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Special Russian values?!

Moscow-based sociologist Grigori Yudin about discussed values in Russia.

21. June 2018
Magazine > Feature > Special Russian values?!

“We just have different values than you.” In recent years, whether the subject is LGBT rights, domestic violence or political conflicts, Russia has increasingly been stressing “special Russian values” in its disputes with the West. They are often used as the primary argument in disagreements between Russian state powers and liberal groups. But what specific values are we actually talking about here? And how are they different from “Western values”?

The myth of “special Russian values” is one of the most dangerous that state propaganda has instilled into people both inside and outside of Russia. At its most extreme, it means “unlike the West, Russia has values.” It is almost impossible to overestimate the potency of this myth. On the one hand, we increasingly hear European politicians talking about the need for engaging with Russia in a dialogue about shared values. Yet this dialogue always leads to the same dead-end: “What are your values?” “They’re different to yours.” “But what are they exactly?” “Special”. At the same time, Russians mention values in the same breath as “mentality” and other meaningless terms that are well-suited to helping one explain to oneself why something is pointless and won’t work anyway.

Values: A fairly new rhetorical phenomenon

“Values” are a comparatively new feature of Russia’s political rhetoric. They were neither typical of the Yeltsin era, nor the early Putin era. Back then, you were more likely to hear talk of “development”, “democracy” and “freedom”.

These terms bowed to the ideology of modernisation: For every society, there is one right path to development, and it runs through liberal democracy and a free market. Russia has strayed from this path and must now catch up with the West, which is miles ahead. Back then, values were mostly discussed by political scientists, many of whom believed that you could not achieve progress, democracy and freedom until the population held the right values.

Everything changed about ten or twelve years ago. Russians were weary of the ideology of catch-up modernisation, which told them that they should learn from the West. The message was that the West would come and tell them how to organise their country so that they could live correctly. That is precisely what the rhetoric of Russian liberals was at the end of the 1980s, and it has not changed to this day. The trouble is, people don’t like being lectured, especially if the lecture goes on for too long and they aren’t even sure if they asked to hear it or not. An inferiority complex developed, and the Arab and colour revolutions suddenly showed Russia’s elite that belief in the West’s superiority could cost them – among other things – their power. It was at this moment that public servants, with the president leading the way, began speaking the language of “special values”.

The West will come and show you the way

The Russian-values debate of the past ten years is very simple. Almost all the values mentioned can be easily put into one of two drawers. The first contains Western values, the European, liberal and generally human values, as well as an absence of values. The second contains the special, traditional, conservative and Russian values that stand in contrast to the others, as well as the presence of moral, spiritual and religious values. Clearly, neither drawer can exist without the other. Their opposition is founded on the principle of the West versus Russia. If someone in Russia talks about values, then he or she very probably wants to either say that “we must be like the West”, or that “we must keep to ourselves”.

Specific values are discussed much more rarely. When Vladimir Putin sets out the values that are most important for him and the country, the list is symptomatically meaningless: life, love, freedom, compassion, honesty, justice, kindness. It’s the kind of thing a child says when asked what makes a good boy or girl.

Read dekoder.org on erstestiftung.org magazine

The website dekoder.org translates independent Russian media into German and combines these with so-called Gnosen, background texts written by European experts that provide clear explanations of “specifically Russian” terms and realities.In June 2016, dekoder received the Grimme Online Award.

This text is part of a dossier entitled Werte-Debatten (Value Debates) that dekoder is publishing in collaboration with the Körber Foundation as part of its topic on Russia in Europe.
The original Russian text appeared on the Russian news site Republic, and was translated into German by Jennie Seitz. The text is a shortened version of a talk that Moscow sociologist Grigori Yudin gave at the Hertie Innovationskolleg, Center for Advanced Practitioners, in Berlin. The talk was part of Dr Evgeniya Sayko’s project Wertediskurs mit Russland (Discussing Values with Russia).

erstestiftung.org magazine shares selected articles and translates them into English.

The internal emptiness of the value ideology is, incidentally, easy to explain. It is due to the fact that value assertions are not about defending values. They function only to define what they are not. In other words, Russia merely needs them to reject the values it sees as “foreign”.

