Russia Program Journal No 3

Page 1


Propaganda and Culture in Today's Russia


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. 3, December 2023

Table of Contents

(Mis)Translating Deceit: A New Perspective on Disinformation STEPHEN HUTCHINGS ………………………………………………………………………………….....7

Spinning Prigozhin: How Russian Television Managed the Wagner Mutiny PAUL GOODE ……………………………………………………………………………………………....13

Mutiny Orientation — North: Geidar Dzhemal’s Metaphysics of Politics MARIA ENGSTRÖM …………………………………………………………………………………………….27

The “Special Path” of Russian State-Civilization: The Genealogy of Vladimir Putin’s Geopolitical Metaphor IGOR TORBAKOV ……………………………………………………………………………………………….37


(Mis)Translating Deceit: A New Perspective on Disinformation

Stephen Hutchings, University of Manchester

An Apocryphal Tale The Ukraine war has been accompanied by an unprecedented surge of propaganda and disinformation (much, but not all, of it of Russian origins). Before 2022, however, Covid-19 and the Trump presidency had confirmed disinformation as a general problem of our era. Whilst as a practice it has ancient origins, the term has an intriguing modern myth of origin which shapes how it is now understood. This myth serves as the departure point for a major new research project, led by Stephen Hutchings and Vera Tolz. The project challenges current approaches to disinformation whilst contributing to more dynamic counter-disinformation practices whose limitations have been exposed by exponential increases in the Kremlin’s propaganda output. It will do so not via the big data-led models that this volume of activity seems to require, but through qualitative, humanities research methods. Widely cited, the myth in question attributes the word disinformation to a mid-20th century English translation of the Russian term dezinformatsiya, mendaciously coined by Stalin with a French-sounding etymology designating a non-Soviet practice which the Soviet Union was duly ‘obliged’ to emulate. In fact, the story, attributable to a Romanian defector to the West, is spurious. English usage of the term ‘disinformation’ is traceable to late 19th century allegations involving American press outlets. Instances of the word can also be found in early 20th century Hansard records of British parliamentary debates. The first Soviet usages, meanwhile, predate the Stalin period, and reflect German, not French, sources. This apocryphal tale encapsulates the three key interlinked issues we address: (1) the continuing impact of Cold War subtexts on discourses around disinformation; (2) the need to recognize its status as a form of dynamic inter-cultural, translingual communication; (3) the close connections between disinformation practices, allegations of disinformation and counter-disinformation measures. Scholars generally reduce disinformation to false/misleading information spread deliberately by deceitful adversaries or, in the unwitting form of ‘misinformation, by, gullible co- citizens. They assume that what constitutes disinformation is universally definable, albeit through increasingly complex typologies differentiating the various kinds of information distortion now present in our ‘toxic’ online world. But to fully understand disinformation, it must also be treated in terms of both the polemical function of the allegation by which it is named in specific instances, and of the variable meanings the material it designates acquire as they are re- forged translingually within and across discrete discursive contexts.


From the Factual and the False to the Translingual and the Discursive: Coming in From the Cold Stressing the role of cross-cultural mediations, including translation, in the meaning-making process, we will work with policy makers to account for changing notions of disinformation and their implications for those who produce and analyze it. We will explore how definitions change across time and geopolitical settings; what Soviet activity and reactions to it reveal about current disinformation and counter-disinformation techniques; about where then, and now, their presumed deceit is located, and with what implications: in their ‘truth claims’; their narrative frames; or their perpetrators’ self-representation (it is worth in this context comparing The Guardian’s annual April Fool’s story, the UK tabloid press’s misleading, hyper-partisan news coverage, and the ‘camouflaging’ effect of the bland, fact-based reporting characterising some of the output of Kremlin broadcaster, RT). We will track disinformation’s journeys across multiple contexts and audiences, noting how translingual collusion, like that between far-right anglophone and Russian-language outlets, informs it. The dezinformatsiya myth reflects a logic wherein the habitual attribution of ‘disinformation’ to a hostile ‘Other’ is linked inextricably to the identity of a collective ‘Self’. This logic explains why non-Latin script in social media output can be over-interpreted as evidence of enemy state activity; why we differentiate domestic ‘misinformation’ (unintended falsehood) from foreign ‘disinformation’ (intentional falsification) in a digital world where disguising agency is, however, routine; and why, as the term’s myth of origins illustrates, disinformation allegations are a potent tool in power struggles. Disinformation’s defining criteria are neither fixed nor universal: the discourses constituting it interact with the ‘false narratives’ identified by those discourses in an entangled conception-practice dimension that reflects its Cold War legacy. The focus on Russia is far from anachronistic, for conceptual as well as empirical reasons. Whilst the Covid ‘infodemic’ revealed abundant ‘homegrown’ disinformation, and China now rivals Russia as its main external source, Cold War dichotomies pitting democratic ‘truthtellers’ against totalitarian ‘dissemblers’ were revived by Russia’s interference in the 2016 US elections and the Ukraine war. Their reductive force – ‘if we face a uniformly malign foe, who cares about hair- splitting definitional issues?’ - creates a medley of poorly differentiated terms: disinformation, misinformation, mal-information, fake news, post-truth, conspiracy theories, state propaganda, trolling and astroturfing, to name a few. It explains the mushrooming of monitors, fact-checkers, literacy initiatives, and legislative oversight bodies whose lack of reflexivity underpins Joseph Bernstein’s take-down of a self-servingly alarmist, epistemologically naïve, ‘Big Disinfo’ industry. We reject the more acerbic elements of Bernstein’s critique, seeking to improve counter- disinformation rather than undermine it – to bring Disinformation Studies ‘in from the Cold (War)’.


Framing (and Contextualizing) Deceit Our methodologies prioritise not mute data judged true or false, but human subjects with socially situated voices, cognition of which, as the great Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin argues, ‘can only be dialogic’. We reject all forms of relativism. We accept that authoritarian states regularly mislead their own and other publics, recognising that the contingency of narratives does not imply their factual equivalence. However, by prioritising their modes of meaning generation (across temporal, geopolitical and linguacultural boundaries) we will challenge current models which prioritise either the identification of false/misleading ‘content’, or the tracking of that content’s toxic ‘spread’ across ‘disinformation ecosystems.’ Since to allege ‘disinformation’ is a contextual act, we will consider how truth status shifts as information crosses these boundaries, and how such shifts complicate questions relating to what, precisely, is being tracked, and to drawing uniform distinctions between ‘mainstream’, legitimate forms of news distortion, and those designated as illicit. Drawing on Bakhtin and on translation theory, we will reconstruct the dynamics propelling (counter)disinformation strategies, redressing their monolingual, ahistorical bias. Digitisation facilitates both industrial volumes of disinformation and data-driven methods of detection. These tools reflect ‘Big Disinfo’ emphases on universally verifiable falsehoods. Moreover, perceptions of disinformation’s new digital habitat perpetuate Cold War views of English as democracy’s lingua franca, encouraging disinformation producers to prioritise anglophone audiences whilst disincentivizing platforms from tracking how non-English disinformation circulates. Facebook failed to identify 91% of Russia’s Ukraine war propaganda. What for anglophones are lurid conspiracy theories, may strike Arabic speakers as credible accounts of residual imperial projects – a perception exploited in Soviet/Russian disinformation. When the EU banned RT, widening its definition of disinformation, RT’s Arabic ratings rose, and the Kremlin’s Ukraine narrative infiltrated Western ‘deep state’ conspiracy theories. The role of anglophone Kremlin proxy sites like News Front in linking Hispanic to Russian Ukraine war disinformation needs more attention than it currently receives. We must not, however, over-prioritise digital media flows. Traditional media outlets still play a central role in amplifying disinformation’s transcultural meaning shifts. They form part of the multiple feedback loops facilitating the amplification process. Our own research shows that pre- digital, mainstream Western mediations of conspiratorial AIDS myths of origin helped legitimate the USSR’s largest disinformation campaign. In our work with counterdisinformation practitioners, therefore, we will strive to reconstitute the historical underprops of their own terminological apparatuses, and the local contexts of specific disinformation narratives. We want to shift focus from universalist notions of disinformation to how context-contingent discourses shape manipulation techniques, corresponding counter measures, and the interplay between them; for example, authoritarian state appropriations of the terms ‘fake’, ‘disinformation’ and ‘propaganda’ saturated their Ukraine war lexicon, showing that fact/falsehood distinctions obscure disinformation’s discursive aspects. Targeting the Russian


‘node’ in a translingual network, our case studies will centre on Soviet/Russian output identified as disinformation by counter-disinformation units. We will trace the trajectories of this output across regions strategically important to Russia, prioritising Russian, English Arabic, German, French, Spanish and Serbian material. Throughout, we will track the complex interplay between content marked as disinformation, the strategies employed to identify it, and the counterstrategies of its assumed perpetrators. Synchronically, we view disinformation allegations as utterances in which ‘truths’ are contingent on narrating selves impugning others’ ‘falsifying’ practices which, in turn, preempt notions of disinformation prevailing in target contexts. Diachronically, we treat disinformation allegations and practices as an intercultural dynamic unfolding over time. This framework generates a toolset to be applied to a set of disinformation campaigns assigned Russian/Soviet provenance. These case studies are book-ended by historical and socio-cultural contextualization of the discourses in which the disinformation was practiced; and study of its social media remediation, the meanings various audiences give it, and policy responses to it.

Methods: Capturing the Disinformation (Life) Cycle The context analysis targets English and Russian material of the 1960s-1980s. Our pilot diachronic study of uses of the concept ‘disinformation’ will expand to include ‘misinformation’, ‘fake news’, ‘state propaganda’ and ‘psychological warfare’. A second dataset will capture the operational principles of the EU’s East StratCom Task Force which has the largest disinformation database; NATO’s Digital Forensic Research Lab; and EUDisinfoLab, our project partner. For Russia, we will examine Russian counterdisinformation manuals, and prefaces and polemical commentaries accompanying Russian translations of key English texts, starting with the 1929 Soviet translation of Harold Lasswell’s seminal book Propaganda Technique in the World War. For non-Western contexts, we will analyse (Middle East) and Defensoria de Publico (Latin America), pinpointing how they differentiate ‘truth-seeking’ selves and ‘deceptive’ others. The case studies target media output identified as ‘false narratives’ or ‘disinformation campaigns.’ The historical cases are: Soviet influence campaigns around European neo-Nazi extremism (a precursor of current Kremlin propaganda); and on the origins of AIDS. For individual stories, we will identify linguacultural variation, comparing narrative structures and truth claim attributions. The contemporary material includes news reports, talk-shows, and social media posts. Based on the US State Department’s ‘5 top Kremlin narratives’, it covers those specific to Russia; and those of a global scope, enabling us to pinpoint Russia’s role as a disinformation node. They are: ‘deep state’ and ‘global elite’ conspiracies; anti-vaxxer rhetoric; ‘Russophobia’; and the ‘demise of Western civilization’. All 5 acquired new valences during the Ukraine war. We will consider monitors’ attention to their linguacultural context; attribution of deceit; and lineage, evaluating their assigned disinformation status. Contemporary datasets will begin with ESTF database examples to ensure that material is predefined as ‘disinformation’. We will scrutinise multilingual sources mapped to ‘false narratives’ and supplied with ‘disproofs’.


