After the Fall: Russia in Search of a New Ideology

As the Soviet Union disintegrated, ending on the ash heap of history in 1989–91, all the institutes for the study of Marxism-Leninism that had justified the regime, the collected and selected works of the communist classics, and the Marxism chairs in academies and universities also disappeared. From this void emerged a burning question: What was the raison d’être of the existing political system? And later, how did the new regime justify itself in the field of foreign and domestic affairs, and what was its social and economic policy? For the answers, Vladimir Putin and his followers went back to the future.

Russia’s official ideology prior to 1917 was Pravoslavie, Samoderzhavie, Narodnost, which has been translated as Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality. This statement was made first by Sergei Uvarov, the Russian minister of education, in a circular letter in 1833. Uvarov was a learned man who also served as president of the Russian Academy of Sciences. No one had asked Uvarov to prepare such an official binding declaration. However, Czar Nicholas I liked this “triad,” as it was called, even though its meaning was by no means always clear.

Orthodoxy was obvious; it meant that the Pravoslav (Russian Orthodox) Church was the state church, one of the quintessential features of the regime. But autocracy was open to at least two different interpretations. It could mean unconditional loyalty to the czar and the House of Romanov. But it could also mean that the czar’s rule was absolute. And nationality was even more vague. It could mean something like Russification or an equivalent of the German Volkstum (putting the stress on the preeminent role of the Russian people in the multi-national Russian empire). But it could also mean a romantic nationalism—a conservative worldview as it prevailed in continental Europe after the defeat of Napoleon.

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Uvarov by no means pioneered such ideas. Similar views had been expressed, for instance, by Fyodor Tiutchev, the great Russian poet who had spent much of his life in Germany and Italy and who expressed his views in books such as Russia and the Revolution (1848), and also in the writings of Aleksey Khomyakov and other Slavophiles who also emphasized the great differences between Russia and the West.

The nineteenth-century debate on this subject among the Russian intelligentsia proceeded on a high level of sophistication and with much passion. But the issue of what exactly was Russia’s historical mission remained unclear. Tiutchev is remembered today primarily for his famous quatrain: umom Rossiyu ne ponyat (“rationally Russia cannot be understood, one has to believe in it”).

The Slavophiles who wanted to distance themselves from the West had to face the unfortunate fact that not all Slavs were Russophiles—Poland being the obvious but by no means only exception. Furthermore, not all citizens of the Russian empire were Slavs. Later on during the nineteenth century, Fyodor Dostoevsky contributed to the debate with his famous speech about Alexander Pushkin in which he asked explicitly what was the Russian identity—European? Oriental? Russian anti-Westernism found its most radical expression in the theories of Nikolay Danilevsky, who was opposed to the concept of a universal human civilization and common values. He criticized Western (European) influences on Russia as unnecessary, even harmful.

Such anti-Western attitudes were not universally shared. Pyotr Chaadayev argued in the 1830s that “Russia” had produced little of general and lasting value. Later on, the “Westerners” had a contempt for orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism that was, in the beginning at least, shared by the new Marxist-Leninist regime.

It was therefore no surprise that with the fall of the Soviet Union some of the old pre-1917 ideas resurfaced and should undergo something like a renaissance. In his first major speech during his second term as president, Vladimir Putin declared that Russia should look to its history and traditional values to determine its post-Soviet development, not imitate Western political models. As a general proposition, the stress on continuity made a kind of emotional sense. At the same time, a great exhibition showcasing Russia under the Romanovs opened at the Manege, a prime Moscow venue. Sponsored by the Orthodox Church, the Russian Ministry of Culture, and the city of Moscow, the exhibit attracted huge crowds. Continuity was in the air.


But continuity with what? Which “Russia” was to act as a lodestar for the future? Was it Mikhail Lermontov’s unwashed “country of slaves, country of masters,” as he writes in one of his famous poems? Or was it, to paraphrase a famous statement by an obliging czarist official, the country whose past was fabulous, its present brilliant, and its future beyond the capacity of human superlatives? Communism had been the radical break with traditional Russia and had not Putin himself repeatedly declared that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the greatest disaster of the twentieth century?

