Russia Program Journal No 1

Page 1


Russia at War:

Ideology, Practice, Resistance


IERES Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies Editorial Offices: 1957 E Street, NW, Suite 412, Washington, DC 20052; Each article is published individually as soon as it is accepted under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY 4.0). Article submissions and all correspondence regarding editorial matters should be addressed to For more information, please visit our website: The views expressed in this journal are those only of the authors, not of the Russia Program or The George Washington University. The Russia Program Journal is committed to equity. We encourage authors to be sensitive to their own epistemic practices, including as reflected in their citations’ gender balance and representation of scholarship by authors from the country or countries under study.

Vol. 1, No. 1, September 2023

Table of Contents

Between Intentionality and Inevitability: Uncovering the Enablers of Russian War Crimes in Ukraine SARAH FAINBERG, CELINE MARANGE………………………………………………………………….7

Deadly Illusions: The Ukraine War and Russian Historical Imagination IGOR TORBAKOV…………………………………………………………………………………………..21

“Do Russians Want War?”: Exploring the Landscape of Anti-War Resistance in Russia IRINA MEYER-OLIMPIEVA……………………………………………………………………………………37

What Role did Ideology play in triggering Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine? JULIETTE FAURE………………………………………………………………………………………………...49


Between Intentionality and Inevitability: Uncovering the Enablers of Russian War Crimes in Ukraine

Sarah Fainberg, Tel Aviv University Celine Marange, IRSEM

The invasion of Ukraine was conceived and prepared as a large-scale repetition of the 2014 annexation of Crimea; it was supposed to illustrate the Russian army’s ability to conduct a “contactless,” surgical, swift, and complex military operation. In the initial operational plan, collateral damage was to remain limited. Avoiding civilian casualties and limiting the destruction of civilian objects were seen as two of the cornerstones of the operation’s success. The objective was to create favorable conditions for Ukrainian civilians so as to contain their potential resistance. Meanwhile, most critical national infrastructure (CNI) was to be preserved to facilitate the establishment of a pro-Russian regime following the overthrow of President Zelensky, who was expected to flee the country or be liquidated. The invasion of Ukraine was conceived and prepared as a large-scale repetition of the 2014 annexation of Crimea; it was supposed to illustrate the Russian army’s ability to conduct a “contactless,” surgical, swift, and complex military operation. In the initial operational plan, collateral damage was to remain limited. Avoiding civilian casualties and limiting the destruction of civilian objects were seen as two of the cornerstones of the operation’s success. The objective was to create favorable conditions for Ukrainian civilians so as to contain their potential resistance. Meanwhile, most critical national infrastructure (CNI) was to be preserved to facilitate the establishment of a pro-Russian regime following the overthrow of President Zelensky, who was expected to flee the country or be liquidated. In the months leading up to the invasion, the Kremlin intensified its anti-Ukrainian information campaign. In the summer of 2021, Vladimir Putin published a long article claiming the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians and challenging the very existence of the Ukrainian nation. On the eve of the war, he forged a common enemy, “the Kiev regime,” that was labeled “Nazi” and accused of committing a “genocide in the Donbass.” In his “address to the Russian nation” of February 21, 2022, the Russian president presented Ukrainian statehood as a fiction deprived of historical roots. In the early morning of February 24, in a veiled declaration of war, he addressed Ukrainian civilians and soldiers directly, framing the imminent “special military operation” as a brotherly liberation campaign. That same day, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that he had ordered Ukrainian fighters to be treated “with respect.” The Kremlin’s preparation of the Ukrainian public to the invasion in the informational space was intended to legitimize the coup and guarantee its success by inciting Ukrainians to cooperate and capitulate. How is it that Russia’s full-scale military intervention so rapidly degenerated into a brutal conflict with war crimes and civilian casualties multiplying in the first days of the invasion?


If there were no initial intention to deliberately harm civilians, why did an unbridled approach to violence prevail so quickly on the battlefield? Do the Russian army’s war crimes and violence result from a strategic political and military design or even a directive “from above,” aimed at subjugating Ukraine by all means? Do they derive from an ad hoc adaptation of the Russian army, which had to use additional coercive tools to compensate for its operational and tactical failures? Or do they proceed from a downward moral spiral of Russian forces, who resorted to violence to channel their frustration and quickly impose their rule in the conquered and occupied territories? We argue that Russia’s wartime violence towards Ukrainian civilians has been multidimensional, deriving from a top-down and intentional policy of terror and from a grassroots and inevitable downward spiral into violence on the ground. This research thus highlights the complex mix of ideological, conceptual, contextual, structural, and cultural enablers of violence. First, there is the toxic power of Russian information warfare and its relentless incitement to anti- Ukrainian hatred and violence, going so far as to compare Ukraine to a woman who must be sexually subjugated. Then there are doctrinal causes related to the instrumentalization of civilians on the battlefield in contemporary Russian military thought. There is also the role of military contingency: the first two weeks’ military fiasco, the sheer mental and logistical unpreparedness of Russian troops, combined with the pressure exerted on the lower-rank soldiers, led to an unleashing of violence on the ground. Finally, there are cultural and structural factors: Moscow’s perennial imperial tradition of contempt for Ukraine, the routinization of violence within Russian society, and the Russian army’s pervasive organizational culture of humiliation and punishment were all catalyzers of violence once the operation was launched.

Tentative Typology of Russian War Violence Let’s begin with a provisional overview of war violence and war crimes committed by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine during the first year of the Russia–Ukraine war (February 24, 2022– February 24, 2023). War crimes are listed in Article 8 of the Rome Statute. They include violations of the laws and customs of war, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and its First Additional Protocol, and other particularly serious violations of the law of armed conflict which, according to military customs codified subsequently in treaties, call for sparing the lives of non- combatants and protecting the wounded, sick, shipwrecked, and prisoners of war. As of February 6, 2023, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded 18,817 civilian casualties in Ukraine, including 7,155 dead, of which 438 were children. The military losses on the Ukrainian side are classified and considered to be very high. The Center for Civil Liberties, Ukraine’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil society association, and the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union have documented war crimes since the war began in 2014. As part of the “Tribunal for Putin” project, they have compiled a database which, since February 24, 2022, has recorded over 34,000 “documented atrocities” likely to constitute war crimes. The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Political Information has meanwhile established a digital platform collecting visual evidence of Russian crimes.


Based on available sources, we mapped out four main types of Russian war violence in Ukraine. Some prevailed in the first weeks; others were used at a later stage; most war violence actions and crimes, though, ran year-round. The first category of war violence includes indiscriminate killings, physical and sexual violence, along with robbery and looting: those crimes occurred in a context of growing interactions between Russian invading troops and conquered towns and villages' local residents. The Bucha massacre, the chronology of which was thoroughly investigated, is a case in point. Killings of civilians, who were summarily executed or shot in the street, amounted to 650 in December 2022. These figures do not account for the violent deaths that have occurred in territories that remain under Russian military occupation. Regarding conflict-related sexual crimes, only 155 prompted judicial investigations according to the General Prosecutor of Ukraine. Yet this figure does not reflect the scope of sexual crimes according to Ukrainian historian Marta Havryshko, a specialist of wartime sexual violence who has collected the testimonies of sexual crimes’ survivors in Ukraine. According to a UN commission of inquiry, in the first months of the invasion, the victims of sexual violence were between 4- and 82-years-old. Testimonies collected by social workers prove that sexual violence has frequently been accompanied by acts of cruelty, as illustrated by the filmed castration of a Ukrainian fighter. The second category of war violence encompasses the war-induced and colossal material damage that has directly affected civilians. Here one should distinguish between the Russian army’s collateral damage and its deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects. At the beginning of the war, the Russian army did not avoid collateral damage due to its incapacity to effectively implement its reconnaissance-strike complex vision, i.e., conducting highprecision strikes based on real-time intelligence. Since the successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in the autumn of 2022, however, civilian infrastructure and buildings were damaged as part of a deliberate destruction strategy. The Russian army has massively resorted to artillery fire in combat zones and improved its deep strikes performance, targeting residential buildings and, above all, critical infrastructure, in particular, electrical and hydraulic infrastructure. The goal is obviously to accelerate the Ukrainian economy’s exhaustion while at the same time demoralizing civilians by depriving them of electricity, heating, and running water. In one year, some 20,000 buildings and 120,000 houses were destroyed throughout Ukraine. UNESCO confirms damage to 238 cultural sites, including 105 religious buildings, 18 museums, and 11 libraries. The highly urbanized Donbass region continues to be ravaged by artillery fire and urban fighting and is massively contaminated with landmines. Satellite imagery shows that, in Bakhmut, where fierce fighting continues, around 5,500 out of 28,000 buildings were already damaged in mid-January 2023. Similarly, towns such as Mariupol or Popasna were reduced to ruined fields. In the Kharkiv region, more than 600 residential buildings were destroyed in just the first month of the war after a year of war, 6,116 buildings were destroyed in Kharkiv itself, including 3,352 tenements, 1,809 houses, and 280 schools. The third category of war crimes relates to de facto institutionalized violence targeting civilians and prisoners of war in Russian-occupied territories. There, Russian authorities reinforced


their repressive apparatus: militias from the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk were joined by detachments of the Russian Federal Security Services (FSB) and other security services making three-month rotations in the annexed territories. Those security units have had free rein to maintain order and unmask “saboteurs” and “infiltrators.” Anyone suspected of collaboration or even mere identification with Ukraine is interrogated and often tortured. Moreover, Russian occupying forces have imposed a coercive Russification policy combining the compelled renunciation to Ukrainian citizenship, complete revision of school curricula, compulsory conscription of men, and forced population displacements. Meanwhile Russian authorities set up a full-fledged carceral network. According to the Center for Civil Liberties (as of February 2023), 20,000 Ukrainians were being held prisoner in the occupied territories, including those imprisoned in “DNR–LNR.” Some civilians, especially women, are imprisoned in Russia itself, without trial or access to lawyers, in preventive detention centers (SIZO in Russian). Captured soldiers and arrested or abducted civilians are detained together in 27 “filtration camps.” Ukrainian fighters released in prisoner swaps report physical and psychological pressure, torture, and ill-treatment; they were undernourished, received no care whatsoever, and sometimes had to drink dirty water. It appears that this prison system was established upstream, in the weeks preceding the invasion, and extended after the conquest of Mariupol in April 2022, in order to sort out “harmful elements” from harmless people. Detained civilians are subjected to interrogations, humiliations, and body searches. Their biometric data is collected and their activities on social networks verified. A war wound or a tattoo is enough to qualify them as enemies. The use of electric shocks and beatings are attested, as well as ideological re-education sessions for detainees deemed “disloyal.” The extent of the phenomenon remains difficult to establish. In August 2022, the US State Department estimated that between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian civilians (including thousands of children) went through this archipelago of pretrial and extrajudicial detention. Finally, Ukraine’s migratory chaos makes up a fourth category of war violence. Russia leveraged Ukraine’s migration crisis—of a magnitude unmatched in Europe since World War II — to weaken the Ukrainian government and sow panic among European leaders. At the end of January 2023, there were 5.4 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine, as well as 8,046,560 Ukrainian refugees in Europe and around one million in Russia. Ukrainian authorities have thus far identified 16,226 children deported from annexed territories to Russia. An in-depth investigation by the Observatory of Conflicts at Yale University confirms the deportation of at least 6,000 children and their placement in 43 identified places where some are subjected to political re-education and held against their family’s will. In a decree on May 30, 2022, Putin simplified the naturalization procedures for orphans coming from Ukraine. Russian sources reported the adoption of thousands of Ukrainian infants and toddlers by families in Russia in 2022. Ultimately, Russia’s relentless and multi-dimensional war violence culminated in this child abduction policy conducted under the cover of “humanitarian” considerations.


Informational Warfare as Main Matrix of Russian War Crimes The first enabler of war violence is Russia’s continuous and systematic information warfare designed to discredit and destabilize Ukraine since the Orange Revolution of 2004–2005. It also set an ideological climate conducive to violence during the eight years that preceded the 2022 invasion. Russia’s official discourse draws on an imperial tradition of contempt for the “Little Russians” (a derogatory term designating Ukrainians). It recycles post-WWII Soviet propaganda’s clichés systematically equating Ukrainian nationalism, however modest it may be, with the “fascist enemy.” Therefore, Russia’s justification of the “special military operation” lies on a well-polished narrative: by turning its eyes westwards, Ukraine strayed from its natural historical trajectory, its leaders proved to be zealous collaborators of the hateful “collective West,” and both the Ukrainian government and the West cynically take Ukrainian civilians as hostages with the goal of strategically weakening Russia. In the months leading to the invasion, the Kremlin’s informational warfare was activated on three directions: the domestic front, the Ukrainian public, and the international audience, primarily towards the West. Since February 2022, Russian propaganda adopted an unbridled communication strategy on television and other communication platforms. This campaign aims at denying the very existence of Russian war violence and crimes, while dehumanizing the Ukrainian leadership and resisting civilians, who are labelled “Nazis.” Initially framed to convince Ukrainians to collaborate with Russia’s forces, these propaganda efforts refocused on the domestic Russian scene. With the initial operational plan collapsing, the Kremlin sought to consolidate inner societal cohesion and ensure (by all means) public adhesion to the “special operation,” increasingly perceived as Putin’s personal war. Abandoning the remnant of any “rational” discourse, Russia’s war-time propaganda gradually morphed into a mix of nuclear and Christian Orthodox eschatology combining nuclear threats with messianic tropes, as Dima Adamsky powerfully illustrated. Some political and religious Russian actors reframed the “special military operation” as a clash of civilizations and a holy war against “the forces of decadence” for the sake of which all means are justified. Patriarch Kirill has increasingly promoted a discourse sacralizing violence and presenting the suffering of Ukrainian civilians as a necessary evil to bring about Russia’s salvation. After the Russian army opted, in the fall of 2022, for a war of attrition and a strategy of total destruction, the Ukrainian enemy has been not only denigrated, but demonized. From then on, some propagandists associated “the West” with the Antichrist, describing Western civilization as “the vanguard of Satanism” and calling for the “de-Satanization” of Ukraine. Besides demonizing Ukrainians, Russian official discourses have systematically reversed the guilt, blaming the Ukrainians and their leadership for the war, its violence, and its casualties. Ukrainians are regularly accused of inventing or staging war crimes, or of cynically causing casualties among civilians by refusing, for example, to open humanitarian corridors. Maria Zakharova, the Russian MFA’s spokesperson claimed, for instance, that Bucha’s massacre and mass graves were staged. A meticulous investigation of the massacre proved the involvement of the Russian army’s 234th Air Assault Regiment and its commander’s complicity. Furthermore, Russian leadership remains silent on the question of war-time sexual crimes in


Ukraine in line with a long Soviet, then Russian, tradition of omertà on the mass rapes committed by the Red army during liberation in 1945 and, in the post-Soviet era, by the Russian army in Chechnya. On television platforms, war crimes denial goes hand in hand with a call for death and sacrifice and an open justification of violence that often resorts to an annihilation rhetoric. These defiant statements on television mark a deliberate shift in Russian information warfare strategy. Examples abound: a Kremlin spin doctor published a long op-ed on the state-owned news agency Ria Novosti’s website to explain that the “denazification of Ukraine” necessitates the eradication of its European inclinations, as well as a “total cleansing” of “the Nazi mass of population,” which had to be “subjugated” for at least one generation. A journalist from the state-controlled channel Russia Today incited the Russian military to commit more abuses, going so far as to suggest “burning or drowning Ukrainian children.” Since October 2022, during prime time, famous talk show hosts and guests have bluntly advocated for the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including energy infrastructure, casting them as legitimate “retaliatory strikes” designed to punish Ukrainian “terrorist” activity and disrupt the transfer of arms to Ukraine. We can hypothesize that the unleashing of violence on the battlefield was facilitated by a feeling of omnipotence and total permissiveness (vsedozvolennost’) that informational warfare ante bellum and in bello cultivated. Formerly presenting the Chechen as a terrorist and today the Ukrainian as a Nazi pogromist, informational warfare has played a key role in the adversary’s demonization. This constant manipulation of images has legitimized violence when crimes were committed, whereas their systematic denial up to the highest levels, and the total absence of preventive measures, have played a posteriori as a white washer of war violence.

