IF ONE were to judge by the recent behaviour of Russian lawmakers, the country is under assault. Not by foreign armies—though that threat, too, always looms large in the rhetoric of Russia’s political leaders—but by hostile and unfamiliar values, films, television personalities, even words.
Over the past months, the Russian Duma has been on a campaign to dig up and cast out what it sees as the many traces of foreign involvement or meddling in Russian life. Most egregious is a new law banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans. Another proposed law would require children of state officials to return home after studying abroad or perhaps bar them from leaving at all; yet another would require cinemas to show Russian-made films at least 20% of the time; or be subject to fines up to 400,000 rubles ($13,3000).
Although all these disparate initiatives share the same underlying goal of somehow being seen to purify Russia and to serve as building blocks for a nascent (yet to be defined) ideology, they vary in their immediate purpose. Some, such as the adoption ban, were retaliatory measures, meant to lash out at the United States for its passage of the Magnitsky Act. Cynicism is surely at play, but one should not underestimate how sincerely much of the Russian political class is fed up with what it sees as hypocrisy and condescension from the United States and Europe.
Others, such as a nationwide ban passed last week on promoting “homosexual propaganda” to minors, were meant to aggravate social cleavages and to consolidate support among what advisers in the Kremlin see as the natural conservative base of Vladimir Putin, the president. Before the vote, Dmitry Sablin, a deputy from the pro-Kremlin United Russia, party cited the need to protect country’s “traditional values” and added, "We live in Russia, not Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Still more proposed laws were targeted against specific individuals: a provision to keep Americans from working in politically-oriented NGOs was directed at Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of Moscow Helsinki Group and a dual Russian-American citizen; another, since rescinded, would have made it illegal for foreigners to appear on state television if they “discredited” the Russian state, a clear missive to Vladimir Pozner, a host on Channel One who criticised the Duma on air for the adoption ban and holds an American passport. But it is telling that in order to discredit or to otherwise make life difficult for Ms Alexeyeva and Mr Pozner, deputies seized on their American citizenship–that, it would seem, is now the Scarlet Letter in Russian politics.
The efforts to purge Russian civic life of foreign elements reached a farcical crescendo last week, when Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the bombastic and clownish leader of Liberal Democratic Party, proposed a law that would bar the use of “Americanisms” and other foreign words. (Violators could face fines or even sacking from their jobs.) Gone would be the Russian cognates for “leader,” “boutique,” and “sale,” among dozens of others. “There is a good Russian word, zakusichnaya, not all just ‘bar,’ ‘restaurant,’ ‘café,’” Mr Zhirinovsky said in announcing the bill.
The notion of the law may seem laughable, but as Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre says, it is not that Mr Zhirinovsky in any way misread the current mood, but simply that he has an “unparalleled talent for hardening policies into a travesty.” Not much is likely to come of Mr Zhirinovsky’s initiative: after all, as many have pointed out, he might have to start by changing the name of his own party.
That raises an intriguing question. If much of this proposed legislation is never meant to actually be enacted, then what is the point? Above all, the various laws serve as trial balloons, able to test public mood and cast about for those anti-Western and anti-foreign measures with the most social traction. One United Russia deputy says, “Russian society is living through a transition to the restoration of conservative values”, a shift that the Kremlin and the Duma are happy to nurture, the deputy says.
At the same time, opportunists can use the moment to demonstrate their loyalty or to advance long-harboured ambitions. The United Russia deputy says this was case with the adoption ban, for example. Those “who have proposed such a ban many times before,” the deputy says, used heightened anti-American sentiment “to simply propose it one more time.”
Lastly, once started, any purge, of real people or of ideas and cultural products, quickly takes on a kind of self-perpetuating momentum. As Nikolai Zlobin of the Center on Global Interests explains, today’s Russian bureaucrats and legislators suffer from an “old illness,” in which “you cannot be wrong in proposing something too extreme”. Better to be on the safe side, then, and be more anti-American and anti-Western than is required, Mr Zlobin says.
Mr Putin appears to have settled on the formation of a new ideology. It is a blend of the church, patriotism, and adulation of the province, which serves to consolidate his rule and defend it against those social and political forces opposed to him. But precisely articulating this new Russian idea and why it is different than the Western one is difficult: after all, Russia is nominally democratic, capitalist, and nearly everything else that defines the West. That leaves one obvious move. “If you don’t have it your own idea, take somebody else’s idea and trash it,” says Mr Zlobin. “And then there’s your idea.”