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‘Suddenly, these outdated ideas are being used to justify mass murder’ Why Russia’s war against Ukraine is the logical continuation of Russian state ideology.
For years, Russia’s official ideology has revolved around the myth that the country is in danger and its enemies are trying to destroy it. The war in Ukraine is the logical continuation of this myth. To learn how deep the historical foundations for this conflict go, Meduza turned to Andrei Zorin, a professor at the University of Oxford who studies the history of Russian state ideology and the cultural and political myths that support it.
— You said in an interview several years ago that modern young people don’t have a sense that they’re living in history. Will they start feeling differently now, given current events?
— I do think that what we’re dealing with, of course, is a historical paradigm shift. On a global level, it began after September 11, 2001, but it’s now emerged much more distinctly.
It’s clear that the type of postmodernism that prevailed for the second half of the 20th century is going away. When the very existence of truth and clear moral guidelines are denied, when everything is seen as a mental game and is subject to deconstruction, and an appeal to etiquette looks like an act of repression.
We’ve seen this process going on for 20 years already. Now, I think, it will sharply accelerate and enter a completely new phase. But whether it will take us back to a historical understanding of reality or some kind of religious, mystical, apocalyptic, or completely new feeling with prevail is difficult to say.
It’s scary and tragic that Eastern Europe has once again turned out to be the place where these global transitions are happening.
— This question is probably naive, but I'll ask nonetheless: Was all of this bound to happen? Or did someone’s personal idiosyncrasies bring us here?
— This is really a question for a philosopher, not for a historian. In my view, history always gives multiple possibilities and forks in the road. Events can’t happen if they don’t have deep foundations and reasons behind them. But there's also no absolute predestination in history. It can take this or that path, and the choice depends on decisions made by individual people or groups of people.
You can’t say retrospectively that something was inevitable. Things could have gone differently. There were thirty years in which this development could have been prevented. But perhaps it was precisely because this seemed so unlikely that nothing was done to prevent it.
I’ve noted in retrospect that my evaluations of the situation as a person and as a professional were completely different. Everything I’d written suggested that this kind of war, while not inevitable, was quite likely. But at the same time, as a human being, I kept saying, “Oh, come on. What, are they going to bomb Kyiv? Please, that’s impossible.”
— History has been used to justify this war, including by Putin himself. What do you think of his historical outlook?
— The fact that Putin or his circle have a poor understanding of history isn’t even the problem. Who knows what any of them know or don’t know. Nobody really knows what happened a thousand years ago. What’s much more dangerous is the belief that solutions to today’s problems can be found in history.
In Latin America, during the military coup period, there was a slogan: “Send the soldiers back to the barracks!” I would suggest a new slogan: “Send the historians back to their department!”
“We lived here!”; “We’re one people!”; “This land belongs to this group and not that one!”; It’s difficult to imagine anything more damaging than the use of these kinds of arguments to solve historical problems.
The dispute between the so-called primordialists and the constructivists about what constitutes a nation might seem completely theoretical. But they’ve been given new blood. Suddenly, these primordialist ideas that date back to the 19th century and were long ago rejected by science are not just a theoretical misconception — they’re a justification for mass murder.
— I’m going to toss some of your old quotes at you that resonate differently in the current circumstances. Several years ago, in a public lecture, you said that in Russian political culture, the sign of a strong czar is not just the ability to win a victory, it’s the ability to transform a failure into a victory. What we see right now, the war, is it an attempt at such a transformation?
— Yes, certainly. Russian culture is characterized by a constant feeling that the country is under threat, a mortal danger that’s overcome by a dramatic transformation and breakthrough. In addition, as Vladimir Sharov — one of the greatest Russian writers in recent decades, in my view — put it, Russian leaders are classified in the popular consciousness not as legitimate or illegitimate, but as genuine or not genuine. A genuine czar, a true chief, a true leader, is someone who takes a country on the brink of ruin and leads it to triumph.