Asserting values to show what they are not

It is futile to look for any special “conservative” values among Russians. Does charitable work perhaps count for more than personal success in Russia? Sociological surveys are not an especially reliable tool because they are the first to fall victim to propaganda. Yet even they evidence a very pronounced individualism in Russians, and not the slightest hint of conservatism. As leading Russian value researchers Vladimir Magun und Maxim Rudnev show, Russia is characterised by individualistic leanings that are becoming stronger over time.

Are Russians in some way immune to the biggest malady of the modern era – the disappearance of traditional relationships and trust? No. As the findings of the World Values Survey show, a lack of trust and high levels of social atomisation remain a major problem: 66 per cent of respondents say that they cannot trust other people. And you might as well forget family and religious values: church communities are far stronger and more active in Germany than they are in Russia, and divorce rates are much lower.

The talk of values is empty rhetoric. Today’s Russia has no “special values” to offer itself and the rest of the world. That said, we should listen very closely to what is hiding behind the pompous words and actually appeals to Russian hearts. Russians use the term “values” to distance themselves from the “West” and show that they’re “not like that”. The word promises freedom – freedom from ideological and moral dependency, from the role of an incompetent adult who needs to be instructed in the ways of the world.

The parenting metaphor: You can’t tell me what to do!

The ideology of modernisation, with its division into developed and developing countries, forces one to think in terms of a parenting metaphor. Russia made itself so at home in the role of the adolescent that it discovered the obvious flaws in the metaphor that its creators had not considered – namely, that adolescents by no means always dutifully follow the teachings of the “grown-up” developed countries. Adolescents tend to rebel, strive for independence, and have no desire to be told what to do. They won’t do something just because everyone else is doing it. They’ll say they’re “different” – and anyway, who are you to tell us what to do? Under these conditions, exerting one’s authority and referring to “general human values” is the worst strategy possible.

But perhaps Russia, of all places, is just using the language of values in the wrong way somehow? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The philosophy of values goes back to the mid-nineteenth century with the work of Hermann Lotze, and it has shown its aggressive potential on more than one occasion. The idea that humans are guided by higher, eternal values that come from another world quickly leads to the conviction that there can never be any kind of understanding between people who hold different values.

“By referring to its ‘own values’, Russia is legitimising the eternal hostility with the imagined West.”

In his famous speech [Science as a Vocation, 1917], Max Weber describes the conflict over values as a struggle between the gods, for which no compromise exists or can ever be reached. He says that any attempt to establish “universal values” would inevitably lead to charges of hubris and allegations that one is trying to pass off one’s own interests as generally applicable values. Essentially, this is the very position that Russia’s elite are successfully assuming on the international stage today.

The logic of values makes it possible to describe differences between people as radical and therefore insurmountable. Dialogue between different viewpoints is possible, but not between different value systems. Values are like taste (just try to convince someone that cheesecake tastes better than apple strudel), with the sole difference that values permeate every aspect of our lives, demand that we stand up for them and ask us to fight foreign values. In his 1960 polemic entitled, expressively, The Tyranny of Values, Carl Schmitt said: “The theory of value celebrates, as we saw, its true victories in the discussion of the question of the just war.”[1] This is exactly how the language of values functions in Russia today. By referring to its “own values”, Russia is legitimising the eternal hostility with the imagined West.

Whenever “special values” are mentioned, the stress is on the first word, not the second. Russia is not in the slightest bit special when it comes to its values, but it has the complex of a colony that wants to free itself from foreign rule. Despite all the whining about “liberal values” being no good for Russians, behind the obsession with highlighting their own uniqueness lies the desire for emancipation from an all-knowing and authoritarian West. And even if Russians currently have almost no idea what they want instead, it is very difficult not to see this urge as expressing a real love of liberty that deserves respect.

[1] Schmitt, Carl (1967): Die Tyrannei der Werte, Berlin [3rd edition, 2011]

Original in Russian. First published on 7 March 2018 on republic.ru and on 26 March 2018 on dekoder.org.
Translated into German by Jennie Seitz and into English by Jen Metcalf.

This text is protected by copyright: © Grigori Judin. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Tourists at the historical Red Square in Moscow. Photo: © jack-sooksan/iStock.