Does the Putin regime have an ideology?

Maria Snegovaya
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Michael Kimmage
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Jade McGlynn
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

The question posed by the title of this article may seem absurd today, as Russian propaganda broadcasts its ideological narratives to the whole world, instilling these ideas in schoolchildren and students through specialised classes, while history textbooks are rewritten under state patronage in strict accordance with the 'Kremlin's line’. At the same time, as the authors of the text below aptly point out, for a long time, the Putin regime seemed more like a typical authoritarian oil kleptocracy. Is its current shift towards mass propaganda the result of organic evolution or a situational campaign? Will the doctrines we see unfolding mesh with public perceptions? To what extent do they rely on stable concepts deeply rooted in the national consciousness and cater to mass demand?

These questions have a much broader context: how are the contemporary illiberal ideologies that are being embraced by modern autocracies in many parts of the world organised in the first place? How do they resemble or differ from classical ideologies, and what does their future hold? The Re:Russia project began its discussion series on this topic a while ago, but is opening a new chapter of this conversation with this text.

One undeniable strength of the text published below is that the authors illustrate how the instrumental function of the 'ideological' foundation of Putinism has evolved at different stages. They shed light on how these instrumental tasks have transformed its content.

Although many assert that the Putin regime is just a typical kleptocracy with no motivation other than the embezzlement of state funds, in our new report, 'The Ideology of Putinism: Is it sustainable?' we argue that the regime does indeed have an ideology. Over the twenty years of Putin's rule, it has been referred to by various names (from 'Eurasianism' to the 'Russian world'), but this ideology has several stable, interconnected concepts at its core, which, moreover, are based on a deeply rooted Soviet tradition. We believe that this ideology is sustainable because it addresses the existing demands of the population and fills the ideological vacuum that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For these and other reasons discussed below, in our view, this ideology will help the Putin regime to remain viable for many years to come.

From 'Instrumentalism' to 'Thermidor' 

Back in the 1990s, Russian democrats were searching for a national idea. At the time, few people took this quest seriously and it ultimately ended in complete failure. Symbolically, a competition run by the 'Russian Gazette' in 1996, offering a prize equivalent to $2000 to anyone who could formulate a 'unifying national idea' failed to determine a winner. However, in reality, the search for a 'national idea' emerged in response to a demand that arose among some Russians as a result of the sudden end of the Soviet Union, defeat in the Cold War, and Russia's loss of superpower status, which had led to the abrupt disappearance of important elements of the Soviet collective identity.

As Lev Gudkov has stressed, during the Soviet era, the sense of belonging to a 'great power' compensated for the daily humiliation, chronic poverty, powerlessness, and dependence on oppressive authorities that Soviet citizens experienced. Post-Soviet Russia lost a significant share of its influence in the international arena in the economic crisis of the 1990s. For many Russians, this experience was particularly traumatic because it left a void where collective Soviet identity had previously been. In polls from that time, the majority of Russian respondents (72-74%) acknowledged the loss of this great-power status. A popular phrase repeated like a mantra at the time reflected this disappointment: 'What a country we've lost!'

Upon coming to power, Putin felt this demand and almost immediately began to promote the ideas that formed the basis of a new-old Russian collective identity. At first, the goal seemed instrumental. Putin sought to unite a divided and polarised country, to offer people of different views — liberals and conservatives alike — a vision of its direction that would suit everyone. This attempt at synthesis is evidenced by, for example, the simultaneous use of new Russian symbols (such as the tricolour flag) and Soviet symbols (like the Soviet anthem, which Putin reinstated in 2000).

The focus was on the unity and continuity of the 'thousand-year historical path of Russia' and Russian statehood as a central element of national identity and a source of 'pride in the country' (i.e. patriotism). The Kremlin also appealed to the idea of a 'strong state' as the basis for Russia's past and future greatness. These ideas were already being articulated in the presidential address to the Federal Assembly in 2003. Warning of the threat of state collapse, Putin emphasised the 'truly historic feat' of 'holding the state together over a vast territory' and 'preserving the unique community of nations while maintaining the country's strong position in the world.' In contrast to Yeltsin’s vision of the collapse of the USSR as a condition for the emergence of a new, better, democratic Russia, Putin presented the breakup as a regrettable 'catastrophe' that undermined the status of a 'great power.'

An example of the growing emphasis on the role of statehood was the Kremlin-backed 2008 'Name of Russia’ contest, launched to figure out the most significant figure in Russian history via a nationwide vote. Out of twelve historical figures selected for voting, nine were state leaders, from Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, to Lenin and Stalin. The competition's winner was Alexander Nevsky, a prince known for his victories over Novgorod’s Western neighbours – the Livonian Order and the Lithuanians.

