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An ‘experienced strategist’ The man behind Russia’s new ideological course for university students

Source: Meduza

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s administration, realizing that the country’s young people are the least likely demographic to support the president and Kremlin policies, have decided to develop a special ideological curriculum designed to instill values like “tradition,” “trust in institutions,” and “patriotism” in university students. A source told Meduza that Kremlin policymakers believe Russia’s problems have always started with its intelligentsia — the new curriculum aims to form an intelligentsia that will fall in line with the Kremlin’s programs. The Russian authorities tapped Andrey Polosin, a political operator and occasional scholar, to build the new curriculum, which will be rolled out in the fall. Meduza takes a close look at the professional background of a man who has, while designing a program to make the Kremlin’s preferred “traditional values” seem cool, transformed himself from “typical Putin technocrat” into a long-haired, bearded “crazy professor who knows everything, or a rockstar, or a prophet.”

We must have a higher goal, a messianism. There is no other way for us. Moments arise when we lose the ability to see beyond our own lives. When this happens, we don’t just fail — people’s lives worsen. This is how it was in the 1990s.

In February 2023, Andrey Polosin, a close associate of Sergey Kiriyenko, head of the Kremlin’s internal “political bloc,” used these words to describe the “properties of the Russian people.” At the time, Polosin was head of regional relations at Rosatom, a state-run nuclear power corporation, but in the media, he’s mainly referred to as the official organizer of a new university course called Fundamentals of Russian Statehood.

As Meduza has previously reported, this course was invented by the Russian authorities after the beginning of the full-scale war to explain to students “where Russia is going.” Meduza sources close to the Kremlin have pointed out that this “ideological” course is essentially a direct equivalent of the “scientific communism” taught in Soviet-era universities.

In early May, Polosin left Rosatom to become deputy provost of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. In this position, he will continue developing the new university course. According to one Meduza source close to the Kremlin, Polosin’s task is to “save a lost generation” of young Russians who are critical of the political regime.

A ‘serious player’ in regional politics

In his February speech, Polosin said that he’s “not a student of the humanities but, on the contrary, an engineer.” However, his official biography on the Rosatom website contradicts this (in Russia, such areas as social sciences can fall under the humanities). While it makes no mention of a background in engineering, it does say that Polosin earned a degree in consulting psychology from Moscow State Pedagogical University in 1996 and a management consultant diploma from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration the following year. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a doctoral candidate in psychology.

In 2001, Polosin became a certified trainer in NLP — the pseudoscientific field of “neurolinguistic programming.” However, a career as an NLP “coach” wasn’t in the cards — by that time, Polosin was already working as a political strategist and had even opened his own firm: the Agency for Professional Management and Consulting.

Three Meduza sources who crossed paths with the strategist in the 1990s and 2000s described Polosin as “very good at organizing,” “empathic,” and “not greedy.” Per their assessments, he quickly became a sought-after specialist thanks to these qualities. Polosin didn’t have one major client; rather, he was approached by a variety of regional politicians — both local officials and members of the opposition. As a result, he began regularly “sending teams of strategists to elections in different regions,” becoming “a fairly serious player in the market.”

“If, at some moment, a strategist has grown to the point of contracting teams for several campaigns at once, that’s a serious person. You have to be friends with him because that’s where the money is. That’s the sign of the big leagues. This is why Polosin was and is respected,” said an experienced Russian political strategist (who spoke to Meduza on condition of anonymity).

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Around the same time, Polosin met and even befriended another “serious player” in the “regional politics market” — political strategist Alexander Kharichev. It was Kharichev who brought Polosin in to work on the federal election campaign for the Union of Right Forces (SPS), founded with the Kremlin’s participation during the 1999 State Duma election.

Sergey Kiriyenko (Polosin would later refer to him as his “mentor”) was the formal leader of the electoral bloc; the founding members included Boris Nemtsov, Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, and Irina Khakamada. The general outline of the SPS campaign was designed by Gleb Pavlovsky’s Effective Policy Foundation (the same organization that helped Putin get elected president in 2000), and the campaign was run by one of the foundation’s founders, Marat Gelman.

Speaking with Meduza, Gelman confirmed that Polosin and Kharichev worked together on the campaign, doing so-called fieldwork, which entailed creating a network of campaign activists and recruiting observers who were under their control.

As a result, the SPS received 8.52% of the vote in that election, coming in fourth place and outpolling the LDPR (5.98%) and Yabloko (5.93%). Kiriyenko became the leader of the party’s Duma faction.

Creation of the SPS electoral bloc, 1999. From left to right: Boris Nemtsov, Sergey Kiriyenko, Irina Khakamada, Konstantin Titov, Yegor Gaidar, and Anatoly Chubais

In the early 2000s, Kharichev was promoted to a position in the presidential administration, which was then headed by Vladislav Surkov. “Surkov needed an experienced strategist, so he invited Kharichev,” explained a Meduza source close to the political bloc at the time.

Polosin followed Kharichev, joining the Kremlin as advisor to the Domestic Policy Directorate. In the presidential administration, they “supervised work with the regions,” namely, monitoring the ratings of federal and local authorities in Russia’s regions as well as monitoring intra-elite conflicts and “protest moods.” When local crises emerged, supervisors from the presidential administration were supposed to provide recommendations to governors or go to the region themselves and solve the problem.

Regional administration officials of that time told Meduza that Polosin seemed like an “experienced strategist” who understood “the situation on the ground” and could actually give sensible advice to local officials.

In 2010, the “experienced strategist” received a special assignment from the Kremlin: quell the protests in Buryatia. The local establishment and republic residents were dissatisfied with Governor Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn, and there were large (by the standards of the sparsely populated region — hundreds of people turned out) rallies over rising utility costs. Anti-Putin slogans were also heard at these rallies. Nagovitsyn also upset “federals,” such as Russian Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev, after suggesting that the Baikal coast be turned over to private ownership.

Surkov sent Andrey Polosin to deal with the situation, officially appointing him Deputy Governor of Buryatia for Federal Relations and Civil Development. Polosin readily talked to the media while in this position, telling them:

I went to an ordinary school. My hobby has always been work. I read a lot of professional literature. Sometimes I also manage to read fiction. My favorite Russian authors are Vladimir Orlov, the Strugatsky brothers, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. As for foreign authors — Hemingway and Kafka.

When Polosin was asked if he would stay in the republic long, he answered: “They say if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I hope to be here for a while.”

However, Polosin only stayed in Buryatia for six months before returning to Moscow. He had no time to fix the situation between Nagovitsyn and Nagovitsyn’s critics. Even before Polosin was sent to Buryatia, a personal conflict had erupted between Vladislav Surkov and Alexander Kharichev. Kharichev was forced to leave the presidential administration — and he asked Polosin to come with him.

‘A carrot, not a stick’

In May 2009, after his disagreement with Surkov, Kharichev took the post of executive director of development at the holding company Russian Utility Systems (the largest utility operator in Russia), owned by oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. “Vekselberg needed people who had connections at the federal level and, most importantly, among regional officials. His holding company was expanding into the utilities sector in the regions,” a Meduza source close to the presidential administration explained the logic behind this appointment.

Kharichev decided to bring Polosin into this “expansion.” An acquaintance said that the invitation came at the perfect time: “Polosin had already grown bored with election work, and this was well-paid, clear, stable, and not very stressful work. He had to work with local officials and show that the arrival of, or continued work with, Russian Utility Systems would benefit both them and the region.

Polosin himself was often skeptical about the work of a political strategist. Back in 2004, he said: “There’s clearly a crisis. Hence the talk about the ‘death of the profession.’ There are two reasons for this. First, the balance of powers on the political Mount Olympus is changing: the lobbyists, who’ve been providing orders to large companies for years, are gradually leaving the scene. Second, the electoral field has been spoiled by streamlined solutions.” By “streamlined solutions,” Polosin was referring to the United Russia candidates’ campaigns, which were conducted in a standardized manner regardless of regional specifics.

