'I'm a liberal,' he said. 'It can mean anything!'
‘Keep punk bands out of this zone,’ said a banner in Amsterdam during the Russian president's visit last week. ‘Putin might be offended.’ Thousands of LGBT demonstrators with rainbow flags lowered to half-mast shouted ‘Putin go homo’ as they protested against the Kremlin’s latest move to ban ‘homosexual propoganda’ (which might include the rainbow flag). A few days earlier in Germany Putin had been rushed by topless Femen activists with the words ‘Fuck you dictator’ scrawled on their breasts: a statement, Femen said, against the Kremlin’s ‘patriarchal authoritarianism’. Putin must have been delighted.
Ever since demonstrations began against electoral fraud and corruption in Moscow in 2011, the Kremlin has been trying to spin a potentially universal opposition message into a phoney culture war: it would much rather discuss the future of feminism in Russia than answer hard questions about stolen billions. In all the hubbub around Pussy Riot and the Orthodox Church's absurd statements that femiminism could ‘destroy’ Russia, everyone seems to have forgotten that in 2011 the Kremlin promised to investigate all claims of electoral fraud.
It's true that Russia is casually, squalidly and boorishly homophobic and misogynistic (though many of Putin’s closest advisers are gay and he has more women in his cabinet than Cameron), and reform on these issues is critical. But the country isn't in any danger of turning into Iran, or even Texas: few people who call themselves Orthodox ever go to church; women have state-sponsored access to birth control and divorce is easy.
In its attempts to stoke a culture war, the Kremlin has borrowed the language of the United States, contrasting ‘conservatives’ with ‘liberals’. But what do these terms actually mean in Russia? What is a Russian ‘conservative’? Not a Marxist-Leninist, though that's what Russians over thirty were brought up to be. The Kremlin probably wants to imply something vaguely associated with the recently resurrected Orthodox Church, which has tended to avoid serious social issues, focusing instead on the mystical aspect of the Godhead and always supporting the state in all its endeavours. And perhaps 'conservatism' simply means conforming to the rulers' whims: if the state says it is ‘democratic’ you say you’re democratic, if it says it’s ‘patriotic’ you say you’re patriotic. The only thing the Kremlin really wants to ‘conserve’ are the assets of the new oligarchy created by Putin over the last ten years.
As for ‘liberal’, the word has been so abused after ten years of managed democracy, with authoritarian or Kremlin-controlled politicians routinely applying it to themselves, that it has lost any coherent meaning it may once of had. The other week I met with a young pro-Kremlin activist, Sergei Kalenik, who made his name a couple of years ago by drawing a really rather good Manga cartoon in which a superhero Putin and his sidekick Medvedev do battle against zombie protesters and evil monster anti-corruption bloggers (Aleksei Navalny’s trial began yesterday, to muted coverage; the Kremlin is getting what it wants from the culture war). Medvedev liked the cartoon so much – a nice case of the Kremlin trying to get the ‘cool’ people on its side – he met with Kalenik personally and the cartoonist's career as a spin doctor was launched. ‘Politics is the ability to use any situation to advance your own status,’ Sergey told me with a smile. ‘How do you define your political views?’ I asked him. He looked at me like I was a fool to ask, then smiled even more broadly and said: ‘I’m a liberal: it can mean anything!’