To address translingual collusion and disinformation’s interactions with media narratives, we will examine tweets relating to each case study, mapping trajectories, identifying nodes of platform-to-platform remediation and linguistic journeys, especially across Russian, Serbian, and Arabic. This will inform the selection of a subset of tweets for analysis of user profiles and individual posts. We will survey meanings that narrative fragments acquire as they cross linguistic environments, are reappropriated by new knowledge networks, and redisclosed within alternative umbrella narratives. Our audience analysis will explore how material labelled as disinformation is consumed by Russian minorities in Estonia and Serbia, and by UK Arabic-speakers. Focus groups will discuss specific narratives, using relevant prompts – e.g., social media posts circulating in local media - and media use and information sources. Data will be analysed via content analysis software (to gain a broad sense of how audience groups appropriate material) and more targeted thematic analysis (to link narratives to particular news sources). To complete our account of the disinformation life cycle, our Chatham House partners will use simulation workshop exercises designed to test policy responses to diagnosing key narratives. These exercises will centre on immersive planning for two scenarios: the possibility of a new pandemic, and a further episode of Russian expansionism. The workshops will challenge participants to generate culture-specific resilience measures through hands-on exercises, and by gaming the relationship between disinformation’s legislative definitions and dominant narratives in local contexts.

Outcomes and Outputs: Towards a New (Critical) Disinformation Studies The outputs that we plan will develop the agenda for a still incipient Critical Disinformation Studies. However, our interrogation of the status quo serves a constructive purpose. Working with our policy partners, we will remain committed to supporting democratic integrity, information resilience and good governance, to improving their appreciation of the linguacultural and historical contexts in which disinformation is produced and consumed, their tools for detecting manipulated information and their understanding of the relationship between counter-disinformation theory and practice. The most efficacious forms of analysis are always self-aware and reflexive. For, as Timothy Garton-Ash argues, ‘Self-criticism is [liberalism’s] traditional path to renewal’.


Spinning Prigozhin: How Russian Television Managed the Wagner Mutiny

Paul Goode, Carleton University

Russian state television’s nightly news on June 23, 2023, treated viewers to routine stories about foiled plots against Russia, Russian Army successes in Ukraine, breakthroughs in Russian medical science, backfiring Western sanctions, Russophobia on the march in Ukraine, Russian military academy graduation ceremonies, record-setting performances of Russian soldier-athletes, and highlights of domestic tourist destinations. Figure 1: Top stories from First Channel’s 9:00 p.m. news broadcast on June 23, 2023.1

On the morning of June 24, the regular cadence of reporting on Russian state television was interrupted by a startling lead story at 6:00 a.m.: Overnight, a situation has been developing around the claim by Yevgeny Prigozhin that the Russian Armed Forces allegedly attacked the PMC Wagner rear command post. A blurry video was posted along with the statement—allegedly of the consequences of the attack—in which nothing is clear [nichego ne poniatno]. Prigozhin then called for dealing with the

Unless otherwise indicated, all images and quotes in this story are taken from First Channel (Pervyi Kanal) broadcasts accessed via the research service. 1


leadership of the Ministry of Defense. Our military department has rejected the claim of a strike on PMC Wagner’s location … This opening was followed by a series of denials and accusations by the Ministry of Defense, National Antiterrorism Committee, FSB (the Federal Security Service, Russia’s domestic intelligence and law enforcement unit), and the General Prosecutor’s Office. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was aware of the situation and in contact with security and defense services. The report concluded by stating that Prigozhin’s video was clearly faked and amounted to an “informational provocation.” The report was repeated verbatim at 8 am, adding only that emergency measures were being introduced in Moscow and the surrounding Moscow oblast. Figure 2: Statement by Ministry of Defense reported on First Channel’s6:00 a.m. news broadcast on June 24, 2023.

At 9:59 a.m., Putin went on national television and appealed to “those who were dragged into a criminal adventure by deceit or by force, [and were] pushed into the serious crime of armed mutiny.” Warning that Russia was currently fighting for its sovereignty and independence (by invading Ukraine), he characterized the mutiny as a “stab in the back” and treason, likening it to 1917 and the onset of the Russian Civil War. Putin’s framing of the affair as a stab in the back would quickly become a dominant framing throughout the day’s reporting. Though Putin did not mention him by name, the 10:00 a.m. news increased focus on Prigozhin and added the claim that the mutiny was likely premeditated. To this last point, it cited a claim by the popular pro-war Telegram channel “Rybar'” that the recordings were made at the same time in advance of Prigozhin’s original statement condemning the Ministry of Defense. Putin’s address and the 10:00 a.m. news were rebroadcast at noon. While it was reported that public events had been canceled in a variety of regions (including Kaliningrad,


Lipetsk, Tver, Tula, Komi, Tomsk, and Kaluga) no indication was given that Wagner had moved beyond Rostov towards Moscow. Figure 3: Reference to the Rybar' Telegram Channel alleging Prigozhin’s statements were recorded in advance, on First Channel’s10:00 a.m. news broadcast on June 24, 2023.

As one might surmise from the increasingly alarmist reporting, the morning of June 24 was filled with uncertainty and confusion for many Russians. For starters, Prigozhin and Wagner were not household names in Russia, nor did they receive much recognition in domestic media prior to the mutiny. In fact, neither Prigozhin nor Wagner were mentioned even once on Russia’s national television news broadcasts in the month preceding the affair, yet suddenly they were everywhere. According to Levada’s research, most Russians found out about the incident only on the morning of June 24 with an average of 44% of Russians learning about the affair from television (though this amount was skewed towards those 40 and older, whereas Russian youth relied more upon Telegram and other social networking platforms). Those who first learned of the affair from state television on the morning of June 24 were in for quite a ride as First Channel rapidly repackaged the affair for viewers in the morning, afternoon, and evening of June 24, and yet again on the evening of June 25. The following analysis is produced by the Russian Media Observation and Reporting (RuMOR) project at Carleton University, which uses broadcast transcripts of Russia’s national and regional television and radio provided by the research service to examine the evolution of Russia’s war narratives. This report focuses on reporting by the state-run First Channel [Pervyi Kanal] (1TV), which provided the most extensive television coverage of the affair.

Framing the Mutiny The mutiny was framed initially on the morning of June 24 as a provocation and—most frequently—as a “stab in the back.” Mutineers from Wagner were painted as deceived or 15

forced to participate in Prigozhin’s treasonous adventure, which was also characterized as an act of terrorism. Two framing dynamics bear particular mention: (1) there was increasing discussion of the mutiny as treason throughout the first day, as well as (2) escalating mentions of public support for Putin. Figure 4: Narrative shifts in First Channel reporting (mentions per time slot, June 24–25, 2023).

The increasingly dire accusations of treason underscored the severity of the situation. Yet this severity begged the question of why someone so trusted by Putin would turn traitor, hence there was a clear effort to attack any public sentiment favoring Prigozhin by portraying him as corrupt and to undermine his personal charisma. By the afternoon, it was reported that police were searching Wagner’s offices in Saint Petersburg and located a “box of cash” in a car parked near the gates. This was updated in the evening broadcasts to indicate a specific amount (4 billion rubles, or approximately US $43.5 million) and the ominous conclusion that “special services will determine where it came from.” The afternoon broadcasts further implied that Wagner might have been responsible for the breach of security in Belgorod in May. The evening broadcasts closed with brief reports of an interview on German television with former Wagner mercenaries who complained about Prigozhin’s condescending and offensive personality.


Figure 5: Report on Raiding of Wagner’s Offices in Saint Petersburg on First Channel’s 3:00 p.m. news broadcast on June 24, 2023.

Equally important were the escalating mentions of public support for Putin, which reached a crescendo by the evening of June 24 and persisted the next day as the dominant framing of the event. The perception of Putin as universally popular remains a vital tool for regime maintenance. Over the course of the Prigozhin affair, this perception was repeatedly flagged on state television—by anchors, by man-in-the-street interviews, and by elite statements. The likely intent of these claims was to dissuade fence-sitters from siding with the mutineers and to deter additional challenges to Putin’s rule. Part and parcel of claiming Putin’s popularity was demonstrating public opposition to the mutiny, though this proved more difficult to document. For example, First Channel showed just a brief video clip of an army veteran in Rostov shaming the mercenaries to evidence that Wagner did not have the public’s support. Another clip of just a couple seconds was later added to the rotation in which a man can be heard shouting expletives at Wagnerites and asking, “didn’t you hear what Putin said?!”


Figure 6: A pro-Putin army veteran confronts Wagner mercenaries, as shown on First Channel’s 12:00 noon news broadcast on June 24, 2023.

Aside from treason and public support for Putin, two narratives drew upon previous state television repertoires for dealing with war-related crises. First, the framing of the mutiny as a terrorist act echoed coverage of the attack on Russia’s Belgorod region by Russian partisans supported by Ukrainian artillery in May and the blowing up of the Kakhovka Dam in central Ukraine in June. In both cases, Ukraine was claimed to be the source of terrorist attacks. In state television’s reporting on the attacks on Belgorod as terrorism, there was no mention whatsoever of the role of Russian partisans and there was total denial that any attacks happened on Russian soil. In the Prigozhin affair, likewise, there were similar silences: there was no mention on state television that Wagner had moved beyond Rostov, that its forces had met with little resistance, or that they had destroyed seven military aircraft while en route to Moscow. As Wagner advanced toward the Kremlin, however, the televised claims of terrorism diminished and were superseded by cries of treason. The terrorism frame was also used by Russian state television to blame Ukraine for the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in June. In both cases, Russian propaganda linked the event with claims about Ukraine’s flailing counteroffensive. In the Kakhovka Dam coverage, the claims of terrorism and desperation to overcome battlefield losses surged through the first two days of the crisis and only receded in favor of a narrative that held the West responsible for destroying the dam, with extensive quoting from former Fox News broadcaster Tucker Carlson’s short video posted on Twitter. As we will see shortly, a similar evolution occurred in coverage of the Prigozhin affair in which blaming the West emerged in the latter stages of coverage by state television.


Threats to Russia, Past and Present From the outset, the stakes of the mutiny—whether as a stab in the back, a terrorist act, or treason—were portrayed as working to Ukraine’s advantage in the war and as potentially leading to civil war in Russia. While the first claim was obvious to any outside observer, in practice it was difficult to document on state television without disclosing Wagner’s successes and the speed of its advance (or, for that matter, how poorly the regular Russian Army had performed on the battlefield without Wagner’s support). Starting from the noon broadcast on June 24, First Channel repeatedly ran a story that the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, openly supported Prigozhin, while also attributing to Budanov the erroneous statement that Ukraine’s government sought to kill all Russians.2 Figure 7: Threats to Russia Portrayed in First Channel Reporting (mentions per time slot, June 24–25, 2023).