An Instrumental Approach to Civilians in Russian Military Thinking Contemporary Russian military thinking is yet another enabler of war violence against civilians. Russian New Generation Warfare (NGW) does not constitute a formalized doctrine, but a corpus of military principles and concepts which find their origin in the imperial and Soviet wars, while being partly inspired by contemporary Western military thought. Yet it addresses the civilian factor on the modern battlefield, framing civilians as a pressure point to be leveraged to destabilize, disrupt, or shatter the adversary’s system from within. Civilians are to be used as a medium designed to exert an incremental pressure on the adversary’s military command and political leaders and shape their decision-making calculations and process. As Lieutenant-Colonel (Res.) Daniel Rakov explains, the civilian population is framed as a full- fledged component of the adversary’s system, regardless of the conflict’s stage (ante bellum, in bello, and post bellum). Civilians are to be frightened, demoralized, manipulated, polarized, or disoriented. Informational and psychological warfare stand out as the main tools


to be used to apply a continuum of pressure on the adversary (from low-key and constant pressure to peaks of frightening methods). Exerting pressure on civilians is at times used either to prepare the ground for a conflict or to try to prevent its kinetic phase; alternatively, it can also be leveraged to consolidate the military gains reached on the battlefield or reduce the intensity and length of armed confrontation by pushing civilians to force their own government to capitulate. When these non-kinetic means of pressure prove to be insufficient, other instruments of coercion are activated, together or separately, to obtain the desired effects. In the military field, a limited use of force is considered useful when it sows fear among civilians. In the economic field, seizing or destroying vital economic resources, in particular energy infrastructure, is a well-known demoralizing technique. In the diplomatic field, civilians are viewed as an instrument of pressure on political and military decision-makers to force them to enter negotiations, at the time deemed suitable for Russia. The conceptualization of civilians as a lever of continuous pressure on the enemy system is not specific to Russian military thought. The international academic literature on civilians in modern warfare often criticizes Western military thoughts for priding themselves in developing concepts and tools aimed at minimizing collateral damage, while continuing to consider civilian casualties and destruction an inevitable phenomenon. However, Russian military thought has its own characteristics when it comes to civilians in modern warfare. First, civilians are viewed as a leverage of an integral, systemic, and multidimensional pressure on the enemy system through informational, psychological, economic, political, and military instruments, that are to be used ante bellum, mainly in peacetime. A second specificity relates to the role allocated in Russian thinking to massive artillery fire. Considered a legitimate mode of action, mass artillery fire targets the civilian component of the enemy’s system, as illustrated by the two Chechen wars, Russia’s intervention in Syria, and the current modus operandi adopted in Ukraine. As Daniel Rakov further elaborates, a third specificity relates to the marginal status of civilian rights in Russian military thinking. The principle of protecting civilians in armed conflict is emphasized in the writings of Russian military academies. The General Military Regulations of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation recognize the principle of minimizing collateral damage, which includes the protection of civilians and their property. However, this issue is underdeveloped in Russian military thinking and academic literature: it is virtually absent from the 2005 Combat Charter distributed to Russian soldiers, and barely mentioned in one of the most recent manuals published in 2022 for officers. Moreover, and most significantly, Russian Armed Forces lack a prosecution mechanism for war crimes: soldiers are neither sanctioned nor judged before a military tribunal for that type of infraction. In urban warfare, soldiers are generally confronted with a dilemma: abide by the principle of self- preservation against the adversary or follow the principle of protecting civilians in the battlefield. In the case of the Russian army, the balance tilted sharply in favor of selfpreservation because of deep-seated habits, such as war crime ignorance and denial, harsh punishment against soldiers failing to comply with the operational plan, and general disinterest in civilians’ lives. Taken together, these doctrinal and cultural characteristics of the


Russian army contribute to diluting the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, which is increasingly tenuous in modern warfare and particularly difficult to maintain in Ukraine due to the widespread use of Territorial Defense Forces across the country and the decisive role that reservists and volunteers played in the first days of war to disrupt Russian invasion.

A Conducive Context: War Violence as an Adaptation to Successive Fiascos Ante bellum, Russian information warfare and academic military thought created a climate conducive to violence and a fertile ground for targeting civilians. In bello, the initial operational plan’s failure was an unforeseen, but irreversible, trigger of war violence. The civilian casualties and war crimes committed at the start of the invasion did not stem from the operational plan itself, but from its fiasco. Based on currently available sources, it appears that there was not, at the very beginning, a deliberate intention to kill Ukrainian civilians. Yet the first war crimes occurred quickly on the ground, relentless attacks resulting primarily from the setbacks of the Russian army. When the operation was launched, the Russian Air Force was responsible for neutralizing Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense, while the elite commandos of the special operations forces were to swoop down on the capital to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership. The airborne operation on Hostomel Airport, located near Kyiv, failed, immediately compromising the initial military plan as a whole. The Russian army proved, moreover, incapable of carrying out targeted high- precision strikes based on real-time intelligence, while acting cautiously so as to preserve civilian infrastructure in the hopes of being welcomed with “bread and salt.” This failure resulted from its inability to implement its reconnaissance-strike system, due to a precision rate of guided munitions that is lower than Western standards. Those failures illustrate the gap between Russian contemporary military theory and reality. In theory, as Dima Adamsky explained in 2017, neutralization of anti-aircraft defense forms the cornerstone of operations, whereas cross-domain coercion constitutes the art of Russian strategy. Despite these setbacks, the Russian army continued the initial operational plan by invading more territories, dispersing its forces, and suffering heavy losses. Initially supposed to carry out a contactless operation, the Russian army rapidly got bogged down in urban areas and villages. Russian soldiers who, in principle, should not have had close contact with Ukrainian civilians, ended up conquering and occupying a territory representing nearly a fifth of the country and controlling their local residents. The immediate brutality of the interaction between Russian soldiers and local residents can be attributed to several factors: the soldiers’ lack of operational and mental preparation, logistical problems of supplying basic products, the unexpectedly brave and defiant resistance of Ukrainians, the equation between resistant Ukrainians and Nazis, but also the Russian army’s huge human losses since the invasion’s very first days. Demoralized, drunk, or starving Russian soldiers burst into homes and shops, plundering shamelessly. Thrown into high-intensity combat without having been even warned, they had


not received clear and consistent instructions on how to behave with civilians, particularly with regard to the spoils of war. Discovering with amazement the opulence of well-kept houses, some soldiers, originating from some of Russia’s poorest and most remote regions, loaded washing machines and other consumer goods into the back of the tanks to send to Russia via Belarus or to resell them on markets. Others engaged in sexual violence with sometimes incredible cruelty. Based on concurring sources, some children were raped in front of their mothers (then vice versa), as were elderly women, sometimes in their eighties, and at least one pregnant woman. Once kidnapped, very young girls suffered gang rapes and beatings that left them mute and toothless. This ferocity shows that war-time sexual violence derived from a deep-seated propaganda dehumanizing the adversary and intended to both punish and threaten all civilians. In late March 2022, Russian troops were ordered to leave the Kyiv and Sumi regions and rearticulate their forces in the Donbass. Reckoning with its own military setbacks, the Russian army has adapted after its massive losses: it returned to its old doctrine of indiscriminate fire, by targeting civilian buildings and, since the Autumn of 2022, by deliberately striking critical infrastructure to cause as much collateral damage as possible. With the overall brutalization of the conflict, acts of violence against civilians increased in the occupied territories. Among them, rape is an instrument of war: the highest rates of rape have, to date, been recorded in the Kherson region (65), which fell into Russian hands early on and was occupied until its liberation in November 2022. These official complaints are only the visible tip of the iceberg, as reported by Marta Havryshko. According to interviews she conducted with survivors, sexual violence has often been silenced, especially in villages with a patriarchal culture. Overall, rapes have served to humiliate and terrorize the population of the occupied territories in order to obtain their submission, but also to punish and break the spirits of the Ukrainian fighters serving on the front, as their wives and daughters have been intentionally targeted.

A Culture of Punishment and Impunity as a Catalyzer of War-Time Violence Finally, the intensity and scale of violence against Ukrainian civilians cannot be explained without taking into account the climate of brutality, institutionalized fear, and acceptance of violence that has developed in Russian society since the fall of the Soviet Union. Whether they are professional soldiers, volunteers, or mercenaries, Russian fighters wrestle with a routinization of random violence while being confronted with insoluble contradictions that blur common sense and moral standards. In Russian society, they know that any mere opposition (such as calling the war by its name) can lead to prison whereas the monstrous crimes of the past—including Stalin’s crimes—are addressed with relative indifference and impunity. In the army, they operate under a military culture that severely punishes minor disciplinary offenses or tactical errors while turning a blind eye to criminal acts committed against civilians, regardless of their scale or cruelty.


The Russian military is notoriously known for resorting to punishment and humiliation, perpetuating the Soviet tradition of permissive bullying and abuse perpetrated by older conscripts on new recruits. This phenomenon, which sometimes goes as far as rape and murder, is called dedovshchina, which literally means “the arbitrariness of the elders.” Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (2007–2012) tried to reform the army and curb these practices, but without obvious success. This culture of submission by terror undoubtedly played out in Ukraine when Russian soldiers had to choose between their self-preservation and respect for human life and the dignity of others. This dilemma was thoroughly explained by Konstantin Yefremov, a Russian lieutenant of the 42nd motorized rifle division based in Chechnya. He was sent to Crimea on February 10, 2022, then served three months in the occupied region of Zaporizhzhia, where he witnessed firsthand the acts of torture that his superiors inflicted on captured Ukrainian snipers. In an interview published at the beginning of February 2023, he confessed the uncertainties, fears, and hesitations that haunted him when serving in Ukraine. He was confronted with an excruciating choice: either defect and run the risk of spending 10 years in prison, or accept the crimes perpetrated by his army. Yefremov finally fled Russia in December 2022, but his case remains in the minority. Moreover, the Russian army does not have a body of senior non-commissioned officers (NCO), a crucial level of command to ensure the proper transmission and explanation of orders, to adapt them to the situation, but also to impose discipline and showcase an example to be followed. This lack of supervision has as its corollary a corporalization of the troop, i.e., its blind submission, and a style of command characterized by punishment for minor offences. Simple soldiers have little initiative and responsibility, while being subjected to significant pressure: their commanders expect them to apply the plan to the letter. If they fail, they face physical punishments, such as imprisonment, or symbolic punishments, such as degradation. This mode of operation may have encouraged soldiers to maximize collateral damage or, at least, not to seek to avoid it, when the expected operational and tactical gains could thus be achieved. In the Russian military, the culture of punishment for minor offenses goes hand in hand with a norm of impunity (beznakazannost’) for serious crimes, which the Kremlin now seems to openly cultivate, as in other past periods. Thus, on April 18, 2022, President Putin decorated the soldiers of the 64th motorized rifle brigade whose responsibility in the Bucha massacre was later documented. In December 2022, the State Duma adopted at first reading a law guaranteeing immunity to the military from the “special operation.” If further enshrined in the Duma, this change is supposed to be universally valid, as Russian national law has had primacy over international law since the 2020 constitutional reform. In Ukraine, this widespread culture of violence was amplified on the ground by the hateful ideology cultivated by a number of Russian volunteer battalions and various other armed groups. Formed in 2014 on ideological criteria, these volunteer fighters are now attached to the operational reserve (BARS, following the Russian acronym). Among them are, for instance, the “Russich” battalion whose commander glorifies crime and proclaims himself a


“neo-Nazi and pagan,” or “the Imperial Legion” whose ultra-Orthodox commander claims to be waging a “religious war” so as not to let “the Russian Orthodox Church of Malorossiya” be under the control of the Greek Catholic Uniate Church. With their reputation of ruthlessness, the fighters of Kadyrov and Wagner known as kadyrovsty and wagnerovsty further contributed to the brutalization of the theater of operations and to the unleashing of violence not only against Ukrainian civilians, but also against Russian soldiers. Operating as the Praetorian Guard of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, the kadyrovtsy are officially attached to the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiâ). At the beginning of the conflict, they were intentionally sent to Ukraine to sow panic among Ukrainian civilians. The wagnerovsty refer to the mercenaries of the private military company Wagner, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former convict who serves as a henchman for the Russian president by investing in disinformation and mercenary activities. Since the summer of 2022, Wagner recruited prisoners from penal colonies to make up for their human losses and have “cannon fodder” to send to the front line. This type of paramilitary recruitment was supposed to minimize the social and reputational costs associated with Russian military losses. It also contributed to the dissemination on the battlefield of the violent norms of the “zeks” (prisoners of the camps) and the brutality of Russia’s carceral world, inherited from the Gulag. Some 40,000 soldier-prisoners were recruited on the promise of being granted amnesty and freedom should they survive. On February 9, 2023, Prigozhin acknowledged that Wagner stopped enlisting prisoners (which was an official recognition of their active involvement in the Ukraine frontlines). In late March, he declared that 5,000 of them had been freed after serving in Ukraine. According to Olga Romanova, president of the NGO Russia Behind Bars, the Russian Ministry of Defense plans to establish disciplinary battalions based on the model of the Soviet penal battalions of World War II (known as “shtrafbat”) enlisting criminals from prison. Citing official Russian sources, Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of the Russian human rights organization “No More Gulag” (GulaguNet!) reports that prisoners recently recruited by Wagner are deliberately frightened prior to their deployment to the frontline: they are forced to watch filmed harassment and public executions of “deserters”—that is, fellow inmates who were sent to Ukraine and no longer agree to fight. Kadyrovsty and wagnerovsty were also instrumental in intimidating and harassing Russian troops themselves. According to a document circulating in late summer 2022, a DNR–LNR militia commander wrote a complaint to demand that kadyrovtsy stop raping his men. Per Ukrainian sources, the role of kadyrovtsy was to kill any Russian soldier refusing to fight after the Russian army suffered heavy losses during the invasion’s first weeks. Among other examples, a Wagner deserter was brutally clubbed to death in a video that Prigozhin hailed by calling the victim a “traitor.” Based on the testimony of an ethnically Russian soldier from the Akhmat volunteer battalion, the non-Chechens fighters were sent to the front line, and “few came back,” which shows that the Ukraine war is also a trigger for increased inter-ethnic tensions among the different forces fighting on behalf of Moscow. Finally, the conditions of recruitment and mass mobilization to Ukraine represent yet another dimension of war violence. At the beginning of the conflict, many soldiers were recruited in Russia’s poorest and disenfranchised autonomous republics, mainly Buryatia and Dagestan,


where the army serves as the main employer and the exclusive social ladder. With the waves of “partial” mobilization in the fall of 2022, some 300,000 men were mobilized by the presidential decree of September 21, 2022. The day before, the Duma adopted a series of amendments on the criminal responsibility of soldiers that tightly sharpened the punishments associated with desertion, surrender to enemy forces, or refusal to fight. Many men have been recruited forcefully and randomly, regardless of their age or residency (including in big cities) and without previous military training. Some were even sent to the front despite a formal health exemption. We contend that war crimes and violence ultimately stem from a logic of revenge and have served as an outlet for soldiers who fully understand that they are being sent “to the slaughterhouse.” One of the origins of violence in this war is the violence exerted by the Kremlin against its own soldiers, who were sent to their deaths without any logistical or mental preparation. Western intelligence services estimate Russian casualties at least at 60,000 dead; all in all, some 200,000 Russians may have been killed or wounded in the first year of the war. As a Ukrainian psychologist recently noted, “the level of brutality of the Russian military is very high” because “they have to deflect their helplessness and despair onto something living, weak, to see how that something suffers. They hate themselves and project that hate onto their victims. They banish from themselves the thought of their humiliation, their fear and their helplessness.”

