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From Chechnya to Ukraine: Biopolitical Patriotism in Times of War

The following analysis uses Russian cinematographic narratives to help us understand the concept of biopolitical patriotism. More specifically, several Russian film representations of the two wars in Chechnya touch upon the idea of post-Soviet patriotism. This patriotism can be dubbed biopolitical, in the sense that the state, being neither its engine nor its key reference point, could take advantage of this patriotism’s ability to mobilize a population and could selectively use it for political purposes.

The events of 2014-2015 in eastern Ukraine have seen numerous Russian volunteers fighting "at their own discretion and risk" on behalf of Russia. The fact that those who lose their lives are neither properly named nor buried requires an explanation beyond the traditional categories described by political science. The type of mass-scale, militant patriotism that spurs these volunteers to become involved in such a conflict also enables the state to deny direct involvement in the crisis, while taking advantage of a society’s  patriotic mood. The upsurge of Russian patriotism in reaction to the EuroMaidan in Ukraine, characterized by mass-scale public support for land grabs and flexing of military muscle, didn't come out of the blue. Such patriotism has its roots in the wars in Chechnya of 1994-1996 and 1999-2000.

Following the logic of French political philosopher Michel Foucault, this phenomenon can be termed “biopolitical patriotism.” Foucault’s biopower takes as its object a population rather than a territory. Thus, the exercise of biopolitical power is relatively insensitive to the geopolitical control of territorial lands. Biopolitics is more concerned with managing lives, as well as supervising and disciplining human bodies. The patriotic wave that rose in Russia in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea is a direct – and more concentrated – extension of the biopolitical patriotism born of the Chechen wars. Such patriotism does not require a modern, effective, rational, or socially caring state in order to function. Rather than stemming from a feeling of duty to a well-governed state, biopolitical patriotism is both created by and reinforces a nationalist discourse based on a sense of belonging to a constructed, symbolic community of like-minded compatriots.

The following analysis uses Russian cinematographic narratives to help us understand the concept of biopolitical patriotism. More specifically, several Russian film representations of the two wars in Chechnya touch upon the idea of post-Soviet patriotism. This patriotism can be dubbed biopolitical, in the sense that the state, being neither its engine nor its key reference point, could take advantage of this patriotism’s ability to mobilize a population and could selectively use it for political purposes.

Foucault claimed that biopower has to be distinguished from sovereign power. Biopolitics function at the micro-level, and can produce patriotism that develops beyond the confines of the political state, often under the conditions of what the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben dubbed “bare life.” Bare life describes a state of being devoid of the mediating role of public institutions or legal mechanisms. Indeed, the Russian soldiers featured in Chechen war films are deprived of political rights and protection. Their lives are reduced to the bare minimum and take place outside of juridico-institutional and economic frameworks. In The Check Point,[1] soldiers widely use bullets instead of money, and express the bare life philosophy with candor: "to devour, to take a crap, and to fuck."

Under conditions of bare life, people can be manipulated by state propaganda, and rational arguments are superseded by memories of bygone times of glory. Such manipulation is often articulated as Russian imperial identity. For example, in most Chechen war films, Russians are shown as morally superior to their enemies. Chechens are portrayed as closely associated with foreign mercenaries (Arabs, black people, etc.). Their appearance legitimates the war as a response to “external aggression,” with explicit references to "female snipers from Ukraine" (The Sniper[2]) and Lithuania (The Purgatory[3]) – countries the Kremlin portrays as Russia-unfriendly and under the sway of malign Western influence.

In The Russian Victim,[4] the historical parallels between the war in Chechnya and imperial traditions are accentuated. The script directly references the legacy of the tsarist regime and Orthodoxy as incarnations of the “real” Russia. The historical narrative depicts the post-Soviet Russian state as having been captured by greedy oligarchs who betrayed the nation. One of these oligarchs, visually resembling the late Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who played a key political role during the Yeltsin regime, exposes the narrative of national betrayal in a telephone conversation with his high-ranking interlocutor: “The first Chechen war was quite good for everybody. We were destroying cities and then were rebuilding them. Yet the trouble is that nowadays the siloviki are rising in power. We need to teach them a lesson and make clear who is in charge in Russia.” Direct parallels with the conspiracy against the tsar a century earlier articulate the key message of the movie quite distinctly: Russia falls victim to domestic disloyalties and can survive only as a centralized – perhaps, authoritarian or monarchical – state with Orthodoxy at its ideological core. The similarities to the “fifth column” and “national traitor” labels for the opposition to the Ukraine campaign are glaring.

