Which Popular Support for a New State Ideology?
January 18, 2023
  • Marlene Laruelle
    Director, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES), The George Washington University
Marlene Laruelle explores Russian public opinion on the issue of state ideology and delves into the “national-conservative” values and beliefs that seem to unite a majority of Russians.
Patriotism classes named "Conversations about Important Things" were introduced in Russia for the 2022/23 academic year. Source: VK
The Russian Constitution explicitly bans the establishment of a state ideology, though calls for one have been regularly made by politicians, cultural figures and ideological entrepreneurs. Since the beginning of the war against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Russian Presidential Administration has launched myriad initiatives related to what looks like shaping a new state ideology: new repressive legislation, massive censorship in culture, a more rigid interpretation of tensions with the West and of Soviet history, new mandatory patriotism classes at schools and universities, new history textbooks, etc. Yet the Russian state functions in a highly co-creational manner, with supply by the government trying to answer what it interprets as society’s demand or at least acquiescence.

But what do Russians think about a new state ideology? For the first time, we have at our disposal a survey exploring the bottom-up demand for state ideology. In spring 2021, the LEGITRUSS telephone survey conducted by VTsIOM asked a nationally representative sample of 1,500 Russians: “Does Russia need a state ideology?” (Rossii nuzhna gosudarstvennaia ideologiia ili ne nuzhna?). In the affirmative answered 79%, while 14% said no and 7% were not sure. The fact that the survey was conducted before the war gives us some insights on what the population might support in terms of ideology, even if surveys should generally be taken with caution (issues include self-censorship, framing of the questions, etc.).
"Our key finding is that there is a large, relatively coherent and politically salient national-conservative tendency in Russian public opinion."
Large in the sense that, depending on where one draws the line, a majority of Russians strongly (73%) – or even very strongly (58%) – subscribe to a set of national-conservative attitudes, values and policy preferences; relatively coherent in the sense that all of these attitudes, values and policy preferences overlap and strongly correlate positively with one another; and politically salient in the sense that an index aggregating these factors has a very large independent predictive effect for voting behavior, with high approval of Putin.

Who supports what state ideology?

The 79% of respondents who said that Russia needs a state ideology were able to select (or write in) up to two things that should form the basis (osnovnoi element) of the state ideology. The distribution of responses is as follows:

Note that the percentages add up to over 100%, since all categories but the first two (no ideology; don’t know what ideology) can overlap with others. We then summed up the different answers into four broad ideological categories: (1) Western; (2) communist; (3) Russian-universal (“combination of universal human [obshechelovecheskii] and traditional Russian [traditsionnye rossiiskie] values”); and (4) a “national-conservative” group consisting of statism (gosudarstvennost’), Eurasianism (“orientation toward both Europe and Asia;” “Orthodox Christianity and Islam”), “traditional Russian (rossiiskii) values,” Orthodoxy, and tsarism/monarchism.

The proportion of those rejecting the principle of a state ideology (14.2%) is close to the share of the population that is regularly identified by the Levada Center as the “anti-Putin” segment of Russian public opinion, at least as it existed before the war. Those wishing for a Western state ideology make up only a small number (5.4%), likely in part because most of those favoring a Western model of development are against the notion of a state ideology and therefore represented in the 14.2% of “rejectionists” mentioned above. Demographically, support for a Western state ideology is linked to higher education and seems to repel those in difficult material conditions – probably because they interpret a Western orientation as neoliberal shrinking of public services or because poorer Russians are more likely to depend on television as a major source of news, and therefore more likely to repeat anti-Western messaging.

The number of people calling for communism (8.5%) as a state ideology is lower than the electoral results of the Communist Party, confirming that the Party’s support is a way to criticize the incumbent United Russia and not a vote of conviction for Marxism-Leninism. And indeed, at the regional elections of September 2021, United Russia lost parts of its mandates in 30 regions to the Communist Party. Demographically, support for a communist state ideology is negatively correlated with Russian ethnicity, which seems to confirm the existing literature on ethnic Russians seeing the Soviet Union as having favored minorities at the expense of ethnic Russians – a classic claim made by Russian nationalist figures since the 1960s.

