At first glance, Putin looks like a Communist. He was a former KGB agent before the collapse of the USSR — known as the Committee for State Security in English, the KGB was the security agency for the Soviet Union — he leads an authoritarian regime, and he has publicly lamented the collapse of the USSR.
However, a closer look at his actions shows that he has more in common with the extreme right than the left. His vision for Russia is actually better described as a resurrection of the Tsarist empire that existed prior to the 1917 Communist revolution.
Tsar Nicholas I developed an official ideology of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationalism.” As an emperor, Nicholas I was wary of revolution. He was well aware of the wave of liberalization occurring in Europe that had granted elections and a constitution; especially the French revolutions.
To safeguard his power, he instituted a set of reforms that would consolidate all power towards him. The Russian Orthodox Church was given privilege as the official religion of Russia — grand cathedrals were built while the clergy was granted respect and patronage from the state, as long as its leaders fell in line with the the Tsar’s policies.
Meanwhile, Russia’s aristocrats were forced into unquestioning obedience towards the Tsar — any attempts at gaining additional autonomy for one’s state was crushed with force, and an attempt by military officers to implement a constitution resulted in the arrest of those officials.
The intellectuals and universities that dared to criticize the Tsar were censored, and sometimes imprisoned. All of this was done under the guise of Russian exceptionalism — the idea that a unique Russian identity was superior to that of the rest of Europe, and that a strong, centralized government was necessary to protect and defend it.
In Putin’s eyes, stability and the consolidation of his own power are the end goals. What he sees in the West is a continuation of the liberalization that challenges autocratic and centralized leadership. The clergy no longer holds significant political power, traditionalism is a choice instead of a mandate and LGBTQ rights are becoming mainstream.
These changes, like the demands for a constitution, seek to liberalize society at the cost of autocrats by removing a pillar of their control. It is no surprise that Putin, like the Tsar of old Russia, would oppose these measures.
The relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church’s believers and Putin is a symbiotic one — the devoutly religious are, for the most part, focused first and foremost on maintaining a socially conservative society, are apolitical or uninformed on other issues and will defer to the orders of the patriarch without question. For Putin, catering to their demands gains him a strong support base, without offering much resistance to his cronyism, corruption or human rights and civil liberties violations.
Popular uprisings against dictators that fail to satisfy the needs of the people are becoming increasingly common in the Arab world. In the past, the printing press was the catalyst for change.
Nowadays, social media and the Internet act as the reagents for revolution, while the support of the middle class and elites has always been helpful. The Egyptian uprising was aided in part by the consent of the Egyptian military, while Twitter and Facebook played a pivotal role in organizing protests and spreading dissent in every Arab Spring uprising from Tunisia to Syria.
Again, Putin realizes that the media and social elite are forces that have the power to topple him. He responds by putting all major TV stations under full or partial control of the government. Journalists are routinely killed for dissenting views, while social media is tightly monitored and “anti-corruption” raids target businessmen who aren’t pledging complete loyalty.
It is no surprise that Russian media is espousing propaganda that touts it as the last defender of true Christianity and the bastion of traditional morality. Several anchors from RT, the state-owned Kremlin propaganda outlet, have gone on record to chide the West for its decadence in tolerating LGBTQ individuals, and frame pro-gay demonstrations in Russia as a conspiracy to undermine Russia and its values. Nationalism is strongly emphasized in youth camps, stressing loyalty to the state and indoctrinating youth with ultra-conservative ideology portraying the social tolerance of the West as weak and portraying dissidents as traitors.
Modern day commentators are often quick to compare Putin to the Soviet regime. Both are authoritarian, but it is clear that the USSR lacks the nationalist and cultural underpinnings that modern Russia uses to maintain control. The USSR abhorred religion — Putin is enthusiastic to use it for his own ends. Stalin crushed ethnic nationalism, while Putin sees it as a peg to his power.
If the West — and NATO — wants to challenge Putin’s power, then they need to realize that they are fighting a cultural war of modernism against reactionary traditionalism, and that the latter is Putin’s most powerful weapon in his arsenal.