Let’s take the wars that are canonized in the Russian state narrative. It’s the start of the 17th century: the Poles are in Moscow, and Minin and Pozharsky form a militia and drive them out of there. Beginning of the 18th century: the Great Northern War begins with a defeat near Narva, causing Peter to transform the whole country and ultimately leads to [Russian victory in] Poltava. The start of the 19th century: Napoleon occupies Moscow — so the Russians take Paris. Hitler didn’t manage to take Moscow, but he got close. The initial months of 1941 were catastrophic — and then we were victorious.
The official Russian ideology and propaganda won the battle for the mainstream interpretation of the events between 1989 and 1991. They were presented not as Russia’s liberation from the neo-Stalinist dictatorship, Soviet communism, and the imperial legacy, but as defeat by the West in the Cold War. To make matters worse, the defeat was won in the worst possible way: by deception.
In our public consciousness, a not-quite-articulated idea has taken root that there was some kind of contract between Russia and the West: Russia would dissolve its empire, and in return, the West would somehow take it in. Where it was supposed to be taken was never clear — perhaps into the “civilized world,” or into the ranks of “normal countries.” And we would immediately start living “like in all civilized countries” — that was the idea. But we were tricked. We fulfilled our part of the agreement, but they didn’t. They screwed us. That was the defeat that needed to be turned into a victory. That was an important pillar of the current political leadership’s “authenticity,” and this wasn’t hidden; in fact, it was repeatedly emphasized. And that was the rhetoric that all of the outside observers, including myself, somehow missed.
— There’s still a fundamental difference: there were no enemy troops in Moscow or anywhere near it. It takes some mental effort and imagination to liken the situation to a military defeat.
— That’s what I’m saying: this was a victory of the official interpretation over historical reality. The collapse of the USSR, of course, came from the inside — there was economic failure, military setbacks in Afghanistan, ethnic conflict on the peripheries, and a whole host of other factors led to the system’s complete delegitimization. The West, meanwhile, hoped until the end that the USSR could be preserved. Political leaders there preferred to deal with a single nuclear power [than several] and were afraid of the Soviet Union’s collapse; there’s abundant evidence of this.
But that’s the point of this kind of reinterpretation: those in power needed to reframe the breakup of the empire as a failure and a humiliation inflicted by external forces.
— Another quote from one of your public lectures: Russia’s political culture assumes the existence of a hostile external world where a person cannot live, he can only survive.
— I have to say this, though it’s often seen as a paradox: Russian culture is deeply individualistic. It has a very low level of trust. People can’t trust each other, they can’t trust those around them, and they can’t trust their leaders. It’s like Solzhenytsin’s famous formula: “Don’t trust anyone, don’t fear anyone, and don’t ask anything of anyone.” It’s a prison saying, but it turns out that prison wisdom can apply to all of our reality. The world is dangerous and hostile, and it’s difficult to live in.
— The besieged fortress mentality, then, is a manifestation of this lack of trust but in the geopolitical sphere?
— Yes, to a large extent.
There’s another issue here: the majority of the population’s extreme alienation from their leaders for centuries. Beginning at least with Peters the Great’s reforms, the elite are separated from regular people by a completely impenetrable barrier. Dostoyevsky believed that he began to understand the Russian people when he was sentenced to hard labor. Tolstoy described Pierre Bezukhov in captivity alongside Platon Karatayev; he described Prince Andrew among the soldiers. It’s only in those kinds of extreme circumstances that the educated elite and the majority of the population start to feel they share a common fate.
The pre-revolutionary elite is destroyed or driven out of the country after 1917. After that, however, it reproduces itself. As Yuri Slezkine showed brilliantly in his recent book The House of Government, Russian classical literature becomes the template for this restoration. The Soviet elite starts emulating the old nobility. By the end of the Soviet Union, we see the same degree of hostility and alienation between the elite and the majority.
Redirecting this hostility to the outside world is, among other things, a way of using internal social conflict for propaganda purposes.
This is still true today. For a long time, we had megacities that took pride in their Europeanism and the fact that everyday life in them was sometimes even more comfortable than in European cities. But on the other hand, we’re a huge country, and for many residents, even in those very cities, this “European” lifestyle breeds feelings of alienation and hostility. That’s why rhetoric like “now we’ll all live in poverty” is resonating with some people — at least for now.
