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The intellectual origins of Putin’s invasion - by Marlene Laruelle for Unherd

While the rest of the world looks on in shock and horror at what Putin’s regime is doing in Ukraine, we would do well to understand, if not agree with, the emotional and intellectual arguments being employed by the Kremlin to justify the invasion.

There is no single ‘eminence grise’ in the court of Putin, no Rasputin like figure pulling the strings behind the scenes. The truth is altogether more complex according to Marlene Laruelle, French historian and research professor in Russian and Eurasian studies at George Washington University.

Putin draws his intellectual inspiration from two sources in particular:

“the Soviet ethnologist Lev Gumilev and the reactionary thinker of the White émigré community, Ivan Ilyin.

Putin has borrowed from Gumilev his two most famous concepts: first, the common historical destiny of Eurasian peoples and Russia’s genuine multi-nationality, as opposed to Russian ethnic nationalism; and second, the idea of “passionarity” – a living force specific to each people group made up of biocosmic energy and inner force. As Putin stated in February 2021, “I believe in passionarity, in the theory of passionarity … Russia has not reached its peak. We are on the march, on the march of development…We have an infinite genetic code. It is based on the mixing of blood.”

In relation to Ukraine, the influence of Ivan Ilyin on Putin is arguably even more important:

“Putin has, on several occasions, referred to Ilyin’s vision of Russia’s supposed unique destiny and the centrality of state power in Russian history. And he has certainly also noticed Ilyin’s furious hatred of Ukraine. For Ilyin, Russia’s enemies will try to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit by hypocritical promotion of democratic values with the goal of making Russia disappear as a strategic opponent. As Ilyin wrote, “Ukraine is the region of Russia [sic] that is most in danger of division and conquest. Ukrainian separatism is artificial, devoid of genuine foundations. It was born from the ambition of its captains and international military intrigue.”

Among others who draw on Russia’s imperial mission to justify its present actions are

“the Orthodox monarchist businessman Konstantin Malofeev, who leads the Tsargrad internet channel and the Katekhon discussion group; and Bishop Tikhon, an influential figure of the Russian Orthodox Church, rumoured to be one of Putin’s confessors.

Both men have worked together to advance a reactionary agenda in terms of “traditional values” (anti-abortion, pronatalism, militarism, cult of Byzantium as the historical role model for Russia, and heavy ideological indoctrination of younger generations) and try to get the ear of the Kremlin. Malofeev has become a central figure in Russia’s outreach to the European far-Right and aristocratic circles, while Tikhon focuses on bridging the gap between the Church and the Kremlin and ensuring their ideological convergence.”

All of which brings us to the role of the Russian Orthodox Church itself

“which has always remained ambiguous in its stance toward Ukraine. On one hand, the Church promotes the notion of canonical territory — that is, the fact that the spiritual territory of the Church is broader than the borders of the Russian Federation and encompasses or encompassed Belarus, parts of Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

In the Church’s worldview, all Eastern Slavic nations form one historical nation with Kyiv as its spiritual cradle. The Church has preceded by a long time Putin’s embrace of the idea of Russian-Ukrainian unity as he declared in his 2021 article.

But because the Patriarchate had so many of its parishes in Ukraine, it had also to recognise Ukraine’s sovereignty as a state and tried to avoid the ecclesiastical independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, though this was eventually recognised by the Constantinople Patriarchate in 2018. While we can’t be sure how genuine Putin’s religiosity is, he certainly believes that Russia’s own civilization relies on Orthodoxy as a central cultural kernel.”

The author is keen to stress however that

“even if we could pinpoint the figures who yield doctrinal influence over Putin, that won’t capture what drives him to action, because ideological worldviews are always shaped by broader cultural features than just specific readings.

The whole Soviet culture has produced over the decades contemptuous narratives on Ukraine’s supposed lack of clear geopolitical identity, painting the region (not even a country: in Russian, Ukraine means “periphery”) as endlessly swayed between competing patrons over the course of centuries.

It has cultivated the vision of a deeply entrenched Ukrainian nationalism that was never really “cleansed” of the stain of its collaborationist tendencies during the Second World War and its anti-Semitism. These tropes were part of the political toolkit of the Soviet regime, which repressed many Ukrainians in the name of their “(bourgeois) nationalism”.

They were also shared on a more apolitical level through jokes about Ukrainians as “Banderovites” — Stepan Bandera being the main figure of Ukrainian nationalism and collaborationism during the war period.

These have been updated and re-weaponised in the current memory wars that pit Russia on one side against Poland, the Baltic states, and Ukraine on the others, and which have been fought over since the turn of the Millennium.”

The full article can be read here with a link to the original beneath it:

The intellectual origins of Putin's invasion - article by Marlene Laruelle for UnHerd - 16
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