One ally for the Putin regime has been the Orthodox Church. The church had been permitted to exist under Communism, admittedly under strict controls. Leading church dignitaries up to the very top had been KGB informers, although independent priests were persecuted and sometimes arrested and sent to the Gulag. Under President Yeltsin, much more freedom was granted to the church because it promised unconditional support for the government, not only for pragmatic reasons but because it shared its anti-Westernism. Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev have attended services on various occasions such as at Easter. Medvedev has thanked the church for its part in Russia’s “spiritual revival.” In recent years, preparations have been made to reintroduce military chaplains in the Russian armed forces and even mobile churches. But this raised new problems: Would other religions, for instance, Islam, be given similar treatment? By some estimates, Muslims amount to one-fifth or even more of army recruits in Moscow, the Lower Volga region, and the Caucasus.

Other elements should be taken into account as well. There are many Russian nationalists and equally many ideas. Anti-Westernism provides some continuity in Russian ideology, old and new. But important differences have developed that distinguish its present manifestation from the nineteenth-century variety. That form of anti-Westernism was based on the conviction that Russia was not (nor would perhaps ever be) recognized as an equal by Britain, France, and Germany; and that the West would do all in its power to harm Russia and its interests. But the West in those days was Europe. It was only after World War II that the accursed West came to mean primarily the United States. Strains of anti-Semitism, too, might still exist among Russian nationalists, but not as in the past. The number of Jews living at present in Russia is no more than one-sixth of that living in pre-revolutionary Russia—and perhaps even less. Some are leading businessmen, but none of them is in a leading political position. There are wide stretches of Russia in which Jews, let alone Jewish communities, cannot be found. While anti-Semitism may flourish even in the absence of Jews, it is not likely to play the role that it did in the deep Russian past, having relinquished pride of place to newer ethnic conflicts.

In terms of players today, the Russian right wing is by and large home to the groups most intensely preoccupied with the creation of a “Russian” ideology. There is an endless list of individuals and small groups, of splits, reunions, and changing views. Nor is it always easy to establish which of these individuals and groups are bona fide and which (to put it cautiously) are created, steered, and financed by the authorities.

To the degree that any of them are in opposition to the ruling elite, it is certainly as a loyal opposition. Some of the more serious figures and groups of “the Russian party” have been absorbed by the ruling stratum—this goes for instance for Dmitri Rogozin, who for several years became Russia’s representative at NATO. It does not apply to certain neo-Nazi fringe groups that are not players in the political game. From time to time they appear in the news as instigators of riots, but their prospects for attaining real power remain minimal.

The views of the more respectable right-wing groups appear in the weekly Zavtra, which has a circulation of about a hundred thousand, quite substantial by Russian standards, or are voiced by television commentators such as Mikhail Leontyev, said to be Putin’s favorite journalist. More eccentric views come from certain academics such as Igor Panarin, who predicted in 2008 that America would collapse within two years. It is not always clear whether nationalist statements of this kind are meant to be taken seriously or whether they belong to the world of entertainment.

Aleksei Navalny is undoubtedly the best known of the Russian nationalists. He has characterized himself variously as a nationalist democrat or democratic nationalist, and there is no reason to doubt his belief in a democratic order, much in contrast to the others of the Russian hard right. He bitterly attacked the Russian state party as the party of rascals and thieves; he was arrested and brought to trial but released after a few weeks, enabling him to participate in the elections for mayor of Moscow, in which he attracted more than twenty-five percent of the vote. Navalny, a lawyer by profession, is a charismatic figure, but he has shown no ideological pretensions—his critique of the regime is based on concrete issues such as corruption rather than on philosophy. It’s also worth noting that in his bid for Moscow mayor last fall he galvanized the largely democratic opposition.

The political theorist of the nationalist camp is Alexander Dugin, although his ideological peregrinations have been so rapid and so radical that he has had little opportunity ever to take a seat in the front row of Russian politics. He began his career as a follower of the rabidly anti-Semitic movement Pamyat in the 1980s, but soon left because it was “too primitive and simplistic.” Dugin drew his inspiration from a multitude of sources, very often obscure and obscurantist. He discovered extreme right-wing and neo-fascist thinkers little known in the West, such as Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist, the protagonists of the French, Italian, Belgian, and German extreme right, and also, in a seeming paradox, national Bolshevism. Some compared Dugin with Lyndon LaRouche, the American ex-Trotskyite who over the years, together with a certain number of followers, reached the conclusion that Queen Elizabeth II of England and her husband Philip were the most demonic and dangerous individuals in world politics. LaRouche was discovered by the Russian far right (namely Alexander Prokhanov’s weekly newspaper Zavtra) after a long delay, by which time Dugin had long ago given up on him and moved on to more promising sources of inspiration.

Over the years, Dugin has moved away from neo-fascist and neo-communist fringe groups to more respectable sources. This journey was rewarded by a professorship at Moscow State University, access to the Kremlin, and appointment as an adviser to various committees of the Russian Duma. He may well be the world’s leading expert on (and believer in) conspiracy theories. His message at present can be summarized as follows: Russia’s main enemy is (democratic) liberalism, and its geopolitical and ideological future lies with Asia, not the West.


Such ideas about Russia’s Asian future go back to the nineteenth century, resurfacing (as indicated above) in the worldview of certain Russian poets prior to World War I. But only about a quarter of the present population of Russia lives beyond the Urals, and opinion polls show that almost half of those would like to move west. Promises of better living conditions and higher salaries have not decisively influenced these desires. Eastern infrastructure has been neglected under Putin, as before. There is some nascent separatism among Siberians as well. The renamed KGB will make sure that it remains just that, yet the general mood is still often sullen. The slogan “Fuck Moscow” appears more and more publicly, and not just on the Internet.

Relations between Russia and China have been normalized in recent years. There are massive energy deals as well as growing trade. Russia and China have taken similar positions in Middle Eastern conflicts, and even some military cooperation in the framework of the Shanghai treaty in 1996–97. Large-scale maneuvers have been taking place. But generally there is little cordiality for China in Moscow and a great deal of suspicion.

The idea that the Russian future is in the East has collided with the influx of Chinese workers coming into eastern Russia. Dmitri Rogozin, the Russian NATO rep, said only half-jokingly that “the Chinese are coming to us in small groups of five millions.” There have been even more intermarriages; Chinese husbands, the saying goes among Russian women, work harder and drink less. Only six million Russians live in the region between Lake Baikal and Vladivostok, whereas the number of Chinese in the region on the opposite side of the border is ninety million.

China, for all one knows, does not aim at expansion, but there is a population pressure that will not vanish. Russian territory in Asia is underpopulated and there are many millions of landless Chinese nearby. These are the hard facts that undermine all the talk about a natural geopolitical alliance.


For the Russian leadership and large sections of the political class, America and only to a slightly lesser extent Europe are Russia’s enemies, eager to hurt the motherland in every possible way.

In the nineteenth century, anti-Westernism was mainly cultural in character. Under Communism it was part of an ideological war to the death with Western capitalists and imperialists standing for everything Marxism-Leninism abhorred. But today? It seems to be the product of a certain intellectual lethargy on the part of President Putin and his generation, who are stranded between two justifications for the state which they now control. The one, what they see sentimentally as the ordered society and global power of communism at its height, is dead. The other, an updated version of the older ideas of the Russian Orthodox Church, Authority, and Nationalism, is still struggling to be born. At present, statism—the belief in the necessity of a central authority and a strong state, coupled with anti-Westernism—is almost all there is. And this will probably not be enough in the longer run.


The following is an online-only postscript from the author.

March 9, 2014 — A great and growing section of Russia’s political class sees the future of the country in Asia—“Eurasianism”—but this does not mean that Russia’s aims and interests in Europe have been given up. President Putin has said that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century. The USSR cannot be restored, but given the present international situation, Moscow could transform much or all of the territories lost into a zone of “privileged Russian interests.” This is the phrase used; this is Putin’s strategy.

The prospects seem favorable. Ukraine, while not yet a failed country, is deeply divided and on the verge of state bankruptcy. American policy is guided by a president whose worldview is largely shaped by wishful thinking, especially vis-à-vis Russia—the idea of a far-reaching reset. Eastern Europe may be worried by Russian assertiveness but the rest of the continent is opposed to adopting harsh measures such as sanctions. Too many economic interests are involved. Furthermore, there is Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies. Over several decades it has been unable to adopt an energy policy that makes it more independent from Russia. True, this favorable constellation will not last forever. Within the next decade technological progress in the field of energy will hurt Russia’s strong position. This consideration may have influenced Putin to act now rather than wait until later.

How will it all end? After prolonged negotiations, Russia most likely will keep the Crimea. Europe, by way of something like a Marshall Plan, will prevent a Ukrainian state bankruptcy. Could there arise a pro-Russian government in Kyiv? Will there be an end to illusions in Washington? Too early to say. President Obama, like virtually all his predecessors, is an isolationist at heart, annoyed by foreign political crises that prevent him dealing with domestic problems that seem fare more important; in this field he feels much more at home. The main danger at present is a sudden switch from false optimism about the state of the world to near hysteria. There was a Crimean war two hundred years ago, but a repetition seems very unlikely.

Walter Laqueur was for many years the head of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, and is the author of, among other works, The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union.

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