‘The Regime and Society have Cocreated a Vision of the World Based on Affect and Resonating with People's Everyday Experience’
March 6, 2024
  • Marlene Laruelle
    Research Professor of International Affairs and Political Science, The George Washington University
  • Gilles Gressani
In an interview, Marlene Laruelle explains how Russia's ideological construction has evolved from liberal conservatism to radical conservatism and how the regime has worked to splice otherwise eclectic doctrines and give them an inner coherence. She emphasizes that this political project has an appeal beyond Russia.
The original text in French was published in Le Grand Continent. A shortened version is being republished here with their permission.
Victory Day parade. Moscow, May 9, 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
Marlene, you have been studying the ideological production of the Russian regime for years. What has changed with the 2022 invasion of Ukraine? What are the continuities and discontinuities in terms of ideological production?

We find a mixture of continuities and discontinuities, as the ideology that dominates Russia today is the product of long sedimentation. We can therefore identify its various layers, its moments of rupture and those of acceleration, and reconstruct its genealogy. The break of 2022 is, of course, a major one, but it should not obscure the continuities.

This ideological construct has its roots in a kaleidoscope of revisited Soviet heritages and the transformations experienced in the 1990s. It has been gradually reorganized by the regime into a whole that has its own internal logic and a certain coherence in its vision of humanity, of what the world order should be and of Russia's place within it. It can be divided schematically into three main phases: “early Putinism” in 2000-08, “late Putinism” in 2012-22 and “war Putinism” since February 24.

Many of the elements that have become central to the post-February 24 discourse were already present before the invasion: Vladimir Putin's speech on the supposed unity between Russians and Ukrainians date back to 2021; the sacralization of the Great Patriotic War (World War II as seen from Russia, between 1941 and 1945) has become more pronounced over the years, as has the vision of the West as fascist and the denunciation of liberals as traitors to the nation.

That said, we have to be careful with retroactive readings and their tautological logic. They tend to make us believe that there was only one possible future, and forget the existence of a multitude of options whose potential was not realized. That the regime tightened its ideological control at home and saw Ukraine as the crystallization point for all its discontent with the West long before the turning point of 2022 is a fact. That Putin had been preparing for war for several years is less obvious. War was probably one of several options considered, but not the most plausible.
But once the real war had become a reality on the ground, the regime was able to draw on both narratives and indoctrination methods that had been in place but not fully deployed.
Do you think ideology precedes action or does it serve to justify decisions after the fact?

This is one of the key questions often asked about Russia, but it presupposes that we can dissociate ideology from action, and what is downstream from what is upstream from action, in an obvious way. I do not think this is the case.

So, the answer to your question depends on how you define ideology. If we define it as a vision of the world and of the social order of things, a grammar, then yes, the Russian regime has an ideology-worldview, like any government and any individual. If we define ideology as a constituted and applied textual doctrine that citizens must follow or face repression, as in the Soviet model, then the answer is more nuanced, for the regime does indeed know how to adapt its discursive production to changing contexts and different audiences. For a long time, it has successfully sought to avoid reproducing a Soviet-style ideology-doctrine and to capture popular support without a high level of repression.

I would say that the Russian regime is founded on a stable and identifiable ideology-worldview, defined by three major principles: the fall of the Soviet Union was a mistake, and a similar collapse of Russia must be avoided at all costs; Russia must remain a great power in order to resist the essentially hostile West; Russia is embodied by its state, not its people. Its citizens must therefore let the state manage politics and content themselves with being patriots. This ideology-worldview informs strategic decision-making, even if there are differences between the political elites in their reading – radical or moderate – of these three principles.
A Stalin monument in Naberezhnye Chelny (Tatarstan). Source: VK
This grammar is broken down into much more contingent and evolving strategic narratives: the regime can insist on Russia as a state-civilization, on its Eurasian or Russo-centric identity; it can present it as a modern nation or an empire, a secular country, Orthodox or Orthodox and Muslim, with its model in ancient Byzantium or contemporary China; citizens can worship the last tsar, Nicholas II, as a saintly hero or prefer Peter the Great or Stalin... There's plenty of choice, as long as one stays within the authorized framework of the three principles, which rule out any vision of Russia following a liberal, progressive, Western model.

