Opportunism By Way Of Sovietism and Anti Globalism

Constructing the ideological narratives of late putinism

Alexander Panchenko
Anthropologist, Professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, Visiting Professor at the University of Tartu
Alexander Panchenko
A bizarre combination of geopolitical fantasies, conspiracy theories, and moral alarmism form the ideological framework at the core of the Putin era . In this sense, post-Soviet Russia is not unique by any means, but it is probably the only major nation of the 21st century where a radical conspiratorial  worldview is popular not only in popular culture but also  among the political establishment. Alexander Panchenko, professor of anthropology at the European University at St. Petersburg continues Re:Russia’s series of discussions “Does the current Russian regime have an ideology?”. Previous contributors include Andrei Zorin and Ekaterina Schulmann .

An ideology of ideologies

For people who grew up in the USSR, the word “ideology” was much more familiar and meaningful than for their peers from the United States and Western Europe, who generally  associated the term with confusing debates among left-wing theorists. With Lenin’s light touch, the Soviet version of “ideology” acquired, let’s say, a metatheoretical and partly religious nature; “the scientific ideology of Marxism” seemed to imply the collective assimilation of an objective truth, which, inevitably, lead to a battle against the “false ideologies” of the bourgeoisie, reaction, imperialism, etc in society. This mightexplain why the search for a new national or state ideology has held such a prominent place in both political debates and the collective imagination of social elites in post-Soviet societies. However, as a vague object of desire for Russian political technologists and bureaucrats, “ideology” is rooted in the Soviet interpretation of the word, and not to any other conceptualisation discussed  by social theorists in the 20th century. 

This is, of course, not simply a matter of the conversation lagging behind. The sudden and rapid collapse of thetotal indoctrination systems, social interaction techniques, and political rituals which characterised the late years of the USSR left a wide gap in the symbolic universe, one proved difficult to fill. Different groups and communities dealt with this problem in their own way, from conspicuous and excessive consumption to the creation of utopian and eschatological communes. Be that as it may, Putin and his political technologists thought (and continue to believe) that Russia needs a state ideology and have made numerous, though not entirely  confident, attempts to create one.

Ideology is a broad term. I believe its most appropriate definition, at least in relation to modern Russia, is the metanarrative idea proposed by Jean-Francois Lyotard. Generally, this refers to symbolic or narrative patterns that attribute meaning and historical perspective to national, ethnic, and other identities. A number of such  narratives have emerged during the Putin era, and for the most part, they are only distantly related to each other.

Messianism: pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet

The history of Russian messianism can, of course, be traced to the 16th century or even earlier . However, the idea of ​​a special mission for Russia and its people, which currently circulates ,  is largely indebted to the political and historiosophical ideas of the second half of the 19th century. The well-known theory about Muscovite Russia being “the third and last Rome”apparently did not enjoy much popularity among the secular elites of the 16th-17th centuries. According to American historian Marshall Poe, its “second birth” or even “invention” only took place in the 1870s-1890s, when historiosophical doctrines portraying the Russian people as a “third force” appeared. According to these doctrines, Russian people were the only thing standing between the imaginary West and East; they were also the leaders of the future "Slavic brotherhood” or even the founders of the coming global Christian civilization.

Although the parameters of the Soviet communist utopia changed several times during the USSR’s 70 years of existence, it was always messianic in nature. The Third Program of the CPSU proclaimed that the process of building a socialist state and the subsequent rise of communism in the Soviet Union was the “moral path” of mankind. There was considerably less messianic confidence in the next edition, written in 1986. Five years later the communist project became a thing of the past. Traditionally, the “Orthodox Revival” has been seen as the torchbearer of the messiance project for post-Soviet Russia. In reality, it was rejected by mass culture fairly quickly. Attempts to “revive” Orthodoxy as the main religion in a multi-religious country, despite significant governmental support, remained mostly symbolic and did not give rise to a consistent ideological narrative. It is however true that it wasOrthodox publicists and ideologues, starting with Metropolitan John (Snychev), who played an important role in the spread and popularisation of the geopolitical conspiracy theories and moral alarmism which Putin’s regime has used and continues to rely on today.

The cult of victory and "imperial innocence"

Soviet messianism had another component  that emerged during the last decades of the USSR — the narrative of saving the world from the threat of fascism during the war, and  the cost of incredible sacrifices in the endeavour. This story did not, however, fully align with the classical forms of messianic narratives, which do not look to the past but rather to the future, implying that salvation and universal happiness await somewhere ahead. At the same time, military narratives, slogans, and rituals seem to elicit a significantly more intense emotional reaction in late Soviet society than a communist future ever did. They also had a sort of halo of authenticity. They were directly related to the private experience and memory of individuals and families and made it possible to give a kind of a metahistorical meaning to the bloodiest war in the history of mankind.

During the Brezhnev era, commemorative rituals and practices associated with World War II began to take on the character of a civil religion. This trend was revived, in a somewhat exaggerated manner, during the Putin era. The late Soviet “cult of victory” contained ideas about saving the world, a redemptive sacrifice and a genealogy for modern society. Ancestors and veterans who sacrificed themselves in the war not only saved the world, but also, as it were, ensured the very possibility of a peaceful and prosperous life for their descendants. Based on the typology of myths, one can probably sayhat the Soviet narrative about the Second World War combined features from all three types: aetiological, heroic and eschatological.