Conclusion: The Trap of Compromise Russian war violence in Ukraine can only be explained, both in scale and in degree of brutality, by crossing two analytical axes: the political intentionality from above and the inevitability of violence from below. The strikes against civilian infrastructure ordered by Russia’s military high command and the crimes committed against civilians by simple soldiers followed different logics and timelines in the theater of operations. Together, though, they aggregated into a cohesive complex of war instruments designed to subjugate Ukraine through punishment and humiliation. These two trajectories of war violence—intentional and unavoidable, from above and from below —fed into each other on the ground in Ukraine, unleashing a swift and irreversible brutalization of the conflict. Ultimately, this multifaceted violence—psychological, informational, military, and economic— stems from a common matrix of state violence inherited from the Bolshevik revolution, Stalinist repressions, and the political violence of the Brezhnev era. Dehumanizing the enemy, denigrating human life, neglecting the fate of ordinary people, and perversely glorifying violence in the name of superior ideals, are yet again the foundations of Russian leadership. The absence of lustration and repentance for the crimes of communism, including for the orchestrated famine of the Holodomor, cultivates a “chain of impunity” that endlessly repeats itself. Lenin’s mummified body is not about to leave his mausoleum on Red Square. Stalin’s figure is rehabilitated instead of haunting consciences. In a vision obscured by hubris, the Russian president has sought to forcefully unite what he believes to be his people. In doing so, he has inflicted on Ukrainian society a tremendous


trauma with demographically, economically, and psychologically devastating effects in the long term. He has also taken Russian citizens hostage, isolating them from the rest of the world and irretrievably compromising them. Abysmal is the moral collapse for Russian society. The specter of major repressions reappears. Russian civil society’s “undesirable organizations” are muzzled and “liquidated,” political opponents are imprisoned and humiliated, and “foreign agents” are intimidated and vilified. But voices of conscience still rise, such as the voice of a Russian officer who refused to return to Ukraine and murder innocent people. At his trial, this young man, who had become an orphan at an early age, recalled the model of kindness that his late father represented for him and declared: “my soul is in my own hands.” *** This article is dedicated to Victor Fainberg (1931–2023) who was interned in a Soviet psychiatric prison for 5 and a half years for daring to protest Moscow's occupation of Czechoslovakia and to Vladimir Kara- Murza who has been sentenced to 25 years of harsh penal colony in Russia for denouncing the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine. Dr. Sarah Fainberg serves as Senior Researcher and Head of the Great Powers in the Middle East Research Program at Tel Aviv University’s Elrom Center for Air and Space Studies, where she focuses on Russia and the Eurasian space. She is also a Lecturer in the MA Program for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Previously, she served as Policy and Strategic Issues Advisor to the Israeli Ministry of Defense and a Researcher on Russia at the National Institute for Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. She has just published with LieutenantColonel (res.) Daniel Rakov a comprehensive research report, The Growing Impact of the Civilian Population on the Modern Battlefield: A Glimpse into the Russia-Ukraine War. Dr. Céline Marangé serves as Senior Researcher on Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus at the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM). She is also a permanent consultant for the policyplanning staff (CAPS) of the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, and a member of the citizen reserve of the French Air and Space Force. Her research interests include foreign and defense policy, Russian influence and deterrence, and European and Eurasian security. Among her recent publications are a Chatham House report on “French and German Approaches to Russia” (with Susan Stewart) and an edited issue on the role of religion in Russian foreign policy. The views expressed in this article are the authors’ alone. This article initially appeared in French in Le Rubicon on February 24, 2023. The authors warmly thank Marta Havryshko and Daniel Rakov for their enlightening insights, as well as Julia Grignon, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, and Marlène Laruelle for their constructive comments.


Deadly Illusions: The Ukraine War and Russian Historical Imagination

Igor Torbakov, Uppsala University

The foundations of empire are often occasions of woe; their dismemberment always. Evelyn Waugh

Some commentators have aptly called Russia’s Ukraine war a “war of obsession.” Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be genuinely obsessed with Ukraine. The decision to attack Russia’s neighbor was influenced in large part by his belief in historical fantasies that have long circulated in Russia. This essay seeks to investigate three intertwined sets of problems: What lies at the core of the “Ukrainian question” as seen by the Kremlin? What key elements comprise the Russian leadership’s idiosyncratic vision of the two countries’ entangled history? What historical myths inform the Russian political imagination? The Ukraine war “flows out of history, is conditioned by history and can be explained by history,” as one astute commentator recently put it.1 This observation can be interpreted in two ways that are in fact connected. First, the current war is a tragic aspect of a long-term historical process, namely the disintegration of the Soviet empire. Second, this war is a “history” war—a conflict unleashed by a political leader with an historical imagination strongly influenced by post-imperial trauma. This dual interpretation is at the center of this essay. No serious historian would dispute that the origins of the current war lie in the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Historians also know that empires’ demise has never been pretty. As a rule, it has been a brutal, sanguinary, and often genocidal affair. Suffice it to recall the slow decline and fall of the Ottomans and of the Habsburgs a century ago—a process that ultimately led to global conflict; massive ethnic cleansing; and population exchanges that, in turn, transformed the map of Europe and the Middle East from empires into fledgling nationstates. Thus, many students of history were pleasantly surprised to witness the relatively bloodless breakup of the Soviet Union—the “last empire,” as Robert Conquest famously termed it in the mid-1980s. Two leading historians of the Russian Empire, Roman Szporluk and Andreas Andrei Kolesnikov, “Nauchnyi putinizm: Kak v Rossii oformliaetsia ofitsialnaia ideologiia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 1, 2022, 1


Kappeler, were particularly relieved that Russia and Ukraine, the two largest former-Soviet republics, did not come to blows following the implosion of the multiethnic Soviet state. Kappeler, a professor of history at the University of Vienna, while admitting that “family disputes” between Russia and Ukraine might occur, contended in 2003 that the two countries “hardly run the risk [of] being drawn into bloody conflicts[,] as has been the case with other family quarrels between Serbs and Croats or between Catholic and Protestant Irishmen.”2 Harvard University’s Szporluk, writing in 2006, argued that Soviet disintegration had occurred in such a way as “[made] it possible to prevent a replica of the Serbian-Croat war, with Donbas and especially Crimea as likely battlegrounds in a war between Ukraine and Russia.”3 Now we know that it did not turn out this way; Russia and Ukraine are in the midst of an existential war—the largest military conflict in Europe since 1945. So why did these two veteran historians of Eastern Europe get it wrong? Were they naïve or shortsighted? No. Rather, in making their analyses in the mid-2000s, they proceeded from their understanding of how Moscow policy elites had reimagined Russia in the new post-imperial situation. Wars do not start by themselves. They are unleashed by politicians, who make the decision to go to war. Such a decision can have a variety of drivers, including economic, geopolitical, and ideational ones. Political and historical imagination appears to be a particularly crucial factor. In the first post-Soviet decade (which roughly coincided with Boris Yeltsin’s two presidential terms), many observers came to believe that the new post-communist Russian elites had more or less successfully managed to reimagine the Russian Federation as a new, democratic nation-state distinct from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Indeed, whatever the significance of nationalist stirrings in the Soviet borderland republics in the late 1980s, it was the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic that delivered the coup de grâce to the ailing Soviet Union. Analyzing the significance of the declaration of sovereignty passed by the Russian Republic in 1990, George F. Kennan, a veteran Russia-watcher, noted: In the case of the Russian Republic, the gesture was far more serious. ... For the Russian Republic to assume this position was to pose a mortal threat to the Soviet Union itself. For if the Russian nation were to go ahead and declare its own full independence...what, beyond the name, would be left of the Soviet Union? It would have become an empty shell, without people, without territory, and with no more than a theoretical identity.4 Kennan was absolutely right. As soon as Yeltsin’s Russian Republic decided to withdraw from the Soviet Union and, together with Ukraine and Belarus, gang up on the so-called Union Center, the Gorbachev government was left hanging. Less than three weeks after the three Andreas Kappeler, “‘Great Russians and ‘Little Russians’: Russian-Ukrainian Relations and Perceptions in Historical Perspective,” The Donald W. Treadgold Papers 39 (2003): 46. 3 Roman Szporluk, “Lenin, ‘Great Russia,’ and Ukraine,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 28, no. 1-4 (2006): 620-21. 4 George F. Kennan, “Witness to the Fall,” New York Review of Books, November 16, 1995, 2


East Slavic countries signed, in early December 1991, the Belavezha Agreement declaring the end of the Soviet Union to be a “geopolitical reality,” the Soviet state legally ceased to exist. The “Gorbachev factor”—in particular, the Soviet leader’s political imagination—played a not-insignificant role in the drama of the Soviet imperial state’s collapse. “He was the first Soviet ruler who failed to realise that he was in fact an emperor,” noted a perceptive observer. “Gorbachev lacked the imperial idea as well as the will.”5 There is a view that Russia’s decision to secede from the Soviet Union was driven primarily by Yeltsin’s desire to get rid of Gorbachev and become the sole master of the largest ex-Soviet republic. This is correct. But Yeltsin and other members of Russia’s top leadership also sincerely sought to rethink Russia as a new country that had emerged from the rubble of communist USSR, decoupling it from all previous Russian imperial incarnations and setting it on the road toward “Western civilization.” Anyone who lived in Russia in the early 1990s remembers the popular longing to see Russia emerge as a “normal country”—that is, a prosperous, liberal European nation-state. The “new” Russia’s relations with post-Soviet Ukraine were bumpy from day one. The tensions were generated by disputes over three sets of issues: energy trade, geopolitics, and identity. Moscow was irritated by Kyiv’s cavalier attitude toward its gas bill payments; it was seriously annoyed by Ukraine’s attempts to balance against Russia and build closer ties to “Euro-Atlantic institutions;” and it was deeply concerned by what it perceived to be a sweeping Ukrainization of the country’s language and memory policies. Yet these were tensions between two neighboring East Slavic states that each appeared to respect the other’s sovereignty and distinct identity. These understandings were solidified in two key international documents: the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership. Both documents unequivocally recognized Ukraine’s postSoviet international borders. Whatever outstanding issues there might be between Moscow and Kyiv, it was inconceivable that disputes over them could lead to all-out war. Fast forward to February 2022. The entire world was on tenterhooks watching the Kremlin amassing formidable military force on Ukraine’s borders. “Will Putin go in?” was the question on everyone’s mind. The geopolitical equation facing the Russian leader was as follows. On the one hand, there were considerations pertaining to key aspects of the Russian national interest: the country’s domestic stability and its place in the global order. On the other hand, there was a kind of idée fixe: a desire to control Ukraine’s destiny. As the Russian tanks started rolling across the Ukrainian borders, it became clear that Putin’s obsession with Ukraine trumped any pragmatic understanding of where Russia’s true national interest lies. Since Putin’s reckless gamble put not only Ukraine’s but also Russia’s future in jeopardy, it is important to take a closer look at the nature of his fateful fixation on Ukraine.

John Lloyd, “Will the Empire Ever End?” London Review of Books 16, no. 2 (January 27, 1994), 5


Putin’s Growing Obsession In July 2021, less than a year before the all-out invasion of Ukraine, Putin penned a 6,000-word quasi-scholarly treatise entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” The Russian-language original of this screed was posted (alongside translations into Ukrainian and English) on the Russian President’s official website.6 Putin obviously received some professional assistance in composing this article, but its overall style and wording hint that he made a significant contribution thereto. The main thrust of the essay is both very simple and very menacing: Ukrainians do not have a separate, distinctive identity, as they constitute part of the same whole as Russians; Ukraine is an artificial state set up on lands that historically belonged to Russia; Ukrainians as a people and Ukraine as a nation do not have the right to exist in any shape or form separate from Russia. Putin would repeat these key arguments in all his subsequent programmatic speeches, including his war manifesto of February 21.7 Initial symptoms of this Ukrainian obsession were evident as far back as Putin’s first presidential term, when he told aides that something needed to be done about Ukraine to avoid the prospect of Russia “losing” it.8 The condition worsened in 2004, when the so-called Orange Revolution in Kyiv thwarted Moscow’s attempt to steal a presidential election and impose on Ukraine a regime subservient to Russia. The 2014 Euromaidan Revolution only intensified the Russian ruling elite’s determination to subjugate Ukraine. Following what the Kremlin calls a coup d’état, when amid the bloodshed in downtown Kyiv then-President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital, Putin made his first overtly aggressive move, grabbing Crimea and fomenting insurgency in the Donbas. That was the true beginning of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war. Since then, Ukraine has become for Putin an idée fixe: a “Ukrainian problem” in urgent need of a solution. The sense of urgency has been steadily growing since 2014, as Ukraine’s postYanukovych government significantly intensified the country’s cooperation with both the European Union and NATO. The Kremlin became convinced that if Russia remained passive it would lose a geopolitical competition with the “collective West” over Ukraine. The issues of identity and political imagination contributed strongly to Moscow’s fears. The thing is that, like Russia, the EU also has a “sphere of identity,” but its modus operandi is diametrically opposite to Russia’s. Being a norms- and values-based entity, the EU cultivates an identity that essentially is not territory-bound. This incompatibility of principles makes an EU-Russia accommodation, in terms of delimitating their respective “spheres,” extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible. Whereas Russia’s sphere of identity is limited to the “Russian World” (however broadly defined), for the EU there is potentially no limit, as technically it can expand as far as where its norms and values are accepted and adopted. It

Vladimir Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” July 12, 2021, 7 Vladimir Putin, “Address by the President of the Russian Federation,” February 21, 2022, 6


was perhaps inevitable that Ukraine – which is seen by many in Russia as part of one’s own self -- became the place where Russian and “Euro-Atlantic” principles would clash. Until 2020, Moscow hoped to continue exercising indirect control over Kyiv – a strategy in which the implementation by Ukraine of the so-called Minsk Accords (in the Kremlin’s interpretation of this document) played a crucial role. Once this hope was dashed, resorting to brute force seemed the only option left. Yet the radicalization of Russia’s strategic stance culminating in Putin’s decision to go to all-out war has demonstrated a paradox noted by Dominic Lieven, one of the best historians of imperial Russia: “weakness and expansionism were in any case by no means necessarily at odds with each other.”8 In the Kremlin’s view, the Ukrainian problem consists of three intertwined elements: Ukrainians’ assertion of a national identity distinct from Russia’s; Ukraine’s aspiration to pursue independent foreign and domestic policies; and the desire of most Ukrainians to live in a law-governed state integrated into European institutions. Seen in this light, Ukraine’s independent actions have long been inimical to the Kremlin’s way of doing things. In particular, Ukrainian aspirations challenged Putin’s ambition to re-establish geopolitical hegemony over former Soviet lands and restore Russia as the dominant power pole in Eurasia. The way in which Putin and his entourage have dealt with the challenge of Ukrainian independence over the last two decades shows that the Russian leadership has an idiosyncratic vision of the two countries’ entangled history. This vision is based on four main pillars: 1. An almost mystical attachment to the territory around Kyiv, the area from whence the ancient Rus’ originated; the latter is seen as the cradle of “Russian” history, statehood, religion, and national spirit. 2. A strong sense of Ukraine’s central role in Russia’s historical destiny. It is broadly held that incorporating a substantial chunk of Ukraine into Muscovy in the seventeenth century laid the foundation for the powerful Russian Empire. Conversely, there exists a sense that the “loss” of Ukraine would lead to the demise of “historical Russia.” 3. A belief that most ethnic Russians and Russophones who reside in Ukraine have a strong desire to reunite with Mother Russia. 4. A sense that Ukraine’s independence weakens Russia strategically, as it allows other centers of power (such as the European Union and/or the United States) to increase their influence in a region that Russia considers vital to its own security and its status as a great power. This vision reflects a very peculiar kind of historical imagination—one that differs not only from the Yeltsinian elites’ historical imaginary, but also from the basic set of ideas on which Soviet nationalities policy was based. In many ways, it is a throwback to the late imperial era. Acting in the spirit of a Foucauldian “archaeologist of knowledge,” I aim to demonstrate that

Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 267. 8


Putin’s peculiar historiosophy is informed by several myths and misperceptions fabricated within Russian imperial-nationalist circles some time ago. Of these, four myths stand out.