To give an example of the link between the stability of the grammar and the contingency of declensions: Putin has always believed that his mission is to restore Russia's status as a great power – this is a stable element of his geopolitical grammar. But the means of achieving that have evolved, and with them the strategic narratives: in the 2000s he believed that the West would accept Russia’s great-power status, in good times and bad, and Russia would integrate into the global economy.
Gradual failures to obtain this recognition (which, for Moscow, means a right to have a say in affairs across the former Soviet space) have fostered the idea of Russia as a great power that must position itself no longer with the West but against it.
The notion of "against" has also evolved: from a growing competition with the West on the international stage to a war with the West with Ukraine as a proxy.

How would you sum up the ideological nature of the regime in a few broad strokes? There's been a lot of talk about “fascism.” What's your take on this terminology?

For me, the heart of the regime is counterrevolutionary. It's a Thermidorian regime, seeking to stabilize Russia after the radical shifts of the 1990s. As is often the case, what began as a small-c conservative strategy – slowing down the pace of change to allow society to “digest” the transformations – after over 20 years of Putin’s leadership has become reactionary (I use the term reactionary in its literal reading of being a "reaction"). I therefore see an evolution from liberal conservatism in the early 2000s to radical conservatism, visible in the turning point of 2012-14 that was accentuated by the turning point of 2022.
A monument to Ivan the Terrible in Oryol. Source: Wiki Commons
The regime is fundamentally conservative. It believes in an ontology of man that implies that we cannot free ourselves from our collective identity – whether gender, sexuality, nationality or religion. In this framework, progressivism, which tells us that these identities are socially constructed and therefore de-constructible, is seen as leading to nihilism and thus to the death of the individual and the collective. In that it is a pessimistic regime concerned with what it sees as the decline of the values of European civilization, both Christian and those born of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

This conservatism takes the form of an obsession with the evils of the “collective West,” a term that today defines the political West (the US, EU, NATO), and liberalism as a political philosophy, as well as progressivism as a vision of the individual. Russian political culture has gradually taken the form of a conspiratorial worldview, a cynical reading of power relations in which the great powers confront each other in zero-sum games, while smaller countries have no strategic autonomy.

Anti-Westernism is, therefore, central to the Russian ideological construct, but to define this ideology solely in negative terms seems reductive to me. There is a political project for Russia and the world: an ontologically conservative worldview that seeks to defend an “authentic” Europe against what are seen as the “perversions” of liberalism and to promote an international world no longer based on liberal internationalism. It's a project that also appeals to certain international audiences.

I see the notion of fascism as applied to Russia as problematic. It is so highly normative and emotionally charged that it blurs the lines of analysis and creates binary categories. In my book Is Russia fascist?, published in 2021, I answer in the negative, defining the Russian regime as conservative, illiberal and authoritarian, but not fascist. To be fascist is to have a utopia, to believe in regenerative violence for the nation, to believe that war is the only way for a new Man to emerge by making a tabula rasa of the past. I do not believe the Russian regime fit this description before 2022; it did not have a utopian vision of its future based on a theory of regeneration. There were “pockets” in which fascist tendencies could be identified, in particular paramilitary circles, far-right militias and vigilante movements, but these did not represent the regime as a whole.

With the invasion of Ukraine, the nature of the regime has obviously changed.
On the one hand, the so-called party of war – the whole siloviki apparatus, the military bloggers, the paramilitary and militia realms – all call for a total war with Ukraine, an open war with the West and full militarization of the Russian economy, culture and society. But one can still identify a large part of the Russian political establishment that prefers the “special operation” to remain just that – limited and with minimal implications for the country as a whole. They wish that Russian society will not be dragged into the war, prefer demobilization to mobilization, hope for the middle classes and elites to be protected and for economic and cultural life to continue to exist in the civic space.
I therefore see the regime as a two-faced Janus: one wants more violence (both in relation to Ukraine and Russian society), while the other wants less violence and a return to normalcy.
The Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, located in Moscow Region, is "dedicated to the 75th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, as well as the military feats of the Russian people in all wars." Construction was completed in 2020 on Victory Day (May 9). Source: Wiki Commons
This normalcy is conservative, even reactionary, but is not fascism.

