Traditional Values and Lofty Sentiments

How has the Kremlin traded political reason for lost sentiments? Where did the idea of defending Russians’ “traditional values” come from? What do these values have to do with religious ethics and secular morality? Historian of ideas, Marina Simakova, traces the genesis of the main ideologeme of Putin’s Russia

Traditional values are among the most enduring rhetorical inventions of Russia’s current political regime. Long before Russia invaded Ukraine, this phrase clearly signaled a conservative turn in Russian politics. The president, patriarch, and parliamentarians all increasingly used it in their speeches. Now it’s a recurring cliché found in governmental documents, official decrees, and propaganda.

The meaning of “traditional values” slowly took shape as it vacillated from one meaning to another. That’s why some see “traditional values” as either a manipulative construct or as a substantive concept that advocates conservative social policy on family, sexuality, and so on. Whatever the meaning, its growing popularity signals an improvised agreement to embrace tradition and identity.

In November 2022, against the backdrop of the raging war, Putin signed the Decree on Traditional Values. The decree finally defined “traditional values” as life, dignity, human rights and freedoms, patriotism, citizenship, service to the Fatherland and responsibility for its fate, high moral ideals, strong family, creative labor, priority of the spiritual over the material, and so on. The decree traced its origins to the values of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions traditionally practiced within Russia. According to the Russian authorities, these religions’ value systems are identical and immutable. Moreover, secular and religious Russians alike share them despite history and secularization. These values are fundamental to society, the authorities claim. They reinforce state sovereignty, and therefore, must be protected from destructive influences.

This incredulous definition shows that “traditional values” is not only a politicized cliché, but also an ideologeme. Its ideas are bound by a certain logic, however absurd or contradictory that may seem. “Traditional values” are now an integral element of the regime’s identity, which took shape alongside the assertion of Russia’s cultural sovereignty.

Initially, traditional values may have seemed a sudden whim of power-laden conservatives. But its political meaning only fully unfolded after the invasion of Ukraine. A common and unconditional perception of the world replaced political discussion. And the regime adopted the quasi-religious, unilateral morality of “traditional values” into its aggressive military propaganda. The authorities deploy it to appeal to Russians’ moral sentiments to mobilize them to save Ukraine from Western depravity and Nazi evil.

Religious ethics vs. human rights

“Traditional values” can be traced back to Metropolitan Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1999, he published a lengthy op-ed on his views of liberalism, traditionalism and European moral principles. The article begins by articulating the political challenge facing the West and the East: to combine “neoliberal values” and a traditionalist worldview. The former is understood as the global expansion of human rights and freedoms. The latter is the preservation of cultural and religious identity. Harmonizing their “dramatically divergent imperatives,” Kirill argues, is not an easy task. It is, however, the “challenge of the post-communist era”, which needs to be answered. Failing that, the world will plunge into a mess of irresolvable conflicts.

Metropolitan Kirill objected to human rights as a “liberal standard” promoted by international organizations. The problem, according to the cleric, is that such a standard is made mandatory in countries that have not participated in its development or have any connection to their cultural, spiritual, and religious traditions. This, in the parlance of current Russian authorities, constitutes an offense against cultural sovereignty. According to Kirill, the problem becomes more acute as the borders of the European Union move east. It’s worth noting that when Kirill was writing, none of the former Eastern bloc countries were EU members, though most were already under consideration.

So, the liberal ideal of expanding human rights is incompatible with the “national-cultural and religious value orientations” of a number of countries. Kirill suggests that Russia is morally obliged to offer the world an alternative. Essentially spiritually theocentric, Russia cannot unquestionably accept the anthropocentric humanism at the core of Western liberalism. It must instead stand up for global cultural diversity by entering into a dialog with Europe as a traditionally multicultural space.

Kirill’s main opponents are obvious: the USA and the forces that pander to its ambitions and Russian revolutionaries and communists like Maxim Gorky. The latter are guilty, according to Kirill, of trying to redefine and reaffirm Western anthropocentrism. Accordingly, as Kirill later explained, Soviet socialism — “a unique attempt at building a society without God” — is the reason why Russia has a responsibility to save Europe from the moral depravity of American influence before it is too late.

Metropolitan Kirill further developed these ideas in subsequent writings and speeches without mentioning traditional morality. In 2006, the World Russian People’s Council, which claimed to speak “on behalf of the primordial Russian civilization,” adopted the Declaration on Human Rights and Dignity. Kirill’s actively participated in the Declaration’s crafting. It cites several inviolable values (faith, morality, fatherland, etc.) and the right to declare behaviors condemned by “traditional morality and all historical religions” as dangerous.

