Russia’s search for new ideology

RUSSIA NATIONALIST IDEOLOGYLiberal observers say that, by giving ample airtime to figures such as the rightwing propagandist Alexander Prokhanov and denouncing government critics with terms such as “fifth column” and “national traitors”, Russia’s official media has borrowed from the tactics of totalitarian regimes, Kathrin Hille writes for The Financial Times.

“It now resembles Goebbels; and even comrade Zhdanov would never have dreamt of this,” says Echo Moskvy’s Sergei Buntman, referring to the man in charge of cultural policy and censorship under Stalin.

A handful of young people are trying to counter that. Organised by Maxim Katz, a deputy in a Moscow district assembly for the liberal Yabloko party, they began analysing TV news programmes and rating them for propaganda three weeks ago. …

But while media veterans are encouraged by their efforts, they harbour little hope for change. Several opinion polls have shown that a majority of Russians believe the state has the right to censor the news and shape a national ideological narrative.

This situation, say analysts, is the result of a consistent push by Mr Putin to consolidate his control over the media, school curriculum and culture policy since taking power in early 2000.

“A monopoly on information has been established,” says Igor Yakovenko, former head of Russia’s Journalists’ Association. “It was not absolute, and is not absolute now, but over all the 14 years of Putin’s regime, he has strengthened the information vertical, step by step.”

Russia’s official ideology prior to 1917 was Pravoslavie, Samoderzhavie, Narodnost, which has been translated as Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality, notes Walter Laqueur, formerly the head of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the author of, among many other works, The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union.

“It was therefore no surprise that with the fall of the Soviet Union some of the old pre-1917 ideas resurfaced and should undergo something like a renaissance,” he writes for World Affairs. “In his first major speech during his second term as president, Vladimir Putin declared that Russia should look to its history and traditional values to determine its post-Soviet development, not imitate Western political models.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has searched fruitlessly for a new grand strategy — something to define who Russians are and where they are going, analysts Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn write for Foreign Affairs:

“In Russian history during the 20th century, there have been various periods — monarchism, totalitarianism, perestroika, and finally, a democratic path of development,” Russian President Boris Yeltsin said a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “Each stage has its own ideology,” he continued, but now “we have none.”

To fill that hole, in 1996 Yeltsin designated a team of scholars to work together to find what Russians call the Russkaya ideya (“Russian idea”), but they came up empty-handed. Around the same time, various other groups also took up the task, including a collection of conservative Russian politicians and thinkers who called themselves Soglasiye vo imya Rossiya (“Accord in the Name of Russia”).

Putin, to whom many of the Soglasiye still have ties, happened to agree with their ideals and overall goals, Barbashin and Thorburn note:

By the late 2000s, he had breathing room to return to the question of the Russian idea. Russia, he began to argue, was a unique civilization of its own. It could not be made to fit comfortably into European or Asian boxes and had to live by its own uniquely Russian rules and morals. And so, with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin began a battle against the liberal (Western) traits that some segments of Russian society had started to adopt. Moves of his that earned condemnation in the West — such as the criminalization of “homosexual propaganda” and the sentencing of members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk-rock collective, to two years in prison for hooliganism — were popular in Russia.

In terms of players today, the Russian right wing is by and large home to the groups most intensely preoccupied with the creation of a “Russian” ideology, Laqueur writes:

To the degree that any of them are in opposition to the ruling elite, it is certainly as a loyal opposition. Some of the more serious figures and groups of “the Russian party” have been absorbed by the ruling stratum—this goes for instance for Dmitri Rogozin, who for several years became Russia’s representative at NATO. It does not apply to certain neo-Nazi fringe groups that are not players in the political game. From time to time they appear in the news as instigators of riots, but their prospects for attaining real power remain minimal.

russia duginAfter the collapse of the Soviet Union, ultranationalist ideologies were decidedly out of vogue, Barbashin and Thorburn suggest. Still, a few hard-core patriotic elements remained that opposed de-Sovietization and believed — as Putin does today — that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century, including the ideologist Alexander Dugin (left):

