Putin increasingly sounds like a defender of Russian ethnic nationalism guided by Orthodox Christianity. But what are his ideological roots, and how did he come to this point?
In a recent speech, the Russian president lashed out at some of his fellow citizens, calling them “traitors” and “scum” for upholding a pro-Western and anti-war view. He said they are not being "real Russians," a rebuke that came at a time when Russia's attack on Ukraine shows signs of stalling.
Using harsh words against his critics, his fellow countrymen, Putin is trying to rally popular support for his unpopular fight in Ukraine, which has been dragging on for several weeks since the first fire was shot in late February.
While the wartime president faces tremendous Western pressure, he hasn't shied away from deploying a language laced with ethnic nationalism, a striking departure from the traditions Russia inherited from the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The former Soviet Union, which was a communist state, denounced all forms of nationalist ideas based on race, including Russian ethnicity. However, a few years after its collapse, the Russian state has slowly and steadily embraced Russian ethnic identity, with signs of it featuring in the Kremlin’s policy-making process under Putin.
Even the Russian Federation’s first government led by President Boris Yeltsin showed some degree of respect toward the Soviet legacy, says Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia analyst.
“But in the absence of communism, enriched by gas and oil revenues and powered by Putin’s leadership, Moscow has increasingly seen Russian nationalism as a source of its political legitimacy to rebuild the state,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World.
“I must say that particularly since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, Russian nationalism has been the main motivation of the Kremlin's decision-making process,” the analyst says, referring to Putin’s leadership.
Putin has recently accused the Bolshevik leaders like Nikita Khruschev, a Ukrainian-origin Soviet leader, of “robbing” Russia by arranging regions like Crimea to be part of Ukraine.
He also believes Ukraine exists thanks to the Soviet leadership’s artificial political designs, which he harshly criticised for its treatment of “the Russian people as inexhaustible material for their social experiments,” suggesting that Russians were victims of the communist state. Interestingly, Ukrainian leaders ruled the Soviets for much of the communist state’s duration.
Moscow also wants to tighten its control over non-Russian populations across its vast areas.
While Russia is a federation with many federative regions, which are also a construct of the Soviet era, “the Kremlin believes that the time has come to institutionalise Russian nationalism across all 85 regions,” Yalinkilicli says. But that policy might also create a lot of repercussions in regions where diverse populations from Tatars to Chechens and other non-Russians live.
All these signs show that a non-communist Russian history has become a source of great inspiration for Putin and his allies in recent years.
According to Laurence Kotlikoff, a worldwide famed American economist whose ancestors moved to the US from Ukraine, what Putin is doing isn’t just about Russian nationalism but also about resurrecting the old Russian Empire.
“We have to take what Putin is saying seriously, which is that he wants to restore the Russian Empire,” Kotlikoff, who has advised several Russian think-tanks and the Ukrainian government, tells TRT World. The professor also underlines the price the world dearly paid when the West did not take what Hitler was initially saying prior to WWII seriously.
The old Russian Empire, which stretched from the Sea of Japan to current Western Poland, including Finland, Belarus, Baltic states, Moldova and Ukraine in the late 19th century, was a Eurasian state based on the elements of Russian Slavic Orthodoxy.
Religious nationalism: Slavic Orthodoxy
Putin’s Russia has seen more emphasis on the Orthodox Slavic nation’s history based on a thousand-year-old narrative started in Kievan Rus’, the first Russian state in history that emerged in the 9th Century. According to this approach, Kievan Rus’ was followed by the rise of the Grand Duke of Moscow, the predecessor state of the Tsardom of Russia, in the late 13th Century.
By fighting Ukraine in an attempt to claim back Kiev, Putin shows his “ontological” understanding of Russian history, according to Yalinkilicli, who was standing in front of the newly-erected statue of Vladimir the Great, located in the Kremlin, when he responded to TRT World’s questions.
Vladimir the Great, a hero for both Ukrainians and Russians adjoining both nations’ history, who is also a source of great admiration for Putin, converted to Orthodox Christianity, turning Kievan Rus’ into a Christian state in the late 10th Century.