Kirill also worked on the Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights. This church policy document established a link between values, state interests, traditional morals, and cultural sovereignty. These, as usual, are threatened by immoral excesses of human rights: “An individual’s human rights cannot be set against the values and interests of one’s homeland, community and family. The exercise of human rights should not be used to justify any encroachment on religious holy symbols, cultural values, and the identity of a nation.”

It was only then that “traditional values” began appearing with increasing frequency in the church’s meeting and summit agendas, official letters, and press releases. Though church representatives as diverse as the first post-Soviet Patriarch Aleksiy II to dissident protodeacon Andrey Kuraev (now defrocked) used “traditional values,” it was Kirill who made it the propaganda talking point it is today. For him, these values are important to prevent the secularization of Russian society. That purpose aligns with the church’s very first socio-political doctrine (“The Fundamentals of Social Conception of the Russian Orthodox Church”) developed under the authority of Aleksiy II and Kirill.

One thing worth noting in Metropolitan Kirill’s political activity of that time was the Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC) ostentatious openness to other religious denominations. This had less to do with developing inter-confessional dialog than with the desire to rely on other religious denominations as political allies. In modern world, the metropolitan once argued, an Orthodox person sometimes has more in common with a Muslim than with a secular, morally ambiguous Westerner. This partially explains the logic behind the “Decree on Traditional Values”: all Russians share common values guaranteed by the country’s major religions despite their differences.

However, Metropolitan Kirill’s openness to other religions is contingent, at least within Russia, upon ROC hegemony. The ROC is supposed to play the vanguard and unify the other denominations in socio-political cooperation. The same logic governs the concept of the “Russian world” as a solution to the national question. Russian culture and language are the gatherer of the Russia’s diverse cultures. By the same token, the Orthodox Church is supposed to define and protect religious morality for all. This pseudo-religious pluralism was already evident from the activities of the Interreligious Council, which was established as early as 1998 on the metropolitan’s initiative. Kirill has presided over the council since. And his leadership remains unquestionable.

In 2008, the Interreligious Council sent a letter to Thomas Hammarberg, then Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, asking him not to support the gay pride parade activists planned in Moscow. The Council expressed a firm belief that the majority of Russian society did not recognize homosexuality as a norm, and that this unanimity was based in “the age-old moral beliefs of Russia’s traditional religions”. These ideas will be eventually called “traditional values”.

So, the idea of protecting traditional values from the West originates from the current, Kremlin-aligned patriarch, though he seems to use the church only to promote its own agenda. But for some reason, Kirill is rarely mentioned as the one who coined “traditional values” as a political phrase. Although the ROC does not shy away from his authorship. Recently, Alexander Shchipkov, the first deputy chairman of the Synodal Department for Relations between the Church and Society and the Media, pointed out that the expression was introduced into public discussion by Patriarch Kirill.

More interesting here, however, is the conceptual framework: traditional morality originating from religions and its importance for the development of Russian society. How much Kirill’s neologism has influenced Putin and his administration is difficult to evaluate. That would require full-fledged investigation. Regardless, Kirill’s fixation on values as the ideological backbone of post-Soviet Russia is quite evident.

Family values vs. immorality

In secular official discourse, “traditional values” first appeared in the context of family politics. Family became a focal point of state regulation as early as the mid-2000s. At the time, Putin spoke of “conserving the people”, quoting Solzhenitsyn (the phrase would later feature in the 2022’s Decree on Traditional Values without referring to the source). With this expression, Putin proclaimed that family was a political priority because of its traditional role in population reproduction. This led to pronatalist policies aimed at promoting respect for the family.

In 2007, experts, including the ROC’s representatives, were invited to draft the “State Policy Doctrine in Spiritual and Moral Upbringing of Children.” The final text has “traditional values” all over it. According to the doctrine, information that “destroys the traditional moral values of the peoples of Russia” harms children’s morality, which in turn jeopardizes the state security. This is followed by a jumble of words typical of Russian officialese: “moral”, “traditional”, “values” and “family” are combined into various phrases.

The doctrine proclaimed “Traditional values” as paramount to the upbringing and protection of children. The religious origins are absent, except for the intention to work with “historically represented” religions in Russia. Also of note is the epigraph taken from a 2007 speech by Dmitry Medvedev: “We have turned the unfortunate eighty-year old pages. Surrogates of morality were unable to replace faith and virtue, which are closely linked to religion. […] There is something very unnatural in inventing such a replacement.” Here the vestiges of an unspecified religion are proposed to be understood as an enduring, organically formed morality: in his search for a primordial foundation of morality Medvedev is essentially engaged in naturalizing culture. This is a common ideological trope for Putin and the Kremlin as well.

