The Crusade and the Ferris Wheel

How the ideology of Putin's regime has changed over the past twenty years

Andrei Zorin
Professor of Russian, Fellow of New College, Oxford University

The Russian political regime is being transformed by its military aggression in Ukraine. It is becoming more repressive and exerts increasing ideological control over public life, education, and culture. In addition, the war has demanded the political mobilisation of the public and, therefore, has required the construction of powerful narratives and ideologies that support it. In the past, totalitarian regimes were thought to have possessed all these properties and tools, while the new authoritarianism of the twenty-first century was characterised by mercantilism and ideological passivity. At the same time, the search for an ideological foundation for Russian autocracy has been ongoing since the mid-2000s. What are the results of this, and what are its prospects in wartime? Will the war finally help to find a mobilising ideology for Russian authoritarianism? "Re: Russia" starts a discussion: "Does the current Russian regime have an ideology?"

Andrei Zorin, Professor at Oxford University and author of a monograph on the state ideology of 18th and 19th century Russian autocracy, traces the ideological developments of Putin's regime over the past 20 years — from an approach based on a "strong state and civilised way of life” to the revanchist messianism that has become the ideological basis for the current military venture. Professor Zorin underscores that the driving force behind these changes was the need to justify the irremovability of the Russian government. But while the first version of Putin's ideological revanchism, based on conservative maxims of "traditional values" and "Orthodox bonds," did not require citizens to respond in any particular way, the current rhetoric of "apocalyptic battle" and crusade demands a transition to a mobilising ideological model.

Even relatively stable regimes (and the Russian political regime has existed for more than two decades) cannot exist without ideology because this is the language they use to articulate their wishes, demands, and taboos to the population. A regime lacking in ideology will not function, just as a regime without a police force or a financial system will not work. From this a question arises: to what extent is this ideology stable, consistent, and well-articulated, and does it have real mobilising potential?

Of course, there is neither a well-developed political philosophy or program, nor a unifying religious ideology at the disposal of Russian authorities today. It is rare to find such powerful weapons in the ideological arsenals of contemporary tyrants. Most of them simply get by with a basic set of quasi-consensual symbols and metaphors. These allow those in power to explain clearly to their subjects what is expected of them, on what grounds they should identify members of their group from outsiders, and why they should put up with any temporary inconveniences to their lives and unquestioningly support their leaders. This is the very purpose of state ideology, which, to be successful, must be based on a set of political myths shared semi-consciously by the majority. Over the past twenty years, the Putin regime has skillfully and proficiently presented several of these shifting sets urbi et orbi.

A Strong State And a Civilised Way of Life

The ideological configuration of the early Putin years can be interpreted as that of "a strong state and a civilised way of life". There was a tacit expression of continuity with the fundamental concepts of the 1990s, such as "joining the civilised world" and "becoming a normal country", which were evident in the goal to "catch up with Portugal". At the same time, there was a belief that the Yeltsin regime failed to achieve these goals due to the weakness of the central government, and the inability to cope with either the Boyar Fronde or Chechen terrorism. For this reason the “power vertical” and the “dictatorship of law” etc. were needed to ensure a peaceful life of citizens. In a New Year’s address, aired just twelve hours after he took office, Putin stood hatless by the Kremlin walls. While the country was celebrating, the president was at his post ensuring its peace. After sending the holiday's greetings to the country, Putin went to Chechnya.

This ideological construct was supported both by the majority, who had begun to feel nostalgic for Soviet times which in hindsight seemed peaceful and abundant, and by the rapidly Europeanising urban elite. This consensus was disrupted not so much by the stagnation of economic growth as by the inability to guarantee the security of tenure for those in power, which was a top priority for the country's leadership. The slogan "sovereign democracy," which had been introduced even before the start of the economic crisis, was put forward to justify their irremovability.

Bonds And Values

After the Snow Revolution of 2011-2012, the modernising elements of the official ideology were discarded and replaced by "spiritual bonds" and "traditional values". These were designed to ensure "stability", which served as a symbol for exactly the same irremovability of those in power. In addition to the principle of "strong power", two "traditional values" were introduced: the cult of Victory, which became an official religion, and aggressive homophobia, which had been completely alien to the Russian cultural tradition up to that point and was borrowed from the ideological playbook of American right-wing radicals. The "conquest of Crimea," and the introduction of sanctions and counter-sanctions, finally shaped an ideological model where the country's population was divided into an "overwhelming majority" and a "minority" that should be overwhelmed. Members of the erstwhile  "creative class" were renamed "Parmesanists" and "Jamónists," in other words — potential traitors.

This model was fundamentally isolationist and based on vague ideas about Russia's "special path". According to data from the Levada Centre, these ideas were shared by the majority of the population. The idea of finding a  "special path" replaced the desire to become a "normal" country and was distinctly anti-Western in its outlook. This is probably why many observers today emphasise the isolationist nature of the ideological construction that took shape after the start of the war, linking it to the intellectual legacy of the Slavophiles. However, such an interpretation looks at best incomplete and at worst simply incorrect.

The Era of Revanchism: A Messianic Version

Of course, the current version of official ideology has inherited the propaganda of "traditional values" and the cult of Victory from its predecessor. However, if the obsession with former greatness previously seemed only restorative, expressing a vague nostalgia for either the USSR or the Russian Empire had now adopted on a nationalistic-messianic tone. Putin's Russia purports to be leading a coalition of autocracies opposed to Western hegemony, who are intent on bringing it to a world-historic defeat.