What do we know about what Russian society thinks of the official ideology? Are there reliable ways of measuring the acceptance and rejection of indoctrination in Russia today?

We still know a lot about Russian society, provided we are willing to read opinion surveys with nuance, correlate them with more qualitative information and follow the remaining free spaces found on Telegram and YouTube.

Roughly speaking, we can say that around two thirds of Russians share the idea that the regime knows best what's best for Russia. This means that they generally support the current war but will also be for peace if Putin calls for a ceasefire. This high figure should therefore be read as acquiescence to the prevailing political model in which politics is the exclusive domain of the state, while the citizens’ domain is limited to their private lives. In opinion polls, around 20% oppose the war – a remarkable figure given that some (other) people are surely censoring themselves.

In fact, there is a pro-war minority and an anti-war minority, with the rest of Russian society divided into two broad categories: “ritualistic loyalists,” who share the official discourse but are unwilling to commit themselves personally; and those who are generally indifferent and would like to go on with their private lives without having to comment on politics.

The majority of Russian society interprets the war as the West’s war against Russia, and supports the regime in its ideological indoctrination, such as new patriotism courses at schools and universities, and enlistment of children in patriotic- and military-themed extracurricular activities.

But if one digs a little deeper, the facade of unity disappears. Many Russians are expressing anxiety about the war, not enthusiasm – a major difference from the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which generated genuine elation. People are worried about the suddenly uncertain future, confused about the loss of life; many continue to see Ukraine as a victim of the West, not as an enemy of Russia per se, while “only” a quarter support the idea that Ukraine should be integrated into Russia, even though this is the line vehemently held by Vladimir Putin himself.

What is your assessment of Western systems' ability to cope with Putin's ideology? What recommendations do you have for Europe?

It's a difficult and sensitive question, because it requires us to take sides not only in relation to Russia, but also to our own societies. What form should resistance to ideologies that we do not share take? We cannot hope that the whole planet will share our values, just that we will manage to coexist together without violence.
In the Russian case, I believe that all the counter-propaganda measures have no effect whatsoever.
Anti-abortion rally. Moscow, 2016. Source: Livejournal
Fact-checking may be intellectually reassuring, but we know that it has no effect on those who adhere to what we define as propaganda or fake news. It assumes that there are cognitive solutions to existential questions, where, in fact, affect and experience dominate. As Giuliano da Empoli explains in The Engineers of Chaos, what counts is not the veracity of the facts, but the grand narrative.

The same applies to Russian society: it has not been “zombified” by television propaganda, as is often claimed by Western commentators, because surveys show that Russians can detect fake news at about the same rate as Europeans. But the regime and society have cocreated a vision of the world that is based on affect and resonates with people's everyday experience, the social thickness of their world.

This worldview will therefore be difficult to deconstruct even once the war is over, and probably even once Vladimir Putin has left power. In today’s Russia, apart from a very small liberal opposition, even those who are dissatisfied with the current regime cannot project an alternative: at best, one can hope for a return to the happy years of early Putinism, when political stability was synonymous with an improved standard of living, while the West, though a competitor, was not yet an enemy.

In my view, the resistance – or more precisely, the resilience – of our Western societies can only be consolidated by an in-depth examination of our own limitations and failures. We can, of course, fight disinformation operations from time to time, but this presupposes the ability to escape the commercial and technological mechanisms that dominate the world of the media in general, as well as social networks and their financial logic in particular. Everything that deconstructs the social bonds that make us want to live together has been monetized – it seems to me more important to try and break this cycle than to work to flush out the “hand of Moscow” that we tend to see everywhere.

For me, the key issue is that a growing number of European and American citizens no longer feel comfortable in the liberal-democratic model. This requires internal work rather than an obsession with the challenges posed by the Russian discourse. If the latter is successful, it's because it resonates with our own social tensions and political doubts. If we are to speak again to all the naysayers – on vaccination, climate change, representative institutions, the world order – we need to reinvent a global political project, which seems to me to be the heart of the matter and the only long-term solution.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy