Russian Ideology: A Mediocre Construction on a Strong Foundation
June 14, 2023
  • Sergei Shelin 

    Journalist, independent analyst
Sergey Shelin writes that most Russians’ acceptance of the current war is based not on fear of the regime or faith in the dictator, but rather on core values shared by the bottom and top of society. Thus, much less impressive are the attempts to use this consensus for the ideologization of education.
There is still no generally accepted explanation for the ease and quickness with which most Russians got used to the war against Ukraine.

On the eve of February 24, 2022, the majority of loyalists were not looking for a war with Ukraine at all. It came as much of a surprise to them as it did to most of the opposition. Meanwhile, they saw on TV that Putin had made the decision to invade by himself. Even his inner circle was embarrassed and timidly whimpered before live cameras at the historic meeting of Russia’s Security Council.

It would seem that it was easy and convenient for loyalists to shift responsibility onto the ruler and consider the “special military operation” as Vladimir Putin’s personal war. But nothing of the sort happened. The one-eighty in the minds of the loyalists took only a few weeks, and its direction was unexpected.

The sudden realization that it had to be this way

Almost all loyalists overcame their confusion and realized that the battle against the “Banderites,” “neo-Nazis” and the “collective West” is exactly the existential one for which they had been preparing all their lives.

This in no way meant abandoning their usual way of life or familiar comforts. Few of the loyalists were willing to sacrifice themselves or their loved ones in this battle. Yet the perception of the invasion as something overdue and even natural spread quickly and widely. To explain this as merely the result of propaganda is to fail to see that Russians had been prepared to accept just such an interpretation of the war.
“Conspiracy theories, xenophobic and sovereignty myths became entwined in minds even in peacetime. This ideology and the practices accompanying it clearly prevailed over others. The war neatly fit into them.”
In Russian schools, "Desks of Heroes" are being set up to honor veterans, including those who fought in the "special military operation." Pictured is one in Bratsk, Irkutsk Region. Source: VK
The ideological complex prevailing in Russia should not be reduced to the fear of punishment and readiness for obedience, which are mistakenly considered to be inherent qualities of Russians. In Russia, far from every order from above is carried out, and far from every word from the boss is taken on faith.

A recent example of this is the failure of the vaccination campaign during the pandemic. The regime urged its subjects to be vaccinated and even threatened them, though not very resolutely, since the anti-vaxxers were almost all loyalists. At the peak of the campaign, in the summer of 2021, 55% of those polled by the Levada Center said they would not get vaccinated. There were also numerous acts of demonstrative disobedience. Now, the same people are for the war. Vaccinations did not fit into their idea of what was acceptable, but the invasion of Ukraine did. Thus, loyalists did not need to reference Putin’s whims to explain the war to themselves – in their minds, the role that the leader plays is not always decisive.

Putin as a defender, not a teacher of the faith

On the one-year mark since the war began, Russian Field asked Russians two questions seemingly thought to be clever:

1. “If Vladimir Putin announced a new attack on Kyiv tomorrow, would you support that decision?”
2. “If Vladimir Putin signed a peace deal tomorrow and stopped the military operation, would you support that decision?”

Fifty-nine percent of respondents said “yes” to the first question and 26% said “no,” while support for the second was 66% versus 24%. Most of those who said “yes” to war also said “yes” to peace.

This may seem duplicitous, but for many Russians these two questions might have sounded like one. Namely: “Is Putin authorized to decide by himself whether to continue the war or end it?” And the majority answered that yes, he is. After all, he is the ruler. Meanwhile, recall that he is not considered the initiator of the war. Nor is he seen as the supreme ideologist of the regime.

Putin is not the author of sacred texts that are obligatory for study in Russia. He has nothing like Muammar Gaddafi’s The Green Book or the History of the All-Union Communist Party: Short Course inspired by Joseph Stalin. At various times, Putin has published articles and even opinion columns, though they were read only by people who take an active interest in politics, and there are not many such people in Russia. Even his most important anti-Ukraine essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” (2021), is still not studied either in schools or universities. Moreover, some of Putin’s ideas, which are very important to him, remain his personal opinions. For example, hostility toward Vladimir Lenin and the early history of the Soviet empire.

In February 2022, addressing the nation about the invasion, Putin stated that Ukraine “had arisen as a result of Bolshevik policy” and that it “could be called Lenin’s Ukraine,” and promised Ukrainians “real decommunization.” Yet just a little more than two months later, one of his closest associates, Sergei Kiriyenko, the actual head of the Presidential Administration, solemnly opened a monument in the freshly occupied Mariupol to “Babushka Z” – in the form of an elderly lady with a Soviet flag – which supposedly symbolized the enthusiastic welcoming of Russian soldiers by Ukrainians.

