Politics
What is the ideology of a mobilized Russia?
October 4, 2022
  • Director, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES), The George Washington University

Can the Russian regime manage the mobilization without further ramping up ideology and indoctrination? Marlene Laruelle discusses the different ideology options currently available to the Kremlin.

The Russian version of this text published here.
Zamir concert. Source: fund.sirena.news
Russia has entered a new phase of the war with the “partial” mobilization announced by Vladimir Putin on September 21, exactly seven months after his (first) speech launching the “special military operation” first in the Donbas and then in the whole of Ukraine. It’s still unclear if the mobilization is really “partial,” as its parameters appear unclear and evidence of a more ambitious recruitment strategy is growing.

For months, the president and his entourage have firmly refused mass conscription, knowing it would make selling of the war challenging and would mean recognizing that the “special military operation” failed and turned into a broader and longer war of attrition. The regions bordering Ukraine, especially Belgorod and Kursk, already partly shifted to a war regime during the summer, though that was not the case for the whole of Russia until the September 21 announcement.

By its views of what is increasingly becoming a “war” in the Russian official narrative, the population can be schematically divided into three categories. One minority is made up of ideologically persuaded citizens who already believe that Russia should show more resolve in its stated goals of destroying the Ukrainian state and punishing the “Nazis” there – they support a more radical engagement. Another minority of citizens positions themselves against the mobilization, but with important caveats: some are against the war itself (with various arguments: one doesn’t invade their neighbor; Ukraine is a brotherly nation; war is always bad; etc.), while others are not necessarily against the war but don’t want to serve and are now developing strategies to avoid conscription (e.g. the massive flow of people leaving the country, less visible techniques of finding a job among those protected from conscription, or bribing military recruitment officials). A third group, a majority, finds itself without any predetermined political position besides loyalty to any decision taken by the regime.

Does this majority need ideological motivations to go to war? If yes, then can the regime produce enough convincing arguments, or is there a shortage of “to-die-for” ideas in today’s Russia – in contrast to Ukraine, where they are fighting for the nation’s sovereignty and survival? The partial mobilization will now test in real life the previous slogans used by the regime over the years such as “we can repeat [1941-45]” (mozhem povtorit’). But can Russian society replicate the Great Patriotic War and find a genuine spirit for the war, both at the front and at home?
The Kremlin must hope for the current ideological production to be sufficient, as other options appear difficult to implement successfully without a dramatic change in the scope of indoctrination and repression."
Here I identify three main ideological productions around the war: the mainstream one and two from different (para)intellectual groups hoping to gain official status as the ideological vanguard.
Soiuz chempionov. Source: Afisha.ru
The state-sponsored mainstream

The official rhetoric justifying the war has been enough to secure the passive support of the majority of the population but may not be enough to ensure a successful mobilization. For a very long time, one of the cornerstones of the Putin regime was little intrusion by the state into citizens’ private lives in exchange for their noninvolvement in politics – a social contract that has been gradually encroached on by the state (and by the citizens too, for instance during the 2011 anti-Putin protests), with the partial mobilization its latest blow, as there is no higher encroachment on private life than to ask people for the ultimate sacrifice.

Besides repressing those expressing dissenting views, state ideology is promoted through a few key channels:

  1. Political talk shows: The most viewed is Vladimir Soloviev, whose Sunday evening show captures about a third of the television audience (his weekday shows reaches about 20%), followed by Olga Skabeeva’s 60 Minutes, which is watched by 15-20% of viewers.
  2. Patriotic production of war-related themes. A large part of the work has been funded through the Presidential Foundation for Cultural Initiatives, launched in 2021 and led by Sergei Kirienko. It has distributed money to many pro-war initiatives – pop music shows such as the ZaRossiyu marathon, ice skating shows, children’s puppet shows, etc. The existing patriotic pop culture –with famous regime fellow travellers like the band Lyube and singers Denis Maidanov and Oleg Gazmanov, along with a host of new opportunistic figures such as SHAMAN – has grown rapidly. Metropolitan Tikhon’s Tradition fund also received money for several multimedia exhibitions such as “NATO. A Chronicle of Cruelty.”
  3. Youth education. This appears the hardest to implement as its means adapting textbooks, as well as implementing class discussions called “Conversations about Important Things” – launched in September – and a whole apparatus of military-patriotic education that reaches hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers.

The discursive lines of the state narrative are well known: globally, Russia is not at war with Ukraine but with the West, which has been funding and supporting Ukrainian neo-Nazis to be an “anti-Russia;” Russia is defending the civilian population of the Donbas, under attack since 2014, and now that of the newly conquered territories of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia; Russia has to fight for its own survival against external and internal enemies and for the emergence of a new multipolar world order.