His earliest claim to fame was a 1991 pamphlet, “The War of the Continents,” in which he described an ongoing geopolitical struggle between the two types of global powers: land powers, or “Eternal Rome,” which are based on the principles of statehood, communality, idealism, and the superiority of the common good, and civilizations of the sea, or “Eternal Carthage,” which are based on individualism, trade, and materialism. In Dugin’s understanding, “Eternal Carthage,” was historically embodied by Athenian democracy and the Dutch and British Empires. Now, it is represented by the United States. “Eternal Rome” is embodied by Russia. For Dugin, the conflict between the two will last until one is destroyed completely — no type of political regime and no amount of trade can stop that. In order for the “good” (Russia) to eventually defeat the “bad” (United States), he wrote, a conservative revolution must take place

Dugin is the preeminent political theorist of the nationalist camp, although his ideological peregrinations have been so rapid and radical that he has had little opportunity to take a seat in the front row of Russian politics, Laqueur writes for World Affairs:

He began his career as a follower of the rabidly anti-Semitic movement Pamyat in the 1980s, but soon left because it was “too primitive and simplistic.” Dugin drew his inspiration from a multitude of sources, very often obscure and obscurantist. He discovered extreme right-wing and neo-fascist thinkers little known in the West, such as Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist, the protagonists of the French, Italian, Belgian, and German extreme right, and also, in a seeming paradox, national Bolshevism….Over the years, Dugin has moved away from neo-fascist and neo-communist fringe groups to more respectable sources. This journey was rewarded by a professorship at Moscow State University, access to the Kremlin, and appointment as an adviser to various committees of the Russian Duma. He may well be the world’s leading expert on (and believer in) conspiracy theories. His message at present can be summarized as follows: Russia’s main enemy is (democratic) liberalism, and its geopolitical and ideological future lies with Asia, not the West.

In the nineteenth century, anti-Westernism was mainly cultural in character. Under Communism it was part of an ideological war to the death, Laqueur writes:

But today? It seems to be the product of a certain intellectual lethargy on the part of President Putin and his generation, who are stranded between two justifications for the state which they now control. The one, what they see sentimentally as the ordered society and global power of communism at its height, is dead. The other, an updated version of the older ideas of the Russian Orthodox Church, Authority, and Nationalism, is still struggling to be born. At present, statism—the belief in the necessity of a central authority and a strong state, coupled with anti-Westernism—is almost all there is. And this will probably not be enough in the longer run.

Isle of Light: A Look Back at Vietnam’s Boat People

vietnam vo van aiWe were sitting in a cafe on the Left Bank in Paris in November 1978 when the news broke that two thousand five hundred and sixty-four Vietnamese were stranded off the coast of Malaysia on a rusty cargo ship, the Hai Hong, writes Vo Van Ai, the founder and chair of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights and Que Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam:

They had fled Vietnam in a desperate attempt to seek freedom and asylum overseas. After sixteen days on the South China seas, buffeted by storms, crushed by the heat, with no more food or water, they had arrived on the shores of Indonesia, then Malaysia, only to be pushed back by the coast guards. They had nowhere to land, and the ship could go no further. Stranded and helpless, starving and totally dehydrated, they were dying before our eyes as they unfurled a makeshift banner in English across the side of the ship: “UN please save us.”

They were not the first to undertake a desperate journey by sea to escape from Vietnam. Since 1975, when the South was “liberated” by Hanoi at the end of the Vietnam War, more than one million people had risked their lives in ramshackle crafts to escape repression. More than half of them had died—drowned, eaten by sharks, or murdered by pirates in the Gulf of Thailand, he writes for World Affairs:

But those who allowed themselves to be swayed by this illusion, who believed that there would be room for them in a country reunified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under Hanoi’s rule, could not have been more mistaken. The communist authorities immediately divided the South Vietnamese into three categories: reactionary military personnel, reactionary administrative personnel, and reactionary citizens. In brief, the whole population was “reactionary.” In the months following the occupation, a vast network of “reeducation camps”—in reality forced labor camps, similar to the Chinese laogai—were set up throughout the South. Beginning with officers and soldiers from the former South Vietnamese Army, soon followed by writers, artists, academics, journalists, trade unionists, teachers, students, and farmers, people from all walks of life were summoned for “reeducation.” They were told to bring enough clothes and food for two weeks. Many would never return. Others would spend up to twenty years in these camps, released only when their health was broken and they were ready to die.