Russian loyalists, and in many ways even career propagandists, see Putin as a defender of the ideas they profess, but not their author.

Myths contradicting, but hitting the same spot

The mass ideology prevailing in Russia is in tune with state propaganda and is constantly fed by it. But it has deep roots and could well exist even without support from above. In this sense,
“The current mass ideology is more organic and viable than the former Soviet official doctrine.”
The old ideology, from Lenin to Brezhnev, knew the answers to all questions and gave a clear answer to each of them, disagreement with which was severely punished. It was expounded and defended by a numerous, vertically organized corps of propagandists, led by the Central Committee and its Agitprop.

The current ideology provides not one, but several answers to any question. Yet all these answers hit the same spot. It has a set of nonnegotiable values – from the worship of state power and imperial myths to the denial of Ukrainian statehood and belief in a Western conspiracy against Russia. Everyone can paint these values in their own colors – fascist or communist, left or right. Not only ordinary people, but also professional propagandists are given room to improvise widely (see Marlene Laruelle on this). It is through ideological improvisation that the boundaries of rules and prohibitions are tested and established.

Elena Ivanitskaya, a researcher of military propaganda (“Z-propaganda”), considers its most important feature to be the combination of contradictory and logically incompatible elements. Propagandists can praise both capitalism and socialism, call the war against Ukraine both defensive and aggressive, preach both racism and supposedly anti-Nazism. The main thing is that these different paths lead to one thing – to the justification of force and sovereignty. And these basic attitudes began to prevail in minds long before the invasion.

Surveys by the Public Opinion Foundation, done after the first campaign against Ukraine (2014) but before the current war, revealed the paradoxical nature of Russians’ views. On domestic issues, the positions of the majority were then quite critical and even anti-regime, but as soon as it turned to foreign affairs, the sovereignty mythology always prevailed, and respondents demonstrated emphatic loyalty, no matter what question was asked.

Relations between Russia and the West steadily worsened after the annexation of Crimea, but a four-fold majority (60% versus 15%) agreed that “recently, there have been more successes than failures in Russian foreign policy.” Meanwhile, Russians who believed that the partnership between Russia and the EU was more important for European countries than for Russia outnumbered those who thought it was the other way around by one and a half to two times. Back then, this question was abstract, but in 2022 Putin was guided by the same myth about European dependence on Russia when he cut off gas supplies to Europe. He did not create this myth – he simply shares it with most of his own subjects.

Ideas about the past are even more peculiar than about the present. When asked by VTsIOM to recall the names of prominent compatriots with whom they would like to “get to know and talk,” a Russian man most often named Stalin (in 20% of cases) and a Russian woman Peter the Great (in 17% of cases). Among the next 15 desirable interlocutors there is neither Sakharov nor Tolstoy. Most places in the list were taken by rulers, including such noteworthy tyrants as Ivan the Terrible (4%). The rest are generals and other strong personalities, as well as, as an exception, Alexander Pushkin (7%), who probably got on the list not as a poet, but as a sovereignty symbol. This is how loyalists see the past of their country, and should we be surprised at the peculiarities of their vision of its present and future.

Patterns of behavior remain

The striking indifference on the part of the majority of Russians toward Ukrainian victims is a continuation of the long-ago-recorded insensitivity to any other people’s troubles, including the death of Russians.

In 2004, two Russian passenger planes were simultaneously blown up by terrorists. Interest in Russia toward this incident was minimal, since it coincided with the 28th Olympic Games, which was enthusiastically followed on TV.

It was on that day, August 24, that the outstanding jumper Yelena Isinbayeva won the gold medal and in the evening, to the delight of the public, appeared on Russian TV. One of the blown-up planes had been on its way to Volgograd, her hometown. A few hours later, Isinbayeva was wildly rejoicing, congratulating her fellow Volgograd residents on her victory without feeling the slightest embarrassment. However, the audience did not feel it either. She was not reproached. Today, Isinbayeva is one of the most odious praisers of Putin and all his deeds. Her entire biography drives home the point that insensitivity and cynicism are not seen as bad things in Russia.

