The war and the Russian imperial consciousness

March 21, 2023
  • Lev Gudkov

    Head of research, Levada center

Lev Gudkov writes about how the Russian “Great Power” discourse differs from the post-imperial experiences of other former empires and how Russians’ perception of themselves as subjects of a Great Power affects their attitude toward the war in Ukraine.

Since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine, fierce debates have raged in the western media as well as among Russian thinkers about the significance of Russia’s imperial traditions, the inherited predisposition of Russians to authoritarianism, and cruelty and violence as the basis of their collective identity. Having been started by the Ukrainian side, these emotionally charged debates have triggered a deafening response by most Russians who are against the war, as well as attempts at justification and fissures within that group. The Russians who consider themselves “good Russians” are offended by the unfair, from their point of view, attitude of the West and separately by the supposed “cancellation” of Russian culture.

Presently, I consider their grievances tactless and unintelligent, though the accusations leveled against Russians as a whole seem unnecessarily generalized. Both sides have made it difficult to think through what role “imperialism” plays inside Russia today and where the legacy of “empire” is actually reflected. The confrontation leads to primitive thinking and begets rigid definitions of “friend,” “foe” or indifferent.

The issue of empires as unique state entities, their emergence and collapse, including the Russian empire, became especially relevant in academic research after the downfall of the USSR and the Socialist Bloc. A whole, new area of post-colonialism emerged. However, in the matter at hand, I am not interested in the history of empires broadly, but rather in the problems associated with it. The very fact that Russia’s imperial legacy has inertia in the mass consciousness is beyond doubt. Both supporters and opponents of the current regime turn to it as the only and common symbolic and political resource.

Modernization without society’s emancipation from the state

The concept of “empire” is associated with an expansionist policy, the violent taking of new territories, and the establishment of a centralized system of governance over and control of territories that are diverse in cultural, linguistic, economic and civilizational terms. Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries was a driver and a form of the external Europeanization of Russia, its entry into what was then global politics. “Society” (if we understand it as a set of self-organizing social entities – business unions, civil associations, class and non-class associations, like the intelligentsia, universities, zemstvos, etc.) could emerge only within the imperial state, which shaped the inevitable social contradictions in the self-identification of the empire’s subjects. Despite the rapid modernization of the country before the revolution in 1917, the political and civil emancipation of “society” from the state did not take place, though some signs appeared back before the totalitarian Soviet state was established.

The more than 30 years (since 1989) of sociological research done by the Levada Center have shown that we are dealing with mixed consequences of the disintegration of imperial institutions. The efforts of the ruling regime to restore the institutional system of Russia’s dominance in the post-Soviet space ran up against the widespread desire among citizens for peace and prosperity, which are hardly compatible with the militarization of the country and Putin’s anti-Western policy. Still, that policy did not come out of nowhere.

The collapse of the USSR spurred frustration and disorientation in the mass consciousness, creating a palpable need for common symbols and mechanisms of collective identity and integration. The elite and the masses found them only in the ideological resources of previous periods and eras. Communist ideology (class struggle, building socialism, etc.) died before the end of the USSR, during the Brezhnev stagnation. Belief in communism was gradually supplanted by “Russian nationalism,” the consciousness of being the chosen people of the “Great Power,” the victor in the war against Nazism.

Hence came the belief in the right of the Elder Brother to dictate his will to other peoples, as well as the ideas about the “unity of the peoples” of the USSR and their “voluntary union.” After the collapse of the USSR, Russia was left as the successor of the USSR with the phantom pains of the former metropolis – the “grudge of the Big Brother” toward the peripheral regions that had fallen away. Still, “society” as such, even after decades of half-hearted reforms, did not emerge. Thus, no other, pluralistic, civic collective identity emerged.

The Russian “Great Power” discourse differs from the post-imperial experiences of other former empires: in Russia, imperial rhetoric disguises routine and unrationalized ideas about the Soviet totalitarian system of domination.

The ideology of Putinism tries to glue together from these remnants, fragments, debris of propaganda from the Soviet era something majestic that could serve as the basis to legitimize the regime, justifying the power vertical by linking it to the mythological past of “thousand-year-old Russia,” a state that has developed in an endless struggle against “external enemies.” It is awkward, but the current regime has no other material to legitimize its rule.

