Main Image Credit Patriotism lesson: Russian schoolchildren attend a flag-raising ceremony in Moscow. Image: Russian Look Ltd / Alamy
Three decades after the demise of Marxism-Leninism, Russia is attempting to revive a state ideology. Many of its ideas appear esoteric and marginal. But they should not be dismissed lightly. The new Cold War – just like the old one – will also be a battle of ideas.
When Vladimir Putin first came to power, he showed little interest in the world of ideas. He seemed to be a ruthless opportunist, not an ideologue. Many analysts overlooked his growing interest in philosophy and history. Some continue to dismiss his rambling essays and speeches as unhinged rants, a litany of anti-Westernism and conspiracy theories.
But it is a mistake to overlook the role of ideas in Russian decision-making. A toxic mix of pseudo-science, conspiracy theories and apocalyptic geopolitics circulates among many in the Russian elite. Ideologues in Putin's entourage have long promoted radical and extremist ideas. During the COVID lockdown, Putin was reportedly ‘almost inseparable’ from businessman Yuri Kovalchuk, whose worldview 'combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism'. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 is hard to understand outside this ideological context.
These ideas do not yet add up to a clear ideology like Marxism-Leninism. There is no little red book of Putinism. Instead, Russian officials promote a confused mix of radical conservative ideas, anti-Westernism, and Russian Orthodox and imperialist thought. The regime is now trying to mould these vague ideas into a clear ideological message to bolster domestic support and offer an alternative to Western liberalism. Three basic ideas form the basis for this new ideological framework.
First, there is Russian exceptionalism, which views Russians as a chosen people, destined for historical greatness. Russia's 'thousand-year history' determines its status as a 'Great Power' and ensures a bright future. By contrast, the West is in terminal decline. For Putin, 'the ongoing collapse of Western hegemony is irreversible'.
This idea of exceptionalism has long roots in Russia, but its current incarnation is fuelled by the ideas of Lev Gumilyov, the Soviet-era ethnographer who invented the pseudo-scientific idea of ‘passionarity’. Putin often refers to this esoteric idea, which asserts that certain nations have an inner energy that keeps them at the vanguard of historical change.
The idea that Russia possesses this mystic 'passionarity' and is therefore on the right side of history appears to give Putin confidence that it will eventually emerge victorious from the war, despite its setbacks on the battlefield.
To back up this idea, the state has turned to history and propaganda. Multimedia 'history parks' set up in cities across Russia promote a skewed, nationalist version of Russian history. New ideological classes have been introduced in schools to teach pupils about 'patriotism', 'love for the motherland' and the importance of national unity.
Moscow's vision of a multipolar order is not based on equal, sovereign states but on diverse civilisations, each dominated by a major power
The authorities are also busy developing a new ideological curriculum for universities, designed to weed out any vestiges of liberal ideas. Its message, according to one official, can be summed up simply: 'The West is in decay. It always hated Russia, but its time is up – while our own future is shining'.
The second big idea is that Russia must be at the centre of a big geopolitical space, whether it is called Eurasia, the Russian world or simply ‘historical Russia’. This geopolitical expansionism reflects classic imperialist ideas that deny the sovereignty of Russia's neighbours (Putin talks openly about ‘restoring [Russia’s] historical unity’).
But these ideas are also geopolitical. They are at the heart of Russia's challenge to the international order. Moscow's vision of a multipolar order is not based on equal, sovereign states but on diverse civilisations, each dominated by a major power – in short, a modern form of empire.
This is an idea long advocated by radical philosopher Alexander Dugin, who was influenced by German geopolitical thinkers of the 1930s such as Carl Schmitt. Once seen as marginal, Dugin's ideas have become mainstream.
Putin's speechwriters have managed to mix this neo-imperialist vision with an anti-colonial discourse. Putin advocates an ‘emancipatory, anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony’. This 'anti-colonial' struggle against the West has become a key theme in Russia's global narratives as Moscow attempts to win friends in the Global South. In parts of the world, at least, it has gained some traction.
The third strand of Russia’s emerging ideology promotes so-called 'traditional values'. The 'values agenda' dates back more than a decade in Russia but has taken on an even more radical tone since the start of the war. Putin has accused 'the dictatorship of the Western elites' of plotting 'the overthrow of faith and traditional values' and of practicing 'pure Satanism'.
Russian officials often rail against ‘gender ideology’. Meeting with soldiers’ mothers in November, Putin claimed that in the West ‘in many places they no longer even know what a mother is. … There's just “parent number one” and “parent number two”’.
Russia's traditional values agenda also wins it friends in the Global South, and its 'war on woke' is an important strand of its outreach to right-wing parties in Europe and the US
In November, Putin signed a far-reaching decree that identified the US and 'other unfriendly states' as a 'threat to traditional values'. This was followed by a draconian law that makes almost any films or literature with LGBT+ content illegal. Libraries have been issued lists of books to take off the shelves. Bookshops are quietly removing books with any LGBT+ content, including works by Stephen Fry and Haruki Murakami.
The Ministry of Culture has proposed a list of 'acceptable topics' for films, such as popularising military service, criticising the 'neo-colonial policy of countries of the Anglo-Saxon world' and discussing 'the degradation of Europe'. While many artists and cultural figures have been silenced or forced to flee the country, there is plenty of support for 'patriotic' pro-war performers, such as the singer Shaman (Yaroslav Dronov), whose unambiguous song ‘I'm Russian’ was a major hit in 2022 in Russia.
This proto-ideology is also designed for export. The anti-colonial message is backed by multi-million dollar budgets to target potential allies in Latin America, Africa and Asia. New Russian cultural centres are opening in Africa. Russia's traditional values agenda also wins it friends in the Global South, and its 'war on woke' is an important strand of its outreach to right-wing parties in Europe and the US.
Timothy Snyder and the Economist call this emerging ideology 'fascism' – but the label doesn't quite fit. It is a toxic mix of revisionist geopolitics and radical conservative ideas, part of a much wider global backlash against liberalism. But it is unlikely to achieve the kind of mass mobilisation that is typical of fascist movements.
Most Russians appear apathetic about any new ideology. There is no groundswell of popular support for these ideas. As they did with Soviet ideology, many Russians will pay lip-service to government propaganda – but genuine believers are a minority.
But some of these ideas are still likely to stick – or re-emerge in new forms. The basic ideas of nationalism, revisionist geopolitics and 'traditional values' have supporters in autocracies and anti-liberal parties across the world. Moscow's promise to rip up the liberal international order has sympathisers from Budapest to Beijing.
Analysts in the West have often overlooked the role of ideas and ideologies in Russian politics. It’s now time to pay more attention to the philosophical frontline. The new Cold War – like the old one – will also be a battle of ideas.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Professor David Lewis
Senior Associate Fellow; Professor of Global Politics, University of Exeter