An ideology without principles

Does the current Russian regime have an ideology?

Andrei Zorin
Professor of Russian, Fellow of New College, Oxford University
Ekaterina Schulmann
Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin
Alexander Panchenko
Anthropologist, Professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, Visiting Professor at the University of Tartu
Gulnaz Sharafutdinova
Professor of King’s College London
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? Andrei Zorin, Ekaterina Sсhulmann, Alexander Panchenko, and Gulnaz Sharafutdinova explain whether the current Russian regime has an ideology and how it is organised

The crusade and the ferris wheel. How the Ideology of Putin's Regime Has Changed Over the Past Twenty Year

Andrei Zorin

The ideology of Putin's regime has gone from an approach based on ideals of a "strong state and civilized way of life" to the revanchist messianism that has become the ideological foundation of the current military venture. But, as Professor Andrei Zorin of Oxford University writes, this ideology has always been dedicated to the task of ensuring the irremovability of those in power. 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 "spiritual 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.

THE MOBILISATION OF THE DEMOBILISED. Neither Society Nor the Political System are Ready for Ideological Indoctrination

Ekaterina Schulmann

The current Russian regime is not based on any ideology as such, rather, it has been attempting to transform its own propaganda cliches into an ideological platform. As soon as these experiments are presented to the Russian society in the form of a mandatory doctrine, they are met with out-right resistance. The underlying ideas of sacrifice and the cult of death clash with the policies of the last twenty years, which were defined by a gradual humanization of the social norms. The cult of personal success and consumption, coupled with social hypocrisy (which the regime itself instilled in the society), has created an unfavourable environment for attempting to mobilise the masses and promote any form of collective sacrifice.

From Opportunism to Indoctrination

The current Russian political regime has never viewed history, current events, or, most importantly, the future through any particular ideological lens. There is no single system to generate or provide basis for the regime’s public rhetoric (i.e. its propaganda points).

On the contrary, propaganda itself is used to retroactively form or attempt to form an ideological platform, on which it should have been based to begin with, while actually being situational, opportunistic and ad hoc.   

One might say that the regime’s ideology is currently being formed or even figured out. In order for this yet undefined ideology to take shape two things are required. 

First is information monopoly, namely the information space needs to be closed off enough to ensure almost complete control over it. 

The second one is time. That is, the existing order of things, generally understood as a "regime", must last — and while doing so appear strong and effective — long enough for practices to become habits, chance occurrences to become the norm, and propaganda to morph into an ideology, or to produce it.

How much time is required? One could estimate it as “a lifespan of a generation”, one or two; alternatively one could speak of “formative” years of a single generation. One can assume that in order to “brainwash” a generation, a timeframe close to that of basic school years is needed.     

Thus, if you have ten to fifteen years, then this is, on the whole, a suitable period in which to provide for a somewhat stable ideological indoctrination for one, perhaps one and a half demographic strata (those born during a single five-year period). 

Having instinctively realised this, the political system is feverishly trying to change its approach to education, both to higher education, and, most importantly, to secondary education. Pedagogical indoctrination is one of the most important aspects of a regime trying to transition from a semi-open informational autocracy to a political model far more totalitarian in nature. 

The Cult of Death vs the Cult of Children

As we are currently at the very beginning of the process, we can see that there have been some teething problems along the way. What kind of problems are we talking about? Not exactly a protest, but most definitely a quiet sabotage and even rejection from two categories of people whose loyalty are extremely important to the regime: educators (teachers and school administrators) and parents.

Parents who have school age children were themselves brought up and shaped as individuals over the past fifteen to twenty years, during a time of relative informational openness, the second demographic transition and emerging values of humanization that seeped into both the Russian culture space and later into everyday routine. 

These are the people with fewer children, for whom parenthood is a conscious choice and children are valued. Of course, not all parents in this age group exhibit these qualities (not all parents whose children go to school), but this kind of attitude and behaviour has become a social norm. A social norm is not something that everyone fully complies with, as one is allowed to deviate from the norm (indeed, if no one deviated, there would be no point in defining it in the first place), but it is something that everyone — openly or not — recognizes as correct, as something generally "good". This is how you should treat children; if you behave differently, you should either hide the fact or have to explain or justify yourself. 

