In the honey-hued, timber-panelled opera hall of Saint Petersburg’s new Marinsky Opera House, the orchestra performed with metronomic precision and Slavic passion, the premiere of a long-lost score written by Stravinsky in his twenties. Under the batonless hand of the famed conductor Valery Gergiev, the rhapsody echoed the chromatic colours and the thunderous fanfares of Stravinsky’s master Rimsky-Korsakov. The audience was immersed in the solemn fervour with which Russians listen to classical compositions. I thought that the music, in the ebb and flow of melancholy and rapture, captured not only the country’s soul, but also the vision of its present leader. Like Gergiev, who has become the icon of a re-energised musical and theatrical life, his friend Vladimir Putin has revived Russia’s imperial soul at the crossroads of nostalgia and ambition. The political maestro has retained for the last 15 years most of his countrymen’s support by appealing to their essential yearnings: their patriotism, their quest for national greatness and their romanticism.

Irrespective of what we think of his belief system and achievements, Vladimir Putin is the only statesman who has carried out for several years with notable success a plan for national regeneration. His vision is born out of his attachment to major chapters of the country’s history, including the Soviet period, but even more so the Tzarist saga. Several features of the reborn Russia reflect the traditionalism shared by many of its citizens and patronised by their leader: religious revival, love of pageantry, reverence for the rites and ceremonies of church and state, respect of time-honoured diplomatic protocol. The nation is living a romance with the 18th and 19th centuries, which saw her rise to international prominence under the iron fist of Romanov autocrats. It exudes from the meticulously restored palaces and formal gardens, flutters in the museums crowded with reverential visitors and in the courtly or pastoral scenes and landscapes brushed with Watteau-like delicacy by Dima Belyukin, said to be the President’s favourite painter. Even the generally warm and smiling attitude of the locals reflects their yearning for the graceful and elegant days that bloomed in high social spheres before the invasion of Bolshevik drabness, while the impeccable maintenance of public spaces bespeaks Scandinavian neatness.

The heart of Russia beats with the volcanic vigour of mining, heavy industry and military drums. Infrastructure projects for oil and gas drilling and delivery, road and rail transport and air and space travel are proceeding despite the fund shortage caused by the low energy prices.

However, that is only the icing on the cake. The heart of Russia beats with the volcanic vigour of mining, heavy industry and military drums. Infrastructure projects for oil and gas drilling and delivery, road and rail transport and air and space travel are proceeding despite the fund shortage caused by the low energy prices. The Razvitie (integrated development) belt is being built across Siberia, from Vladivostok and the Chinese border to West Asia and Northern and Southern Europe, deploying cutting edge engineering, ET and IT to network remote regions of Eurasia, in synergy with China’s OBOR and with the planned Indo-Iranian link from Chabahar to Central Asia. There is a proposal to extend this central artery to North America through the Bering Strait, thereby associating the US to this transcontinental endeavour, in the pioneering spirit that formerly guided the exploration and settlement of lands beyond the Urals, the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway and led the Soviet state to shoot up the first artificial satellite into orbit and send the first man into space.

The past and the future are linked without contradiction in today’s Russia, just as they were in the minds of some of her erstwhile masters. One such was Alexander the First, that pupil of Swiss republican educators and French revolutionaries who found his moorings in mystical orthodoxy and monarchical absolutism after defeating Napoleon, the idol of his younger years, and restoring peace through the European concert of nations. Similar paradoxes may coexist in the worldview of Putin. In his speech at the inauguration of the 2016 International Cultural Forum, I noted in his reflective and soft delivery the emphasis on spirituality and the arts as beacons for public policy and on the importance of preserving and promoting national creativity and talent. His unspoken reservations on homogenising globalisation were articulated by several Russian and foreign participants in the Forum, when they called for resisting monocultural linguistic hegemony and maintaining the best traditions of every civilisation. That concern was also emphasised at the function concluding the year of Russian cinema, which is being revived in all major genres—historical epic, thriller, adventure, sci-fi, animation—under the aegis of the legendary LenFilms State Studios, while movie houses are being built and renovated all over the country, even in faraway small towns. Acclaimed director Nikita Mikhalkov (A Slave of Love, Dark Eyes, Burnt by the Sun et al) movingly asked filmmakers not to sacrifice the spiritual and psychological content of cinema to the special effects and high technology fashion. He too highlighted the conservative and spiritual concerns of the ongoing Russian Renaissance.

Strategically, the country has restored her central position on the world map. Moscow’s partnership with China and Iran have not prevented the Kremlin from forging closer relations with Japan, South Korea and the Arab Gulf states, all newly aware of Russia’s importance in the geopolitical energy equation. The restoration of peace and the gradual elimination of terrorism in Syria go on par with growing cooperation with Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, while Turkey is increasingly dependent on Russia’s goodwill. Most of South and Central America—led by Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba—as well as Africa are politically well disposed towards Moscow, while India remains an old friend and a major investor in Siberian oil and gas resources. South East Asia, following Vietnam, is opening up to Russia as well.

In Europe, the Balkan and Danubian countries are turning towards the Kremlin due to common interests and out of frustration with the confusion in Brussels and Berlin’s diktats, while even the old “anti-Russian” holdouts (Poland, Sweden, Britain) are revising their approach in the wake of Trump’s election to the presidency, which seems to promise a warmer modus vivendi between Washington and Moscow. Public opinion in major west European nations is for Russia and mostly opposed to the existing US imposed sanctions supinely endorsed by the EU. Ukraine is seen as a burden and an embarrassment to Europe, which would prefer to see the situation settled so that Kiev does not remain much longer a black hole for financial and military assistance.

Thus, on the global chessboard, Putin has defeated or checkmated almost all adversaries, and Russia, endowed with immense natural, technological and intellectual resources, is called to become not the hegemon, but the scale beam on the planetary map. 

Putin’s paternalistic management, which includes his role as a promoter of the arts, is in tune with an age old tradition of statecraft that modern technocratic politicians too often ignore. His personal style of governance contrasts with the anonymous bureaucracy that tries to manage the European Union or the triad of institutions that sits at the apex of the American political pyramid (the White House, Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court), but it is in keeping with Russian state culture. The Russian President often repeats his commitment to privatising state owned firms and to consolidating a multi-party democracy, but the winds of change are blowing away from the ideals of economic liberalisation and parliamentarism. Publicly owned corporations such as Rosneft have played a major role in tiding the nation over the last few years of low energy prices and economic sanctions. Russia may be ahead of the times in retaining a central role for the government in the economic arena. There are proverbs to the effect that those who understand and revive the best features of their past, can blaze the soundest trail into the future.