01/20/2012 03:29 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Putin, Lenin and The Tsar: Moscow's Second Conference of "World Against Nazism"

If you're really uncomfortable about the tendencies of American politics in 2012, take some comfort from current events in Russia. Our struggle between a moderate left-of-center incumbent and crazy reactionaries is being fought out in a system that has a set of generally accepted rules and values. Russia is sorting out its leadership where no one knows the rules and the culture has not resolved profound differences in its view of history or the future.

What I have gleaned about this comes largely from my attendance last year at an international conference in Moscow called "World Without Nazism: Global Goal Of The Entire Humanity". It's an organization and effort put together by a Russian Senator named Boris Shpiegel and brought anti-Nazi activists from over 20 countries together. See last year's piece about the trip.

There's a lot of Russian self-interest involved because of and Latvia that are causing headaches for the Kremlin, but there's also something in the wind internationally that the conference properly, and uniquely, addressed. It took place in the context of a Russian search for cultural and political identity, where rejection of Soviet and Leninist iconography has yielded a return to the symbols of Tsarist Russia, and a political leadership that continues a tradition of autocracy. Putin is a complicated figure who cannot be dismissed as just another strongman.

But I'm not sure that anyone's future is to be guided by a return to the traditions of Nicholas II and Rasputin.

This year's anti-Nazi conference is about to take place in Moscow and I'm going back. Events there have swirled and bubbled. The new middle-class, something Putin has sought to encourage in the midst of oligarchy, seems unhappy and willing to say so, much to everyone's surprise. The Russian presidential race is underway and beyond candidates and personalities there's a concern about fair elections that is unresolved.

The Conference is attracting major figures such as Elie Weisel and Ron Lauder partially because of its focus on the Holocaust, but the running conversation about the re-emergence of political activity that mimics Nazi ideology is an important one.

As Americans re-learn regularly, democratic societies need more than competence, intelligence and character in its leadership. The values that underlie the policies and personalities need to be shared even amongst the competing visions. American politics today, if the audiences at Republican presidential debates are to be believed, are challenging some basic premises, often with nothing to offer as an alternative.

I never thought that a strong commitment to "Liberty" could abide with boos for gay soldiers, cheers for the dying uninsured and executions, and most recently, an ovation for the sneaky notion that African-Americans don't really value hard work. But here we are.

Russia seems to be in the throes of similar challenge to prevailing orthodoxy. Is autocracy inevitable? What do things like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street portend as the Internet permeates Russian society? Will the emerging middle class stay politically active if bullied by the government? While these questions are markedly different than the ones' Americans are asking, they bespeak a similar discontent.

There was real value in last years anti-Nazi Conference, it's important to go back and keep the discussion alive. We'll issue a communique as things develop.