Restoration of an empire
In March 2014 the Russian Federation illegally annexed the Crimean Autonomous Republic from Ukraine. From there the instability has spilled over to almost the entire South-East of Ukraine. The Crimean crisis and separatism in the South-East of Ukraine are the strongest historical challenges for the Ukrainian people and sovereignty since independence. However, Ukraine is not the only country that should be concerned about the steps that Russia is taking. The ideology that is brewing inside Russia and its actions are just as dangerous to the countries of the Visegrad Group.
The source of the crisis in Ukraine is a systematic and well-planned program by Moscow to undermine the Ukrainian state. Russia is using Ukraine as a proxy to wage its civilization war against Western Europe and the United States. The Crimean crisis has so far demonstrated that Europe and the United States have not been able to respond adequately to Russia’s actions. This will likely embolden Russian to orchestrate further escalation of violence and instability in Ukraine. Russian ideology, which we analyze in this article, is designed for “greatness” and has a big appetite. If Ukraine falls, Russia will not stop there. After absorbing Ukraine (should this happen), Russia will likely seek to restore its influence in the former Warsaw Pact area, including the V4 states.
In this article we will try to show how the modern ideological basis of the Russian state has been formed. What are the external and internal factors that have contributed to its formation? What are the implications for the European continent and the V4?
Russian ideology as a response to the democratization of Ukraine
Many experts noted that the beginning of the restoration of Russia from a regional power to a great power was the 2008 war against Georgia and the subsequent occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
As already mentioned, Russia was on the brink of collapse and ideological exhaustion after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the old ideology of communism was discredited while the new had not been articulated. Russia’s oligarchs and criminals became the country’s main decision-makers.
In 2000, Vladimir Putin was tasked to overhaul the Russian economy and disentangle it from the power of the oligarchs. Growth in the world market prices of crude oil and gas provided the means to patch up glaring holes in the post-Soviet Russian economy, without making major changes to the economic sphere.
Putin’s regime began a serious battle against oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This internal war became known as the “equidistance of oligarchs.” Putin’s victory against the oligarchs allowed him to centralize power. Those oligarchs who managed to survive, namely Alisher Usmanov, Mikhail Fridman, Leonid Michelson, and others, were allowed to engage in business in return for loyalty toward the Kremlin. In this way Putin’s regime created some semblance of stability in the economic and political system of the Russian state.
However, the moment of truth has become the emergence of a new “St. George” ideology which started as a backlash to the events in neighboring Ukraine. The emergence, growth, and advances of Russian national, messianic patriotism and anti-Western sentiments coincide precisely with the revolutionary events in the Ukrainian capital, particularly the Orange Revolution in 2005 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. The following components are crucial to understanding Russia’s current ideology:
- The Russian youth movement called “Nashi” (Ours);
- The concept of “sovereign democracy” by Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s closest allies;
- Establishment of the international media channel Russia Today;
- The geopolitical school of Alexander Dugin;
- New Russian traditionalism;
- The doctrine of “Russkiy mir” (Russian world).
The “Nashi” youth movement
Questions about the future deeply concerned the Russian political elite after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The answer was found at the end of 2004, when a full-scale transformation process began in the neighboring state of Ukraine. The Ukrainian people decided not to trust the their corrupt elite grouped around the former president, Leonid Kuchma, and chose a legitimate president who would define the new format of the country, namely the European future of Ukraine.
The political situation in Ukraine was very closely followed by Moscow who made the important observation that the main driving engine of democratic change at Maidan was the youth. Thus, control over the minds of the young generation of the country could allow Russia to build the reality that was needed by the regime. To this end, in February 2005, the Russian Presidential Administration decided to create a new political youth movement called “Nashi.” The main objective of this movement is the “fight against unnatural union of oligarchs and liberals who want to give up sovereignty and independence of Russia through the Georgia and Ukraine scenarios.”
A Nashi rally
This socio-political youth movement was created with a clearly specific purpose: the struggle against the liberal and pro-Western forces on the territory of Russia, and was the first organization to start the introduction of such ideological constructs as the “Great Victory” or Russia’s “special way.” “Nashi” started to promote the claim that fascism is alive and is again threatening the Russian homeland, and became a tool for the radicalization of young people.
The generation of veterans who fought on the battlefields of the Second World War is rapidly shrinking, which is why the Russian political elite is trying to transmit Second World War myths of Russia’s greatness and invincibility from the disappearing generation of veterans to the younger generations.
