Valdai: Russia’s Best Political Talk Show

The annual Valdai Discussion Club gathering in Sochi took place over the course of four days during the week of October 17th and garnered a considerable amount of media attention following the delivery by President Vladimir Putin of the keynote address to its plenary session on October 21st. The Kremlin itself characterized the speech as Putin’s most important since his address to the Munich Security Conference in February 2007.

That was the verdict of television anchorman and head of Russian state news broadcasting Dmitry Kiselyov on his widely viewed Sunday show.  As we know, the Munich speech went down in history as a turning point in Russia’s relations with the West. In it Putin set out Russia’s rejection of US global hegemony in a monopolar world order, listed his country’s grievances with the U.S. and its allies’ infringement of its national interests and shabby treatment since the mid-1990s. What followed was ever greater confrontation between East and West.

Whereas the 2007 speech set out the military and geopolitical dimension of Russia’s alienation from the U.S. led world order, this latest speech to the Valdai Club addressed the growing intellectual chasm between the adversarial parties. Putin placed Liberal Democracy, globalism, newly formed “progressive” values on issues of feminism and transgender, as well as compensatory “reverse discrimination” in racial relations on the Western side and set against them what he calls “healthy conservatism” and repudiation of extreme or revolutionary changes in values on the Russian side. 

In effect, Vladimir Putin was detailing the Russian position in the emerging ideological dimension to the East-West test of strength. A simple military stand-off does not make a Cold War. But when an overlay of ideology is added, you do indeed have a full-blown Cold War II.

Cold War I was Communism versus Free World market economies and democracy. Cold War II, in the eyes of the USA and its allies is all about democratic countries standing up to authoritarian regimes, meaning Russia and China.

 To be sure, there was a bit of hyperbole in the Kremlin’s calling out this latest speech as marking a new turning point.  It was in fact one further step in the development of ideas first given public airing in Putin’s 27 June 2019 interview with the Financial Times on the eve of the Osaka gathering of the G20.  In that interview, Putin said that ‘the Liberal idea has become obsolete.” Those words touched off a firestorm of controversy and sharply raised the ideological dimension to the East West differences.

My peers in the global community of international affairs analysts are straining their minds to parse Putin’s speech, especially his notion of the conservatism that has been embedded in Russians’ DNA by the horrors of the 1917 Revolution and Civil War, followed by the decades of social engineering under Soviet Communism.  Some will be busy interpreting for their readers Putin’s references to Nikolai Berdyaev, an early 20th century Russian philosopher who has guided his thinking on political values and on Russia’s place in the world.

What I will say is that the speech was brilliantly constructed. Putin touched on all the divisive social issues that form the template of domestic politics in the United States and Western Europe. His own views and the views he attributes to “an absolute majority” of Russians on these matters will be familiar to anyone who has read the American conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan. They come down to common sense or ‘homespun’ logic.

Whether one liked what he said or not, Putin came across as eminently reasonable. He said to the Progressive West: do as you like, we have been where you are now and it does not end well; just don’t try to impose your values on us, for we won’t accept them. This deliberate put-down of the arrogance and narrow-mindedness of the Collective West will certainly give great encouragement to political and cultural leaders of the Rest of the World who are trying to justify their own traditional values.

Of course, presidents have speech writers and however well Putin read from his text to the Valdai Club  it tells you little about the man. That is something we see only when we put the speech in its full context, beginning with the fact that the speech itself was 38 minutes long, but in this plenary session the President was on stage for another 172 minutes in a free Q&A with the moderator, political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov, and with the audience, including several from abroad who participated via video link.

In the Q&A, Putin, without notes, without hesitating for a moment, responded to a great number of questions dealing with all manner of issues both domestic and international. He did so in a substantial manner, summoning up figures to support his arguments, recalling the names of obscure terrorist organizations in places like Syria or Afghanistan and otherwise demonstrating fulsomely his absolute command of the facts which cross his desk daily. He did so without strain and smiling throughout. It is impossible to think of any other world leader who might equal such a stellar performance before cameras.

In saying that he projected reasonableness and a facts-based approach to political issues, I do not mean to suggest that he displayed no temperament. On two occasions in the Q&A he took sly pleasure in sarcasm. The first was in answer to a question from Dmitry Muratov, chief editor of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Muratov was hammering away at the alleged wrongs of Russia’s law on registration of news agencies as ‘foreign agents.’  Before explaining why Muratov was wrong, Putin congratulated him on the Prize, which, he said, put him in very good company with Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev. In Russia, this was an unmistakable ‘left-handed compliment.’ 

