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‘The Russian world cannot be contained by state borders’ A required college course will teach Russia’s students that their country is a civilization unto itself
While embroiled in warfare in Ukraine, the Kremlin has increasingly felt the need to explain itself to younger Russians. Starting this fall, Russia’s college students will be required to take a state-approved course on the “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood.” The curriculum (packaged as a series of video-lectures) is a brainchild of Andrey Polosin, a close associate of Vladimir Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko. Meduza’s correspondent Andrey Pertsev, who has covered Russia’s new ideological curriculum as it emerged and came together, watched the online lectures and talked to the people who made the videos. Here’s a survey of the new Russian ideology as it’s going to be taught at Russia’s schools, from “passionaries” and “the Russian world” to Russia’s unofficial state symbols — the birch and the bear.
The ideological course, long expected to be imposed on Russia’s colleges and universities, will be delivered in the form of video-lectures. Many of them are already available online on the website of Znanie, an academic society that developed the new program in cooperation with Russia’s Ministry of Education. (The organization’s advisory board is chaired by Vladimir Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko.)
The general editor of the video series, Andrey Polosin, is himself a longtime Kiriyenko associate. Two production insiders have told Meduza that Polosin determined the overall content of the lectures, while a team of historians and political consultants wrote the scripts and selected the footage to go with them.
Ten of the lecture videos have already been uploaded, with dozens more to come this fall. Sources familiar with the production process have said that some of the lectures will be about “general concepts” like “the Russian world,” and others will get into the nitty-gritty of life in different Russian regions and other niche topics.
Each film is about 25 minutes long, and the editing is straightforward: against the backdrop of Russian landscapes and industrial footage, the voiceover tells the students what to expect on the exam.
A ‘passionary’ civilization-state
One of the lectures takes its title from a phrase often used by Vladimir Putin when talking about Russia’s history:
In 2012, Vladimir Putin described Russia as a special type of civilization-state. He drew attention to the simple truth that Russia didn’t come into existence in 1917 or 1991, and that it has a single and continuous thousand-year-long history.
The lecture goes on to say that Russia is a “guardian of the world’s equilibrium,” whose special role in history has been the subject of philosophical and scholarly thought for centuries. To back up this claim with an example, the lecture mentions Lev Gumilyov (son of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova), whose theory of “passionaries” (as Gumilyov called entire ethnic groups driven by a sense of historic mission) seems to appeal to Vladimir Putin.
Despite the pseudo-scientific quality of Gumilyov’s claims, the lecture presents them as perfectly authoritative. The course video goes on to explain his theory that “every ethnic group is propelled by its life energy,” which determines its “passionary” potential:
If the passionary potential is above the norm, this results in a drive to make sacrifices for a higher purpose. In Gumilyov’s view, this kind of high level of passionary potential characterizes the Russian people. Hence Russia’s desire to expel Napoleon’s army not only from its own territory, but even from Europe. The Europeans saw the Russian soldiers as invaders, since they couldn’t understand that the Russians were motivated by self-sacrifice for the sake of the Europeans’ own freedom.
The video then explains that “every ethnic group has its own system of values and aspirations, impenetrable to outsiders.” The world is, meanwhile, “heterogeneous and fractured into a multitude of civilizations.” This multipolar world envisioned by the authors has a total of seven poles:
- Orthodox Christian
- Far Eastern
In this framework, the West “has always been hostile to Russia.” European culture, the video says, has long “reproduced Russophobic clichés” that presented Russia as a “huge, savage country where bears roam the streets” and natives “slurp their cabbage soup with bast shoes for spoons.” (In the backdrop of this discussion, Moscow City high-rises and St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace testify to the absurdity of such stereotypes.)
The lecture next poses a question: “If we are not Europeans, then who are we?” An answer is given without delay: Russia must be a civilization unto itself, one that evolved largely thanks to the “harsh winters” that determined “national character traits” like “willpower, persistence, and the tradition of Russian hospitality.” Rationality, on the other hand, didn’t find itself at home in these climes, where fickle weather could catch you off-guard, making riskiness an effective “decision-making technology.”
