The Conservatism Clinch: Can Russia Become an Orthodox Iran?


Militant conservatism, traditionalism, family values, orthodoxy and isolationism are increasingly becoming the new state ideology. The Russian authorities believe that the mobilisation of traditionalist tendencies (a traditionalist ‘code’) within Russian society merely requires limiting the influence of the West and the ‘fifth column’. But this view is deeply flawed. Russian conservatism has its own limited scope and specific political profile. As a result, the promotion of traditionalism as an official ideology is more likely to reduce support for the incumbent regime across Russian society. However, this may not be so apparent against the backdrop of the shock of war and increasing repression.

The Dream of an Orthodox Iran

Since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has entered a spiral of rapid degradation of the public sphere. The need to justify the war has led the authorities to dramatically extend its ideological control. Books are being removed from libraries; textbooks, fiction and works of art are being screened to ensure that their content conforms to 'family values'; there is widespread militarisation of schooling and education; and higher education is deteriorating. With a speed and impetus rare in today's world, the authorities are imposing elements of an official quasi-ideology that revolves around anti-modernist values imposed on society: homophobia, traditional ‘family values’, orthodoxy, state-centrism, anti-Westernism, militarism, and so on. 

This is not to say that this conservative ideological turn is tied to the war. The war only gave it scope and aggressiveness, reinforced through repression. But the dream of an orthodox Iran on Russian soil has been haunting Putin since the early 2010s. It is motivated by a desire to limit the West's ideological influence on Russian society. Since the mass protests of 2011-2012 at the beginning of his third presidential term, Putin has sought to 'normalise' Russian society by adopting a conservative traditionalist agenda and traditional values, glorifying patriarchy and paternalism as a counterpoint to the 'value decay' of the West, with LGBT tolerance as its apotheosis.

However, this policy had very limited success in the decade prior to the invasion of Ukraine. This was neither an accident nor an oversight. The soft power impulse, in the form of stimulating state policy, was thought to accentuate the conservative preferences of the 'silent majority' — the conservative mass that forms the core of the Russian population. However, research suggests that conservatism and patriarchal values among Russian citizens may have been greatly exaggerated, and that the imposed official narratives are in direct contradiction with the real preferences of the population. 

Paternalism and compensatory conservatism

An important feature of traditional Russian values is the high degree of trust in leaders and superiors. This explains, for example, the rise in approval ratings of previously unknown government officials once they are appointed to senior positions. 

At the beginning of January 2020, polling agencies did not measure the rating of Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the Federal Tax Service. But, by mid-2022, according to the Levada Center, he was the second most trusted politician in Russia, with 15-18% of those polled trusting him (Vladimir Putin is trusted by 40-43% of respondents). Vladimir Putin once entered politics in a similar way, and this is the same mechanism that underlies the relatively high level of public trust in Moscow-appointed governors. This is a manifestation of the commitment to political paternalism or patronage that researchers have traced in Russia, both at the micro level of small communities and at the macro level of federal politics.

At the same time, the high level of trust in authority among Russian citizens coexists with the values of personal choice when it comes to divorce, abortion, and premarital or extramarital sex. In this respect, Russian society does not appear to be traditionalist, but rather emancipated. Russian society does not support church interference in private life, public affairs, education or upbringing. According to the Levada Center, the proportion of respondents who believe that religion should not be taught in schools has increased from 19% in 2016 to 31% in 2022.

According to political scientist Marlene Laruelle, this contradiction between grassroots demands and the top-down policy of promoting traditional values is a common feature of post-socialist countries that have recently undergone fundamental changes. Homophobia, xenophobia, nationalism, and religion are among the elements which have replaced the ideological vacuum that emerged after the fall of communist dictatorships across Eastern Europe. Conservative and nationalist political forces dominate contemporary politics in Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, etc. This is a consequence of the conservative shift that took place in the 1990s, which was a defensive reaction of the population, representing their desire for stability and normalisation, rather than a rejection of change per se. 

In political terms, these conservative aspirations were initially expressed in Russia by voting for the Communist Party (CPRF) and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Later, research has suggested that the 'red belt' of Russian regions (where voters actively supported the CPRF) that was prevalent in the 1990s has been replaced by an 'Orthodox belt' (a high proportion of people identifying with the Russian Orthodox Church and high electoral results for United Russia). However, such a change in electoral preferences is unlikely to be associated with a rise in Orthodox identity. Rather, we are witnessing a change in the political actor representing the paternalist agenda: from the fading CPRF to the ruling party, United Russia. 

Individualism rather than traditionalism

However, compensatory conservatism (a reaction to the stresses of the previous period) was by no means the only and dominant trend. Five waves of research into the dynamics of the values of Russian citizens conducted between  2008 and 2018 have shown that during this period there was a significant shift towards individualistic values, a marked reduction in the proportion of 'preservation' values and individuals 'characterised by a strongly pronounced value of existential security, which, in search of protection and guidance, leads to a focus on the social environment, authority and the state'.

