How Russia’s Сonservative Ideological Entrepreneurs Lobby the Kremlin
April 10, 2024
  • Nikolay Mitrokhin
    Аcademic Researcher,  Research Center for East European Studies at the University of Bremen (Germany)
Political researcher Nikolay Mitrokhin looks at a variety of nationalist ideas that have recently been put forward by Russia’s conservative ideologists, from the interpretation of the special military operation to radical changes in education, population policy and even the housing sector.
The World Russian People's Council, March 2024. Source: VK
The Putin regime is in a constant ideological search for a slogan or set of ideas that appeals to Russians – along with a broadly understood circle of “compatriots” (which includes, in the regime’s vision, Ukrainians and Belarusians) – and can turn them from passive masses into active supporters. One episode from this search was the “extraordinary” congress of the World Russian People’s Council (VRNS) that took place on March 27 in Moscow.

At the congress, a declaration (nakaz) was adopted that named the special military operation a “holy war in which Russia and its people, defending the single spiritual space of Holy Russia, are fulfilling the mission of the ‘Katechon,’ protecting the world from the onslaught of globalism and victory of a West that has fallen into Satanism.”

The special military operation, says the declaration, “is a new stage in the national liberation struggle of the Russian people waged on the lands of Southwestern Rus’ since 2014 against the criminal Kyiv regime and the collective West behind it.”

The declaration provides a reason to look at the activities of the VRNS, a special laboratory that is designed to pump out Russian nationalism and “traditional values” and that has significant influence on the Russian ideological agenda.

The VRNS: A short history

The VRNS was created by former members of the so-called “Russian party” in the Soviet social and political elite. In the 2000s, Kirill (Gundyaev), at that time Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad and head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), became the lone chairman of the organization.

By that time,the VRNS had de facto turned into an annual socio-political forum under the Moscow Patriarchate. State leaders, key ministers, heads of the Duma and Federation Council, leaders of Duma factions and parliamentary parties regularly spoke at it.

In the 2010s, thanks to growing financial support from the state, the VRNS developed into a fairly large public organization with many regional branches.

The pompous resolutions of the VRNS did not have wide public resonance, but the contacts made at the meetings helped the Orthodox lobbyists and Russian nationalists who were trying to push through initiatives at the parliamentary, ministerial and presidential levels.
Konstantin Malofeev, also known as the “Orthodox oligarch,” chairs the media group Tsargrad, which is dedicated to Russian Orthodoxy, and is a staunch supporter of President Putin. Source: Wiki Commons
Why was the extraordinary congress of the VRNS important?

At the March congress, two events occurred that attracted media interest.

First, the actual managing director of the VRNS, Konstantin Malofeev, officially deputy chairman since 2019 (the patriarch continues to remain chairman), was suddenly and without explanation replaced.

Malofeev, known as a financial adventurer and called the “Orthodox oligarch,” owns the nationalist media holding Tsargrad and was one of the organizers of the Russian military operation in the Donbas in 2014.

Two days before the congress, information appeared about Malofeev’s intention to “go into politics” by creating his own party or financing existing political projects. Nevertheless, since 2018 Malofeev has been regularly making such statements and even managed to briefly join the A Just Russia party.

Sergei Rudov, who had served for a long time as secretary of the VRNS, replaced Malofeev as deputy chairman. Rudov is a major businessman in the energy sector and an associate of Malofeev in the St Basil the Great Foundation. In addition, he is the vice president of the Federation of Practical Shooting, which, though not so popular, has many regional branches.

Combining faith and shooting is a natural thing for Rudov. For example, the website of the Federation of Practical Shooting posted about his participation in July 2022 in big ROC events marking the 600th anniversary of the discovery of the relics of St Sergius: “Sergei Yuryevich [Rudov] is personally participating while also visiting regional branches of the Federation of Practical Shooting whenever possible.”

The other, more important event at the last VRNS congress, however, was the adoption of the declaration.
The declaration, as mentioned above, proclaims the special military operation a holy war (Malofeev came out with a similar interpretation as early as November 2023) and stakes out Russia’s claim to control all of Ukraine.”
Alexander Dugin, a far-right political philosopher, was recently put in charge of overhauling humanitarian and social science education in Russia.
Source: Wiki Commons
In addition, the document puts forward the concept of a “triune nation” (Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians), which even for the ROC is a quite marginal position.

The role of Russia as “Katechon,” keeping the world from the emergence of the Antichrist, echoes the theories that Alexander Dugin has been developing for a long time. Dugin is a member of the VRNS presidium and was clearly a coauthor of the main part of the declaration about the special military operation.

Besides various concepts of Russian nationalism, such as the “Russian World” and “triune nation,” the declaration mentions “traditional values” and “the fight against illegal migration,” as well as a sacred interpretation of Russian expansion (e.g., “holy war,” “Katechon”). It thus brings together concepts that were previously developed independently from each other by various ideological entrepreneurs (to apply the term used by Marlene Laruelle).

