Putin's drive for Russian identity

In a big speech Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin said Russians lack 'spiritual braces.' He joins other world leaders who recently made similar warnings about their people. Should governments, especially those with weak democratic credentials, be promoting moral values?

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a state-of-the nation address in Moscow Dec. 12.

Now it is Vladimir Putin’s turn. In a major speech Wednesday after retaking the presidency last May, the Russian leader joined a chorus of world leaders who are speaking openly of their country’s moral and spiritual lives.

“It pains me to speak of this ... but Russian society today lacks spiritual braces – kindness, sympathy, compassion toward one another, support and mutual assistance, a deficit of that which has always, throughout history, made us stronger,” he said in an address to lawmakers in Moscow.

His words echo those of China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, who recently warned that “the fostering of the moral culture is lagging.” His comments were reflected in a recent Communist Party pledge to “enrich the people’s spiritual lives.”

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak proclaimed last year that “the entire nation is rotten,” while in India this week, President Pranab Mukherjee said that the country needs to strive for spiritual development “to regain lost values and traditions in this age.” And last December, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that “we’ve got to stand up for our values if we are to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations.”

Secular leaders usually tread warily into the moral realm. Many do so simply to shore up their popularity or unify the nation rather than to act as spiritual counselor to the wayward masses. It is with that skepticism that many in Russia viewed Mr. Putin’s speech.

Since he retook the presidency last year – sparking unusual protests by young people – Putin has searched for a “national idea” to fill a void in society left by the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago. He warned of “tough competition” for values and a threat to national sovereignty, patriotism, and identity. In October, he ordered his staff to come up with ways to “strengthen the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society.”

He has elevated the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in public affairs, encouraged couples to have more children, and begun a crackdown on corrupt officials. He even suggested punishment for officials who move their money overseas.

Part of his concern may be that 19 percent of the country’s 143 million people say they are not Russian. Russia has 21 autonomous republics with different ethnicities or religions, such as Islam. He may also want to claim Russia has unique values as distinct from those in the West in order to prevent the kind of “color” revolutions seen in Ukraine and Georgia.

At the same time, he admits the state can’t impose values on people. “Any attempts of the government to intervene with people’s beliefs are effectively a sign of totalitarian rule. It’s absolutely out of the question. It’s not our way,” he said in the speech. All the government can do is protect spirituality, not spread it. For now, that has translated into prosecution of those who belittle the Orthodox church.

Putin faces a difficult task to move from his past promise of providing stability and order to one of shaping a moral society. Fewer than 1 in 20 Orthodox Christians say they know the Ten Commandments, according to a Levada Center poll. Social problems, from alcoholism to unwed mothers, are growing. Many of the wealthy send their children abroad for schooling.

Like many world leaders, Putin is reaching for a solution that isn’t really the government’s role. But whatever his motive, at least he has put his finger on what Russians must do for themselves.

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