The second moment when he allowed his personal as opposed to ‘official’ thoughts to show through was in his answer to a question about the need to reform the United Nations Organization and, in particular, the Security Council to better represent the current distribution of political, economic and military power in the world. Putin said that reform is due but that nothing can be done absent a full consensus of members. And if, for example, the decision should be taken to abolish the veto rights of permanent members of the Security Council, as many are now calling for, then the UN would on the next day cease to have any value and would become just a Valdai Club II.  This was a revealing slip showing his estimation of the Valdai Club I he was addressing and contradicted the spirit set by his repeated use of the terms ‘friends’ and ‘dear colleagues’ when speaking to the audience.

Apart from the live transmission from the hall on Russian state television, there were that evening and throughout the weekend airing of choice moments from Putin’s exchanges with the audience. This, I insist, is what the Valdai forum is all about: its plenary session amounts to the very best political talk show in a country that adores the genre. The scripting of the event, the ‘casting’ of participants fit a time proven formula of giving the microphone not only to friends of Russia and its ‘regime’ but also to Russians and foreigners who oppose Putin and his policies with greater or lesser aggressiveness. The defenders of the ‘regime,’ in this instance Putin himself, then demolish the arguments of the critics, proving to the Russian audience watching at home who is best.

Americans like Angela Stent of Georgetown University or Robert Legvold of Columbia University, identified by the moderator as ‘veterans of Valdai’ because of their participation year after year surely explain to themselves and their peers that they are unaffected by the blandishments of invitation to the Valdai Club gatherings and retain their distance from Russia’s President. After all, in their books and articles they publicly criticize the ‘authoritarian’ Putin regime, in line with America’s anti-Russian consensus in the political establishment.  However, their status as respected experts makes them perfect foils to Putin’s superior intelligence in the Valdai talk show.

The invited foreign guests generally remain respectful of the host when they are handed the microphone during live broadcasts of the Valdai club proceedings. There are exceptions, of course. I think in particular of one former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union who violated this protocol during an exchange with Putin. He had challenged the Russian President’s characterization of the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, then went on to say that when he first heard that the USSR was no more he had opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate.  Needless to say, the gentlemen never again received an all-expenses-paid invitation to Sochi!

 In closing, I wish to share some background information on the setting for Putin’s annual talk show, the Valdai Discussion Club.

This was the eighteenth iteration of the Valdai Club annual gathering. At the very beginning, the event was held in the Valdai resort complex that borders an extensive national park of the same name situated midway between Moscow and St Petersburg. The luxury dachas within this complex on the shore of a lake were once summer residences for Stalin’s elite. These few accommodations are now available for rental by the day or week for the general public. However, most visitors to Valdai are put up in what might be categorized as a three to four star hotel. They get full board, meaning modest Russian institutional food. The complex supports a healthy life style, meaning no alcohol in the dining room, no smoking on the premises and participation sports. In winter there are excellent cross-country ski trails and in summer there is boating on the lake and hikes. The complex comes under the Presidential Administration and most visitors are employees who receive subsidized vacation packages, though a third or more of the guests are from the general public or foreigners, like myself, who reserve their rooms on and pay commercial rates.

Back in 2002-2003 when the idea for such a ‘discussion club’ with the President was first implemented, the Valdai resort complex was built out to include a conference hall accommodating several hundred. The facility is now used for showings of classic Russian and Western films every evening.  Despite these upgrades, it was understood very quickly that the resort was too small and too modest in comforts to serve the grand promotional purposes that the Presidential Administration was planning. Accordingly, the annual gatherings were moved to the far more fashionable Black Sea city of Sochi, which enjoys a warm and inviting climate in the late autumn when the forum takes place. Hence, the slightly confusing nomenclature of Valdai meetings in Sochi.

Who is invited?  Overall, Russians predominate with foreigners of all stripes amounting to a minority of 20 per cent or less. The core invitees are political scientists holding professorships in major universities or leading positions in think tanks, people with a following who are recognized experts in their field. There are also journalists, historians, a smattering of statesmen and politicians.  Among the faces picked up by the television camera crews that I recognized this time were the Ukrainian political scientist Mikhail Pogrebinsky, who for a long time was a regular participant in Russian television talk shows, and the University of Kent historian- political scientist Richard Sakwa. Then there was another ‘veteran’ of Russian televised events, the German political scientist, historian, and former adviser to the German government on Russian affairs, Alexander Rahr. None put Vladimir Vladimirovich under much pressure.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021