— I have a hypothesis that the ideology that’s in the minds of the Russian ruling class and that gets broadcast in the state media was created in the 1970s. Despite how often it’s attributed to Ivan the Terrible, to Peter the Great, to Stalin, to whoever else, I think it originated in the wild mix of Soviet propaganda, the samizdat, and all of the craziness that was printed in the popular scientific press: the Book of Veles, ancient aliens, the Abominable Snowman. That’s where all of the conspiracies like the Dulles' Plan came from.
— You’re correct. The current aging generation of leaders, as you can easily deduce from their birth years, had their worldviews formed during this period. Just like how those who came of age in the 1960s set the tone for perestroika.
But I think it’s important to note one more generational aspect. The ideology of that period, which Gorbachev unsuccessfully referred to as the Era of Stagnation, was created by people who grew up in the post-war period, under late Stalinism. This was a time when the revolutionary ideology of communist universalism was finally being supplanted by the idea of Russian national-imperial messianism. That process began in the 1930s, but the war delayed it a bit, though the pace greatly accelerated after that. That’s where the withdrawal from the world, the “struggle against cosmopolitanism,” the idea of a giant conspiracy against Russia comes from.
When the political and, even more, the intellectual leaders of the 1970s were coming to power, they began reproducing the modals from their own youth in a weakened form, though they added some new elements such as the idealization of pre-revolutionary Russia, the occult beliefs, the Book of Veles, and things like that.
— And why was that shift necessary?
— People adopt their main ideas when they’re young. Both individuals and even whole societies or countries are capable of changing ideological benchmarks because they’re conscious and must be articulated. But that layer of semi-conscious ideas — cultural and political mythology — is very difficult to change. The transitions do happen — myths are not innate to any human society and are not passed down genetically; they arise, they’re maintained, and then they die. But in order for deep transformations to occur, you need either decades of cultural and social shifts or monumental catastrophes. That’s why, once a generation has spent its adolescence and youth in a certain era and then become the next generation’s political and cultural leader, it will reproduce in new conditions what it was once taught.
It’s also the case that every turn towards isolation in Russia, at least in the 20th century, after a failed attempt at “Europeanization.” In 1917, it was an attempt to present itself to the world as the leader of global revolution. The failure of that notion became clear in 1920, during the so-called Miracle on the Vistula. The defeat of the Red Army led to Stalin’s doctrine of socialism in one country. After the Second World War, the empire’s borders expanded dramatically, but the logic remained the same: up to the border post is us, and behind it is the enemies.
After Stalin’s death, a new period of universalism began, but in the 1960s, its development was once again limited by a confrontation between two systems. Russia made a new fundamental attempt to enter the world in the 1990s. This time, they did it without claims to leadership, but certainly with the expectation of becoming one of the poles in a “multipolar” world and the status of a great power. This project failed again, and the idea that “the West deceived us” came to the forefront, causing a lot of resentment and expectations of revenge.
— So it’s not just Putin’s personal resentment after all?
— Ideology, official ideology, ideological struggle — these are all important things. But the most important thing about ideologies is how they are consumed. Why do some ideological constructions sell well while others remain mental exercises? One decisive factor is a person’s ideas about the world, which are often difficult for him to reflect on. That’s what I refer to as political and cultural mythology.
Resentment arises from disappointment. I often quote Yeltsin’s last speech, in which he bid farewell to the people and announced that he had chosen a successor. That’s one amazing paragraph: “We thought that in one tug, one swoop, we could jump out of the gray, stagnant, totalitarian past into a bright, rich, civilized future. I believed it myself. But one tug didn’t work. In some ways, I turned out to be too naive.”
Yeltsin wasn’t naive. He was a clever, skilled politician. But behind this admission, there was a “transformation myth”: Now we’ll rid our path of the communist ideology that held us in chains for 70 years, and we’ll immediately join the unified stream of world civilization. Initially, the idea worked. There was a feeling that we had a real czar who would turn our previous suffering into victory.
