“We don’t support the ‘special operation’, we’re carrying it out”

May 3, 2022
By Maria Engström
Maria Engström on Russian conservative intellectuals' enthusiasm for the war and the idea that total isolation from the West will lead to a conservative revolution and a revival of national culture.
Return of the conservatives

The ideas of right-wing Russian intellectuals have come to the fore since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Yet the need to reintegrate Ukraine into Russia, as well as a clash and potential war with the West on Ukrainian territory, has been discussed for decades by many conservatives. Among the first was the Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), who in 1991 penned a letter to President Boris Yeltsin arguing that Ukraine’s borders had been drawn by the Bolsheviks and that independent Russia was not obliged to abide by them. Given what is seen as the strong influence of Solzhenitsyn on Putin, it might have been the former’s ideas that underpinned the latter’s February 24 speech.

The names of contemporary conservative writers, philosophers and ideologists framing the so-called “special operation” in Ukraine are widely known both in Russia and abroad. They include the philosopher, public figure and ideologist of neo-Eurasianism Alexander Dugin (born 1962), writer and co-chairman of the A Just Russia – For Truth party Zakhar Prilepin (1975), publicist and Russian nationalist ideologist Yegor Kholmogorov (1975) and writer and editor-in-chief of the radical right-wing newspaper Zavtra Alexander Prokhanov (1938), among others.

All of them were actively involved in the so-called “Russian Spring” movement first launched spring 2014, which sought to incorporate Crimea and eastern Ukraine into Russia. After the Kremlin stopped supporting the movement in autumn 2014, these ideologists were marginalized in the Russian public space. Until February 2022, they continued to work through their own platforms (such as Den-TV, Zaharprilepin.ru, the newspaper Zavtra and the Paideuma-TV portal, among others) mainly on the Internet, but with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, they have resurfaced in the official media and explicitly framed the “special operation” as a difficult but necessary undertaking that must be seen through to the end – until the elimination of Ukrainian statehood.

The conservative camp should not be considered monolithic. In fact, a number of right-wing intellectuals who supported the annexation of Crimea and the Novorossiya project in 2014 condemned the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Among them is the well-known conservative philosopher Boris Mezhuev, who has argued for an immediate cessation of hostilities and criticized the radical right, calling them the “war party” and “Valkyrie party”.

The leading right-wing intellectuals – Dugin, Kholmogorov and Prilepin – have different visions of the future of Russia and the world, but they all view the war in Ukraine as serving the interests of Russia and other countries resisting American hegemony. However, the position of those advocating the elimination of Ukraine as an independent state does not correspond with the official policy of the Kremlin, which, at least officially, has not voiced such a goal.

Though the official agitprop (for example, TV host Vladimir Solovyov) uses the messianic-militarist rhetoric of “war to the bitter end”, the Kremlin is much more moderate, with the official position excluding the capture of Kyiv, the overthrow of Zelensky or the occupation of Ukraine. As of late April, the main goal of the “special operation”, as voiced by Vladimir Putin, Sergei Shoigu, Sergei Lavrov, Maria Zakharova and Dmitri Peskov, is the “rescue” of Donbas:
“One of the main goals of the operation is actually the rescue of these republics and the restoration of the polity within the 2014 borders, that is within the borders defined in the constitutions of both the Luhansk People's Republic and the Donetsk People's Republic”.
The concepts of the radical right-wing intellectuals presented below should not be taken as the position of the Kremlin or “Kremlin think tanks”.
"Despite their high profile, Dugin, Kholmogorov and Prilepin remain on the political fringes."

Nevertheless, ideas matter, and though their devoted followers are relatively few, it is right-wing intellectuals who are creating the “language of war” and formulating the concepts that seep into the mass consciousness and are eventually appropriated by the regime (as happened, for example, with the term “Russian Spring”, coined in February 2014 by Kholmogorov).
Alexander Dugin, 2020. Source: Wiki Commons
Ukraine as the “Anti-Russia”

Such a radical position comes from the far-right concept of post-Soviet Ukraine as the “Anti-Russia”. It supposes that Ukraine hasn’t been sovereign since 1991, but rather represents a colony and project of the “united West”, created after the collapse of the Soviet Union as the main area to rein in expected Russian revanchism.

Such a conception of Ukraine as the “Anti-Russia” has led to calls to eliminate all anti-Russian, or – as Dugin writes – “Nazi”, elements on its territory:

“Nazism in Ukraine is not only individual extremist parties and movements, but the main vector of political management, which, with the support of the West, began to take shape in the early 1990s. The Nazification of Ukraine became the only way for the West to quickly establish the ‘Anti-Russia’ on Ukrainian territory”.

“For Russian geopolitical interests to be realized, the ‘Anti-Russia’ must not exist on the territory of Ukraine. Meanwhile, from the West’s standpoint, the opposite is true, as it established this ‘Anti-Russia’ in the first place. Thus, we have a fundamental conflict of interests, which Russia tried to resolve peacefully, but to no avail. Hence the new, harsher phase”.
"Dugin sees the war in Ukraine as a restructuring of the world and ‘a clash of civilizations – Russian civilization against the ‘Anti-Russian.’”
According to Dugin, this clash has a metaphysical and eschatological nature. In a number of speeches in recent years (for example, in an interview with Radio Aurora in 2020), he has compared the current moment to “the end of time”, or the final challenge to world history, where Russia, the Russian people and their leader are destined to play a very important role.