What does the Great Power myth consist of?
"What we capture in public opinion polls is not just a kind of post-imperial syndrome, but a combination of imperial and post-totalitarian ressentiment manifesting itself amid routine adaptation to a repressive state."
"We're Together!" rally in support of the incorporation of Crimea into Russia. March 18, 2014. Moscow. Source: Wiki Commons
The “imperialism” in mass attitudes and stereotypes of consciousness that the authorities impose on the population is a surrogate for the past ideological “totality,” reflected in slogans proclaiming “the moral and political unity of the party and the people,” the unbreakable bond between the state and society. In the current conditions, the idea of a “Great Russia” creates the ideal of a “simple,” pseudo-traditional, undifferentiated society. Such a forced consensus is the result of coordinated activity by conservative institutions – the political police (the successor to the Soviet NKVD-KGB), the army, the educational bureaucracy and newer ones, like Kremlin “political technologists” and television propaganda.

The ideological content and methods of imperial propaganda in post-Soviet Russia are constantly changing, making for an eclectic mixture of symbols from different eras, though their function in the mass consciousness remains the same – to legitimize the regime and to have the population (self-) identify with the state, which should not be bounded by public control. The myth of the “Great Power” includes images of military glory and a heroic past (the colonial expansion of the empire), conceived as the voluntary incorporation of other peoples into Russia.

Currently, the function of “empire” does not entail mass ideological mobilization. The relevant images and slogans do not incite the masses to action or to take new territories. The role of today’s imperial ideas has been reduced to preserving and protecting the symbolic “totality” – the Great Power, its prestige, its honor, personified by the president. Polls show that over the past 20 years, there have been fewer and fewer reasons for national pride: of the key attributes of a “Great Power” (wealth, a high standard of living, developed industry and economy, scientific achievements recognized in the world, leading culture and art, a strong army, large territory, etc.), only two remained in the minds of Russians: the vastness of the country with its commodity reserves and a powerful army capable of inspiring fear in other countries.
Such an identity has been maintained by the bureaucratic and police suppression of civil society and the constant emphasis on the threat posed by the demonized West and its agents inside the country (fear of “color revolutions,” of a new world war, of NATO expansion, of U.S. efforts to corrupt and weaken the unity of Russian society).

The imperial consciousness is reflected in the fact that Russians perceive themselves primarily as subjects of a Great Power, meaning as human and material resources for the regime. They are deprived of their own will and interests outside their personal, family space. Thus, there is no readiness within society to participate in politics or public affairs. Imperialism has been reduced to a reaction of holding onto what was within the scope of influence of the USSR. The “right” to control the former territories is seen as evidence of state power.
"The power and greatness of the state in this case is no longer understood as the violent taking of new territories, but as the ability to resist the hostile actions of other powerful players, primarily the US, a united Europe and NATO."

Table 1. What kind of Russia do you want? N = 1,600

In responses to open-ended questions, we constantly shear: “we must resist America; we are a Great Power; we must prove to the whole world, the US, that we ought to be respected.”

A livable country or a Great Empire?

While the USSR was collapsing, two key contradictory attitudes emerged: national consumerism and defense of the waning Great Power. In the last year of the RSFSR’s existence, people were asked (1990, N = 1,500): “What should the key factor be in relations between the RSFSR and other union republics?” Forty-nine percent of RSFSR residents said it should be “the economic interests of Russia,” while almost the same number said the “preservation of the unity of the Soviet Union” (46%). Fading “Great Power” attitudes were articulated as “concern for the security” of Russians left without protection in the “colonies.”

Over time, the salience of these attitudes steadily increased. Already in June 1994, 71% of respondents believed that “Russia should protect the interests of Russians in Crimea, Central Asia, the Caucasus and other regions,” with only 19% disagreeing (“it is better not to interfere in the affairs of neighboring republics”). In February 1996, against the backdrop of the protracted First Chechen War, 53% of respondents agreed with the view that “Russia should pursue its interests in the world, even if that leads to conflicts with other countries,” versus 18% who disagreed (the remaining 29% either did not have their own view or found it difficult to answer). Meanwhile, from 2002 to 2012 the actual ideal of a militaristic state has somewhat faded, with the attendant attitudes seen dropping to lows (Table 1).
Table 2. In your view, what does the incorporation of Crimea into Russia indicate? N = 1,600
Without special propaganda, without playing up the military threat posed by the US and NATO, imperial views have lost their strength and salience, but have not disappeared completely and represent an important component of national identity – the memory of past greatness. Thus, the successful and almost bloodless campaign to take Crimea generated gushing euphoria and a sense of satisfaction with the regime (Table 2).

The pause in anti-Western demagoguery and propaganda in the summer of 2018 (during the FIFA World Cup in Russia), combined with sharply negative reaction of the population to the pension reform (which consisted of raising the retirement age), led to weakened mass support for the regime. For a short time, from autumn 2018 to summer 2019, attitudes toward the West bounced back and positive ones began to prevail (for example, 47% of respondents had a positive attitude toward the US then, versus 40% who viewed the US negatively). This resulted in people who were dissatisfied with the leadership's policies speaking out against them (the share of respondents condemning the annexation of Crimea rose from 14% in 2015 to 21% in 2019, see Table 2).

Table 3. In your view, what should the main goal of Russian foreign policy be in the coming 10-15 years?

March 2016, N = 2,000

Attitude toward territorial expansion and fear of war

The idea of further territorial expansion has brought doubts and uncertainty – fear that the ordinary man would have to pay dearly for such a policy. In May 2014, people were asked: “If the population of Donetsk and Luhansk regions votes in a referendum to succeed from Ukraine and join Russia, should Russia accept the region or avoid such a step?” Fifty-eight percent said Russia should accept the region, while 30% were against it (12% said they could not answer). After the obvious failure of the “Novorossiya” plan, only a quarter of respondents insisted on restoring the status of the Empire (Table 3)   and incorporating the Donbas into Russia (Table 4) – the same share of respondents preferred “abandoning foreign policy ambitions and focusing on internal issues”. And this was the situation until February 24, 2022.

Table 4. Which of the following views about DNR and LNR independence would you most likely agree with? Survey taken from February 17 to February 23, 2022, N = 1,600

After the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war in Syria – the point of which remained incomprehensible to most Russians – a strong fear of an impending major war arose and persists within society (between 71% and 76% of respondents have noted this in recent years). With whom the war would be, there was no doubt: in January 2022, 37% of respondents believed that it would be with Ukraine, while another 25% said “with NATO.”

Despite the fear of war, the vast majority dutifully accepted it. They justified their passivity and lack of resistance to Putin’s aggressive line with the same arguments used by the president himself: Russia is forced to defend itself; if we had not gone in, they would have attacked us first; we are waging a defensive war. Russia, guided by humanist considerations, is defending the population of the Donbas, preventing a genocide and rooting out Ukrainian Nazis. Thus, when we asked about the legality of the so-called special operation – “do you think Russia had the right to launch military operations on the territory of Ukraine?” – almost half of the respondents (48%) answered on the third day of the war that “Russia has the right, it must protect its interests.” About a third (31%), aware of the dubious or criminal nature of the attack on Ukraine, admitted that “really Russia had no right, [but] with regard to defending the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, Russia is acting correctly.” Only 13% believed that Russia had no right, full stop (8% could not answer; results are from a telephone survey taken on February 27, 2022, N = 1,504).

Table 5.Why do you think Russia launched the special operation in Ukraine? February 2023, N = 1,600. Open question, respondents provided answers themselves Responses ranked; respondents could give several reasons, so the sum of responses is more than 100%

It is noteworthy that a mere 9 percent of Russians were in favor of grabbing more land (“incorporate Ukraine”, “take back our land” etc) (Table 5) which suggests that people want the great power in the sense of geopolitical respect, not in a sense of territorial expansion.

Since then, the balance of views in Russia about the war has not changed: an average of 73% have supported the “special operation” and 19% have condemned it. At the same time, half of respondents have noted support for a cessation of hostilities (50%). The visible contradiction of these responses means that symbolic identification with the aggressive regime is not the same as ideological mobilization – the latter runs up against pragmatism, the instinct of self-preservation and the desire for a secure private life. Russians justify their inability to oppose the state, which is demanding sacrifices for the sake of the “greater good,” as “concern for others,” though ultimately that makes people unwitting accomplices in the crimes of the state (Table 5).
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