What Does Putin’s Conservatism Seek to Conserve?

Putin is a politician and leader, not an academician. His conservatism should be judged accordingly, writes Professor Timothy Colton.

Vladimir Putin is a familiar face to every Russian and to news-attentive audiences worldwide. Nonetheless, he keeps many thoughts to himself and seldom provides more than a glimpse of what goes on inside his head. He has never written memoirs. His most revealing personal interviews were in the winter of 2000, prior to his initial election as president (published in English under the title First Person).

Most Western accounts of contemporary Russian politics focus on the question of regime—how power is distributed between state and society, broadly construed. An alternative lens would privilege ideas and values over the institutional technology for achieving them. Are the goals of the system Putin has built liberal or conservative? Does it sit on the left or the right of the political spectrum? Is it nationalist or internationalist? Are its economics capitalist or socialist?

It is fashionable in certain quarters to downplay the ideational dimension. Putin in Western eyes is sometimes portrayed as a power maximizer and disciplinarian pure and simple. But this fails to encompass the whole person, to get at the evolution of his behavior over time, or to differentiate him from other leaders, including earlier Russian rulers, who have put power to different uses.

On the Russian side, Vladislav Surkov, for years the Kremlin’s overseer of domestic affairs, denied in 2019 that ideas in the abstract drive his country’s politics: “You can start out in Russia with whatever you like— conservatism, socialism, liberalism—but you will always end up with roughly the same thing, that is with the thing that actually exists.” It would be impossible to define “Putinism” as a coherent body of ideas, said Surkov, until after Putin had departed the scene. “Present-day Putin is hardly a Putinist, just like, for example, Marx was not a Marxist and we cannot be sure that he would have agreed to be one had he found out what that is like.”

Putin has verbalized his fundamental opinions in two expressions. One is “civilization” (tsivilizatsiya): Russia as a major cultural entity with a high degree of closure and a gravitational pull on minor cultural entities. The other, by far the more frequently employed, is “conservatism” (konservatizm).

This claim is more persuasive when it comes to labels than to ideology and beliefs per se. In the same essay, Surkov acknowledges that ideas do matter in the end in the new Russia: “Following the disastrous 1990s, once Russia turned away from all borrowed ideologies, it started generating its own ideas, and it began to counterattack the West.”

Whatever his private musings may have been, in public Putin long avoided compressing his own convictions into a single axiom or image. However, this changed significantly in his third and especially his current, fourth presidential term.

He has verbalized his fundamental opinions in two expressions, both of them, interestingly, loanwords from foreign languages. One is “civilization” (tsivilizatsiya): Russia as a major cultural entity with a high degree of closure and a gravitational pull on minor cultural entities. The other, by far the more frequently employed, is “conservatism” (konservatizm). Putin often qualifies this term with a modifier. At the plenary session of the Valdai Discussion Club in October 2021, he threw out four phrases interchangeably — “reasonable conservatism,” “healthy conservatism,” “moderate conservatism,” and “optimistic conservatism.” Implied was that there existed an unreasonable/unhealthy/immoderate/pessimistic version which would not serve Russia well.

Putin noted at Valdai that he started speaking about conservativism a while back, but had doubled down on it in response not to internal Russian developments but to the fraught international situation. “Now, when the world is going through a structural crisis, reasonable conservatism as the foundation for a political course has skyrocketed in importance, precisely because of the proliferating risks and dangers and the fragility of the reality around us." “This conservative approach,” he stated, “is not about an ignorant traditionalism, dread of change, or a game of hold, much less about withdrawing into our own shell.” Instead, it was something positive: “It is primarily about reliance on time-tested tradition, the preservation and increase of the population, realistic assessment of oneself and others, an accurate alignment of priorities, correlation of necessity and possibility, prudent formulation of goals, and a principled rejection of extremism as a means of action.”

As a generic picture, this is quite consistent with the core meaning of conservatism elsewhere. The American Merriam-Webster dictionary defines conservatism as “the disposition in politics to preserve what is established” and “a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.” One could imagine at least some of Putin’s words coming from the mouth of, say, a George W. Bush, Boris Johnson, or Viktor Orban.