It must be noted that people of all ages have children. In general, however, parents of schoolchildren in urban Russia are between 30–50 years old. Public opinion polls suggest that there is a direct correlation between a person’s age and their support for the war and any other kind of misanthropic tendencies and policies. Support for war is highest in the 55+ age group. A negative attitude towards Ukraine and the outside world in general is also typical for people aged 55+. Other things that are typical for them? Support for the President. Watching TV. People in this age group also have schoolchildren, but as an exception, not a widespread phenomenon. 

It was predominantly people under 50 y.o. who voiced their muffled dissatisfaction over the infamous “Conversations on important issues” (patriotic education classes) that were introduced into school programs in 2022. This critical attitude turned out to be effective enough to lead if not to the program getting fully cancelled (which is all but impossible within the current political system), but heavily updated.   

Now, let's take a closer look at what they were dissatisfied with. They did not like the way in which their children would be talked to about “important issues” in these new weekly lessons. If I were to strip the discontent’s semantic core from its rhetorical cover, I could even go so far as to say: they simply did not like the cult of death on offer. To put it even clearer: these parents were unhappy that death, murdr and other forms of destructive behaviours were being preached to their children. 

I believe this is important because, for one thing, it confirms my point on the humanization of society. Secondly, it gives us an answer regarding the issue of ideology raised earlier in this piece. When you attempt to describe the ideology that would be fitting for the Russian political regime in its current shape, what comes to mind is the cult of power and the cult of victory, that are backed by the cult of death.   

The Cult of Consumption, Opportunism and Imitation Against Totalitarianism

This is an interesting point. Of course, many religions preach the joys of the afterlife and many dictatorships exploit the patriotic act of sacrificing oneself for the sake of the collective, the life of a person for the good of the state. Almost any authority will preach to the taxable estate various forms of self-sacrifice; most often economic, but also physical. This is a simple way to appropriate human labour and resources for free. If giving away things for free is to be seen as  a worthy, virtuous act.

The problem is, propaganda of all these forms of self-sacrifice cannot be superimposed on the values ​​of the Russian society. It does not work very well on mass level. It  may be a suitable ideology for the Order of the Assassins or the Templars, but for a society built around the family unit, rather than  a military unit, it does not work. The authorities themselves, as a social strata, are not very keen on the idea of sweet death with a weapon in their hands in some strange version of the Viking code, or in various other necrophilic cults of rebirth through self-immolation.

This whole idea clashes fiercely with the traditional values of Russian society. Among them, the most important one is individual well-being and the well-being of one’s family. Russian society is conformist, atomized, incapable (more precisely, barely capable) of solidarity, with a low level of institutional and interpersonal trust. We often lament this fact, rightly considering these values ​​to be an obstacle in our development. At the moment, however, we see that these same values have stopped Russia’s transformation into a totalitarian state. Opportunism, toadyism, the cults of personal success and personal consumption, all kinds of “hedonism of the poor” (what the exploiting classes usually call “laziness”) and the behavioural practices inherent to these values: evasion, hypocrisy, imitation and sabotage, stand in the way of the fascisation of the  Russian society.

The aforementioned sabotage of “Conversations on important issues” can be compared to other acts of scattered resistance, for example, the resistance seen during COVID to the introduction of legislation about distance learning. We are reminded of how this dispersed parental resistance ended up stopping the distance learning bill. Parents perceived the bill as an attempt to legalise what had been emergency procedures and make them permanent. The bill was not passed, and the President spoke publicly on the topic, saying that no, nothing of the sort would happen, all students would return to school. And indeed, that is exactly what happened.

Another example of such resistance were the QR codes protests of 2021. They were an interesting example of a protest taking place despite a total ban on protests. These practices of resistance — collective appeals, citizens turning up at regional legislative assemblies, mass comments being posted to the Telegram channel of the speaker of the State Duma — were successful. The law on QR codes has been postponed and, apparently, will not be considered in the near future.

