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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Putin's drive for Russian identity
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today