The “St. George’s Ribbon” technique
In modern Russia, Putin’s team transformed this celebration into a powerful ideological foundation for community mobilization to eradicate Western and liberal principles, which started to take root in the minds of youth during the last twenty years.
The Victory Day holiday gained a new ideological color when the employees of the news agency RIA Novosti initiated a voluntary distribution of “St. George ribbons” on the streets of Moscow in spring 2005. In the former Soviet Union, especially in regions with a large Russian-speaking population, and the Russian diaspora, many adopted this newly invented symbol. Tellingly, immediately after its recent appearance the St. George’s ribbon began to be used in countries neighboring Russia as a symbol of support for the “Russian world.”
St. George’s ribbon
After Ukraine’s European Revolution or the Revolution of Dignity, which began in December 2013 on Independence Square (Maidan) in Kyiv, the St. George ribbon became the symbol of the fight against the ideas put forward by Ukraine’s massive pro-democracy protest. In early 2014, for instance, Mykhailo Dobkin, a controversial governor of the Kharkiv Oblast in the eastern part of Ukraine, supported by the members of the Party of Regions established a movement that they called “Ukrainian Front.” The movement was created in order to prevent any democratic protests from taking place in the Kharkiv region. The St. George’s ribbon became a visible symbol of this anti-democratic movement.
Following Viktor Yanukovych, the wave passed to the Crimean peninsula, where the ribbons turned into huge flags. Those who have embraced the symbol are considered “native,” but those who haven’t are classified as “foreign.” The St. George’s ribbon is a tool that makes the new Russian ideology as personal as possible at a very individual level. At the same it, it allows individuals to be turned into masses.
Establishment of Russia Today
To secure its authoritarian regime, the Kremlin desperately needed to adequately respond to the threatening political situation growing around its borders. Color revolutions brought European values to Russia’s borders. As a result, a multilingual Russian news channel called Russia Today was set up to disseminate and promote the “Russian understanding” of world.
Russia Today was established at the beginning of 2005 in order to, according to its creators, “reflect Russia’s position on the main issues of international politics.” The initiator of the channel was a former advisor to the President of the Russian Federation on the Media, who now holds the position as a CEO in Gazprom-Media Holding.
The channel’s prominent ideological role can be seen in a famous incident that occurred during the Crimean crisis, when Abby Martin, a reporter for Russia Today, ending a live program dedicated to events in Ukraine, stated: “The fact that I work at RT does not mean that I do not have editorial independence. I want to emphasize that I am opposed to any foreign interference in the affairs of sovereign states. Russia was wrong.”
Despite its flawed economy, Russia is trying to maintain its image of an ambitious state, and without such a global information outlet as Russia Today, it would be impossible for Russia to play in big games.
The doctrine of “sovereign democracy”
The next important ideological content of the Putin’s regime is the concept of sovereign democracy, created for the Kremlin by Vladislav Surkov, a former deputy head of Putin’s administration. The concept of “sovereign democracy,” also known as “managed democracy,” stormed into Russian political discourse in April 2005.
In a nutshell, the doctrine of sovereign democracy is a reaction to the new geopolitical reality after the fall of the Soviet Union. It incorporates many misplaced ideological constructs of communism and increasingly focuses not on the socio-cultural foundations of Russian society, but more on the political system and the public administration system. The doctrine includes a justification for the creation of a “unique” special structure of governance in comparison with other political systems.
Sovereign democracy justifies the special historical path of Russia and the right to have a unique type of democracy, whose content gets determined exclusively by the Kremlin. In the opinion of the creators of the doctrine, democracy can and should be managed to create and balance in the complex and multifaceted social space of Russian society.
It is worth noting that the handbook for the supporters of “Edinaya Rossiya” (United Russia) expressly states that “sovereign democracy” has emerged as a response to an external challenge posed by the Orange Revolution, which the Kremlin perceived as Western interference. The events in Ukraine at the end of 2013 and the fall of Yanukovych’s regime in March 2014 created an even more serious challenge to Russia’s geopolitical control over the post-Soviet area, which Russia could not accept.