Another reference point of the imperial articulation of Russian identity is Soviet times. In the films examined here, there are multiple - explicit and implicit - comparisons between the Russian state in the 1990s and the Soviet Union. In The Yomp,[5] one of the protagonists claims that Russian and Chechen officers, who are now fighting each other, had been serving together in Afghanistan "for a strong united power." The enemies of today were brothers-in-arms a couple of decades ago[6]. In The Shooting Mountains[7] one of the protagonists pledged not to throw away his Soviet-era uniform until the army regained its former strength, respect and reputation - a remark that fits the Russia-dominated discourse of glorifying the Soviet regime.

Paradoxically, the portrayal of Russia’s military offensive in Chechnya, which is referred to as “almost a war” in Alexandra,[8] and "a strange war" in The Checkpoint, do not start with glorifying the state. On the contrary, these films give multiple examples of the inability of the state to provide security for its citizens. Thus, in Alive[9], a retired Russian soldier who lost his leg on the battlefield in Chechnya, is advised to raise money to buy a German prosthesis. This looks symbolically ironic against the backdrop of the widely propagated triumphalist memories of the Second World War. In The Shooting Mountains, one of protagonists complains that “we defend the border like in the stone age,” i.e. , with inadequate technical equipment and supplies. 

The Crushing Force[10] gives perhaps the most ironic picture of the state of the Russian Armed Forces in Chechnya. Three investigative police officers from St. Petersburg, deployed in Chechnya for a three-month mission, face the harsh reality of the dysfunctional state. Due to erratic bureaucratic communication, nobody on the ground waited for their arrival, and they were almost re-routed back home. Ultimately they had to buy weaponry at the local market from Chechen vendors - a situation that would have been ridiculously unreal had it not occured in 2014 when Russian paratroopers sent to Ukraine were reported to have purchased their uniform themselves.[11]

The state is not only seen as immoral and corrupt – it is perceived as a vague institution with uncertain boundaries of competences. In The Sniper, a Russian sniper’s return to the battlefield was not motivated by his loyalty to the state, but by the ethos of esprit de corps. The state is not the key driver for the hero and does not directly spearhead his behavior, but watches him at a distance and capitalizes on the results of his personal courage and the sense of camaraderie. "They are acting at their own risk and discretion," a high-ranking military officer reports to his superior about the sniper’s self-planned mission in Chechnya. This remark betrays a deeply troublesome logic behind the policies of the state which, as Russia's interference in Ukraine makes clear, can utilize the allegiances of its citizens without bearing formal responsibility for their actions or duly protecting them.

Biopolitical patriotism is also illustrated by the extent to which soldiers fighting in Chechnya were unable– and reluctant – to think in political categories. All political terms, in their words, are vulgarized: "If something happens, consider me a national patriot," one of the soldiers says before going to the “shithouse” (The Check Point). Soldiers are incapable of a full-fledged civil and political life outside the military and may feel an aversion to it. In Alexandra, the eponymous heroine deplores that her grandson, who is serving in Chechnya, “is unable to do anything but shoot.”

This self-detachment from political reasoning translates into a deep miscomprehension of the underlying political reasons for the war. A scene from The Dead Field illuminates the embarrassment that communications with Chechens cause for Russians. “What are you doing here?” a Chechen man asked a Russian officer, only to provoke an aggressive reaction: “Do you want me to give you a swat?” This verbal exchange reveals a surprising dyslexia – all rational political arguments, endlessly articulated in the official discourse (the war on terror, protection of Russia’s territorial integrity, the restoration of constitutional order, etc.), are strikingly absent from the lexicon of those who were supposed to implement them.         

