Who’s afraid of Vladimir Putin’s Conservative Ideology?

Enjoying Hans-Joachim Spanger’s must-read “Unholy Alliance. Putin and the Values”*, I was reminded of a nice “parable” of Meister Eckhart about words and action. The medieval mystic compares people who talk but don’t act with toads croaking in a pond. They croak and that is what they do, most of the time. In fact, the toad – an old symbol of sexual lust – only becomes active to perform immoral acts. Unfortunately for Russia, for Ukraine and for us, warmonger President Vladimir Putin seems to qualify as toad.
Spanger’s article made me think of Luke 6:41 as well. We carefully examine the speck of sawdust in our brother’s eye but forget about our own shortcomings. While moral philosophy and moral theology feed us constantly with argument and value, our practical ethics seldom exceed the level of primary school kids. Often, we act rather self-serving, wanting to rid ourselves of those things or people that annoy us or stand in our way. In fact, we do not care much about them, until they effectively start to bother us. And if we get hurt, we want to have our revenge. Those who do damage to themselves (out of ignorance) should have known better, so why would we bother about them in the first place?
Of course, Spanger’s conclusion is more formal than my observations suggest. Spanger argues that Putin’s “new traditionalism” aims at “neutralising reform incentives from the outside [of Russia] and at closing the conservative ranks on the inside, while abusing the reputation of the [Russian] Orthodox Church. When you question these ‘founding and diverging ideas’ in concrete terms nothing more than hot air will come out.” And even if Putin found new allies – tell me who your friends are – on the fringes of the anti-European political right wing, we should not give up to strive for a more democratic Russia, Spanger argues. In the same time, this unholy alliance with Putin in the role of “Policeman of Europe” is a real challenge for Europe-minded politicians and citizens.
Spanger is right, I think. Putin could advance his case greatly by showing how Russia leads the way as a morally superior nation, but until now, after fifteen years in power, he hasn’t delivered. Moreover, Putin’s new conservative ideology doesn’t provide us with a convincing “story” about how Russia might contribute to the “European house”. The invasion of Ukraine (not a first) has been justified by taking schoolyard ethics as a rule. Others do it, so why can’t I? You did it too, so why do you criticise me? It is a sign of moral and political immaturity and of power that does not want to question itself.
It is rather sad, but the same applies to the Russian Orthodox Church. Copy-pasting Russia’s foreign policy, the decadent West is being subjected to moral theological scrutiny, while criticism of Russia itself is as shallow and rare as is self-criticism. Meanwhile, the greater (moral) issues in Russian society remain. A few examples are:
- the demographical crisis: Russia is one of the worst affected countries of Europe
- abortion is rampant as is divorce
- alcohol and substance abuse are common
- the average age for men at birth is now at 64 and for women at 76
- corruption is endemic in Russia
- free press is virtually non-existent
- physical and psychological abuse of army recruits abounds.

* Hans-Joachim Spanger, “Unheilige Allianz: Putin und die Werte”, in Osteuropa 2014/4, pp. 42-62 [Unholy Alliance. Putin and the Values]