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The meaning of Vladimir Putin’s attack on liberalism

By railing against liberalism, “cancel culture” and trans rights, the Russian president is exploiting debates taking place in Western societies to his own end.

By Megan Gibson

On 21 October, Vladimir Putin stood before a crowd of dignitaries from home and abroad to deliver the keynote speech of the Valdai Discussion Club annual summit in Sochi, southern Russia. His speech laid out the ways in which Western liberalism had become a failing worldview redolent of a society in decline.

Speaking to an audience that had travelled from China, Iran, Pakistan, India and even a few from Europe, to attend the forum, Putin railed against the “sociocultural disturbances” plaguing the West. Among those disturbances: the “simply monstrous” idea that “children are taught from an early age that a boy can easily become a girl and vice versa”, or that “human milk” and “birthing parent” had replaced the words “breast milk” and “mother”. He also condemned the “cancel culture” that had swept Western schools and universities, and polemicised against curriculums being rethought and history rewritten as the fight “against discrimination has turned into aggressive dogmatism”.

In many ways, it was a classic Putin speech. The Russian president has long railed against liberalism. In an interview with the Financial Times in 2019, he even went so far as to call it “obsolete” because it “has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population”. As the author Michel Eltchaninoff wrote in the New Statesman in 2019, Putin believes that those who embrace liberalism “have been ‘zombified’ by the idea of human rights, by an open-mindedness to ‘the other’, and by mass consumption; they are reduced to inconsequential, cowardly, selfish beings who are unable to sacrifice themselves for their motherland and who have forgotten their origins.”

But the Valdai speech wasn’t simply a matter of the Russian president preaching to the choir. He was shrewd enough to focus his arguments in a way that would not only have heads nodding along in the crowd before him, but also worm their way into some of the West’s most fraught debates du jour. There is a reason why Putin dwelled on gender identity – and not the wider issues of gay rights, or even women’s rights. There is a reason that he detailed the scourge of “cancel culture” – and not the wider free speech issue of an imperilled independent press. Though he claimed that it isn’t “any of our business” what ideology other nations choose to follow, Putin is very conscious of the faultlines he senses in Western nations. By exploiting the so-called culture wars that increasingly dominate conversation in many circles in the US and across Europe, Putin was ensuring that his worldview has the potential to find a firmer foothold there too.

It didn’t take long for him to be proved right. In the aftermath of his speech, a piece appeared in the American Conservative, titled “Putin gets it. Why don’t we?”. The right-wing US writer Rod Dreher wrote: “Putin is telling the God’s honest truth here”, and that he is “completely clear and completely correct on the society-destroying nature of wokeness and postliberal leftism”. While it’s true that Dreher represents a more extreme end of US conservatism, he’s hardly alone when it comes to prominent Western figures who have railed against cancel culture or gender-inclusive language or “wokeness”.

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Yet while Putin tries to dress his ideas up as “healthy conservatism”, he is only able to do so because he’s glossing over the most illiberal aspects of his view of the world – the disregard for human rights; the clamping down on both a free press and political opposition; the belief that authoritarian regimes trump democracies. There are very few in the West who would openly champion the more explicitly illiberal aspects that Putin’s regime is known for (though, of course, there are some outliers).

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By dwelling on the areas where he sees fissures in Western ideology – rather than the full reality of his worldview – Putin is ensuring that his ideas don’t just take hold in Russia and its neighbours, but that it works its way into the West as well. After all, what better way to hasten the decline of liberalism than to convince others to help chip away at it from the inside?

[See also: Vladimir Putin won’t attend Cop26, yet Russia has little choice but to engage with climate action]

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