The government declared 2008 “The Year of the Family” and established “Family, Love, and Faith Day” (it was made a holiday in 2022). Celebrations were organized in various Russian cities under the patronage of the First Lady Svetlana Medvedeva. Yet, the presidential decree establishing “the Year of the Family” said nothing of tradition. However, in accordance with the aforementioned State Policy Doctrine, the family began to be widely promoted as a stable heterosexual union of two adults with at least two children. This family became the emblem of traditionalism opposed to other domestic partnerships and sexual relationships.

In the Concept of State Family Policy adopted in 2014, traditional values are already very prominent and declares its promotion a priority. The state regards the family as a personal choice, a social institution, and an object of state regulation. And traditional morality firmly binds the private, the public and the state through it. This is the political pragmatics of traditional values as an ideological pillar of the regime. It can be clearly seen in the example of the Kremlin’s family policy.

Spirituality and its scarce staples

Putin had pontificated on the priority of the spiritual early in his rule. The president’s rhetoric has changed over time, of course. We can distinguish several stages in its transformation into the ideology of traditional values.

The first stage (20002007) words like “spiritual”, “moral”, and “values” were brought up on occasion, but there was hardly any semantic cohesiveness between their use. For example, in Putin’s first address to the parliament, he argued that the new Russia was open to the world but was searching and finding, “its own responses to the questions of spirituality and morality”. In his New Year address on December 31, 2004, he claimed that “all of our priorities are aimed at intellectual and spiritual growth of man”. His 2005 address to the parliament introduced values that “have remained permanent and unchangeable for many centuries”. Values are seen as a moral standard, an alternative to the institution of reputation. They are mutual assistance, trust, reliability, etc.; no connection is yet suggested with spirituality or tradition.

In Putin’s 2007 address to the parliament, he finally established a link between values and traditions. The final speech of a series United Russia called “Putin’s Plan” was a kind of testament before the leader’s move from presidency to premiership. In it, Putin claims that Russian society nearly lost its spiritual traditions to the economic challenges of the 1990s. After briefly reporting on overcoming these challenges, he emphasized that spiritual unity and moral values are no less important than political and economic stability. Moreover, it is not the socio-economic basis that determines public sentiment, but “distinctive cultural values” and “a shared system of moral guidelines” that decides “the basis of economic and political relations”, or simply put, economic structure. This is a complete reversal from economic materialism to vulgar idealism: the word “spirituality”, one of the key words in Putin’s later political and cultural lexicon, appears in this speech more often than before.

Notably, in the early years of Putin’s presidency, he brought up this “spirituality” in conversations with journalists more often than in his official speeches — and each time in reference to his personal life. For example, in one of his first biographies, Putin proudly reveals that it was spirituality that compensated for his parents’ modest household and poor opportunities. Spirituality was a priority in his family.

But what exactly does this spirituality mean?

The Slavophiles first defined the word “spirituality,” in Russian dukhovnost, by way of German Romanticism, the Orthodox canon and their own cultural and national aspirations. Thus began the search for culturally distinctive “Russian spirituality” that continued into early 20th century. Common traits of these philosophical pursuits include spirituality as an inner life of an individual, or, as the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev put it, truth, goodness and beauty form a dynamic and relational trinity. It is an inner striving towards a higher ideal to be realized in everyday life and makes this life meaningful.

Perhaps surprisingly, the word dukhovnost can be sporadically encountered in Soviet texts and contexts as well. When applied to the Soviet people, it primarily meant the necessity to place intangible values above material ones. Here spirituality is not an inherent cultural product, but a moral choice: the refusal to be guided by market interests. Spirituality is also mentioned in the 2022 decree as one of the core traditional values. Putin spoke proudly of this choice when describing the ideals instilled in him by his parents.

In a sense, this choice is a psychologized interpretation of provision No. 9 of the 1961 Moral Code of the Builder of Communism: “Intolerance towards injustices, parasitism, dishonesty, careerism, and money-grubbing”. Putin, incidentally, has often cited the Code in his regret for the loss of its values. However, he sees no novelty in the Code. Rather, Putin puts forward the teachings of Russia’s religions that purportedly adhere to similar precepts since pre-revolutionary times.

