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. 

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14.02 Ideologies Expertise Historical Politics: Ideologisation of society as an attempt to change Post-Soviet identity Ivan Kurilla The current stage of the state's ideological expansion is designed, on the one hand, to definitively exclude and 'cancel' the liberal segment of Russian society, and, on the other hand, to change the identity of that part of society that absorbed the ideological opportunism of the 2000s, thereby neutralising the value baggage and liberal aspirations of the perestroika and post-perestroika era. 12.10.23 Ideologies Discussion Why Putinism Is (Still) Not An Ideology Nikita Savin Ideologies usually create a kind of political map that can be used to understand where political processes are heading. However, Putin has long and successfully avoided ideological clarity, which has enabled him to maintain a certain political intrigue around his key decisions. This characteristic of the regime persists today: the Kremlin can neither explain the reasons and goals of its war in Ukraine nor ensure ideological mobilisation in support of it. 10.10.23 Ideologies Discussion Does the Putin regime have an ideology? Maria Snegova, Michael Kimmage, Jade McGlynn The ideology of the Putin regime is resilient because it responds to the existing demands of the population, draws on deeply rooted Soviet traditions, and at the same time fills the ideological void that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This will help to sustain the Putin regime for many years to come.