It has already been noted1 that Russian officials, commenting on the activities of the Russian army on the territory of Ukraine, persistently avoid, officially ban, and even punish, the use of the word “war.” According to them, a “special military operation” was launched to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine so that, after its successful completion, “Ukrainians can freely determine their own future.” It is by no means an “occupation” of Ukraine, but, on the contrary, its liberation from the “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” that came to power “with the help of decorative election procedures.”
The attitude that “election procedures” are mere “decor” in Russia was formulated three years ago by Putin’s longtime ideologue and operative Vladislav Surkov, who claimed that Russia is a new type of state which has zero interest in discussing what democracy should be or whether it should even exist.2 He described existing Russian democratic institutions and electoral procedures as a “façade” and “ritual:” “They are taken over from the West… they are like a fancy suit we put on when we go out, in contrast to the comfortable clothes we wear when we are at home.” According to him, instead of “the illusion of freedom, choice and democratic façade.” “Putin’s long-lived state” is based on the existence of ordinary people’s trust in political leadership, as well as the ability of Putin himself to understand “the real people” and act in accordance with their “deep desires.”
Even if we agree with the above description of authoritarian populism / illiberal democracy as a (long)lasting feature of Russian political life, it still does not mean that such a “new type of state” is a model that, for example, Ukraine or Belarus would necessarily have to follow. Russia can challenge their sovereign right to choose a different path based on the need to protect its own (security, geopolitical, economic) interests, but also by relying on identity narratives about the “historical and spiritual unity of the three-named people” who were (maliciously or just wrongly) “artificially divided” into three separate “nations” by the decisions of Soviet leaders.
Both these strategies – let’s call one “realistic” and the other “identitarian” – were used in relation to Ukraine even before the “Revolution of Dignity” (2014). Today, this is even more obvious: on the one hand, Putin is using the possible entry of Ukraine into NATO and the EU to justify the preventive “military action,” while, on the other hand, in all his public appearances this “realpolitik prose” is regularly accompanied by poetic passages about the brotherhood of Ukrainians and Russians who are, as he often points out, “one people.”3 Starting from their “unified identity” (origin, history, religion, and cultural closeness), he wants us to conclude that the political regimes in both of these states (only separate and sovereign by a quirk of historical coincidence) should be, if not completely the same, then at least structurally similar. Given that the majority of the Ukrainian population, seduced by the siren call of “Europe,” has succumbed to the temptation of “electoral democracy,” Russian troops started a war to free it from democratic illusions, and finally bring Ukraine’s political reality in line with its true “identity,” which it shares with the Russian “deep people.”
The current uncertainties regarding Russia’s war goals are largely a consequence of the simultaneous use and intertwining of this real-political and identity-based propaganda strategy. On the one hand, the war is justified by the necessity to “protect the Russians and Russian-speaking population” of Ukraine from the “genocide” that the current Ukrainian regime is carrying out (or has carried out in the recent past).4 Such justification, in addition to demanding punishment for the perpetrators of the “genocide,” implies the existence of a limited territorial and political goal of warfare – the occupation (“liberation”) of those parts of Ukraine where the proposed “victims of genocide,” ethnic Russians and those who consider themselves Russians, are a majority. In short, Russia’s war goal would be to divide Ukraine into an eastern and a western part, fulfilling Huntington’s old prophecy of a “clash of civilizations” on the territory of Ukraine as a “cleft country.”5 In that case, Crimea and the two “people’s republics” recognized by Russia, together with the now occupied (“liberated”) areas, would form “New Russia,” while the rest would survive as (western) “Ukraine” with still undefined borders.
On the other hand, contrary to such a plan, the use of the identitarian master-narrative implies a more ambitious war goal – according to this narrative, the task of the Russian army is not only to liberate and protect its own compatriots from genocide, but also all other citizens of Ukraine, who form “one nation, one whole” with their Russian and Belarusian brothers. Despite the significant difference in Russia’s territorial claims, in both cases the (geo) political outcome of the war would be similar – stretching the zone of Russian political influence and military control towards the west, demonstration and recognition of Russia’s status as a superpower, and its liberation from feelings of “ontological uncertainty” caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin has already taken into account the (economic, political, cultural) price of measures taken by the “international community” in condemning Russia’s actions. These measures, at least in the minds of political and military elites, further strengthen Russia’s self-understanding as a “besieged fortress” and a separate world (“island”) ready for “a hundred years of geopolitical solitude” (Surkov). However, despite a strong media campaign, it remains to be seen whether this will be convincing enough for the citizens of Russia – not only for the oligarchs, but also for members of the now mature “middle class.”