This ideological production is a mix of empty signifiers, all interpretable with different meanings (the theme of the unfinished war, for instance, refers both to the memory of the Great Patriotic War and of Donbas secessionism since 2014) and especially different radicalities. These empty signifiers are then embodied in slogans – “we don’t leave our own behind” (svoikh ne brosaem), “a world without Nazism” (mir bez natsizma), etc. – and visuals – the Russian tricolor, the Z and refurbished Soviet propaganda.

For a long time, such vagueness has been a guarantee of success – speaking to different audiences, creating (illusory or not) consensus, being adaptable to new realities – but that quality, needed for passive support, may become a disadvantage in a context when the state needs active support through military mobilization. Does the regime have other, more radical, options?
Anti-NATO propaganda poster. Source: historyrussia.org
The new “Front Philosophy”

At the forefront of the state’s production of war-related ideology are several groups that belong to the ideological ecosystems around the Presidential Administration. A central one is the so-called “Front Philosophy” (Frontovaya filosofiya), launched by a number of state academic and cultural institutions.

Among the most prominent is the Zinoviev Club: the legacy of Alexander Zinoviev (1922-2006), a Soviet thinker who published in samizdat, emigrated in the late 1970s and came back to Russia in 1999 to join conservative forces, fits well with the state-promoted cherry picking approach toward Soviet past. Zinoviev has become one of the key figures recently rehabilitated by state institutions such as the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences, especially since he stressed Russia’s conflict with the West and the dangers of globalization.

The new Front Philosophy has been campaigned for by figures from state media RIA Novosti and Russia Today, Moscow State University, the Higher School of Economics, the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences, the Moscow University of the Interior Ministry, along with myriad smaller institutions, as well as some officials, such as Leonid Polyakov, a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights.

It also includes professors from Donetsk and Luhansk universities, who, since 2014, have been heavily promoted by Russian institutions as the forefront for the renewal of “civilizational awareness” in the struggle with the West. Notable is Dmitri Muza, a Donetsk University professor and proponent of the Novorossiya idea who has published several books on the need for Russian philosophy to regenerate itself by learning from and through war.

A whole Front Philosophy literature has grown since the first Donbas war, including the “Donetsk Lectures” that resulted in an edited volume called Philosophy on the Front Line. This represents a new genre that completes the “war literature” and “war poetry,” along with diaries and memoirs related to the 2014 conflict, that have filled Russian bookstores. The website politconservatism.ru, which hosts serious discussions on Russian conservatism, gave the floor to voices calling for a new “war philosophy,” for instance by A.Yu. Korobov-Latyntsev, author of Philosopher and War. On Russian Military Philosophy and also an officer in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Militia.

The new Front Philosophy is reminiscent of Soviet-era initiatives and mechanisms, when state institutions were meant to serve political needs. And indeed,
“Оne of the repeated complaints from 'Front Philosophy' supporters is the lack of commissioned works (goszakazy) that would affirm the state’s readiness to support a higher level of ideological production."
Russia as Noah’s Ark: The Izborsky Club’s “Ideology of Victory”

Another group also positions itself as a key player in the ideology market: the Izborsky Club, created in 2012 to relaunch a conservative project for Russia after the Medvedev interval and to embody and feed Putin’s “conservative turn.” Already in October 2021, it published a new manifesto called “Ideology of Victory,” (or “Ideology of Russian Victory”), presenting it as a new national project for Russia. Since February, the club’s main figures – including Alexander Prokhanov, Alexander Dugin and Valery Averyanov – and close supporters and patrons – such as the “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev – have been trying without success to promote it (as I explain below) as the new official ideology of the special military operation.

The “Ideology of Russian Victory” is at this point likely the most elaborated doctrinal platform offered to justify the war, repackaging many of the previous constructions advanced by the Izborsky Club. It defines the battlefield as an existential one, being “metaphysical” rather than “geographic,” with the battle between “Ukrainian fascist codes and the codes of the Russian Victory.” One can identify three pillars, which come from the club’s three main leaders:

From Prokhanov comes a stress on economics, calls for informational innovations such as AI, claims that victory is possible only through organizational structures and a new elite – all components inspired by Soviet discursive lines. Indeed, Prokhanov’s intellectual brand since the 1970s has focused on everything economic and technological, which at the time clearly set him apart from the more culture- and religion-oriented Russian nationalists. This focus has become a brand of the Izborsky Club as well. One can also find an explicit reference to Russian Cosmism – also a mainstay of Prokhanov’s worldview: the manifesto criticizes transhumanism as Western technological madness and suggests replacing it with a science “ultimately striving for immortality according to the precepts of Christ and the precepts of Russian Cosmism,” including human superpowers.