Myth 1: Historical Russia Since the early 2010s, Putin has repeatedly used the term “historical Russia.”9 This notion appears to be the centerpiece of his “philosophy of history,” which posits the continuous uninterrupted existence of what he calls a “centralized Russian state” since the tenth century.10 Putin appears to be genuinely unable to distinguish between the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet Russian Federation.11 In his view, the country over which he presides is the thousand-year-old “historical Russia”—a timeless polity whose history began in Kyiv on the banks of the Dnieper. One of the amendments to the Russian Constitution introduced in 2020 on the Kremlin’s initiative thus reads as follows: The Russian Federation, united by a thousand-year history, preserving the memory of the ancestors who passed on to us ideals and faith in God, as well as continuity in the development of the Russian state, recognizes the historically established state unity.12 Critics could not fail to notice the tautology of this statement: the Russian Federation, being a product of a thousand-year history, recognizes its own, historically established state unity. From this, apparently, it follows that the founding act that created the Russian Federation as a political and legal entity has no other subject than history. Now it becomes clear why it is so important for the Russian powers-that-be to present themselves as agents of history. The notion of “historical Russia” allows the Kremlin leadership to do three things. First, it enables them to seek to legitimize their rule not only through elections (which are in any case a sham), but also by obtaining a mandate from a “thousand-year historical state.” Second, in Putin’s vision, “historical Russia” is not a regular nation-state, but rather what he prefers to call a “state-civilization.” In an earlier article, Putin contended that various peoples of “historical Russia” once made their choice in favor of a “multi-ethnic civilization held together by the Russian cultural core. And the Russian people confirmed this choice over and over again—throughout its thousand-year history—and [it did it] not at plebiscites and

In his 2012 programmatic article on the “national question,” Putin argued forcefully that Russia is a “historical state” and specified that “historical Russia is neither an ethnic state nor the American ‘melting pot.’” See Vladimir Putin, “Rossiia: natsional’nyi vopros,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 23, 2012, 10 According to Putin, a legendary 10th-century ruler Vladimir (Volodymyr) the Great “laid the foundation for the formation of a single Russian nation, in fact paved the way for building a strong, centralized Russian state.” See Vladimir Putin, “Vystuplenie na torzhestvennom prieme po sluchaiu tysiacheletiia prestavleniia sviatogo ravnoapostol’nogo kniazia Vladimira,” July 28, 2015, Emphasis added. 11 In 2015, Putin contended that “the Soviet Union has traditionally been called Russia, Soviet Russia, and it was indeed the greater Russia.” See Vladimir Putin, “Interview with American TV Channel CBS and PBS,” September 29, 2015, 12 State Duma, “Novy tekst Konstitutsii RF s popravkami 2020,” 9


referendums, but with blood.”13 Third, according to Putin, while the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were true incarnations of “historical Russia,” the contemporary Russian Federation is not. Rather, he views it as an “incomplete” Russia, a rump state left with reduced territory in the wake of the secession of former Soviet republics that were “carved out” of the geo-body of “historical Russia” by the Bolsheviks at the time of the formation of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. An important corollary of this contention is that all post-Soviet states (except Russia), and especially Ukraine, are artificial entities, a kind of historical aberration that needs to be corrected. Putin did not invent the notion of “historical Russia.” Indeed, the trope has been popular among conservative Russian political commentators since at least the 1880s. However, Kremlin ideologues did not borrow this vision directly from nineteenth-century conservative discourse. Instead, the notion went through a series of reinterpretations before finding a prominent place in the Russian leader’s historical outlook. Russian conservative writers of the nineteenth century used the phrase “historical Russia” mainly to highlight the organic nature of Russian statehood, the essence of which, they argued, was autocracy. When the 1917 Revolution brought down the Russian monarchy, counter-revolutionary émigré circles advanced the notion of “historical Russia” as the social and political antipode of the communist Soviet Union. After 1991, a kind of “synthesis” took place: imperial-minded Russian communists, shocked by the Soviet collapse, cast the defunct Soviet Union as a historical successor of the Russian imperial state, thereby restoring the continuity of “historical Russia.” Their reinterpretation of the role played by the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is popularly known in Russia) is key here. During the war, two periods of Russian history (the pre-revolutionary one and the Soviet one), which appeared to be forever sundered from one another by the October Revolution of 1917, became reconnected: Stalin modified early Bolshevik doctrine by mixing it with a hefty dose of the Russian imperial legacy.14 It is in this “synthetic” form that Putin appropriated the notion of “historical Russia” and made it the cornerstone of his political mindset. For Putin, the Soviet implosion was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century (as he famously characterized it in 200515) precisely because it led to the “unnatural” dismemberment of a “thousand-year-old Russian state.”

Myth 2: Unity Paradigm Since 2013, the Kremlin leader has repeatedly argued that Russians and Ukrainians “are one people.”16 Ironically, the roots of this outlook go deep into seventeenth-century Kyiv, where

Putin, “Rossiia: natsional’nyi vopros.” See Andrei Oleinikov, “Otkuda est’ poshla ‘istoricheskaia Rossiia,’” Fond Liberalnaia missiia, October 11, 2021, 15 Vladimir Putin, “Poslanie Federal’nomu Sobraniiu Rossiiskoi Federatsii,” April 25, 2005, 16 “We are one people,” Putin contended in September 2013. “Although nationalists on both sides (and there are nationalists among us and in Ukraine) may be offended by what I have just said, that is the actual fact of the matter. Because we have the same Kyivan baptismal font in the Dnieper; we certainly have common historical roots and common fates; we have a common religion, a common faith; we have 13 14


the learned bookmen from the community of monks at the Monastery of the Caves produced the first major historical work to advance the “unity paradigm.” This work, the Synopsis (1674), was immensely popular in the Russian Empire, being reprinted multiple times until the early nineteenth century. It tells a story of a unified Orthodox Slavic-Russian people and positions the “Ukrainian” territories of the old Kyivan Rus’ (which later came to be known as Little Russia) within a larger pan-Russian context. Why would early modern Ukrainian religious and secular elites come up with such a historical vision? They had an existential reason for doing so. Starting in the late seventeenth century and continuing throughout the eighteenth century, Russia was incorporating huge chunks of what is now contemporary Ukraine into its realm—and emerging as a great European power and empire in the process. Ukrainian elites (both church leaders and Cossack military commanders) were hell-bent on fitting themselves smoothly into Russian imperial power structures. The easiest way to succeed, of course, was to cast themselves as part of a single “Slavic-Russian people.” The Russian imperial bureaucrats were also interested in promoting the “unity paradigm,” as it supported their efforts to forge a “larger Russian nation”—one comprising Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians—in the imperial core. Thus, Russian imperial scholars of the nineteenth century developed the Kyivan monks’ ideas into a Russian grand narrative taught in all educational institutions across the empire until the 1917 Revolution. By the turn of the twentieth century, a curious paradox could be observed. On the one hand, Russian governing elites appeared to be operating on the basis of their deep conviction that the Ukrainians constituted a local “branch” of the single Russian people. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find in archival sources any sign that imperial bureaucrats were seriously concerned either about the “Ukrainians” per se or about the so-called “Ukrainian question.” There were all sorts of important issues on St. Petersburg elites’ agenda: Polish, Jewish, agrarian, etc. The “Ukrainian question” was clearly deemed not to be a high-priority problem.17 On the other hand, however, the Ukrainian national movement had been gaining strength since the turn of the twentieth century, and by the time the First World War broke out, the national stirrings in the Ukrainian lands posed a threat to the existence of the empire. How to explain this paradox? Historians know that one should not underestimate people’s ability to adhere stubbornly to familiar and convenient ideas and concepts, especially in cases where the undermining of these concepts may entail a complete rethinking of the political and social situation. For Russian governing elites, the simple formula according to which Ukrainians and Russians were “parts” of a larger Russian nation, loyal to their Monarch and their Eastern Christian faith, was too convenient and too deeply rooted to be shaken by the evolving realities on the ground. According to this formula, “Russians” made up the majority of the empire; were Ukrainians and Belarusians to have been recognized as non-Russian, a very similar culture, languages, traditions, and mentality.” See Vladimir Putin, “Interv’iu Pervomu kanalu i agentstvu Associated Press,” September 4, 2013, 17 Alexei Miller demonstrated that the imperial bureaucracy’s policies aimed at curtailing the activities of “Ukrainophiles” largely failed not least because of their contradictory and inconsistent nature. See his The Ukrainian Question: The Russian Empire and Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century (Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2003).


Russians would have been a minority in their own empire. Moreover, rejection of this formula would have required wholesale revision of the arguments on which the state’s policy in the empire’s western provinces was based—a region that official sources invariably described as the “historical Russian land.”18 Putin’s embrace of the archaic notion of a “larger Russian nation” that subsumes Ukrainians into a single ethno-political entity with Russians is clearly meant to undermine a distinct Ukrainian identity and question the legitimacy and the very raison d’être of the independent Ukrainian state. His logic and motivation appear to be similar to those that informed the attitude and policies of the late-imperial Russian elites. Incredible as it may seem, Putin has gone one better than the St. Petersburg bureaucrats: by stubbornly insisting on Ukrainians’ and Russians’ oneness in the twenty-first century, he chooses to ignore the crucially important nation-building processes that have taken place in the European part of the former Russian Empire over the past century. And this brings me to the next Kremlin myth.

Myth 3: Lenin Created Ukraine Putin’s third cherished idea is the alleged artificiality of Ukrainian statehood. Meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Bucharest in April 2008, Putin famously told his American counterpart: “Look, George, you should understand that Ukraine is not even a state! What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, and part, and a significant one, was donated by us.”19 He has repeatedly accused the “anti-Russian” Bolsheviks, and Vladimir Lenin specifically, of intentionally “creating” Ukraine, carving its territory out of the lands of “historical Russia.” Again, Putin did not invent this idea; it is an old canard that originated in the Russian conservative and monarchist émigré milieu in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Revolution and the Civil War. The representatives of the Russian right wing bluntly labelled Soviet policies in the former imperial borderlands (and especially in Ukraine) as totally anti-national. Speaking at the Congress of Russia Abroad in Paris in 1926, the monarchist historian Sergei Oldenburg asserted that the Bolsheviks had not reunited the country but rather conquered it as an external force. In his words, they had carried out the “liquidation of Russia” (uprazdnenie Rossii). The country, Oldenburg noted with disgust, had been given the outlandish name of the “USSR” and partitioned into a dozen “states” (shtaty). The “cultivation of petty nationalities” such as the Ukrainians, Oldenburg believed, was carried out with a view to ruining Russian national statehood completely.20 Putin’s historical perspective appears to be nearly identical to Oldenburg’s. Yet it is a gross misinterpretation of what really happened. Ukraine may not have existed as a state prior to See Theodore R. Weeks, “Ukraintsy v predrevoliutsionnoi Rossii: opredeleniia, politika, predstavleniia,” Russkii sbornik 21 (Moscow: Modest Kolerov, 2017), 241-256. 19 “Putin ne schitaet Ukrainu gosudarstvom,” Rosbalt, April 7, 2008, 20 Sergei Oldenburg, “Sushchestvo kommunisticheskoi vlasti,” Vozrozhdenie (Paris), April 6, 1926, 4. 18


the imperial collapse, but Ukrainian national aspirations did. Until the very end of the Russian Empire, there persisted a struggle between two national projects: the Ukrainian nationalist project and the project of a “larger Russian nation” pursued by the imperial bureaucracy. In the early twentieth century, some prominent Russian political thinkers asserted that the Russian Empire should be perceived as a “nation in the making.” Unlike Austria-Hungary, which, they argued, was a “multinational empire,” Russia was a “genuine national empire” with huge potential for cultural assimilation. By 1917, the Russian grand narrative championing the “one and indivisible Russian state” and a “single, indissoluble Russian nation” became so pervasive that the upsurge of Ukrainian nationalism triggered by the First World War and revolutionary upheavals caught the Russian educated public off guard. Their lack of awareness is probably best encapsulated in General Anton Denikin’s wondering question “Where did all those Ukrainians come from?”21 The Bolsheviks, in their quest to re-establish control over the rebellious borderland, jettisoned the concept of the larger Russian nation and recognized Ukrainian identity as the principal one on the territory of the Ukrainian republic, which they established as part of the Soviet socialist “federation.” There is a consensus among historians that “Lenin was ready to offer deals to the nationalities that no other Russian politicians were prepared to do.”22 Yet the establishment of Soviet Ukraine was not the result of Lenin’s “Russophobic” policy. Rather, as the historian Ivan L. Rudnytsky noted, the new state was “the embodiment of a compromise between Ukrainian nationalism and Russian [Soviet] centralism.”23 It was a pragmatic step taken in the name of preserving power. The following 70 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union saw a tremendously complex and contradictory process of shaping national identities in Ukraine—one that involved an intricate interplay between Moscow top party apparatchiks, Kyivan bureaucrats, leaders of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, and local audiences.24 After 1991, independent Ukraine would double down on nation-building, just as any post-imperial nationalizing state would do. And yet it appears that Putin is as genuinely incredulous as General Denikin was back in 1917 that there are so many Ukrainians out there.

Denikin, quoted in Olga Andriewsky, “The Russian-Ukrainian Discourse and the Failure of the ‘Little Russian Solution,’ 1782–1917,” in Culture, Nation, and Identity: The Ukrainian-Russian Encounter, 1600– 1945, ed. Andreas Kappeler et al. (Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 2003), 214. 22 Szporluk, “Lenin, ‘Great Russia,’ and Ukraine,” 618. 23 Ivan L. Rudnytsky, Essays in Modern Ukrainian History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 464. 24 See Serhy Yekelchyk, Stalin’s Empire of Memory: Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Soviet Historical Imagination (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004). 21


Myth 4: The Russian World Historians have long noted the extraordinary longevity of empires. Charles Tilly famously characterized them as “hardy beasts,”25 while Imanuel Geiss astutely commented that even when empires died, this was often “not for good.” “Most,” Geiss added, “staged their comeback in whatever guise was appropriate for the times.”26 Russia is a case in point. As an imperial polity, it lived through several acute crises and metamorphosed over the course of the twentieth century. The Russian Empire collapsed in 1917 amid political and economic upheaval caused by the First World War. Following their victory in the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks reconstituted it in 1922 in the form of the communist Soviet Union, which in turn collapsed in 1991. In the latter case, Russia may have dumped its empire voluntarily (as the official narrative would have it), but what followed this “act of liberation” was quite unusual indeed. Unlike some other former imperial polities, this “rump Russia” did not immediately exit the international arena, nor did it reinvent itself as a “regular” national state with more modest geopolitical ambitions. Instead, since the early 1990s, Moscow has been tenaciously seeking a leadership role in postSoviet Eurasia. Russia’s desire for the dominant position within the vast expanses of what its elites have historically perceived as Pax Rossica is intimately connected with the country’s selfunderstanding. Moscow’s geopolitical dominance over much of the post-Soviet Eurasian landmass, perceived as a distinctive “civilization space,” appears to constitute a key element of Russia’s claim to great-power status. According to the Kremlin’s geopolitical outlook, Russia can only successfully compete with the United States, China, and the European Union if it acts as the leader of a regional bloc. Bringing Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbors into a closely integrated community of states, Russian strategists have contended, would allow this Eurasian association to become one of the major centers of global and regional governance. Russia’s policy on Ukraine has been an inalienable part of its overall “Eurasian” strategy. However, Ukraine’s place in Russians’ political imagination was (and remains) unique. Here, the imperial and the national are intimately intertwined. The Romanov Empire did not distinguish between “Ukraine” and “Russia”—nor, for that matter, did it recognize other ethnic territorial units. In a broad political sense, the entire vast multiethnic imperial polity was “Russia,” ruled autocratically by the “Russian” Romanov dynasty. Besides being used as a broad definition of empire, the word “Russian” was, from the 1850s, also used as a fuzzy politonym-cum-ethnonym in a narrower sense: the “larger Russian nation” was imagined as comprising three Eastern Slavic peoples, namely Russians (Great Russians), Ukrainians (Little Russians), and Belarusians. The territory of contemporary Ukraine was widely perceived as an important part of Russia’s national core. Ukraine’s secession, noted the prominent Russian political thinker Petr Struve in the early 1910s, would cause “a gigantic and unprecedented