The declaration goes beyond justifying the war, proclaiming it sacred and inventing, after the fact, a religious motivation for it. Its adoption basically turns the VRNS and its members, among whom are 100 bishops of the ROC, as well as those elected to VRNS bodies (the presidium and council), including the German political scientist Alexander Rahr, into accomplices of Russia’s aggression.

In Ukraine, all of them can become targets of criminal investigations. It is for this reason that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, previously part of the ROC, not only dissociated itself from both the declaration and the VRNS immediately, but also condemned the ideology of the document and even called it anti-Christian.
Dugin (left) at the New Horizons international conference in May 2018 in Mashhad, Iran. Source: Wiki Commons
Why this declaration and why now?

A month before the March congress, another VRNS event, the so-called All-Russia Ideological Forum, took place in St Petersburg, with both Malofeev and Dugin participating. A resolution called “The Russian Idea” was adopted. Some of the text, including paragraph-long fragments about “holy war” and the “Katechon,” made its way into the later VRNS declaration.

The declaration also included other ideas voiced by Malofeev at a different recent VRNS event, including limiting migration, building independent houses to motivate families to have more children, and combating Western influence in education.

At the same time, completely excluded from the March declaration was terminology relating to “Holy Rus’” and even the “Russian Idea,” which was the name of the St Petersburg resolution and was formulated as follows: “Victory over the West should become the main national idea and goal of today’s Russia. It is unattainable without the complete unification of Russian society and the maximum mobilization of its resources. The idea of Victory, uniting and mobilizing the country under the slogans ‘We Are Together!’ and ‘Everything for Victory!’, should provide the main content of the Russian Idea coming into shape.”

The exclusion of theses about the “Russian Idea” seems to further indicate that the declaration emerged as a compromise between different ideological entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, two thirds of the declaration, which dealt with social and economic issues, corresponds to the “ideological line” described by Malofeev.

It remains unclear why it was necessary to hold an extraordinary congress and adopt a compromise document there, especially since Malofeev himself is not going to lead the VRNS further.

The reason could be administrative pressure by the Russian authorities on the ROC and/or the VRNS. Perhaps they were supposed to provide firmer and more explicit backing for the special military operation than the rather ambiguous Prayer for Holy Rus’ and occasional statements by the Patriarch in support of “warriors” without mention of Ukraine. Moreover, as this author has written before, the military agenda has basically been sabotaged by the majority of ROC bishops, including members of the Holy Synod.

This represents the extension of the Kremlin line to include the church hierarchs, forcing Russian “opinion leaders” to actively support the actions of the government. There is no place for those who have maintained a neutral position since the beginning of the war – prominent artists, famous athletes and now metropolitans.

The patriarch (recall that he chairs the VRNS) might also have been motivated by the desire to overturn an unfavorable decision handed down by the Ministry of Education to cancel the course on “Fundamentals of the Spiritual and Moral Culture of the Peoples of Russia.” The patriarch expressed his dissatisfaction with the decision in his speech at the March VRNS congress.

The course, which introduced a religious component into education at schools, was made compulsory in 2009. Now, it will be stopped from September 1, 2025.

The patriarch and his retinue visited the education minister and expressed “concern” about the cancellation of the course. The meeting ended with the creation of a “common working group to resolve positions,” which in bureaucratic language means the patriarch’s complaint was overruled.
This is a personal blow to Kirill, who since the late 1990s has put a lot of effort into ensuring that Orthodox education is included in schools in one form or another. However, the course met strong resistance from teachers, parents and, most importantly, schoolchildren.
Deputy Education Minister Olga Petrova in an “Orthodox” headscarf at a conference on spiritual and moral education in universities where the Ivan Ilyin Higher School of Politics, headed by Dugin, was presented. Second from the left is Konstantin Malofeev.Source: Yandex Dzen
How “traditional values” are to be promoted

Based on Malofeev’s remarks at the congress (in recent days the text was removed, but a fragment was saved by the author here) we can see how speeches at the VRNS are connected with the Russian legislative process and the adoption of bylaws by government agencies. In particular, Malofeev mentioned that a joint decision by the Presidential Administration’s Department for Internal Policy and the VRNS secretariat had been made to develop recommendations for the preservation and strengthening of traditional values at the level of Russia’s regions.

Before August 1, 2024, the developed recommendations must be tested in six regions – Novosibirsk, Chelyabinsk, Kemerovo, Smolensk, Komi and Crimea – before being extended to the rest of the country.

