The Kremlin’s Theory
Of Ideology:
A Very Short Introduction
May 4, 2023
  • Ilya Budraitskis

    Political theorist, Visiting scholar at UC Berkeley

Ilya Budraitskis writes that the Putin regime needs ideology not in the sense of a coherent worldview, but as a technology of domination that works as a set of performative practices.
After the invasion of Ukraine, the premise that Russian society “needs ideology” to unite in the face of external threats has clearly started guiding the entire state machine. Over the past year, the Kremlin has streamlined the production of texts that are designed to shape disparate elements of propaganda into a more or less coherent doctrine – from Putin’s keynote speeches and Nikolai Patrushev’s interviews to new concepts of foreign and cultural policy.

Nevertheless, it seems that the formulas produced in each of these texts stubbornly do not want to add up to something complete, and the unifying “ideology” continues to be more of a horizon of expectations than a matter of fact. Moreover, the very need for an “ideology” to mobilize society in support of the war is more important than its specific content. It can even be said that the Kremlin has been more successful in creating a “theory of ideology” than an “ideology” itself.

Thus, Investigative Committee Chair Alexander Bastrykin is again calling to amend the Russian Constitution to allow a state ideology, while pro-government media continue to impress upon their readers the need for one. Duma Deputy Nikolai Novichkov in a recent article defines ideology as “a social contract about what is the norm” that keeps states from destruction. Such a backstop, according to Novichkov, is the “historical norm” for Russia. This norm – “truth” – as Novichkov explains, was set by the state since the time of Yaroslav the Wise and represented the source of written law. By diligently cutting off everything that is outside the norm, the state not only protects itself, but also gives the people the proper shape and tirelessly works to raise them up.

In fact, Novichkov’s explanations confirm the idea, dominant among the Russian ruling elite, that it was the weakness of “ideology” and the evaporation of the general social norm that led to the collapse of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Each time the process of bringing up the people turned out incomplete, and society became defenseless against the penetration of hostile ideas and values.

This sad outcome, from the Kremlin’s point of view, merely indicates that the previous ideologies – Orthodox monarchism and communism – were ultimately not effective enough in solving the main task: the full convergence of the external requirements of the state and the internal conviction of each individual citizen.

Toward a “total state?”

Over the last 20 years, the depoliticization of Russian society, which is so often talked about today, has been based on a strict separation of the private and the political, and implied that the state only asks citizens not to interfere “in politics” in return for allowing them freedom in their own private sphere.
It was on the basis of depoliticization, without major mass resistance, that the current regime of personal power was formed.
Answering questions during a “Conversation about Important Things” in February 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia is a "country where people feel themselves to be part of one family." Source: Wiki Commons
With the outbreak of the war, this regime clearly shifted into a different gear, with every citizen required not only to unquestioningly obey the authorities, but to fulfill their orders as their essential obligation, including being ready to die.

The state must become total, meaning that it must turn from an institution that rises above society into a “spiritual force.” This understanding of the state undergirds the endless declarations of “collectivism” as one of the main “spiritual and moral values” of Russians. The people should feel like “one family” (according to a recent talk by Sergei Lavrov in the “Conversations about Important Things”), headed by a caring and strict leader/father. The family, as a spontaneous, organic hierarchy of relations between older and younger generations, based on love and respect, reflects the state corporation, where everyone takes his “natural” place – as an official, worker or soldier.

The corporatist state was the model for a number of fascist regimes in the mid-20th century, most notably Italy and Austria. In place of the destroyed political parties and trade unions, the fascist regimes built an alternative network of mass organizations, a kind of “fascist civil society.” However, the totalitarian mobilization that was possible a century ago is hardly conceivable in today’s extremely individualized society.

Thus, even though in recent years (and especially after the start of the war), the Putin regime has attached great importance to “volunteer” movements organized from above, the unity sought between the state and the people has so far been achieved mainly thanks to propaganda in the mass media. It is fundamental, however, that this propaganda involves not only passive consumption – its task is to penetrate into the fabric of everyday life, into relations between colleagues and neighbors, into the circle of family and everyday conversations.

