Conservatism by decree: Putin as a figurehead for the global far-right

Vladimir Putin is ramping up his radical-right credentials. This reinforces his grip on power in Russia, but it could also increase his influence worldwide

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address to the Federal Assembly, in Moscow, Russia, February 29, 2024
Image by picture alliance / REUTERS | Evgenia Novozhenina

In his state of the nation address on 29 February, Vladimir Putin doubled down on a theme that has become familiar to Russians over the past few months: family, or more specifically, “traditional family values”. “Some countries,” he said, “deliberately destroy norms of morality, institutions of the family, push whole peoples towards extinction and degeneration.” Not so in Russia: “we choose life.” The ultraconservatism tied up in this discourse has been central to Putin’s campaign ahead of the Russian election this month – and will shape his fifth term as president that follows.

Putin has long promoted the narrative that “traditional values” are what differentiate Russia from the “satanic West”. But Putin’s brand of conservatism is in keeping with a wider political trend, rooted in the right-Christian agenda that formed during the US culture wars of the late 20th century. According to the political scientist Gionathan Lo Mascolo, the shift comprises “two major colliding phenomena: the politicization of religion, often driven by religious actors, leaders, and institutions; and the sacralization of politics, driven by far-right parties and actors”.

This “moralist international” is made up of far-right populists spanning the American and European continents (and their companions in assorted churches). Donald Trump and his acolytes, of course. But also, for example, Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro, who combined idolisation of “the traditional Brazilian family” with religious and nationalistic sloganeering to help erode years of social progress in the country. Viktor Orban’s Hungary follows a similar pattern.

But Putin has power to implement his domestic agenda that his American and European counterparts can only dream of, unconstrained by law, opposition, or public opinion. Just as Bolshevism in the Soviet Union was a radical, fundamentalist interpretation of socialism, Russia now pushes moral traditionalism to the extreme. The president hands down one decree after another to regulate morality and ethics, and demonstrates his power over the private lives of his citizens. In doing so, he not only positions himself as a leader in an alternative (authoritarian) global order, but also stamps out liberal life in Russia and strengthens his autocracy.

Putin is not only positioning himself as a leader in an alternative (authoritarian) global order, but also stamping out liberal life in Russia and strengthening his autocracy

Last year saw a spike in ideologically driven lawmaking in Russia, with women and the LGBT+ community, especially transgender people, emerging as key targets. Gender transition – both surgical procedures and hormonal therapy, along with changing one’s gender on official documents – was completely banned. Those who had already transitioned were forbidden from adopting children. On November 30, the Russian Supreme Court declared the non-existent “International LGBT Movement” an extremist organisation and prohibited its activities. Essentially, same-sex relationships are now illegal, as are any symbols associated with the ‘movement’, including rainbow earrings and My Little Pony.

Another key theme is pro-natalism. A bill prohibiting the promotion of childlessness is currently under consideration in the Duma, stating voluntary childlessness “goes against traditional family values and the state policy of the Russian Federation”. But on abortion, authorities have yet to arrive at a definitive stance. Some regions have instituted penalties for “encouraging abortion” and engaging in the “propagation of abortions”. This was followed by a Ministry of Health directive limiting access to emergency contraception. Then, in November 2023, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, petitioned Vyacheslav Volodin, Chair of the State Duma, seeking endorsement for the prohibition of abortions within private clinics.

However, during a press conference in December, Putin called for a circumspect approach to the abortion issue, asserting that the solution lies in a “return to traditional values … and in the sphere of material well-being.” Subsequently, the State Duma health committee rebuffed support for a federal ban on abortions within private clinics.

As with all potentially sensitive governance decisions that affect the populace (such as pandemic restrictions and mobilisation), Russia is experiencing what political analyst Ekaterina Shulman terms “paradoxical federalisation” – a devolution of responsibility from the federal centre to lower levels; regional authorities shoulder the burden of unpopular decisions, shielding the president from direct association.

Moreover, Putin has begun to break taboos on interference in the private, relational sphere. Until recently, Russian society had operated under an unspoken rule of family inviolability and non-publicity. The public should not intrude in the family life of the president and top officials, and they broadly returned the favour. That is, there was no physical belonging of citizens to the state. Even following Putin’s “gay propaganda” law in 2013, people were generally left alone to live their lives if they did so in private. But now the rules have changed.

Since the start of the war, officials have found a new way to express their loyalty to the president: the adoption of children abducted from the occupied territories of Ukraine. Reliable evidence exists for two such cases. Sergei Mironov, head of the Just Russia party and a member of the State Duma, and his wife took two children from the Kherson region and adopted them, changing their names. And Russian children’s rights ombudsman, Maria Lvova-Belova, who shares an International Court of Justice arrest warrant with Putin for illegal deportations of Ukrainian children, adopted a teenager from Mariupol. Lvova-Belova did so publicly, normalising her crime. Mironov hides the expansion of his family, but it follows the same trend: the intimate lives of people who pursue political careers is now subordinated to state interests.

And this change is not limited to political elites. Addressing municipal deputies in January, Putin alluded disparagingly to people who “jump around without pants at parties”, contrasting them with the supposed piety of the military. This intervention seemingly condemned Russian celebrities who participated in a private “almost naked” party in December, organised by popular blogger and influencer Anastasia Ivleeva. After semi-nude photos of the celebrities surfaced on social media, they faced a wave of criticism for immoral behavior and persecution by law enforcement. Similar cases have begun to occur in other cities, where attendees of private parties have been accused of “anti-Christian propaganda” and “gay propaganda”.

Private morality and ethics have thus become subjects of state interest – and the president himself has confirmed it. Given that liberals in Russia tend to be more pro-Western, it all contributes to his long campaign to obliterate any remaining pockets of dissent.

But by ramping up his far-right credentials in this way, Putin also aims to win (and win back) friends abroad, especially where Russia and Russian Orthodoxy have historically had a strong presence – for instance, in EU candidate countries Serbia, Georgia, and Moldova. There, pro-Russian political forces garner support in part through their hostility towards feminism, abortion, and the LGBT+ community. Georgia and Moldova will head to the polls this year – and Russian propaganda will use the full range of anti-Western rhetoric to increase its influence and weaken these countries’ support for Ukraine.

Indeed, Russian journalist Mikhael Zygar has argued that Putin’s far-right positioning is a form of statecraft, aimed mainly at this external audience. Putin thus builds Russian influence by adopting trends from the very West that he rails against. He seems to want to show his current and potential allies that an alternative to democracy exists, one that allows for the disregard of human rights and international law in pursuit of “traditional values”. In this way, he sets himself up as a figurehead for the informal international conservative alliance – a political and societal network that unites right-conservative forces worldwide.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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