Russian ideology after Crimea

Excerpted by permission from Russian Ideology After Crimea by Andrei Kolesnikov, Carnegie Moscow Center, September 2015 (  

Following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the Russian public has embraced an increasingly conservative and nationalistic ideology. Ideology in Russia is a mass product that is easy to absorb; it is legitimized by constant references to the past, glorious traditions, and occasionally fictional historical events. The new ideology is based on a deliberate recycling of archaic forms of mass consciousness, a phenomenon that can be termed “the sanctification of unfreedom”. The new social contract demands that the Russian people surrender their freedom in return for Crimea and a sense of national pride. It seizes on changes that have already occurred in the minds of many Russians. Although ideology emanates from the top, there is demand for it from the bottom.

The public embraces a loosely articulated but clearly understood premise supported by state propaganda: the so-called liberalism of the 1990s was responsible for the breakup of the country, widespread poverty, wild capitalism, and oligarchic rule. In many ways, Putin’s charisma rests on the extremely important ideological basis that he alone brought order and stability to the country after the chaos of the 1990s. The main driver of Russians’ post-Yeltsin self-identification was the growing desire for Russia to be seen as a great power, a country that is both feared and to be reckoned with, as they saw it. At the same time, high living standards were seen as the main characteristic of a bright future and a strong country. Moreover, pragmatic rather that ideological views gradually gained ground—economic growth, high oil prices, and the emergence of a consumption-oriented middle class were beginning to change Russian society fundamentally. While being paternalistic, imperialist, and nationalist at heart, Russian citizens preferred to remain pragmatic individualists in their daily lives. After 2010, the desire to see Russia as a great power began to match or prevail over pragmatic concerns.

Russians today think they are living in a besieged fortress, surrounded by external enemies, and faced with a domestic fifth column. While some believe that they have been taken hostage, others seem to enjoy their imprisonment. They have Stockholm syndrome and have turned their unfreedom into something sacred, throwing their support behind the commander of the fortress, President Vladimir Putin. They have adopted his logic and even defended his interests, believing that they are members of his team. Freedom of expression has been significantly curtailed through a system of bans and strict forms of punishment, including criminal prosecution, which have both didactic and deterrent components. Pressure on democratic media outlets has also increased drastically.

The key questions are: Where are the limits of the ideology’s effectiveness? And when will its capacity to mobilize and anesthetize the public begin to dissipate? The state ideology offers no overriding concept for the future; its foundation is Russia’s past glory. In this sense, it may have a decidedly limited life span. The strategic problem facing the regime is: What can it offer the Russian people now that the Crimean card has been played? While the Crimea gambit proved to be amazingly effective at generating popular support for the leadership, the regime will have to supply the people with something new in the near future. With economic concerns mounting, at some point the energy behind the mass mobilization of the Russian body politic will begin to dissipate and the social contract that emerged during the period of high oil prices will start to lose steam.

It is almost impossible to predict at what point the regime will shift from mythological thinking to a pragmatically formulated, strategic vision of the future. However, state repression cannot eliminate the demand for change which was manifest in 2011–2012 (among other things, liberals have since protested the murder of liberal politician Boris Nemtsov). Sooner or later, both those on top and those at the bottom will create the demand for a pragmatically formulated, liberal economic ideology. Historical and political logic suggest that a signal from the top will inevitably meet demand from the bottom at some point. Modernization starts when the lower echelons of society start to see stagnation and underdevelopment as burdensome and the upper segments see them as dangerous.

Full article at Russian Ideology After Crimea

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The feature image (Wikipedia Commons) is of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, a few blocks southwest of the Kremlin. The cathedral is a replica of one built in the 19th century and razed on Stalin’s orders in 1931. The new structure was completed in 2000. 

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