In elaborating the scale of the threat posed by the mutiny, First Channel’s broadcasts made frequent resort to historical analogy. Foremost among these references was Putin’s association of the mutiny with the memory of 1917 and the Russian Civil War in his morning address, which was rebroadcast at regular intervals throughout the day.3 Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church was further quoted as likening the threat to the Time of Troubles (smuta)— a lawless period in Russian history prior to the Romanov dynasty. Kirill’s comment was particularly interesting because the historical association with violent succession suggested a perception that the mutiny could divide the country’s leadership. Both analogies raised In an interview for Yahoo News, Budanov responded to a question about the assassination of farright Russian political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin’s daughter, Daria Dugina, by affirming that no political target was safe, stating: “we’ve been killing Russians and we will keep killing Russians anywhere on the face of this world until the complete victory of Ukraine.” This was widely reported out of context in the Russian media and continues to be repeated in support of the Kremlin’s claim that it faces an existential threat from Ukraine. 3 Putin did not specify whether he meant the February or October Revolution, only that Russia’s victory in the First World War was stolen, followed by Civil War. 2


questions about their accuracy and meaning among professional historians, though the point was less to demonstrate knowledge of history than to conjure the audience’s fears of chaos and disorder in much the same way that the Kremlin has used the specter of the 1990s to secure autocratic rule and to caution against political liberalization. Figure 8: Statement by Patriarch Kirill shown on First Channel’s 3:00 p.m. news broadcast on June 24, 2023.

Two threats that escalated throughout the crisis were that to the very survival of Russia (including Russian statehood and national unity) and fears that the crisis would be used by the West to divide and defeat Russia. State television played down the notion of existential threats and the role of the West until the crisis was under control, at which point they were promoted as after-the-fact justifications for the regime’s response to the crisis—a common way that Russian propaganda resolves its political morality tales. Similar patterns were observed in state television’s coverage of other crises, such as the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam.

Simulating Public and Elite Support for Putin An interesting point raised by observers throughout the mutiny concerns the silence of Russia’s political and military leaders, suggesting that perhaps there was some truth to the notion of potential divisions among the elite. From the morning of June 24, First Channel emphasized a unity of voices among the country’s law enforcement and security agencies. Of these, statements by the Ministry of Defense, National Antiterrorism Committee, FSB, and the General Prosecutor’s Office were highlighted, while others like Russia’s National Guard were mentioned in passing as being in constant contact with Putin. Stylistically, this presented the response to the mutiny as a matter for the country’s legal and security institutions—a fact that is especially significant for the lack of any response given by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or Chief of General Staff Valerii Gerasimov to Prigozhin’s personal attacks.


Figure 9: Authoritative voices on Prigozhin’s mutiny (mentions per time slot, June 24–25, 2023).

After the crisis was resolved late on June 24 with the extralegal solution of exile for Prigozhin to Belarus and amnesty for Wagner members, television coverage switched to emphasizing Putin’s personal role in avoiding bloodshed (again, no mention was made of the loss of Russian pilots). Even the role of Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko was minimized by suggesting that he was acting on Putin’s behalf. In other words, state television initially presented the crisis as national and legal in scope, even going so far as to specify the criminal codes and penalties that would apply to the mutineers. However, the resolution of the crisis was presented as solely attributable to Putin’s leadership and flexibility. Aside from these institutional voices, individual members of Russia’s national or regional political elite were mostly absent from state television throughout the morning and afternoon, the only exceptions being Putin’s long-standing allies Valentina Matvienko (the Federation Council Chair), Viacheslav Volodin (the State Duma Speaker), and Patriarch Kirill. By 6:00 p.m., the list expanded slightly to include two high-ranking members of United Russia (Putin’s political party), the leaders of the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Republics in eastern Ukraine, Kursk oblast Governor Roman Starovoit, and Chechnya’s Governor Ramzan Kadyrov. It was not until 9:00 p.m., when the crisis was nearing resolution, that the list finally included members of the systemic opposition like the Communist Party’s Gennadii Ziuganov and Just Russia’s Sergei Mironov. Finally, there were no broadcasts including elite voices of support for Putin throughout June 25 until the 9:00 p.m. news, which added just two more individuals: another systemic opposition leader in Leonid Slutskii (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia: LDPR), and a member of United Russia’s Supreme Council, Vasilii Piskarev.


Table 1: Chronology of Elite Expressions of Support for Putin on First Channel.

While state television presented these elite statements as confirmation that national and regional leaders had united in support of Putin, it is striking that the list initially was drawn from a relatively narrow circle (including those most beholden to Putin in Ukraine’s occupied territories) and only grew once the outcome of the crisis started to come into focus. This anemic display of loyalty by mostly second-tier elites is perhaps the most intriguing sign of possible divisions among Russia’s elite over the Prigozhin affair—an interpretation perhaps bolstered (indirectly) by the dropping of Patriarch Kirill’s mention of the Time of Troubles from the June 25 broadcast. While this might suggest that the country’s most powerful actors were unwilling to publicly express support for Putin during a challenge to his rule, it seems more likely that state television implemented a “spin dictator” strategy of ensuring that Putin was portrayed as the lone competent leader in the country.


Figure 10: Categories of Elite Expressions of Support for Putin (mentions per time slot, June 24–25, 2023).4

One also finds lukewarm evidence of international support for Putin in the crisis. Starting from the 3:00 p.m. broadcast, it was regularly reported that Putin was communicating with world leaders, including Lukashenko, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirzieev, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Notably, the contents of these discussions were not revealed—including Tokaev’s apparent rebuff of Putin’s call for support—and only Erdoğan was reported as “fully supporting” Russia’s government. It was also reported in passing that Putin received verbal support from Abkhazia (recognized as independent and supported by Russia), Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. State television initially portrayed Western leaders as carefully monitoring the situation throughout June 24. However, by the evening of June 25, it devoted substantial time to blaming the West for the crisis. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić was also quoted as saying that the mutiny could not have occurred without the participation of foreign security services, and that it was only foiled thanks to Putin’s leadership. First Channel even ran a lengthy schadenfreude story about the West’s disappointment at the mutiny’s failure.

DNR/LNR: Donetsk People’s Republic / Luhansk People’s Republic (occupied territories in eastern Ukraine) 4


Figure 11: Report on Western disappointment at the mutiny’s failure, as shown on First Channel’s 9:00 p.m. news broadcast on June 25, 2023.

Chyron translation: “It didn’t work. Too early to celebrate.”

Conclusion The Prigozhin affair presented a qualitatively new challenge for Russia’s domestic propaganda. To provide some perspective on the scale of the challenge, it is worth noting that the RuMOR project has been documenting how Russia’s war narratives shifted over weeks and months since the start of the war. By contrast, state television shifted radically in its coverage of the mutiny several times in the same day. The script was familiar, however, in that it started with a crisis that was defined as national in scope while the resolution was portrayed as Putin’s personal achievement. Since the brief mutiny, experts have continued to debate its meaning and significance. For some, it appeared to be a coup attempt, and Putin’s claim to rule was briefly in question. Others interpret the mutiny as a consequence of Russia’s personalist autocracy in pitting powerful elite networks against one another. In this interpretation, the Prigozhin affair was an escalation of ongoing elite competition that went too far and left Putin significantly weakened as result. Unlike these elite-focused assessments, state television provides some insight into what the Kremlin does and does not want the general population to know. In turn, these insights reveal where the regime considers itself vulnerable. One of the core observations of the RuMOR project’s monitoring of Russian television’s coverage of the war in Ukraine has been that Russian television aims minimize the extent to which the war impinges upon Russians’ daily lives. In addition, it is worth noting that state television generally does not distinguish between the different kinds of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, though Russia relies on multiple paramilitary organizations, including Wagner, in addition to the regular army. The sudden and immediate escalation of coverage of the Prigozhin affair ruptured this otherwise prosaic approach to war reporting. This fact, 24

alone, is significant. That state television reported extensively on the mutiny and its stakes— all the while reshuffling narratives as events developed—is evidence that the regime perceived the mutiny as sufficiently threatening to risk interrupting the usual cadence of domestic propaganda. More subtly, state television was forced to play catch-up with respect to coverage on social networking platforms, especially Telegram, and repeatedly warned viewers not to trust “unofficial information sources.” In this sense, Prigozhin effectively leveraged his presence on Telegram to challenge the dominance of state television. In this regard, the strategic silences observed in television coverage were all the more evident as contradictory information circulated on social media. There was grudging acknowledgement on the evening of June 24 that Wagner had succeeded in blockading the Southern Military District command in Rostov, but no mention that they had captured Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister. While there were reports of highway closures, there was no mention that Wagner was advancing on Moscow—even as several Telegram channels reported on its progress. There was no admission for two days that Wagner shot down several military aircraft, and this was further concealed in the reporting on June 25 that lauded Putin for his flexibility in not insisting upon criminal charges for Prigozhin and in securing a resolution to the crisis without “serious bloodshed.” In covering international responses to the mutiny, there was no mention of Kazakhstan’s dismissal of the mutiny as Russia’s internal affair or the substance of discussions with other putative allies. Taken as a whole, the shifting portrayal of the mutiny ultimately revolves around key focal points: that Putin is in control, that Putin is supported by the population and the elite, and that Russia is not isolated in world politics. Threats to Russia’s interior are extremely sensitive since they threaten to make the war personal for Russians, hence the silences about Wagner’s advances. External threats, and especially threats posed by the West, are safe to discuss and even useful for propaganda purposes as long as they can be presented as manageable by Putin (and only Putin). For this reason, the claims of Western culpability for the mutiny arose only after it was resolved. In the murky unwinding of the mutiny, Russians’ heads are spinning as fast as the propaganda machine. Looking ahead, the lasting significance of the affair concerns whether Putin’s propagandists can manage the public’s expectation of repercussions for the mutineers without compromising his image of being in control. Shortly after the mutiny concluded, Putin gave a brief national address that was promoted as deciding the fate of the nation. In fact, what the nation heard was an admission that Prigozhin and Wagner could evade prosecution. Putin further admitted that several military aircraft were lost, and later even admitted that Wagner is entirely funded by the Russian state. Public opinion polling indicates that most Russians approved of Putin’s management of the crisis, though polling under conditions of war censorship and increasing repression tends to produce such results. For those watching closely, the question of accountability may be shifting quietly from Prigozhin to Putin.