But from the mid-2000s onwards, the focus began to shift towards increasingly 'Thermidorian' narratives. This happened after the post-Soviet space was shaken by a series of colour revolutions (Georgia — 2003, Ukraine — 2004, and Kyrgyzstan — 2005). President George W. Bush's statements welcoming the colour revolutions and US initiatives to support grassroots pro-democracy movements convinced Putin that the US was actively promoting regime change. Putin’s chief political strategist, Vladislav Surkov, developed the notion of ‘sovereign democracy,’ which made the correct use of Russian history (including in education) a matter of vital national interest. Anti-Western sentiment was fostered through an increase in state propaganda, and the repression of NGOs and human rights activists, and initial attempts were made to influence the younger generation – as young people had become some of the most active participants in protests during the colour revolutions. In addition to initiatives such as the 'Nashi' movement, the Kremlin turned to education. In 2007, a new manual for teachers was created by order of the presidential administration. This presented Russian history as a struggle for sovereignty against a predatory West, urging the reinterpretation of Stalinist repression as a necessary evil and the dissolution of the USSR as a tragic mistake that hindered Russia's progress.

The 'Conservative Turn' and 'Ideological Education' 

In the 2010s, these trends intensified after Putin felt 'betrayed' by Russia's middle class during the protests of 2011-2012. The need to establish a more defined ideology to justify an increasingly authoritarian style of governance came to the fore. Unlike in the 2000s, when Surkov's eclectic constructs required flirting with various social groups, the 'betrayal' of liberals prompted Putin to turn primarily to a more conservative support base.

The so-called conservative turn, which began in 2012, placed a greater emphasis on civilisational identity. Putin began his third term with a lengthy essay on the 'national question,' asserting that Russia's 'civilisational identity is based on preserving Russian cultural dominance, the bearers of which are not only ethnic Russians but all bearers of such an identity, regardless of nationality.' From 2012, Putin's speeches saw a significant increase in the frequency of the term 'morality' and the adjective 'spiritual.' The role of the Russian Orthodox Church was amplified. The emphasis on 'protecting cultural traditions,' as seen in the case of Pussy Riot in 2012, aimed to delegitimise the liberal opposition, presenting it as hostile, Western, and non-Russian. Laws were passed targeting the activities of independent media and NGOs, including the 'foreign agent' law. By depicting all 'people's' revolutions and protests as the work of hostile external forces, officials and state-owned media claimed that the West was paying the protesters.

During this period, the government’s control over the interpretation of history and the education system significantly increased. It is telling that the budget for the state’s patriotic education programme more than doubled from 2011 to 2016, reaching 1.67 billion rubles. In 2012, Putin founded the Russian Historical Society (currently headed by Sergey Naryshkin, now head of foreign intelligence), which embarked on the mission of creating a new 'revised' unified history textbook, intended to replace approximately 65 existing history textbooks used in Russian schools.

The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the first war with Ukraine intensified these trends. The 2014 Information Security Doctrine called for the protection of Russia's information space from historical falsification. Also in 2014, the Kremlin introduced the 'Fundamental Principles of State Cultural Policy,' which set out the next steps in regulating this sphere. The initial version of these 'Fundamentals,' written with the active participation of Vladimir Medinsky, was the first attempt to construct a consistent ideology: the goal of cultural education was posited as the creation of a common worldview among the Russian people and the development of a spiritual and cultural matrix for the nation 'based on a single cultural and civilisational code.' Ultimately, the presidential administration working group rewrote the 'Fundamentals,' presenting a more sober and less politicised view of cultural policy. However, the updated 2023 version of the 'Fundamentals' is, in essence, Medinsky's original version.

Another significant trend in the 2010s was the increase in funding and promotion of initiatives, clubs, youth camps, historical reenactment events, and tourism to engage the population more actively with the promoted ideologies. Patriotic events returned to schools, there was a sharp increase in spending on 'youth military training' (such as the creation of the 'Yunarmia' movement), reflecting an emphasis on mobilisational activities. Since 2016, expenses for public events have more than tripled. One example of this trend was the emergence of a system of multimedia historical parks, 'Russia – My History,' which showcase a pro-Kremlin reading of Russian history, from ancient times to the present. The first park opened in Moscow on November 4, 2013, and by 2023, there were 24 such parks across the country, from the North Caucasus to the Russian Far East. One of the key messages conveyed by the exhibitions is that Russia is strong when united around a powerful leader; otherwise, it is vulnerable to external aggression. The most extensive section of the park is dedicated to Putin's presidency.

The Nationalisation of Ideology 

Putin's decision to remain in power beyond his constitutional term and the constitutional amendments of 2020 required an even more systematic approach to ideology promotion. Elements of traditionalism were directly included in the revised Constitution, which now mentioned the 'memory of our ancestors who bequeathed to us ideals and faith in God,' and emphasised reverence of the memory of 'defenders of the Fatherland' and the positioning of the Russian language as 'the language of the state-forming nation, a part of the multinational union of equal nations.' The 2021 National Security Strategy incorporates these ideals into state policy even more openly, mentioning 'strengthening traditional Russian spiritual and moral values, preserving the cultural and historical heritage of the Russian people' as a priority.

However, it was the war in 2022 and the radical break with the West that triggered the most significant shift towards systematic ideology building. Russian officials are now openly suggesting lifting the constitutional ban on state ideology. In November 2022, a special presidential decree on the 'Foundations of State Policy for Preserving and Strengthening Traditional Russian Spiritual and Moral Values' was adopted, which includes values such as patriotism, service to the Fatherland, responsibility for its fate, high moral ideals, strong families, productive labour, prioritising the spiritual over the material, collectivism, historical memory, and generational continuity.

The efforts to promote ideology in educational institutions gained a renewed momentum and a more coercive character. Updated legislation now requires every school in Russia to have a consultant dedicated to promoting the 'civil' and 'patriotic' education of students. Since September 2022, all schools are required to hold a flag-raising ceremony every week, and in secondary schools, a new extracurricular lesson, 'Conversations about Important Matters,' was introduced with the stated goals of 'strengthening traditional Russian spiritual and moral values' and 'fostering patriotism.' Official ideological themes are actively promoted through the newly published unified history textbook, which features the Crimean Bridge on its cover, authored by none other than Vladimir Medinsky. The titles of the textbook's final chapters, dedicated to events in Ukraine, essentially enumerate the foundational ideological themes of state propaganda: 'US Pressure on Russia’, 'Opposition to the West's Strategy Toward Russia,' 'Falsification of History’, 'The Return of Crimea,' 'The Fate of Donbass’, ‘Confrontation with the West’, 'New Regions’, 'Ukraine is a Neo-Nazi State', 'Information Warfare and Russian Society’, and 'Russia is a Country of Heroes.'

A new concept of teaching history in universities aims to instil the idea that 'throughout Russian history, a strong central government has been of paramount importance for the preservation of national statehood.' Another university-level course, 'Fundamentals of Russian Statehood,' was developed by a group called 'Russia’s DNA.' Similar to the Soviet scientific communism, it is meant to define the 'value constants' that are characteristic of Russia as a unique civilisation, and it includes four sections developed by Vladimir Medinsky, Mikhail Piotrovsky, Sergey Karaganov, and Mikhail Kovalchuk. Efforts to shape an official ideology are also reflected in the newly rewritten 'Foundations of State Cultural Policy.'

Since May 2023, Russia hosted twice as many military-patriotic events as in the previous year, with a total of 1.5 million such events in one year. The state actively finances films, TV series, and books, allocating presidential grants for the promotion of patriotic initiatives. These efforts are complemented by propagandist coverage on primetime political shows, for which the presidential administration often provides guides with lists of topics/theses for discussion.

The Tenets of the Putinist Ideology

What are the key tenets of the ideology that the Kremlin has been consistently promoting in Russian society for over two decades?

The primary pillar is statism, which emphasises the sacralisation of a strong and stable state. According to this doctrine, the state is not just a set of institutions outlined in the Constitution; it is an expression of Russia's 'historical essence', which has existed for over a 'thousand years.'

Russia, as a state, is seen as being constantly under threat of chaos and disintegration, which, historically, is not entirely unfounded. Twice in the twentieth century, the Russian or Soviet state collapsed. The disintegration of the Russian Empire was followed by years of civil war, and the dissolution of the USSR led to anarchy and impoverishment for many Russians. The narrative of the 'wild nineties' is fundamental to the Putinist myth. During these years, the loss of statehood was purportedly equivalent to the loss of cultural identity. The weakening of a strong state opened the doors to foreign intervention: foreigners came to plunder what they could and attempted to impose foreign values on Russians. The consistent emphasis that Russia is besieged or in a state of permanent conflict with the West is meant to instil a sense of existential urgency to justify the need for national unity.

