Orthodox Church of the Resurrection, St PetersburgThis week, fresh from an Asia-Pacific economic summit in Australia, President Vladimir Putin meets with a party of 40 academics, international political analysts and foreign journalists to discuss the theme, “Russia at the crossroads: the search for self-identity”. Discussions are also being held with the Speaker of the Russian Parliament, leaders of the country’s major political parties and national religious leaders.

The informal meetings have taken place annually since 2004, organised by the Valdai Club (USA) and jointly sponsored by the Russian state news agency and the Independent Council on Foreign and Defence Policy. Among the visitors is Nicolai Petro, Professor of Political Studies at the University of Rhode Island and a scholar of Russian politics and culture. From Kazan, where he was about to join in talks with Muslim leaders, Professor Petro responded to some questions from MercatorNet.

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MercatorNet: Western media paint a harsh and negative picture of Russia under Vladimir Putin: increasingly autocratic, run by former KGB agents, corrupt, and aggressively nationalistic. Are we getting the right message?

Petro: Russia today is far more complex than the Western media portrays it to be. It retains much of the Soviet past, but is increasingly driven by commercial forces to embrace globalisation and capitalism, and is simultaneously rediscovering its own pre-1917 religious and cultural heritage that is often at odds with both communism and capitalism.
The country’s political leadership consequently finds itself responding to a wide variety of forces, some of which have obvious analogues in the West, but some of which do not. One reason for Putin’s continued success and popularity is that he has managed not to alienate any significant domestic political constituency. Discussions of Putin that dwell on his early career in the intelligence services, which ended more than a decade ago, but overlook his subsequent training as a lawyer, city administrator in St. Petersburg devoted to attracting foreign investment, and work as Yeltsin’s chief of staff, mislead Western readers about the real sources of his political success.

MercatorNet: Has the disappearance of Marxist-Leninism left a vacuum in Russia’s self-identity? How could it have disappeared so quickly as an intellectual inspiration?

Petro: Marxism-Leninism disappeared because it was the dogmatic application of the official state doctrine. Socialism, by contrast, retains considerable popular sympathy in Russia (as it does in Eastern and Western Europe), because it is identified with secular humanism, and the tremendously successful social welfare programs that arose in Europe after World War II. When educated Russians speak of wanting “socialism” today they point to Sweden, not to the USSR.

MercatorNet: The Russian Orthodox Church has often claimed to be at the heart of Russia’s self-identity. Can there be a Russia without a vibrant Orthodox Church? How is it faring now?

Petro: The question of whether Russia can be “truly Russian” if it is not Orthodox is a matter of philosophical and religious predilection. Many of Russia’s most famous writers and philosophers argued that it was so, but one must recall that they did so in the face of one of the most violent assaults against religion that history has ever seen.

Since 1991 (actually, since 1988, the millennium of the baptism of Rus), the Orthodox Church has undergone a veritable resurrection. Once dying, over the past decade the number of monasteries and churches has grown ten-fold. The number of Orthodox Christians has increased less dramatically, but far more significant has been the Church’s ever increasing public presence in public charity and philanthropy. Five years ago one could scarcely find a restaurant or market that catered to the religious culture. Today, it is hard to find a good restaurant that does not offer a Lenten menu during the Lenten Fast in Russia.

For some Soviet intellectuals this poses a problem. Many of them were raised as atheists or agnostics, and they tend to identify any religious belief with obscurantism. The more enlightened on both sides, however, have recently joined in public dialogue about the proper balance between the public and private spheres of religion that bodes well for the future.

MercatorNet: You are attending meetings in Kazan, a largely Muslim city, with the largest mosque in Russia. How will the Russian majority cope with the growing numbers of Muslims in their country?

Petro: First and foremost, it is important to remember that Muslims are not newcomers to Russia. There have been large, indigenous Muslim communities in southern Russia and all along the Volga River for nearly five centuries, and over time both communities have come to understand each other very well. This fact puts Russia in a very different situation from that of Western Europe and the United States.

These communities have generally run their own affairs, and the model of Tatarstan, Russia’s largest autonomous republic is typical in this regard. It is far from clear whether this model has any relevance for national politics. In the past there have certainly been prominent Muslim politicians (one thinks of Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Chechen who served as the head of Russia’s first post communist parliament, or Mintimer Shaimiyev, whom many saw as a king maker during the Yeltsin years), but they all reached out to Russia’s many other constituencies. It is hard to imagine a candidate who stresses his “Muslim” roots succeeding in the quest for national public office in Russia.

MercatorNet: Western observers often remark that Russians like autocratic governments. Do you think that Russian traditions can accommodate Western-style democracy?

Petro: Polls usually tell us more about the preconceptions of the poll taker than they do about the real feelings of those they are surveying. That is why the results often differ so widely.

As noted historians Jacob Walkin, Sergei Utechin, Sergei Pushkarev, Viktor Leontovitsch and Sir Paul Vinogradoff have shown. Russia’s democratic traditions extend back at least as far as those of any Western country. In my own writings I have suggested that it is more useful to think of Russian political culture as one continuous historical tapestry, rather than a stone monument. As God weaves his design for each nation into its tapestry there will be periods when some strands dominate and others are submerged, but none are ever completely lost. Each national tapestry will differ in its design, but the nature of those differences is a question of philosophy, with little practical relevance to the issue of which aspects of the national heritage best serve the country’s needs today.

MercatorNet: Winston Churchill described the USSR as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Do we understand anything much about Russia, even now?

Petro: Churchill’s quote continues: “but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Churchill is right, especially today. Russia is no more difficult to understand than any other country, if one is willing to appreciate that it has its own national interest, and would like to see it respected by other countries.