The combination of these strategies to justify the war – “protection of compatriots from genocide” and calling for a common cultural and civilizational identity of Russians and Ukrainians – besides the advantages it provides in terms of leaving the ultimate goals “open,” comes with a number of difficulties. In the first strategy, the fact of the (non)existence of convincing evidence of “genocide” is less of a problem than the need to define the category of “compatriots” for whose defense and protection their home country started the war. Invoking the ethnic concept of a “nation” (Russian minority in Ukraine) in identifying “compatriots” is not entirely acceptable for Russia itself as a federal state of “multinational people,” since it could encourage ethnonationalist movements within its own borders and question its territorial integrity.
Putin himself has often pointed out that in a “state with a multiethnic composition of the population, identification based solely on ethnicity and religion is definitely impossible.”6 Hence, in the Russian political discourse, the focus was shifted from the “nation” to shared history, unity in culture and language and respect of “traditional values” shared by the members of the “multinational Russian people.”7 Therefore, the concept of “civilization” occupies a central place in the political narrative, and special “Russian civilizational values” are defined as the ones opposed to the (liberal, individualistic, materialistic, “rotten”…) “West” as the dominant Other.
In a word, it is claimed that Russia represents a special “state-civilization,” but considering the significance and meaning of the values it embodies, its attractiveness, importance, and influence necessarily transcend its borders. This is especially the case with the countries that were part of its “unique historical and spiritual space” in the past. Putin, reminding his Ukrainian listeners in 2013 about the baptism of ancient Russia (Древняя Русь) in the “Kiev baptistery,” pointed out that Ukraine is facing a “civilizational choice:” “We understand the current reality that the Ukrainian and Belarusian nations exist, just like other nations, but, naturally, our common spiritual values that make us one people are the basis for all this.”8 Less than nine years later, after saying once again that Kiev is “the mother of all Russian cities,” he would order its destruction as punishment for the wrong “civilizational choice” that Ukraine made in 2014. Although the inhabitants of Donbas and Crimea called for the defense and protection of their (linguistic and cultural) national rights, Moscow regularly emphasized the multinational composition of these territories and the feeling of “civilizational belonging” of their inhabitants to the “Russian world.”
In a recent sermon by Patriarch Kirill, in which – apart from “the suffering of our brothers, the Orthodox people in Donbas” – no other victims of war were mentioned, it was explicitly stated that the war is “something else, much more important than politics,” “a struggle of not merely physical, but metaphysical significance“.9 In complete “symphony” with the church leader, Putin also considers the military actions to be an armed continuation of the “cultural war” against the “collective West” and its (Ukrainian) allies determined to “destroy our traditional values, to impose their pseudo-values which would eat our people from within.” According to him, the adoption of these values “will lead us directly into degradation and degeneration, as they are contrary to human nature itself.”10 Thus, the theme of “genocide” is shifted from the physical into the “metaphysical” realm, and the key test of resistance against the destruction of “traditional values” and the defense of “spiritual sovereignty,” according to the Patriarch, is the issue of holding, or rather not holding, Pride parades: “In Donbas, we are witnessing an essential rejection of the so-called values proposed today by those who aspire to world power. There is a test of loyalty to that government, a test of access into that ‘happy’ world of overspending, the world of illusory ‘freedom’… The test is very simple and, at the same time, horrible – the Pride parade.”11
The doctrine of Russia’s (positively or negatively valued) special “civilizational identity” is not new, but the manners and goals of its political instrumentalization are very different. In recent years, in the political discourse, old ideas (of official “imperial nationalism”, Slavophilism, Pan-Slavism, Eurasianism) about the cultural and civilizational peculiarities of Russia have been pushed into the background by the ambiguous phrase “the Russian world.”12
Starting with the formation of the eponymous state foundation in charge of popularizing Russian language and promoting Russian culture abroad in 2007, this phrase, in addition to the program of strengthening (cultural) ties between Russia and its numerous compatriots (“divided Russian nations”) and spreading Russian “soft power” abroad, could also be used to formulate requests for the revision of “unjust borders” between the states of the former Soviet Union. However, if by “compatriots” we mean only ethnic “Russians”, then – regardless of the possible “boomerang effect” in Russia itself – the scope of irredentism based on ethnic principles would be significantly limited, with territories like Abkhazia and South Ossetia (with 9% and 2% of ethnic Russians) remaining permanently outside the “Russian world.”
