Russia is back in the news again this week, due to the overheard conversation between Presidents Medvedev and Obama about missile defence, and Mitt Romney’s subsequent denunciation of Russia as America’s “number one enemy”. Former presidential candidate Senator John McCain, meanwhile, has leapt on the bandwagon, proclaiming, “[i]t maybe could be, say 1920, where we now have a dictator in Russia along the lines of Lenin and his successors. We now have a guaranteed dictatorship for at least 12 years in Russia, so that goes back to previous times.”
Comparisons of Vladimir Putin and Lenin are, of course, absurd. Despite its many faults, modern Russia is not under the heel of communist-style dictatorship. One of the reasons such misperceptions continue to flourish is that people in the West have almost no understanding of the ideological context within which Putin and his government operates. As I have pointed out in an article this week, Putin’s ideology, far from being what many in the West imagine it to be, fits very well into a long-standing, peculiarly Russian tradition of ‘liberal-conservatism’.
The basic idea behind this is, as A.V. Vasilenko puts it, that “[a] strong state is needed not instead of liberal reform, but for reform. Without a strong state, liberal reforms are impossible.” To Westerners, Russian ‘liberal conservatism’ is somewhat incomprehensible, as its core beliefs seem paradoxical, even contradictory, which indeed they are. However, it is a position with deep roots in Russian philosophy, stretching back to the mid-nineteenth century and thinkers such as Boris Chicherin and later Vladimir Solovyov and Pyotr Struve (who began his career as a communist and ended it as a monarchist, having belatedly come to the conclusion that a Romanov offered a better hope for liberty than the socialists).
Putin, in particular, is a keen fan of the late Imperial Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, who brutally suppressed the revolution of 1905-1906 while introducing property rights and liberal economic reforms, and of the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who reveled in occupying contradictory positions and proposed a strange combination of one-man autocratic rule and limited accountable government.
The fact that this vision contains many flaws is not the point. The issue is rather that we fail to recognize it entirely and persist in tilting at preposterous windmills of a new communist-style dictatorship. If we want to improve our relations with Russia, a good first step would be to stop doing so.