EVGENIA LEZINA - The revival of ideology in Russia

Events in Ukraine have prompted the Kremlin to promote an official state ideology for the first time in post-Soviet history. The past takes on increased significance in legitimizing the regime, while attempts at critical historical reflection are actively repressed.

Ever since the collapse of the USSR, the Russian authorities have argued repeatedly that the country needs a unifying national idea. But it was only after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that, for the first time in post-Soviet history, the notion of drawing up legislation on state ideological policy was mooted, along with the possibility of introducing amendments to the constitution that would allow this. Although the Kremlin has not yet built up a well-constructed narrative and continues to draw on symbols from different historical periods, its efforts suggest a readiness to revive ideological dogmas. Rhetorical trends in statutes and other state documents, as well as in staffing policy and the official politics of memory, reveal the increasingly totalitarian nature of Russian society.

Patriotism as state ideology
In February 2016, Vladimir Putin announced that patriotism was to be equated with the Russian national idea. Subsequently, the leader of the parliamentary party ‘A Fair and Just Russia’ (Spravedlivaya Rossiya), Sergei Mironov, declared that the constitutional norm prohibiting the establishment of a state ideology ‘no longer corresponds to national interests’.1 He was supported by the ombudsman, Tatyana Moskalkova, who expressed the view that a debate about removing the prohibition on state ideology from the constitution could be justified.2

At the end of October 2016, it was suggested at a meeting of the Presidential Council for Inter-Ethnic Relations that a law on the Russian nation should be drawn up. This was supported by Putin. Mironov called this initiative the first step in the ‘tangible creation of a state ideology’.3 The speaker of the Federal Council, Valentina Matvienko, also emphasised that Russia needs a national idea founded on patriotism.4 At the beginning of December, Putin instructed the presidium of the Council to draw up a draft law before 1 August 2017.5A parliamentary commission was duly set up.

The Kremlin’s ideological motives
This ideological trend became better established after the annexation of Crimea and the start of Russian military aggression in south-eastern Ukraine in 2014. When the Euromaidan protests began in the autumn of 2013, the Putin regime was experiencing a crisis of legitimacy. Its level of popularity had reached the lowest level since 2000. The annexation of Crimea and the huge propaganda campaign that followed helped the Kremlin to regain the support of the population.

This was by no means the first time, under Putin’s governance, that the achievement of greater social cohesion had been sought through military conflict and confrontation with the West. Support for the president had reached its highest, post-Crimean level in 1999, 2003–4 and 2008. In each case, this occurred against the backdrop of military action and a confrontation with the EU and the USA on Serbia, Iraq, Georgia or Ukraine. All these campaigns also exploited anti-western motifs ‘combining a rhetoric of mass resentment, patriotism and revenge.’6

But the propaganda campaign launched on state television simultaneously with military action in Ukraine proved unprecedented in its ferocity and aggression. Over the course of two months, Putin’s ratings rose by 20 percentage points – from 65 per cent in January 2014 to 87 per cent in March. Simultaneously, there was a turnabout in public attitudes towards European countries and the United States. According to data released by the Levada Centre, in January 2015 the proportion of people taking a negative view of the European Union reached a record 71 per cent, while those ill-disposed to the USA counted 81 per cent. Yet in March 2011, for example, 62 per cent of Russians had been favourably disposed to the EU, and 54 per cent took a positive view of the USA.7

From then on, the Putin regime – which had effectively put the county on a military footing – regarded foreign policy as the chief means by which greater internal social cohesion could be achieved. As the sociologist Lev Gudkov explained at the time, Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 had already given Russian foreign policy ‘the features of a geopolitical mission’, with its fervent message to a West dubbed ‘infirm and in its declining years’, with a lost sense of tradition and morality. 

This approach was consolidated when Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, and especially after the annexation of Crimea: ‘Thanks to the strength of the national spirit, the preservation of Christian values and a powerful and renovated army, Russia has been reborn as a “great power … It has its own interests and a right to power legitimated by its time-honoured contribution to the welfare of the nations of Europe, which it liberated from fascism.’8 In a separate interview, Putin boasted that ‘We are stronger than anyone, because we are in the right. Power lies in truth. When a Russian has a sense of his own righteousness, he is invincible.’9.. read more:

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George Lichtheim: The Concept of Ideology

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