- The rise of Russia's far right will undermine the Kremlin's attempts to overcome the country's deepening ethnic, class and religious divides.
- The ultra-conservative movement will continue only to grow, thanks to its media influence and militant youth groups.
- Moscow will work to curb the forces it has long supported in an effort to ensure that they do not challenge the Kremlin's writ.
Since taking power some 16 years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin has worked tirelessly to bring about the return of conservative and nationalist values. His government has enthusiastically promoted the Russian Orthodox Church, depicting its patriarchs as the state's moral compass. After suffering a period of neglect under the Soviet Union, over 25,000 churches and 800 monasteries have been built or refurbished during Putin's reign. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has also launched a series of youth programs, the largest being Nashi, that teach conservative courses on politics, foreign policy and family values. Finally, after consolidating strategic economic sectors under its control, the government has presented itself as the people's savior from the liberal, decadent oligarchs who once controlled the country's resources.
By stoking these long-dormant sentiments, Putin has managed to shore up his power base and create a moral mandate for Moscow's domestic and foreign policy. Whereas the West could once accuse the Soviet Union of being a "godless nation," the Russian Federation can now claim to have God on its side. This thinking has undergirded several of the Kremlin's actions at home and abroad, including the passage of laws restricting homosexuality and pornography and the launch of interventions into Ukraine and Syria. But Putin's ideological strategy has its drawbacks. Inflaming far-right extremism has given rise to ideologues who want to push the Kremlin further than it is willing to go. And, when the Kremlin balks at their demands, they are no longer shy about voicing their discontent.
The Anatomy of Extremism
Russia's far-right umbrella comprises many different groups. The ultra-conservative moniker applies to Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, former Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin, government adviser and economist Sergei Glazyev and Eurasianist crusader Alexander Dugin, among others. The public considers some of these thinkers to be little more than extremist cranks, but others have become wildly popular. Though the ultra-conservatives vary in their intensity and agendas, most advocate three things: an aggressive foreign policy, a crackdown on Muslims and a rooting out of competing ideologies such as communism, liberalism and fascism.
Ultra-conservative demands for a more hawkish foreign policy have translated into calls for a stronger (and perhaps an all-out) intervention in the Ukrainian conflict. Zhirinovsky, Bastrykin, Dugin and several others have publicly criticized Putin for holding back in Ukraine. Most also want Russia to take a firmer military line against NATO and the United States. Moreover, many favor isolationism as a means of protecting Russia from Western threats: Glazyev proposed last year that Moscow cut all financial and economic ties with the West. This extreme suggestion even gained traction within Russia's Security Council before more pragmatic minds in the Finance Ministry prevailed.
Meanwhile, the ultra-conservatives' proposal to crack down more heavily on Russia's growing Muslim population is not a new idea among conservatives, though it has recently gained widespread support. Over half of all Russian citizens identify Islam with terrorism, and 70 percent are wary of Muslims. That said, ultra-conservatives differ greatly in the ferocity of their anti-Muslim beliefs.
The last plank in the far-right platform — eliminating liberalism, communism and fascism — has gained attention in recent weeks after Dugin launched a media blitz against Putin, criticizing him for failing to articulate a new ideology for Russia. Dugin argued that it was not enough to simply root out old ways of thinking but that the Kremlin must also craft a concrete ideology based on traditionalism, enlightenment and exceptionalism. He called his drive to formulate such an identity a "conservative revolution," a term that has worried many in Moscow as they try to prevent revolution of any kind in the deeply divided country.
The Unintended Consequences
But the rise of ultra-conservatism and its close cousin, mainstream conservatism, has done more than just encourage punditry and rhetorical bluster. The Kremlin has actively promoted some far-right groups, but others have arisen on their own. In the Perm region, for instance, the Russian Academy of Sciences' International Relations Department has established an annual forum to train hundreds of experts on Russian national unity. The attendees are then meant to promote conservative Russian values among regional and municipal offices and businesses, spreading the ideology at the grassroots level. Elsewhere, a series of reforms is tipping the educational system toward conservative values. For the past two years, Russian high schools have taught a required course called "We Are Together," which explains why Crimea was "reunified" with Russia. The lesson plan includes accusations that other world powers do not want Russia to be strong and stable. And on Oct. 31, Russia's Security Council proposed the creation of a center to develop an official narrative of historical events, such as the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, that can then be incorporated into curriculums nationwide and into government and media messages.
