Behind the Russian government’s efforts to promote “traditional values” is a desire to keep a lid on domestic tensions amid a period of “catch-up” modernization, experts said at a recent conference hosted by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.
In opening the full-day conference – “Russia’s Traditional Values Agenda in a Global Perspective” – Jack Snyder, a Columbia professor of political science, noted that debates over traditional values are often connected to economic modernization. He added that "multiple modernities" now exist in the world: Weaknesses in the liberal model of development have been exposed, opening the way for several forms illiberal modernity to gain traction.
Russia over the past quarter century has had to play a game of "catch-up," striving to shed its Communist skin and develop a functioning economy, while at the same time trying to keep pace with Western rivals. The Russian government's emphasis on upholding so-called traditional values is a tactic that helps officials move forward with wrenching economic changes while lowering the chances that politics overheat, Snyder suggested.
Promoting traditional values can "steer modernity in a direction that works better in a particular social setting," Snyder said. It also can serve as "instrumentalized rhetoric in the service of authoritarians and demagogues."
While Russian leaders vigorously promote "traditional" values, they tend to avoid precise definitions. That shouldn't be surprising, given all the disruption that Russia has experienced over the past 150 years – including wars, revolution, two collapses of empire, famine, civil war, the Great Terror and collectivization.
The origins of Russian traditional values are not easily identified, Masha Lipman, a prominent Russian journalist, contended at the September 14 conference.
There have been "too many major ruptures" in Russian history, Lipman said. "All of this [upheaval] is conducive to destroying tradition."
Lipman explained that the primary historical influence on contemporary notions of traditional values is the 1970s under Communist Party chief Leonid Brezhnev, a period now commonly referred to as the Stagnation Era. While those years were characterized by economic malaise and long lines for consumer goods, the fully deployed Soviet safety net meant that citizens had easy access to employment and housing. The basics were taken care of.
"It was a uniquely long period of stability," Lipman said. “The 1970s are an important source of tradition for today’s leadership.”
When it comes to political tradition, Lipman noted that Russia has embraced a mash-up, featuring a Stalinist national anthem along with a pre-revolutionary flag and coat of arms as national symbols.
Another speaker at the conference, Nate Schenkkan, the director of special research at Freedom House (and a former Eurasianet contributor), said leading advocates of traditional values have been adept using social media and other digital technologies to advance their social agenda. Proponents of liberalism, meanwhile, have largely failed to articulate the benefits of a liberal system in ways to which people can easily relate.
The Russian Orthodox Church is an important instrument for the Kremlin in promoting traditional values. The common perception is that church and state are moving in lockstep on traditional values, but that understanding is oversimplified. While their interests coincide in many areas, abortion is one source of tension between the Kremlin and Danilov Monastery: Church leaders are adamantly opposed, while Putin's administration is reluctant to restrict access. "Abortion has become a sticking point between church and state," Diana Dukhanova, an expert on church-state relations, said during the conference.
Church efforts to influence social issues and education are also a source of tension, Lipman said, adding that some Russian officials worry the church could emerge as an "ideological" competitor.
Lipman said that economic trends are prompting the Kremlin to embrace increasingly coercive measures to enforce its traditional values agenda. Coercion is unlikely to work over the long term, she predicted; instead, it will likely "stimulate stronger silent resistance, or perhaps not so silent resistance."
Eurasianet is based at the Harriman Institute.