This, evidently, made the "religion of victory" the most attractive for Putin's political strategists and propagandists, who understood that the "Orthodox revival" had not lived up to expectations. Among other its other functions, this meta-narrative made it possible to reconcile several things: the memory of Stalinism, the role of Putin’s FSB predecessormass repression, mass deportations, the post-war occupation of Eastern Europe, etc. In a sense, the “religion of victory” was a guarantee of "Russian imperial innocence", to borrow a term that has become quite fashionable.

Under Putin, this militaristic cult took on a life of its own. It transcended political propaganda and became an important part of mass culture. One of the tactics at the core of the "religion of victory" was the idea of ​​reproducing the war, in other words, returning to the sacred battle between Soviet good and Nazi evil. This can be seen in slogans such as “We can do it again” as well as a whole range of narratives and elements of mass culture: from historical military reconstructions to science fiction novels and films about modern Russians who suddenly find themselves on the fronts of World War II.

It was this very cult that allowed both Putin's propagandists and their audience to formulate an explanation for the meaning and goals of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Rituals differ from other types of human behaviour as  there is no pragmatic meaning behind the actions themselves. In this respect, the regime's war against Ukraine turned out to be a ritual, since from the very beginning it lacked any clearly articulated goals. At the same time, the evolution of militaristic rites and narratives deprives the war of its ritual significance: if it becomes part of people’s real lives, leaving real, not imaginary, corpses and ruins in its wake, it no longer needs to be reproduced with the help of parades, ritual processions, films and novels. In other words, this "ritual war" is the historical finale and logical conclusion of the "religion of victory."

Geopolitical imagination and anxiety

A bizarre combination of geopolitical fantasies, conspiracies and moral alarmism has come to be another defining feature of the Putin era. In this regard, post-Soviet Russia is by no means unique, but it is probably the only major country of the early 21st century where radical conspiracies have proved to be extremely popular not only in mass culture, but also among the political establishment. In the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, collective fantasies about the struggles of civilizations, government conspiracies, economic elites, religious organisations, etc. became quite commonplace in global political culture. At the same time, modern Russia turned out to be particularly sensitive to imaginary ethical dangers: for example, the state “National Security Strategy” repeatedly mentions the somewhat vague “traditional Russian spiritual and moral values”, which are supposedly threatened by “external cultural and informational expansion".

Conspiracy alarmism of this kind, generally speaking, can be found among marginal religious and nationalist groups. The same rhetoric was used by conservative American evangelical Protestants in the 1970s. Similar ideas appeared in late Soviet society, as evidenced, for example, by the history of the so-called “Alain Dulles plan” — a conspiracy based on a fragment of Soviet prose writer Anatoly Ivanov’s novel “Eternal Call”., This purportedly exposed the secret intentions of “Trotskyists” to plunge the Soviet people into an abyss of social, moral and aesthetic degradation.

The features and global popularity of modern conspiracy theories can often be explained using the term "agency panic" — a concept coined by the American literary critic Timothy Melley. According to Melley, the explosion inpopularity of conspiracy theories in the second half of the 20th century can be traced to the collective experience of "decreasing agency", or "the feeling that a person is losing the ability to perform meaningful social actions, and in some cases, control his own behaviour." Effectively, this means that we are talking about the inevitable consequences of globalisation, theincrease of information, as well as the erosion of familiar social hierarchies and structures. The emergence of post-Soviet conspiracy theories was also further aggravated by the rapid fall of the Iron Curtain, the collapse of the empire, and a rather severe economic crisis.

As I have already stated, Orthodox activists and publicists played a significant role in the spread of post-Soviet conspiracy theories, often discussing both political processes and changes to everyday life in eschatological terms. Melley's ideas are applicable to this process, and are evident in  two interconnected themest: the loss of a person's individual agency (the ability to make decisions independently) and "pollution", understood both in a moral and physiological sense. In the religious rhetoric of the “end of times”, both of these ideas are often discussed with the help of bodily images and metaphors. 

An apocalyptic imagination of this kind equates bodily, spiritual and social elements. It identifies, for example, an "extended body", which is exposed to constant risks of "pollution" and a loss of autonomy. It is important, however, that anxieties of this kind can express themselves not only in terms of religious eschatology, but also in the form of geopolitical imagination, particularly in arguments about upholding state sovereignty, “traditional values” and “a Russian special path of development”. In other words, ideas that Putin and his supporters love. 

Thus, it seems to me that Putin’s regime and the post-Soviet society that gave birth to it should not be considered to be completely devoid of ideology. Influential meta-narrative models have indeed been created in Russia. These are partly connected with late-Soviet  culture, but are also  fairly typical for modern anti-globalization discourses. At the same time, these narratives, ideas and expectations allude to the ongoing and very deep crisis that was caused by rather banal and well-known events: the collapse of the empire, the failure of the Soviet modernization model and the complexities of the modern information society. 

I believe what we are dealing with is the unfinished degradation and fragmentation of the late Soviet (and, in a broader context, imperial) symbolic universe. It is difficult to imagine how an influential mobilisation ideology can grow from or be built on the ruins of the “incomplete Soviet project”. Most Russians seem to want to forget the war rather than support it in order to maintain some form of a “normal” everyday existence. The social causes of this moral opportunism and conformism should be discussed in a different article, since it is my belief that they are connected not only to the post-Soviet economy and its politics, but also to broader socio-demographic processes. It is important, however, that the aforementioned ideological templates of Putin’s society were created and remain functional mostly in a world of opportunism, rather than one of heroic ethics.

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