A quarter of respondents did select (albeit mostly alongside national-conservatism) the idea of a “combination of universal human and traditional Russian values.” This is perhaps a universalistic inheritance from Soviet communism and/or the social democracy of the perestroika period; for years, it was also central to Putin’s own discourse before the shift toward the narrative of “Russia against the West.”

Still, those who selected one form of national-conservatism or another make up the majority. Demographically, that choice correlates with higher age, having children, living in the North Caucasus, and – negatively – with living in a city whose population is greater than one million.

What does this national-conservatism mean in practice?
"Support for a national-conservative state ideology overlaps with other values and beliefs that, collectively, capture a significant majority of Russians who generally subscribe to a set of closely related preferences that can be broadly characterized as national-conservative."
For instance, Russians take a fairly conservative/traditional position on an array of sexual-family matters. The mean position among all respondents with regard to the four questions, on a scale of 0 (most liberal-progressive) to 1 (most traditional-conservative), is .70.

Secondly, Russians are moderately supportive of a variety of national-conservative policies and organizations: mandatory study of Orthodox culture in primary school; military education in school; military-patriotic youth educational organizations; Orthodox activists; and Cossack and other nongovernmental formations that cooperate with the police.
That support is clearly marked by age: the older, the more supportive. Policies and institutions coming from Soviet times, such as military education and youth patriotic organizations, gather the highest support, from 50% to 85% of the population depending on the age cohort. Orthodox education, Orthodox activists and Cossacks are less popular but still able to gather support of 60% or higher among the older generations, versus only 30-60% in the younger groups.
We should also note that opinions on these matters correlate with ideological preferences more or less in ways one would expect. Supporters of Western ideology oppose all five, while supporters of national-conservative ideology support all five. “Communists” support the military-patriotic elements but oppose (albeit not quite with statistical significance) the more Orthodox or “tsarist” (i.e. Cossacks) elements – except for mandatory Orthodox culture education, which they support.

Thirdly, we can calculate a NatValue index based on preference for state ideology, where:
  • fully national-conservative ideologies (“Russian,” statist, White) have a value of 1.0;
  • Eurasian and universal-Russian ideologies related to national-conservatism have a value of 0.5;
  • Western ideology has a value of 0;
  • Communism and uncategorized ideologies are discounted.

To this can be added the values Russians see as fundamentally Russian (rossiiskii or russkii does not result in any difference), the main ones being patriotism (.83), Orthodoxy (.71), and collectivism (.71) on a scale of 0-1, as well as pride in being citizens of Russia – ranged on a scale of 0 (not proud) to 1 (very proud), the average position is .77.

If we put together all these elements, we see that these five categories are rather strongly correlated with one another.

If these five categories are then averaged (each weighted equally) to generate a single master index of national-conservatism, the average score is .69 on a scale of 0-1. Thus, depending on whether the cutoff is set at .6 or .7, the result is that either 73% or 58% of the population can be categorized as largely adhering to a set of national-conservative beliefs, values and ideology.
Orthodox Christian activists protesting against homosexuality. Moscow, 2010. Source: Wiki Commons
Asserting the Russian public’s lack of ideology, as is commonly done by observers, should be done with caution. Average citizens do not share any highly intellectual doctrine; few if any are reading Ivan Ilyin or Alexander Dugin or have even heard of them. But this clearly does not mean that they have no ideology in the sense of worldviews, sensibilities, shared interpretations, beliefs or values.

In that sense, there indeed seems to be a majority public opinion that is at least partly synchronized with the national-conservatism promoted by the Kremlin. One can debate whether it is “top-down” or “bottom-up,” deep-seated in citizens due to shared collective and individual experience or constructed by media narratives. But the popular support for it is there, and it should be taken into consideration if we want to understand much of Russian society’s defensive consolidation in wartime.

Another important takeaway is that the Kremlin knows what it is doing in shaping its propaganda message: the Presidential Administration is fairly expert at tapping into existing perceptions and reinforcing them.

This paper emanates from the research project “Values-based legitimation in authoritarian states”, financed by the Research Council of Norway, project number 300997’.
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