Mutiny Orientation — North: Geidar Dzhemal’s Metaphysics of Politics

Maria Engström, Professor of Russian, Uppsala University

One scarcely researched territory of the late-Soviet underground is the system of metaphysical and occult concepts, which were popular from the 1960s to the 1980s, and their influence on the culture and political thought of post-Soviet Russia.1 The history of esoteric movements in the Soviet underground, to include the political occultism of the late Soviet period, is a significant component in the study of post-Soviet illiberal circles, especially with regard to radical conservatism and Traditionalism.2 In this essay, my intent is not to focus on the parallels between “neo-reaction(ism)” and the recycling of the “dark Soviet underground” in contemporary Russia but rather to highlight a selection of texts and key ideological knots that are greatly important to understanding both the dark underground and Soviet occulture.3 It offers a brief analysis of the radical conservatism that mushroomed after the collapse of the USSR and its influence on the Z-turn of Russian ideology and culture after February 24, 2022.

Dark Soviet Underground The core of the occult or dark underground was the Iuzhinskii Circle.4 This group should be counted as a Russian version of European Traditionalism, since its main ideologists (Yuri With a few exceptions—see Birgit Menzel, Michael Hagemeister, and Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, eds., The New Age of Russia: Occult and Esoteric Dimensions (Munich/Berlin: Verlag Otto Sagner); and Birgit Menzel, “The Occult Underground of Late Soviet Russia,” Aries 13, no. 2 (2013): 269–88, 2 On Traditionalism as a distinct movement that began in the confines of the twentieth century, see Mark Sedgwick, Traditionalism: The Radical Project for Restoring Sacred Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023). 3 In Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture and Occulture, vol. 1 of The Re-Enchantment of the West (London: T&T Clark International, 2005), British religious scholar Christopher Partridge suggests the term “occulture” to describe Western esoteric and occult subcultures and secret societies. Birgit Menzel uses this term to describe the general late-Soviet attraction to “non-Soviet” intellectual and religious traditions (which, as she claims, transcend the framework of nonconformist culture)—see Menzel, “The Occult Underground of Late Soviet Russia.” 4 On the Iuzhinskii Circle, see Marlene Laruelle, “The Iuzhinskii Circle: Far-Right Metaphysics in the Soviet Underground and Its Legacy Today,” The Russian Review 74, no. 4 (October 2015): 563–80,; Jafe Arnold, “Mysteries of Eurasia: The Esoteric Sources of Alexander Dugin and the Yuzhinsky Circle” (master’s thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2019), gin_and_the_Yuzhinsky_Circle; and Maria Engström, “Late-Soviet Occulture: Evgenii Golovin and the Iuzhinskii Circle,” in The Oxford Handbook of Soviet Underground Culture, eds. Mark Lipovetsky, Maria 1


Mamleev, Geidar Dzhemal, and Evgenii Golovin) developed ideas that originated with the founders of Traditionalism in the first half of the 20th century—René Guénon (1886–1951) and Julius Evola (1898–1974).5 In addition, Evgenii Golovin and later (in the 1980s and 1990s) Alexander Dugin (b. 1962) were the initial popularizers of Aleister Crowley’s “magick” and H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror in Russia: two figures who bore great affinities with the inhuman poetics of the Iuzhinskii group.6 The metaphysical politics of the late Soviet period may also be of interest to those concerned with the so-called “post-human” or “dark” turn in contemporary Western philosophy (more specifically, the movement of “neo-reaction”/“NRx” formulated by Nick Land as the “Dark Enlightenment”).7 Traditionalism and post-Traditionalism, as anti-Enlightenment schools of thought belonging to the early- and mid-20th century, draw together with the contemporary

Engström, Tomáš Glanc, Ilja Kukuj, and Klavdia Smola (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 5 Mark Sedgwick, “Occult Dissident Culture: The Case of Alexander Dugin,” in The New Age of Russia, 273–92; and Pavel Nosachev, “Integralny traditsionalizm: mezhdu politikoi i ezoterikoi,” Gosudarstvo, religiia, Tserskov v Rossii i za rubezhom 4 (2013): 203–22. Mamleev (1931–2015) was a Soviet/Russian writer and the founding member of the Iuzhinskii circle. On his metaphysical doctrine, see Charlie Smith, “Yuri Mamleev’s Fate of Being as a Response to Guénon’s Metaphysics,” in Passages: Studies in Traditionalism and Traditions (Warsaw: PRAV, 2023, forthcoming). 6 Dugin, a radical right-wing philosopher and public figure who is often counted among the Iuzhinsky, did not take part in the legendary get-togethers on Iuzhinskii pereulok, but was included in the already established circle of Moscow’s esoterics at the very beginning of the 1980s. The Iuzhnitsy, in contrast to a number of other Soviet underground and dissident communities, were not very interested in a political or social critique of the Soviet order, but focused on “metaphysical” concerns. Mamleev notes: We felt distinctly that that there was a bottomless chasm beneath us and that the whole planet was sinking into it, and at the same time there was a feeling that this was probably necessary: quite possibly, the planet had completed its journey in order to then be reborn at the next level. We were haunted by a kind of cosmic feeling of spiritual ruin that encompassed the world, the chaos of spiritual collapse. (Elena Golovina, ed., Gde net parallelei i net poliusov. Pamiati Evgeniia Golovina [Moscow: Iazyki slavianskoi kul’tury, 2015].) The goal of this community was the awakening of the creative personality, which might penetrate (by the power of its own intuition or with the help of psychotropic means) different, superhuman worlds, with the goal of creating “other” art, “other” poetry, and “other” philosophy that might carry traces and reflections of additional dimensions, i.e., be radically different from the social and cultural norm. The way out of what the Iuzhintsy considered the dead end of rational knowledge dominating the world was seen in the constant search for the absurd, chaos, and otherworldly, often ominous, revelations. An interest in the evil is reflected in the reading circle of the Iuzhintsy, where priority was given to the genre of black fantasy (H. P. Lovecraft, Jean Ray, and Gustav Meyrink) and the “cursed poets” (Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Gottfried Benn, and Stefan George). 7 Nick Land, The Dark Enlightenment (Imperium Press, 2002).


movements of this Dark Enlightenment.8 Thinkers such as Mark Sedgwick have convincingly argued for a reading of Traditionalism “as a sort of precursor to postmodernism.”9 The question of a dark underground is a timely one for today’s Russia. Russian nonmainstream culture is currently in the throes of a renaissance of “metaphysical realism” and the cult of Yuri Mamleev, whose works are being actively reprinted. One of the main popularizers of this cultural upheaval is the prominent rap artist Vyacheslav Mashnov (b. 1990), a.k.a. Slava KPSS, who devoted his debut studio album The Sun of the Dead (2017) to the topic of “Russian death.”10 Though the title of the album is lifted from a 1923 novel by the Russian monarchist émigré Ivan Shmelyov, Slava timed its release to coincide with the second anniversary of Mamleev’s death (October 25th, 2015); the sixth track on the album, “Shatuny,” makes an obvious reference to Yuri Mamleev’s notorious novel of the same name.

Orientation—North: The Philosophy of Separation and Ontologization of the Underground The groundbreaking text of the dark Soviet underground was a minor philosophical tract entitled Orientation—North, conceived by philosopher and one of the Iuzhinskii Circle founders Geidar Dzhemal (1947–2016). The book’s cult status was a result of its ontology of “undergroundedness”—a radical state of nihilism and “outsideness.” In the course of the work, Dzhemal describes what he calls a “methodology” for carrying out metaphysical revolution against the unjust kingdom of the Absolute. In 1980, Dzhemal dictated the first typewritten version of Orientation—North to fellow Iuzhinskii member and prominent writer Igor Dudinskii (1947–2022). Before the Soviet collapse, Orientation—North was distributed exclusively through samizdat. The second samizdat edition—a run of only 10 copies—was issued by the members of the Iuzhinskii Circle (particularly by Sergei Zhigalkin) with Dzhemal’s involvement in 1984. In 1990, Orientation was published in New York by Arkady Rovner in the anthology AUM: A Synthesis of Western and Eastern Mystical Schools of Thought.11 It received its first complete Russian publication in 1997 in the sixth issue of the leading Russian Traditionalist magazine Magic Mountain [Volshebnaya gora].12 In the first decade of the 2000s, the full version of Orientation—North was included in Dzhemal’s Revolution of the Prophets: Collected Philosophical Works and Lectures of

Post-Traditionalism is a political theology of a protest developed by Dzhemal as a critique of Traditionalism by setting it against Monotheism, see below. Russian post-traditionalism is influenced by the works of Ali Shariati (1933–1977), an Iranian sociologist and one of the ideologists of the Islamic Revolution. 9 “Traditionalism: René Guénon’s Legacy Today—Interview with Mark Sedgwick,” Religioscope, June 4, 2004, 10 Slava KPSS (meaning “Glory to the CPSU” [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]) is one of Mashnov’s stage names (other pseudonyms include Gnoyny and Sonya Marmeladova). 11 AUM: Sintez misticheskikh uchenii Zapada i Vostoka, vol. 4 (New York: Terra, 1990). 12 Edited by Artur Medvedev (1968–2009). 8


Geidar Dzhemal.13 In 2019, three years after Dzhemal’s death, the book was published in a dedicated edition by Tradition Press, a Moscow-based publishing house that specializes in Traditionalism, esotericism, the Soviet metaphysical underground, and more specifically, the Iuzhinskii Circle.14 Orientation—North is one of the central manifestoes of Soviet occulture, a “metaphysical manual” of sorts. According to Arkady Rovner—a Soviet-American poet and adherent of George Gurdjieff’s (1866–1949) metaphysical doctrine of the “Fourth Way”15—Orientation became the pinnacle of the metaphysical wave in late-Soviet culture, the capstone and embodiment of the times: “[Orientation—North] accumulated within itself, as in a crystal, that which was strongest, most brilliant and most potent [in the underground of the 1970s and 1980s]. . . . It represents the pinnacle of what we sometimes call the Russian Bronze Age.”16 Orientation contains a multitude of parallels with Mamleev’s “Final Doctrine [Posledniaia doktrina],” and Dzhemal frequently referred to his own philosophy as “the doctrine of Finalism [doktrina Finalizma],” which he defined as a radical doctrine but not a “Traditionalist” one.17 According to Mamleev, these two works were conceived in dialogue with each other and are both interpretations of the Traditionalist philosophy: Our common pursuits resulted in a teaching which we called “the Final Doctrine.” It is a purely metaphysical doctrine [whose] final form was already relatively established by the early 1970s. Afterward, Dzhemal stayed in Russia and I left. We both worked on the same doctrine [in the interim]. But, later on, our interpretations diverged. His interpretation is expressed in a book which made the rounds via samizdat . . . : Orientation—North. My