“The spiritual choice made by St. Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev, still largely determines our affinity today,” Putin wrote, referring to the Kievan Rus’ leader’s crucial place in both nations’ history. Vladimir the Great’s statue was erected in Moscow in 2016 following the Crimean annexation.
“Putin considers himself as Orthodox Christian” and believes that Moscow's Orthodox Church should play a crucial role to reconstruct the post-Soviet conservative Russian national identity, according to Yalinkilicli. The current Russian Patriarch Kirill is a Putin ally who has long criticised the West’s moral decadence.
For the current Kremlin, the thousand-year-long Orthodox Christian Slavic history, from Vladimir the Great’s Kiev to Putin’s Moscow, matters much more than a hundred year-long communist period starting with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, according to Yalinkilicli.
As a result, under a Russian nationalist influence based on Orthodox Christian Slavism, Putin wants to join not only Ukraine but also Belarus with Moscow, seeing them as an inseparable part of “the greater Russian nation,” the analyst says.
Under Russian pressure, Belarus has been in Moscow’s orbit and last year’s anti-government protests increased the country’s autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko's dependence on Putin. But independent-minded pro-Western Ukraine has made Moscow so angry.
“They believe that losing Ukraine means losing a crucial part of Russian history in an ontological sense, but it also geopolitically means losing a better access to the Black Sea for which Russia fought so hard against the Ottomans,” says Yalinkilicli.
In the post-Soviet period, one of the most critical movements affecting the Kremlin's decision-making process has been Eurasianism promoted by some Russian political scientists and thinkers like Alexandr Dugin, a controversial figure who numerous analysts have accused of being a Russian fascist.
Some describe Dugin as “Putin’s brain,” believing that his positions signal “where the Kremlin is leading its country.” Dugin has long advocated Russian military intervention in Ukraine. “Among other leading Russian elites, he is one of the inspiring personalities for Putin. But I wouldn't say that they determine the Kremlin's policies,” says Yalinkilicli.
Like Valdai Discussion Club and Russian International Affairs Council, the two important Russian think-tanks, Dugin has also been an influential figure over Putin’s decision-making, Yalinkilicli says. “Particularly, during Moscow’s transition to rebuild the Russian state in the post-Soviet period, Dugin was one of the most influential people on Putin.”
Dugin, an anti-Western ideologue, advocates the establishment of a new “Euro-Asian Empire,” unifying all Russian-speaking peoples living across former Soviet republics in a single state, allied with Asiatic nations. Dugin calls it the Eurasian Union or Greater Russia, whose borders are not drawn clearly, making a lot of outsiders, including Westerners, nervous.
While some believe that Dugin’s Eurasianism is just a geopolitical design to enable Russia to claim back former Soviet territories, the idea goes back to Soviet historian Lev Gumilyov’s historiography and understanding of the political structure of old nomadic Mongolian and Turkic tribes who ruled vast areas of Eurasia including Russia prior to the Muscovites' rise.
Gumilyov believed that Russians borrowed the Turkic political structure rooted in harsh conditions of steppe life to create their own Orthodox Christian Slavic empire, which protected them from Europe’s Catholic influences. While many scholars find Gumilyov’s findings problematic, they still concede that his historical approach won many admirers in both Soviet and Russian states.
In Gumilyov’s understanding, Russia is the sum of Turkic military-political structure, Orthodox Christianity and Slavic solidarity. As a result, unlike other Russian historians and experts, who pointed out Russia’s European origins, Gumilyov chose to emphasise Asian roots, believing that the past Mongolian conquest of current Russia was not necessarily a bad thing.
Dugin has used Gumilyov’s controversial historical analysis to promote his anti-Western political approach to which Russia defends the cause of not only Slavic nations of Russia and Eastern Europe but also Asiatic nations against the West’s dominant liberal democratic capitalist order.
In this approach, Ukraine occupies a pivotal role in the establishment of the Eurasian Union, according to Dugin, who has long seen the Russian takeover of Ukraine as an inevitable event to make Russia great again. "The Russian Renaissance can only stop by Kiev,” he said in 2014 when pro-Moscow separatists began fighting for eastern Ukraine against Kiev.
"Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Eurasian Union, we can become a credible global player,” he said, accusing the US of waging “war against Russia not by its own hands but by the hands of the Ukrainians.”