Interview. We spoke with Michel Eltchaninoff, author of a book called ‘In the Head of Vladimir Putin,’ about the ideas that shape his politics. ‘Putin promises a moral education founded on Christian values, patriotism and respect for hierarchies.’

What’s going on in the mind of Putin?

Deputy director of Philosophie Magazine, a scholar of Russian culture and of the new European right-wing movements, Michel Eltchaninoff is the author of Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine (“In the Head of Vladimir Putin,” Actes Sud, 174 pages, €7), a survey on the ideology that is dominating the Kremlin.

Putin’s re-election was a given. But it is less easy to say which ideas and cultural references are guiding his politics.

Putin is an heir of the Soviet system, but only in the sense that, from that whole experience, he wants to keep the patriotism, militarism and the sense of superiority from being a great power. In addition, since coming to power in 1999, he has tried to reconcile the legacy of tsarism and the USSR, presented as two basic steps in the story of eternal Russian greatness.

After the tragedies in the Caucasus and the Ukrainian crisis, he has emphasized his conservative profile, announcing a “Russian way” that is more and more nationalist when it comes to social and cultural policy. In this context, references have become frequent to the Eurasian ideology that developed in the 19th century and was taken up by the tsarist diaspora after 1917, as well as in some rare “national-Bolshevik” spaces in the USSR, which claimed that Russia had managed to preserve its own identity only by looking to the East and defining an anti-Western geopolitical space, under the rule of an authoritarian leadership.

Putin’s speeches contain plentiful references. Which authors are part of the cultural pantheon of the Russian president?

Among the most mentioned are reactionary philosophers like Ivan Ilyin, an anti-Communist and supporter of the Tsar who was expelled from the USSR in 1922, and who was a fervent admirer of Franco and Salazar. Then there are references to Konstantin Leontiev and Nikolaj Berdjaev, both monarchists and Slavophile theorists who are responsible for the foundations of the Eurasian ideology, also as a response to egalitarian and revolutionary influences coming from Europe. Finally, there is the historian and ethnologist Lev Gumilyov, who died in 1992 and worked for a long time at the Hermitage Museum, and who redeveloped Eurasian theories during Soviet times.

How, therefore, can we define the outline of the “Putin doctrine”?

He himself has traced in his speeches the main coordinates of this sort of conservative revolution. In addition to a renewed nationalism, the most important theme is a traditionalist vision of society. Thus, for example, in Novgorod in 2013 he criticized Western countries because “they are forgetting their Christian roots and rejecting ethical principles and traditional identity: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.” For him, treating heterosexual families and homosexual ones equally would mean “to equate faith in God with faith in Satan.” Against what he denounces as the relativism of values, democratic masochism, weakness in the face of minorities, arbitrariness of political correctness and mass immigration, which are supposed to have led the West to decadence and chaos, Putin promises a moral education founded on Christian values, patriotism and respect for hierarchies.

Which intellectual figures support this line of thought?

There is no one “ideologue,” nor any real cultural laboratory, but a shared project. Before he fell into disgrace, the figure of Vladimir Yakunin held great sway, a businessman with ultra-conservative convictions who led the Russian Railways until 2015 and favored an alliance between Putin and the Orthodox Church. Another important personality is the director Nikita Mikhalkov, who appeared alongside Putin in the election campaign and who supports the return to “White Russia values.” Then there is Father Tikhon Shevkunov, Vicar of the Moscow Patriarchy and spiritual advisor to the president, who, as coordinator of the commission investigating the death of the Romanov family in 1918, has hinted at the theory that this was a “ritual murder” committed by Jews. Finally, extreme right-wing intellectuals such as Aleksandr Dugin are also making themselves heard by the Kremlin. Having studied Evola, close to the Nouvelle Droite and to Alain Soral, Dugin is the one responsible for the renewed attention to Eurasianism, presented as a defense against the “imperialism of Western values,” i.e. the free market, but also the open society and human rights.

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