It’s been a generation or so since Russians were in the business of shaping the destiny of the world, and most of us have forgotten how good they used to be at it. For much of the last century Moscow fuelled — and often won — the West’s ideological and culture wars. In the 1930s, brilliant operatives like Willi Muenzenberg convinced ‘useful idiots’ to join anti-fascist organisations that were in reality fronts for the Soviet-backed Communist International. Even in the twilight years of the Soviet Union the KGB was highly successful at orchestrating nuclear disarmament movements and trade unionism across the West.
Now, after two decades in the economic basket, Russia is decisively back as an ideological force in the world — this time as a champion of conservative values. In his annual state of the nation speech to Russia’s parliament in December, Vladimir Putin assured conservatives around the world that Russia was ready and willing to stand up for ‘family values’ against a tide of liberal, western, pro-gay propaganda ‘that asks us to accept without question the equality of good and evil’. Russia, he promised, will ‘defend traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilisation in every nation for thousands of years’. Crucially, Putin made it clear that his message was directed not only at Russians — who have already been protected from ‘promotion of non-traditional relationships’ by recent legislation — but for ‘more and more people across the world who support our position’.
A recent report by the Centre for Strategic Communications, a Kremlin-connected think tank, neatly summarised Putin’s ambition: it’s entitled ‘Putin: World Conservatism’s New Leader’. The report argues that large, silent majorities around the world favour traditional family values over feminism and gay rights — and that Putin is their natural leader. ‘The Kremlin apparently believes it has found the ultimate wedge issue to unite its supporters and divide its opponents, both in Russia and the West, and garner support in the developing world,’ says Radio Free Europe’s Brian Whitmore. ‘They seem to believe they have found the ideology that will return Russia to its rightful place as a great power with a messianic mission and the ability to win hearts and minds globally.’
The scheme has feet of clay, of course, as does Putin’s rule itself, insofar as it is founded on sky-high energy prices which are already beginning to tumble under the assaults of cheap shale gas and alternative energy. But for the time being at least, Putin has the means and now the plan to project Russian power, both hard and soft, beyond Russia’s borders for the first time since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Tidskriftsomslag: The Spectator, 22 februari 2014.