Charles Tilly, “How Empires End,” in After Empire. Multiethnic Societies and Nation-Building. The Soviet Union and the Russian, Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, ed. Karen Barkey and Mark von Hagen (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 2. 26 Emanuel Geiss, “Great Powers and Empires: Historical Mechanisms of Their Making and Breaking,” in The Fall of Great Powers: Peace, Stability, and Legitimacy, ed. Geir Lundestad (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 24–25. 25


schism of the Russian nation, which, such is my deepest conviction, will result in veritable disaster for the state and for the people.”27 The Bolsheviks appeared to recognize Ukraine’s distinct identity; the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of the key founders of the Soviet communist “federation.” Yet the disintegration of the Soviet Union has brought old ambiguities back to the fore. Since the early 1990s, representatives of the various strands of Russian nationalism have started advancing their reconceptualization of “Russia.” The latter has been conceived variously as a community of ethnic Russians, a community of Eastern Slavic peoples, a community of Russian speakers, or a religious community of Orthodox believers under the Moscow Patriarchate. These four overlapping communities are united in the vague notion of Russkii mir (Russian world), which became part of the Kremlin’s political imagination (and ideological toolkit) in the mid-2000s. Imprecisely defined and broadly interpreted, the Russkii mir concept helped Russia’s governing elites pursue policies of their choice while perpetuating the ambiguity of their approaches to nation-building and extracting maximum benefit from this ambiguity. At its core, however, this concept represents an amalgam of strong imperial and ethnic nationalist connotations and is ultimately designed to redefine the established state borders. It asserts that the present-day Russian Federation’s “political body” and Russia’s “cultural body” do not coincide. Such a perspective, coupled with Putin’s embrace of the “unity paradigm”—his contention that the Russians and the Ukrainians are one people—seriously undermines Ukraine’s political subjectivity and sovereignty. It portrays Ukraine, formally an independent state, as an inalienable part of the imagined “historical Russia,” thus keeping it within the Russian Federation’s sphere of influence. So long as Moscow managed to keep Kyiv within its orbit— and the West at bay—by manipulating identity as a soft-power tool, it largely remained a status quo power and a quasi-imperial polity preferring indirect control. When the Kremlin leadership sensed that Ukraine was about to “defect” to the West in 2014, however, Russia turned revisionist and irredentist. It embarked on what might be called the “Russian Reconquista,” seizing Crimea and attacking Ukraine’s eastern provinces. The “pan-Russian” idea was deployed with a vengeance. But this was the beginning of the end of Russia’s “imperial” ambition in the post-Soviet space. Moscow’s full-scale war on Ukraine has driven the last nail into the coffin of the Russian-led Eurasian “civilization bloc.” Putin’s “special military operation” appears to have been a last-ditch effort to restore Moscow’s full control over Ukraine by toppling the Zelensky government and installing a new, loyal leadership in Kyiv. As this plan failed, the Kremlin was forced to reformulate its war aims, focusing instead on reconquering “historic Russian lands” allegedly “gifted” to Ukraine by Lenin. These lands, some leading Russian commentators suggest, might include not only the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but also a much broader swath of Ukraine’s southeast stretching from Odesa to Kharkiv.28

Petr B. Struve, “Obshcherusskaia kul’tura i ukrainskii partikuliarizm: Otvet Ukraintsu,” Russkaia mysl’ no. 1 (1912), 85. 28 Sergei Karaganov, “Se perdessimo, la Russia rischierebbe di spaccarsi,” Limes: Rivista italiana di geopolitica, no. 5 (2022), 143-48; Dmitry Trenin, “Spetsial’naia voennaia operatsiia na Ukraine kak 27


Yet having shifted its objective from regime change in Kyiv to reclaiming lost parts of “national patrimony” and returning “kith and kin” to Mother Russia’s fold, the Kremlin seems to no longer be interested in quasi-imperial “integrationist projects.” Rather, Moscow’s goal is now to reformat the post-Soviet space and to build a strong and viable Russian national state. Such an endeavor has long been supported by several influential Russian thinkers, from Struve to Ivan Il’in to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The last two are particularly popular with the Kremlin leadership these days. In his voluminous political commentary from the early 1950s, Il’in prophesied that, after the inevitable fall of Communism, Russia’s future could only be as a “national Russia.”29 Solzhenitsyn painted a very similar picture in his 1990 pamphlet “Rebuilding Russia,” resolutely denouncing Russia’s “imperial syndrome,” calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to immediately shed the “culturally alien” borderlands in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, and suggesting focus be placed on building what he termed the “Russian Union.” According to Solzhenitsyn, however, this Union would have to comprise all Eastern Slavic countries (including Ukraine and Belarus), as well as huge chunks of “Russian” Southern Siberia and the Southern Urals (now part of Kazakhstan). In his understanding, the southern territories of Ukraine, Crimea, and Donbas are quintessentially “Russian.”30 One cannot fail to see striking similarities between Solzhenitsyn’s ideas and Putin’s new strategic blueprint. The collapse of the Soviet Empire has turned out to be a protracted process. Indeed, it has continued in the form of war on Ukraine. However, no specter of a new Russian Empire is in sight: what we are now witnessing is the emergence, amid abominable atrocities and bloodshed, of an aggressive and nationalistic Russian state that will likely prove no less of a threat to global security than its imperial predecessor.

“Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” Steeped in Russian imperial historiography, the Kremlin leader conceives of “nation” as something primordial, timeless, and immutable—a community based on the idea of Blut und Boden (blood and soil) and welded together by the “unity of fate.” In all of his recent articles and speeches asserting the sameness of Russians and Ukrainians, Putin has invoked the two Slavic peoples’ ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural affinity. Long-standing historical ties are always front and center. His mammoth “unity” article’s concluding paragraph reads: [Ukrainians and Russians’] spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood

perelomnaia tochka vneshnei politiki sovremennoi Rossii,” Rossiia v global’noi politike, November 30, 2022, 29 Ivan Il’in, “O russkom natsionalizme,” in Ivan Il’in, Sobranie sochinenii, 10 vols. (Moscow: Russkaia kniga, 1993) 2.1: 366. Emphasis added. 30 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Kak nam obustroit’ Rossiiu?” Komsomol’skaia pravda, September 18, 1990.


ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.31 Contrary to this outdated vision, a nation is a fluid and malleable phenomenon. It is only the people themselves who have the right to decide who they are and to which nation they belong. Notably, a powerful counterargument questioning the validity of viewing the RussoUkrainian problem as a historical problem par excellence first emerged within the Russian intellectual tradition almost a hundred years ago. In 1930, the brilliant Russian émigré historian Petr Bitsilli, at that time a professor at Sofia University in Bulgaria, published in Prague (one of the main centers of Russian interwar emigration) a strikingly innovative essay entitled “The Problem of Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Light of History.”32 It is quite common, Bitsilli noted, for both Russians and Ukrainians to discuss their relations exclusively in historical terms. Such debates, he said, could be beneficial for historiography but provide no valid arguments illuminating contemporary political problems. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply misunderstands the essence of the historical process. The present moment is also “history,” argued Bitsilli; it is part of the historical process. Precisely because history is in a constant state of renewal, of moving forward, because it is irreversible, so-called historical arguments—that is, those referring to facts and events of the historical past as such—do not (and cannot) have any merit or significance when applied to the historical present or the historical future. Do Russians and Ukrainians constitute “one people” (as Putin would have it) because of the proximity of their languages and cultures? To Bitsilli, these are secondary factors. Ethnic, cultural, and linguistic similarities, as well as close historical ties, he argued, create conditions for “unity” but are not proof of it. A sense of closeness between nations is a psychological fact and a matter of perception: you either experience it or it does not exist. Bitsilli was a liberal thinker steeped in imperial Russian high culture. He was not supportive of Ukrainian political independence or even of Ukrainians’ ambitions to develop their own national high culture. He thought that the policy of Ukrainization pursued in Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s was redundant because Russian world-class culture was easily accessible to all Ukrainians and could satisfy all their intellectual needs. In this respect, he was a man of his time. However, he was far ahead of his time as a theorist of nations and nationalism. Historical arguments to the effect that Ukraine as a state entity or Ukrainians as a nation did not exist in the past are beside the point, he contended. If there are the political will and social resources to create a distinct Ukrainian nation, separate from the Russians, this can be done. This conclusion makes Bitsilli a true precursor of the likes of Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, and other social constructivists. Yet these ideas are completely alien to Putin. He appears to genuinely believe that the people who lived in the Dnieper valley in the tenth century and called themselves Rus’ are in fact “Russians” and that all subsequent splits and divisions within this ancient ethno-political community are “unnatural,” as they have largely been caused by external forces inimical to “Russian” national interests.

31 32

Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Petr M. Bitsilli, Problema russko-ukrainskikh otnoshenii v svete istorii (Prague: Edinstvo, 1930).


It is here that we find the major divide between Moscow’s and Kyiv’s understandings of what nation is. The Kremlin’s “national project” is hopelessly stuck in the past; a conservative dictatorship does not have much to say about the future. Thus is Putin so obsessed with oldfashioned ethno-cultural parameters of “national unity,” such as ethnic origins, language, religion, and shared history. By contrast, some more advanced Ukrainian thinkers and politicians are fully aware that their national project is a product of modernity. Only rather flimsy justifications for independent Ukrainian statehood are to be found in the distant past. Thus, the best way to proceed was to develop Ukraine’s political and national identity with an eye to the future rather than by looking to “history.” Once the future-oriented Ukraine turned its back on the “unity of fate” propagated by “history”-oriented Moscow and opted for the “unity of values” advertised by the European Union, the two Slavic neighbors found themselves on a collision course.

Conclusion Until the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, analysts were not sure what to make of Putin’s outlandish historical views. The majority of pundits held that the Kremlin was a rational actor; it was pursuing a pragmatic policy based on critical analysis of the current situation, using historical narrative to justify certain political moves. In other words, history was instrumentalized for political ends but was peripheral to the decisionmaking process. Yet some commentators—if a clear minority—suggested that the situation was in fact the other way around: the Kremlin leadership was pursuing policies based on its idiosyncratic historical vision, which, they argued, was a recipe for disaster. Putin’s Ukraine war proved them right. Putin’s historical views—and political decisions based thereon—stem from ressentiment caused by the Soviet Union’s defeat in the Cold War and its subsequent collapse. The disintegration of “historical Russia” is seen as an “unnatural” development and calls for restoration and revanche. At the heart of the Kremlin’s wounded feelings is the metaphor of the “divided Russian people”: Ukraine—and Kyiv, the “mother of Russian cities”—is perceived as a huge symbolic loss that needs to be regained at any cost.33 The consequences of Putin’s disastrous decision to act on his historical illusions are already evident. Every single objective he supposedly wanted to achieve in Ukraine is now completely out of reach. Instead of weakening people’s sense of Ukrainianness, Putin’s military invasion has given a tremendous boost to Ukrainian national identity. Instead of bringing about Ukrainians’ “reunification” with Russians, the Ukrainian nation is waging a nationwide patriotic war to repel the Russian invaders and occupiers. Instead of having amicable relations with a friendly neighbor, Moscow now must contend with 40 million heavily armed Ukrainians on its doorstep who are primed to hate all things Russian. Instead of bringing Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has recently reminded Ukrainians of several “irrefutable [historical] facts: 1) Kyiv is the capital of Ancient Rus’. 2) Kyiv is a large Little Russian city within the Russian Empire. 3) Kyiv is a republican capital within the USSR. And finally, Kyiv is simply a Russian city where people always spoke and thought in Russian. This is to make absolutely clear what needs to be regained.” See Medvedev’s Telegram, November 20, 2022, 33


Ukraine into Russia’s orbit, Putin has accelerated Ukraine’s integration into the European Union. His invasion has even turned Russia into a global economic pariah. For the likes of Hegel, this paradoxical outcome would be a classic example of the “cunning of history.” He postulated that “history fulfills its ulterior rational designs in an indirect and sly manner. It does so by calling into play the irrational element in human nature, the passions.”34 Contemporary historians skeptical of the workings of Hegel’s World Spirit might blame Putin’s delusional thinking for the unfolding tragedy.

Robert C. Tucker, “The Cunning of Reason in Hegel and Marx,” Review of Politics 18, no. 3 (1956): 269. 34


“Do Russians Want War?”: Exploring the Landscape of AntiWar Resistance in Russia

Irina Meyer-Olimpieva, Research Professor, GW

One of the most painful surprises in the Russia-Ukraine War is what seems to be a wide support the military aggression has received from the Russian population. According to a Levada Center survey, in March 2022, more than 50% of the population definitively supported the actions of Russian troops in Ukraine, and this number has since slightly fluctuated up and down. Another shocking surprise has been the lack of any large-scale anti-war protests. The first wave of protests swept through Russian cities immediately following February 24. They were well-attended, but not massive, and were quickly suppressed by security forces. A second wave of protests followed the announcement of the partial mobilization on September 21. However, these protests look rather unconvincing given the overall size of the Russian population. But there is more to see here that the lack of classic protests. In this paper I explore the many faces of protests in Russia, including the importance of silent protests and symbolic actions that citizens take to resist an increasingly authoritarian environment.

Why No Mass Anti-War Protests in Russia? Organized protests as a democratic tool for channeling civil discontent is scarcely possible in today’s Russia for a number of reasons. • •

Civil-society and political opposition organizations that have been called on to lead such protests have been crushed and opposition leaders are in prison or in exile. The situation is aggravated by the lack of successful, organized mass protest experience in post-Soviet Russia. Recent mass demonstrations against raising the retirement age, as well as the long-haul trucker protest that swept across the nation in 2016-2017, proved fruitless. The lack of faith in the effectiveness of protesting has been reinforced by the experience of neighboring countries, in particular Belarus, where the massive protests of 2020 against presidential election fraud ended in a brutal crackdown on protesters, but did not spur political change. Since the outbreak of the full-scale war, repressive measures against participating in unsanctioned demonstrations have become much more stringent. New laws concerning propaganda and defaming the Russian army criminalize even the use of the word “war,” let alone open protest. Security forces have been given carte blanche to use physical violence against demonstrators, which only reinforces doubts about participating in the protests, especially among women. The cleansing of the media and elimination of any free press capable of relaying information about the protests to a wider audience diminishes the visibility of street protests. When considering whether or not to participate in demonstrations, people


realize that despite the high risk associated with taking to the streets, their appeals against the war will likely go unheard. In the absence of democratic institutions capable of responding to public protests and a free press to cover them, the open protest format loses all meaning as a Weberian “means-end rational action”. The image of anti-war street protest in Russia becomes a single picketer expressing their own system of values, significant primarily for the person protesting. Refusing to take to the streets, however, is not tantamount to approval of the war. Street protests are not the only way of expressing opposition to military hostilities.

The Many Forms of Open Protest Publicly taking an anti-war stance Immediately following the start of the war, many well-known cultural figures openly spoke out against Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine. Among them were popular TV presenters Maxim Galkin and Ivan Urgant, singers Yuri Shevchuk, Valery Meladze, Manizha, Alla Pugacheva, famous writers and theater personalities Boris Akunin, Liya Akhedzhakova, Oleg Basilashvili—the list goes on. All of them have been punished in one way or another for their anti-war stance. They have been deprived of titles and awards (Galkin), fired from their jobs and subjected to persecution despite many years of merits and an excellent professional reputation (Akhedzhakova), their performances have been canceled (Urgant), their names have been crossed out from posters (Akunin). Many were forced to emigrate. Although the names of these celebrities who disagree with the war are on everyone's lips, there are many less well-known, ordinary figures in science and pop-culture who have been fired for openly expressing anti-war statements in various formats, including in social media posts. The independent publication Paper has launched a project on its website telling their stories.

