Is Vladimir Putin's adolescent Russia ever going to grow up?

It's now 21 years since the end of the Soviet Union, but Russia's politics are still strikingly teenage in nature.

That year, autumn sneaked up and ended a hot summer. By the end of August, the evenings were already damp and dark.

In many countries, the age of 21 is considered a time when you understand at least a little of who you are, and what you would like to be. 21 years after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia still seems to lack a clear idea of what it wants to be when it grows up.

One enduring symbol of that uncertainty is an absence which has persisted since the damp end to the summer of 1991. Then, as the Communist Party’s grip on power was loosened for the last time, demonstrators tore down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the forerunner of the KGB. It was the ultimate insult to the secret police, for the monument had stood in Lubyanka Square in front of their headquarters.

The place where the statue stood remains empty. The country has not decided what it stands for. Russia is like the 21-year-old who has put away some childish things, but not abandoned adolescent uncertainty, or rashness.

The jailing of Pussy Riot is the most obvious recent example. Rashness persists in the Kremlin’s idea of news management, in spite of the highly-paid western PRs they have, for years now, hired to make themselves look good.

Should Pussy Riot have been sent down for playing up in the cathedral? Many western observers seem to think the punk protesters were hard done by. 

Whatever your opinion, it seems the Russian authorities made a mess of the way they handled it: show your mates how tough you are, and don’t worry until later about what anyone else things – almost a typical adolescent attitude. A lesser punishment would not have been nearly such big news.

The forerunners of this winter’s protests demanding fair elections were those led by the former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, and a motley collection of other opponents of Vladimir Putin.

In the oil boom times of 2006-7, they struggled to attract even a couple of thousand demonstrators to their rallies in the heart of a city of millions.

Hugely outnumbering the protesters, riot police came by the busload. When not standing steely-faced behind their shields, they could be chatty – perhaps glad of the trip to the capital. "Do you get paid extra for working on a Saturday?" one asked me once on a sleety December afternoon.

"No," I replied.

"We do," he smirked, shoving his shield into the back of a van, his shift finished.

A senior member of the Presidential administration once asked me why western journalists bothered to cover such small demonstrations. I replied that it was not the demonstrations which were newsworthy, but the police response.

It was the same overreaction in the handling of the Pussy Riot trial. The lesson in how to turn a stunt into an international story would have dismayed any PR trying to make Russia look good.

As part of my research for a chapter in my new book, Reporting Conflict, on the role of PR agents in contemporary coverage of war, I sought out a former BBC colleague who had the insider’s knowledge. Angus Roxburgh was a former Moscow correspondent who later spent time advising President Putin’s administration on their international media image.                  

"They didn’t really understand it," he recalled. "We taught them what we could, but they came into it with strange ideas about how the western press worked. I think they felt that everybody else did do it, that all other governments had PR people working for them as well – but didn’t completely understand it."

They still don’t. The way that the Kremlin projects itself on the international stage frequently suggests an adolescent combination of "don’t know, don’t care".

President Medvedev may have left office mocked as his powerful mentor’s marionette, but  his presidency – even if Vladimir Putin remained in charge in reality – should be remembered for one important idea: "legal nihilism". More than once, Mr Medvedev identified this as the main problem facing his country – manifesting itself in massive corruption, and a total absence of principle in public life.

That’s why last winter’s protests were such a nightmare for the Kremlin. Here were people who believed in something – and it was not Russia’s leadership.   

Twenty one years into their new existence, at least part of the Russian electorate is growing up. The political elite still snarls like the punk youth they profess to despise.     

They will get away with it as long as people put up with it. "Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges," David Cameron declared in 2008 when Russia went to war with Georgia.

Yet no one will do anything as long as British companies keep making money in Russia, or entertain the hope of doing so. Britain ended up looking impotent over the 2006 murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko; the west as a whole looked toothless over civilian casualties in Chechnya in the 1990s.

Change, if and when it comes, will have to come from inside Russia. Despite the coverage which the Pussy Riot case got outside the country, it did not inspire the same passions within – at least not on a wide scale.

Russians whose childhoods were the late Soviet period, and the bandit capitalism which followed, and who are now in their 30s, might be expected to be the revolutionary class. In some cases – those who are active in the protest movement - they are. In others, memories of the chaos of their early years makes them wary of radical change. Those with the education, skills, and contacts, seem often to have chosen to emigrate rather than demonstrate.   

21 years later, the events of 1991 still cast a shadow over Russia. The secret police remember losing the statue of their founder. In the shape of Mr Putin and others, they recovered their power, while remembering that it once vanished. That explains their reluctance to let any dissent – even a punk protest – go unpunished.

The anti-Soviet demonstrators of those years can reflect on their experience. The statue of Dzerzhinsky may not have returned – the strength of the security forces has. Their successors who marched against the presidential election result, and the imprisonment of punks, might look to Egypt for their lessons. The "Facebook revolution" has not brought a government of young activists.  

The lesson for them all, and for those of us outside Russia, is that in a time of legal nihilism, political tension, and economic uncertainty (Russia has never prospered in times of low oil prices) nothing can be counted on to last. As Reuters reported recently, President Putin’s long-standing popularity is on the slide.

Mr Putin’s recent role as saviour of the Siberian cranes is the latest of his hard man stunts which have been widely reported in Russia, sniggered at in the west, and satirized by the more subversive of his compatriots (on this occasion, by showing the former KGB man photoshopped atop a shark). 

As Russian politics move into adulthood, it may be the people who came up with the last one who eventually have the last laugh.

James Rodgers is Lecturer in Journalism at City University, London. He is the author of Reporting Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and for many years worked in Russia as a journalist for both Reuters Television and the BBC.

 

Opposition activists protest against the alleged mass electoral fraud in December 2011. Photograph: Getty Images
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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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