By watching Solovyov’s programs alone or reproducing his arguments in a friendly conversation, citizens participate in a kind of collective practice that effectively replicates the archaic forms of mass processions. This passive practice is much safer for the authorities, while the surveillance of everyone is carried out thanks to digital surveillance tools. The regurgitation of the basic formulas of propaganda is gradually becoming necessary for admission – to kindergartens and schools (with patriotic matinees and “Conversations about Important Things”), to universities and to work in the public sector.

So the “consolidation of society” voiced by Putin is becoming a reality, and those who do not agree with the government’s line should not only shut up, but also feel like violators of the norm, like an alien element in a healthy body (of which the body can and should “cleanse itself“).

Ideology as everyday practice

The very repeating of the thesis about the need for “ideology” begins to work as a real ideology, which is recognized not by a coherent worldview, but as a ritual, everyday practice. This is how the prominent leftist theorists of the 20th century Antonio Gramsci and later Louis Althusser defined ideology.

The main object of influence for ideology, according to this approach, is not public, but private life, which is built from an infinite number of personal actions and interactions. Ideology does not, contrary to popular belief, belong to the abstract world of ideas, but has a material structure – it is not about what we think, but about how we act.

The basis of any action, of course, is a certain picture of the world, though that picture must be completely superimposed on reality (and accordingly form this reality). Only if the ideological claim is accepted as something self-evident and accompanied by an internal recognition of “of course it’s like that!” can the ideology be truly affirmed in society. Thanks to the effect of ideology, the absolute majority submits to power voluntarily, without the use of additional coercion – this is, according to Gramsci, “predominance by consent.”

For the practical effect of ideology, form and place, not content, are primary and decisive. The weekly hoisting of the state flag, collective prayer or watching television programs, the need to regularly repeat the same formulas (like the notorious “where were you/we the last 8 years?”) – all this immerses the individual in the space of ideology. Such immersion can occur contrary to a “conscious” desire – internal rejection or doubt is gradually crushed by external influence, and we really become what other participants in the ideological ritual perceive us to be.
Members of the Movement of the First at an event on May 1, 2023. Vladimir Putin said In April, that the Movement and the Soviet Pioneers (see photo below) are essentially the same thing. Source: VK
Putin’s recent statement that the semi-official children’s Movement of the First, founded last year, and the Pioneers are essentially the same thing clearly indicates that the Russian state understands ideology as a purely social function. Everyone understands how it should work: the youth movement – like the Pioneers or Hitler Youth; “The Fundamentals of Russian Statehood” (which will become mandatory for all students from September 1 of this year) – like a “The History of the Soviet Communist Party Short Course”; Orthodoxy – like the “Moral Code of the Builder of Communism.”

The content of the ideology – of secondary importance – is delegated to the relevant ministries, the relevant departments of the Presidential Administration or the Russian Orthodox Church.
This content is situational, a colorful collage of various traditions, including fascism, Stalinism and monarchism to the “civilizational approach,” anti-colonialism and business coach presentations.

The contradictions of all this baggage not only do not interfere with the solution of the problem but are even necessary. A complete ideology would not be truly effective, since it consists of everyday repetitive practices, and it cannot be learned once by memorizing a textbook.
Quotes from Putin’s speeches do not add up to a coherent doctrine, but this is precisely what makes his power truly sovereign, since only he can determine who understood his quotes correctly, and who deliberately, or even criminally distorted them.
Moreover, the modern Russian government, with its functional, technological understanding of ideology, clearly sees one of the reasons for the collapse of Soviet socialism in its excessive doctrinairism, its attitude toward ideology as the “true teaching,” which should be permeated with an internal logic and unity of method.

That is why Putinism needs not a “real” ideology that takes itself seriously, but an ideology as an empty form, a technology of domination that works as a set of performative practices.

The weak point of this practical ideology, however, is exactly its strength – it will remain effective only within the institutions that ensure its reproduction. And any serious failure of those institutions risks ruining the contradictory ideological collage.
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