Putin probably made the transition from materialism to idealism, and to equating Soviet morals to quasi-religious spirituality on his own. Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev, whom he quotes occasionally, could have hypothetically contributed to this transition, but it seems unlikely he avidly read them. In any case, he never quoted them until the second stage of his rule.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, however, is a major influence who may well have shared Putin’s concern with spirituality. Putin repeatedly spoke of Solzhenitsyn’s importance, awarded him a state prize, promoted an abridged, high school version of Gulag Archipelago, and never missed an opportunity to express his reverence for the writer. Most importantly, during his first term, the president visited Solzhenitsyn several times at his home outside Moscow where they reportedly had long informal conversations. Last year, Putin quoted the writer’s famous speech “A World Split Apart” at the Valdai Forum. In it, the great pochvennik [heir to the 19th century Russian literary movement calling for a grassroots democracy, nationalist and soil-bound] Solzhenitsyn castigated the West’s “blindness of superiority” and lack of spirituality.

Putin’s term as Prime Minister (2008-2011) is the second stage. During this time, Kremlin policy was characterized by two reinforcing trends. On the one hand, governmental programs in spiritual and moral guidance were developed (it should be noted, once again, that despite its religious origins, “spiritual” in Russian is widely used in secular language and means morally and culturally educated). In addition to family policy, the doctrine of “Patriotic Civic Education”, adopted in 2010, was a notable development aimed at “spiritual renaissance.” On the other hand, the Kremlin continued its political rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox Church. Rather than supporting the ROC’s religious interests, the tendency has been that of the church has tended to be involved in secular social and political affairs as a political ally of the state. United Russia members were increasingly, and ostentatiously, participating in Orthodox rituals and offering their support to the church. Putin himself has consistently shown that he lives a religious life and honors holy relics. One of the most publicized events of that time was his adoration of the belt of the Virgin Mary, which millions of Russian believers came to see.

Still preoccupied with spiritual matters, Putin did not talk as much about religious values during that period. He was primarily concerned with his own image and preparation for his return to the presidency. Media campaigns portrayed him as strong, courageous and respectful of antiquity, the embodiment of which was his infamous “discovery” of a Greek amphora in the Black Sea. Meanwhile, President Medvedev’s decrees adhered to the legacy of Putin’s 2007 address: preserving “spiritual identity”, reinforcing “spiritual unity”, and recognizing “moral values” as a factor in the country’s development. “Spiritual and Moral Education” was added to the school curriculum in 2009 on experimental basis in 18 Russian regions (now also known as “Fundamentals of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics”). The same year, the institution of army chaplains was reintroduced in the Russian army for the first time since the Tsarist era.

The third, crucial stage, was inaugurated in 2012 with Putin’s return to the presidency and decisive conservative turn. The occupation of Crimea in 2014 and military intervention into Eastern Ukraine reinforced the increasing aggressiveness of the updated political doctrine without deviating ideologically. In his 2012 address, Putin infamously lamented the “lack of spiritual staples” in the Russian society. The archaic-sounding expression dukhovnye skrepy, which roughly means “cultural and spiritual bonds,” immediately became a catchphrase. The phrase had been indeed used by intellectuals like Vasily Klyuchevsky and Nikolai Berdyaev but also in the 1990s. Solzhenitsyn used the expression natsionalnaya skrepa — “staple of a nation” (or “binding force of [a] nation” in the official translation) — when he spoke of the importance of a common language for a nation in his Nobel Prize speech.

The meaning is quite clear: Mercy, sympathy, compassion for each other, support and mutual aid. Putin listed all as spiritual staples. These are moral qualities that all in the “Russian world” allegedly share. And they are supposed to unite an atomized people at long last and turn them into a social whole. These moral guidelines are already present, inherent to all, and organically shape Russian spirituality. The problem, according to Putin, is that they have ceased to serve as a binding force.

Putin claims there were two critical moments in Russian history when they failed to bind the nation. The first was the 1917 Revolution and the ensuing societal split during the Civil War. Both shook the historical foundations of Russian unity. The second was “shock therapy” in the 1990s. The need to survive economically forced a traumatized people to abandon their spiritual priorities and compromise their moral character. That is the reason why Putin, upon his return to presidency in 2012, argued that stability had been achieved and economic hardships were over. Only then was there an opening way to engage in substantive politics — the spiritual guidance of Russian citizens.

In the way of lofty sentiments

Over the last twenty years, analysts and commentators have often noted that Russia had no political ideology. Its identity also remains quite blurred (Russian commentators often discussed ideology and identity, and their absence, under the umbrella term “national idea”). The notion was generally understood as some grand ideology similar to that of the Cold War. Putin himself noted that patriotism could serve as Russia’s national idea. The country only needed a “unifying force”. Otherwise, society would have to be subject to ideological conformity, systematic pressure, and intrusion into people’s beliefs. In other words, a return to the totalitarian spirit must be avoided at any cost.

