The cultural roots of “ruscism”

May 25, 2022
Mark Lipovetsky
Professor, Department of Slavic Languages, Columbia University
Mark Lipovetsky looks into the cultural roots of the current Russian mindset, as well as the key works and cultural figures who contributed to its evolution since the late Soviet decades and through the post-Soviet developments
“Ruscism” (рашизм) is a word that has long been used on Ukrainian television but only recently gained international recognition, when it was the topic of an essay by Timothy Snyder in the New York Times (“The War in Ukraine Has Unleashed the New Word; April 22, 2022).
“The new word “рашизм” is a useful conceptualization of Putin’s worldview. Far more than Western analysts, Ukrainians have noticed the Russian tilt toward fascism in the last decade. Undistracted by Putin’s operational deployment of genocide talk, they have seen fascist practices in Russia: the cults of the leader and of the dead, the corporatist state, the mythical past, the censorship, the conspiracy theories, the centralized propaganda and now the war of destruction. Even as we rightly debate how applicable the term is to Western figures and parties, we have tended to overlook the central example of fascism’s revival, which is the Putin regime in the Russian Federation.”
Azov Battalion patrolling in an improvised armored vehicle, circa 2014. Source: Wiki Commons
All this is certainly true, and it is no coincidence that the atrocities of the Russian army in Ukraine today evoke the most direct associations with Nazi atrocities during their occupation of Ukraine in World War II. Still, it stands to recall that Russian propaganda and Putin himself constantly portray the invasion as a war to liberate the peoples of Ukraine (not only Russians) from a regime of “Nazis” and call the Ukrainian armed forces “nationalist battalions,” while in the initial stages of the war they even demanded the complete “denazification” of Ukraine.

The word ruscism, in my view, allows us to avoid “mirroring” Russian propaganda, as it highlights the special nature of this monster, which combines Soviet nationalism, post-Soviet nostalgia for imperial greatness; both left and right ressentiment; cultural conservatism, Orthodoxy and occultism (ranging from Russian Cosmism to nonsense about Reptilians and Atlanteans); the idealization of the Soviet era and conviction in the “spiritual superiority” of Russia over the rest of the world and especially the West; contempt for the colonial “periphery;” resentment of Russia’s Western “partners,” which did not accept Russia into their circle; the fetishization of both the Soviet and Russian past as evidence of Russia’s greatness and its “eternal war” with the West; statism, which elevates first and foremost state institutions of violence (the KGB, army, police) to a sacred position; as well as many other elements that have yet to be carefully examined and brought out as toxins.

But the main feature of ruscism is that it is not an ideology. Attempts to understand it as an ideology run up against the fluidity of nearly all its elements, which, as needed, either come to the fore or fade away, even to the point of completely disappearing. While ideology, strictly speaking, should not be logical, ruscism in this sense takes the cake. An article by the journalist Shura Burtin, who asked people why they support the war, reveals the internal contradictions of ruscism as its fundamental property:
Almost every conversation we had was filled with contradictory convictions that routinely astounded us… making contradictory claims also makes a certain kind of psychological sense.
“The Americans want to take over Ukraine. What a country they have!” “No one needs that stupid Ukraine for anything! They’re nothing but bums…”
“The simple folk are waiting for us to get rid of the Nazis!” “The khokhols [a derogatory slur for Ukrainians] have always hated us!”
“But we’re one people!” “They’ve never been human over there!”
“Putin did the right thing by starting the war. We’ve needed to put things straight for a long time now!” “America is just rubbing its hands together, pitting the Slavs against one another.”
“It’s a difficult situation but I don’t think that we had a choice!” “The Europeans provoked it themselves, ‘C’mon Putin, when are you going to attack Ukraine?’.”
“If we hadn’t done it, they would have attacked us first!’ “They don’t know how to fight, they use human shields…”Front matter, or preliminaries, is the first section of a book and is usually the smallest section in terms of the number of pages. Each page is counted, but no folio or page number is expressed or printed, on either display pages or blank pages.
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek 2015 at the Bookfair of Leipzig presenting his new book "Some Blasphemic Reflexions". Source: Wiki Commons
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote that “an ideology is really ‘holding us’ only when we do not feel any opposition between it and reality - that is, when the ideology succeeds in determining the mode of our everyday experience of reality itself […] An ideology really succeeds when even the facts which at first sight contradict it start to function as arguments in its favour.” However, what Burtin records is more complicated than what Zizek says. There is simply no room for reality in the statements of Russians who support war. In their rhetoric is an absurd juggling of disparate and logically incompatible fragments of a quasi-ideological narrative, which is closed unto itself. Burtin, in my view, accurately captures the mindset of his interlocutors: “There’s something trance-like about a person saying one thing and then immediately following it up with the opposite. It feels like a response to having them back up against a wall. The mind doesn't understand how to react to what's happening; saying things that contradict each other safely distances it from reality. It makes it so that it's almost like you're not even here anymore.”

