War as state ideologeme of Putin’s Russia. Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



It would be a mistake to believe that the practical effects of the ideology of war can be short-term ones. Even the removal of Putin from the political buttons does not guarantee the collapse of the ideology of war. The problem is much more profound and resides in the state of historical Russian society...


Anatol Țăranu

Contrary to the idea that after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian elite was interested only in money, the new regime in Moscow actually from the very beginning has looked for an ideology that would enable the Russian state that experienced the drama of the falling empire to strengthen itself.

At the time of Yeltsin, the interests, primarily the pragmatic and daily ones, of Russian society that started the path of modernization under the pressure exerted by the switchover to private ownership and renouncing of communist ideology that covered the period of transition of the 1990s promised that the Russian society would assimilate the values of open society of liberal type. But the democratic tendencies swiftly came into conflict with the matrix of traditionalism, which was sometimes close to fundamentalism, of historical Russian society.

Moreover, Putin, at a particular stage of maturation of his regime, managed to sell to a considerable part of Russian society the belief in the necessity of Russia regaining the quality of a great power, with the restoration of the Soviet hymn during the first year of his tenure as president, in December 2000, being the first step in this direction. It was a political act with clear aligning of the ideological priorities.

Putinism. New-old ideology of the Russian state

This new ideology started to take an evident shape during the successive mandates of President Putin and, in a logical way, matched also the interests of keeping power in his hands. As any ideology, the new Russian state doctrine had to resort to historical, cultural and religious myths, invented traditions, different resentments of Russian society designed to legitimize the authoritarian regime under formation and to simultaneously delegitimize all those who opposed the regime and didn’t share its ideas. They gradually reached the name of ‘ideology of Putinim” that, even if it is not systemized in all details, exists and is disseminated through Putin’s speeches, articles and interviews.

Putin’s doctrine started to gain content right at the start of his first term in office as President given the acute demand for the justification of Moscow’s policies with regard to rebel Chechnya. Yeltsin’s successor then renounced any civilized methods for settling the secessionist conflict, resorting straightway to genocidal military practices of “taming” the revolted Chechens, which were used in the 19th century by the tsarist general Yermolov in the zone of the Caucasus conquered by the Russians. Putin’s sentence that became generic “we will smash them in the toilet too” (criminal slang) materialized into limitless cruelty in the Russian military and the destruction to the ground of the capital Groznyy, with multiple victims among civilians.

The macabre success of the “military operation” in Chechnya served as a catalyst for the recrudescence of the militarist spirit in the Kremlin’s policy. The flirting with the Western liberalism of the 1990s started to be swiftly eliminated from the political practices of the regime in Moscow, being replaced with the bellicose reason of imperialist revenge. Namely against such a background, the assessment made public by one of the refined Russian intellectuals, Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, became possible. Defining his understanding of the famous Russian soul, with amazing openness he said that “we are all militarists and imperialists”.

Looking for enemies without soul and values

The acceptance by the Russian society of the idea of imperial restoration by war became the leitmotif and central chain in Putin’s ideology under formation. Within the new Russian state ideologeme edited by Putin, the clear emphasis of the so-called enemies, foreign agents, national traitors, LGBT activists , which is of all those who become undesirable for the regime, is facilitated. The identity in the case of Putinist ideology is built as a negative one, by contraposition: “we” are here and “we” are not like “they” are. “We”, which is the Russians, are spiritual, traditional, original, sacrificial and sovereign, while “they” are non-spiritual, irrational, nonconventional, cosmopolitan and claim the richness or the Russians and make an attempt on their existence.

From cult of Victory of 1945 to cult of war as such

These ideological clichés do not contain something new. They are almost literally borrowed from the times of Stalinism and even from the Slavophile narratives of the time of tsarism. The war in the name of the restoration of the imaginary historical justice, speculation of the defensive war thesis (one-two days and we would have been attacked and we therefor launched a preventive attack), freeing of the Russian historical land: this is the range of ideological justifications for the restoration by war of the Russian empire in Putin’s formula.

