As the dust settles over eastern Ukraine, the consensus is solidifying that the conflict there was the first battle of an attempted Cold War revival. A Cold War requires a Soviet Union, and the government of President Vladimir Putin has finally embraced it as a role model, more than a decade into his reign.
It is a strange Soviet Union: sans communism, but with religion thrown into the mix. It owes as much of its official ideology to the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire, with its state-dependent capitalism and traditionalism. Added to bans on political freedoms and grassroots activity, Internet censorship spreading like cancer and a crackdown on LGBT rights (admittedly mild, compared to Soviet times), this is, in essence, a nanny state with an anti-West complex and an instinctive penchant for militant — if not caveman — conservatism.
The religious part disturbs me as it seems staged. What I'm seeing is many religious people in the West supporting Russia because of this apparent faith revival. Yet, I have been always skeptical as to how deep this revival has gone, because I've not really seen any sign of the type of change of heart that comes with growing faith. Putin has been widely touted as a religious man, yet he recently divorced his wife and used the most incredible subterfuge to invade a neighbouring country. His actions belie the image he has been trying to portray. His Russia has also not repented in any way for the sins of her past. That more than seeming to come down hard on gay rights, and saying all the right things about family values (while failing to live them) would indicate a true change, and that true change is pretty much thin on the ground, it it exists at all.
As for the "Caveman conservatism", that is just as disturbing, because it seems it's providing a propoganda bonanza to the West, one that is all talk and some laws passed, yet very little lifestyle change to back it up (See Russia's Conservative Family Values are a Sham).
The political scientist Samuel Huntington would argue that this is a clash of civilizations spilling out into the open after Russia's failed attempt to integrate with the West, and so it undoubtedly is, to some extent. But there is also a generational aspect to the story, which is that Russia, in a nutshell, is struggling to handle the modern world.
The modern world has been defined by the West, so struggling to handle it is a part of the clash of civilisations, in my opinion.
The 21st century is a complex time in which to live. Old economic templates have been rendered null and void by the post-industrial economy, based on factors like social mobility and innovation, and championed by unruly nerds promoting crypto-currencies and using blimps to spread Internet access. State governance means sharing power, cooperating with grassroots activists and upholding the rights of minorities and majorities in a balancing act worthy of Cirque du Soleil. And that's before even getting to soft power: elusive but arguably more powerful than tanks and Buk missile systems.
Meanwhile, Putin does not use the Internet.
Probably would have caused cognitive dissidence if he did use the Internet.
He was recently reported to be slowly overcoming his disdain for the world wide web, much flaunted through the 2000s. But no one would call Putin, 61, a man of the Internet age: He is a child of a time when information was disseminated by state-controlled print and television media, power meant factories and tanks (and Buks), and dissent was outlawed, not tolerated. And much of Russia's elite and general public shares this worldview because they also grew up with it.
It's important to note here, that the Internet is considered to be a threat to the Government in Russia. Putin called it a "CIA Project" and has clamped down severely on internet users in Russia. Hence, there are not that many who use it, not like countries in the West where a great deal of news is spread very quickly online. (See Russia Tightens Grip on the Internet)
For too many Russians, the 21st century has proved hard to handle, which is understandable, given the economic shock of trying to adjust to it. The GDP slump in Russia during the 1990s was worse than during World War II, according to leading Russian economist Konstantin Sonin. Little wonder that the nation hungered for stability, certainty, familiarity — for historical safety.
Given Russia's history of the past 100 years of Soviet Communism, mass death and imprisonment that is hardly acknowledged - it's not just the shock of the 90's - it's the entire background!
This is why Russia has fallen back on the dream of a past Golden Age. It is easier to censor or ban the Internet than to cope with independent news websites and opposition bloggers. It is easier to throw trillions at the military-industrial complex — just as the Soviets did for decades — than to foster innovation. It is easier to boost national self-esteem by piggybacking on old Soviet achievements than to painstakingly attain new feats worthy of global respect.
The Soviet revival was made easier by the fact that Russia never really got the Soviet Union out of its system, at least not nearly as thoroughly as its former Warsaw Pact satellites or even ex-Soviet republics did. Soviet bureaucrats remained the backbone of the ruling establishment — case in point: Putin — and imperial ideology was never replaced by nationalism as elsewhere, including Ukraine.
How can Russia get the Soviet Union out her system? It was imposed from within, not by invasion, and then exported! It's been part of her national identity for nearly a century now, and in order to purge it, it needs to be objectively scrutinised by shining light into all the dark places, yet the Russians have not be able to do anything the sort on a large scale. The people who live in Russia now are the benefactors of the Soviet system that they survived, when so many did not. People like that need serious help, yet the avenues of help are being shut down through clamp downs on independent media and social media, and the classifying of those who don't tow the line as agents of foreign powers.