“Neo-Eurasianism” – the geopolitical school of Alexander Dugin
The new Russian “Georgievskaya” (St. George) ideology tries to solve the main civilizational problems of the future of Russia. One of them is to explain the civilizational separateness of the “Russian” system from other historical, social, and cultural system such as the Islamic, the Euro-Atlantic, and Chinese systems. The idea that Russia is neither Europe nor Asia was not been laid down until the early twentieth century by Russian emigrants who were forced to leave their homeland following the victory of communism in the former Russian Empire. However, the theoretical basis was provided in the nineteenth century by such slavophiles as Aleksei Leontiev, Nikolay Danilevsky, and others.
Eurasianism represented by Petr Savitsky, Nikolay Trubetskoy, and others expressed the idea that Russia is something more than just the Slavic world. Russia, in their point of view, is the space of communication between the two lingo-cultural groups of the Turks and Eastern Slavs.
The historical precedent of the Euro-Asian cultural area was the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan. The original Eurasianist idea was to find the middle ground between the two states of Genghis Khan’s empire and the Moscow State (later the Russian Empire) on the similarity of their borders. This perspective has been collecting dust on the shelves of European libraries for years until its revival by the philosopher and sociologist Alexander Dugin and his followers. Dugin has consistently tried to create a symbiosis between different historical doctrines that have for centuries dominated in Russia. Dugin, finally managed to develop a doctrine of neo-Eurasianism.
The idea of neo-Eurasianism is explained in Dugin’s work Eurasian Way As a National Idea, where he argues for the “inevitability of the new Eurasian great continental stage of the Russian history when the expansion of an historic mission of their state, which is traditional for the Russians, will reach its ultimate limits.”
The Russian political elite is just as corrupt and extravagant as the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine, if not much more so. As a result, the Kremlin is erecting new artificial barriers to isolate Russian society from the democratic values of the West. They are scared of such concepts as transparency, accountability, and civil society, which many western countries now take for granted.
To isolate itself from the democratic world and gain as much control over the hearts and minds of the Russian people, Putin’s authoritarian regime is adopting highly restrictive laws. On 29 June 2012, for example, the Russian State Duma adopted a famous amendment to the law “On non-commercial organizations.” The amendment requires strict control of all non-profit organizations, which possess foreign capital in their statutory fund. This law allows the prevention of financial support from the West for various NGOs as well as democratic social and political figures such as Alexei Navalny and others.
After the illegal referendum in Crimea in March 2014, the Russian State Duma adopted another measure intended to impose control on the historical memory of the Russian people. Law no. 128-F3 with the perplexing title “On the introduction of changes into separate legislative acts of the Russian Federation” stipulates various financial and criminal penalties for “publicly expressing knowingly false information about the activities of the USSR in the years of the Second World War” as well as for “disseminating information about the days of military glory and memorable dates of Russia that evidently shows disrespect toward society.” It is clear that under such law it would be illegal to talk about the fact that Russia and Germany together were responsible for starting the Second World War.It will also most probably be illegal to condemn Stalin for the murderous deportation of the Crimean Tatars from their homeland. Thus, law after law, the Kremlin is constructing its own revisionist history, expanding its messianic mission to reach the ultimate limits of its civilization calling, strengthening Putin’s authoritarian regime and nurturing an isolationist, gullible, and xenophobic society to perpetuate its hold on power.
The ideology of “Russkiy Mir”
The last element of the new “Georgievskaya” Russian ideology is that of “Russkiy mir” (Russian world). Vladimir Putin first mentioned this doctrine at the end of 2006 at a meeting with Russian intelligentsia in St-Petersburg. Soon afterwards, Putin issued decree No. 796 to create the Russian World Foundation.
The head of the Russkiy Mir Foundation is Vyacheslav Nikonov, a former communist activist and an MP in the Russian Duma, and grandson of the infamous Vyacheslav Molotov, who signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, an alliance between two bloody totalitarian regimes – the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany – that started the Second World War.
Flag of the Russian world
The Russian World Foundation is probably a key institutional feature of the Russkiy mir doctrine. According to its website, its main goals are to promote the Russian language and culture in different parts of the world, support the dissemination of objective information about modern Russia, facilitate the development of a favorable public opinion about Russia, support various educational initiatives, support the preservation of Russia’s written heritage and – most interestingly – cooperate with the Russian Orthodox Church and other confessions in the task of promoting Russian language and Russian culture. The last goal of the Russian World Foundation is especially revealing about the much greater scale of its calling as opposed to the modest commitment to support Russian language and culture.