One of the most pervasive Russian political myths is that of the transformation of defeat into victory. 

In the most fundamental historical narratives of Russian history, in every war Russia has initially faced severe setbacks. These eventually turn into triumphant victories, albeit at tremendous sacrifice: the battle of the Kalka River in 1223 was followed by the conquest of Kazan, the defeat of Narva in 1700 by victory at Poltava, and the burning of Moscow in 1812 by the taking of Paris. For a century and a half Russian schoolchildren have learnt Lermontov’s poem “Borodino” by heart, in it he wrote: "We retreated in silence, this day and the next.” This particular myth was later crystallised by the events of World War II, from the defeats of 1941 to the fall of Berlin. 

But this time round the new ideology has taken inspiration from the collapse of the USSR — "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century" according to President Putin — and the "wild 1990s" that followed (which are seen as some sort of repetition of the Time of Troubles). According to the logic of this new narrative, it is time for Russia to take revenge. It bears remembering that apart from the conditions expressly concerning Ukraine, the ultimatum issued to the West in 2021 also included a more general demand to reverse the expansion of NATO. NATO should "clear off", as a senior Russian official put it at the time.

It is clear that, in the current alliance of autocracies, Russia cannot compete with China economically. But this weakness might be offset by the historically proven might of Russian arms and the courage of the Russian soldier. It appears that Putin's visit to China’s Olympic Games before the bombing of Kyiv was intended to solidify this distribution of these roles.

National Transformation: The Leader and the People

Such a national transformation implies not just a strong leader, an image that official propaganda has successfully created for Putin since the very start of his presidency, but a leader who embodies the continuity and indelibility of the people's history. The much mentioned “traditional values” were codified and hastily incorporated into the constitution by the 2020 constitutional amendments. This was not, as it is often assumed, simply a means of concealing the establishment of a lifetime presidency, but was also intended to establish a bond between the leader and the people as a whole. Of course this was not the real Russian population as it existed at the end of the 2010s, but rather some mystical folk nation that has existed throughout the thousand-years of Russian history.

In such a nation, there is no place for those who doubt the leader's wisdom and right to lead the country to new sacrifices and victories. So it was no longer enough to merely restrict the rights of dissenters or social outcasts, or to smear them; now they had to be cut off from the wider population and cast out of it.

However, if the creation of the leader for this new ideology had been two decades in the making, these real people had yet to be created. Crucially, the most important step on the road to the creation of this nation was to be the restoration of its historical unity. This had supposedly been eroded by Lenin when he established the quasi-state territories of Ukraine and Belarus, and then later destroyed by Gorbachev and Yeltsin, when they sanctioned independence. In this sense, the purpose of the war started on February 24th was not to revive the empire but to unite the metropolis. Therefore, any citizens of these countries who considered themselves to be separate peoples with the right to their own independent statehood were not separatists like the Chechen insurgents of the 1990s but rather traitors — foreign agents, renegades, and social outcasts.

In Russian fairy tales, fallen heroes were first doused with "the water of death" which could restore their body (if it had been severed into pieces), and only then could "the water of life" resurrect them. The body of the Russian people, torn apart by the insidious and cruel West, had first to be doused with the “death water” of war.

The Crusade and the Ferris Wheel

It seems redundant to point out the inherent inconsistencies within this ideological construction, or its contradiction with historical facts. Much more important is the discrepancy between its content and its status. It is, in its entirety, a totalitarian ideology that requires a religious attitude. In modern Russia, unlike in the USSR or Germany in the 1930s, China in the 1960s, or Iran in the 1970s, there are no demographic, economic, or social preconditions for successful totalitarianism.

These ideological constructions fully correspond to the ideas, expectations, and aspirations of large segments of the population, who are thus able to cognitively accept and assimilate them. However, they are unlikely to believe in them fully or make sacrifices for them. The authorities seem to be aware of this problem and thus have forbidden calling the war a war; they did not rush to reinforce the mobilisation which forms the core message of their propaganda with practical mobilisation, or to switch from selective repression to mass repression. The uniqueness of the situation before Russia officially announced its botched mobilisation lay in the Kremlin's desire to combine the rhetoric and symbols of a crusade with attempts to convince ordinary people that life is continuing on as usual. On the day of the Ukrainian army's counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region, President Putin unveiled a Ferris wheel in Moscow.

It comes as no surprise then that the voices of a relatively small but dogmatic group of radicals, who are not satisfied with such shy totalitarianism and suggest going even further, are becoming increasingly loud in Russian politics.

Today, the ideological apparatus of power faces a dilemma. Even if there were to be a relatively favourable outcome of the war, which looks increasingly unlikely, returning to a peacetime ideology would mean abandoning the narrative of an apocalyptic battle against Western civilisation. This would devalue the war and the sacrifices made. By contrast, an escalation of the rhetoric of a state of emergency could provoke deep social tensions and would also inevitably lead to a search for enemies and traitors at the highest levels of government, a threat clearly evident to those who inhabit the highest offices.

The Russian ruling regime has, for quite some time, been able to effectively update and adapt its ideological models in accordance with changing political circumstances. Today, its ability to adapt appears to be reaching the end of its road.

The Ferris wheel, which had been ceremoniously unveiled by the president, broke down the next day.