From Uvarov’s ‘Triad’ to Kiriyenko’s ‘Pentabasis’: Conservative ideology in Russia
February 20, 2024
Mikhail Suslov writes about the effort to produce an ideology for Putin’s Russia. Unlike Marxism-Leninism, today’s project is not utopian – instead, it is focused on how to stay afloat in the present and resembles the official ideology in the 19th century.
In his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke laid out the canonic conservative understanding of society as a living organism based on the “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Such a worldview emphatically denies any inorganic change, violent uprisings and top-down reforming.

Responding to Burke, Antoine Destutt de Tracy, the inventor of the term “ideology,” emphasized the importance of political thinking as an instrument for social improvement. Their indirect polemic gives us a keynote for understanding the dilemma faced by the political regime in Russia today: how to reconcile Burke and de Tracy, or in other words, how to be a conservative and simultaneously believe in the salutary effect of social engineering put on scientific (or pseudo-scientific) grounds.
A statue of Count Sergei Uvarov (1786-1855), who came up with the "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality" formula, was erected in St Petersburg in November 2023. Source: Yandex
There have been two attempts to create this kind of “scientific conservatism” as Russia’s official ideology: Sergei Uvarov’s notorious “Triad” in the 1830-40s, and “Putinism” after roughly 2012. Without delving into their ideological content, I will focus on how they relate to reality. The argument I put forward here is that it is a specific position in between “what is” and “what should be.” The ideal that “scientific conservatism” sets out to defend is already “out there” in reality – but not fully so – which means that it requires protection of and painstaking work on its ultimate incarnation.

Uvarov’s “Triad”

Whether Putinism will become the official ideology remains unclear, but it has already assumed a status of the regime (mainstream) ideology, a relatively coherent system of concepts consensually adopted by members of the political elite.
Putinism, however, is not the first, but the third Russian regime ideology, with the first being the Triad by Sergei Uvarov and the second Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union.
Uvarov (1786-1855), the permanent minister of education under Nicholas II – serving for 16 years – minted the tripartite formula of the Russian imperial absolutism: Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality.

According to historian Cynthia Whittaker, Uvarov’s worldview was based on an organic understanding of history as linear, progressive growth from childhood to maturity. During its lifespan, a nation changes in its appearance, but its inner identity remains the same. The role of a government, from this standpoint, is twofold: it should identify the characteristic features of the national “personality,” and based on them, facilitate its natural growth, mitigate crises and protect it from external threats. A ruler should act similarly to a good gardener, who would tenderly cultivate their orchard, leaning on the findings of dendrology and simultaneously creating conditions for the optimal growth of their fruit trees.

The corollary of that is a peculiar vision of an ideology as a system of guidelines for future development, though these guidelines should not be “invented” out of thin air. They should merely articulate what is already present in the identity, culture and history of a nation. Uvarov comprehended the “Triad” as exactly that: the actually existing qualities of Russia, which, however, had not been fully comprehended or implemented by the rulers and which were under threat from the West.

Andrei Zorin aptly grasped the meaning of the “Triad” in a fleeting remark that Nicholas II needed an ideology that would allow him “to rely on gradual and organic development, which is happening naturally, but under government control.” Unlike a purely utopian modus of depicting an alternative, better world “as it should be,” the “Triad” had the advantage of representing itself as a result of positivistic academic research of “what actually is.”

In another tantalizingly shrewd observation, Zorin argues that the “Triad” and Soviet Marxism-Leninism are connected in the most ominous way: by the assumption that if our ideal is “scientifically” grounded, then everyone who does not fit into it can legitimately be proclaimed an alien and hostile element inside the existing social “organism.”
The status of foreign agent, as well as discourses about a fifth column in Putin’s Russia, sounds as a distant echo of Uvarov’s discovery of scientific conservatism.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addresses children at a school named after his predecessor, Yevgeny Primakov (Moscow Region, September 2023). Source: Youtube
In March 2023, Vladimir Medinsky, Putin’s aide and chairman of the so-called Russian Military-Historic Society (RVIO), held a lecture on Uvarov. He outlined the contours of the “Triad,” regretted the lack of a statue of Uvarov in Russia and hinted at the need to follow in his footsteps and adopt a nationwide ideology around the state.