Geidar, Dzhemal, Revoliutsiia prorokov: Sobraniie filosofskikh rabot i lektsii Geidara Dzhemalia (Ul’tra.Kul’tura, 2003), 14 See Tradition Press’s website, Traditsiia (helmed by Andrei Stepanov, son of Iuzhinskii member Vladimir Stepanov, and founded in 2014) is the premier Russian publisher of authors such as Gurdjieff, Mamleev, Tat’yana Goricheva, Vladimir Stepanov, Arkady Rovner, and Dzhemal, among many others. 15 This esoteric doctrine was developed by Gurdjieff and his student Pyotr Ouspensky (1878–1947). The doctrine of the “Forth way” is a way of self-development (“awakening”) that can take place in ordinary life and does not demand seclusion from the world. According to Gurdjieff, the majority of people live their lives in a state of “waking sleep,” but it is possible to awaken to a higher state of consciousness by using the traditionalist methods (“the Work”) of the Fakir (control of the body), the Monk (control of the emotions), and the Yogi (control of the mind).This doctrine was popular in the Soviet dissident and underground circles; see Arkady Rovner, Georgii Gurdjieff and Pyotr Ouspensky (Moscow: AST, 2019). 16 See “Prezentatsiya knigi. Geydar Dzhemal’ ‘Oriyentatsiya—Sever’” [Book presentation of Orientation—North], YouTube video, March 26, 2019, 17 Geidar Dzhemal, “Doktrina finalizma,” Intelros, 2010, On the Heideggerian influence on the Iuzhinskii Circle, see Marlene Laruelle, ed., From Heidegger to Dugin and Back (Washington, DC: Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies), 13


interpretation [of the Final Doctrine] appears in the last chapter of The Fate of Being [Sud’ba bytiia].18 Orientation consists of 25 chapters: “Absolute,” “Awakening,” “Cosmos,” “Mind,” “Obscurantism,” “Illusion,” “Irony,” “Dormant,” “Art,” “Horror,” “Death,” “Vagina,” “Blessing,” “Messiah,” “Harlequin,” “Myth,” “Evil,” “Miracle,” “Phallos,” “Parabola,” “Messenger,” “Lightning,” “Spring,” “Love,” and “North.” Each chapter includes 72 clauses (theses), which normally consist of one sentence (occasionally broken into two items). In its aphoristic and laconic form, it is a stylization and subversion of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921); it contains almost no arguments, preferring the mode of the maxim. In this work, Dzhemal develops a new language, along with a novel corpus of concepts (e.g., “Harlequin,” “parabolic invasion,” “beyond-being,” “inner corpse,” “the Absolute,” and “the Otherwise”) that were taken up by a broad circle of writers, artists, and musicians in the Moscow underground of the 1970s and 1980s and used as codewords for the “initiated” or “those in the know”; and again, in the 1990s, these watchwords would serve as tinder for a burgeoning counterculture of radical conservatism (represented primarily by Alexander Dugin, Eduard Limonov, and the National-Bolshevik Party). In the text of Orientation, one immediately perceives a gnostic line of enmity toward matter, as well as the notion of “awakening” as it is respectively propounded by Gurdjieff and Evola.19 In opposing the self-identity of the Absolute, Dzhemal provides an alternative philosophy of radical otherness and nonidentity; in other words, he describes a model of awakened consciousness that is separate from all objects (i.e., matter, extant things). According to this idea, mind and matter (or subject and object) are noncontiguous ontological orders—they are utterly independent and cannot be conjoined. Dzhemal speaks of a “negative polarity” of being and consciousness, which he places in the category of Spirit: “Being exists, but consciousness is what is not there.”20 Put differently, Being (existence) is an absolute object, while consciousness is Non-Being—a pure absence of Being that opposes it and around which Being is centered. The concept of “North” enjoyed a marked popularity among the denizens of Moscow’s metaphysical underground. According to Dzhemal, “North” is not to be understood geographically, even if metaphors of the cold, freezing, and lifelessness are widely evoked by the dark underground and its contemporary heirs, such as the representatives of Russian altart. A significant expression of the poetics of “North” can be found in the Novonovosibirsk

Yuri Mamleev, Sud’ba bytiia: Za predelami induizma i buddizma, (Moscow: Enneagon, 2006), 19 George Gurdjieff, In Search of Being: The Fourth Way to Consciousness (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 2012); and Julius Evola, The Doctrine of Awakening: The Attainment of Self-Mastery According to the Earliest Buddhist Texts (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1996). 20 Geidar Dzhemal, “Consciousness and Language Explained,” YouTube video, June 20, 2020, 18


series by Aleksei Belyaev-Guintovt and Andrei Molodkin (see Figure 1).21 On enormous 8 × 14 foot canvases they portrayed neoclassical sculptures for the new capital of the future Russian-Eurasian empire, Novonovosibirsk. The city was moved closer to the North Pole, the “geometric center of Eurasia.” This is an unpopulated and frigid utopia, a city for people of spirit, hyper-warriors, and conquerors of the North. Figure 1. Aleksei Belyaev-Guintovt and Andrei Molodkin, Apollo in Power, ballpoint pen on canvas, 1999. From the series Novonovosibirsk.

In Dzhemal’s tract, “North” is the revolutionary opposition to the bestial world of phenomena, of “clay” (glina) and the “South.” North is the vector of heroes who rise against the Evil Absolute and the Harlequin, its deputy on Earth. North is an approach toward absolute zero, the place where all things end and all life, created by the Evil Absolute, cools down: 5. North represents the rupture within continuous existence. 6. In the face of this pole, existence ceases and turns back on its heels . . . 11. North is the pole of the impossible. 25. Being outside of experience, North has no common measure with existence. 26. Therefore it is rooted in the absurd . . . 71. He who travels North does not fear the night.

On Belyaev-Guintovt, see Maria Engström, “Neo-cosmism, Empire, and Contemporary Russian Art: Aleksei Belyaev-Gintovt,” in Russian Aviation, Space Flight and Visual Culture, ed. Vlad Strukov and Helena Goscilo (London: Routledge, 2016), 135–65. 21


72. Because light is absent in the skies of the North.22 The concept of a “man apart,” the Man of the North, was borrowed by Dzhemal from Julius Evola. Dzhemal also follows Guénon, admitting that North is not only the impoverishment of reality or the point that opposes the world. North is also the feminine manifestation of the Cosmos, that female orientation that places the subject who casts his glance toward the North in the masculine position. Consequently, those who turn toward the South (the male pole of the Cosmos) take the passive, feminine position. Orientation toward the North (as the feminine manifestation of the Cosmos) with the goal of achieving sacred masculinity is reflected in the work of another Iuzhinskii leader—Evgenii Golovin. In both his lectures and his book Approaching the Ice Queen, on the basis of alchemical and occult literature, European romanticism and black fantasy, Golovin develops the topic of poles as zones of the inhuman closely related to the symbolism of color white.23 Of special significance for Golovin in this regard are Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) and H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931).

The Negative Theology of Protest and Political Post-Traditionalism In Orientation—North, the ethos of nonidentity with the mainstream and that of the underground reach a scale that far exceeds any mere political or cultural protest against Soviet rule. The Soviet regime is seen as an element of the rule of “Harlequin” or “Pharaoh,” that is, the deputy of the Great Creature, the Absolute. This kind of radical protest against the System was what distinguished members of the Iuzhinskii Circle from other underground communities of the time. Orientation is a product of Dzhemal’s Traditionalist era; in agreement with the perennial view of Traditionalism, he calls for border crossings among various religious confessions and traditions. In the late 1990s, however, he went on to criticize Guénon’s Traditionalism, developing a concept he terms political post-Traditionalism, through which he combines a philosophy of protest against the Absolute with a revolution of God against Fate, with monotheism and political Islam (Monotheism against Traditionalism). His public talk “Aryan Islam,” delivered in 1994 in Moscow at the State Museum of the East, presented Dzhemal’s first critique of Traditionalism.24 In it, he opposes the philosophical school of Traditionalism by setting it against Abrahamism, which he characterizes as the counter-Being of Revelation and an invasion of the supernatural into history—a witnessing Spirit that opposes Being. According to Dzhemal, there is a direct connection between the world of ideas and that of politics; by way of radical political acts, one influences the dimension of the metaphysical and the sacred. The prophets (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed), along with their followers, become the agents of protest in Dzhemal’s political occultism. In 1993, Dzhemal established a religious social organization known as the “Islamic Committee of Russia,” Geidar Dzhemal, “Orientation—North,” chap. “Sever,” in Revoliutsiia prorokov, 125–27. Evgenii Golovin, Priblizhenie k snezhnoi koroleve (Moscow: Arktogeiia-Tsentr, 2003). 24 Geidar Dzhemal, “Ariiskii Islam,” Kontrudar 3, no. 1 (1997), 22 23


among the ranks of which were famous journalists Maxim Shevchenko (b. 1966) and Geidar Dzhemal’s son, Orkhan Dzhemal (1966–2018).25 In a cycle of lectures entitled “Tradition and Reality” published in his book The Revolution of Prophets (2003), Dzhemal provides a detailed account of his theology, in which the eponymous Prophets are to rise up against the Great Creature, Iblis, and his priests. However, Dzhemal’s version of political Islam is by no means a “confessional ghetto”; it is rather an open post-Traditionalist structure, a metaphysical Marxism for the 21st century.26

Russia as a Zone of “High Metaphysical Lawlessness” In general, a vivid trait of the dark underground as it existed during the Soviet breakdown was its transition from a purely metaphysical protest to a political one, in light of which great attention was paid to Russia’s role in the global historical process. This turn to the Traditionalist sacred geography is typical of all participants of the Iuzhinskii Circle— Mamleev, Dugin, Dzhemal, and, to a lesser extent, Golovin.27 Dzhemal sees Russia as the only power that can stand in the way of a single, centralized world government—that modern deputy of Iblis. Russia—as the nation of Boreas (the true North)—is the sentinel that holds this line. According to Dzhemal, because Russia is close to the axis mundi, the law of karma does not hold sway there; meanwhile, karma serves as the center of ontological reality for the Absolute: “Russia is the zone in which karma has a minimal function—a zone of ‘high metaphysical lawlessness.’”28 As a result, the Great Creature (Satan, Iblis) enjoys very little influence in the territory of Russia. Because the world lives under the law of Iblis, lawlessness is the project of freedom. According to Dzhemal’s political occultism, Russia is the one country without which resistance to world government is impossible. It is worth noting that in the same year (1997) Dugin published an article entitled “Katekhon and Revolution,” in which he introduced Carl Schmitt’s political-theological notion of the katekhon to his audience; it is this concept that grounds his own theory of Russia as the Christian, imperial katekhon—the last remaining power on Earth that can withhold the arrival of the Antichrist and the