Using data from the European Social Survey, sociologist Andrey Shcherbak has shown that the Crimean patriotic 'upsurge' of 2014-2016 initially led to a rise in conservative attitudes, but was then followed by a steady decline in these views. The values of loyalism and conformism jumped (from -0.1 and -0.2 in 2012, respectively, to +0.7 and +0.8 — in factor scores), but after 2015 support for these began to decline (in 2018, loyalism was at +0.3 and conformism was at +0.2). Support for traditionalist values only marginally increased (from +0.1 in 2014 to +0.3 in 2018). Meanwhile, religiosity remained at a level of 0.0 between 2010 and 2016 and then witnessed a slight decline in 2018. Data from the Levada Center confirms that there is a trend towards more scepticism towards the public activities of the Russian Orthodox Church and the idea of its political influence in Russian society. For example, according to Levada Center data, the percentage of respondents who believe that the Church exerts too much influence on public policy has increased from 17% in 2016 to 29% in 2021 (17% considered this influence insufficient in both 2016 and 2019).

Vladimir Putin's dream of an Orthodox Russia was at odds with fundamental trends in the social dynamics of Russian society. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that the authorities' efforts have been in vain.

The religion of hypocrisy

It could be said that by the end of the 2010s a kind of unity had emerged between the grassroots conservatism of a certain section of Russian society and the conservative narrative promoted by the country’s authorities. The latter was seen by the average Russian citizen as somewhat 'normative'. However, this unity was strong across the political spectrum, as expressed in state-centrism, conformism, paternalism, but not in the values associated with religiosity, family models and other areas of individual choice.

Sociologists Sofia Lopatina, Veronika Kostenko and Eduard Ponarin have shown that Russians, like citizens of other post-communist societies, are characterised by a certain hypocrisy when it comes to their public values: they publicly condemn premarital sex, divorce and abortion, but in reality regard them as the norm. A similar logic applies to religion, as Marlene Laruelle has observed: citizens are ready to declare their affiliation to the Russian Orthodox Church, but the level of actual religiosity — readiness to observe church ceremonies, etc — is very low.

For example, about 30% of Russians who identify themselves as Orthodox do not believe in the existence of God. More recent data from LegitRuss produced even lower results: only 55% of respondents claimed to belong to a religion, of which 81% identified as Orthodox. Thus, only 41% of respondents consider themselves Orthodox. At the same time, according to sociologists, the number of people who attend church in Russia is much lower than these figures suggest: between 2% and 6% of respondents, depending on how the question is phrased. In this respect, Russia is one of the most secular countries in Europe.

This hypocrisy extends beyond religiosity to anti-Westernism. As numerous anti-corruption investigations have shown, the ideologues of the regime who promote the idea of the degradation of the West have bought up European real estate with grants from the regime.

Hypocrisy is not some genetic trait of the people of Russia and its neighbours. In reality, it is merely an indication of their political passivity — the gap between the officially promoted narratives and actual practice, and an unwillingness to bridge that gap. Hypocrisy is a form of loyalty in which a lack of political rights is exchanged for a relatively high level of personal freedom.

 Cutting off their nose to spite their face

Either way, Russian conservatism ‘from below’ and conservatism ‘from above’ are not congruent, despite the expectations of the regime's political managers. The political scientist Henry Hale argues that the genuine orientation towards conservative values among Russians is lower than the level of support directed to Putin personally. Writing that Russian society in the early 2020s appears quite divided on issues of sexual behaviour and gender relations, Hale uses data from LegitRuss to show that less than half of Russians are willing to publicly support explicitly patriarchal elements. A significant minority consider men to be better political leaders than women and argue that men should be given priority when seeking employment; only 5% are willing to support unequal responsibility for childcare. 

As a result, researchers believe that the contradictions between real attitudes and the imposed official narrative could fragment society and alienate groups who, while willing to support their superiors and Putin personally, are unwilling to adhere to the full range of 'traditional values' and radical anti-Westernism. Political scientist Kathy Stewart has demonstrated that, while blatant homophobia is a ground for conservative consolidation among Russians, it is unable to smooth over contradictions related to the national, religious and social diversity within Russian society. Like Hale, Stewart writes that, as the Kremlin's ideological policy becomes more specific ('family values', Orthodoxy), it could become a source of conflict in non-Orthodox regions, as well as in regions dominated by secular values and modernising tendencies.

This conflict is already evident in the extremely weak support for the government's narrative and its low approval ratings among the country’s younger generations. It has the potential to spread to older citizens in the near future. The protective mechanism of hypocrisy maintains loyalty. This mechanism is characteristic of a significant part of the Russian population, as is their willingness to exist in the absence of political freedoms. However, attempts to strengthen loyalty through imposed traditionalism and increasing restrictions on consumption and lifestyle are likely to have the opposite effect, reducing support for a government that fails to present a clear social vision to the population while increasingly encroaching on their personal freedoms.