All this leads to an inability to articulate the purpose of the Russian mission in Chechnya. In The Thunder Gates, a Russian soldier desperately asks: "What do the Chechens need?" Giving no answer to this simple question, the film-makers engage with historical parallels, presuming that the revolt in Chechnya was revenge for the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan. In The Yomp, a Russian officer in Chechnya claims: "We are here to prevent the country from being turned into a scrapyard." This mission statement places the military operation in a domestic context, yet leaves obscure who exactly intends to "turn the country into a scrapyard," and how the war can prevent this from happening. Another explanation of this film's main hero is no less vague: "I serve in Chechnya to make all of you safe from coffins coming to your city." The detachment of soldiers from the political logic of a military campaign, as well as from a meaningful sense of mission, implies a bare life existence. It is under such conditions that biopolitical patriotism emerges.

On the one hand, biopolitical patriotism, grounded in the spirit of combat friendship and a sense of duty to one’s comrades, does not necessarily imply unconditional loyalty to the state. In many respects, it constitutes an alternative to the corrupt, inefficient, and malfunctioning state that relegates its citizens to the conditions of bare life. Yet on the other hand, the state aptly capitalizes on biopolitical patriotism. The Kremlin, with all its attempts to contrive a national idea, remains short on ideological authenticity and reduces ideological articulations to moral rhetoric and a metaphysical fight with the forces of evil. Against this backdrop, it is biopolitical solidarity emanating beyond - but appropriated by - the state that makes campaigns such as that in Ukraine possible.

As the developments in Russia after the war in Chechnya demonstrated, huge disappointments with the ability of the central power to spearhead the nation  can trigger a deep sense of desperation, deprivation, and abandonment, which can be overcome by a resurgance of patriotism and nationalism, however illusory their substance might be. As the experience of Russia's intervention in Ukrainian affairs made clear, this nationalism is transformable to the vague and loosely articulated ideas of the "Russian world" as a family-like organic community, or Russia’s civilizational self-sufficiency. Biopolitical patriotism is not only about identity; it can be converted into a mostly intuitive "readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction capable of so much harm."[12]

Andrey Makarychev is a professor at theUniversity of Tartu in Estonia, and former Kennan Institute –Central Eurasian Short-term scholar.

The views expressed by the author of this article are the author’s only and do not represent the views of the Kennan Institute or the Wilson Center.

[1]Blokpost", director Alexander Rogozhkin, 1998. Grand-prix of the Open Festival in Sochi. The best film director award at the festival in Karlovy Vary, and the "Silver Dolphin" award.

[2] "Strelok", director Arman Gevorgian, 2012.

[3] "Chistilische", director Alexandr Nevzorov, 1997.

[4] "Russkaya zhertva", directors Elena Lyapicheva, Irina Maletina and Mikhail Dobrynin, 2006. The film was blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church, and received grand-prix of the international festival "Desant-2008", the All-Russian festival of Orthodox Arts "Holy Russia" as well as awards of the XI Shukshin film festival "For courage in representing images of Russian soldiers in cinematography" and at the "Veche" film festival.

[5] "Marsh-brosok", director Andrey Maliukov, 2002.

[6] A similar scene is displayed in "House of Fools" ("Dom durakov", director Andrei Konchalovsky): a Russian officer who came to sell the dead body of a Chechen fighter to rebels' commander, recognized that the latter saved his life in Afghanistan. Ultimately he refused to take money and left with the words: "I owe you a debt."

[7] "Streliayuschie gory", director Rustam Urazaev, 2011, 4 series shown at NTV channel.

[8] Director Alexander Sokurov, 2007. The key role played by the world famous opera star Galina Vishnevskaya.

[9] "Zhivoi", director Alexander Veledinsky, 2006. 5 MTV Russia awards in 2007, 3 awards of the Kinotavr Film Festival in 2006, 4 awards of Nika in 2007, and 2 awards of the Golden Eagle prize.

[10] "Uboinaya sila", NTV-based sketchdom, released in 2000, based on Andrey Kivinov's novel.

[11] Komandovanie kostromskogo polka podtverdilo poteri na Ukraine. internet portal, August 27, 2014, available at

[12] George Kateb. Patriotism and Other Mistakes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. Pp. 8.

About the Author

Andrey Stanislavovich Makarychev

Former Central Eurasian Short-Term Scholar;
Professor, University of Tartu, Estonia
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more