When History Rhymes: Putin’s Ideological Crusade

May 4, 2015

One of my colleagues once remarked that Russia is what the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called a frozen culture. This does not mean that Russian history merely repeats itself. But it does signify the recurrence of many patterns confirming Mark Twain’s observation that while history does not repeat itself it does rhyme. Vladimir Putin’s current ideological crusade, a project going back at least five years if not more, exemplifies this process. We have already argued elsewhere that Putin has restored the main elements of the Muscovite patrimonial service state and his ideological project deliberately invokes the officially sanctioned process first codified under Nicholas I and known as “official nationality.”

This formulation, brilliantly depicted in English years ago by Nicholas Riasanovsky, was a systematic ideological campaign against the revolutions of 1848 and their potential influence in Russia. It also represented a determined effort to scotch the snake of reform, in those days reform or even termination of serfdom. Official nationality entailed the systematic glorification of the autocrat or Tsar, the Russian Orthodox Church and religion, and Russian (state) nationalism. It comprised an effort to fabricate a Russian national consciousness through state auspices rather than from society itself — a pattern that is starkly visible in Putin’s Russia and attests to the historical stunting of an authentic ethnic or societal based nationalism in Russia rather than a state or imperial national consciousness. This system involved harsh repression of all dissent and among its other attributes was intended to tell the Russian people that any reform was not only unthinkable but dangerous to the survival of the state and somehow “anti-Russian”. In effect it represented the authorities’ admission that they had no domestic program at all other than clinging to power through this ideologized form of “bread and circuses”. Unfortunately today bread might become scarce but there is no shortage of imperial circuses, spectacles, and repressions.

Official nationality always involved as well the stimulation of great power Russian chauvinism, an explosive political tendency in a multi-national empire. We can see that this is already reoccurring in Putin’s Russia with the systematic repression of numerically smaller nationalities’ cultures, languages, and political freedoms. The growth of ethnic chauvinism among the Russian population, at least partly due to this official stimulation, also reflects the pattern. Thus this framework is intrinsically hostile to the claims of ethno-religious minorities.

But Nicholas I and his officials were not the only ones to institute this system. Indeed, his heirs constantly revived it when challenged by pressures for reform. Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II also sought to restore this ideological-political combination, Stalin attempted a Marxist-Leninist version of this in the late 1940s and 1950s and Brezhnev’s stasis of the late 1970s ad early 1980s represented a somewhat paler reflection of this formula. As Maurice Friedberg wrote then, Vichy France’s slogan of Travail, Famille, and Patrie easily applied to Brezhnev’s Russia and could be equally appropriate to Putin’s Russia.

Today, and equally alarmingly apart from its resemblances to past Russian autocracies, Putin’s Russia increasingly resembles a Fascist system like those of Mediterranean Fascist regimes from Mussolini, Vichy France, Franco Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, and the Colonels’ Greece of 1967-74, all regimes that were notoriously hostile to minorities. Already several years ago Pierre Hassner observed that Putin “had led Russia into a harsh brand of authoritarianism with Fascist features.” Hassner discerned the advent of Fascism in the elimination of rival power centers, the cult of Putin, the creation of official youth groups in support of the regime to conduct among other things a bullying of ethnic minorities, xenophobia, and the cult of Stalin. Now the Putin cult may be added to those phenomena and is certainly intrinsic to the revival of official nationality. Neither is Hassner alone in his observations as these phenomena have, if anything, become stronger over time. Indeed to the extent that the current regime increasingly resembles those of the past, not least Stalin’s it clearly partakes of the attributes of official nationality e.g. the glorification of Russian culture and of the autocrat. Indeed, insightful observers like Joseph Schumpeter already realized that the USSR was converging on Fascism already in the 1940s.

But this pathological attempt to block all reform and extol Russia beyond all reason also carries with it inherent dangers. Whenever this program became policy, and surely not coincidentally, Russia embarked upon a war that it lost, the first Crimean War (Ukraine might fairly be called the second Crimean war), the Russo-Turkish war, the Russo-Japanese war, Korea under Stalin (which he incited and which was a loss for the USSR), and Afghanistan. All these wars confirm that this ideological or domestic project is inherently bound up with a militarism that leads to wars that Russia cannot sustain. Moreover, the combination of such wars, a sclerotic political system, and economic stagnation exposed the regime to crises that shook it to the core forcing the next Tsar or in Nicholas II ‘s case a post-revolutionary Czar in 2005, to launch or tolerate major reforms. And in the Soviet case Gorbachev’s reforms could not either rescue or be sustained by the system and led to its collapse.

Putin’s invocation of the trinity of autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationality, rhymes with its predecessors. And if our logic is correct Putin is ineluctably leading Russia into another catastrophe, or at least the maelstrom of fundamental and destabilizing reforms. They may well likely come about after he leaves the scene. But Putin is already engaged in a two front war in the North Caucasus and Ukraine that Russia’s economy cannot sustain if it is to move forward and support his great power ambitions and the Russian people’s demands for a better life.

Is it too much to suspect that history may continue to rhyme in Russia? And — as in some previous cases given the connection between Russian crises, this ideological project, and war — can the rest of the world escape the fallout?