Staunton, November 3 – Vladimir Putin has not only moved the Valdai Club from its original venue but has also transformed it from “an analogue to Western think tanks” with “a free dialogue” into an exemplar of what Samuel Huntington called “the clash of civilizations,” according to Vadim Shtepa.
The Kremlin leader began this transformation in 2013 when he told the group that in his view, “many Euro-Atlantic countries had in fact broken with their roots, including Christian values which form the basis of Western civilization” by their policies on families and faith.
Putin’s decision to make accusations of a religious and moral nature “surprised many participants at the time. But somehow no one responded to Putin,” Shtepa says. “Or were those capable of responding no longer invited to these forums?”
However that might be, Putin has continued in the same vein. At this year’s meeting, he suggested that “representatives of classical Russian literature see the causes of the differences between Russia in the West on the whole and in the broad sense of the term as reflecting differences in world view.”
“And in part they are right,” the Kremlin leader said. The Russian weltanschauung rests on ideas about good and evil and about the divine, while underlying Western thought, he suggested, is “interest and pragmatism” – thus simultaneously assuming that the divine is “a priority of Russian culture” and is absent in Western ones.
By transforming the discussion from politics to this moral level, Putin not only creates the condition of religious war but makes any serious discussion impossible because anyone who opposes him is by his definition opposed to sacred things like the Russian state. And in this sense, Shtepa says, the Valdai Club now looks all too much like “a medieval church assembly.”
Putin’s words show that he conceives the state as “a sacred institution standing OVER society” and that he views “any change of this structure as an attack on ‘state sovereignty.” That does set him apart from and in conflict with the West where the state is viewed as the servant of the people rather than the other way around.
Such comments, of course, are “quite strange” to hear from a former member of the CPSU “which initially set as its goal a revolution against all historical traditions.” But now Putin claims to be an Orthodox Christian and loves to cite the texts of leading Russian philosophers of the 20th century.
One of those whom he has not cited and is unlikely to, Shtepa suggests, is Georgy Fedotov “because this thinker did not seek to eternally oppose Russia to the West but on the contrary sought points of the future rapprochement.”
For example, Shtepa writes, “Fedotov was an opponent of imperial centralization and in his essay, “Russia and Freedom,” wrote the following: Muscovy created Russia by conquest and by then taking all the top strata of the population back to Moscow.
As a result and unlike in the West, Fedotov continued, “the small motherlands lost all historical coloration of the kind seen everywhere in France, Germany and England. Rus became only a larger Muscovy, a territory with few distinctions and a centralized regime, natural preconditions for despotism.”
In Russia today, Shtepa notes, “the model of a bipolar world is again being restored in Russia, one in which a harshly centralized country opposes the West.” Moscow assumes that the West is equally “centralized” although this is not the case, and that assumption creates no end of problems.
But in a reflection of the fact that Russian thought often “combines things that cannot be combined,” Putin at the end of this year’s Valdai meeting stopped talking about religious things and used in a positive way the very term he had attacked as “the foundation of Western thought.” That term was “pragmatism,” something he said would need to triumph in Syria.