A couple of months later, Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin referred to Uvarov’s “Triad” as a positive example of codifying state ideology. Soon thereafter the foundation stone of the sculpture was solemnly laid in front of the main building of St Petersburg State University on Vasilyevsky Island as part of the program of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. On November 27, 2023, a sitting sculpture of Uvarov was inaugurated under the auspices of the RVIO and in the presence of Medinsky, Minister of Education Sergei Kravtsov, St Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov and St Petersburg State University Rector Nikolai Kropachev.

Debates on state ideology

Woodrow Wilson allegedly defined a conservative as a person who just “sits and thinks, mostly sits,” and this phrase, although intended as witticism, accurately grasps the Burkean distrust of any ideology as a violent imposition of the political will on a living national organism. The ban on ideology in the Russian Constitution (Article 13), though a product of the rejection of communism in the early post-Soviet period, conforms with this truly conservative worldview. In 2007, Putin also paid tribute to this conservative approach in his sarcastic remark that “inventing a national idea is Russia’s favorite pastime.”

In the 1990s, only the “red-brown” opposition – a coalescence of nostalgic communists and revanchist nationalists – rooted for an ideology. In their view, ideology was an indispensable element of social life, so the “no ideology” principle meant that Russia had adopted someone else’s ideology instead of its own.

For example, Alexander Prokhanov, among other left-nationalist public figures, believed that without an ideology a nation was blind. He called his brainchild – the Izborsky Club – a laboratory for concocting an ideology that would be an elixir for curing this blindness.

Izborsky Club member Sergei Glazyev, Russian politician and economist, likewise insisted that an ideology constituted a country’s soul, without which its existence was meaningless, akin to the life of a drug addict. Major national newspapers, Rossiyskaya Gazeta in 1996 and then Komsomolskaya Pravda in 2005, initiated public debates about a “national idea,” featuring a number of prominent politicians.

By the onset of Putin’s third presidential term (2012-18), the need for a national ideology gradually became a popular theme among the political elite. The only divisive question was whether the ideology should be formally codified.

The constitutional amendments proposed in 2020 consequently drew a line under three decades of the polemic concerning the need for an ideology. When the amendments were discussed, many voices called for cancelling Article 13. Among them were Andrei Ilnitsky, an adviser to the minister of defense, and Sergei Mironov, the leader of the Just Russiaparty. They represented the position broadly shared by the Russian political elites that Russia, as a great civilization, should have an ideology.
Ideology, in this new context, was meant to express the country’s messianic purpose, as well as its right as a sovereign nation to establish its own goals.
A billboard advertising the vote on amendments to the Constitution (summer 2020). Source: Wiki Commons
In general, ideology became a synonym of “cognitive independence,” a necessary part of national sovereignty and a keystone of Putin’s worldview.

Tatyana Gurova, a pro-Kremlin media manager, argued that the lack of an ideology is “akin to the ban on having an army after a defeat.” Article 13, from this standpoint, was considered an act of capitulation that was put into Russia’s national charter under pressure from the Western “victors” in the Cold War. The idea that the ban on ideology in the Constitution reflected Russia’s colonial relationship with the global West has gained much popularity.

The argument about Russia’s colonial dependence on the West was further developed as the ideology debate was combined with the concept of information and spiritual sovereignty. To have an ideology, according to this view, means to have a weapon in the information war with the West, while not having one is equivalent to voluntary disarmament.

Wartime ideology

The interpretation of ideology as the securitization of national sovereignty in the international context has made it a recurrent topic during the war in Ukraine. In November 2022, Putin signed an act called The Fundamentals of State Policy to Preserve and Strengthen Traditional Russian Spiritual and Moral Values, which summarized decades of mainstream ideological discussions.

Another heavily ideologized document – the latest Concept of Foreign Policy (adopted on March 31, 2023) – prompted a new wave of disputes on whether Article 13 should be abolished.
The current ban on official ideology in the Constitution became the object of a moral panic among the Russian elite.”
The logic is that Russia can lose the war precisely because it lacks an ideological lodestar. On November 22, 2023, Bastrykin made a splash by hinting at the need to get rid of Article 13. His proposal was immediately supported by the Minister of Justice Konstantin Chuychenko.

The significance of these proposals can be understood when considering the implied constitutional procedure: Article 13 is part of Chapter 1, amending which requires renouncing this Constitution altogether and adopting a new one. This is why ideological amendments in 2020 were made mostly to Article 67.1 of Chapter 3. They have rendered the Constitution internally contradictory (it both prohibits and declares an official ideology), but at least these amendments did not require adopting a new constitution.

Bastrykin and Chuychenko, the highest-ranking law enforcement officers, could not be unaware of the procedural implications of their proposals, which thus seem like a trial balloon for a constitutional reform of a much bigger scale than that of 2020.

Pentagram of identity and power

One of the latest attempts to repeat the success of Uvarov’s “Triad,” which retained the status of the regime ideology for almost three decades, has become the concept of the “Pentabasis,” developed by a group of ideologists clustered around Presidential Administration head Sergei Kiriyenko, who has been linked to the so-called “methodologists.”
Andrei Polosin, an author of the "Pentabasis". Source: Youtube
One of the “Pentabasis” authors is Andrei Polosin, a member of “Kiriyenko’s team” from Rosatom. According to media reports, Polosin is a certified specialist in neuro-linguistic programming, a pseudo-scientific method of correcting and, if necessary, manipulating people’s minds. In 2022, Polosin started working on ideological and educational propaganda initiatives as the head of the project “Russia’s DNA” and was appointed to high-ranking positions at several academic institutions. Recently, he was reported to be the campaign manager of Leonid Slutsky, the LDPR candidate for president.

Polosin intimated that the work an official ideology got underway in October 2021 in a series of meetings with “leading Russian scholars,” who resolved to uncover values underpinning “Russian civilization” and then proceeded to develop a “mission statement” for Russia on the basis of the “Pentabasis.” The latter concept was invented by a Presidential Administration functionary who remained unnamed, though I surmise that it was Alexander Kharichev.

Getting through the pseudo-academic rhetoric in Polosin’s public lectures is an excruciating task, but what we can tease out is that his main task is to bridge the gap between “actual” Russian identity and the articulation of this identity in the official ideology.

Other authors of the original article on the “Pentabasis” include the abovementioned Kharichev, the head of a Presidential Administration department, and some other loyalist academics and experts with long-standing connections to the United Russia party and personally with Boris Gryzlov, chairman of the Supreme Council of United Russia.

The authors of the “Pentabasis” are a “Russia’s DNA” working group under the auspices of the resurrected Soviet educational and propagandistic Znanie Society, whose advisory board includes Kiriyenko, Medinsky and Kharichev, as well as Minister of Culture Olga Lyubimova and distinguished Putinist Vyacheslav Nikonov.

Polosin condensed his credo in a coauthored article, “Perception of the Basic Values, Factors and Structures of Russia’s Socio-Historical Development.” It argues that there is a “conceptual [smyslovoi] national civilizational code” that connects five key elements (hence “Pentabasis”): individual, family, society, state and country.

The values that correspond to each of these elements are creativity, tradition, solidarity, trust and patriotism, respectively. These findings are presented as a result of a series of brainstorming sessions among students and scholars from several Moscow universities, followed by a conference in Sevastopol.
Similarly to how Count Uvarov saw his Triad as a guiding line for the educational system in the Empire, the Pentabasis was primarily designed as a conceptual core for the newly introduced university course Foundations of Russian Statehood.
Two textbooks, hastily prepared for this course, target students from either the social sciences and humanities or the natural sciences and engineering, but both include the “Pentabasis” model as their conceptual core. Eighty percent of the first-year students in Russia (circa 960,000) began this obligatory course in September 2023.

Though it is hard to get rid of the impression that these new cabalistic discoveries of the ruling elite are inspired by the proverbial History of the All-Union Communist Party: Short Course written by Stalin personally in 1938 and introduced as an obligatory course at universities across the Soviet Union, the roots of the phenomenon go back earlier – to Uvarov’s articulation of “scientific conservatism” – and elevate the “Pentabasis” to the position of an official ideology of Putin’s regime.

In contrast to the communist ideology with its optimistic, utopian ideal and universalist principles, the “Pentabasis,” along with its 19th-century counterpart, is a conservative and identitarian ideology. Neither offers a vision of the future. Instead, they tell us how to stay afloat in the present, which constitutes both their power and weakness. On the one hand, people may become disappointed in a utopia, but not in what they are told is their own identity. On the other hand, ideologies about “staying afloat” can be easily torpedoed by an attractive utopian vision. Putinism is strong for as long as there is no such a vision inside or outside of Russia.
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