Wary of totalitarian tendencies, the Kremlin relied on what had supposedly existed since time immemorial and did not require any interference in matters of free conscience. The moral values, derived from “traditional religions of Russia”, served as a buttress. What is paradoxical is the location of these values. They literally belong to morality “within one spirit”’; a morality allegedly forgotten by Russians because of a preoccupation with economic survival or spellbound by the West. This morality must be recovered from the citizen’s inner world and laid bare in front of their eyes. Therefore, the Russian authorities believe that they are not establishing a new morality. Rather they are rediscovering and protecting an existing one. In his 2012 “staple” address to the parliament, Putin specified that law couldn’t help with establishing morality. Of course, it couldn’t. After all, he’s not talking about ideas or even a worldview, but a sentiment. And the law can’t legislate sentiment.

Strongly appealing to people’s feelings, despite their ambiguity, is characteristic of late Putinism (one can recall the law criminalizing “insulting believers’ religious feelings”). These are not even feelings, but a way of feeling in accordance with an ideal, a specific kind of sentiment. This sentiment is opposed to one’s intention to act in accordance with arguments, norms, and interests (that is opposed to politics, law, and material well-being, respectively). Excessive preoccupation with political and legal processes (the formal side of political life), not to mention the economy (the material side), only gets in the way of the citizens’ communal longing for truth, goodness and beauty. Of a worldview purportedly inherent to each and every Russian. As natural as the need to breathe.

This substitution is the major ideological and political twist of Putin’s regime. The Kremlin’s policy of spirituality is presented as simply maintaining the natural state of affairs. As an ideologized program, it constantly denies its political, constructed character. Putinism justifies its geopolitical and domestic policies from the quasi-natural order and centuries-old moral foundations. This logic allows the authorities to disregard their obligation to provide clear, convincing and practical arguments for their political decisions.

Comments by Putin and other official speakers raise the suspicion that it is not just a deliberate substitution of notions that is at play here. Rather it’s the self-deception of a whole bunch of people led by the chief self-deceiver. The only truth they rely on in a world of economic and political enmity—a truth they propose citizens embrace—refers to a shared but individually experienced morality inherently beyond political discussion. This can explain the process of systematic and deep depoliticization of Russian society and the political degradation of the country’s leadership.

Traditional values have been “historically formed” without mentioning how and when this formation took place. In accordance with Russia’s National Security Strategy, they must be defended from external threats. Yet the spirituality that nourishes these values will survive everything. As Solzhenitsyn put it in a speech Putin is so fond of, “After the suffering decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s Western mass existence” [note: the word “western” was omitted in the official translation of the speech]. Russians’ moral sentiments are indestructible. However, someone always prevents the realization of these lofty sentiments — the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the Bolsheviks. This is what Putin calls the long-standing project of “Anti-Russia”, which, as he insists, is now being played out again by the West in Ukraine.

Standing in the way of lofty sentiments is, of course, doomed to fail. But when the president’s ideas are passed off as citizens’ feelings, political discussion becomes impossible. As does humble sympathy. As we can see, the system of perceptions that has developed and strengthened with Putin’s regime is quite amenable to at least partial deconstruction. In it, the remnants of the once-learned Moral Code postulates a clash with the beloved ideas of national writers, like Solzhenitsyn, as well as with the anti-secular revanchism of loyal clerics. The latter, like Patriarch Kirill, in turn claims that the Soviet lack of spirituality (whatever that means) is a thing of the past, while the fight against this secular past continues using its own methods to counter it.

This clash that characterizes Putinism is as senseless as it is destructive. The authoritarian desire to completely control political and legal processes is confronted with the president’s contempt for the law. The need of the government and society to solve the issues of material provision and economic development is challenged by the regime’s rejection of material values. Lastly, Kremlin’s intention to implement realpolitik, guided by national concerns of a purely pragmatic nature, collides with cultivation of its idealistic aspirations.

The clash of superseding perceptions with which Putin’s regime was born has found no solution. The sharper the rift between them became and the more intense the mutual displacement, the more the state blocked political discussion and substituted the propaganda of traditional values for concrete issues. The gradual depoliticization of the regime’s ideological contradictions resulted in the deliberate breakdown of every tool of its articulation, from independent media to civic initiatives. A regime like this cannot be reformed. It can only be destroyed. It has nothing to offer but tanks, missiles, and drones that, as state-owned television swears, are bringing truth, goodness and beauty to Ukraine.