The “Conservative Turn” in Russia?

Forget condoms, contraceptive pills and chlamydia, and turn instead to Chekhov, Tolstoy and Gogol. That is the message from Russia’s children’s ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, who has opposed the introduction of sex education to schools and says young Russians can learn everything they need to know about love and sex from Russian literature.

“I am against any kind of sex education among children,” said Astakhov in a television interview. “It is unacceptable to allow things that could corrupt children.”

Despite having one of the world’s fastest-growing HIV epidemics, Russia has no sex education in schools, owing to the influence of the Russian Orthodox church and conservative social forces.

Astakhov, a powerful official who reports directly to the president, Vladimir Putin, now wants legislation to ensure sex education does not sneak on to the curriculum. Instead, he suggests reading the classics.

“The best sex education that exists is Russian literature,” said Astakhov. “In fact, literature in general. Everything is there, about love and about relationships between sexes. Schools should raise children chastely and with an understanding of family values.”

source: The Guardian


Journalists, commentators and sociologists inclined to label the deliberate silliness described above as a “moral panic,” proof of a newly emergent dominance of “conservative values” or a “turn to conservatism” in Russian society should ponder the dizzying, contradictory career of the fellow doing the heavy lifting in this case, children’s ombudsman Pavel Astakhov. Here are some highlights (all of them drawn and lightly adapted from the Wikipedia biography):

  • He graduated from the law faculty of the Dzerzhinsky KGB School in Moscow in 1991.
  • In 2002 he received a Master of Laws from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
  • Astakhov surprised the court hearing the case [of alleged US spy Edmond Pope] by delivering his closing arguments in verse. He read out a 12-page lyric he had composed in iambic pentameters, urging the court to acquit Pope. The court was not impressed by Astakhov’s poetry skills and Pope received a 20-year jail sentence; he was later pardoned by Vladimir Putin and was flown back to US.
  • In December 2003, Astakhov sent a letter to the US Embassy in Moscow, advising President George W. Bush and Ambassador Alexander Vershbow that he would like to represent Saddam Hussein.
  • In 2003 Astakhov became the host of Chas Suda (Hour of Judgment) which aired on the REN TV channel. It was the first Russian judge show. Unlike Judge Judy in the USA, both parties in these trials are played by actors, with Astakhov acting as judge. The show became enormously popular and Astakhov set up a production company, Pravo TV, to make other programs with a legal theme.
  • In the early days of Vladimir Putin, Astakhov was a trenchant critic of the Russian authorities, accusing them of political persecution of his clients, Vladimir Gusinsky and Edmond Pope. He spoke of a “total disregard for human rights” and claimed that the prosecutors “blindly execute the wishes of the authorities”. Later Astakhov made a 180-degree turn in his political affiliation and became one of the most prominent supporters of the top leadership of Russia. In November 2007 he founded and headed the national movement Za Putina (For Putin). At the founding conference, Astakhov described the aim of the new movement as follows: “Don’t we choose a master in the house? Well, here we are proposing to find a master for the country.”

You can imagine that if the wind suddenly turns in another direction, we’ll quickly see yet another manifestation of the malleable Mister Astakhov. And he won’t be and hasn’t been alone, within the Russian political, financial and cultural elites, in displaying this capacity for tacking with the wind, wherever it blows.

The other aspect of this elite shapeshifting worth noting is that it almost always involves what surely must be deliberate parody or mockery of real conservatism (or populism, or democratic liberalism, or whatever). Here, the underlying message is that only a fool would cling stubbornly to a particular set of values, to definite principles.

What does all this have to do with conservatism? Calling it that dignifies the highway robbery perpetuated against an entire country over the past twenty-two years by the ombudsman and his kind.