“What is an empire, and how do you govern it?” asks the next segment of this lecture, refining the question further: “What model of governance corresponds to our civilization-state?” Here’s a fragment of the discussion:
Russia is often called an empire. For some people, this word has a negative connotation, but opponents of empire define it somewhat erroneously. It’s important to understand that “empire” is not the same thing as “imperialism.” Empires can be different, too. Some people have always thought that Russia should look to other countries for a model of governance. This was attempted during the Boris Yeltsin presidency, but the attempt didn’t simply fail — it proved to be nearly fatal.
Footage of tanks on the streets of Moscow during the 1993 constitutional crisis flashes on the screen. The voiceover announces the inevitable conclusion: “It’s dangerous to take one’s cues from other countries. Russia is a particular type of integrationist empire. It’s in the nature of our country to improve and develop the territories it integrates.”
In love with ‘the Russian world’
The idea of “the Russian world” has a special place in the curriculum. “Throughout the ages,” begins the introduction to the topic,
no matter what was happening in our country, whatever the attitudes of other states, and however scattered our compatriots were around the world, they were always united by their Russian souls and their sincere love of the Motherland.
(Christ the Savior Cathedral appears on the screen, followed by shamans and pastoral views of the Russian countryside.)
“The Russian world,” the presentation goes on, “was formed over the thousand-year-long Russian history,” out of the consolidated “spiritual values, traditions, cultural mores, and moral norms.” (A traditional peasant log house illustrates this process.)
But “the Russian world” cannot be contained by state borders: it is “wider in its share of ethnic groups, territories, religions, political systems, and ideological leanings.”
“People fall in love with the Russian world,” the lecture continues,
because of the special traditions that come with its breadth of soul, power of spirit, and generosity. Visitors are greeted with bread and salt as a symbol of purity of intent. Hospitality is one of the traits of the Russian national character. Foreigners are not simply delighted by our culture — they adopt it as their own, becoming part of the Russian world.
The American-born actor Steven Seagal and the mixed martial artist Jeff Monson are named as notable examples of this transformation. Both of them became Russian citizens and visited the Donbas during the war. The lecture returns to the Donbas to justify the invasion of Ukraine with the old adage: “We had to defend the Russian world and the people who suffered from the Kyiv regime’s cruelty and genocide for eight years.”
The birch and the bear
A special course video is devoted to Russia’s struggle against fascism — an ideology, it explains, that sprung up “in the heart of the enlightened Europe” while being “completely alien to the people of Russia, as well as Asia, Africa, and Latin America.” (The lecture mentions neither the neo-Nazis spotted among the Russian troops in Ukraine, nor the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of non-aggression signed by the USSR and Nazi Germany in 1939.) “Sadly,” the video laments, “some states and people have a very short historic memory.” Russia, it claims, is the only country that opposes fascism in today’s world.
The remaining videos are mostly devoted to regional trivia and Russia’s struggle with Western colonialism (contrasted with Russia’s “civilizational experience” of peacefully absorbing new territories). Russia’s far-northern Solovetsky Islands are praised for being larger that the Maldives. Тhe notorious prison camp established there by the Soviets doesn’t get a mention.
The most recent video, released on August 16, talks about Russia’s state symbols. The state coat-of-arms, flag, and anthem, it says, “fill the heart with pride, making a person feel part of a great power.” The lecture encourages students to use state symbols when celebrating personal events: “If you passed a test with flying colors,” it suggests, “try decorating your balcony with the Russian flag.” And of course, there are Russia’s “unofficial symbols” — the birch tree and the bear.
Production insiders have told Meduza that upcoming videos will talk about “the Russian worldview,” Islam and Orthodox Christianity, St. Petersburg, and the Russian Far East. “By mid-fall,” says a production team member, “we should have everything up on the website, so students will have something to watch.”
When asked why the educational videos don’t say a word about alternative viewpoints, a production insider replies: “The idea is to foster a patriotic attitude. Critical thinking wouldn’t help with that.”
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