“Solar” and “Lunar” Putin

The concept of two Putins – “Solar” and “Lunar” – was outlined in Dugin’s book Putin vs Putin (2012). Based on the concept of Ernst Kantorowicz set forth in the well-known The King's Two Bodies, Dugin analyzes Putin's rule as a struggle between two foundations: the imperial-messianic “Solar” and the liberal-capitalist “Lunar”.

According to Dugin, until February 2022, the drive to strengthen Russia's sovereignty coexisted with the pursuit of integration into the global economic, political and cultural system. In a recent interview with the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, Dugin notes that the war means the victory of “Solar” over “Lunar” Putin, which entails Russia's final and tragic break with the West:
“On the one hand, Putin is committed to [maintaining] Russia’s sovereignty as a state, but, on the other hand, rationally, I think he was well aware of the consequences of stubbornly insisting on this position. In this respect, ‘Solar’ Putin is extremely tragic because it involves a struggle with the ideas and values of the West. Still, Russia has crossed the Rubicon, which personally I am very happy about”.
Yegor Kholmogorov, 2019. Source: Wiki Commons
“Ukraine is Russia”

Yegor Kholmogorov is among the most active conservative ideologists. He authored the concept of the “Russian Spring” and has taken a leading role in developing the ideology for the “Russian World” – the project to unite all Eastern Slavic lands on the basis of Russian national-confessional identity. Kholmogorov is the author of a dozen books formulating the Russian national idea. He hosts his own program on RT, called “Egor Stanislavovich”, with more than 80 episodes already released. Nearly all of them from the past month have been devoted to the war. In the March 23 episode on “Why Russians Will Never Give Up Ukraine”, Kholmogorov explains that the main reason for the war is the aspiration of Ukrainian leaders to join NATO, which would mean weapons aimed at Russia being placed on native Russian soil since, according to Kholmogorov, “Ukraine is Russia”.

"Kholmogorov explains that the main reason for the war is the aspiration of Ukrainian leaders to join NATO, which would mean weapons aimed at Russia being placed on native Russian soil since, according to Kholmogorov, ‘Ukraine is Russia.’"
Kholmogorov's arguments are less eschatological than Dugin’s – Kholmogorov, largely following Solzhenitsyn's arguments, speaks more about Russia's historical right to the territory of Ukraine. Kholmogorov calls the current government in Kyiv “separatists” and “occupiers” who came to power in a coup in 2014. He opposes peace negotiations with Ukraine and has pushed for continuing the war until unconditional surrender by Kyiv.
Zakhar Prilepin, 2020. Source: Wiki Commons
War as Russia’s national code

Zakhar Prilepin is one of the leading right-wing conservative writers in post-Soviet Russia, the author of 22 books, including the international bestsellers Sankya (2006) and The Abode (2014). A former National Bolshevik and party ally of Eduard Limonov, Prilepin fought in Chechnya and the Donbas. Though since 2014 he has called a war with Ukraine inevitable and actively supported the DNR and LNR through his foundation (the Zakhar Prilepin Charity Foundation), he himself has said that he didn’t fully believe that the government would take such a radical step. Prilepin sees this as a rejection of the capitalist logic of the entire post-Soviet period and the beginning of a new stage in world history.

Currently, Prilepin is in Eastern Ukraine and records a video from the front every day. He did not rejoice at the launching of the war and treats it as gruesome and hard work that someone has to do, remarking, “we don’t support the ‘special operation’, we’re carrying it out”.

Like other radical conservatives, Prilepin believes that all of Ukraine should be incorporated into Russia. He expressed this view in a March 31 interview with RIA Novosti:

Prilepin, both in his books and recent interviews, does not glamorize war and treats it as an evil. Analyzing Russian history, he concludes that Russia must fight eternally since its very existence is a problem for the West.

"Prilepin sees his most important task as a writer in creating a new Russian culture appropriate for the upcoming new period of military confrontation with Western civilization."
In 2017, he published the book Platoon. Officers and Militiamen of Russian Literature, where he put forward the concept of a writer-warrior. According to Prilepin, since the end of the 18th century Russian literature has been driven by poets and writers who fought in wars. This, in turn, has influenced the development of Russian identity, in which war is the “national [cultural] code”.

Conservative cultural revolution

From the standpoint of conservatives, contemporary Russia is a contradiction. On the one hand, it possesses state, military, economic and food sovereignty, but on the other, it remains a colony of the West culturally.
"From the standpoint of conservatives, contemporary Russia is a contradiction. On the one hand, it possesses state, military, economic and food sovereignty, but on the other, it remains a colony of the West culturally."
Therefore, victory on the domestic front – gaining cultural sovereignty – is the most urgent task of the “special operation”.

The latest wave of emigration by the culturally and politically liberal and westernized segment of Russian society is considered by right-wing intellectuals to represent a “cleansing” of agents implementing a Western colonial policy in Russia. In the right’s view, total isolation from the West, which has decided to lower a new iron curtain and “cancel” Russia, will not destroy the latter, but will lead to a conservative revolution and a revival of national culture.

This essay is a part of the research project No(w)stalgia of Modernity: Neo-Soviet Myth in Contemporary Russian Culture, Swedish Research Council, № 2020-02479.

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