Professional anti-war solidarity Members of many professional groups have signed open anti-war letters: doctors (6,200 signatures), IT specialists (14,500), teachers (4,000), students, scientists (in a statement made by young scientists, ethnographers and anthropologists, economists, etc.), representatives of charitable foundations (more than 500), architects, animators, comedians, game developers and others. Professional anti-war solidarity often arises as a response to the pro-military position of organizations and the official position of professional associations (take the open letter written by scientists as an alternative opinion to the Russian Union of Rectors’ statement in support of the war). One illustrative example is the trade union Uchitel’ (Teacher), considered an “alternative” or “free” Russian trade union that actively protects the rights of its members. After the outbreak of the war, the leaders of the union could not reach a consensus regarding the publication of an openly anti-war statement. At the same time, individual members of the board drafted an open letter against the war, which was eventually signed by more than 4,000 teachers—far more than the number of union members. 38

There are also cases of people taking openly anti-war stances in the religious sphere. Although the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, headed by Patriarch Kirill, is actively pro-war, individual clergy members have signed an open appeal calling for an end to the war (293 signatures). For some time after the war began, practically the only public space for openly expressing protest was during protest concerts. Unsurprisingly, these could not stay off the radar of law enforcement agencies for long. According to independent media sources, heads of concert venues received a blacklist of undesirable musicians and musical groups, which included about 30 popular performers and groups that authorities advised against allowing to perform in Russia. In addition to being deprived of concert venues, protest musicians are also being stigmatized and classified as “foreign agents.” Along with stage veteran Andrey Makarevich (Mashina vremeni), the list includes popular modern rappers Oxxxymiron, FACE, Morgenshtern, Noize MC, and most recently, Boris Grebenshchikov.

Protests in the Information Sphere A significant amount of the opposition expressed in the media comes from well-known independent sources such as Echo of Moscow, TV Rain, Novaya gazeta, Meduza, Mediazona, Doxa and others, which, despite the stigma of being "foreign agents,” continue to broadcast to the Russian audience. Some have been forced to move abroad, but many have managed to continue broadcasting from Russia. In addition to these popular independent media sources, after the start of the war, new media projects began to spring up in the information sphere. Take, for example, the socio-political publication Verstka, which appeared “as a quick response to the destruction of the Russian media” (the publication currently has 67,000 subscribers on Telegram), as well as Holod Magazine. There are also political media projects, such as the anti-war telegram channel Siren, the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s YouTube channel Popular Politics, and many others. Since the outbreak of the war, the surviving independent media and online discussion platforms are now redirecting their attention to issues related to the war. For example, the independent publication Paper, which is primarily aimed at its St. Petersburg audience and was founded before the start of the war, now regularly covers military and anti-war resistance stories. Another example is the Political Space discussion platform, created in 2018 as a network of independent youth-led projects, or the independent media source Holod, created in 2019, which, with the outbreak of the war, refocused on covering anti-war resistance. Another type of protest media is publications that are less visible, but still very popular among their target audience, such as the student newspaper Groza, which has been recognized as a foreign agent. Like many student initiatives, Groza began as a magazine about student life in the city of Kazan and as an alternative to "official" student magazines. With the beginning of the war, the focus of the publication began shifting more and more to cover problems associated with the war and the consequences for students. In addition to Kazan, the newspaper is now published in Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg.


Like any other war, the information war has seen acts of sabotage. On March 14, 2022, the world media spread information about the TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, who appeared live on the program Vremya aired on Channel One with a poster reading “You are being lied to!”. Since the start of the war, information has periodically circulated about journalists who left central TV channels and began revealing the mechanisms behind the proKremlin media.

Covert Resistance In addition to open protest, the anti-war landscape includes numerous demonstrations of covert resistance, which are less visible, but clearly dominate the anti-war space in terms of the variety of formats and the number of participants.

The guerrilla movement Immediately after war broke out, independent media reported on radical guerrilla demonstrations aimed at damaging the Russian military machine. The most famous among them was the railroad resistance, which creates obstacles for trains carrying military equipment to the Ukrainian front. According to the Russian politician in exile Ilya Ponomarev, who cites data from the National Republican Army and Rospartizan, there have been at least five guerrilla networks operating in Russia since the beginning of the war, which are represented mainly by young people holding ultra-left and ultra-right views. According to one such group of anarchists, since the beginning of the war, they have carried out about 800 successful protests on the railways. According to another guerrilla network, Stop the Wagons, during the first six months of the war, railway resistance demonstrations covered 85% of the territory of Russia, with more than 50 organized guerrilla groups conducting over 300 acts of sabotage. Another manifestation of the radical anti-war demonstrations were the arson attacks on the military enlistment offices that began immediately after February 24th and became more frequent after the partial mobilization was announced.

“Silent Protests” For all the intensity of the guerrilla demonstrations, the number of participants was not nearly as large compared to the less visible, covert protests of the grassroots resistance, which is more often called the “silent resistance.” The term is borrowed from the anthropologist James Scott1 to describe grassroots resistance in non-democratic societies. In contrast to open protest, silent resistance represents the evasion and avoidance of government-imposed rules, the covert sabotage of new legislation, and a variety of indirect ways of expressing disagreement with government policies.

James C. Scott (1985) Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press 1


Without purporting to be an exhaustive review, we will try to present the diverse spectrum of manifestations of the "silent anti-war protest" in Russia.

Antipropaganda Antipropaganda “guerrilla warfare” is the mission of international project Antipropaganda, whose members post real information about the military operations and losses on popular Russian social media sites (VKontakte and Odnoklassniki). Other examples include "Roslistovka: The Good Machine of Truth,” which distributes leaflets to Russian mailboxes, and the Feminist Anti-War Resistance’s project “Media Partisans: Metro Against War,” which passes out leaflets in the subway. Protest Russia (an information channel for citizens with a keen sense of justice) and the Black February information project, which tells the stories of Russians convicted on anti-war charges, are just a few examples of the numerous anti-war information channels that continue to pop up like mushrooms on Telegram, uniting hundreds, thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands of like-minded subscribers. The bright example of anti-propaganda protest is the case of Sasha Skochilenko, widely reported on by independent media sources, who was convicted for replacing price tags in supermarkets with stylized anti-war leaflets containing real statistics about the war. Another example of the use of price tags to spread anti-war information is the “pre-war prices” campaign, where price tags indicated the pre-war cost of a product, thereby demonstrating the economic consequences of the war for ordinary Russians. Anti-propaganda campaigns also take the form of sabotage and willful ignorance of new propagandistic changes in the sphere of education. School teachers are refusing to conduct mandatory lessons in the new course “Conversations on important issues,” aimed at telling children the “truth” about the special operation. Teachers are replacing recommended lesson topics with stories about the war in Iraq and Syria, and other international conflicts, suggesting that “based on this information, [students will] draw their own conclusions about Russia’s role in the special military operation.” Teachers are creating chat groups and mailing lists on social networks, where they exchange potential topics and materials for these lessons.2 Ambitious parents are protesting against the militarization of grade-school education. Chat groups on VKontakte are calling to repeal the decision to return patriotic military training lessons to the school curriculum. They are echoed by the Alliance of Teachers Union and the women's community Soft Power, which called for a boycott of the “Conversations on important issues”. In response to the war propaganda in grade schools and preschools, Soft Power activists launched an alternative program for children, where they record Tales for Peace, which actually do teach children about important issues.


from an interview with a member of the Uchitel trade union


Art Protests While the physical territory of Russian cities is essentially off-limits for mass protests, it continues to function as a platform for various kinds of guerrilla art demonstrations. Starting in the very first days of the war, numerous anti-war symbols and messages have cropped up in many cities. Scratched in, pasted on, and applied with stencils, they’re found everywhere—on houses, on poles, on the backs of buses, including many full-scale, professionally executed graffiti. The undisputed leaders of these art protests are the Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR) and the “Vesna” Youth Democratic Movement. Deprived of the opportunity to organize open protests, activists use their creativity to create anti-war art pieces and to organize flash mobs. One of the FAR’ most famous art demonstrations is the installation of 930 cross memorials in city courtyards with information about the dead Ukrainians as a reminder that people in Mariupol had to bury their dead in courtyards. Artists who do not have the opportunity to publicly display their work inspired by the war are organizing private anti-war art exhibitions in their apartments for their own social circles. Information about these shows is informally circulated among friends and like-minded people. Despite the physical fragility of these art objects, they continue to live on virtually as photos of them spread across social media.

Avoiding the Draft Avoiding the draft has become the most massive form and best illustration of the silent antiwar resistance, even if some of these émigrés may have been favorable to the war but against their own conscription. According to various sources, more than 700,000 young people left Russia after September 21 in order to avoid taking part in hostilities against Ukraine. Separate public initiatives to help young people avoid the draft appeared immediately after the start of the war, but once the partial mobilization was announced, assistance to potential recruits became widespread. Numerous groups, networks, and communities have emerged on Telegram and offline to provide recruits and conscripts with a variety of assistance, from legal advice to transportation abroad. The demand for legal information on recruitment, mobilization and the rights of military personnel has increased rapidly. In addition to the OVD Info and Agora, which provide various types of professional legal assistance, many human rights initiatives have emerged that advise young people and their parents on the rights of conscripted soldiers. Examples include the Conscientious Objectors Movement, which provides legal advice to conscripts who do not want to serve in the army or be sent to fight in Ukraine, or the Call to Conscience, a coalition of lawyers and human rights activists advocating conscientious objection. Assistance in avoiding the draft takes many forms, for example, assistance in obtaining fictitious medical certificates of incompetence or leaving the country. Groups of volunteers


are organizing transportation and providing assistance at border crossing points for those emigrating to Kazakhstan and the Caucasus. Military conscripts are being sheltered for the duration of the draft by informal networks of mothers who send their sons to live with friends or remove them from the areas in which they are registered and take them to remote locations where they cannot be reached by summons from the military registration and enlistment offices. These women's groups are based solely on informal connections and are not tied to formal organizations. There have also been incidents of individual sabotage conducted by people within the mobilization forces themselves. Those who serve the summons are sabotaging the process, claiming there was no one home (“I went up to the front entrance, stood outside the door, then left and said that no one was home”).33 Some business owners are refusing to hand draft

summons over to their employees and sending young people on sick leave until the end of the draft.

Humanitarian Protest: Aid to Refugees as Anti-War Resistance With no outlet through anti-war demonstrations or rallies, the anger and shock that many Russians experienced on February 24 has become a trigger for various forms of constructive grassroots activism, which, although they don’t include direct calls to end the war, serve as a way to express protest against it. The most visible and large-scale example of humanitarian resistance is the provision of aid to refugees from Ukraine. Interviews with volunteers from St. Petersburg and Moscow who are helping Ukrainian refugees leave Russia for Europe show that the opportunity to help Ukrainians has become their “salvation,” “an escape from the cognitive dead end,” “a resolution for the state of shock” in which they found themselves after the outbreak of the war. While humanitarian in form, aid to refugees often has a deep anti-war motivation. Although well-known civil organizations, such as the one established by Dr. Lisa or the Civic Initiative (recognized as a foreign agent) continue to offer aid to refugees, numerous networks of volunteers have emerged and are growing at an unusually fast pace. For example, between April and July 2022, the number of members in a Telegram chat for helping refugees in St. Petersburg went from 100 people to more than 10,000. This explosive growth is typical for similar chat rooms in other Russian cities, such as Moscow. Today, communities of volunteers helping Ukrainians can be found in all areas with temporary accommodation centers for refugees, although, of course, we cannot claim that all volunteers are driven solely by antiwar sentiment.

Providing Other Types of Assistance Another form of opposition is assistance for those who have been repressed for expressing their anti-war stance. This includes providing both legal and financial aid for those arrested at protests. In addition to well-known human rights organizations such as OVD Info and 3

from interview with a volunteer helping Ukrainian refuges


Agora, which exist in large part due to charitable donations, various grassroots fundraising initiatives have been founded during the war, such as RosShtraf, created to help pay fines for politically motivated legal charges, including expressing an anti-war stance and participating in protests, or Antifond, created to support people who have suffered professionally for their anti-war position.

Ethnic Protests Ethnic protests have emerged as the result of the mobilization of ethnic groups who oppose the ethnic discrimination that has intensified since the beginning of the war. Among the list of casualties is a disproportionate number of people drafted from North Ossetia, Buryatia, Tuva, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chukotka. One particularly notable actor in these ethnic protests is the Buryats Against War Foundation, which was created by a small international group of Buryats to express their disagreement with the war, but under the influence of grassroots initiatives, quickly turned into a public organization of experts helping conscripted Buryats fight for their rights.

Women’s Protests There are two main branches of women’s protests—those led by feminists and those led by mothers. The Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR), a horizontal movement launched by activists on February 25, 2022, which loudly declared its position from the very first days of the war with art protests and other guerrilla activist projects, is perhaps the most visible player in the anti-war protest landscape today, as well as the one most covered by the media, thanks to its provocative art installations. Today the FAR community is said to unite 38,000 members throughout the country. They call on feminists around the world to unite against the war and regularly engage in various methods of protest. The anti-war movement is also very active in Tuva, which is the leader among the Russian regions in number of deaths of Tuvans per 100,000. Following the announcement of the partial mobilization, mass anti-war rallies were held in the republics of the North Caucasus. A less visible, but clearly more massive part of women's resistance is made up of numerous social movements and associations of mothers, which deserve a separate category. Among them are: •

Women's human rights organizations that provide legal assistance to conscripts. Many existed long before the war, have many years of experience and have become more active following the outbreak of hostilities, especially after the announcement of the partial mobilization. Examples are the "Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg", the "Committee of Soldiers' Mothers,” founded in 1989. Communities and movements that emerged with the outbreak of the war in order to unite efforts to protect children, visit the areas where hostilities are ongoing, collect information about the dead and missing, organize assistance to those drafted who do not want to participate in the war, organize protests, and spread truthful information about the war and number of casualties. "The Union of Mothers,” a social movement led by mothers of conscripted soldiers in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, was created on February 24, 2022. The "Council of Mothers and Wives," an organization created in 44

anticipation of Putin’s meeting the mothers of servicemen, have demanded their own meeting with Putin. Political women's associations that emphasize the role of women in politics. An example is the women's political movement "Soft Power,” founded by Yulia Galyamina two days before the start of the war, which promotes the ideas of “soft change, women's leadership and putting a female face on politics.” So far, this is the only example of such an organization, but the political trend may continue to grow. Numerous informal local groups and associations of mothers who have united their efforts to protect their sons from the draft, shelter conscripts and help their sons flee.

The composition of these volunteer movements is always heavily dominated by women. This is also true of the communities of volunteers helping refugees, which became especially noticeable after September 21, 2022, when many male volunteers left the country.

Economic Protests Economic protests may include a (covert) refusal to economically support the state and promilitary policies, a refusal to work in organizations that openly declare a pro-military position, or the use of legal leverage on organizations that actively support the special operation. In interviews we conducted with business owners, many discussed closing their businesses due to their unwillingness to pay taxes to the state, which are likely to be used for military purposes. The same logic was cited as a motive for refusing to participate in the protests—a reluctance to pay fines that would certainly go to finance the war. Another form of economic protest is voluntary dismissal from organizations that openly declared support for the war. The previously mentioned list of people fired for expressing an anti-war stance published by Paper contains many scientists and cultural figures who decided to quit their jobs in protest of the pro-war position held by the leaders of their organization. Forms of economic sabotage similar to the “Italian strike”4 are being proposed by left-wing groups. The political group Socialist Alternative is implementing the Anti-War Sick Leave project, which encourages workers in key industry sectors to take sick leave en masse, or to sabotage work without violating established rules (“work badly, work slowly”). Another example of a protest involving legal economic activity is the “City Without Z” initiative. Participants are invited to collect reports of conduct violations committed by organizations that hang posters with the letter Z (a Russian military symbol) on their buildings. These reports may include any violations observed in the company’s operations, from environmental to labor laws. They subsequently write appeals and complaints to the relevant inspection agencies. After that, the company is subjected to many additional inspections and are generally fined.

