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Maria Lipman

Maria Lipman is editor-in-chief of Pro et Contra bimonthly journal at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Moscow, Russia. She is a part of the global team of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a regular columnist of Washington Post. She is also an author and/or editors of several books on Russia including Russia 2025: Scenarios for the Russian Future (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

The Kremlin's Ideological  Turn: Causes, Content, and Consequences  

The collapse of the Communism left behind an ideological void and a deep aversion - shared by both, the people and the elites - to ideological projects. The first post-Soviet constitution adopted in 1993 provided that "no state or obligatory ideology may be established as one".

During the first post-Soviet decade anti-Communism appeared to be the creed professed by the government leadership, and, in particular, by president Yeltsin, but it was only partly assumed by the nation at large. In fact, the Communist party of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin's "irreconcilable opposition", enjoyed broad public support. In 1993 the standoff between the government and its opponents led to bloody clashes and a "miniature civil war". Though the bloody phase was short-term, reconciliation was never achieved. There was no consensus whatsoever about the Soviet past or the policies and practices of the present. The existing differences, however, were perceived as political rather than ideological. The political turmoil continued all through the 1990s.

Since the beginning of his presidency Vladimir Putin sought to calm down the passions. In the political realm he offered certain concessions to the communists and moved to take control of the most powerful political players, such as the legislature, big business, large-audience media, etc. In the ideological realm he generally avoided divisive issues; Putin's paternalistic pattern of governance required that the people stay demobilized. To this end, the public debate that might stir unwelcome passions was marginalized and confined to smaller-audience venues. A few ideas and attitudes deemed important for upholding the social stability were consistently disseminated through state-controlled national media. Among them the perception of the 1990’s as the “time of chaos” and a degree of “normalization” of the Soviet experience. But the more general task of nation-building was steadily avoided, and most crucial issues of the new post-Soviet Russian nationhood remained unanswered. There was no narrative of the origins of the post-Soviet Russia, its national heroes or founding fathers. (Russia’s major national holiday, reinvented in mid-2000s, had a vague meaning and proved to divide the nation rather than bring it together. Though the new holiday was named the Day of People’s Unity, the Kremlin did not provide a consistent narrative to go with it, so people at large had little sense of what they were supposed to celebrate. As a result the holiday was “appropriated” by ugly nationalist forces that staged their “Russian March” on that day).  
Putin's return to the Kremlin in 2012 provoked mass protests; the public acquiescence, one of Putin’s major achievements, was effectively undermined. This threat to Putin’s stability combined with an economic slowdown led to a general shift of policies, domestic as well as foreign. A more general change of Putin’s regime included an ideological turn. Putin himself, as well as his establishment and a broad range of loyalists have switched to the language of values (Russia’s "traditional values" were declared to be anti-Western and anti-liberal), militant patriotism (the state is infallible and anyone who wouldn’t pledge allegiance to the leader is deemed an enemy or traitor) , social conservatism (for the first time since the Soviet rule the government forcefully interferes in private spheres, such as faith, sex, school curriculum, art and culture) . Putin has emerged as Master Historian (as he presides over the creation of a "single concept of history" for Russian schools) and the Chief Ideologist (unlike the communist regime which had a special institution in charge of ideology – Ideologichesky Otdel of the Central Committee – in Putin’s personalistic order such “outsourcing of authority” is unacceptable). In 2012-2013 Putin’s articles and speeches were strongly ideologically charged. He barely added clarity, however, on the above-mentioned issues of national identity that remained murky throughout his first decade in power. At the core of the newly mandated creed lies a concept of Russia, its history and nationhood, as an indivisible mystic whole (Russia is not Soviet, pre-Soviet or post-Soviet, Putin said in 2013); it is a narrative undisturbed by upheavals or tragedies. As a stronghold of "traditional values" Russia stands against the decadent and immoral West. 

The crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s role in it, the annexation of Crimea accompanied by a patriotic euphoria at home, and Russia’s deepening confrontation have reinforced the 2012-2013 ideological turn and especially its nationalist element.  But this has also raised a grave, even existential ideological dilemma.  Russia’s territorial expansion justified by the need to protect “ours”, “Russian-speakers”, ethnic Russians or “compatriots” inevitably boosts the existing ethnic nationalism (the above mentioned Russian March, as well as the growing popularity of the line “Russia is for Russians” are a convincing illustration of the nationalist sentiments). Meanwhile, Putin, in his 2012-2013 ideological speeches, adhered to the “imperial” statehood (some of his recent statements include ”Russia as a nation state would be the end of Russia”; “Russia is not a nation, but a civilization”; “our (ethnic and religious) diversity is our beauty and our strength”, etc). The annexation of Crimea as a historically and culturally “our" land and Putin’s determination to support “ours” in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine is inevitably pushing him toward a nativist project. 

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