The Russian Orthodox Church, as it turns out, is a powerful driving engine for the “enlargement” of the Russian world doctrine. The fact that the Russian authorities chose the Church to act as their ideological instrument is understandable. “Accession” to the Russian world cannot have a rational explanation, but rather it can primarily be an emotional choice. The Russian world is pure ideology. This doctrine does not offer any economic benefits, trade, cooperation, structural changes, reduction of corruption, commitment to the rule of law, equality, tolerance, or other democratic values. The Russian world is about Russian “spirituality,” and the imposition of Russian national identity on all of its imperial lands. Indeed, considering the level of religiosity in countries such as Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine, the Church can be a powerful ideological tool.
Since 2007 the Russian World Foundation organizes what is called the Assembly of the Russian world. In 2009, the Assembly hosted a special guest – the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church – who 38 times mentioned the term “Russian world,” declaring in over geopolitical terms his belief that the “united Russian world can become a powerful actor in global international politics, more powerful then all sorts of political alliances.” Since 2009, Patriarch Kirill has become an outspoken promoter of the Russian world doctrine, visiting Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine, calling for the preservation of the “civilizational community of historical Rus.”
The problem with the Russian expansionist ideology
Russia wants the world to believe that it is back as a superpower, although its geopolitical ego is outrunning most of its resources and abilities. In terms of military might, Russia is far more powerful than any of the regional powers and can indeed claim the title of a superpower. Nevertheless, the Russian leadership is blinded by its quest for the restoration of the Russian great power status. Russian economy, infrastructure, society, and the political system are ailing and backward like in Soviet times. As a result, Russia is significantly relying on ideological instruments to tame its former Soviet and imperial satellites.
The problem with the Russian expansionist ideology is that it is not authentic. It is not designed for the prosperity of its population, but the control of its population. It is not tailored to actual conditions of its society and economy, but to the imagined historic greatness. The reason for this is because Russian ideology is a function of threats. This is what makes Russia a perpetual aggressor under the leadership of individuals such as Vladimir Putin.
The most dangerous threats to Vladimir Putin are those that can be easily understood and delivered to the Russian population. Ukraine and Russia have many economic, historical, and cultural ties, which is why Ukraine is a number one threat to Putin. Neither the U.S., nor the European Union, nor NATO, nor China, nor anyone else constitutes the most immediate threat to Putin. The 2005 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity demonstrated that democracy is penetrating the very core of the former Soviet Union. Democratization of the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia never signaled such a high level of threat to the Russian autocracy as the democratization of Ukraine is doing.
The Russian political elite is trying to convince the Russian people that the nature of the collective “Russian person” can never accept the Western, European, and democratic values due to a spiritual or mental characteristic. The case of Ukraine shows that this is a lie. Democracy in Ukraine could effectively be transmitted to Russia and topple Putin’s regime.
Since 2005, Russia has been constructing its ideology and foreign policy based on the perception of Ukraine as a threat, resulting in the successive creation of a series of instruments such as the Nashi youth movement, the “sovereign democracy” movement, Russia Today, Dugin’s geopolitical school, the new Russian traditionalism concept, and the Russian world doctrine.
The annexation of Crimea is part and parcel of the ideology aimed at the assertion of greatness that in the case of pragmatic conditions in Russia can only be expressed through aggression and conquest. The main questions that remain are: what will be the next step to continue feeding such an ideology? And can it eventually collapse without major disaster for Russia itself, Ukraine, Europe, and the world?
It appears that the current Russian ideology is self-defeating. The Russian people expect jobs, salaries, healthy families, a clean environment, free international travel, affordable holidays, and good infrastructure and transportation; something the Russian political elite cannot provide to most Russians. Ideology is the only substance that today binds Russia. Besides external threats and gas exports there is nothing else to feed this ideology, which is why it will collapse.
However, before the Russian imperial and militant ideology disintegrates, it is important the Visegrad Group focuses as much as possible on strengthening Ukraine’s young democracy, not only to pull Ukraine completely out of Russia’s geopolitical orbit, but also to secure its own values and borders from Russia’s growing aggression.
Ridvan Bari Urcosta is a human rights activist, political scientist, and member of the Crimean Tatars International NGO “Bizim Qirim” in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine. He holds an MA in Political Science from Taurida National V.I. Vernadsky University.
Volodymyr Valkov is a human rights activist, researcher, and political analyst, as well as a project manager at the American Jewish Ukrainian Bureau for Human Rights “UCSJ” in Lviv, Ukraine. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
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