Against a background of rising conservative-patriotic sentiment in Russian society, Russian conservatives should explain how their ideology and views differ from those of the far right and far left.

A red moon appears above a cross atop of a Russian Orthodox Church at Red Square in Moscow. Photo: AP

The reincorporation of Crimea into Russia resulted in unprecedented pressure placed on Russia by the West, which in turn contributed to the growth of conservative and patriotic sentiments in the country. Most importantly, discussions resumed about so-called Russia’s unique destiny of development, the existense of a unique Russian civilization in the world, and the role of Russian traditions and history.

On one side of these discussions stand the Russian conservatives, whose ranks recently started to increase. On the other side stand the relatively small but active number of Russian liberals and representatives of the democratic opposition, supported by Western critics. These critics began to reproach Russian conservatives for various sins, including nationalism, obscurantism and ignorance.

Experts talk about the popularity of conservative ideas among representatives of the Russian political class. In this regard, the obvious question becomes: Just how justified are the accusations by these critics, who largely portray Russian conservatives as backwards looking?

Understanding conservatism as a tool against radicalism

The strategy of the critics who accuse the Russian authorities and society of conservatism, and then attempt to make this conservatism equivalent to a number of unattractive ideas  such as isolationism, irrationalism, clericalism and nationalism  is nothing new. Over the past 100-150 years, opponents of conservatives in various countries have actively used this strategy. However, how much do these accusations correspond to reality?

First of all, we should recall that conservatism is an integral part of the Western tradition of political thought. This tradition was established by the English philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke. Many respected Western scholars of his ideas (such as Samuel Huntington) have always emphasized that conservatism, to a lesser extent than other ideological currents, has its own set of ideals.

Conservatism, at its core, is a rather carefully reasoned appeal to respect the traditions of individual countries and avoid political extremism. In other words, it is wrong to hang the label of “right wing” ideology – with its well-known set of ideas – on conservatism. If we seek a place on the political scale, then conservatism should be located in a position where it is opposed to any form of radicalism.

We also need to clearly understand the fact that Burke had formulated his ideas in a particular historical epoch, that of the French Revolution, which had frightened the world with its bloody extremism. Edmund Burke supported the liberal program of the British “Whigs,” but emphasized that he supported this program in Britain, and for Britain – but was categorically opposed to imposing this program in other countries, where its implementation does not have the corresponding historical, cultural, economic and social conditions.

A security officer stands guard near a poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in St.Petersburg, Russia, Friday, May 1, 2015. Photo: AP

Russia’s conservative reforms

Modern Russia had its own destructive “revolution” of the 1990s, the driving force behind which was the desire to break with the historical experience of the country and to implement Western prescriptions for political and economic development, without taking into account existing conditions in the country. Over the past decade, the country has barely started to overcome the serious negative consequences of these efforts.

Just consider the broader context of the “Color Revolutions,” the “Arab Spring”, and the hardest of all – the Ukrainian crisis. Now Russian conservatives can respond to domestic and foreign critics, who are demanding drastic change, with the words of Stolypin: “You need great upheavals – we need a great Russia!”

For a very different take read "The real reason why a resurgence of conservatism in Russia is dangerous"

This phrase of the former Russian prime minister is well known outside the context in which it was spoken. It is especially important to emphasize that it was spoken in the State Duma during a debate on agrarian reform. It is amazing how this statement is still relevant to this day, as well as many others in the heritage of Stolypin, for today’s Russia.

“After working about 10 years on the agrarian portfolio, I have come to the firm conviction that in this case – what we need is hard work, we need long laborious work,” Stolypin announced back then. “In Western countries this took decades. We offer you a modest but correct path. The opponents of government would like us to follow the path of radicalism, the path of liberation from Russia’s historical past, liberation from our cultural traditions.”

We should not forget that Stolypin’s conservatism did not mean the rejection of reforms. And in this, Stolypin is the brightest Russian representative of classical conservatism, such conservatism that has been adhered to by many prominent statesmen of the West, whether they be, for example, the British conservative prime ministers that implemented reforms, or the German Chancellor Bismarck.

Over time, the Conservatives have increasingly come to the conclusion that a strong state with a harmonious society of prosperous citizens is impossible without reforms. If such reforms were are not implemented, then one can expect the loss of the country’s foreign policy positions, economic disasters, political and social upheavals that could destroy everything that is dear to the conservatives. Another thing is that these reforms must be wisely developed and carefully carried out, taking into thorough consideration all national circumstances and traditions.

Internal and external critics have often reproached the Russian government’s commitment to cultural conservatism. However, in today’s rapidly changing world, national and cultural traditions, family values, ​​and religion often help people to cope with the rapidly growing informational load, the overall faster pace of life, the erosion of social structures, the weakening of the welfare state, and the pressure of trade and economic commitments.

Under such conditions, the governments in many countries, understanding the importance of family and religion, are doing everything possible to ensure that the state supports these institutions. In this sense, the Russian authorities are not alone.

In search for allies abroad

Thus, upon closer inspection, we understand the reasons for this growth in popularity of conservatism in Russia. In the face of serious domestic and international criticism, the Russian authorities, if they seriously intend to adhere to a conservative agenda, now need to formulate an appropriate program, to show compliance of this program with the interests of the state and society, and its similarity to reasonable and effective ideas of global conservatism.

In seeking to solve this last problem, Russian conservatives are trying to establish dialogue with their international counterparts. However, there are two paths by which this can be achieved. One is the easy path – but it is not necessarily the correct one. The second is the difficult path, but one that promises success in the long term.

For now, Russian conservatives have shown a preference for the first option, establishing contacts with forces of the far right in Europe, rather than conservative circles, repeating the common mistake of mixing the right-wing political agenda and a conservative approach to politics.

This would not be a big problem if these ultra-right-wing, mainly European leaders, would not remain marginalized in the politics of their countries. The expansion of cooperation with these marginalized circles carries the risk that any scandal concerning these forces will have a negative effect on the image of Russian conservatives.

And in the long-term perspective, these forces will not be able to rise to power in their respective countries, and therefore, cooperation with them will have a very limited impact, from the perspective of cooperation between the governments of their countries and Russia. After all, not all European right-wing conservatives are capable of following the example of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right party National Front – to abandon scandalously radical positions in order to attract new voters.

The other and more difficult path is for Russian conservatives to gradually and diligently establish dialogue with conservatives in the ranks of the dominant European, and eventually American, political parties. The success of these parties is based on comprehensive centrism, and therefore, they should be representative of different forces, including conservative ones.

It is just such dialogue with these conservatives that can be particularly interesting and useful for Russian conservatives. For example, inside the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), confidently dominating contemporary German politics, the conservative groups have not always agreed with the policies of the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Similar groups exist in most European countries, and if Russian politicians and authorities really adopt conservative ideas, it will be necessary to find an approach to conservative representatives of the political establishment, and be able to convince them of the generality of the conservative agenda, and the existence of potential for cooperation.

The task is difficult, but nonetheless possible, especially if Russian conservatives really want to make progress in solving the problems of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy. The first step towards such a success should be a clear recognition of the fact that conservatism and misoneism are two different things. Genuine conservatives are opposed to any radical measures, be they left-wing calls to build an ideal society of the future, or right-wing demands to take drastic measures to return to the realities of an obsolete past.

The opinion of the authors may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.