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The Faux Ideologies of Late-Stage Putinism

Imagining history as a civilizational competition is convenient for the current Russian leadership because it means they can perceive themselves as part of a young civilization and, as such, they don’t need to calculate risks, invest in the economy, or conduct a reasonable foreign policy. Youth is forgiven everything, and Russia will inevitably, therefore, be a world leader.

Published on August 2, 2023

The Kremlin has come up with a faux ideology designed to rally support for President Vladimir Putin ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. While it doesn’t include a clear vision for the future, it is not rooted in the past, either. Instead, people are being asked to believe in a series of dogmas such as “Russia is a young civilization that cannot be defeated by an aging West,” “the authorities and society at large share a common goal,” and “Russians are inclined toward collectivism, sacrifice, and state service.” 

These ideas are also at the heart of a new university subject—“Foundations of Russian Statehood”—that will be studied all over the country from September. The Kremlin is trying to underpin its faux ideology with pseudoscience to give it more credibility.

Every recent federal election in Russia has been preceded by the Kremlin asking itself what sort of vision for the future can be put before ordinary people. For a long time, the answer was the stability associated with Putin, which meant people were becoming more well-off. In return, the authorities demanded loyalty, and largely received it.

Yet even before the full-scale war in Ukraine, this model was becoming harder to sustain. It was jeopardized by both economic stagnation and unpopular policies like raising the retirement age in 2018. But it was the 2022 invasion of Ukraine that killed off “Putin’s stability” once and for all. As a result, the Kremlin has been forced to come up with new “ideologies.”

One outcome of this process is a compulsory new university subject, “Foundations of Russian Statehood,” which was created on the orders of the Kremlin and developed under the close supervision of officials responsible for managing domestic politics. One of the course’s stated goals is to prevent the growth of opposition sentiment among young people by cultivating “feelings of citizenship and patriotism.”

It proposes to do this through a “civilizational” approach to history, in which every civilization is understood to have its own unique modes of being, culture, and traditions. Like a living organism, civilizations are supposed to be born, grow, blossom, age, and then die. And the implication is clear: Western civilization has passed its peak, while Russian civilization is on the march. Putin enjoys talking in civilizational terms and using dog whistles, referencing the work of nationalist historian Lev Gumilev, a proponent of this sort of civilizational understanding of the past.

Imagining history as a civilizational competition is convenient for the current Russian leadership because it means they can perceive themselves as part of a young civilization and, as such, they don’t need to waste time calculating risks, investing in the economy, or conducting a reasonable foreign policy. Youth is forgiven everything, and Russia will inevitably, therefore, be a world leader. 

This approach is also advantageous because it rules out the existence of common human values: a concept that has been at the heart of Putin’s criticism of the West (which supposedly imposes its values on other cultures and peoples). And it reinforces the validity of another theory beloved by the Kremlin: that the world should be a multipolar one constructed around different civilizations.  

Kremlin officials would like to instill these ideas among all Russians. It’s no coincidence that one of the authors of the “Foundations of Russian Statehood” project, Andrei Polosin (who is close to Kremlin deputy chief of staff Sergei Kiriyenko), has recently been active in explaining the idea to Kremlin officials, deputy governors, and political scientists.

With no need for further thought or any methodological discussion, the Kremlin’s faux ideology is perfectly packaged for dissemination by Russia’s propaganda machine. Officials want ordinary Russians to blindly accept it. Supposedly, people should instinctively trust such academic terms as “national-civilizational code” and “social identity.” Indeed, “Foundations of Russian Statehood” was developed as part of the Kremlin’s “DNA of Russia” program: yet more wordplay on scientific terminology.  

As part of the university subject, students will be taught about the values supposedly intrinsic to Russian civilization. Apparently, a human is equivalent to creation, family to tradition, society to agreement, the state to trust in the intuitions of government, and the nation to patriotism. The course’s authors are also convinced that Russians believe “the authorities are competent and effective,” “the authorities and society as a whole are on the same side,” “there is trust in elections,” and “it’s important to ensure natural population growth.”

The presentation of the course included a list of values supposedly inherent to all Russians, including service, sovereignty, and stability. In his public speeches, Polosin has characterized “messianism” and having “an overarching goal” as “characteristic of the Russian people.”

In a bid to give their efforts some academic weight, the authors of the Kremlin’s faux ideology claim that their conclusions were reached as a result of real research. That isn’t the case: instead, they used brainstorming sessions attended by officials, teachers, and political pundits, and focus groups of pro-Kremlin students.

Putin and his inner circle like these sorts of fake ideas and concepts, which are comforting when they have made such colossal mistakes. In addition, they can deceive themselves into believing there are no threats to the regime because Russians do what their superiors tell them, and a young civilization cannot be defeated.

There are few reasons to think that an ideology concocted in Kremlin offices will catch on. More likely than not, it will repeat the fate of Soviet communism. Even though communism had a vision for the future, people were still disappointed when they realized it would not be delivering material abundance. The Kremlin’s “civilizational” approach doesn’t offer any such promise: only the option to serve the fatherland because it is supposedly preordained by “science.”

In the coming months, those loyal to the authorities will strive to show how closely they subscribe to this civilizational worldview. In a crisis, however, those same people will ditch such artificial constructs just as quickly as the Soviet people ditched communism.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.