Over the past year, a number of right-wing TV programs and films have hit the airwaves as well, and several Russian media outlets have stepped up their broadcasts of conservative Soviet-era shows and movies, including a film glorifying Ivan the Terrible. New right-wing TV stations have been established too, and in January, the patriotic-religious channel Tsargrad TV began to broadcast full-time. It is now Russia's fastest-growing station. Founded by hedge fund owner Konstantin Malofeev, the station's regular shows feature Dugin and Russian Orthodox Church leaders. They also frequently guest-star Alexander Borodai and Igor Strelkov, Malofeev's former employees and two of Ukraine's most prominent former rebel leaders. (Strelkov often advocates "cleansings" in Ukraine.) As a whole, Tsargrad TV promotes the principles of the Orthodox faith, calls for a full intervention in Ukraine, offers tips on countering Western propaganda and claims that Muslim migrants in Russia are Islamic State recruiters.
Elsewhere in Russia, a series of conservative-leaning monuments and statues have been built over the past few months that have received significant media attention. In September, a local civic group called The Russian Soul raised a monument of Josef Stalin in Surgut, and on Oct. 14, the first statue of Ivan the Terrible was erected in Oryol with the local government's blessing. The 8-meter (26-foot) likeness of the czar, known as much for his brutal crackdowns as for expanding Russia, was unveiled before a crowd of hundreds of people wearing black and yellow imperial flags. It depicts him sitting on a horse, holding a cross in one hand and a sword in the other. A second statue of Ivan the Terrible will be raised in Alexandrov later this month. Meanwhile, a 17-meter monument of Vladimir the Great is under construction at Moscow's request and will be unveiled by Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I outside the Kremlin's gates on Nov. 4. The statue has been condemned by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who claims the saint is Ukrainian. (Russians, however, argue that Vladimir the Great was baptized in Crimea, a key justification for Russia's 2014 annexation of the region.)
Of course, ultra-conservative activities have not been confined to the classroom and public square. They are now expanding to policing and security as well, a source of serious concern for the Kremlin. On Sept. 24, a group of young activists wearing military uniforms and presenting themselves as "Officers of Russia: Executive Youth Wing" formed a human chain in Moscow to prevent an exhibition of photographs by Jock Sturges. They labeled the controversial images child pornography and considered them to be emblematic of American decadence. It is unclear who supports these Executive Youth Wing activists, but their uniforms were high quality and their protest was choreographed to maximize their media exposure.
In October, evidence also surfaced of an ultra-conservative paramilitary training camp in the woods outside of Moscow. The group, which calls itself the Eurasian Youth Union (ESM), is reportedly backed by Dugin, who is on the U.S. sanctions list for inciting rebellion in eastern Ukraine. The ESM claims it has established similar "war camps" across Russia as part of the Kremlin's patriotic push. The group's stated goal is to train Russian volunteers to fight in eastern Ukraine and to resist potential NATO attacks. According to the Russian-based Center of Economic and Political Reform, the ESM may have received some $300,000 in government funding from 2013 to 2015. It is unclear how many of these camps actually exist, since estimates range from dozens to hundreds. Regardless, many within the ESM are highly critical of Putin and say he is not aggressive enough in Ukraine or against NATO. Dugin has argued that the ESM should not be led or ruled by the Kremlin and that its ideology is more important than state loyalty. Other fringe and anarchist groups have attended the ESM's training courses as well, many of which are openly opposed to Putin and his administration.
All of these developments have given the Kremlin pause. Though Putin's government has long embraced, fostered and promoted conservative ideology, it now worries that doing so may do more harm than good. Putin has come under pressure from liberals and conservatives alike to change Russia's stance on various foreign policy issues, including its activities in Ukraine and its relationship with the United States. As more hawkish rhetoric gains steam, Putin risks being left behind, though he is also aware of the potential repercussions of acting too aggressively abroad.
In the meantime, the rise of such extreme views will make it more difficult for Putin to develop a strategy for unifying his deeply fractured country. Those divisions will only widen in the face of economic crisis, foreign policy failure and demographic change, factors that have already fueled the Kremlin's fears of instability. Worried that the spread of conservatism will make matters worse, the Kremlin has already cracked down on some far-right initiatives. In April, when a Muslim caretaker beheaded a Russian child to send an anti-Russian and anti-Orthodox message, the Kremlin blocked many conservative media sites and stations to keep them from stoking anti-Muslim sentiments and unrest. But the Kremlin is not yet ready to completely give up its valuable constituency. Instead, it will try to strike a balance, curbing the most extreme activities while continuing to rely on far-right groups to prop up its base of support.