Is Vladmir Putin a left wing politician

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Is Putin right wing? Not by Russian standards

Posted November 12, 2014 11:50:32

Internationally he might be seen as an unreformed reactionary, but Russian President Vladimir Putin is far from extreme in the spectrum of Russian politics. It would be wise not to back him into too narrow a corner, writes Matthew Dal Santo.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will arrive in Australia this week for the G20 meeting in Brisbane. Though it's become commonplace to present Putin as an unreformed reactionary, cynically "igniting a wave of Russian nationalism" to keep his political skin alive, it's worth remembering his views are far from extreme in the spectrum of Russian politics.

Take Alexander Prokhanov, former Pravda correspondent, member of the Russian Writers' Union, editor of the ultra-nationalist Zavtra newspaper, and outspoken ideologue of a fusion of Orthodox mysticism, Stalinist propaganda and Soviet nostalgia. He believes that the "imperial character is the code of Russia's history" and the revived Russian state Putin heads to be the most recent of five incarnations of empire on Russia's national territory.

"One of the major ideological goals of our time," he has said, "is to combine the nineteenth century of tsarist rule with the Soviet twentieth century, the Stalinist era."

Though Zavtra's readership is relatively small, Prokhanov's ideas reach a wider audience through regular op-eds in the more widely circulating Izvestia. He has revelled in the mounting estrangement between Russia and "the West".

In an op-ed entitled "The blazing icon" published in October, for example, Prokhanov described a recent visit to Kulikovo Field outside Moscow, where in 1380, having received the blessing of St Sergius of Radonezh, Prince Dimitrii (1359-89) of Muscovy defeated a band of Mongols, an event remembered as the founding of a sovereign Russian state. (In reality, Muscovy continued to pay tribute into the 1400s.)

The site hosts a monastery and Prokhanov tells enthusiastically of his discussions with its monks. Russia defeated its enemies, he says, "by the volition of the brave Prince Dimitrii, lit up by the mysterious, magical light of Russian Orthodoxy that the blessed Sergius had poured into the hearts of the prince and Russia's warriors". Kulikovo made Russian arms "holy".

To Prokhanov, Soviet victory in the Second World (or "Great Patriotic") War was another Kulikovo, "a holy victory won through holy arms", with Stalin its Dimitrii. The atheist Soviet state shot or sent to the Gulag thousands of priests in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet the Red Army's "numberless sacrifices", he says, can be "compared to Christ's sacrifice". They make "the Red Army, the Soviet and the Russian people" a "Christian people", a "holy people". "The Lord himself sat in the T-34 tanks and shot together with the crews," Prokhanov tells us: "Christ went on the attack and counter-attack at Stalingrad."

Prokhanov sees confrontation with NATO over Ukraine in the same religious-nationalist light, adding fuel to his cult of Russia's war machine. Inspired by Novorossiya's rebels, he acclaims "Russian arms" as "a blazing icon": "on them we pray, to them we press our lips; they deflect calamities away from our borders, the dark forces of the enemy."

In another op-ed, "Christ is risen in Novorossiya", he called the Donbass a New Nazareth, fulfilling the ancient prophecy of Moscow as the "Third Rome". "Who asks what good we might expect from Novorossiya? From Novorossiya, we are awaiting the future," he answers, "precious and magnificent."

Prokhanov doesn’t hide his admiration for Mr Putin and, especially since the annexation of Crimea in March, Prokhanov's star has reportedly been in the ascendant among hard-liners in the circle of presidential advisers.

Nonetheless, his flamboyant ideology is still thought to exercise little direct influence over the pragmatic Mr Putin.

While Putin has spoken of the need to knit Russia's history together ("Today, we are restoring the links in time, making our history a single flow once more," he said at the unveiling of a monument to Russia's forgotten WWI soldiers in August), his views aren't necessarily always what one might expect. (He has called Bolshevik propaganda "a complete con".) Though he was guest of honour at this summer's 700th anniversary celebrations of St Sergius's birth, he stuck to the holy man's moral virtues, omitting to name either Dimitrii or Kulikovo. Ideology, the distinctiveness of Russia's civilization from the West's, as opposed to raison d'état, was conspicuously absent from his recent speech on international relations at Valdai.

Despite projecting an impression of unquestioned power, in other words, Putin is playing something of a balancing act. To many Russians, the president's very virtue is that he stands at the centre of the country's competing political tendencies, preventing any from pulling it in an extreme direction. "On Putin rests," one has recently written, "apart from everything else, the heavy burden of preserving the balance between competing forces - between those who desperately hunger for the West and those who dream of the revenge of the USSR."

Like many mystics, Prokhanov has trouble knowing when to stop. "The history of the Russian state and its Christian meaning," he says, is "sacred history" to be compared to the Bible. "Leafing through its precious pages, we undergo the act of penitence that precedes Holy Communion." Russians are "a unique and messianic people", and "the sacrament of ancient Russian arms" has turned into "the weapons of the modern Russian army, planes, tanks, fighters". His conclusion, predictably, is that "[w]e must build up our army whatever the cost".

For now, it seems that the need to balance the diverse impulses of Russian politics and society, combined with his natural caution, will be enough to keep Putin away from fully playing the modern-day Prince Dimitrii which his admirer seems so anxious to cast him. That's no small comfort. The "light" of Russian arms, however "holy", is something the rest of the world can do without. It would be wise not to back him into too narrow a corner.

Matthew Dal Santo is a freelance writer and foreign affairs correspondent. He previously worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. View his full profilehere.

Topics:foreign-affairs, religion-and-beliefs, history