Although no definitive statistics have ever been published, Hanoi has admitted that more than two and a half million people were detained in reeducation camps between 1975 and 1985. Some one hundred thousand were summarily executed, and hundreds of thousands perished from hunger, exhaustion, and illness in these Vietnamese gulags. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of civilians were forcibly relocated to New Economic Zones where they served as human buffers along the Sino-Vietnamese or Cambodian border. Those who refused to go were arrested for breaching national security.

The Vietnam Committee on Human Rights and Que Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.


Putin rejects the West – in writing

Putins-InterestWhat kind of country is Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

The third year of his third presidential term has offered plenty of clues: the Crimea invasion, the shuttering of uncensored media outlets, prison terms for protesters. Now, Putin is planning to put the intellectual and ideological foundations of the new regime into words, writes Leonid Bershidsky:

A document called “Foundations of the State Cultural Policy” has been under development since 2012. A special working group under Putin’s chief of staff Sergei Ivanov will soon roll it out for a month of “public debate” before Putin gets to sign it. Quotes from the culture ministry’s draft, presumably the basis for the final one, have leaked out.

“Russia must be viewed as a unique and original civilization that cannot be reduced to ‘East’ or ‘West,’” reads the document, signed by Deputy Culture Minister Vladimir Aristarkhov. “A concise way of formulating this stand would be, ‘Russia is not Europe,’ and that is confirmed by the entire history of the country and the people.”

Russia’s non-European path should be marked by “the rejection of such principles as multiculturalism and tolerance,” according to the draft. “No references to ‘creative freedom’ and ‘national originality’ can justify behavior considered unacceptable from the point of view of Russia’s traditional value system.” That, the document stresses, is not an infringement on basic freedoms but merely the withdrawal of government support from “projects imposing alien values on society.”

The draft goes on to explain that certain forms of modern art and liberal Western values in general are unacceptable and harmful to society’s moral health, Bershidsky notes::

Although Putin has mentioned Russia’s “civilizational differences” with the West in his speeches, Russia has never asserted, in so many words, that its ideology is based on the rejection of the European path and of universal values such as democratic development and tolerance toward different cultures. If “Foundations of the State Cultural Policy” is adopted in the form proposed by the culture ministry, isolationism and, yes, intolerance of anything “alien” will be enshrined on an official level.


Ukrainian Struggle Explained: Maidan Revolution, Resistance to Military Intervention and Citizens’ Organizing


A webinar discussion moderated by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict will bring together four Ukrainian guests with backgrounds in academia, journalism, activism, and policy to talk about the political conflict in Ukraine. A number of false narratives have emerged that branded the Maidan Revolution as violent, driven by radicals and external powers. After the invasion of Crimea and its annexation to Russia some commentators suggested that the outcome of the referendum reflected the preferences of the majority of the Crimean population and the political change represented by the annexation of Crimea to Russia was in fact engineered peacefully, which contrasted with the supposedly violent nature of the Maidan Revolution that brought down the Yanukovych regime.

This webinar will address the prevailing misconceptions that emerged around the conflict in Ukraine. It will discuss the origin, goals, strategies and tactics behind the Ukrainian Maidan movement, as well as its composition and its responses to the state-sponsored repression. Webinar discussants will talk about the role of a violent minority – a radical flank in the movement – and reflect on the impact of external actors in the Ukrainian struggle. How, and more importantly why was the Yanukovych regime ultimately brought down? In the final part of the conversation, the speakers will offer their views on the ongoing mobilization of the Ukrainian society against Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and against a possible Russian invasion of other parts of Ukraine, as well as civic organizing to support but also pressure the Ukrainian government to implement needed reforms. 