Resistance to the law on domestic violence is of the same type.. Of course, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and the conservative inclinations of the elderly senior officials played a decisive role in its rejection, but in this case, the Russian Orthodox Church and the radical conservative (no matter how paradoxical this wording sounds) media resources had in this case a rather wide public support. That happened because the law against domestic violence was perceived as a new tool with which the state would be able to control families.

Not coincidentally one of the Telegram channels that helped organise various protest campaigns against that law  was called "Leave us alone." That’s just an  amazing slogan, which, in my opinion, should simply be written on the coat of arms of the Russian Federation. This is what the citizens want. Of course, any aggressive, imperialist policy and, in general, any sort of activity, clashes with this idea. Perhaps this is why all sorts of proactive, expansionist, imperialist actions, both externally and internally, have failed. Russian society, in the shape it took in early 2020s, simply cannot fathom any of it.  

The Trenches Lie

It is rather difficult for an ageing political regime to reimagine or redesign its ideology without changing politically or reshuffling its team. It is then left with the only ideology that worked — that of depoliticization, social atomization and demobilisation, that was the backbone of the regime for over twenty years. Therefore, the regime hit a wall when being set up around demobilisation it attempted to use mobilisation to answer its immediate needs. It turned out it did not have any of the means or any of the tools. And that’s how the problem of a non-existent Russian ideology can be summed up.  

What remains, and what most citizens seem to agree on  is a very vague and very generalised anti-Westernism or isolationism. The feeling that we are not like the rest of the world; the world is generally hostile to us; no one needs us; no one wishes us well. This corresponds to the way Russian citizens feel themselves inside Russia as well.  It also corresponds to the low level of interpersonal trust, not to mention the widespread post-Soviet cynicism that is considered here a sign of wisdom. 

Such a worldview, a Hobbesian Natural condition of mankind —  “War of all Against All.” This war is as eternal as it is sluggish, defensive:no one wishes anyone good; no one really helps anyone; transactions are more of a zero-sum game than a win-win. Post-Soviet people believe that "this is how the world works", both in terms of interpersonal relations and also in regards to international relations. It is here, perhaps, that the authorities and their subordinates, or the population (as they call them), will finally see eye to eye.

At this point, the process of searching for an ideology is still at a fairly early stage. Perhaps the situation will soon change, and the state will find some active social group that has previously flown under the radar. We don't know where they are, we don't know if they exist, and I personally don't think they do. But maybe they will come out of the woodwork and sweep away the current order of things. Perhaps they will create something that actually resembles an ideology, and it will stand in stark contrast to the lazy attempts by those in power to come up with something. Remember, these people have been imposing (albeit with  popular consent) their ideas on society for 15 or 20 years. Ideas based on statements such as "there is no such thing as the truth ", “we will never know the truth”, “everyone lies”, “yes, we are lying, but others are no better”, “honestly, it’s better to stay away from all of this murky business”.

The same media group (broadly speaking) that preached what, in fact, can be considered an anti-ideology, is now trying (unsuccessfully) to churn out a sort of unambiguous ideological truth, the one in which we need to not only believe, but also sacrifice ourselves for. This road seems to be going nowhere. 

If a certain ideology is nevertheless formed and is successful, then it will be passed down to today’s schoolchildren. Ten years from now, provided that the screws are tightened on information more than they are now, and everything is under control, today’s seven to ten year olds will enter adult life brought up in this particular way. The lesson they will learn is this: it does not matter whether you believe in this ideology, you are brought up in the world where it’s a social norm —  stay in class, even if you know the teacher hates it and your classmates do too, do not object, stay quiet, submit.  

That is almost exactly the type of attitude toward ideology that the collapsing Soviet state left its students as it let them into the world. In late 1980s and early 1990s they publicly behaved accordingly, as they were long taught.