The doctrinal input coming from Dugin revolves around his classic geopolitical themes: Schmittian narratives about larger spaces and authoritarianism, the spatiality of the conflict with the West (maritime against continental powers) and Russia’s geopolitical projection in the Arctic, Eastern Mediterranean and Far East. One also finds the already-ancient idea of Russia entering its “fifth empire” (Kievan Rus, Mongol-dominated Muscovy, the Romanov-led Russian Empire, the Soviet Union) and an insistence on Russia’s multinationalism and religious pluralism. All these references are mixed with more Western-inspired fascist language, such as Russia being the heir of the mythical Hyperboreans.

Averyanov, meanwhile, contributes rematrixed biblical themes.
“The key narrative is that the war is a new biblical Flood sent by God to punish humankind lost in Western values, while Russia represents a new Noah’s Ark, the only place where civilization will survive."
The West is described as a “golem” civilization led by globalist and decadent elites driving a “Great Zeroing.” Only Russia can offer an answer, as it “feels” the eschatological end of times more than any other nation in the world and can lead a counteroffensive – a new Noah’s Ark. This Russian Ark theme is reminiscent of the notion of Katekhon, the fortress resisting siege found in Byzantine Orthodox theology.
Ideologiia russkoi pobedy. Source: strategy24.ru
The Ideology of Russian Victory manifesto fits the definition of fascist, as it claims that violence and war are legitimate tools to rebuild a new humankind and regenerate the nation. But it can speak only to a very small part of the Russian population and elite and hasn’t been able to get any recognition by the Kremlin.

Prokhanov, Dugin and Malofeev did attempt to take advantage of Darya Dugina’s assassination on August 20 by claiming that she “died for Russia and the front, and that front is here,” and that she was a martyr of the special military operation. Yet they got rapidly turned down. Since the funeral, which was attended by some officials close to the club, such as Leonid Slutsky, the new leader of Zhirinovsky’s LDPR, the group has not reappeared in state media. But Putin's condolences, along with his mention in his September 30 speech of "our philosophers" (being killed) in reference to Darya Dugina, signal that her assassination had a broad reach across the elite and could be instrumentalized by the regime if it feels it needs that.

Indeed, the loudest voices in favor of total war, followed by hundreds of thousands, are Telegram military channels, not the Izborsky Club. They portray the war in terms of individual heroism, guaranteed adrenaline-fueled adventure for men in search of testing their masculinity, and a patriotic sense of sacrifice for the survival of the nation, not through a “Russia-as-Noah’s-Ark” type of hyperbole.

Secondly, even if some eschatological comments are regularly aired on Russian political talk shows (recall Margarita Simonyan and Vladimir Soloviev commenting in April on Russians going to heaven in case of a nuclear Third World War), they still don’t speak to average Russians. As Leonid Bershidsky reminds us, even today Russia is lacking an exalted Waffen-SS type of heavily ideological popular militia and has failed at igniting hatred of Ukrainians (in August, 68% of Russians held a positive opinion of Ukrainians).
*****

Will the state production of ideology – which reaches the population mostly through talk shows, patriotic pop culture initiatives, and education – with its vagueness be enough to motivate citizens to support the war now that it touches many Russian families? Can the Russian elite itself become more imbued with beliefs like the “Front Philosophy” and the “Ideology of Russian Victory” proponents hope? Or will it be the Russian Orthodox Church—which I have not discussed here—and its promotion of a "holy war," that will see its narrative adopted by the state?

So far, the Kremlin has been reluctant to buy into an overly radical and too sophisticated ideology that would be difficult to “translate” for the general public. Moreover, the success of all these pro-war ideological initiatives can be called into question: even patriotic pop music seems to have met limited success, and the most nationalist voices, such as the writer Zakhar Prilepin, constantly lament the lack of patriotic production.

The current protests in Russia’s ethnic regions, which have paid a heavy toll in terms of deaths already, confirm that some segments of the population are unaffected by state propaganda. But in rural regions and provincial cities – peripheral Russia – where military institutions such as the Cadets Corps are seen as a secure way to climb the social ladder, the population may react more readily to the mobilization order.

The regime’s balancing act to avoid having the most reactionary lobbies dictating to the Presidential Administration heavier ideological indoctrination is becoming more difficult by the day. As a radical shift away from the regime’s usual policy of keeping people demobilized, the mobilization inevitably emboldens rabid militarists. And if ideological radicalization might not be needed to get people to go to war, it could in the forthcoming months be required to justify their deaths. Still, it would be challenging for the state to recreate the Soviet, multi-leveled system of propaganda, with official philosophers and an army of university instructors and teachers teaching the new doctrine, including everyday agitprop. The regime will likely have to continue to function with some ideological blurriness and improvised mechanisms for indoctrination/repression, to the great despair of the most radical groups.
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