Therefore, in the concept of the “Russian world,” its “civilizational” and “historical” connotation is more often in the foreground. According to this, the focus is on cultural, political and religious values which, for the Russian political elite, are rooted in the common past of the majority of nations of the former “historical Russia,” which is equivalent – depending on the situation – to either the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union.
The dominance of the “civilizational approach” – expressed, among other things, in the status enjoyed by “culturology” and “geopolitics” within the social sciences – in the Russian public is largely due to its vagueness, which allows wide room for maneuver in political decisions and leaves the exact borders of the “Russian world” undefined and mobile. Thus, emphasizing the religious component of that world could include all “Orthodox peoples” (or at least those who have not yet succumbed to the horror of secularization), while advocating for “traditional family values” would imply even wider reach, including all opponents of the rights of sexual minorities. Political values – like authoritarian rule of the leader and contempt for the “illusions of freedom;” rebellions in the name of the “deep people” against the “false elites;” affirmations of “parliamentary unity” as opposed to party pluralism and “democratic rituals;” “crony capitalism” without legal certainty; rejection of individual rights and freedoms in the name of civilizational autochthony, etc. – are not, in themselves, “Russian,” because it is evident that these values promoted by the “Russian world” ideologists are becoming increasingly acceptable for a good part of the “non-Russian world.”
In that sense, the borders of the “Russian world” – From the Nile to the Neva, from the Elbe to China / From the Volga to the Euphrates, from the Ganges to the Danube – described by Fyodor Tyutchev in the song “Russian Geography” back in 1848/49, don’t necessarily seem like merely the fruit of imperial zeal or, as it is now called in Russia, the “civilizational nationalism” of a poet.
Translated by Marijana Simic
- Articles on Pescanik.
- Владислав Сурков, Долгое государство Путина. О том, что здесь вообще происходит, 11.2.2019.
- Владимир Путин, Об историческом единстве русских и украинцев, 12.7.2021; Putin, 21.2.2022.
- “We must end that nightmare immediately – genocide over millions of people who live there, who are counting only on Russia, who are counting on us. These feelings and pain of the people were the main motive for the decision on recognizing the people’s republics of Donbas” (Putin, 21.2.2022 – italics are mine).
- Huntington, Samuel, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996: 166-168.
- Владимир Путин, Заседание международного дискуссионного клуба ‘Валдай’, 2013.
- In the aforementioned article on “sovereign democracy” Surkov used this exact concept of nation: “The nation is understood as the supra-ethnic whole of all citizens of a country. Applied to Russia, the “nation” is equal to the “multinational people” mentioned in the Constitution. This means that the Russian nation (people) includes all nations (nationalities?) of Russia within its common borders of state, culture, past and future” (Сурков, 2006).
- Putin, speech at the conference “Orthodox and Slavic values – the basis for civilization choice of Ukraine,” Kiev, 27.7.2013.
- Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, Kirill, 6.3.2022.
- Putin, 21.2.2022.
- Patriach Kirill, aforementioned sermon, 6.3.2022.
- More on this in articles by Alexei Miller and Igor Zeveljov, and the book Other Russia. Critical thought on modern Russia (editor Milan Subotic), Belgrade, Biblioteka XX vek, (2015: 221-248), and in my book Forward into the past, studies on political history in Poland, Ukraine and Russia, Belgrade, Reč i Peščanik, (2019: 265-292).