When this didn’t happen, it seemed like we had been tricked, and the czar was a fraud. What had seemed to be a breakthrough turned out to be a defeat. A neo-imperial nostalgia was born: it suddenly seemed like our lives before had been fine, and, most importantly, we’d had a great country — everyone had feared us. We’d been in Soviet heaven, and we’d been tempted by the serpent of the wicked West. Now we needed a different breakthrough and a different true czar.
Myths work especially well when they resonate with one another. The great transformation and the true czar — those are two important mythologems. But there’s also a third myth that’s no less important: the body of the people. The people, as a whole, make up an organic entity — a collective identity with one soul and one body. That idea is the basis for the idea that Russia’s historical defeat consisted of this body’s dismemberment.
If you read Russian folk tales, you’ll remember the bogatyr who was cut into pieces and doused with dead water to join the pieces back together. Then live water is poured on him — and he gets up. But he can’t get up if his hands and feet are cut off. First his body needs to be fused together again.
This is an idea that the official propaganda introduced to people’s consciousness over a long period of time, but nobody paid much attention. Why was the breakup of the USSR the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe?” Because it was the dismemberment of the people’s body. And now we’re seeing war — the dead water. First, we have to collect it all, and then we’ll pour living water on it — and it will get up.
— To what degree was this myth fed to people through propaganda?
— That’s the difference between ideology and mythology. A myth is very difficult to engrain consciously. But it’s possible to implement certain ideological models — and this can work, if you rely on a strong mythology.
In this case, I suspect this myth was in the heads of both the consumers and the producers of the ideology. But it needed to be given a form: what was cut off from us, what needs to be reunited first, and so on.
And that’s where the standard narrative of Russian history, dating back to Kyiv, worked well: it’s the main thing we’ve lost.
I happened to write about Crimea and the Crimean myth [that Crimea is historically Russian] back in 1997, long before these events. Then, in 2014, I was amazed by all the calls I started getting. I thought this was work was had long been forgotten — and suddenly everyone started calling me up for comment. I was asked to talk about Potemkin and the conquest of Crimea.
I told one of these clients: “I’m only going to talk about the 18th century, but there might be a lot of questions [from the audience after the lecture]. And keep in mind, I’m not going to make an idiot of myself.” He thought hard and then said, “Let’s make a deal: you can say ‘a grave mistake,’ but don’t say ‘international banditry.’”
— Gentler times.
— You’re telling me.
But Crimea, with all of its Chersonese and its religious-antique associations — that’s still secondary. But now Kyiv! Prince Vladimir, the “mother of Russian cities…”
The authorities have tried to solve the problem of “where the Russian land came from” before: the Izborsky Club, Novgorod, “Ladoga was the first capital of Russia” — historically, any of those could work. Novgorod is really an important historical center.
But that concept quickly hit a dead end. First of all, Novgorod was the calling of the Varangians, the beginning of the Rurik dynasty. They called in foreigners: “Come to rule and reign over us.” That’s not good. And second of all, even worse, this was the republic that was destroyed by Moscow — and with monstrous brutality. Fitting Novgorod into a modern state narrative turned out to be impossible. They had to turn back to the Kyivan Rus.
— Putin with his giant table and Zelensky in his green t-shirt — those are also conscious ideological choices.
— Yes, the Russian Security Council meeting that we all saw was one more “scenario of power.” And what we see of Zelensky’s surroundings is a completely different story. But both of them are derived from certain myths. We’ve already discussed Russian historical and political mythology. Ukrainian mythology is completely different. It doesn’t have the figure of the “true czar” at its root; it has the idea of Cossack military democracy. You can listen to the Ukrainian national anthem:
Soul and body shall we lay down for our freedom
And show that we are brethren of the Cossack nation.
Against that backdrop, there can be no discussion of the unity of both peoples. When you have two political mythologies that are not just dissimilar to each other but direct opposites, what is there to talk about?
On the contrary, it seems to me that the question is no longer worth asking. Over the last month, history has resolved it in the bloodiest way, at a monstrous price, but conclusively. In general, history has unlimited resources to teach even the most careless students. But this isn’t much of a consolation for those who will pay or already have paid for these lessons with their lives.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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