These themes are closely linked to other components of official Russian ideology: anti-Westernism and cultural conservatism. When combined with the assertion of Russian exceptionalism and its 'unique path', they promote a messianic view of Russia as a great power and civilisation, as well as a Russocentric polyculturalism, traditional gender roles, and a rejection of individualism in favour of the interests of the state and the collective. These ideas are borrowed from racial and fascistic thinking that was prevalent among the Russian emigrant community from the 1920s, and propagated by the works of figures like Ivan Ilyin, Eurasianists, Alexander Dugin, and other sources, including Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations’. The emphasis on the civilisational or even racial aspect of Russian identity is underscored by the name of the group 'Russia’s DNA’, which is tasked with developing the course on the 'Foundations of Russian Statehood.' Such 'civilisational' thinking plays a crucial role in justifying Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine and the sacrifices it entails.

Finally, another key tenet of the ideology is the cult of the Great Patriotic War (World War II), which amplifies its anti-Western elements. The Kremlin's actions and propaganda towards Ukraine since 2014 are based on the thesis that Moscow must control Ukraine because otherwise the West will use it and the so-called Ukrainian nationalists in yet another attempt to weaken or destroy Russia. These ideological motifs have become an anchored lens through which many Russians interpret or at least rationalise the violence and destruction in Ukraine.

Critics who deny Putin's ideology often point to the flexibility of these narratives. However, the flexibility of the formulations should not be confused with the variability of the core ideological elements that underpin them. Rather, the specific formulations are a means of conveying these ideas to different audiences. For example, whether Ukrainians are presented as 'Satanists' for the Orthodox audience or 'Nazis' for older age groups who experienced the Soviet era is not as important as the fact that both cases imply the same ideological theme: ' the hostile West is manipulating and inciting Ukrainians against Russians'. The fact that the Kremlin's ideology is not expounded in philosophical texts but is typically advanced through symbols and popular culture makes it more adaptable and easily digestible by the population, especially among less educated groups.

Although it is often argued that this ideology does not offer a vision of Russia's future, this is not entirely accurate. The Kremlin does present a vision, drawing on the post-Soviet nostalgia and revanchism that exist in Russian society. The Kremlin's ideology promises that the future will be better because it will resemble the past, and Russia will restore its lost status, giving Russians a reason to be proud of their country. The resurgence of a strong Russia in the future is accompanied by the decline of the United States and Europe, making way for Russia and its partners, such as China.

How successful will the current attempt to indoctrinate Russians with this new state ideology be?

The process of indoctrinating Russian society shows no signs of slowing down and has only accelerated with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The flexibility of the Putinist ideological machine and the simplicity of the narratives it spreads provide grounds to believe that Putinism will not only persist but will become further entrenched in Russian society.

It is difficult to see where resistance to these ideological narratives might come from within Russia. As mentioned above, the Kremlin relies on many quasi-Soviet and even pre-Soviet imperial narratives and themes (such as statism, militarism, anti-Westernism, etc.). Developing an alternative pro-Western Russian identity was an insurmountable task even in the 1990s when liberals were in power. Its emergence in Russia is even less likely now, following the mass emigration of Russian liberals in 2022. Young Russians are particularly susceptible to indoctrination, and they are simply too few in number to alter the country's trajectory, even if they somehow manage to resist the increasingly intense ideological pressure from the state.

The success of ideological indoctrination is further aided by Russians' predisposition to uncritically embrace narratives of 'blind and militant' patriotism: the belief that one should support their country even when it is in the wrong, and that each country should pursue its own interests, even if it harms other nations. The flexibility of these ideological motifs makes them attractive to different social groups. Kremlin propaganda offers a set of theses which lead to unequivocal conclusions ('The Kremlin knows best’, 'The West wants to harm us', 'I can't influence anything anyway', etc.), albeit with varying arguments ('The West is full of Russophobes', 'It's worse there than in Russia’, 'Ukrainians' have been brainwashed by the West, we must save them’, 'Ukrainians are traitors and Nazis who must be punished', etc.).

There are undoubtedly factors within Russian society that work against the establishment of a consistent ideology. These include the general political apathy, the amorphous nature of Russian society, a desire to distance itself from the state, and resistance to mobilisation efforts. Moreover, there are competitors to the Kremlin's discourse, in the form of ethnonationalism or left-wing ideologies, which are popular among certain groups within Russian society. 

However, over the past two decades of Putin's rule, there have been no significant challenges to the Putinist ideology from within Russia. It is unlikely that resistance to the Kremlin's ideological narratives will take shape today, especially in the face of increasing repression, intense propaganda, and the emigration of the most pro-Western liberal segments of the Russian population.