There is a belief that the Russian elite under President Vladimir Putin has only ever been interested in money. Yet Putin’s militant, anti-liberal, anti-Western, isolationist, paternalistic, and harshly authoritarian regime has always had an ideology. This ideology is not systematized, but it does exist, and snippets of it can be found throughout Putin’s speeches, articles, and interviews. Now the war in Ukraine has necessitated a more articulated ideology.
The initiative to systematize and codify Putinism has led to a presidential decree listing “traditional spiritual and moral values,” as well as the development of a new ideological curriculum for colleges. It is no longer enough to indoctrinate children in kindergartens and schools. It is now time to unify the worldviews of college students (and, by extension, those of their professors, whose ranks will inevitably be purged). This type of course was taught during the Soviet era, and was known as “Scientific Communism.”
The name for the new curriculum could be even more absurd and oxymoronic: “Scientific Putinism.” (Its official title is “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood.”) This course should presumably have four units: “History” (historical policy as the imposition of a mythologized official version of history, which is one of the instruments for manipulating the mass consciousness of Russians); “Cultural Codes” (“traditional spiritual and moral values,” which Putin has ordered federal and regional government bodies to “unify”); “Russia and the World” (a justification of isolationism, anti-Westernism, and jingoism); and “Vision for the Future” (Russia completely lacks any goal-setting, and needs some sort of agreement on what the state wants to achieve beyond victory over Ukraine and the destruction of the “fifth column”).
Such a curriculum justifies the cult of the eternal leader and the idea of sacrificial heroism (including the “heroic death” that the Patriarch Kirill has suggested will wash away any mortal sins in a “just, defensive war of liberation”). It is also in line with the religious discourse according to which Russia is fighting the forces of evil and Satan, as illustrated by statements about the “special military operation” as a “war of the army of the Archangel Michael against the devil” and the need to “de-satanize” Ukraine.
However, Scientific Putinism lacks key components: development goals and a corresponding vision for the future. The problem is that it is an ideology of the past rather than the future. During Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, there were teams working on a future-oriented ideology and making road maps based on the idea that Russia would fast-track the modernization of the state and society. Putin’s ideology, however, is counter-modernizational.
Putin’s war is the applied concept of the superiority of the “spiritual essence” of the Russian nation over the “decaying West,” which has been fueled for decades and even centuries by aggressive Russian nationalism mixed with imperialism (including the territorial “Russian world”), Russian messianism, and the idea of a “special path” for Russia.
Of course, the modernization that Russia has experienced conflicts with this traditionalism verging on fundamentalism, as did the pragmatic interests of a Russian society that had adapted to a market economy following the transition of the 1990s. Nevertheless, as his regime matured, Putin was able to convince a significant portion of the population that Russia needs to regain its great-power status, and that Russia is under attack by the liberal West and the traitorous liberal fifth column within. As the regime grew more authoritarian, its ideology became more and more archaic, its propaganda more obtrusive, and hopes for the resumption of modernization dwindled.
Ideologies serve to unify mass consciousness and perceptions of history and political order, and use rituals to reinforce mass beliefs. An ideology that consists of historical, cultural, and religious myths; bogus traditions; and resentment and ressentiment seeks to legitimize an authoritarian regime and delegitimize those who oppose it and don’t share the regime’s notions of reality. Such an ideology makes it possible to label nonconformists as enemies, “foreign agents,” LGBT activists, and “national traitors,” and to divide people into “us” and “them.” “We” are spiritual, traditional, authentic, unique, sacrificial, and sovereign; “they” are unspiritual, rational, and “cosmopolitan” (a pejorative, anti-Semitic Soviet term for those perceived as insufficiently patriotic).
The division into “us” and “them” doesn’t just provide a marker for self-identification and an opportunity to dissolve and hide within the group and to function in society without problems. It also serves to convince the public that there is a certain majority from which they should not stray. In this sense, “we” is simultaneously a political technology, the target audience of this political technology, and an ideological construct.
In the past, the only requirement for being part of the “us” was passive, silent, conformist support. Today, however, this is not enough: Russians must surrender their very bodies to be cannon fodder in the supreme leader’s holy war against the “satanist” forces of the West. This is no longer authoritarianism; it is totalitarianism.
Imperialism and colonialism are key components of Putinism and key factors in the war. There is nothing new about this ideology; it comes almost verbatim from Stalinism and from earlier Eurasian and Slavophile narratives. The war is being passed off as striving to restore historical fairness, as defensive and preventive, and as liberational. According to Putin, the land of the empire must be “returned and reinforced.”
In just a few years, the regime has evolved from a cult of the victory of 1945 to a cult of war itself, and Putin has managed to persuade a large section of Russians that the “special operation” of 2022 is a natural continuation of the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is called in Russia). In essence, it is an existential war between the Russian civilization and the West.
Putin has started to refer to Russia as an entire civilization. The state is not just sacred and worthy of the ultimate sacrifice; it is also a separate and superior civilization. This state-civilization has a special path and a “thousand-year history.” Within this history, cultural codes are being passed down from generation to generation as part of the country’s political DNA. This state-civilization has its own pantheon of heroes, which is unchanged from the Soviet era to the Putin era: Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Joseph Stalin, Yuri Gagarin, and others.
Over its “thousand-year history,” this state-civilization has always been under attack by enviers and foes. This state of permanent conflict is critical, and it is not limited to the battlefield: the state must win in all aspects—in culture and in sports, in the construction of Olympic facilities, and in the war against Ukraine and the West.
In that context, one important concept is sovereignty interpreted as autarky and as boundless political and repressive rule within the country; sovereignty as a target for adversaries who want to weaken, dismember, and destroy Russia; sovereignty that is under hybrid attacks from without and sabotaged by the “fifth column” from within.
To defend the sovereignty of this state-civilization, the Kremlin is counting on the security services, or siloviki. They are getting additional funding and being reinforced by spin doctors and so-called “journalists” in the service of the Kremlin. The Culture Ministry, the communications watchdog Roskomnadzor, and other institutions like the Russian Orthodox Church that defend “traditional values” are becoming de facto siloviki themselves, as they have the right to block or ban media, restrict the sales of books by authors who oppose the war, and decide who can perform on theater stages.
The ideology has become corporeal, bolstered by political and military acts, such as the annexation of Crimea and the “special military operation.” In short, the special ideological operation is ongoing, and it seems to be faring better than the special military one.
- Andrei Kolesnikov