By Jeremy Becker
The Russian anthropologist Lev Gumilev had a life right out of a Solzhenitsyn novel. Born the son of the poet Anna Akhmatova he spent most of youth in a Stalinist labour camp after his father was executed at the age of nine. He was arrested twice and spent five years in the Gulag before joining the Red Army and taking part in the Battle of Berlin. He was again arrested in 1948 and sentenced to ten years in Siberia, spending many hard years between the onerous toiling fields and desolate cells of the Gulag Archipelago. Following Stalin’s death and his release, he worked for the Hermitage museum and then later as a lecturer at Leningrad University, devoting his life to uncovering the enigmatic rhythms of the Central Asian steppe and its peoples. Now largely remembered in the West for his eccentric theories of ethnogenesis, Gumilev’s ideology of Eurasianism, an obscure mythology that posits a special destiny for Russian civilisation is seeing a revival in Putin’s Russia.
Despite having 5% of the military capacity of NATO and the GDP of New York State, Russian policy-makers have redesigned a model of governance being imitated across the globe not done since Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. Besides much talk of the “Asian Century”, it is Russia that has in the last decade been most influential in shaping global politics through its creation of what many analysts have heralded as the “civilisation state”. From the transparent kleptocracy of a decade ago, thinly veiled by lazy rhetoric of nationalism and orthodox values, the country has seen itself transform into the first blueprint of this new kind of regime.
The concept of the “civilisation state” stresses the cultural roots of a nation, imbuing it with a mythic and ancient sense of grandeur, continuity and veneration. This exceptionalism is transcendent from the cyclical fortunes of transient regimes and the transformations of the state. Russia presents a direct challenge to contemporary Western thought with its enlightenment universalism, rejecting its prescription of political liberalisation. With this narrative, the bankrupt ex-superpower has, by exploiting the current crisis of liberalism, legitimised a new form of autocracy which emphasizes the historic character of its society. This ideology serves not just as a pretext for oligarchic greed and autocratic rule but provides a legitimacy and moral confidence to the Kremlin’s securocrats.
While only 10 years ago Putin’s ruling cabal staved off heavy pressure to democratise and embrace liberal modernity, it is now Western liberalism that is facing a crisis of faith. Profound questions of identity, community and meaning and China’s rise have sobered Western belief in Fukuyaman teleology and Hegelian Moral Arcs of History. As the West reassesses its future and past, Putin has seized the opportunity to present himself as the guardian and steward of Russian civilisation. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has steered away from the dead-end of liberalist deconstruction, decadent consumerism and cultural relativism. For the Russian leader, the West has become plagued by existential malaise, historical guilt and endless cultural wars.
Penning a long essay on the Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of the Second World War in The National Interest and giving a speech on the obsolescence of liberalism, the perceptive strongman has led the way in constructing a counter-narrative to the “End of History” mythology espoused by American liberals since 1989.
Putin’s confected mythos, built around a cult of “The Great Patriotic War”, the Eurasianism of Gumilev and the orthodox spiritualism of Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky, is best embodied by his new Cathedral of the Armed Forces. With steps made from melted down Nazi Tanks and decorated with the iconography of WW2 soldiers and stained glass hammer and sickles, and even a museum of military history containing Hitler’s uniform, it serves as a temple to martial glory. This monument to the secular religion of the country’s war memory is marked by contradictory Soviet insignia and incongruous military ornaments, symbolically blending the disparate elements of Russian history and identity into a monument to Mother Russia as an ancient, unique and continuous Civilisation State.
Putin inherited an impoverished and enfeebled post-Soviet Russia on the eve of the new millenium rocked by a separatist insurgency in Chechenya and humiliated by NATO and EU eastward expansion. The ex-KGB agent has overseen a resurgence in Russian geopolitical power through revisionist invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, establishing puppets in Syria and Libya and waging campaigns of cyber-disinformation in the West that feed conspiracy theories, populist ire and political polarisation. Despite mismanaging an oligarchic economy that has failed to diversify away from fossil fuels, provoked harmful sanctions from major economies, overseen chronically underfunded public services and through his overmighty security state enabled spectacular corruption and destroyed any safe investment environment creating an exodus of millionaires, potential investors and “political refugees” to the west, his approval ratings remain high and his grip on power firm.
Banning “gay propoganda”, enforcing conscription and subsidising families to reverse demographic decline, his regime promotes traditionalist values associated with the Orthodox Church despite overseeing a neo-feudal economy and a broken civic culture unrecovered from its suffocation under the behemoth of the state during the long years of Soviet totalitarianism and then the squalor and predatory individualism that followed its rapid dismantling in the 1990s. In fact, the negation of such a civil society remains essential to the regime’s survival. Russian society, a sort of surreal post-truth world of apathy, corruption and fatigue where morals are always compromised is unlike China’s surveillance state, held in check by a sophisticated but cost-efficient model of cultivated epistemic distrust, moral fatigue and political apathy.
Despite the performative jingoism of its rallies and national holidays that include the Defender of the Fatherland Day and Victory Day, Russian society has little of the communitarianism associated with traditionalist cultures. Even more so, for a regime predicated on the memory of the titanic sacrifices of its war dead, it shows little of the esprit des corps its stupendous monuments to patriotic sacrifice project. One finds a world of indifferent oligarchs and corrupt provincial officials, acquiescing journalists and conniving policemen, a society stratified by regional wealth and divided by the predation of crony business and the mendacity and patronage of sinister bureaucracy.
To observe these realities is to miss the point of his “civilisation-state”. By recasting Russia as a separate and fundamentally unique civilisation, Putin has abandoned the Westernising mission of the Europhile tsars of the eighteenth century and rejected the expectations of liberal values. While the post-Christian West enters another one of its recurrent waves of iconoclasm and expresses profound doubt over its own history, Russia has asserted an unambiguous confidence in its own past.
Ending the denigration of Soviet history, Putin has recast Russia’s most notorious tyrants not as megalomaniacal mass-murderers but venerable statesmen who saw off foreign invaders and brought stability at home. Despite an obscure and well-hidden Gulag museum in the capital, Putin has revived the cults of Lenin and Stalin as state-builders and defenders of the motherland. Putin mirrors Lenin’s and Stalin’s emphasis of strength and stability over freedom and prosperity. It matters little that the country itself has achieved little since it sent the first man into space in 1961, Russian greatness is found not just in military potency but in Russian-ness itself, rather than a set of abstract values or its contributions to universal humanity. Unlike the tepid talk of the “American Dream”, “British Values” or the sacred secularism of the French Republic, the Kremlin’s ideology emphasises a deep-rooted and ancestral civilisation that has endured through its transformations as Eastward empire-builders, ersatz Europeans and Soviet communists.
Tellingly though, in a 2008 national poll on the greatest Russian, it was medieval prince Alexander Nevsky who defended Russia from the Teutonic knights of the Holy Roman Empire in the thirteenth century who came top. That the Russian people have looked to the remote medieval past reveals the extent to which defence against invaders and martial Christianity still exerts a grip on their historical imagination. This conveniently allows the regime to present an older sense of continuity and legitimacy beyond the divisive and contentious eras of Tsarist serfdom and Soviet tyranny.
Another peculiar feature of our strange polarised times is the post-truth uncertainty that has arisen in an age where fabrication technology has proliferated, with its origins in the Russian state’s domestic disinformation wars. Using nominally independent mouthpieces to create a cacophony of conflicting news, the truth is deemed unknowable, buried in a sea of conspiracy, paranoia and distrust. Internally this enables the regime to suppress journalism without heavy-handed censorship, but applied globally, it suggests a world where universal standards and singular truth are an illusion. This leaves only national interest and partial perspectives, a novelty described by some as a “post-modern dictatorship”.
Putin, styling himself as a neo-medieval tsar, has seen his post-liberal civilisation state rhetoric aped not just by neo-ottoman Turkey’s Erdogan, as he converts the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, India’s Modi, as he dismantles its secularism and dons the attire of a Gupta king, but also ex-Warsaw Pact Poland and Hungary and even the writings of Xi Jinping. Following Russia’s lead, countries across the world are now seeing nihilism as the logical end point of Westernisation, with liberalism’s narratives of unending progress as hollow. Regardless of whether it lives up to its image of orthodox traditionalism, by acting as a buffer against the excesses of the hyper-liberal and homogenising tendencies of American-led globalisation, Russia has provided a template for nations seeking to reject the universalism of the Western model. Just as Modi excoriates the cult of Nehru that has intoxicated post-colonial India for the last half a century and attacks the secular pluralistic spirit he left behind, Erdogan does away with Ataturk’s legacy and pours money into Turkey’s religious institutes and military. So compelling has this become that the Chinese Communist Party, formerly disciples of a ‘scientific’ Marxism, now speak of a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and open Confucius Institutes across the world promoting the superiority of Chinese Civilisation.
Much utility has also been found in this Civilisation State historiography, allowing China and India to assimilate their complex and contentious histories into a single unifying narrative. This has enabled China to synthesize Maoism with the Confucianism and Imperial state the Cultural revolution tried to destroy. Likewise Modi’s Hindutva to reconcile its Hindu purism with the subcontinent’s rich diversity, bringing Mauryan buddhism, the Delhi Sultanate, the Sikh Empire and Mughal Rule under the umbrella of a primordial India.
Unlike the CCP, unversed in Western pathologies and tone-deaf to Western sensibilities, Russia with its hybrid history as both Peter I and Catherine the Great’s budding Europeans and of Nicolas I and Alexander the III’s “Asiatic barbarism” is uniquely poised to identify and dissect the limits and contradictions of the Western model.
By pioneering a form of autocracy more endurable than China’s surveillance state and a narrative not shaped by ideas of inexorable progress and democratic triumph, but of distinct cultures with their own separate destinies in an uncertain world, Russia has redrawn the map. Giving inspiration to nations disillusioned with their efforts to Westernise including the Poland of Duda’s Law and Justice Party, the Hungary of Viktor Orban’s Fidesz as well as the once vaunted democracies of India and Turkey, Russia has presented a serious ideological challenge to the West.
There is much that Gumilev would have recognised in Putin’s surreal world of war cathedrals and post-modern tyranny, but like his Gulag compatriot Solzhneitzyn, he would have seen through the veneer of this kleptocratic racket. The fact that such an evidently venal and belligerent vision has usurped the liberal establishment from the Vistula to the Bosphorus, the Danube to the Ganges shows the extent of the Western crisis in confidence. As Solzhenitzyn himself had warned, the hyper-rationalist Western model with its worship of reason and neglect of the spiritual needs, atavistic desires for belonging and tribal impulses of mankind would face a crisis. Predictably, it is in Russia, the halfway world between East and West, from the rubble of that great project of utopian will, the Soviet Union, that the greatest ideological challenge to liberalism has emerged.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.