VII. The Great Russian Restoration: The Kremlin’s Post-Soviet State Ideology
Many pundits and analysts have pointed out that Russia doesn’t seem to have a visible political/economic/state ideology and they are correct to do so. That being said, the Kremlin civic platform has always been quite basic and straightforward. The Kremlin’s official civic platform is based on three pillars: sport, Orthodoxy and World War II. As a result of this formula, Russia committed state resources in the form of manpower, money and propaganda to these three areas. The West understood this, accepted the terms of battle and committed itself to undermining these three pillars of support. This isn’t all that different from the the policy of the USSR, or any other country’s civic platform really. If we just swap Orthodoxy for Communism, then we have the USSR platform and if we swap Orthodoxy for Laïcité, then we have the French platform. The point I’m making here is simple: all states have civic political platforms in one form or another and Russia’s isn’t particularly special.
In this context, the rationale for Russia’s systematic banning from all international sporting competitions becomes clearer. One could be forgiven for thinking that this was simply petty bear-baiting from a Russophobic predominantly Jewish ruling caste in the West, but, in actual fact, there was a strategic political goal behind this unsportsmanlike behavior. Russian athletes—and all athletes in fact—train for these international competitions where they win cash prizes, promotion deals, partnerships, gain international exposure, and so on. With the bannings, many of these athletes careers got nuke’d and so did the Kremlin promotion campaign based on these role-models and the soft power prestige that their performances brought to Russia. It’s hard to deny that the West has been rather successful in undermining the Kremlin’s plan on this front.
Now, Orthodoxy seems rather self-explanatory, but it’s still worth a few words of contextualization here. Hundreds of new churches are built in Russia every single year with state financing, to the point that the church struggles to staff them all with priests. The vast majority of the post-Soviet population, however, does not attend these churches religiously. That being said, most people are generally pro-Orthodox in the sense that they do not practice any kind of militant atheism or hold hostile views of the church. Most people simply aren’t in the habit of going to church and don’t really believe that they need to go to church to consider themselves Christians. The church, of course, begs to disagree and wants to boost its share of devoted, regular church-goers from the 10–15% of the population that the number hovers at now to something closer to a majority of the population. I had some modest suggestions to share with the Patriarch on how better to accomplish this, but he hasn’t returned my calls as of yet. Nonetheless, I will keep spamming his inbox and keep you guys posted about any developments that might occur on that front.
As for World War II, there’s some history here that few people in the West know. The USSR, in the first decades after the war, did not talk much about the Great Patriotic War. Sure, they had a parade after the victory in Moscow which has been continued ever since, but it wasn’t until the late 60s and 70s when the Kremlin began to lean into Victory Day and began treating it more seriously. I can only speculate on what may have been the reason for this reticence to incorporate that great victory into the Kremlin’s political platform. The simplest and obvious explanation is that they no doubt felt embarrassed by the war at the time and tried to move past it as quickly as they could. As we all know, the Soviet Union suffered humiliating losses in the first weeks and months of the war due to the sheer incompetence of the Bolshevik leadership, and the war had such a catastrophic effect on the lives of Soviet citizens that it was no doubt difficult to spin a narrative around glory and victory so soon after the mass-suffering and destruction. Furthermore, many war heroes had risen up through the ranks who could become potential political rivals of the Bolshevik party elite and the last thing that they wanted was another “Bonaparte” rising up to sweep them aside and become the new Emperor of the Red Empire. It is for this reason that many war heroes and officers spent their veteran years worried that they might be arrested and sent to the Gulags. In my family, my great-grandfather, for example, hid his medals and his uniform and rarely spoke about the war with his family until far later in his life. Many Russian historians believe that the great Red Army general Georgiy Zhukov was
assassinated (error: I mixed him up with Konstantin Rokossovsky, who was imprisoned in the Gulag and later released in 1940 and returned to a top military command) because the Bolsheviks were terrified of his near demigod-like popularity. Zhukov saved the Reds who had successfully lost their entire forward army in Europe in a few short months of fighting against the Germans with his Eastern Army near Moscow. Few in the West understand that the latter USSR was far less repressive and extreme as the earlier USSR was, mostly because many Jews fled the USSR following Stalin’s purges and the gradual “Russification” of the state security structures. The “old-timers” who vote for the Communists out of nostalgia mostly remember and grew up during this relatively normal period and don’t associate the Communists with mass murder, mass arrests, and terror because most of that happened before their time. Incidentally, I promised to talk about the Communist opposition and still plan to do so in the future.
Regardless, it’s hardly a secret that the Kremlin talks a lot and I mean A LOT about World War II. This is also why they are so prickly about historical revisionism aimed at reexamining the causes of the war. As a part of its civic platform, the Kremlin has thrown its weight and support behind the May 9th Victory Parades and the Immortal Brigade marches in particular. This only really took off following the annexation of Crimea when literally hundreds of thousands of Russians used the Victory Day parade as a proxy venue for expressing their latent Russian patriotism in an acceptable civic manifestation. Despite their attempts to disguise and justify their pro-Russia patriotism behind the morally unassailable status of World War II and the defeat of Nazism, the liberal media was particularly vicious in its attacks on people who began to attend these Victory Day parades, labeling them paid agents of the Kremlin and, naturally, Fascists hiding behind the black and orange victory banner. Bizarrely, the Orthodox Church also expressed anti-Victory Day sentiment, alleging that it was not Orthodox to march with banners of slain family members and that it verged on shamanism or animism or ancestor worship, which the Christian faith does not allow. This is easily explained by the fact that the Orthodox clergy doesn’t want a civic religion to emerge and split the loyalty of the Russian population, which they believe rightfully belongs to them. Unsurprisingly, they’ve had to tone down this rhetoric in recent years.
