Russia’s Ruthless Renaissance
Two years into the war with Ukraine, today’s Russia can best be understood through the lens of a slogan that once appeared in a Solovki special prison, part of the extended gulag system: “With an iron fist, we will drive humanity to happiness!” (Железной рукой загоним человечество к счастью!)
As the war drags on, those who anticipated a collapse of Putin’s regime and Russia’s economy find themselves disappointed. Despite the draconian sanctions and cultural isolation, Russia is experiencing what looks like a bloody, ruthless Renaissance. Economically, socially, and culturally, Russia is reforging itself.
Economic Renaissance: Consequences for the West
Extensive economic sanctions against Russia that isolated the country from much of the world market put into question the sustainability of the country’s economic development. Contrary to expectations, the sanctions became a catalyst for an economic revival.
Driven largely by military needs, industrial production in Russia keeps growing, and some of Russia’s most distant and underdeveloped regions are experiencing their own Renaissance because they house many of the defense and energy enterprises, essential to the ongoing war. Official Moscow is now investing generously in the development of once hopeless and economically depressed regions.
Furthermore, the West’s withdrawal from the Russian market gave many Russian businesses and industries an incentive to work creatively and harder. Consequently, the past two year have seen a notable rise in the production and availability of domestic products in various sectors of the Russian economy, with the most significant increase in mechanical engineering for the food industry and in agricultural and heavy engineering.
Domestic items have followed suit as home appliances with traditionally Russian names, such as the electric kettle Yaromir, began appearing on the shelves. For many Russians who lived through the tumultuous 1990s, foreign brands meant high-quality products and symbolized access to freedom. Today the national trend is to embrace the factual and sentimental value of Russian domestic goods, which have become symbolic of the country’s resilience and resourcefulness in the face of international cold shoulders.
Russia’s strained economic relationships with the West have also spearheaded Russia’s growing economic convergence with the East and the global south, including Iran, China, and North Korea. These emerging economic ties, mostly in the sphere of war matériel, demonstrate Russia’s ability to forge economic alliances internationally, especially with countries resistant to the West.
Demographic Renaissance: Whose Lives Matter?
The Kremlin is continually rewriting the war in Ukraine and the country’s composition through less than natural fiddling with demographics.
Initially divided over the war, the pro-war and the once antiwar Russians are slowly converging. The reasons are multiple, one of them being the Kremlin’s draft tactics, which are intertwined with draftee candidates’ income status. According to the most recent data, the regions that have sent the highest number of men to the front are Russia’s poorest, least developed regions, where voluntary military service creates opportunities for social mobility.
In addition to weaponizing poverty, Putin’s regime has sent to the front an impressive number of soldiers from small republics such as Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Dagestan. Doing so has a twofold function: it achieves both a cleansing of the country’s ethnic others, sent to be cannon fodder, and a pan-Russian fusion of different ethnic groups in a multiethnic army, united in the face of a common enemy.
Historically, such a strategy has often worked: just as World War I united the French of different regions and classes in fighting la Grande Guerre and World War II united Soviet Ukrainians, Soviet Byelorussians, and Soviet Russians in fighting the Great Patriotic War, today Russia’s war in Ukraine unites the country’s ethnic groups in its pan-Russian fight against the West.
Another weaponization of demographics in Putin’s Russia occurs through the strategic utilization of convict recruits. Although mostly untrained, they are numerous and highly motivated to escape a Russian prison. Sending them to the front allows the government to preserve trained soldiers for more strategic fighting, save the money that would otherwise be spent on prisons, and control the narrative of deaths by keeping secret the number of convict draftees who die. Such an approach is similar to Stalin’s World War II punishment battalions that were formed similarly.
Finally, Moscow is attempting to alter the future composition of the country through the ongoing and heinous mass kidnapping of Ukrainian children and their forced integration into Russian society. Russia is said to have abducted nearly 700,000 children and has indoctrinated them to renounce their Ukrainian identity in favor of a Russian one.
Demographically, Russia is getting rid of its less desirable others (the so-called “difference within”) while simultaneously replenishing the population with a new, hand-picked group of young abductees from Ukraine, on the path to becoming Russian citizens.
Cultural Renaissance: The Rise of the Russkiy Mir
The West’s removal of Russia from the international arena in such areas as sports competitions, song contests, educational systems, and even international cat competitions has helped consolidate Russians’ resentment toward the West and encouraged a focus on building and celebrating internal cultural wealth.
Impressive measures have been taken by the government (and the Russian Orthodox Church, which eventually became another instrument of Putin’s war) to articulate Russia’s independence from Western cultural influence. By gradually limiting Russians’ access to various social and alternative media, thereby isolating citizens from alternative sources of information, the Kremlin has steadily acquired full control over the master narrative it wishes to propagate valorizing Russian cultural values, national priorities, and Russia’s overall place in the world order.
The vacuum created by the missing West has been swiftly filled with new happenings. Russia launched its own version of the European song contest Eurovision; prestigious film festivals, based on Western collaboration, have been replaced by a similar festival of Russian film in India; and Russia has extended its collaboration with Iran on additional film projects. The Russian-Chinese agreement to hold alternating years of respective cultural celebrations in 2024–2025 further solidifies Russia’s pivot toward the East and away from the West in international and intercultural relations.
Moscow’s intense preoccupation with firming up a strong patriotic and world-hegemonic national identity is also being accomplished by instituting new national holidays and festivals. For example, the Day of Reunification of the New Regions with Russia, referring to the attempted forced annexation of Ukrainian territories, renamed the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, along with Zaporizhzhia oblast and Kherson oblast, is intended to legitimize culturally Russia’s acquisition of these territories and publicly underscore the notion of pan-Russian reunification.
An international festival, Na Tom Stoim (That’s What We Stand On), created to offset the West’s barriers to Russian participation in significant international events and exchanges, is aimed at demonstrating the unity of different cultures, among which Russian culture is preeminent. Another international project on Russia’s horizon is called Edinstvo Silnikh (Unity of the Strong). It is planned to become a venue for artists standing in solidarity with Russia.
Such events and holidays seek to prove the ephemeral attraction of Russia as la Grande Nation, possessing a mystical soul and cultural superiority over other nations. It is the last piece of the puzzle constituting Russia’s Renaissance.
In responding to Russia's aggression, the West relied on inflicting economic pain on the Russian state. Russian society, feeling the pain, was then supposed to spur its state into retreating from Ukraine and concentrating on healing domestic economic wounds. Contrary to these expectations, the Russian elites, informed partly by fear of retribution from the Kremlin and partly by the West's hostility and sanctions, felt energized by the new challenges. A major rethink is in order to deal with a resurgent Russia.
Russia’s Renaissance is on the rise in multiple spheres, with both domestic and international manifestations. It’s ruthless, bloody, yet undeniable. It’s a fact. So, we’d better brace ourselves to face it.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute
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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