Alexander Dugin, acting on behalf of the VRNS and having been given the green light by the Presidential Administration, is conducting a review of humanitarian and social science education in Russia through the Ivan Ilyin Higher School of Politics, established in 2023 at the Russian State Humanitarian University (RGGU). The school, headed by Dugin, is supposed to realize the part of the declaration about purifying education from “destructive ideological concepts and attitudes.” Western theories in the social and human sciences are to be reviewed “for their compliance with the sovereign Russian worldview, [and] usefulness or destructiveness for strengthening national self-awareness.”
Philosophy, history, political science, sociology, pedagogy, jurisprudence, anthropology, cultural studies, ethnology, psychology, philology and religious studies are expected to be subject to the review.
Malofeev announced that the development of a new socio-humanitarian paradigm is almost complete. In the near future, work is supposed to begin on implementing it into teaching, as well as specific academic disciplines.

A program of “additional professional education for teaching staff and administrative and managerial staff of higher educational institutions within the purview of the Ministry of Education and Science” is also proposed.

What Malofeev outlined corresponds to the workings of Putin’s beloved “public-private partnership,” when the state assigns a certain area to effective activists, partially finances them and gives them the opportunity to experiment while suppressing their opponents.

In March, Dugin was harshly criticized in Moskovskii Komsomolets – apparently, his plans at the Higher School of Politics caused concern among some in the administration.

However, at least so far this has not slowed him down. In a report that Dugin presented at RGGU in early April, in front of Malofeev and other ideological allies, he said that “today the educational system is still under the strong influence of liberals... Simple personnel decisions are not enough to correct the situation. Russian intellectuals must study liberal mythologies, subject them to critical analysis and render a verdict on each of the core issues – from the place and role of the family in society to defining what Russian civilization is.” Meanwhile, Deputy Education Minister Olga Petrova, who curates the program of an "ideological reset of the socio-humanitarian sphere” and is in charge of creating a course on the “Foundations of Russian Statehood” shockingly spoke at RGGU in an “Orthodox” headscarf, as if she were not at a government event but a service in a monastery.

The fight against migration

In the VRNS declaration and in the speeches of the patriarch and Malofeev at the congress an important topic was that of labor migration, with proposals made to amend the relevant legislation and how it is applied.

In other words, the VRNS has taken up the fight “against illegal migration,” which is popular among “non-systemic” (i.e., anti-Putin) Russian nationalists, and is trying to act as a lobbyist for such initiatives.

The patriarch stated that Russian nationalism does not exist at all, while he sees measures to combat migration in the context of protecting traditional values and traditional Russian culture.

Malofeev was more specific. In a speech shortly before the March congress, he said: “the main challenge after the war for our nation is the extinction of Russians, which is rapidly gaining momentum. There are fewer and fewer of us! We are being replaced by children born by migrants who came to our country lacking our cultural code. This is no good! We need our children! We must return to the practices of the Russian Empire, when the birth rate was seven children per woman. To do this... we must change the mass consciousness.”
To combat the extinction of Russians, Malofeev put forward an initiative (which seems to have an undeniable commercial motivation) to build individual houses with government subsidies.
Six months ago, Malofeev proposed looking to the experience of the “American baby boom,” which, in his view, was made possible by government propaganda of proper family relationships in cinema, as well as by the policy of cheap loans for mass housing construction from the 1940s to the 1960s. Malofeev is no stranger to the housing market either: he was reported to be the largest buyer of land in Moscow Region back in 2010. Now, VRNS is actively collaborating with the state corporation DOM.RF, created to develop the mortgage market.


The VRNS declaration gives an idea of how ideological entrepreneurs, in one way or another developing the concept of Russian nationalism (but usually refusing to use this term), are trying to promote their ideas at the state level.

It is a long path from declarations to institutional changes, and most of the stated goals are obviously unrealistic. In particular, building a neo-traditionalist state in Russia along the lines of Iran, or even more so boosting the population by families’ having seven children (Malofeev himself has three, Rudov has four, Patriarch Kirill officially has none), is clearly unlikely. However, “systemic” Russian nationalists may well find demand, with the support of the Presidential Administration and FSB, of course.

This is evidenced by the activities of the so-called Safe Internet League, created and financially supported by the St Basil the Great Foundation, which is led by Malofeev and Rudov. A similar “purifying” function is to be performed by Dugin’s Higher School of Politics – in the field of higher education and among the teaching staff of prestigious educational institutions.

Activists from the Russian nationalist milieu are energetically formulating amendments to legislation that will contribute to the further transformation of Russia into a closed society (an example is opposition to “juvenile justice,” which is claimed to be Western influence that contradicts “traditional values”) and lobbying for these initiatives among government officials, who are hardly all in favor of definitively closing the country, however.

Another problem is that among nationalists themselves there is no unity as to what the specific goals are as part of such an isolationist political line, while at least some of them are clearly seeking to combine their ideological pursuits with personal gain.
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