In any case, the Western media has, in recent years, taken to pointing out historically inconvenient facts about, for example, Stalin’s pact with Hitler over the partition of Poland. Or that the Soviet Union trained German pilots and provided Germany with fuel and grain and other raw materials as part of their alliance right up into the start of the invasion. The point of this isn’t to rehabilitate Hitler or because of a new-found commitment to WWII objectivism on the part of the Western media. It’s an attack on the Kremlin’s platform by arguing that Stalin and the USSR were just as evil as Hitler and that Russia is a continuation of the USSR and seeks to take back Poland and invade Europe—as in Biden’s speech yesterday in Warsaw, linking present day Russian actions in Ukraine to “Hungary, 1956. Poland, 1956, and then again, 1981. Czechoslovakia,1968. Soviet tanks crushed democratic uprisings.” Many nationalists in the West know that there is far more to WWII than the standard narrative, be it Western or Eastern, that is allowed to be mentioned in the public sphere and polite society. They should perhaps ask themselves why the Western media is allowing historical revisionism back into the public sphere in the run-up to a conflict with Russia when it was an absolute taboo topic for so many years.
Now, none of these “pillars” are ideological per se although they are promoted and defended as stolidly as any political or religious creed. This is because Russia is a post-Ideological nation and Putin has often stressed his commitment to this course of development. In other words, when Putin talks about Russia being a “normal country” in his video addresses to the West, he means a country that isn’t committed to one messianic political/economic theory or another like, say, the U.S., which is committed to crusading for its religion of Liberal Human Rights Democracy Freedom around the world. “Normal” just means a country that acts in the interests of itself and its people first and foremost and tries to get along with other countries as well. One could even call this “nationalism” if one were so inclined, but Russian civil society has an aversion to this word, preferring to brand their enemies with it instead. Again, the preferred term is “normal” and that means that you will often hear phrases like “Russia is not a nationalistic country, Russia is a normal country” because that’s the official state line. Me, personally, I like the term ‘nationalism’ and have no qualms about using it. Consider: are the Russian soldiers fighting to save the Russians in Donbass and to defend Russia’s interests not literally “Russian Nationalists”? At the risk of sounding like some French deconstructionist philosopher, I’d like to point out that terms do not seem to have any inherent meaning to them (although they should) separate from the meaning that we choose to ascribe to them. I guess I don’t really mind calling myself a “normalist” going forward, but I think it lacks a certain artistic je ne said quoi, don’t you?
As I’ve written about before, Russia has been accelerating its process of internal “normalization” with the shutdown of the Liberals and their beloved ideological institutions. “Ukraine is rightful Russian land with Russians living on it,” is a statement that was considered extreme a few weeks ago, but is now rather mainstream and one that the average Russian can hear from the pundit class on the state channels. These same pundits then turn around and condemn “nationalism.” A head-scratcher, for sure. But most people’s heads go unscratched because they’re agreeing with every word that is being said, even the parts that seem to contradict one another. I suppose results speak louder than any words or tweets or at least the Russian government seems to think so. This would no doubt explain why there are so few videos coming out from the Russian side and the pro-Russian propaganda channels rely on official statements from the Ministry of Defense or Kadyrov’s Chechen brigades, who seem to be flouting any rules regarding social media posting and instead seem to relish the social media propaganda game. All of this begs the question: is the Kremlin’s inability to produce quality propaganda for its side part of a clever plan to not release important military details or a catastrophic oversight by its Boomer tech-luddite leadership? I really wish I could answer this question, but I’m afraid I’ll have to cop out and just say “we will see” and “the results will speak for themselves” in time.
But does Russia even need a state ideology? Should Russia recommit herself and her resources to making the world safe for Communism/Orthodoxy/Borsht or something of the kind? I share the same opinion as the Kremlin and think that allowing oneself to slide into one ideology or another is a dangerous gambit that more often than not leads a country or even the individual that adopts it to making catastrophic mistakes because of their commitment to a separate, higher Truth™ that often runs contrary to the actual truth and the reality that we find ourselves in. Ideology can indeed unite and motivate people to great heights of fanaticism that can be harnessed by the state or a group of clever people to achieve world-changing goals. But ideology is a double-edged sword that cuts the hand that wields it the moment that its holder begins to actually commit himself to uncritically believing in it. Putin clearly doesn’t want a new messianic world-changing ideology for Russia because Putin probably saw what happened with the USSR and sees what is happening to the USSA right now and has drawn some conclusions. He will, however, have to come up with a new civic platform for the Kremlin to promote eventually. Interest in World War II is virtually nonexistent among the youth, Orthodoxy will take a while to “take” again, and the sanctions on Russian athletes won’t end anytime soon. The current wave of enthusiasm for the military operation in Ukraine is enough for now, but eventually, a new popular platform will be needed .
President Putin, my man, you know where to reach me. Let’s boil some coffee, order some takeout and start throwing some ideas up on the whiteboard. We can discuss my fee at a later date, but I promise to be reasonable about it. The ball is in your court, big guy.