Traveling abroad, tourists from Russia consistently stand out for their indifference to any events taking place in the countries where they were staying. After the tsunami that killed several thousand people in Thailand, Russians, who themselves survived only by luck, continued to have fun among the ruins and funeral teams, while thousands of new arrivals were “ready to go even to ruins” so as not to lose the money paid for tours.
People who have gone through the school of Soviet and post-Soviet life did not see anything strange about this. And this is exactly the model of behavior that is seen today with the majority of Russians. They are trying to lead their usual life, with all its private joys and troubles, and they do not seem to notice the war.

True, in this usual life there is now more fear and more denunciations, though it cannot be said that that is new. The climate for all kinds of public denunciation has been exceptionally favorable for quite a long time. In late Soviet times, it was done quietly and was widely looked down upon in everyday life.
“In 21st-century Russia, people have been denouncing each other for a decade, if not more, often proudly and demonstratively, meeting no mass disapproval.”
Andrey Polosin, official curator of the new university subject "Fundamentals of Russian Statehood." Source: Youtube
Denunciations are needed by the authorities to test the boundaries of the permitted and to accustom the disloyal and latently disloyal to live in fear. Informers serve as a surrogate for Soviet-type ideological watchdogs, who are absent in today’s Russia, and are encouraged by the system. Before the invasion, the favorite subjects of denunciations were “insulting the feelings of believers,” “propaganda of homosexuality” and “desecration of symbols of military glory.” Now, the main subject has become “discrediting the Russian army.”

Recently, one informer actually uncovered such “discrediting” in the performance of Cyrano de Bergerac by St Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theater – based on the old play by Edmond Rostand (1897) – and the production was duly canceled. But otherwise, Russian theatrical life is now back in full swing, and intellectuals are packing the theaters. Which again brings to mind the memory of how in 2011 in Cairo, engulfed by revolution, Russian tourists fought their way through the myriad crowds of demonstrators to get to the museums, which were part of their tours.

Consensus ripens and immediately overripens

The new normality in the form in which the regime understands it was on display at the St Petersburg International Legal Forum, held in May 2023 with the participation of the main jurists of Russia – Minister of Justice Konstantin Chuychenko, Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin, and Constitutional Court Chair Valery Zorkin.

Some foreign observers saw the event as deliberately scandalous, a kind of outrageous parade and pretense. The speeches seemed to get more and more frenzied. Chuychenko: “Today we have deprived foreign agents of state funding, why not deprive them of funding and the opportunity to earn money at all?” Bastrykin: “The International Criminal Court, this pseudo-court, which has become an obedient tool of the Anglo-Saxons, continues to demonstrate political bias, inefficiency, and unprofessionalism.” Observers preferred to interpret these statements as something not meant seriously.

But the fact of the matter is that the front men of the event were not there to make noise. Their declamations are the new normal. It is precisely the language in which Putin’s nomenklatura now speaks to each other and to the nation. This language is in tune with the grassroots loyalist mythology and reflects the ideological consensus that now dominates in Russia since all other voices have been suppressed.

True, recently the authorities have begun to manipulate this consensus at their own discretion, which does not necessarily lend stability to the regime. Since late 2022, and especially since the spring of 2023, they have been trying to unify the whole set of everyday conspiracy theories and xenophobic, sovereignty myths. Most state and semi-state structures engaged in the promotion of ideology have probably become powerful enough to provide themselves with a front of work to squeeze out more and more state money.

There is now an attempt to ideologize upbringing and education at all levels, from kindergartens to universities. Compulsory classes on ideology have been introduced for schoolchildren – “Conversations about Important Things” and “Lessons of Courage.” Thousands of schools are putting up “Desks of Heroes,” while “Faces of Heroes” appear on the facades. Beginning in autumn, the course “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood” will become mandatory for university students, the core of which is the so-called “pentabasis,” a set of little meaningful recitations on sovereign themes. Boredom and mediocrity emanates from all these costly administrative undertakings. Having a strong foundation in the form of widespread sovereignty myths, the regime is clearly struggling with what until recently it did not try to do at all – constructing on that foundation some standard ideology set from above. Hastily devised unified rituals and texts intended for general memorization look like a parody of Soviet rituals and courses on “scientific communism.” Moving forward, state compulsion can only lead to the restoration of Soviet universal pretense.

Still, today the Putin regime’s ideological reserves are quite robust. It relies on stable core ideas shared by the majority of Russians and therefore has much scope for improvisation – it can continue the war with Ukraine or freeze it, even for a long time. This complex of ideas is good for many things. But not building coherent, normal relations with the outside world.
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