-Nataliya Gumenyuk, Ukrainian journalist, Co-Founder of Hromadske.TV

-Olga Onuch, Newton Fellow, University of Oxford / Research Fellow, Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute

-Dmytro Potekhin, Trainer and consultant in strategic planning and nonviolent resistance

-Olena Tregub, Policy expert of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation and a writer for Kyiv Post


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Who’s the fascist? Putin’s ideologists court Europe’s far right

DUGIN-150x150Today’s Russia lacks the sort of coherent ideology provided by Soviet Communism, but if there is a conceptual thread running through Putin’s rhetoric and actions, it is that of Eurasianism, says analyst Jamie Kirchik…..

….characterized recently in Foreign Affairs by Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn as “authoritarian in essence, traditional, anti-American, and anti-European; it values religion and public submission. And more significant to today’s headlines, it is expansionist.” The man at the forefront of this movement is Alexander Dugin, a “conservative revolutionary” in the fascist mold who frequently appears on Russian state television egging on Putin’s neo-imperialist agenda. In 2005, Putin oversaw the creation of the Nashi youth movement, essentially a personality cult, which, in its idolization of the leader, nationalistic rhetoric, and confrontational approach toward critics bears, as some have noted, more than a passing resemblance to the Hitler Youth.

If Ukraine’s fledgling democracy survives the Russian threat, its extremist problem will likely be contained. Not so in Russia, where the rot of far-right nationalism currently starts at the top, Russia-watcher Cathy Young notes:

Writing in Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s surviving dissident media outlets, journalist Alexander Lipsky has pointed out that smearing opponents as “fascist” was a standard Soviet propaganda ploy. Its revival is particularly ironic today, when some Russians using this slur may fit it far better than their targets do. Take Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who recently lamented on Twitter that Ukrainians, his Soviet-era compatriots, had turned to “Nazis all around.” Rogozin first entered politics as a leader of the nationalist bloc Rodina (Motherland), which got booted from local Moscow elections in 2005 over an ad—featuring Rogozin himself—that used blatantly racist caricatures of Azerbaijani migrants. In 2011, he was the subject of a glowing tribute on the American “white identity” site Occidental Observer.

A far more sinister figure is Alexander Dugin [above left], founder of the “Eurasian movement,” which defines its mission as opposing “liberal hegemony” and modernity. In the 1990s, Dugin, a college dropout active in marginal ultranationalist groups, wrote essays openly advocating fascism as a “third way” alternative to communism and capitalism. Dugin argued that real fascism had never been properly tried (an argument usually made on behalf of communism) and would eventually emerge in Russia; while disavowing the racist “excesses” of Nazism, he also praised the SS as an “intellectual oasis” in the Third Reich and fantasized about the rise of “a race of Nordic warrior priests.”

Last year, Gabor Vona, leader of Hungary’s fascist Jobbik party, met with Dugin as well as leaders of the Russian Duma and spoke at Moscow State University, analyst Kirchik writes for The Tablet: .

There he said that Hungary should leave the European Union and join Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union” instead. “The role of Russia today is to offset the Americanization of Europe,” Vona declared. It is “clear that Russian leaders consider Jobbik as a partner,” the party boasted on its website. Jobbik applauded the sham Crimean referendum that led to the region’s annexation as “exemplary,” which is hardly surprising given that it too has revisionist aspirations for Europe’s borders. Jobbik speaks openly of regaining the territories Hungary lost after World War I and in which a significant number of ethnic Hungarians still reside, and Putin’s rationale for seizing Crimea is precisely the sort of reasoning that Jobbik uses in its own, ill-fated quest to restore “Greater Hungary.” When I reported on Jobbik for Tablet two years ago, several Hungarians shared their suspicion that the Kremlin is secretly funding the party.

All this would make Dugin merely an odious crank if, by the mid-2000s, he had not emerged as a leading “intellectual” in Russia’s Putin-era political establishment, with ties to top politicians and members of the official media, Young writes for The Weekly Standard:

Dropping the word “fascist,” he began to style himself a “traditionalist”; he also procured a Ph.D. and became the head of the Center for Conservative Studies at Moscow State University. In 2009, his International Eurasian Movement counted among its board members Alexander Torshin, Duma vice speaker and a leading figure in the ruling United Russia party, and Nikolai Yefimov, editor in chief of the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). Dugin was cited as an intellectual guru by Ivan Demidov, who headed United Russia’s ideology section in 2008, and currently serves as an adviser to the chairman of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin.