Moscow’s Mind Games: Finding Ideology In Putin’s Russia – Analysis
By Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute
By Olga Khvostunova*
(FPRI) — Americans tend to view ideology with suspicion. In fact, one scholar proclaimed that ideology had “ended.” Despite this dismissiveness, ideology keeps coming back in political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, recent advances in political psychology have shown strong psychological differences between self-identified conservatives and liberals, suggesting that political conflict along ideological lines might be inevitable.
A clear-cut definition of ideology doesn’t exist. However, in politics, it is generally understood as a coherent set of ideas, beliefs, and opinions about the organization of a political system and the ways to bring them to reality. In terms of content, ideologies range from right (conservative) to left (progressive) and are exemplified by fascism, libertarianism, communism, and anarchism, among others. While the United States, on balance, belongs to the liberal order, Russia under Vladimir Putin is becoming more conservative. His embrace of authoritarianism at home and an expansionist foreign policy abroad—particularly in Ukraine—has led experts to debate whether Putin’s rightward turn is in fact a turn toward fascism.
Yet, a closer look at Russia’s search for a unifying, national idea suggests that the country is more driven by the pragmatic interests of the ruling elite, which employs ideological constructs retroactively to justify its policies. The Putin regime doesn’t seem to possess a definitive political ideology, yet it does have a quasi-ideological belief system based on anti-Americanism, ressentiment, and Russian messianism, but it is still used instrumentally, and its effectiveness is limited.
Is Russia Fascist?
Following Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, the argument about the Putin regime turning fascist has gained momentum. On balance, the expert consensus seems to tilt toward describing the Putin regime as conservative, authoritarian, and reactionary, but not technically a fascist state. In this context, simply labeling Russia fascist potentially confuses more than it illuminates. Moreover, such rhetoric distracts from the regime’s actual interests and intentions and complicates the development of a more effective policy.
One of the most influential proponents of defining Russia as fascist is historian Timothy Snyder, who has been making his case since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Last May, following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he wrote in a New York Times op-ed, titled “We Should Say It. Russia is Fascist,” that Russia meets the main criteria of the term, which he defines as “the triumph of will over reason.” These are a cult around a single leader (Putin), a cult of the dead (memory of Russia’s sacrifice in World War II), and a myth of the past imperial greatness, which needs to be resurrected through a war—with Ukraine. Snyder has repeatedly named Russian political philosopher Ivan Ilyin as the main inspirator of Putin’s fascist policies, adding that “actual Russian fascists” Alexander Dugin and Alexander Prokhakov are allowed access to mass media in Russia.
However, despite some shrewd observations, Snyder’s analysis falls short on several accounts. He likely overestimates Ilyin’s influence on Putin and misinterprets the meaning of the regime’s flirting with fascist aesthetics and rhetoric. This was noted by Marlene Laruelle, a long-term scholar of Russian nationalism and author of Is Russia Fascist?. Laruelle challengedSnyder’s conclusions, dissecting the “distortions, inaccuracies, and selective interpretations” of his arguments. Following political theorist Roger Griffin’s definition of fascism as a revolutionary form of nationalism, she argued that the Putin regime is anti-revolutionary and demobilizing; it appeals to tradition and lacks glorification of violence and aspiration for “rebirth” through war. After Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Laruelle wrote that Russia is “turning into a closed, personalist authoritarian regime, potentially en route to becoming a more totalitarian model,” and that its ideology is illiberal and imperialist, but not necessarily fascist.
Still, some scholars, including Ukrainian ones, agree with Snyder. Several studies in Ukraine have been dedicated to the so-called “Ruscism” (a merger of the words “Russia” and “fascism”), which is defined as a quasi-ideology of Russia’s imperial revanchism. The neologism has been discussed in Ukrainian media (and by Snyder) and seeped into Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky January 2023 address, where he drew parallels between Ruscism and Nazism.
In Russia, the idea of Russian fascism is also debated—primarily in pro-democracy circles. While opposition politicians, such as Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Milov, support designating the Putin regime as fascist, political scientists are skeptical. Some argue that the regime has been relying upon a set of simple ideas (e.g., Putin brought the country out of instability and is uniquely positioned to lead it further), which does not amount to an ideology, and in general pursues conservative policies, using authoritarian tools to control and demobilize the public. Also, the regime’s ethnic and imperial nationalism is not seen as strong as Russia’s ressentiment. Others suggest that the regime doesn’t have an ideology, but it does utilize ideological constructs, such as cults of victory and power.
The Search for Russia’s National Idea
Inside Russia, ideological debates of the last three decades can be viewed as an extension of the country’s broader search for a national identity following the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. Every former Soviet state faced a similar problem, but especially Russia, given its imperial legacy and great-power ambitions.
Following the short-lived popularity of democratic ideas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the conservative-minded bureaucracy in Moscow gradually took back control, as the country underwent a series of simultaneous crises in the wake of the Soviet state’s bankruptcy. Democratic reformers focused on transitioning to the market system and failed to offer a vision of the future that would unite the nation. In 1996, shortly after his victory in a very flawed presidential election, Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that the new Russia lacked a national idea, or a national ideology, and “that is a very bad thing.” He suggested that his team facilitate the search. An aide later elaborated that this needed to be a “universal formula that relates to generally accepted values and unites all people,” and such a national idea should be “non-partisan and supra-partisan … something that cannot be imposed by the state but must come from the bottom-up.” Needless to say, no such idea was found, despite the efforts of Russian leading experts and public intellectuals.
By the time Putin came to power, it turned out that the ideas that resonated the most with the nation were unwittingly expressed in the two movies—“Brother” (1997) and “Brother-2” (2000)—whose immediate cult status and wide popularity captured the feeling of national humiliation in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse and the appeal to the restoration of justice and simple moral rules. The brutal, honest, and just hero of the movies, Danila Bagrov, takes things into his hands to do what he thinks is right (protect the weak, punish the bullies). He remains one of Russia’s most beloved movie characters. There are similarities between Bagrov’s character (who is explicitly nationalistic and anti-American) and Putin, and some suggest that the latter’s public image and rhetoric draws upon the former’s charisma.
The rhetoric of restoration of justice—establishing order in the country and reclaiming Russia’s place globally—was central to Putin’s agenda during his first two terms as president. However, his statements about Russia’s national idea, until 2011, appeared motivated by immediate political concerns, not by a search for a national identity. For example, in 2004, Putin claimed that Russia’s national idea is competitiveness—possibly reflecting the need to boost economic activity. In 2011, it was the preservation of the people (i.e., increasing reproduction rates)—likely driven by demographic concerns and echoing the rhetoric of the Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This tactical, explicitly non-ideological approach changed after the 2011–2012 mass protests in Russia against rigged elections, which led to the regime’s turning towards a more rigid and repressive authoritarian model driven by security concerns of the more conservative parts of the ruling elite. Creating an ideological common denominator for the public became an important element of the new political course.
In 2013, Putin, like his predecessor, called for a new search for the national idea and formulation of a national identity based on common values. But, unlike Yeltsin, he thought it was a top-down task for the state. Putin also drew the red lines, claiming that the following three ideologies were not acceptable for Russia: Soviet ideology, monarchism and fundamental conservatism, and Western ultra-liberalism. By 2016, a new national idea was found—patriotism. “There can be no other uniting idea,” the Russian president said, adding that this idea is non-ideological and non-partisan.
By making patriotism the regime’s national idea, Putin allowed for an implicit legitimation of Russian nationalism, since both notions involve the same set of beliefs and attitudes, with the main distinction in the object of affection and allegiance—the whole country in the former case and nation in the latter. Nationalism in its various forms (ethnic, Slavic, imperial) has been historically a major issue in the country’s political life, but in this case, it is more likely that the Putin regime sought to capitalize on the strong emotions associated with the collective memory of the Soviet victory in World War II—a policy choice that eventually mutated into a victory cult.
These changes, over a relatively short period of time, demonstrate how the regime instrumentalizes ideas depending on the situation. Putin’s personal history, too, demonstrates a lack of ideological commitment. He started off his presidential tenure as an explicitly non-ideological ruler, and it was not until 2013 that he acknowledged a certain inclination, describing himself as “a pragmatist with a conservative perspective.” Politically, he has always sought to stay non-committal and “above the struggle,” positioning himself as a unique arbiter of political feuds in Russia.
The Ruling Elite’s Belief System: Anti-Americanism, Ressentiment, and Russian Messianism
Even if the Putin regime doesn’t have a definitive political ideology and Putin himself is instead a pragmatist than an ideologist, it doesn’t mean that the regime lacks an operating belief system that offers a conceptual explanation of the country’s place in history and the world. Among the components of this belief system are anti-Americanism, ressentiment, and Russian messianism.
Anti-Americanism is a phenomenon neither new nor unique to Russia, but its spread in recent decades, especially in authoritarian countries like Russia, has been striking. According to the recent Levada Center polls, in November 2022, 73 percent of Russians viewed the United States negatively and only 18 percent favorably. In November 1991, the ratio was roughly the opposite: 80 percent viewed the United States favorably and only 6 percent negatively. This shift in Russian attitudes since the early 1990s was driven by political factors (e.g., US-Russia geopolitical disagreements) and psychological factors (e.g., the public’s disappointment with the outcomes of the democratic reforms), as well as by the Russian government’s purposeful propaganda seeking to shift the blame for its failures to an external enemy.
However, the Russian public’s attitudes toward the United States have been largely shaped by the ruling elite, which controls the mass media: people almost instantly changed their opinions about America if the media shifted their rhetoric. The significant fluctuations in public opinion confirm this tendency: in November 2021, according to Levada, 45 percent of Russians viewed the United States positively and 42 percent negatively.
Ressentiment, which is linked to the elites’ anti-Americanism, refers to a psychological state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy toward someone who is perceived as essentially equal in status but in reality is not equal, and the impossibility to act on these feelings. In other words, Russian elites see their United States counterparts as no better than themselves and are frustrated by the perceived injustice that the Americans are better off. According to NYU professor Mikhail Iampolski, ressentiment unites elites and the wider population: “For Putin the source is the non-recognition of himself and of Russia as equal and respected players on the world stage; for the [layman]–his helplessness in the face of the police, officials, courts, and bandits.” Identifying this shared sentiment and harnessing its emotional power to target the West helped the Russian elite create a national identity construct based on common grievances and deflection of responsibility. And it is often employed by the state-controlled media to stir Russians’ feelings and direct them against the adversary of the day.
Russian messianism is a component borrowed from the ideology developed by ultra-right Russian and Western intellectuals, such as Carl Schmitt, in the early 20th century. Later, it was revived and reworked by Alexander Dugin and Alexander Prokhanov, as well as Sergei Kurginyan, founder and leader of the ultraconservative movement Essence of Time. Its central idea is katechon (“the one who holds”), a biblical concept denoting a historical subject whose mission is to shield the world against the evil forces of chaos. According to Dugin and other proponents of this doctrine (and there are plenty), Russia is the katechon, whereas the West represents the evil forces of chaos. Russian messianism is thus seen as an alternative to American exceptionalism, and the US-Russia ideological conflict as an existential struggle of these two messianic projects against the backdrop of a potential apocalypse.
These ideas do not only exist in Russia’s intellectual discourse, they are in a way reflected in its 2013 Foreign Policy Concept, which frames the country as a restraining factor in the chaos of international relations, and serves as a “bureaucratic, secular version of the messianic concept of Katechon.” It is one of the most dangerous components of the regime’s belief system since it is rooted in the ideas of revolution and redemption through death.
These three components taken together provide the Russian ruling elite with an instrumental quasi-ideology that offers an emotional and holistic explanation of the country’s predicament: Its problems are not the elite’s fault but the result of the aggression waged by the evil forces (e.g., the United States or the West in general); hardships and sacrifices are necessary because of Russia’s unique role as a defender of all good against all evil and quite literally last bastion of humanity. It is hard to say the extent the ruling elite, including Putin, actually believes these ideas. However, the regime’s actions suggest that they are used instrumentally, not religiously, to secure the regime’s hold on power and provide a propagandistic cover for its interests and pursuits.
While this belief system might work for the Putin regime in the short term—and as long as the propaganda remains strong—it is unlikely to compensate for the failures of the Russian military in Ukraine. Some Russian nationalists already criticizedPutin for being too slow and restrained in conducting military operations in Donbas. To them, Putin is clearly not revolutionary enough. As for the majority of the Russian people, it is doubtful that they will accept and follow the regime’s fervent calls for sacrifice and death. The successful ideologization of the population will be marred by the entrenched behavioral practices of the Putin era, such as opportunism, the cult of personal success and personal consumption, as well as the passive patterns of resistance known since the Soviet times—evasion, hypocrisy, imitation, and sabotage.
While the Western media has been actively discussing political ideologies that might or might not influence Putin’s thinking, it would be much wiser for Western policymakers and experts to look beyond labels such as fascism, and focus on the regime’s current interests as well as its structural domestic problems and limitations that drive its foreign policy adventures.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
*About the author: Olga Khvostunova is a Fellow in the Eurasia Program. She is a journalist, researcher, and political analyst. She holds a PhD from the Moscow State University’s School of Journalism and is a coauthor of Media and Politics (2007) and Media in Changing Russia (2010). She has worked at the Institute of Modern Russia since 2011.
Source: This article was published by FPRI