Under the regime of Putin, the state ideologeme of Russia evolved from the cult of the Victory of 1945 to the cult of the war as such. Using the expression of the known historian of Stalinism, Evgeny Dobrenko, it was an evolution “from the commemoration of the victims to the monumentalization of winners”. Moreover, Putin managed to impose the idea that the “special operation” of 2022 is a natural follow-up to the Great Patriotic War and, in general, this is an existential struggle of the Russian civilization with the West on a significant part of Russian society and on those from outside it who identify themselves with the Russian world.

Special Russian destiny

Putin’s state doctrine is imposed on Russian society whose cultural code developed based on the acceptance of the idea that the sorrows and sufferings of the people, which most often stemmed from the mistakes of the leaders or mental laziness, has an almost religious meaning. In this mental paradigm, the sorrows and sufferings are explained to be the result of the “special Russian destiny”, while the television leading the whole sophisticated propaganda system of the Kremlin today persuades the Russian philistine that the future chances do not have a big value, that his dignity resides namely in the fact that the absence of satiety does not matter much and that the Russians strengthen their spirituality by living on a minimum of material goods. When the Russians start to believe that they are special, that they are a sacred nation, they lose the capacity to see that most of their sorrows stem from lack of professionalism and from the mistakes of those who take prophetic political decisions.

The collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War spread in the world hope that the Russian imperialism was neutralized. But this hope turned out to be an empty one. Instead, it turned out that Soviet education and alphabetization and the feeble post-Soviet democratization attempts that replaced the ignorance of tsarist Russia didn’t change almost nothing in the Russian psychology burdened by the lack of independent thinking abilities, by a weakly developed feeling of personal responsibility for the made choice, amazing suggestibility, belief in myths, switchover from one extreme to another, traditional paternalism and so on. All these traits of the national Russian conscience intervened and hampered the formation of a political system with full rights realized by the citizens.

Consequently, not at all accidentally, many Russians now replace the analysis of their previous mistakes with the search for enemies outside. This resulted in the current developments in Russian society, where the irrational almost fully swaps the reason, the narrative and thoughts become slimy, while the despair of the mind gives birth to paranoid states that amount to discussions about World War III.

All these characteristics of Russian society taken together naturally justify the cult of the irremovable leader and the idea of sacrificial heroism, including heroic death in a war for eternal Russia, which is speculated with totalitarian skillfulness by the ideologists of the Kremlin. They wonderfully combine with a kind of divine narrative according to which Russia fights against the forces of the evil and against the Satan. The new ideology creates an explosive mixture of Russian aggressive nationalism and revanchist imperialism out of the Russian Messianism with the idea of a “special way” of decades and even centuries of development of Russia, creating a reason for the formation of a stable syndrome of superiority of the Russian nation of spiritual essence, primarily over the West that, according to the ideas of the Putinist ideological institution, has been in a permanent state of decline for decades, if not for centuries.

Past without future

However, despite all the attempts to make the ideological process orderly and systematized, the ideology of war inspired by Putin’s policies lacks one of the main components – ideas about the development objectives and the image of future for Russia. The problem is Putin’s ideology is the ideology of the past, not of the future, becoming a kind of ideologeme of counter-modernization. From this perspective, the ideological innovations of Putin’s Kremlin are doomed to failure. But it would be a mistake to believe that the practical effects of the ideology of war can be short-term ones. Even the removal of Putin from the political buttons does not guarantee the collapse of the ideology of war. The problem is much more profound and resides in the state of historical Russian society whose metamorphosis does not have a rapid perspective.

The acknowledgment of this long-lasting imminent danger to such states as the Republic of Moldova means nothing else but acknowledgement of the fact that the sparkle of the war will yet come over us from the East. The counteracting of this danger cannot be guaranteed by palliative solutions. In 1918, the political class in Chisinau solved this problem by a radical rescue solution – the Union of Bessarabia with Romania. This solution continues being at the discretion of the political class in Chisinau. We will yet see if there are sufficient intelligence and political will in the current generation of Moldovan politicians to put it into practice.

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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