OPPORTUNISM BY WAY OF SOVIETISM AND ANTI GLOBALISM. Constructing the Ideological Narratives of Late Putinism

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.

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.


Gulnaz Sharafutdinova

By presenting the nation as a "collective victim," the Kremlin's ideological entrepreneurs channelled the population's negative emotions and frustrations toward an imaginary "enemy of Russia". The strategic depoliticisation of Russian society is another important pillar that complements the idea of "collective victimhood" and provides stability to Putin's authoritarianism. By imposing war as a new reality on the average Russian citizen, Putin has created a conflict between these two pillars of his regime, the resolution of which depends on which of the two pillars proves more important: resentment or depoliticisation and disassociation from the state?

The Genesis of State Anti-Liberalism: Challenges and Strategic Responses 2012

The current ideational foundations of the Russian political regime have been taking shape since 2012-2013. Putin’s return to presidency in 2012 coincided and, to an extent, precipitated the wave of political mobilization in 2011-2012 across different urban areas in Russia. The conservative and nationalist turn the Russian leadership had then chosen represented a strategic response to the political threat associated with the political threat from "angry urbanites" who called for individual dignity and accountable government. The Russian leadership countered that public call for voice, dignity and individual rights, with the call for Russia’s recognition as an exceptional country-civilization that sees its mission as preserving its historical traditions, values and culture. This positive "call" was reinforced by the framing of the western culture and civilization as being on the path to extinction and irrelevance given the prevailing liberal values, norms and practices that did not fit the traditional, family values-oriented norms the Russian government posited to be the only worthy of following. Hence, the Russian political elites have countered Western liberalism with Russian traditionalism and illiberalism.  

I refer to ideational production and ideational foundations of the regime, as opposed to ideological, because the main legal documents of the Russian Federation (i.e. Constitution) do not allow us to speak about any, consistently formulated and officially-subscribed to, ideological framework that could be seen as motivating the policy-making and decision-making of the Russian government. I find it more useful to frame the discussion in terms of ideational foundations, orientations and sources of legitimacy sought by the Russian elites as well as in terms of the cluster of ideas that drive the processes of identity-construction in contemporary Russia.

The mythology of "collective victimhood"

Ideas provide meaning to our individual and collective existence and the potency of specific ideas could be measured by the degree of public resonance and the degree to which the audience reacts to these ideas in ways that signal that these ideas are meaningful to them. From this perspective, the key ideational package that the Russian public has reacted to with understanding and resonance is the politics of collective victimhood. As I write in my book The Red Mirror: Putin’s Leadership and Russia’s Insecure Identity (Oxford University Press 2020), over the last decade or so the country’s ideational entrepreneurs have sought legitimacy for the ruling elites based on the promotion of the sense of collective trauma associated with the post-communist transition of the 1990s. The negative collective emotions associated with social dislocation, economic deprivation, instability, the loss of the Soviet-era sense of greatness and exceptionalism, and resentment against rising inequality, corruption and injustice were all channeled through the politics of collective victimhood at the ‘other.’ When one is perceived as a victim, there is always a space for a perpetrator. This ‘other’ (the perpetrator) was constructed around the ideas of the West, global capitalism, the United States, and their domestic faces – liberal reformers, oligarchs, entrepreneurs and other liberal voices in Russia.

The Russian elites have not invented the politics of collective victimhood. In fact, any identity politics have a high likelihood of developing into collective victimhood politics and descending into self-righteousness, extremism and violence. But it does not have to be that way. A lot depends on leaders. Dr. Martin Luther King, the revered leader of the civil rights movement in the United States (one of the initial developers of identity politics), recognized the danger of taking on a victimhood position and called for personal responsibility, maturity and self-criticism. Even the evolution of the civil rights movement in the United States revealed that restraining from the idea and a position of collective victimhood and, therefore, violence, is not an easy endeavour. Elija Muhammad’s the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X’s black nationalism movements represented a different, more racial hatred-filled forms of civil rights activism.

