The national identity the Russian President has helped promulgate—illiberal, imperial, resentful of the West—has played an essential role in his brutal invasion of Ukraine.
In 1996, the year that Vladimir Putin moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow to take a post inside Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin, the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta asked its readers a leading question: “Do you agree that we’ve had enough democracy, haven’t adapted to it, and now it’s time to tighten the screws?” The paper set up a hotline and offered the equivalent of two thousand dollars to any caller who could come up with a new “unifying national idea.” The exercise reflected an impoverished country demoralized and adrift.
At around the same time, Yeltsin assembled a committee of scholars and politicians to formulate a new “national idea.” Perhaps the newspaper contest could feed the process. But the efforts went nowhere. Yeltsin had failed to build any momentum behind democratic ideals, and the political optimism of the period between 1989 and 1991 was, for most Russians, now a bitter memory. The Soviet-era social safety net had been shredded.
People were tired of looking through shopwindows at glittering imports while a coterie of oligarchs were permitted to buy up the country’s most valuable state enterprises for kopecks on the ruble. Yeltsin won reëlection, defeating the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, but only by enlisting those oligarchs who, with self-preservation in mind, bankrolled him and helped cover up his exhaustion and his alcoholism. By the late nineties, democracy, demokratia, was referred to as dermokratia, shit-ocracy. Yeltsin’s support fell to the low single digits.
The same intellectuals who had dreamed of free speech, the rule of law, and a general movement toward liberal democracy now experienced acute feelings of failure. “There is no sense of what this new country, Russia, really is,” a prominent cultural historian, Andrei Zorin, said at the time, contrasting the atmosphere with the Enlightenment ferment that attended the birth of the United States and republican France. “These last four or five years in Russia have produced little besides pure hysteria.”
Putin came to power, in 1999, advertised not as a man of ideology but as a figure of rude health and managerial competence. In truth, he was a man of the K.G.B., trained to view the West, particularly the U.S., as his enemy, and to see conspirators everywhere trying to weaken and humiliate Russia. He did not form any committees to devise a national idea; he set up no hotline. He established, over time, a personalist regime built around his patronage and absolute authority. And the national identity he has helped promulgate––illiberal, imperial, resentful of the West––has played an essential role in his brutal invasion of Ukraine.
To create the trappings of this Russian identity, Putin seized on existing strands of reactionary thought. While most observers paid closer attention to the intellectual and political turn to the West in the late nineteen-eighties and nineties, many Russian thinkers, publications, and institutions drew inspiration from far different sources. Newspapers such as Dyen (The Day) and Zavtra (Tomorrow) published screeds about the pernicious influence of American cultural and political power.
Various academics celebrated the virtues of “the strong hand,” exemplified by such repressive tsars as Alexander III and Nicholas I and foreign autocrats such as Augusto Pinochet. A crackpot philosopher named Aleksandr Dugin published neo-fascist apocalyptic tomes about the eternal battle between the “sea power” of the West and the “land power” of Eurasia, and found an audience in Russian political, military, and intelligence circles.
Putin, from his first years in office, was obsessed with the restoration of Russian might in the world and the positioning of the security services as the singular institution of domestic control. NATO’s expansion and the bombing of Belgrade, Iraq, and Libya propelled his suspicion of the West and his inward turn. He also recognized the importance of symbols and traditional institutions that could unify ordinary people and help define the particularities of a new Russian exceptionalism.
He restored the old Soviet anthem with updated lyrics. He told interviewers and visitors that he was an Orthodox believer and did nothing to dispel rumors that he had taken on a dukhovnik, a spiritual guide, named Tikhon Shevkunov. Father Tikhon, who has appeared in films and runs the Web site Pravoslavie.ru., denied that he had notable influence over Putin (“I am no Cardinal Richelieu!”), but made it plain that he was a conservative nationalist who believed in the “special path” of Russia.
In 2004, when Ukraine was in the midst of its Orange Revolution, Putin not only called on his security services to combat Kyiv’s drift to the West; he turned up the volume on his conception of an imperial ideology. He began to speak approvingly of such conservative émigré thinkers as Nikolai Berdyaev and Ivan Ilyin, who believed in the exalted destiny of Russia and the artificiality of Ukraine. In case anyone missed the message, the Kremlin distributed the appropriate reading material to regional governors and bureaucrats.
In 2007, the year that Putin delivered a famous diatribe against the West, in Munich, he visited a writer and thinker who had once been considered the greatest enemy of the Soviet state: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Like Putin, Solzhenitsyn believed that Russia and Ukraine were inextricably linked, and Putin tried to exploit Solzhenitsyn’s moral standing to underscore his own disdain for Ukrainian independence. What he conveniently ignored was Solzhenitsyn’s insistence, in 1991, that if Ukrainians chose to go their own way––as they did by a ninety-per-cent vote––he would “warmly congratulate” them. (“We will always be neighbors. Let’s be good neighbors.”)
By the time Putin returned to the Presidency, in 2012, his attention to distinctly conservative values had deepened. He cracked down on dissenters, vilifying them as “traitors,” an American-backed “fifth column.” He occupied Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. His vision of Moscow as a center of anti-liberal ideas and Eurasian power intensified. During the pandemic, he rarely met in person with his advisers, yet, according to the political analyst Mikhail Zygar, he spoke for days at his dacha with Yury Kovalchuk, a media baron and the largest shareholder in Rossiya Bank, who shares his messianic vision and sybaritic life style.
In recent years, Putin has even succeeded in exporting his particular brand of illiberalism to, among others, the National Front, in France; the British National Party; the Jobbik movement, in Hungary; Golden Dawn, in Greece; and the right wing of the Republican Party. As Donald Trump’s ideologist, Steve Bannon, put it recently, “Ukraine’s not even a country.”
The devastation of Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities suggests that there is little mercy or modesty in Putin’s faith. Early in his reign, according to the journalist Catherine Belton, he went with his confidant, banker, and eventual antagonist Sergei Pugachev to an Orthodox service on Forgiveness Sunday, which is celebrated just before Lent. Pugachev, a believer, told Putin that he should prostrate himself before the priest, as an act of contrition. “Why should I?” Putin is said to have replied. “I am the President of the Russian Federation. Why should I ask for forgiveness?” ♦
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Illustration by João Fazenda