“Removal from reality,” or rather the creation of a parallel reality, is generally the work of culture and above all art. Today, the idea of “canceling” Russian culture has been widely discussed. Indeed, the scale of the question of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’s guilt for Russian war crimes in Bucha and Mariupol reflects that of the pain and grief caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But is there any sense in such a question? Is it even possible to blame culture as a whole for the crimes of its individual bearers? Both Thomas Mann and Adolf Hitler read Goethe and Schiller in their childhood – which of the classics is responsible for the antifascism of the one and the fascism of the other? Many of Russian classical texts belong to mandatory reading for both Russian and Ukrainian schoolchildren, so why did it have such an effect only on the former? Such questions can be asked ad infinitum. Such questions do not bring us closer to discovering the sources of ruscism, but instead blur them in an endless perspective.

In my view, it is much more important to identify the key works and cultural figures of relatively recent times that have made the greatest contribution to the formation of ruscism as the cultural mainstream of Putinist Russia.
"It is the cultural mainstream that produces formulas and phantoms for the quasi-ideological narrative popular among both the Russia’s authorities and the public."
The "Brother 2" release poster, 2000. Source: Wiki Commons
In this respect, a key contributor was the super popular Brother 2 (2000) by Alexei Balabanov, for example. It was highly symbolic and contained – seemingly by accident – the main framework of the quasi-ideological narrative, as well as its most forceful formulations, which have since been recycled by almost every major political party in Russia. In addition, Brother 2 can be said to have determined the style of ruscism – today it is universally known as trolling and “Poe’s Law.” The point is that the nastiest slogans and ideas are presented in such a way that they can be confused with mockery and parody of the same ideology.

Like a rope, the ruscism narrative is weaved from many threads, drawn from contrasting or nearly incompatible sources. We shall name only a few, though moving forward we intend to write about them in greater detail.

  • The echoes of the late-Soviet nationalist Russian Party, based on Stalinist National Bolshevism, memories of the postwar anti-cosmopolitan campaign and its naked anti-Semitism. An important role in this discourse is played by Orthodox messianism, usually in combination with xenophobia. The most prominent representatives of this strand of nationalism include the writer Alexander Prokhanov and film director Nikita Mikhalkov (who calls himself бесогон, “the exorcist”).

  • Leftist imperial ressentiment as formulated by the scandalous writer cum political leader Eduard Limonov and developed into full-fledged ruscism by the writer Zakhar Prilepin, the most ardent troubadour of the current war. In this discourse, radicalism in relation to the Russian authorities is paradoxically combined with enthusiasm about everything that symbolizes imperial greatness and requires bloodshed (preferably on a mass scale).

  • The “Soviet nostalgia” megaproject. What started out in the 1990s as cheerful banter (Old Songs about What’s Important) and ironic historiography (Namedni. Nasha Eraby Leonid Parfyonov) took on the function of a “social contract” and a “utopian horizon” after 2014.
"Soviet nostalgia has replaced the search for ideas about how to develop the country, instead of the future offering an imaginary and therefore enhanced past."
It centers around the late-Soviet era, but also sometimes the Stalinist era (but never the Revolution).

  • The nationalist discourse about a “genuinely Russian” culture, used instrumentally against the culturally and sometimes the ethnically “inferior.” The loudest representative for this type of ruscism is author Tatyana Tolstaya.

  • A construction of the alternative Russian history in which Russia is always both the victim and the winner. Ground zero of this alternative history is the so-called Great Patriotic War, which has been turned into a cult of the dead and a universal justification for all Russia's grievances against the world. Many people took part in creating this cultural movement, but first among them are the producers of quasi-historical TV series and epic films about the war, which are constantly shown on nearly every TV channel. In addition, there are reenactors of historical battles (Igor “Strelkov” Girkin being one of them), as well as writers of science fiction novels about those who “fell into” the past and “Slavic fantasy,” among other creators of different forms of mass culture.

  • Transgressive populism, whose roots reach far into the Soviet underground. A typical (though not the only) example is the Yuzhinsky Circle, which back in the 1960s rediscovered occultism and the writings of such theorists of “classical” fascism as Rene Guenon and Julius Evola. Founded by Yuri Mamleev, the salon included Alexander Dugin and Geydar Dzhemal. A young Viktor Pelevin, before becoming the shining star of Russian literary postmodernism, also visited Yuzhinsky. Mixing transgression with the quest for popularity, over thirty years he has made a significant evolution toward “conservative values,” namely hatred of Western “liberal fascism,” including feminism and intolerance toward racism, homophobia, sexism and other forms of xenophobia. On a different trajectory but in a similar direction evolved such figures in the musical counterculture as Sergey Shnurov, Vyacheslav Butusov and Garik Sukachev, whose countercultural pathos melted down into a variety of ruscism.

These trends developed not because of anyone's evil will, but rather in response to the demands and expectations of post-Soviet society. To capture and give expression to the zeitgeist of an era, considerable talent is needed. Indeed, many of these writers and artists are very talented – which is why their personal beliefs and even prejudices effectively seeped into the mainstream, becoming the idioms and formulations of ruscism.
Of course, this list is incomplete.
Of course, the threads in the rope of ruscism were constantly intertwining.
Of course, the cultural mainstream does not automatically lead to unlawful political decisions. However, it makes them possible and provides them with cultural support.
Ukraine’s victory over Russia is only a matter of time, while the war against ruscism in Russia itself will take years and perhaps decades after Russia’s military defeat. Without addressing the cultural roots of ruscism, the monster cannot be slain. Thus, we must start now.

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