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Nov 28, 2014

Conservative thinkers wanted

One striking feature of the Russian political life is the yawning lack of the modern conservative thought. A significant majority of the population tends to be patriotic, socially conservative (homophobic and sexist, with its own brand of ethnocentricity, but also fairly libertarian in sexual and reproductive rights), hostile to the government, deeply suspicious of social engineering. However, the intellectual elite did not produce a major thinker, like William F. Buckley or even someone like Ayn Rand or Newt Gingrich. As a result, all kinds of weird characters speak on behalf of the majority/ Those people often deeply paranoid, xenophobic, and rabidly anti-Western. Some of the current Duma leaders are regularly embarrassing to the President’s administration, because their overzealous guesses of what Putin might want end up in something stupid. It is hard to imagine that they actually represent what the majority of people think and believe.

The picture is different on the liberal side of the political spectrum, where there are a number of influential thinkers, writers, media figures and public intellectuals. Perhaps only a quarter of population are liberal, and they are heavily concentrated in Moscow, St. Petersburg and a few major cities. The opposition is not well organized politically, but they are fairly consistent ideologically, with liberal, democratic, pro-Western orientation, culturally hostile to Putin and his party. Although on the economic front they have little to offer that would be different from Putin’s government line. They are latently split between the Left and the Right on social policy, but are fairly united in anti-Putin sentiment.

Although I am personally more on the liberal side, I worry about the conservatives. A political center won’t hold without a reasonable, sane, and well connected to the global conservatism intellectual movement. Putin himself is trying to create some sort of a right-of-center party, but it does not work well. He himself is no public intellectual. His attempts at reading history books and quoting Berdyaev are not very convincing. Vladimir Putin is a very gifted politician, but I hope he knows – not a philosopher. And people around him who tried to develop some sort of a conservative ideology, did not show much intellectual depth of charisma. The attempts so far are quite pathetic. Within the Russian Orthodox Church, there is a deep split between the most reactionary people like Chaplin and more enlightened members of the academia. Putin's political party tends to be a party of bureaucrats, very few of those tend to be ideological. They are either modernizing technocrats, or corrupt rent-seekers, or both. They are not in it for an idea. That makes the party intellectually weak, and therefore dangerous. Liberals need a strong, organized counterpart, too, otherwise they remain irresponsible, splintered, victimized, and critical at the expense of developing their own positive program. To become strong, they need a worthy intellectual opponent. Isn’t this the only way to grow?

I am not idealizing American conservatives. GOP is a weird alliance of social conservatives, economic liberals, and a bunch of one-issue weirdos. They have made stupendous foreign policy blunders, one of which is, ironically, alienating Russia. It is not as big as the Iraq war, but also quite consequential. But it is a party that had produced an ideology, and therefore, a number of very capable political leaders. You cannot lead without a vision. Think all you want about Reagan or Bush, but those were people within the broad circle of pragmatic sanity. They were able to govern, to make deals with the Left, while articulating a vision. I don’t share their ideology, but it is very important that large groups of people had someone within the political realm to represent their views. If you’re deeply embedded within the American politics, you may not see that, but step outside, and you will know what I mean.

So, someone smart, please, put together a think tank for the Russian conservatives. I will contribute money to your cause. Articulate a broad vision that could belong to the 21 century, without the embarrassing conspiracy theories and xenophobia. Talk about traditional morality, family values, self-reliance, small government, personal freedom, freedom of religion, patriotism, national pride, etc. It is not as simple as translating Reagan or Buckley. It has to grow out of the authentic Russian cultural roots, out of the long-winded tradition of Slavophiles, understand the cultural connotation of the events in Russian history, etc. It is not an easy feat, but I hope someone will do it. Otherwise, we face a stark choice between the semi-authoritarian regime or political chaos.

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