The Russian Idea Revisited
Some years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, President Boris Yeltsin initiated a national search for a new Russian idea. The past was too raw and controversial, however, to reach any consensus on or reconciliation as to what constitutes Russian identity.
Fast-forward thirty years, and Russia again is actively seeking a unifying idea, this time during a time of war, economic sanctions, and international isolation. There are several ongoing initiatives—on ideology, statehood, territorial expansion, and Russia as a distinct civilization—all of which put Russia on a further collision course with the West.
The Search for an Official Ideology
Does Russia need an official ideology to begin with? Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of the Russian Investigative Committee, recently commented that Russia had always possessed an ideology and that one was needed now more than ever. Bastrykin added that this ideology could be based on Putin’s edicts calling for the preservation of Russian spiritual values.
The minister of justice joined Bastrykin’s call, but several prominent actors, including Constitutional Court chairman Valerii Zorkin and the chairman of the Presidential Human Rights Council Valerii Fadeeev, expressed reservations as to the need for such a pronouncement at the present time. In fact, Zorkin praised the current constitution for allowing for both liberal and conservative policies, as legislators deem appropriate.
But there is an important legal catch to any adoption of a national ideology. Article 13 of the Russian constitution prohibits the introduction of a national ideology (a leftover of the denunciation of the communist past). Moreover, any attempt to repeal this provision requires the calling of a Constituent Assembly. Putin refrained from dealing with this provision when he substantially amended the constitution in 2020.
Russia as Its Own Civilization
While any future constitutional amendment on ideology faces clear procedural hurdles, the search for a Russian idea remains active. Most notably, Russian academics and educators—at the urging of Vladimir Putin—are busy preparing a new course for all university students on the foundations of Russian statehood. The course aims to fill a vacuum in the political consciousness of Russian young people, although no one seems to have consulted Russian students as to their intellectual interests. Instead, the course follows the old Soviet indoctrination methods on the teaching of Marxism-Leninism, which were always greeted with indifference.
Admittedly, the Russian state, with its top-down structures and centralized, personal rule, does not represent a new idea. Indeed, it has governed the nation for centuries while historically serving as Russia’s most revered institution. But this course will raise the Russian state to even new heights. Its creators want to emphasize Russia as its own civilization with its own path, distinct from Western transitions. Moreover, several national values will be emphasized in this course, such as patriotism, social agreement, and traditional family values.
But Russia’s special path will only widen the divide between Russia and the West. It will emphasize society over individualism while rejecting any confrontation with the state. The course also intends to further examine Russia as a united, unified whole.
Statehood and Unity
This importance of state unity, while emphasized in the preamble of the 1993 Russia constitution, is theoretically counterbalanced by the declaration of Russia as a federal state. Article 3 further endows sovereignty in the multinational people of the Russia federation.
This division of authorities has never been fully embraced. During the discussions on the course on statehood, its sponsors criticized the so-called “armchair professors” and other specialists who had put forward the notion of an independent Tatarstan. And as if on cue to offer a rebuttal, the former “president” of Tartarstan (this title was removed in 2021), Mintimer Shaimiev, took the podium to receive a state prize. In his acceptance speech, Shaimiev talked about the unity of the Russian Federation, but he did so in the language of a seemingly bygone era, emphasizing the importance of Russia as a multinational, multiconfessional nation.
Putin has done his best to undermine this ideal. Indeed, the 2020 amendments included the awkward reference to the Russian language as the language of the “state-forming people.” This elocution has not received a formal legal definition, but its author has stated that the amendment was introduced to emphasize the special status of the Russian nation among the multinational people of the Russian Federation.
Putin has always blamed Lenin for building the Soviet Union on national republics, as opposed to more generic geographic regions. And to drive home this point, when Valerii Zorkin received a state prize on the same day as Shaimiev, he provided Putin with a seventeenth-century French map, which, he noted, made no reference to Ukraine.
The Imperial Mission
A third element of the Russian idea has also reared its head since the start of the war with Ukraine, namely, Russia as an imperial power. In many ways this idea never went away, but it has acquired greater resonance since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Moreover, Russia has now annexed four more Ukrainian territories—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—since February 24 2022, and according to the 2020 constitutional amendments, these lands are now an inalienable part of the Russian Federation.
Russian imperialism has also found its modern-day champions. Pavel Krasheninnikov, an attorney and head of the Duma Committee on State Construction, published a book in 2022 entitled From Tribes to Empire: The Emergence of Russian State and Law. As the title suggests, Russian imperialism is directly related to the rise of the Russian state.
The book provides a meticulous periodization of Russian history from the time of Kyivan Rus’ onward and how individual rulers contributed to the advancement and understanding of Russian law. Most notably, Krasheninnikov contrasts the union of two founding states, Lithuania and Russia, in the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries to the emergence of one empire. And, according to Krasheninnikov, it is only the emergence of a single empire that enabled the supremacy of law throughout Russian territory.
Krasheninnikov subsequently has published another book on Russia’s great legal reforms of the tsarist era, which he subtitled The Golden Age of State and Law. Indeed, if there is any enduring ideology throughout Russian history, it is the theory of state and law, which has governed Russia under three distinct regimes, tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet. Krasheninnikov has also brought the notion of the imperial past up to the present day by asserting that the driving force of empire is “expansion,” a statement that could just as easily apply to the eighteenth century and Catherine the Great as to Putin’s current goals in Ukraine.
There is one last Russian idea that is in broad circulation today: victimhood. In March 2023, Russia called for a session of the UN Security Council to address the issue of Russophobia, a term commonly associated with anti-Russian sentiment and a deep hostility to the Russian people and culture.
Russia has accused Ukraine, the United States, and the EU (among others) of Russophobia, but, as Professor Timothy Snyder said in testimony to the Security Council, Russia has used this term to assert that the Ukrainian people are deranged, as opposed to dealing with an atrocity. Snyder further claims that the term “Russophobia” is “part of an imperial strategy designed to change the subject of a war of aggression to the feelings of the aggressors.”
Russia has not backed down in the face of this charge. On the contrary, the Duma is considering legislation calling for criminal penalties for Russophobia. The draft law has not been published, and it is uncertain what the exact elements of this crime include. Nevertheless, if this law is adopted, it will join other notorious pieces of legislation, such as the laws on foreign agents and undesirable organizations, as a means to discourage imitation of the West.
Even without a constitutional amendment on ideology, the quest for the Russian idea continues apace. This pursuit rests on several long-running historical themes, including a reverence for statehood and unity, a revived sense of imperial mission, and alienation from the West. The twenty-first-century Russian idea is further accompanied by a deep sense of grievance. It does not break with the past. The real question, in light of the war being waged in Ukraine, is whether the Russian idea has a future at all.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
See our newest content first.
Subscribe to receive the latest analysis from the Russia File blog.
About the Author
William E. Pomeranz
William Pomeranz, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, is an expert guide to the complexities of political and economic developments in Russia, particularly through the lens of law. He leverages extensive, hands-on experience in international and Russian jurisprudence to address a wide range of legal issues, from the development of Russia’s Constitution to human rights law to foreign investment and sanctions. He is also the author of Law and the Russian State: Russia's Legal Evolution from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin (Bloomsbury, 2018).Read More
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, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more