Maxim Shevchenko is one the leading Russian journalists and public intellectuals and specializes in ethno-religious conflicts. Orkhan Dzhemal was killed along with his two colleagues—documentary filmmaker Aleksandr Rastorguyev and cameraperson Kirill Radchenko—in 2018 in the Central African Republic. In 2011, Dzhemal organized a club named “Florian Gayer,” the purpose of which was to unite a number of political and philosophical schools of thought, as well as to develop his political theology of a protest. 26 On political Islam, see Marlene Laruelle, “Digital Geopolitics Encapsulated: Geidar Dzhemal between Islamism, Occult Fascism, and Eurasianism,” in Eurasia 2.0: Russian Geopolitics in the Age of New Media, ed. Mikhail Suslov and Mark Bassin (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016), 80–100; and Gulnaz Sibgatullina and Michael Kemper, “Between Salafism and Eurasianism: Geidar Dzhemal and the Global Islamic Revolution in Russia,” Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations 28, no. 2 (2017): 219–36, 27 On Mamleev, see, for example, Iuri Mamleev, Rossiia vechnaiia (Moscow: Biblioteka Vsemirnoi Literatury, 2014). On Dugin’s ideological trajectory and his esoteric geopolitics, see Arnold, “Mysteries of Eurasia.” 28 Geidar Dzhemal, “Rossia buduschego protiv mirovogo pravitel’stva,” YouTube video, February 1, 2013, 25


commencement of the apocalypse.29 In this sense, both Dugin and Dzhemal situate Russia as the center of all global processes. However, Dugin does so within the framework of Christian eschatology.30

Konstantin Krylov and the Era of the North Another Traditionalist concept holding the North as a central mythologeme is the model of civilization put forth by Konstantin Krylov (1967–2020), a key figure of the latest generation of Russian nationalists and chief editor of the journal Questions of Nationalism [Voprosy natsionalizma].31 Although Krylov was the main theorist of Russian nationalism of his generation and milieu and Dzhemal acted publicly as the premier ideologist of political Islam, they were united by an interest in Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, as well as a common vision of the world as an evil to be overcome. Krylov’s article “Tradition and Knowledge” was published in the same volume of Magic Mountain as Dzhemal’s Orientation—North. For Krylov, Traditionalism is the “memory of the evil committed against us.”32 What these two thinkers have in common is the notion of a metaphysical and political Enemy, the philosophy of “resisting evil with violence” and of establishing severe and impenetrable borders. For Dzhemal, this equates to distinguishing between the awakened subject (the Man of the North) and the Evil Absolute; for Krylov, this is described by the concept of nonidentity and separation—of autarchy on the civilizational level. In 1997, with Valentina Krylova, Krylov published a short book titled Behavior [Povedenie], in which he proposed to classify world history as a succession of civilizational types.33 Konstantin Krylov’s historiosophical concept describes history as a system of relations among four civilizational blocs, the character of which is determined by the dominant ethical system of a given era. The basis of the currently dominant civilization, the West, is the third system of behavior, which is characterized by the dissipation of borders and limits. Russia, consequently, is seen as the future civilization of the North, dominated by the fourth ethical system; this will be a “Northern ethics” built around a principle that “others should not behave toward me any differently than I behave toward them.”34 Krylov argues that humanity is currently entering the next psychic and ethical order. The era of dissolving borders (dominated by Western civilization) is being usurped by that of Separation and established Limits. This is a system that calls for separation over integration or dissolution, a new, sharply delineated world. At the fundament of this fourth ethical era is an understanding of Being as something that is surrounded by a hostile world and survives thanks to its suspicion, violent Alexander Dugin, “Katekhon and Revolution,” in Tampliery proletariat (Moscow: Arctogeia, 1997), 30 On Katekhon and Russian politics, see Maria Engström, “Contemporary Russian Messianism and New Russian Foreign Policy,” Contemporary Security Policy 35, no. 3 (2014): 356–79, 31 Krylov wrote science fiction under the pen-name Mikhail Kharitonov. 32 Krylov, “Tradition and Knowledge,” Volshebnaya Gora 6 (1997): 394–403. 33 Konstantin Krylov and Valentina Krylova, Povedenie (Moscow: Pedagogicheskii poisk, 1997). 34 Egor Kholmogorov, “Konstantin Krylov. Povedenie,” Voprosy natsionalizma 1, no. 33 (2021): 29. 29


resistance to threats, and erection of barriers. According to Krylov, Western civilization will begin its decline and Northern civilization will begin its ascent to dominance in the year 2025.

Russia as the Civilization of North: From Underground to Mainstream This essay represents a preliminary approach to the subject of political occultism in the underground of post-Soviet Russian counterculture. However, even this initial analysis suggests that Krylov’s concept of Northern civilization and Geydar Dzhemal’s metaphysics of radical subjectivity and the Man of the North should be treated as significant ideological sources when analyzing the Z-turn in contemporary Russian ideology and culture after February 24, 2022. The conception of Russia as the civilization of the North—a radical force that destroys the System and resists the Absolute, along with its all-powerful deputies—is being articulated in an increasingly brazen manner by the leading political analysts of the Russian mainstream. Metaphysical constructions are being colonized by an entirely secular geopolitical language. To take one example, Dmitrii Trenin, a member of Council for Foreign and Defense Policy and former director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, calls for his audience to view the war in Ukraine as a first stage in the formation of a new world order, which will be characterized by resolute resistance to Western civilization on the part of the “global majority” (i.e., civilizations of the South [India], the East [China], and the North [Russia]).35 In Trenin’s opinion, after having initiated the war and cast the gauntlet down before Western hegemony, Russia is breaking away from the pro-European line of development that it has followed for the past 500 years (beginning with Sophia [Zoe] Palaiologina); as a result, he claims, Russia is entering a totally new historical period, and its task therein will be to understand itself not as the “East of the West” or the “West of the East” but as a unique civilization of the North.

Dmitrii Trenin, “Novaia kontseptsia vneshnei politiki Rossii. Na puti k novomu miroporiadku,” YouTube video, April 13, 2023, 35


The “Special Path” of Russian State-Civilization: The Genealogy of Vladimir Putin’s Geopolitical Metaphor

Igor Torbakov, Uppsala University

It has long been noted that when public figures and politicians start talking obsessively about their country’s great “originality,” “special path,” or “unique mission in the world,” it is a sure sign they are facing mounting problems with forging a modern democratic polity, civic nation, and respectable international identity. Contemporary Russia is a case in point. Its new foreign policy doctrine, signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on March 31, 2023, is a truly remarkable document, as it has for the first time declared at the highest official level Russia’s civilizational uniqueness. Extolling Russia’s glorious “1,000-year-long history,” the strategic blueprint claims for Moscow a “historically unique mission” of “maintaining the global balance of power” and defines “Russia’s special position [in the world] as a unique state-civilization…that brings together the Russian people and other peoples belonging to the cultural and civilizational community of the Russian World.”1 Never before had the Russian leadership officially stated that Russia is a sui generis civilization. True, Catherine the Great, known for her occasional arrogance, was reported to have once said that “Russia itself is the [whole] universe and it doesn’t need anyone,” though the empress was quick to qualify her statement, adding that “Russia is a European country.” However, these days the Russian elites appear ready to cut their country loose from its European moorings. “The old strategy, beginning with Peter the Great, to Europeanize the country and take its place in that world, is no longer relevant,” contends Dmitri Trenin, one of Russia’s leading foreign policy experts.2 This radical “civilizational” reorientation is of course the direct result of the war Russia unleashed against Ukraine and of the Western democracies’ resolute and united response to that war. Yet Russia’s military aggression, driven by the Kremlin’s nationalistic obsession with Ukraine, is in itself a manifestation of post-imperial Russia’s deep identity crisis. More the 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, four key issues remain unresolved: where do the boundaries of the Russian political nation lie? Are Russians capable of building a truly democratic polity, or are they “historically” destined to be ruled by authoritarian leaders? Is Russia a federation (as it is characterized in its Constitution) or is it a quasi-imperial entity? What is the ultimate objective of Russia’s historical development?


Kontseptsiia vneshnei politiki Rossiiskoi Federatsii, 2 Dmitri Trenin, “Why Building a New Order Is Now Existential Issue for Russia,” Russia Today, February 3, 2023,


The Kremlin leadership will not give clear and straightforward answers to these questions. Instead, it obfuscates the real problems, setting forth the ideas about Russia’s “unique civilization” and “special path” while claiming that the “West” is in terminal decline and on its last legs. The political implication of this rhetorical maneuver is not hard to fathom: there is no need for Russia to follow the “advanced” Western nations, as the latter are not out ahead of Russia but, on the contrary, have lost their way and found themselves at a “historical dead end.” Yet the notion of a “special path” (or Sonderweg), like the trope of the West’s decline, has a long intellectual pedigree. Looking at the similarities and dissimilarities between Deutscher Sonderweg and Russkii osoby put’ (special path) is instructive. The Germans who coined the term managed to reinterpret their complex historical experience, turning Sonderweg into a research method – a useful historiographical tool that proved especially handy in the field of comparative studies. Most Russians, however, continue to view their historical experience as “unique,” eagerly embracing the idea of a “special path” as the basis for self-identification and self-understanding.3

Romantic Nationalism and the Birth of the Sonderweg Idea In his last letter to Pyotr Chaadaev from October 19, 1836, Alexander Pushkin, while critiquing his friend’s idiosyncratic view of Russia’s past, posed an intriguing question about how a “future historian” would see 19th century Russia: croyez-vous qu’il nous mettra hors l’Europe? (do you think that he will place us outside Europe?).4 Pushkin, a consummate European who corresponded with Chaadaev exclusively in French, appeared to have been somewhat apprehensive about future historians characterizing Russia as a non-European country. Little did he know that statements advancing the thesis of Russia’s “special path” and proclaiming Europe “rotten,” “decrepit” and even “dying” would come from much closer quarters. Mortally wounded in a fateful duel in 1837, Pushkin did not witness the beginning of the grand debate on Russia’s identity, the distinctive features of its historical development, and its relation to Europe that was unleashed by the publication of Chaadaev’s first “Philosophical Letter” – a debate that is still ongoing. It was not a future historian but another great 19thcentury Russian poet, Fyodor Tyutchev, four years Pushkin’s junior, who coined a paradigmatic formulation about Russia’s samobytnost’ (originality): “no ordinary yardstick can span her greatness: she stands alone, unique…”5 But how original were Tyutchev’s historiosophical musings about Russia’s originality? As a Russian diplomat, Tyutchev spent more than 20 years abroad, mostly in Germany (at the Bavarian court in Munich), where he came under the strong influence of the German Romantic 3