“Italian strike” or “work-to rule” is a form of sabotage when workers perform their tasks in strict accordance to the rules but no better and as a result production stops or essentially slows down 4


Compassionate protest Finally, a relatively recent form of “silent protest” is the so-called folk memorials of flowers, candles, and toys set up at monuments associated with Ukraine. Anthropologist Aleksandra Arkhipova calls this form of resistance "flower protests" or "compassionate protests." According to her, more than 100 spontaneous folk memorials have cropped in 63 Russian cities at monuments associated with Ukraine after the destruction of a residential building in the Dnieper by a rocket on January 14, killing at least 46 people, including children. In Moscow, a spontaneous memorial arose at the monument to Lesya Ukrainka, and in St. Petersburg—at the monument to Taras Shevchenko. Spontaneous memorials in and of themselves are not a new phenomenon in urban spaces. People bring flowers and children's toys, if children died, to places where tragedy occurred in order to express condolences and mourn the dead. However, in the context of a repressive regime, where there is no opportunity to express outrage openly, spontaneous memorials serve to express protest against the actions of the authorities (for example, the creation of a memorial at the site of the murder of the oppositional politician Boris Nemtsov). It is noteworthy that in those cities where there are no monuments in any way connected with Ukraine, flowers are brought to the monuments to the victims of political repression, or any other victims, thereby confirming the protest character of the memorials. A new wave of "compassionate protests" swept through the cities of Russia on February 24, 2023, on the first anniversary of the start of the war. People across more than 20 Russian cities once again carried flowers and toys to monuments associated with Ukraine or political repression.

Distinctive Features of Russian Anti-War Resistance The true scale of the anti-war resistance (the number of anti-war initiatives, the number of people who support them) has yet to be determined, but we can already articulate some important features of the Russian anti-war landscape. 1. Covert forms of resistance, such as sabotage, evasion, disobedience, avoidance, exchange of alternative information and other forms of indirect resistance, dominate the protest landscape, as opposed to direct demonstrations of protest. 2. The Russian anti-war protest movement does not have a systemic, organized character, but is represented by a multitude of decentralized initiatives that have a horizontal structure and largely rely on informal networks. 3. A significant number of anti-war initiatives are organized at the local level, focused on local communities (city-wide or regional), and therefore remain unseen from a federal or international perspective. 4. Following the outbreak of war, many new players appeared in the field of civic activism. As a rule, they do not take the shape of organizations, but operate in community networks,


many of which reach impressive sizes and show impressive displays of self- organization (such as the networks providing aid to Ukrainian refugees mentioned above). 5. The Russian anti-war resistance would not have been possible without digital technologies and the internet. It is difficult to overestimate the role of the Telegram, which remains accessible in Russia and allows the opponents of the war to overcome isolation, and thereby gives the anti-war protest movement a collective character. This opportunity to communicate with like-minded people inspires protest solidarity and a sense of unity, as well as faith in one's own power and ability to influence the situation. 6. Although the protest landscape is clearly dominated by virtual spaces, it would be more correct to speak of the hybrid nature of the anti-war resistance. Digital space prolongs physical life and expands the audience of in-person protests. Photos of art pieces and folk memorials, as well as other forms of protest are instantly circulated through Telegram channels. Conversely, initiatives that arise in Telegram chats are later implemented in physical space. 7. The transnational nature of the protest is more evident than ever before. Activists who left the country continue to work abroad and maintain ties with those who remain in Russia. It is often difficult to determine the location of anti-war initiatives, since members are located on different sides of the border. 8. In light of the nearly complete lack of protest demonstrations held by the “systemic opposition” (Yabloko is the only party that has openly declared an anti-war stance, but they utilize only legal methods of protest—collecting signatures, holding sanctioned rallies—and therefore are practically invisible in the protest landscape), the political anti-war protest as a continuation of the fight against the Putin regime is represented by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the “Vesna” Youth Democratic Movement, left-wing political groups calling for sabotage, and anarchists conducting radical guerrilla demonstrations. 9. Considering the full spectrum of Russian anti-war resistance, it can be said that the protest has a “feminine face.” The NGO and volunteer sector has always been characterized by a gender imbalance, but in the landscape of anti-war resistance, where hidden forms of protest dominate, and given the outflow of the male population following the announcement of the draft, women have become the main initiators and executors of anti-war movements.


What Role did Ideology play in triggering Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?

Juliette Faure, Teaching and Research Attachée at Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas, Research Associate at Sciences Po-CERI

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 followed to the letter the program prescribed for years by the Izborsky Club, a think tank created in 2012 comprising conservative elites advocating the restoration of Russia's imperial, great-power status as part of a cultural and military confrontation with the West. Today, the Izborsky Club’s ideologues such as Alexander Dugin and Alexander Prokhanov are the war’s chief ideologues. While these Russian hawks were marginal in the 1990s, the regime has increasingly relied on them to justify an authoritarian consolidation around strong state power, enforce social discipline based on traditional values and pursue a revisionist foreign policy. In my PhD research, I have tried to understand why, despite the prohibition of a state ideology in the Russian Constitution of 1993, Russian hawks have risen to political prominence as one of the major sources of legitimation used by the regime. This question addresses a central political science debate on how to assess the influence of ideas on policy decisions. In the Russian case, scholars have pointed to the ruling elite’s genuine support of conservatism and imperialism.1 Others, on the contrary, have exposed the regime’s lack of adhesion to ideological values and principles, pointing to the Kremlin’s mere cynical use of ideology as an instrument that hides pragmatic goals, such as legitimizing the ruling circle holding onto power and attracting international support for Russia among conservative political audiences.2 To understand the place of ideology in contemporary Russian politics, I have examined the public careers of the Russian hawks over the past 30 years, focusing on the evolution of their social and material interactions with policymaking elites. My research shows that, starting from the mid- 1990s, the ruling elites resumed Soviet practices of state sponsorship of ideology production. Unlike in Soviet times, however, the current regime does not rely on an

See, for instance, Aleksei Chadaev, Putin. Ego ideologiia (Moskva: Evropa, 2006) and Maria Engström, “Contemporary Russian Messianism and New Russian Foreign Policy,” Contemporary Security Policy 35, no. 3 (2014): 356–79. 2 See, for instance, Marlène Laruelle, ‘Conservatism as the Kremlin’s New Toolkit: An Ideology at the Lowest Cost’, Russian Analytical Digest, no. 138 (2013): 2–4; Anton Shekhovtsov, Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir (London: Routledge, 2017) and Mark Galeotti, We Need to Talk About Putin: Why the West Gets Him Wrong, and How to Get Him Right (London: Ebury Publishing, 2019). 1


institutionalized ideological apparatus, but rather on transactional relations with networks across intellectual and political milieus. In this regard, I build on the literature that has argued that, despite the centralized and patrimonial nature of the Russian political system, the Russian state functions as a network state in which the power of informal networks matters more than institutions in terms of influencing political decisions and organizing the distribution of economic resources.3 However, whereas most models of Russia as a network state see the networks as displacing ideology – drawing actors away from collectivities based on abstract concepts and into collectivities based on personal connection and material exchange – I put forward the concept of “idea networks” to highlight that ideology is one the dimensions, alongside material factors, that determine the construction of elite groups. In lieu of the binary opposition between theories of ideology as pure commitment to norms versus positivist views of ideology as a cover for material interests, I follow in the footsteps of authors who have restored the significance of ideology as a form of symbolic language constitutive of social life. As Karl Mannheim explains, ideology is a collection of shared meanings and evaluative interpretations dependent on group existence and rooted in action. It is a collective language that contains a “crystallization of the experiences of a certain group” and defines membership in that group.4 More recently, Michael Freeden has linked the study of ideological recombination with the processes of mutation of groups from which ideologies emerge.5 Instead of looking at ideology as a purely discursive thought-product of individual authors, my approach stresses the social and relational aspects of ideology as a variety of group language that has meaning in relation to the ideology of other groups. In this respect, while the literature on Russian ideology has often spotlighted Alexander Dugin, I decided to highlight the role of Russian hawks as an elite group bound by a set of common ideas, interests, beliefs, attitudes, experiences and emotions that have set them against other elite groups. The production of ideology by Russian hawks has played a key role in defining and substantiating the identity and contours of their group. Analysis of the public careers of Russian hawks shows that they have been increasingly able, starting from the 2000s, to compete against more liberal groups for access to state-sponsored resources such as media visibility, honorific status and financial support. State support for ideology production, however, was not aimed at implementing a specific ideological programme but rather at cultivating a set of lines and narratives opening up policy courses. At least until February 2022, the regime has been committed to the principle of “managed Vadim Kononenko and Arkadii Moshes, Russia as a Network State: What Works in Russia When State Institutions Do Not? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Alena V. Ledeneva, Can Russia Modernise?: Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Henry E. Hale, Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective, Problems of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). 4 Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2015), 19. 5 Michael Freeden, “Confronting the Chimera of a ‘Post-ideological’ Age,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 8, no. 2 (June 2005): 257. 3


pluralism” and thus the maintenance of a certain degree of ideological polarization within the ruling elite. To evidence this claim, I show that state support for Russian hawks has gone through cycles, going up and down, and that it severely contracted ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While a core ideological substratum consolidated over the years in official speech around concepts such as strong state power and multipolarity of the world order, further ideological content remained variable. Different idea networks were promoted or demoted through the distribution of state resources depending on how it would contribute to maintaining policy flexibility in a changing strategic environment. This variation can explain the major changes in Russia’s foreign policy and most importantly the evolution of the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy whereby the preference went from diplomatic negotiations to resolve the Donbas conflict in 2014 to a fully revisionist use of force in 2022. Therefore, as I see it, ideology plays a structuring role in the Russian political system, as it forms the collective language constitutive of elite groups whose competition, administered through authoritarian control by the executive power, shapes the set of policy options available to the leader. In this respect, I depart from strictly realist approaches, which only consider material interests and capabilities as explanatory variables in policy choices. However, I also highlight what classic constructivist approaches may not be so good at seeing – the interactional and competitive process through which idea-producers seek policy influence. On the one hand, the rise of the Russian hawks resulted from the strategy of cultural influence that they deployed to gain recognition of their ideas and move from the margins to the center of the public sphere. On the other hand, their ascension was fostered by their top-down cooptation by decision-makers seeking legitimizing and mobilizing resources for the regime’s distinction from Western liberalism.

The hawks’ strategy of media mobilization: A successful culture war (1991-2005) The group of Russian hawks was formed at the end of the Soviet Union, when nationalist intellectuals and conservative members of the Soviet political establishment came together to criticize the liberalization led by Mikhail Gorbachev. The political unity of this coalition was welded into the Communist Party of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), created in 1990 to compete with the reformist-dominated Communist Party of the USSR. The RSFSR’s Communist party’s chief ideologist, Gennady Zyuganov, proposed an alliance of “national-patriotic” forces against the liberals. At the same time, the intellectual Alexander Prokhanov founded the newspaper Den (Day) to serve as a media spearhead for this community, which he referred to as gosudarstvenniki (“supporters of the state”). Den brought together a broad spectrum of intellectuals who shared the goal of maintaining the Soviet Union as a military superpower in confrontation with the West. Defeated and marginalized with the collapse of the USSR, the national-patriots nevertheless represented an active opposition to Boris Yeltsin's government, deploying both direct action strategies and a strategy of regaining cultural hegemony. Den, replaced by Zavtra (Tomorrow) in 1993, became the social and doctrinal factory of an ideology advocating the restoration of 51

Russia as a strong imperial state that would combine the traditional and religious values of the Tsarist era with Soviet military and technological might. Some of the most popular Zavtra contributors included Zyuganov, the monarchist Orthodox clerics Father Dmitri Dudko and Metropolitan Ioann, the Eurasianist thinker Alexander Dugin, the National-Bolshevik writer Eduard Limonov, neo-Nazi nationalists like Alexander Barkashov and Islamic traditionalists like Geydar Dzhemal and Shamil Sultanov. This eclectic group was bound by their rejection of post-Soviet democracy, economic liberalization, the Westernization of Russian society, and US dominance of the international order. While Zavtra authors railed against their exclusion from the public sphere, they were still directly engaged in the construction of the post-Soviet political order. Indeed, through their abundant publications, they contributed to structuring post-Soviet political cleavages by shaping the binary opposition between two groups: the “conservatives” and “patriots,” on the one hand, and “traitors,” “democrats” and “liberals” on the other. In addition, their delegitimization and demonization of the ruling elites helped feed popular stereotypes about post-Soviet politics, such as the corruption and criminalization of politics, the theft of the country’s resources by mighty oligarchs, the influence of tycoons on the regime and the manipulation of popular opinion by media corporations. In this language, they painted the patriotic opposition as the group that represents Russian society’s grievances and collective traumas. Although they remained in opposition, starting from the mid-1990s, some of the Russian hawks’ cornerstone political ideas gained traction within the regime’s official discourse. During the October 1993 crisis, Yeltsin’s unconstitutional decision to dissolve the legislature and his authoritarian resort to armed force to defeat the opposition challenged the liberal democratic ideals claimed by his party Democratic Russia and marked a conservative turn in his rule. Ironically, the crushing of the national-conservative opposition was followed by an effort to assimilate some of their ideas – justifying strong state power and promoting a national ideology and the celebration of Russia’s cultural and religious traditions. In particular, the launching of the First Chechen War in 1994 coincided with the Russian government’s effort to build a new official state patriotism to combat separatism. In 1996, Yeltsin’s decision to establish a commission to define “the Russian idea” and to “think about what national ideal, what national ideology is the most important for Russia” grappled with one of the long-term concerns of the conservative opposition.6 At the end of the 1990s, the hawks’ ideas attracted an even wider audience. In 1998, the country’s default, together with the devaluation of the ruble and the ensuing financial crisis, led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko and bolstered the Russian people’s opposition to capitalist economic reforms. Subsequently, in 1999, anti-Western attitudes became predominant in Russian public opinion in reaction to NATO’s expansion to include Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic and to NATO’s military operations against Serbia without a United Nation mandate.

