After decades of shaping his image as a strongman in modern politics, Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is understaffed. Conservatives will have to adapt. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a model of what the right strives to be; Putin is the caricature in which he sometimes contorts.
In his book 2020 Twilight of democracy, historian Anne Applebaum has attempted to describe how and why some conservatives succumbed to the lure of authoritarianism. Applebaum observes that after the fall of the Soviet Union, many anti-communists developed “cultural despair”, a deep pessimism about the direction in which the West was heading. Conservatives – or “paleoconservatives,” as the reactionary wing of conservatism dubbed its supporters – lamented the loss of a better past.
Putin’s propagandists created a narrative of Russia as “a pious, Christian nation seeking to protect its ethnic identity” that appealed to those nostalgics. “Never mind,” the usually dry author notes, “that only a tiny percentage of Russians actually go to church…never mind that Russia is a multi-ethnic, multilingual state, with a much larger Muslim population than most. European countries; it doesn’t matter that Chechnya, a Russian province, is in fact governed by Sharia, or that its government forces women to wear the veil and tortures homosexuals; it doesn’t matter that many forms of evangelical Christianity are actually banned.”
Putin tapped into the conservative notion that the West, with its fad causes, pronoun wars, ever-expanding acronyms, gender-cancellation, culture-cancellation, and cultural relativism , has lost confidence and is in decline.
In an address broadcast on the Russian government-funded RT network and helpfully uploaded to YouTube with English subtitles, Putin hits all those notes, echoing the sentiments of conservatives grappling with cause-celebrates in recent years. “We watch with amazement the processes taking place in countries that are traditionally seen as the standard-bearers of progress,” he says.
The speech goes on to denounce the “discrimination against the majority for the benefit of the few” and the reversal of social customs and norms which “demand the abandonment of traditional notions of mother, father, family and even kind”. Then, in a clever flip script, points out that “their prescriptions aren’t new at all” because “Russia has been there before.”
“After the revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks, relying on the dogmas of Marx and Engels, also declared that they would change the existing habits and customs and not only political and economic, but the very notion of human morality and the foundations of a healthy society.
“The destruction of secular values, religion and relationships between people, until the total rejection of the family” was among the things “fairly fashionable, like today”.