For a perceptive discussion of the Russian Sonderweg thesis, including in comparative perspective, see Mikhail Velizhev, Timur Atnashev, and Andrei Zorin, ‘Osoby put’: Ot ideologii k metodu (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2019); Dmitri Travin, ‘Osoby put’ Rossii: Ot Dostoevskogo do Konchalovskogo (St. Petersburg: Izd. St. Peterburgskogo universiteta, 2018); Andrei Zaostrovtsev, ed., Rossiia 1917-2017: Evropeiskaia modernizatsiia ili ‘osoby put’ (St. Petersburg: Leont’evskii Tsentr, 2017); Emil Pain, ed., Ideologiia ‘osobogo puti’ v Rossii i Germanii: istoki, soderzhanie, posledstviia (Moscow: Tri kvadrata, 2010). 4 A.S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 6 vols, ed. M.A. Tsiavlovskii (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1938) 4: 432. 5 F.I. Tyutchev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 6 vols. (Moscow: IMLI, 2003) 2: 165


movement – a cultural phenomenon that was instrumental for the emergence of the idea of Germany’s Sonderweg. In the course of the wars of liberation against Napoleon, German national consciousness and collective identity took shape, in contradistinction to those of the French. In parallel, a number of influential German intellectuals put forth an idea about Germany’s (Germany was at that time an assemblage of the scores of German states) special sociopolitical development being distinct from other (Western) European countries such as England and France. According to Leopold von Ranke, German history is unique: “each nation has a particular spirit, breathed in [into it] by God, through which it is what it is and which its duty is to develop.” Moreover, not only is German history unique but it “is the most important” because the German nation was “the mother” of the rest.6 Enthused about the founding of the new Reich in 1871 and proud of Imperial Germany’s economic power, many German historians and political thinkers came to believe that there did exist a “positive German way.” They would readily contrast Germany’s strong bureaucratic state, reform from above, public service ethos, and famed Kultur to the “Western” laissez-faire, revolution, parliamentarianism, plutocracy, and Zivilisation. Not unlike their German counterparts, Tyutchev and other young Russian nobles (who would soon become known by the initially mocking moniker of Slavophiles) saw a huge upsurge of Russian national feeling following Russia’s victory over Napoleonic France. “National reaction was quickly turning into reactionary nationalism,” as Alexandre Koyré aptly put it.7 Against the backdrop of the epic battles of 1812-1815, the representatives of early Russian Romanticism found exceptionally appealing the idea elaborated by their German intellectual gurus – Herder, Fichte and the Schlegel brothers – that German exceptionalism and originality were based on a special type of culture, which could not be conquered by brute force. The triumphal entry of Russian troops into Paris seemed to have upended the customary cultural hierarchy. It was the defeated French who proved to be the true “barbarians,” while the Russians came out victorious due to their superior “national spirit,” rooted in the Russian language, historical traditions, and religious (Eastern Christian) values.

A Perennial Russian Debate When the grand debate triggered by Chaadaev’s controversial publication kicked off in the late 1830s, it zeroed in on the two principal questions: should Russia be compared with Western nations or is it following its own unique historical trajectory and destined to fulfill a special mission in the world? Are Russian ways superior or inferior to Western ones? Notably, both representatives of Russian “official nationalism” and Russian Westernizers shared the view that Russia and Europe’s trajectories were basically identical. However, they sharply disagreed over the question of who was out in front of whom: St. Petersburg bureaucrats insisted on Russia’s superiority, while Westernizers argued that Russia was underdeveloped and lagging Europe. It was only the faithful disciples of German Romantic thinkers – Russian 6

Leonard Krieger, Ranke: The Meaning of History (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1977). Alexandre Koyré, La philosophie et le problème national en Russie au début du XIXe siècle (Paris: Champion, 1929). 7


Slavophiles – who spoke in favor of Russian exceptionalism and produced what might be called the first interpretation of positive Russian Sonderweg. Born in the heated discussions of the 1840s-1850s, the school of thought, which exalted Russia’s divergence from “Europe”/the “West,” has never disappeared from the country’s intellectual life. Based on cultural oppositions between Russia and the “West” – idealism vs. materialism, sobornost’ vs. individualism, selfless collective work vs. profit-obsessed capitalism, deep religious feeling vs. amoral cynicism – Slavophiles’ core ideas were developed by Neo-Slavophiles/Pan-Slavists in the 1870s-1880s (in particular, in Nikolai Danilevsky’s theory of “cultural-historical types”) and finally brought to fruition in the 1920s1930s in the writings of Eurasianists. The latter, drawing on a plethora of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, built a complex theory at the heart of which was the vision of “Russia-Eurasia” as a unique world onto itself. Two key aspects of Eurasianist political philosophy are especially noteworthy, as they appear to exert a strong influence on the political imagination of the present-day Kremlin. First, Eurasianists resolutely rejected the nation-state model, arguing that “Eurasia” is a geopolitical space destined for imperial rule: a Russian/Eurasian empire is a “historical necessity.” Second, Eurasianists contended that Western-style parliamentary democracy was an alien institution, since it was “culturally incompatible” with Russian/Eurasian political folkways. By contrast, they argued, the Eurasian political model is an “ideocracy” – an authoritarian, one-party state ruled by a tightknit, ideologically driven elite. While Eurasianists were formulating their extravagant theories, they kept a close eye on events in the Soviet Union. There is no denying that Soviet policies and practices strongly influenced Eurasianist theorizing. So, what about Soviet communism? Should it not be analyzed through the Russian Sonderweg paradigm? What is the historical significance of the Soviet period (1917-1991) if we define it both in relation to European political practice and in relation to pre-revolutionary Russian political development? Soviet exceptionalism appears to be a tricky case. On the one hand, as Martin Malia perceptively noted, it “represents both maximal divergence from European norms and the great aberration in Russia’s own development.”8 Yet while departing from European ways in terms of practices and institutions, the Soviet Union was very much European in terms of ideology. The combination of Marxist precepts and Russia’s peculiar socio-economic conditions (“backwardness”) was what ultimately shaped the Soviet experiment. Paradoxically, these European Far-Left ideological foundations of the Soviet state, some Russian émigré thinkers suggested, might even force dyed-in-thewool Russian conservative nationalists – the champions of “Holy Russia” and critics of Western “godless materialism” – to reevaluate their anti-Western attitudes and embrace the “West” they were living in.


Martin Malia, Russia under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999), 12.


After the 1917 Revolution, the witty Georgy Adamovich noted that “the West and Russia seemed to have changed roles” – the renewed (communist) Russia “suddenly bypassed the West on the left,” abandoning its Christian vocation, whereas the West came to represent Christianity and Christian culture. “Very soon,” Adamovich wrote sarcastically, “we, with our Russian inclination toward extremes, would probably hear [Russian émigrés talking] about ‘West the God-bearer.’”9 Within the Soviet Union, however, the official position was that it represented a higher stage of universal civilization, much superior to the “capitalist West.” What is interesting is that even in the supposedly ideologically monolithic communist system, the old debate on Russia’s “uniqueness” and its relation to “Europe”/the “West” did not die out. After a series of earlier iterations – Slavophiles vs. Westernizers, Populists vs. Marxists, Eurasianists vs. Europeanists – it reemerged in the form of a vibrant discussion between those who supported the idea of “building socialism in one country” and the champions of “communist internationalism.” This discussion produced an intriguing paradox. Mikhail Pokrovsky, a leading Marxist historian, backed Stalin’s vision of “socialism with Soviet characteristics,” while Lev Trotsky called attention to the need to de-emphasize the idea of Russian historical peculiarity. The irony here was that when Pokrovsky was formulating his theory of merchant capitalism in the early 1910s, he was a staunch opponent of “Russian exceptionalism,” denying not only the existence of any significant Russian socio-economic samobytnost’ but even that of Russia’s backwardness vis-à-vis European nations. Trotsky, for his part, in his “German articles” in 1908-1909, emerged as a strong supporter of “Russian exceptionalism,” emphasizing Russia’s divergence from “Western” ways.

Evolution of the German Sonderweg Idea At this point, it stands to look at what happened to the German Sonderweg in the 20th century. A positive variant of the Sonderweg thesis that had reached its mature form in the late 19th century managed to survive the upheavals of World War I and the collapse of the Second Reich and was still relatively popular during the short-lived Weimar era. However, it could not survive what Friedrich Meinecke famously called “die Deutsche Katastrophe” – the degeneration of the German state under Hitler. After 1945, a negative Sonderweg thesis was formulated by the new generation of German historians who set out to write the “biography” of an “unfortunate (unglückliche) nation” in order to answer the major, dramatic question of modern German history: “how was this… perhaps the deepest regression… into barbarism possible in a civilized society of the 20th century?”10 Focusing on the specific features of Germany’s social structure, nation- and state-building, political culture, and group interests, the new Sonderweg historiography sought to delineate the key problems and processes that had long prevented the development of liberal democracy in Germany and thus contributed to the rise of Nazism. In the course of heated scholarly debates in the 1960s-1980s, Sonderweg was transformed from a murky historiosophical notion into a methodological technique of a new historical sociology. 9

Georgii Adamovich, Kommentarii (St. Petersburg: Aleteia, 2000), 184-185. Norbert Elias, Studien über die Deutschen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1989), 368, 394, 401.



It was, German historians argued, a good example of successfully learning from defeat. Yet after 1989 – with the end of East Germany’s negative Sonderweg of communist authoritarianism, and with unified Germany firmly anchored in the European Union – the Sonderweg hypothesis appeared to have become passé. “No more Sonderwegs” – such was the call from Jürgen Kocka, a major figure in German postwar Sonderweg historiography. No longer “unique,” the German “way” is seen now as one of many different Sonderwege within the larger structure of European modernity.11

Russian Thinkers Grapple with the Issue of “Uniqueness” The end of Soviet exceptionalism, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, seemed to have provided the opportunity for post-Soviet Russia to demystify its homegrown Sonderweg thesis and return – as the catchphrase that was popular among both the government and the governed in the early 1990s went – to “the family of civilized nations.” It is noteworthy that even Richard Pipes, who in all his scholarly work put a special premium on Russia’s “un-Western” traits, appeared to be convinced that, after the demise of communism, Sonderweg had come to an end for Russia. “I think that now Russia has only one option left – to turn West,” Pipes argued in a short essay he wrote for European Herald, a liberal Moscow journal, in 2001, adding that by “West” he meant primarily a political community that comprises, besides the United States and the European Union, such “Eastern” nations as Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. “Nowadays, it seems to me that for Russia a ‘special path’ makes no sense,” Pipes concluded. “I don’t even know what it actually means.”12 And yet, 20 years on, the idea of Russia’s “uniqueness,” as well as the demonization of the “collective West,” is all the rage in Putin’s Russia. Why is this so? The reason, I think, is twofold. First, unlike in 1960s-1970s Germany, post-Soviet Russia did not see a vigorous nationwide debate among the country’s historians on the fundamental issues of Russia’s historical development. Some promising discussions that began during the twilight years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika did not bear much fruit and petered out in the chaotic early 1990s. Second, as the political regime in Russia grew increasingly authoritarian under Putin, the Kremlin has come to believe it is politically expedient to deploy the notion of Russian exceptionalism to buttress its position both domestically and internationally. Ukraine’s resolute choice in favor of “Europe” – the choice that ultimately led to war with Russia – left Putin’s regime with no other option but to rethink its international identity. By the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, all the intellectual groundwork had already been laid for deconstructing the idea of Russia’s “uniqueness.” Several generations of prerevolutionary Russian, émigré, Soviet, and international scholars amply demonstrated that Russia is no more “unique” than any other country. Russia’s historical process, its social 11