However, when Kharichev became head of Rosatom’s regional relations department in 2013, Polosin followed him again — despite the fact that he once more had to deal with regional elections. Rosatom, which at the time was headed by Sergey Kiriyenko, traditionally supported its own candidates for municipal deputies in the cities where the state corporation’s enterprises were located. The corporation financed many projects and programs in such areas and wanted to directly control the distribution and spending of those funds. Additionally, the state corporation had to answer to the Kremlin for how these municipalities voted for government candidates in federal and regional elections.

A Meduza source familiar with Kharichev and Polosin explained that while both Rosatom strategists supervised elections, Kharichev had “a larger role”; for example, he was in direct contact with high-ranking officials. Polosin, as a rule, assembled teams of political strategists to work on specific elections and approved strategies for election campaigns.

However, Polosin had his own area of responsibility at Rosatom, one not directly related to politics. This is how a source familiar with him described it:

First of all, the corporation has always kept an eye on the level of employee engagement and satisfaction. They come up with different meaningful ideas: you don’t work for nothing, but as a team, for the future of the country and the planet. Second, Rosatom interacts a lot with local communities in the cities where it operates. They have discussions, heartfelt conversations, find ‘agents of influence,’ ambassadors. Polosin worked on the ideological content to make it all function.

Andrey Polosin oversaw “educational and instructive work” at the state corporation — in particular, the Territory of Culture program. Rosatom holds festivals and sponsors concerts by famous Russian artists in cities where it has a presence. For example, Moscow’s Lenkom Theater came to Desnogorsk, and Teodor Currentzis’ musicAeterna Orchestra came to Zelenogorsk and Zheleznogorsk.

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“There was one goal — [to achieve] loyalty to the corporation and the state with a carrot, not a stick,” explained a Meduza source familiar with the principles of Rosatom’s regional relations department.

One of Polosin’s ideas for Territory of Culture was the 10 Songs of Atomic Cities project (he’s listed on the Rosatom website as “ideological sponsor” and “co-producer” of the project). The website describes the project’s essence: “The idea is simple: a small team travels around the country with a portable set of audio recording and filming equipment, finds talented musicians, and records them in various locations. This is how an unusual arrangement is assembled, woven from musical fragments. Every participant of the shared virtual music-making adds his own style and unique hue to the joint composition.” 

Polosin himself took part in the recording of one of these compositions, singing (or rather, reciting) a fragment of the song “Bad Weather” from the movie Mary Poppins, Goodbye. “Andrey loves music, classic Western and Russian rock, so he came up with this,” an acquaintance of Polosin’s told Meduza.

An example of the project
Rosatom’s Territory of Culture

Polosin also held so-called “foresight sessions” in closed cities. There, participants not only discussed the internal affairs of Rosatom but also, according to the description of one of the “sessions,” tried to “look far into the future and roughly predict economic, scientific, technological, and social-development scenarios.”

The science fiction writer Sergey Pereslegin, whose views are rather unconventional, participated in some of the “foresight sessions” events. He believes that the consequences of the climate crisis don’t harm but rather benefit humanity, and he actively promotes “inclusive capitalism” theory, which allegedly emerged with the involvement of Rothschild family members, the International Monetary Fund’s leadership, and the World Bank. According to Pereslegin, the supposedly existent “inclusive capitalism” involves the division of humanity into two classes: a narrow stratum of elites and the “powerless masses” that these elites sustain.

“Polosin is fascinated by science fiction, so he’s familiar with Pereslegin. He takes his theories quite seriously,” admitted Polosin’s acquaintance. He added, however, that Polosin’s views aren’t “fundamentally influenced” by Pereslegin.

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In general, Polosin’s acquaintances describe him as a “liberal-statist” (whatever that means) and “a technocrat who can adjust to almost any ideology.” “But not cannibalistic. Andrey has principles,” insisted one of his acquaintances.

When asked about Polosin’s attitude toward the war unleashed by the Kremlin, this source didn’t answer, and the strategist himself hasn’t talked openly about it either. Nevertheless, according to Meduza’s sources, Polosin has unexpectedly become one of the Kremlin’s main ideologues in recent months.

Educating a ‘correct intelligentsia’

While working on the Territory of Culture project, Polosin frequently crossed paths with officials from the federal Culture Ministry and Education Ministry as well as with the heads of Russia’s largest universities, and he proved that he “can communicate well without conflict,” said a Meduza source close to the Kremlin.

According to one of Polosin’s acquaintances, he easily managed to prove to officials and university heads that he’s not an “outsider” because he’s “seriously interested in science” — at least in psychology and political science. “He’s genuinely interested, even overly so... He’s smart, he has a lot of energy and genuine enthusiasm,” an acquaintance told Meduza, describing Polosin’s passion.

Polosin even writes his own academic articles, which Meduza reviewed. Some of the articles are about the same thing that Polosin has been involved in for most of his career: regional politics. In his writings, Polosin states that political crises in the regions stem from governors losing control over resources, including information resources. By “control,” Polosin means a governor’s ability to influence “the dynamics of processes” — for example, the editorial policy of regional media outlets.

In his article “Electoral Behavior of Russian Citizens in the Context of the Presidential Elections of 2018,” Polosin went even further. He criticized Russian sociologists for being “biased” and for “deliberately ‘evening out’ their own techniques to achieve the best outcome for the client (for example, an authoritarian political regime).” The article also criticized the regime itself:

In the presence of resource rent, the political establishment uses resources which are sufficient in the short term to solve the most acute problems without engaging in structural reforms.

As a result, adapting the political system to a changing and transforming society has been perceived as a possible but unnecessary initiative. However, continuing along this line in the current environment is impossible — accumulated costs could lead the system into a full-fledged crisis, and to avoid this risk, it is necessary not only to paint an ‘image of the future’ as clearly as possible but also to look at the existing ‘present’ in a comprehensive manner.

However, Polosin’s acquaintances claim research is just a hobby for him: “Andrey is a real sybarite — he needs a good standard of living. Academics won’t give him that, of course.”

According to Rosatom employee income declarations, Andrey Polosin earned about 21 million rubles (about $260,000) there in 2021. He has a Mercedes GLS 400 and a Volvo XC70, two 750-square-meter plots of land (about 8070 square feet each), a 500-square-meter house (about 5400 square feet), and two apartments (45 and 98 square meters, about 500 and 1100 square feet, respectively).

Andrey Polosin in 2020

In 2017, Polosin’s friend and patron Alexander Kharichev once again changed jobs. Shortly before that, Sergey Kiriyenko had left Rosatom to become head of the presidential administration political bloc — and, of course, he invited his longtime associate along.

Polosin, however, didn’t join his colleagues but stayed at the state corporation and took up the now vacated head of regional relations position. “Andrey didn’t want to go back to just working on elections. In the corporation, everything was stable and predictable. Kiriyenko stayed in control of the corporation, and he needed a proven, predictable person to run politics there, so Polosin stayed on,” Polosin’s acquaintance explained to Meduza.

According to him, Polosin and Kiriyenko “have a good relationship; they understand each other as technocrats.”

In 2022, the presidential administration needed Polosin’s services again. Kiriyenko decided to appoint the political strategist and enthusiastic scholar to oversee the “ideological” higher education course “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood.”

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Two sources close to the presidential administration say that the Kremlin has long realized that “young people, especially students” are the most oppositional faction of Russian society (they indeed are), and the Kremlin has always had “trouble working with them.” One source claimed that the authorities prefer working with those who are already loyal and open to cooperation.

The mandatory course on “statehood” should change this. A source described the presidential administration’s project concept as follows:

The philosophy is simple: ‘All our fucked-up shit has always started with the intelligentsia; that’s how it was in 1917 and in 1990.’ So, we need a patriotic intelligentsia. And where’s the intelligentsia created? In universities. This means we have to organize things there in such a way that we graduate patriotically minded intellectuals who idolize Lomonosov, not Elon Musk.

This isn’t so much an educational task as a strategic one, which is why it was handed to Polosin as a strategist familiar with academics.

A source close to the Russian government who worked with Kiriyenko’s political bloc also told Meduza that the Kremlin has decided to educate a “correct intelligentsia.” According to the source, the presidential administration plans to focus primarily on students in technical universities: “There’s an opinion that the USSR was brought down by the technological revolution because the instructive talks weren’t conducted well with [the scientific and technical workers] and the ideology was poorly thought out. That shouldn’t happen this time; anti-establishment IT people shouldn’t ruin everything again.”

Polosin himself also reasoned that students studying technical subjects are one of the most important target audiences for the new course. “The course should be the first step in changing the approach to building future professional work and goals — a change from training engineers who serve other people’s technologies to training engineers who create new technologies, a change from training specialists who meet their own needs to training specialists who are ready to meet the systemic challenges that exist and those that the state puts forward,” he stated.

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Course development began in fall 2022; as Meduza previously reported, loyal university professors were recruited. Plans are for the new subject to be taught at universities from the beginning of the new academic year.

The course is divided into five segments, each with a different focus. For example, in the “What is Russia” block, students will learn about “the country in its spatial, human, resource, ideological-symbolic, and normative-political dimensions.” And in the “Russian Civilization-State” section, students will learn why Russia is not just a country but a “true civilization.”

The key ideological element of the course will be its third block: “The Russian Worldview and the Values of the Russian Civilization.” As part of this segment, teachers will have to acquaint their students with an article by a collective of authors (including Andrey Polosin and Alexander Kharichev) about the “pentabase” on which “Russian civilization” rests. In particular, students will hear about “collectivism,” “a special path,” “spirituality,” “freedom and will,” and “pioneering spirit” — supposedly characteristic of “Russian civilization” — and, of course, “atypical” of the West.

When they teach this course, lecturers will “borrow metaphors from pop science young people are familiar with” and “adapt them to patriotic stuff,” according a Meduza source close to the Russian government. This source thinks that this is how the “pentabase” theory of Russian values came about: a pop-science word should supposedly attract programmers more effectively than “the muddiness of [the ultraconservative philosopher Alexander] Dugin.”

It’s as if Polosin himself has even changed his own appearance to fit his new task. He used to have short hair and was mostly indistinguishable from a typical “Putin technocrat” — now, he’s grown out his hair and has a beard. Polosin’s new image was described by an acquaintance as “a kind of crazy professor who knows everything, or a rock star, or prophet.”

Andrey Polosin at the “DNA of Russia” conference at Southern Federal University. March 23, 2023.
Southern Federal University Press

Now, Polosin travels to Russian regions and presents the new course at local universities to administrators and teachers. According to a source close to the presidential administration, Polosin has a separate budget for all this, including his work with outside experts: “Andrey isn’t rolling in money, but he isn’t lacking for it either. He manages his budget himself. He gets hundreds of thousands of rubles a month [thousands of dollars] for taking part in weekly brainstorming sessions. That’s not bad.” Meduza’s source doesn’t know how much Polosin receives for organizing the new “ideological” subject, and this information isn’t publicly available.

Meduza’s sources agree that since Polosin began working on the “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood” course, he’s greatly increased his influence and is gradually becoming one of the Kremlin's chief ideologues. Among other things, according to people close to the Kremlin, there are plans to actively use perspectives from the university course in Putin’s 2024 presidential campaign.

One source believes that the new curriculum is essentially designed to “satisfy Putin’s tastes” and those of his inner circle — for example, Russian Security Council members. 

At the same time, sources familiar with Polosin doubt that he himself takes discussions about the “pentabase” and “traditional values” seriously. “He’s a sober man and doesn’t believe in all this,” said one. “But he’s a man of Kiriyenko’s corporation, Kiriyenko’s system. He’s given a mandate — he follows it. In order to stay in the system.”

Andrey Polosin, Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, and Rosatom’s Communications Department had not responded to Meduza’s questions at the time of publication.

Reporting by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Emily ShawRuss

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