Russia’s Moral Framework and Why It Matters

September 24, 2015 Topic: Society Tags: RussiaCultureMorality

Russia’s Moral Framework and Why It Matters

A look into Russia's moral framework and the relationship it has with religion and state values could help us better understand what makes Moscow tick.


Russia’s moral framework, particularly as it applies to contemporary Russian foreign policy, differs markedly from that of the West.

While post-Soviet Russia has no guiding ideology, it does argue that certain values, if adopted as shared principles of behavior, are more congenial to international order than others. Russia would like to see such principles of behavior be more widely adopted, but, recognizing that each nation’s cultural development is unique, it very much opposes efforts to promote any one set of ethical values beyond its borders. Hence, the only time that the international community may legitimately appeal to transnational ethical norms, is when such are sanctioned by the United Nations. This is a high bar, but, Russia argues, it has been set high on purpose, to avoid abuse.


The specific values that Russia sees as more congenial to international order are those shared by Russia’s four traditional religious communities—Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Their comfortable interaction with each other and with the state, Russia argues, demonstrates that religion need not be a source of conflict in the modern world. Indeed, Russian spokesmen have often argued that Western nations could learn a lot from the Russian model.                     

This moral framework has led to four areas of friction with the West.        

The first involves the nature of the international order. Since the rise of human rights and democracy as explicit U.S. foreign-policy objectives in the 1970s, Western political leaders have argued that, in the best of all possible worlds, foreign policy is a reflection of domestic politics. The theory built around this assumption—“democratic peace theory”— in its most popular form is taken to suggest that democracies do not go to war with each other. States that promote democracy are therefore promoting a morally desirable international order, whereas states that object to such efforts are deemed immoral.

As Western concern for democracy and human rights has outpaced that of international institutions, the United States and its allies have sought ways around these institutions, by asserting that Western values are the de facto, if not de jure, international standard. When several Western nations act in concert, therefore, they do not require any explicit mandate from the United Nations. This has been a source of considerable friction between Russia and the West.

A third source of tension stems from the erosion of traditional religions as the arbiters of morality in the West. For some in the West, it follows that international society must now find some alternative normative framework. Since the values of individualism, secularism and modernization led to the rise of the West, according to this line of thinking, they serve as appropriate benchmarks for the rest of humanity.

Finally, in today’s Russia the Orthodox Church is closely partnered with the state. It provides both intellectual and moral support to many state policies, not because it has to, but because it wants to. The current moral framework of Russian foreign policy is, indeed, its view, which the Church promotes because it is convinced that creating a “congenial international order” will assist it in its threefold salvific mission—to save individual souls, to save all national cultures that have been baptized into Christ, and to save all mankind. Needless to say, this is as far from the doctrine of separation of Church and State as East is from West.  

The moral contours of the present East-West conflict should now be readily apparent. Russia opposes the adoption of any single set of cultural values as the standard for international behavior. Many in the West counter that Western values are not just a lone cultural standard, but the de facto universal standard. Russia labels this unilateralism and advocates a multipolar world order based on pluriculturalism as a better alternative.

Pluriculturalism argues that there is an inherent (“God-given,” according to Vladimir Putin) value to diversity among nations. This is distinct from multiculturalism which values diversity within nations. Russia assigns diversity within nations a lower priority than it does diversity among nations. By contrast, Western states more typically prize diversity within nations (the rights of the individual), whereas among nations they seek to subordinate national cultural differences to standards, such as human rights, that express modern Western values.

The potential for international conflict is obvious, but it is hardly inevitable. For one thing, if we look at this debate in historical and religious context, we see that it has deep roots in the West.

Thus, Russia’s pluriculturalism, which argues that national cultural distinctions impose certain moral limits on the conduct of foreign policy, used to be called “American exceptionalism” in this country and was typically cited as the reason America does NOT go abroad, as John Quincy Adams put it, “in search of monsters to destroy.” Contrast this to president Obama’s assertion last year at West Point that “America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will,” which takes it for granted that subjecting all nations to American leadership is a moral good.

Just how much our moral framework has shifted over time can be gleaned from the fact that today the best known articulator of Adams’ concern that, should America become “the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer be the ruler of her own spirit,” is not even American. It is Vladimir Putin.

Nor is the Orthodox Church’s moral framework as “anti-modern” or “anti-liberal” as it appears to be at first blush. The writings of senior Russian clergy on these subjects quite nuanced, arguing that the Enlightenment and liberalism were both valuable and progressive social ideals in their day, but that having abandoned the moral framework provided by the Church, they have deformed and become monstrous.

What the Orthodox Church does reject, and this wholeheartedly, is secularism. And the fact that contemporary Western societies tend to regard secularism, along with modernity and liberalism, as forming the quintessential Western trinity of values, is something that the Russian Orthodox Church is keen to reverse.

This is, of course, a conflict of visions, and some political fallout from it is inevitable. It is also understandable that, in secular discourse, the Russian Orthodox Church is often treated as a political actor, because it clearly is. It is also an economic actor, a legal actor, a cultural actor, an educational actor, in sum it is active in literally every sphere of public life. The question we ought to ponder, however, is how best to prevent this conflict of ideals from spilling over into outright hostility. One way to mitigate the political repercussions that derive from our conflicting eschatologies might be to recognize just how little this secular activity means to the Orthodox Church.

We should never lose sight of the fact that the Church sees itself, first and foremost, as a supernatural actor—the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in history. What do political battles matter when one is competing for every individual soul, for the very soul of mankind? This latter is the only struggle that has meaning for the Church, that is its raison d’etre, and its outcome will not be decided by politics.

Moreover, in this all-defining battle, the Church has an almost insurmountable advantage over all political actors, governments, and even nations. Its time frame for success is eternity, which is awfully hard to beat.

But how successful can Russia be in its efforts to propagate its moral framework? How attractive is it? The answer depends on which region of the world one is talking about.

If soft power is thought of as the use of religious and/or cultural affinity to achieve foreign policy objectives, then it is not surprising that most of Russia’s neighbors remain quite receptive to Russian soft power. Sometimes, as in Ukraine and Georgia, this mutual dependency is manifested in a “love-hate” relationship that keeps Russia at the center of public attention, even as national elites desperately seek to distance their country from Russian cultural influence.      

Culture and religion therefore remain powerful assets in Russia’s efforts to establish a Eurasian Union and to impede alternatives, since it is always easier to forge political and economically attractive options from a common cultural foundation, than to attempt the reverse.

But the real test for Russian soft power will be whether it can shape preferences in areas of the globe that have traditionally been outside its cultural influence. To expand its reach, Russia is promoting two simple messages that are likely to resonate deeply with many non-Western states.

The first, is that it is alright for non-Western nations to be true to themselves. To succeed in the world, one does not have to move in lockstep with the Western model of development. The rise of the BRICS, Russia argues, has proven that diverse approaches to development can compete very successfully with “the Washington Consensus,” and that local traditions can provide a reservoir of social resources that can be used to enhance global competitiveness.

The second message is that it is alright to challenge prevailing Western notions concerning the advantages of a consumer oriented society. In many non-Western societies, consumerism is blamed not only for leading directly to spiritual crisis, but also to resource, demographic, and ecological crises. The common response has been to seek a sustainable, autochthonous spiritual development, upon which to build a sustainable, autochthonous economic development.