrant of the message of the Gospel, it is still part of the wider Christian community. Russia is by no means the only European country entitled to admire the spirit and achievements of its Armed Forces. And while it is true that Russia has a history of leaders who have sought to be strong in its central direction, it is also the case that their efforts have been frustrated by the refusal of the Russian people to enable that central direction to be made effective.
Russia’s leaders are always trying to catch up and overtake the West by imposing change but finding that all they achieve is a grand structure which then prevents autonomous and self-replicating development.
Those who rallied outside on 15 December were gathered because of a wider set of values, and a differing view of Russian history. Russians are just like other peoples in wanting justice, a rule of law which governs the powerful as well as others, and the sense that individuals have the right to pursue their destinies within these constraints. Decency and honesty are no different in Russia than in other countries. That is why Russia has felt justified in signing on to a wide range of international and value based conventions, in the Council of Europe framework not least.
Superficially, nothing has changed in the past twelve months. But, Russia’s ideas of itself have changed deeply. It’s a process which will continue, and the country’s leaders and its wider population both know it.