Tuesday 30 June 2015

COMMENTARY: Putin and Social Morality

While it has been the case in legal history that the laws enacted by legislators and judgments rendered by senior courts have not always reflected changes in social attitudes, the recent decision of the American Supreme Court in legalising gay marriage does in one sense represent the culmination of a remarkable shift in public opinion on the matter.

In the United States, nationwide polls dating from the 1990s showed that only a minority of the population supported the idea of same-sex marriage. But the level of opposition has weakened to the extent that polls in 2015 show support running at about around 60%.

There is, of course, dissent.

Those identifying themselves as traditionally Christian in religious belief and conservative in social values only see this development as being anathema and evidence of further erosion of the key building blocks on which society has for long rested.

It is an issue which like those of abortion and homosexuality features high as a divisive area of contention in the culture wars which continually polarize American society.

The aforementioned, however, is merely background for another issue that interests me on a number of fronts; namely that of the place of post-Soviet Russia in the context of the contemporary circumstances of the West.

For instance, does Russia potentially present a major part of an alternative global economic framework as a counter balance to the Anglo-American domination of the international financial system? Again, does Russian military might provide a much needed counterweight to what is seen as the aggressive and malign  record of the United States-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation?  And does Russia provide an alternative to the secularized West in terms of the social mores that are promoted by the state? For it is the case that some see it as the defender of what is termed “traditional Christian values”; a irony given the many decades of criticism by American political and religious figures of the ‘godless’ system championed by the old Soviet Union.

It brings to mind comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin in a speech delivered in a state of the nation address back in December of 2013. “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values,” he asserted. “Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”

Russia and its leader have unquestionably been in the crosshairs of the mainstream Western media for considerable period of time now. One area of the criticism -some would argue demonization- has related to the Russian state’s handling of matters pertaining to the rights of gays and lesbians.

While the official Russian position is to view enactments in this area as merely promoting traditional notions of gender and the family unit, much of the Western media has viewed each development as retrogressive and inhumane.

On the matter of Putin and the Russian state’s promotion of what it terms Christian morality, one can offer the following sober assessment.

My feeling is that while a segment of the Russian population, particularly among the older generation, may be genuine in their embrace of traditional Christian faith, the re-institution and empowerment of the Russian Orthodox Church is really a self-conscious attempt aimed at fostering a post-Soviet Russian identity, promoting patriotism and encouraging pride in a Russian culture that is different but not 'subservient' to the global dominance of Western European culture.

Russia's population has for long been in steady decline. The abortion rate was very high during the Soviet era and men die early from the effects of alcoholism. What better way to boost the birth rate of the country than by encouraging procreation within the traditional trappings of marriage?

It would present a near impossible task to measure what may be perceived as a ‘moral index’ comparing Russia with the United States or Western Europe as a whole. But if one measurement pertains, say, to that of abortion as a social ‘evil’, then Russia lags behind the ‘decadent’ West. A 2010 report by the United Nations titled “World Abortion Policies” found the rate of abortion in Russia to be the highest of any country with recorded data on such operations.

Russia of course continues to be plagued by the pervasive influence of gangsters at all levels of society, and any assessment of its purported leadership of nations wishing to revert to a more virtuous stance on the range of ills facing modern society would be evidence of a Kremlin-led crusade against corruption.

Even Putin’s achievement in neutralising the power of a number of oligarchs who arose in the circumstances of the chaotic transition from the Soviet to laissez faire economic order must be approached with caution, for it is the case that he has not rid Russia of the bulk of oligarchs or seized their ill-gotten wealth since his conditions were that they could keep their wealth so long as they did not sponsor any political challenges against him.

It brings to mind another trade off Putin has made with the resurgent Christian Orthodox Church. The photographs of the grand living circumstances of higher echelon priests have received media attention. The argument may of course be that they deserve to be given some 'pomp' as a symbol of their status vis-a-vis the state and society.

But there is a difference between a living standard that is appropriate to an official office and one that is ostentatious, which of course Jesus Christ himself taught against. The austere lifestyle promoted by Christ is not reflected in the lifestyle of the head of the Russian Church, Patriarch Kirill,  who has access to expensive dachas and an air jet; who enjoys luxury holidays in the Swiss Alps and who hosts visitors who have included characters with decidedly unsavoury reputations. The photograph of the Patriarch disembarking from his official jet surrounded by a retinue of near mini-skirted uniformed female bodyguards is quite striking.

Comparisons with the lifestyle of the modern day oligarch would be in order.

To press home this point, it would be remiss not to mention a picture of the Russian Patriarch attired with a seriously expensive watch. The resulting howls of protest from certain quarters in Russia led to an atonement of sorts. Harking back somewhat to its Stalinist past, the picture was photo-shopped in order to remove the 'offending' watch. The only problem was that the retouch failed to eliminate the reflection of the Patriarch's 'bling' from the polished table.

The Vladimir Putin-ruled new Russia is often used as a mirror in contra-distinction to the West in which critics and supporters alternately seek to criticise or affirm the values and policies of one over the other.

But any sincere and objective analysis of this cannot hold the one side to be consistently superior to the other. There is much evidence, for instance, to back up the Russian claim of the West’s deliberate fomenting of trouble within Russia as well as on its borders which is followed by the construction of Russian aggression when it has in fact reacted in legitimate defence of its national interests.

Putin deftly wrong-footed  those in the United States who wished to use the 2013 chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta as an excuse to enable direct action by NATO against the forces of President Bashar Assad.

Furthermore, the creation of an international bank with the assistance of China provides the potential for a credible alternative to those non-aligned nations who weary of the present international financial system and its capacity for creating a lasting subservience to the West as well as perpetuating a cycle of indebtedness.

However, one cannot use this as the basis of an overarching claim of the moral supremacy of Russia over the West any more than objections to Russia’s failure in many instances to reflect the rule of law can be used as the basis for a blanket disavowal for any of its internal and external policies.

But on the specifically raised issue of the efficacy of Russia’s promoting moral values, an old and wisely formulated adage applies:

"Physician, heal thyself".

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2015)

Adeyinka Makinde is a London-based writer.

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