See Jürgen Kocka, “German History before Hitler: The Debate about the German Sonderweg,” Journal of Contemporary History 23, no. 1(1988), 3-16; Stephen Kalberg, “The German Sonderweg De-Mystified: A Sociological Biography of a Nation,” Theory, Culture & Society 9 (1992), 111-124; Peter Bergmann, “American Exceptionalism and German Sonderweg in Tandem,” The International History Review 23, no. 3 (2001), 505534. 12 Richard Pipes, “Osoby put’ dlia Rossii: chto konkretno eto znachit?” Vestnik Evropy, no. 1 (2001),


structure, state-society relations, and (political) culture are indeed marked by sundry peculiarities, though they stem not from its imaginary “uniqueness” but from Russia’s “geopolitical” position on the periphery of “Europe:” it sits on the eastern edges of the European cultural sphere and extends all the way to the border with China and the Pacific Ocean. Like many other countries, Russia borrowed its high culture from elsewhere, and did so twice: first, from Byzantine Constantinople and then, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, from more advanced Western European cultural models. In both cases, cultural norms, values, and practices were coming from outside. Under these circumstances, Russian cultural development is understood as the process of mastering “foreign” experience. The fact of cultural borrowing does not mean, however, that Russian culture lacks a creative element. As Russia adopted certain aspects of another (Western) culture, the borrowed cultural models would find themselves in a completely different context, which reshaped them into something new. These new cultural phenomena would differ from both the original Western models and “old” Russian cultural patterns. Herein lies a paradox that has been noted by some more perceptive Russian scholars like Boris Uspensky and Mikhail Gasparov: it is precisely the orientation toward a “foreign” culture that contributes to the originality of Russian culture.13 Yet such orientation contains in itself a significant tension: the gravitation toward a “foreign” culture is dialectically – and antithetically – linked with a desire to protect one’s own “authenticity” and “shield” oneself from foreign cultural influences. A dynamic ensues whereby the emerging inferiority complex gives rise to prickly nationalism, a search for a “special path,” the mythologization of history, messianism, and the assertion of one’s special mission in the world. There is another paradox here also noted by Uspensky: it is precisely this nationalist backlash against a “foreign” cultural tradition that is usually the least national and traditional. Craving for “authenticity” and “national roots” is most often the result of foreign influences – in the Russian case, the influences of “Western” culture that Russian intellectuals sought to repudiate. This is what puts early Slavophiles and German Romantics on the same page: the Germans felt they were culturally “colonized” by the French and rebelled; the Russians borrowed the philosophical language of German Romanticism and applied it to their own situation. In both cases, this was a starting point for German and Russian Sonderwege. But if we reject the existence of a sharp dividing line between “West” and “East” or between “Europe” and “Russia” (all these notions being of course social constructs that were understood differently in different historical periods and in different contexts), what would be a more suitable model to explain the similarities and dissimilarities between national trajectories across the Eurasian continent? One useful concept is the notion of the West-East “cultural gradient” – the understanding that there is a soft gradation as one moves from Europe’s Atlantic coast eastwards, all the way into the depth of Eurasia.14 The idea of the 13

See excellent essays by B.A. Uspensky and M.L. Gasparov in the collection Russkaia intelligentsiia i zapadny intellektualizm: istoriia i tipologiia, ed. B.A. Uspensky (Moscow: O.G.I., 1999). 14 See Catherine Evtuhov and Steven Kotkin, eds., The Cultural Gradient: The Transmission of Ideas in Europe, 1789-1991 (New York; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003).


European “cultural gradient” first emerged in Pavel Miliukov’s later writings, in particular in his multivolume Essays on the History of Russian Culture that he thoroughly reworked in the 1920s-1930s in his Parisian exile. Conceptually, the Essays were based on two main theoretical principles. First, Russia’s historical evolution repeated the same stages through which other “cultured peoples of Europe” had passed. Second, the process of this development was slower than in other parts of Europe – “not only in Western but also in Central Europe.” Miliukov’s bottom line was that there was nothing particularly “peculiar” or “unique” about Russia in this respect. “Peculiarity is not an exclusive feature of Russia. It shows up in the same manner in Europe itself, in a growing progression as we move from the Loire and the Seine to the Rhine, from the Rhine to the Vistula, from the Vistula to the Dnieper, and from the Dnieper to the Oka and the Volga…”15 Miliukov’s ideas were further developed by the outstanding émigré economist Alexander Gerschenkron, who placed the “European gradient” concept at the core of his highly influential model of industrial development. Gerschenkron’s thesis is that “the farther east one goes in Europe the greater becomes the role of banks and of the state in fostering industrialization, a pattern complemented by the prevalence in backward areas of socialist or nationalist ideologies.”16 Gerschenkron exerted a powerful intellectual influence on Richard Pipes’ lifelong opponent Martin Malia – a prominent Berkeley historian who perfected the concept of the West-East gradient. The latter became the essence of Malia’s exposition of the process of Russia’s social, intellectual, and cultural development. “[T]he farther east one goes,” Malia contended, “the more absolute, centralized and bureaucratic do governments become, the greater the pressure of the state on the individual, the more serious the obstacle to his independence, the more sweeping, general, and abstract are ideologies of protest or of compensation…”17 Malia understood “Europe” as a more or less coherent cultural sphere with Russia being part of it. However, on this West-East continuum, “Russia is the eastern extreme… she is the backward rear guard of Europe at the bottom of the slope of the WestEast cultural gradient.”18 Another useful concept is the idea of “relative synchronicity within a longue durée development” advanced by Maria Todorova. Struggling to come up with a conceptual antidote to the discourse of backwardness, Todorova argues for the relative synchronicity of Western and Eastern Europe within a long-term framework. By analyzing various European nationalisms within the unified structure of modernity, she redefines the “East” – Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia – as part of a common European space.19


Pavel N. Miliukov, “Sotsiologicheskie osnovy russkogo istoricheskogo protsessa [1930],” Rossiiskaia istoriia, no. 1 (2008), 160. 16 Martin Malia, Russia under Western Eyes, 440; Alexander Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1962). 17 Martin Malia, “Schiller and the Early Russian Left,” Harvard Slavic Studies IV (1957), 169-200. 18 Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 55. 19 Maria Todorova, “The Trap of Backwardness: Modernity, Temporality, and the Study of East European Nationalism,” Slavic Review 64, no. 1 (2005): 140-164.


Since the end of the 1980s, conceptualizing Russia within the pan-European context became mainstream among governing elites in Moscow. One of the key aspects of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking” was the idea of a “common European home.” Boris Yeltsin talked of the need to “rejoin European civilization.” Remarkably, as late as 2005, in his “state of the nation” address, Putin contended that Russia is “a major European power,” which for the past three centuries has been evolving and transforming itself ‘hand in hand’ and ‘together with other European nations.’” Two problems, however, militated against Russia’s frictionless identification with Europe. One was the age-old quest for status – Russia’s self-understanding as a derzhava (great power). The awareness of the derivative nature of Russia’s modern culture and of its “civilizational” dependence on Europe clashed with the grand idea of Russian greatness. As Russia grew richer and stronger during the 2000s, the Kremlin found it increasingly difficult to perceive itself as “learners” going to school with Europe. “Great Powers do not go to school,” Iver Neumann once quipped. “On the contrary, they lay down the line and teach others.”20 Another problem is a relatively new one. It concerns the issue of how “Europe” is constructed. In the late 19th century, the autocratic Russian Empire, even when it was looked down on by the liberal elites of Great Britain and France, could still be regarded as perfectly “European” in the company of other Old Regimes, being part of the Dreikaizerbund (League of the Three Emperors) together with Wilhelmine Germany and Habsburg Austria-Hungary. Yet in the late 20th and early 21st centuries the situation changed drastically. The emergence of the European Union and its expansion eastward, together with the parallel expansion of another “Euro-Atlantic institution” – NATO – meant that institutionally Russia was being set apart from what came to be understood as “Europe.” This process of the institutionalization of “Europe” presented Russia with a tough dilemma: either to join this “European bloc” or revisit the issue of self-identification. The issue has been exacerbated by Moscow’s tense relations with its ex-Soviet neighbors – above all with Ukraine – who were seeking association with (and ultimately membership in) the EU. A tough question haunted Kremlin strategists: if a European orientation is fully compatible with Russian identity, then on what grounds is Moscow preventing other post-Soviet nations from joining the EU? A number of conservative political thinkers called Russia’s politics of identity “deeply flawed” and clamored for an urgent conceptual rethink. Predictably, the suggested solution was to proclaim Russia and Europe to be distinct civilizations, each producing a gravitational pull and possessing its own sphere of influence.21 This is precisely what Russia’s new foreign policy doctrine has done.


Iver B. Neumann, “Russia’s Europe: Inferiority to Superiority,” International Affairs 92, no. 6 (2016), 1397. Boris Mezhuyev, “‘Ostrov Rossiia’ i rossiiskaia politika identichnosti,” Rossiia v global’noi politike, Spetsvypusk: Konservatizm vo vneshnei politike: XXI vek (May 2017), 108-109. 21


Conclusion But if Russia is not “European,” what is it then? It is following its “special path” as a unique “Russian civilization,” the Kremlin and its spin doctors tell us. However, it is not clear, as the late Richard Pipes noted, what that actually means. Remarkably, Kremlin-friendly political thinkers promoting the idea of Russia’s “uniqueness” appear to be confused about this issue themselves. At the discussion held in late April 2023 on the eve of the 31st Assembly of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an elite group of Russia’s top security analysts, speakers acknowledged that Russia’s departure from its European self-identification and the former foreign policy tradition occurred “partly by her own will, partly because of unfavorable external circumstances.” It was stated that, although Russia is a country “marked by originality,” it is “premature to assert that a Russian civilizational basis has already been formed.” Revealingly, some analysts argued that “Russia does not yet know exactly what it wants, its goals and desires are yet to be formulated.” To fulfill this difficult task, “there is an urgent need to turn to the Russian intellectual legacy of the 19th and 20th centuries,” specifically to the works of Russian anti-Western and nationalist thinkers such as Fyodor Tyutchev, Nikolai Danilevsky, Konstantin Leont’ev, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lev Gumilyov, and Vadim Tsymbursky.22 Thus, we appear to be back at square one. Like in the mid-19th century, the current calls for a Russian Sonderweg remain a rhetorical figure – a metaphor meant to conceal Russia’s perennial inability to transform itself and finally come to terms with (European) modernity. Yet there is hope. In his 1930 lecture delivered in Berlin, at the time of Stalin’s “Great Break,” Pavel Miliukov presciently noted: “the Russian historical process is not ending; it is only being interrupted at this point… Despite [social] earthquakes and eruptions, and most often with their assistance, history continues.”23


Evgeniia Kulman, “Rossiia kak tsivilizatsiia tsivilizatsii: Krugly stol v preddverii XXXI Assamblei SVOP,” Rossiia v global’noi politike, April 24, 2023, 23 Miliukov, “Sotsiologicheskie osnovy russkogo istoricheskogo protsessa,” 164.


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