At the Valdai session, Putin was asked about the portability of the conservatism he professed. Did traditions not vary from one time and location to the next? Putin agreed they did: “of course, there is enormous diversity, and every nation in various parts of the world has distinctive characteristics.” Nonetheless, “there are things that unite all people.” What were they? Here Putin specified just two common impulses: to preserve life and to make life through procreation. “There are others, but I do not think I need to list them all. Everyone here is smart and understands this.” It was not the most satisfying enumeration.

Where does Putin’s conservatism come from? An uncomplicated explanation, impossible to prove or disprove with finality, would link it to the seductions of power. Two decades in the Kremlin, and the prospect of years more, may incline him increasingly toward rationalizations of the status quo as principled conservatism.

Another potential explanation would target personality. The Valdai reference to fragility was about the present moment, but Putin has commented more than once on the inherent volatility of human affairs. “Often there are things that seem impossible to us,” he said in the First Person interviews in 2000, “but then all of a sudden — bang!” He gave as his illustration the event that by all accounts traumatized him more than any other — the implosion of the USSR. “That is the way it was with the Soviet Union. Who could have imagined that it would have up and collapsed? Even in your worst nightmares no one could have foretold this.” Sticking with “time-tested” formulas would suit such a temperament.

What of intellectual points of reference? Here, Putin has offered few clues. It is notable that, despite his assertions about the universality of core conservative values, when he does mention influences on him he cites only Russian thinkers. In the Valdai Q&A, he volunteered the two who crop up most often in his rhetoric: Nikolai Berdyayev and Ivan Ilyin, philosophers who were deported from Lenin’s USSR in 1922 and died abroad. Without mentioning the author by name, Putin also gave a nod to the notion of passionarnost’ (passionarity), formulated by the Soviet historian and ethnologist Lev Gumilev, many of whose works were banned in the Communist period. Berdyayev and Ilyin were both most keenly interested in religion and culture, themes that Putin has referred to with regularity in recent years, often with a “family values” flavor. Berdyayev was not a conservative on all matters, as he espoused a “spiritual revolution” and a rejection of many modern ways, and Gumilev is a poor fit with the conservative mold. On this occasion, Putin skipped mention of another conservative, the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, with whom he met twice as president and to whom he awarded a state medal in 2007. In presenting the award, he noted that “some of the steps being taken [in Russia] today are to a large extent in agreement with what Solzhenitsyn wrote.”

Cas Mudde of the University of Pennsylvania, in research on European populism, has referred to it as a “thin-centered ideology,” a worldview that addresses only part of the political agenda and tends to operate in combination with “host ideologies” such as nationalism and socialism. The construct of a thin-centered ideology appears quite applicable to Vladimir Putin’s conservatism. Although it is sparingly sketched out, there is no reason to doubt Putin when he says it is real for him. It is embedded in what Putin himself concedes is a body of thought typified by “enormous diversity.” Putin, Bush, Johnson, and Orban may all be conservatives, but they are conservative in markedly different ways.

Putinesque conservatism synergizes, some though not all of the time, with Putin’s strategy for maintaining power and stability, with nationalism and his geopolitical aspirations and anxieties, and with controversies over historical memory and his reading of the revolutionary excesses of the Russian past. It is of little use on other fronts—reining in Covid-19, fighting inflation, reviving economic growth, to name a few.

The mixing of ideas plays out in complexity and, more than occasionally, in contradictions. In the memory area, for instance, Putin celebrates Solzhenitsyn as a great Russian patriot; he also praises Yurii Andropov, who was head of the Soviet KGB when the young Putin joined the organization in 1975, one year after Andropov engineered the banishment of this selfsame Solzhenitsyn to twenty years of foreign exile. Putin lauds the Soviet Union’s successes in science, industry, and beating back foreign foes, while denouncing Lenin for the decimation of inherited elites, acceptance of defeat in World War I, and federalization of the empire. He appreciates Russian Orthodoxy and its contributions to nation building, but is obviously mindful that Russia is a multiethnic, multiconfessional place.

Putin in the final analysis is a politician and leader, not an academician. His conservatism should be judged accordingly. It is a work in progress and is part but by no means the whole of the mental apparatus he brings to his role.

This piece was originally published on January 17, 2022, by the Valdai Discussion Club.

Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies, Harvard University

Timothy Colton is Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies at Harvard University.