Kathleen E. Smith, Mythmaking in the New Russia: Politics and Memory in the Yeltsin Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 158. 6


As reported by figures from the polling and research institute Levada Center, in 1999 75% of Russians agreed with the statement that “the U.S. is taking advantage of Russia’s troubles to turn it into a second-class country,” while 60% were confident that “the U.S. wanted Russia to break into several parts.” Criticism of the West even grew significantly in important liberal media outlets such as Izvestia and Segodnya. In addition, the military campaign against Chechnya launched by then-Prime Minister Putin in September 1999 drew unanimous support and fostered a “patriotic ecstasy” among the various political parties represented in the Duma.7 In this context, the campaign for the presidential elections held in March 2000 resulted in what the scholar Sergei Prozorov has described as the dispersion of conservatism as the “hegemonic discourse” in Russian politics.8 Although Putin was positioned as the direct heir to Yeltsin, his first term as president in 20002004 selectively departed from Yeltsin’s legacy. Political scholar Harley Balzer has put forward the concept of “managed pluralism” to qualify the Putin regime’s balance between authoritarian and liberal principles, which Balzer interprets as an endeavor to limit “the diverse cultural influences accompanying globalization while still reaping economic benefits from the international economy.”9 This context of general backlash against the West and the legacy of the 1990s provided a favorable environment for the circulation of national-patriotic discourse, which even started reaching a segment of the liberal intellectual elite. A case in point is the editorial volte-face of the Ad Marginem publishing house. Known in the 1990s for publishing Russian translations of French Theory philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida, the editors decided, staring from the 2000s, to turn to ultra-nationalist Russian authors such as Limonov and Prokhanov. In an interview for Zavtra, Ad Marginem’s founder and director Alexander Ivanov explained that his initial “excitement with the West” had grown “into a subsequent monstrous disappointment.” Ivanov held capitalism and consumerism as responsible for the “decline in interest for Russia.” He associated the “need to play by Western standards” with Russia’s loss of self-identity and “dignity.” Ivanov’s about-turn is indicative of the new, more populist understanding of left-wing identity in Russia at that time, which shifted from emulating Western liberalism to promoting the country’s “own history,” “selfreliance” and specific “path of intellectual and cultural development.” In addition, in the early 2000s, a new generation of hawkish intellectuals entered the Russian public sphere and began to formulate an updated version of Russian conservatism. Born in or close to the 1970s, these “Young Conservatives” had studied philosophy and history at Moscow State University (MGU) in the 1990s and shared an interest in religious Russian philosophy, political conservatism, nationalism and traditionalism. Prominent members of

See Thomas Parland, The Extreme Nationalist Threat in Russia: The Growing Influence of Western Rightist Ideas (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004), 156. 8 Sergei Prozorov, “Russian Conservatism in the Putin Presidency: The Dispersion of a Hegemonic Discourse,” Journal of Political Ideologies 10, no. 2 (June 2005): 121–43. 9 Harley Balzer, “Managed Pluralism: Vladimir Putin’s Emerging Regime,” Post-Soviet Affairs 19, no. 3 (1 January 2003): 191. 7


this group include Vitaly Averyanov (1973-), Egor Kholmogorov (1975-), Konstantin Krylov (1967-2020), Boris Mezhuev (1970-) and Mikhail Remizov (1978-). Although they did not share their forerunners’ nostalgia for the past and ambition of restoring the Soviet Union, they did concur with their rejection of globalization and ambition to restore Russia’s great-power status based on both the country’s civilizational identity and technological might. In contrast to the older generation, however, the Young Conservatives engaged in a new form of ideological entrepreneurship drawing on their intellectual formation as social scientists and their professionalization as Internet and media intellectuals. Their combination of learned discourse, scholarly references and polemical style made for a new type of intellectual with tools that differed from the older generation’s use of radical rhetoric. Between 2000 and 2005, they became some of the most visible intellectuals thanks to their use of the Internet and social networks. Influential members of the liberal intellectual elites, such as Gleb Pavlovsky (1951-2023) and Stanislav Belkovsky (1971-), contributed to their rise on the public scene by recruiting them as authors and editors for their online political outlets, the Russkii zhurnal (The Russian Journal) and Agentstvo politicheskikh novostei (APN; Agency of Political News), where intense debates about society and politics were held among a community of intellectuals across a wide ideological spectrum. In 2005, the Young Conservatives gathered as a group of 70 signatories to author the “Russian Doctrine,” a document setting out a full-fledged ideology of conservative modernization, which they called “dynamic conservatism.” Advocating authoritarian economic and technological development based on Russia’s traditional historical and religious values, the “Russian Doctrine” inspired the subsequent adoption of programmatic documents by some of the most authoritative conservative political and religious organizations. Metropolitan Kirill, who would later become Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, publicly praised the “Russian Doctrine” and recommended taking the document for “practical use.” He suggested using it as an “organic part” of a nationwide dialogue on the “core values of Russia.”

The hawks inside the regime’s market for ideology (2005-2012) In the aftermath of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2005 mass protests in Russia against the monetization of social benefits, the Kremlin fomented an ideological counterreaction to ward off domestic revolutions based on the legitimation of strong state power.10 This conservative inflection of the regime’s party was mainly orchestrated by Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the Presidential Administration and the chief ideologue of the ruling United Russia party. In the first half of 2006, Surkov theorized the concept of “sovereign democracy” as Russia’s model of government. It was intended to be both a buffer against destabilizing “color revolutions” inside Russia and an assertion of Russia’s great-power status within the global economy.

See Clémentine Fauconnier, Entre le marteau et l’enclume : La fabrication d’une hégémonie partisane dans la Russie de Poutine (Villeneuve-d’Ascq : Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2019) 10


At this time, United Russia was primarily concerned with ideological indoctrination of the youth and started relying on the two generations of Russian hawks for social and ideological support against liberal and nationalist oppositional forces. Dugin and Prokhanov were invited as guest lecturers to address the pro-government youth movements Nashi (Ours) and Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard).11 Their public careers and media visibility subsequently took off. In 2008, Dugin became a professor of philosophy at Moscow State University. He and Prokhanov became regular guests on major TV talk shows dealing with society and politics. Meanwhile, the Young Conservatives were tasked with running a think tank within United Russia, the Russian Club, to feed the party with ideas and recommendations on how to formulate a pro-government response to the rise of anti-Kremlin ethnic nationalism. The years 2007 and 2008 laid the foundations for the regime’s rhetorical embrace of some of the hawks’ key ideas. Three significant turning points in this direction can be identified in Putin’s policies and discourse by the end of his second term. First, the Kremlin adopted protectionist measures and state investment policies that the hawks had been advocating, as opposed to the principles of a free market. Second, Putin put forward the concept of “spiritual security,” which was one of the core concepts advocated in the “Russian Doctrine.” During one of his public addresses in 2007, Putin compared Russia’s traditional religions with its nuclear arsenal as the two pillars of the country’s security. Finally, Putin took a clear antiWestern turn in foreign policy at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, when he expressed his dissatisfaction with the post-Cold War world order and condemned its US-centered unipolar character. Despite the conservative consolidation initiated during Putin’s second term, the ruling elites remained ideologically mixed. The regime, at the time, did not seek to endorse a single state ideology, but rather to contextually give more power weight to some idea networks versus others while maintaining ideological pluralism. Upon coming to power as president in 2008, Dmitri Medvedev kept the hawks at arm’s length. His reformist approach, critical of the centralization of power, relied on expert groups outside state institutions. The Institute of Contemporary Development (Institut sovremennogo razvitiya, INSOR), which was headed by the liberal economist Igor Yurgens and at which Medvedev was the board of trustees chair, became the leading center for consulting and policy recommendations. As Edwin Bacon has highlighted, INSOR’s reports focused on modernization and advocated Russia’s full integration into the West through comprehensive democratic reforms and cooperation with Western powers, including Russia’s membership in NATO.12 In the winter of 2011-2012, mass demonstrations triggered by election fraud and the rejection of Putin’s candidacy for a third presidential term led to an unprecedented degree of polarization within the ruling elite. In contrast with liberals such as Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin, who played an active role on the tribune at the December protests calling for fair See Véra Nikolski, National-bolchevisme et néo-eurasisme dans la Russie contemporaine: La carrière militante d’une idéologie (Paris: Mare & Martin, 2013), 173–74. 12 Edwin Bacon, “Policy Change and the Narratives of Russia’s Think Tanks,” Palgrave Communications 4, no. 1 (December 2018): 4. 11


elections, the siloviki, along with the ruling elites associated the security services, supported the regime’s authoritarian consolidation and its contestation of what they perceived as the West’s hand in spreading color revolutions. This context provided a major opportunity for the first- and second-generation hawks to organize a massive collective action to counter the protesters’ demands for reforms, which they viewed as portending the collapse of the country. When a third wave of demonstrations took place on February 4 on Bolotnaya Square, the conservatives held a parallel meeting on Poklonnaya Hill with around 140,000 participants under the banner of the “anti-Orange coalition.” In September 2012, under the leadership of Prokhanov and the Young Conservative Vitaly Averyanov, the Poklonnaya Hill participants converted their contextualized group mobilization into a permanent institution, the Izborsky Club, which became the largest representative group of conservative ideologues in today’s Russia.

The Izborsky Club: An influential idea network (2012-2022) The Izborsky Club institutionalized the existence of a conservative idea network bound by shared interests and beliefs and by its common opposition to other, more liberal elite networks. Named after an ancient fortress near the Estonian border, the club intends to be “a powerful political and ideological coalition of patriotic statesmen, an imperial front that opposes the manipulations of foreign centers of influence and the ‘fifth column’ from within the country.” Prominent members include the philosopher Alexander Dugin, the Nobel laureate physician Zhores Alferov (1930-2019), the economist Sergei Glazyev, an advisor to Putin on the development of Eurasian economic integration from 2012 to 2019, the journalist Mikhail Leontyev (1958-), deemed to be among Putin’s favorites, and Metropolitan Tikhon Shevkunov, rumored to be Putin’s personal confessor. In addition, the participation of then-Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and Pskov Governor Andrei Turchak in the inauguration ceremony demonstrated the political support enjoyed by the club within ruling circles. Such practices are characteristic of what Alexander Graef and Anton Barbashin call the “informal” type of state sponsorship of the Russian thinktank industry, where “material and symbolic support can be secured by unofficial relations with major enterprises and political stakeholders.” Izborsky Club activities have also benefited from other types of state- sponsorship practices such as financial support from the Presidential Administration and partnership agreements between the club and the government on education issues. The Russian hawks thereby achieved one of their long-term demands, namely the recognition of their ideology as a major, state-sponsored strategic resource. The club’s ideas clearly gained traction in official speeches and policy documents of Putin’s third presidential term. Domestically, Putin articulated a development strategy for Russia based on the conservation of its traditional identity and values as a distinct civilization. In foreign affairs, the language of the Izborsky Club was directly used by the Russian president to justify Russia’s expansionist policy, which culminated in the annexation of Crimea in 2014. During his speech to the Federal Assembly to justify the annexation, Putin closely echoed 56

Prokhanov’s language to argue that Crimea constituted the spiritual and political center of Russia, substantiating Crimea’s Russian identity by referring to the baptism of Prince Vladimir in Chersonesus and the subsequent Christianization of Kievan Rus. The Izborsky Club’s active contribution to Russia’s annexation of Crimea was officially acknowledged by the new Crimean leadership. In July 2014, Dmitri Polonsky, minister for internal policy, information and communication of the self-proclaimed Republic of Crimea, conveyed his “gratitude” to club members for their “important role in the events of the ‘Crimean Spring.’” The Russian military also lent official recognition to the Izborsky Club’s strategic role in the country’s security by naming a Tupolev Tu-95 bomber, which carries strategic missiles, after the city of Izborsk and decorating it with the club’s logo. However, Putin explicitly distinguished the Russian state’s official position from the Izborsky Club’s campaign in support of the separatists in the Donbas. As one of the most active conceptualizers and propagators of the concept of “Novorossiya” (New Russia) to justify the integration of the Donbas with Russia, the club played an instrumental role in the legitimation of the insurgency.13 By contrast, in May 2014, the Kremlin refused to recognize the validity of the referenda held to proclaim the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics. On September 5, 2014, the Novorossiya campaign was halted by the Kremlin’s decision to replace the insurgent governments with new elites who would sign the Minsk agreements along with Russia and Ukraine, providing for the reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine with a “special status of local self-government.” Instead of the official diplomatic track, the Izborsky Club argued in favor of a “Stalinist recipe” involving a “total military operation” with the intervention of a “liberation army” manned with volunteers from Russian private military companies and supported by missile strikes against strategic targets. The Kremlin’s choice of diplomacy over force represents a key tipping point in the relation between the political and the ideological fields. It clearly showed that despite the transactions occurring between them, the rules guiding Russia’s strategy were defined in interaction with other military, economic and political interests that influence policy choices. Although the Izborsky Club was demoted from its position as the hegemonic ideological group toward the end of 2014, it remained influential as a strategic subculture in specific policy niches such as patriotic education and Russian soft power in the post-Soviet space. In December 2015, the club received RUB 10 million (around €150,000 at the time) from the Presidential Administration, one of the largest grants to civil society organizations that year. The grant served to finance the club’s work on the concept of the “Russian World,” a central issue of Russian strategic thinking pertaining to the definition of an expanded Russian civilization beyond the limits of Russian territory.14 Published in 2016, the club’s “Doctrine of the Russian World” offered a “new offensive strategy” aimed at “the reconstruction of the Russian state of an imperial kind,” which involved “the formation of Russia’s spheres of interests” to compete with the West in the Balkans and Black Sea region, as well as the

See Marlène Laruelle, “The Three Colors of Novorossiya, or the Russian Nationalist Mythmaking of the Ukrainian Crisis,” Post-Soviet Affairs 32, no. 1 (2016): 56–65. 14 For a definition of the “Russian world,” see Marlène Laruelle, “The ‘Russian World’: Russia’s Soft Power and Geopolitical Imagination,” Center on Global Interests, 2015, 6. 13


protection of ethnic Russians’ rights against the “Russophobia” of the Ukrainian ruling elites, dominated by “neo-Nazis.” The changes in state sponsorship for civil society organizations, however, demonstrated that the Kremlin sought to downplay the conservative-authoritarian repertoire and promote liberal- democratic groups (such as Kudrin’s Center for Strategic Research) as a counterbalance. An important signal of this was sent by the shift in management of the Presidential Administration after the September 2016 legislative elections. Vyacheslav Volodin, who espouses radical, anti- Western conservative rhetoric and informally supports the Izborsky Club, was moved from the key executive position of first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration, which is in charge of supervising domestic politics, to the less influential role of chair of the Duma. His successor, Sergei Kiriyenko, had stronger ties with the liberal, technocratic elites. Under Kiriyenko’s watch, each of the Izborsky Club’s applications for Presidential Administration funding were rejected.15 The Izborsky Club, however, continued to rely on the support of conservative ruling elites. Most importantly, the club strengthened its ties with the influential monarchist oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. This evolution of the Izborsky Club, from a state-sponsored think tank to a private lobbying group, demonstrates the Kremlin’s merely selective and contextual endorsement of the club’s ideology.

After February 2022: From idea networks to a repressive ideological apparatus Important changes in the domestic and international environments might account for Putin’s pivotal shift from rejection of intense armed involvement in the Donbas in 2014 to his decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Among these changes are the Russian army’s combat training during the Syria campaign, Russia’s massive buildup of financial reserves, the development of a closer partnership with China to resist the costs of Western sanctions and the preparation of the domestic audience to accept the war following two years of Covid-related travel restrictions that isolated Russian society from international exchanges and allowed for an authoritarian crackdown on the opposition culminating with imprisonment of Alexei Navalny. The invasion of Ukraine concretely enacted the hawks’ conception of Russia as an imperial great power that should rely on its technological and military might to assert its civilizational distinction from the West. Ahead of the war, Putin’s article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” published in July 2021, fully endorsed the rhetoric put forward by the Izborsky Club since 2014, which labeled Ukraine a failed state, artificially created by the Soviet Union, ruled by “neo-Nazis” and engaged in “Russophobic” policies. Although the Izborsky Club leadership has acknowledged their lack of influence over Putin’s decision, depicting the invasion of Ukraine as a “revolution from above” that occurred “contrary to our own expectations,” they have enthusiastically praised it as the advent of the “fifth empire” that they had “prophesized.”

The club applied in 2018, in 2019 and in 2020. All the applications are recorded on the website: https://xn--80afcdbalict6afooklqi5o.xn--p1ai/public/application/cards. 15


Having shown that state support of the Izborsky Club has waxed and waned over the years, and that it severely contracted ahead of the war, my research provides a counterargument to teleological narratives describing the war as the fatal, ultimate result of a linear ideological radicalization of the Russian regime; instead, it highlights the regime’s previous caution not to pledge allegiance to a unique state ideology and cultivation of a certain degree of ideological polarization within elite groups in order to maintain ambiguity and flexibility in its policy choices. Unlike Putin-centered analyses, the idea network concept suggests that the war was one of the policy outcomes made possible by the mode of administering ideology that the Russian regime has put in place over the past decades to balance the influence between elite groups representing different strains of strategic culture. The outbreak of the war, however, marked a shift in the Russian regime’s use of ideology. The former managed pluralism, which sought to combine different ideological factions within the elite, gave way to the development of a single ideological state apparatus. The banishment of opposition media and the adoption of a war-mongering, aggressively anti-Western discourse by members of the political elite previously deemed the most liberal, such as Medvedev and Kiriyenko, point to the dispersion of conservative imperialism as the ruling elite’s new hegemonic discourse, dominating, through its legitimation of the invasion, the expression of other systems of thought and other considerations such as the human or economic costs of the war. Vladimir Medinsky, a longtime Izborsky Club loyalist, the former culture minister and now a personal adviser to Putin, is now leading the charge to turn this imperialist ideology into official state propaganda, which is currently taught at schools through his new history textbook.


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