Strategic depoliticisation and military mobilisation

The Russian leaders, while rhetorically longing for Mahatma Gandhi, are on the opposite end of the moral authority and the high moral ground Dr. King has staked his political activism on. Therefore, the logic of collective victimhood (pursued in the absence of the authentic moral imperative of the national-level identity politics the Russian government has engaged in) has led to the progressive escalation of Russia’s conflict with the West and materialized in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (as well as the earlier annexation of Crimea and the war in East Ukraine). 

The full-scale military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 represented the culmination of the ideas propagated and defended by the Kremlin and its interlocutors over the previous decade. This tragic decision – taken in the context of a personalized autocracy, by an unaccountable Russian leader — has taken the Russian-style identity politics to the extreme – positing Russia as a country in opposition to the collective West and to Ukraine – a country that is, according to the Russian propaganda, controlled by nationalist and fascist forces as well as the Western elites and the US, in particular. What’s outside this propaganda rhetoric is the reality of war fought against the freedom of the neighbouring country that used to be an integral part of the Soviet and, earlier, the Russian empire. The Soviet flags installed in the newly occupied territory by the Russian troops are the clearest reflections of the imperialist nature of this war.

While the position of collective victimhood resonated strongly in the country, most Russians were forced to accept the war as a reality they cannot change. Their emotional engagement with collective victimhood did not necessarily mean that they would have supported Putin’s decision to invade (if they were consulted). But the reality of war imposed from the top forced new imperatives on the ruling elites and the people alike. Many of those who disagreed and could leave the country have fled. The majority of people however did not have that choice and had to find the rhetorical means and rely on the ideas circulating in the Russian media to justify their position of passivity and acceptance of war (unless they had committed themselves to acting against the war and facing the far-reaching consequences) or even a more active, rhetorical support for war. 

The position of adopted passivity and the active denial and distancing from the painful information about the Russian atrocities, civilian death and destruction that the Russian army has brought to Ukraine has another important driver that needs to be part of the discussion about the ideational foundations of Russian politics. Strategic depoliticization of the Russian society is another essential pillar that stands side by side the ideology of collective victimhood. The Kremlin propaganda has long promoted the idea of politics being a dirty business, asking people to leave the realm of the political to the trusted leader. In return, the trusted leader has demonstrated the care for social issues in the country, promoting protectionist policies towards families with children, youth and other vulnerable groups; instituting social mortgage programs and other socially oriented projects.

Based on this second pillar that has performed well for the political system so far, it is hard to expect that the political landscape in Russia will evolve in the direction of forcing active and demonstrative support for war. We should rather expect the continuation of the active suppression of any individual or collective anti-war demonstrations and protests.

Waiting for an alternative

The imperialist nature of the war fought by Russia in Ukraine is also historically familiar and calls for historical parallels, providing an opportunity to learn from history lessons (albeit rarely happening in real life). Jean Paul Sartre’s progressive, anti-war and anti-imperialist humanist thinking and pro-Algerian independence activism, at the time France was involved in its own imperialist war, are a nice point for reflexion today. Similar to Dr. M. L. King, J.P. Sartre professed individual agency and moral responsibility.

These ideas are the exact opposite of the collective victimhood ideology professed by the ruling elites in Russia today. 

While the struggle against the ‘internal colonization’ of African-Americans in the United States and the French decolonization might still not be entirely complete, the progress in both countries is evident and undeniable. The struggle against internal colonization of Russian citizens in Russia has been brutally suppressed. At this moment, there appears to be no space for alternative ideas. What is and has been painfully clear, however, is that the politics of collective victimhood is not a way forward for Russia. Sooner or later Russia needs her own Dr. King and J.P Sartre and the new politics and ideas supporting the moral revival, personal responsibility and non-violence in all aspects of life, whether domestic or international, political, economic or social, family or individual. Looking into Russia’s past and rediscovering the moral authority and ideas of Andrey Sakharov, Dmitry Likhachev, Vyacheslav Ivanov and other humanist thinkers; along with recognizing the bravery of contemporary activists in Russia.