20 years under Putin: a timeline

In January, a draft document titled “Foundations of state policy on the preservation and strengthening of Russia’s traditional spiritual and moral values” (to be confirmed by presidential decree) was released for public discussion. Legal scholar Ekaterina Mishina analyzes the document and notes that its authors attempt to establish a state ideology in Russia by manipulating terminology in the hope that their efforts go unnoticed.


Painting by Vasily Bauyskin (1950s).


In the very beginning, the draft notes that these Foundations “are an intersectoral document on the Russian Federation’s strategic planning in national security, defining goals, objectives, and instruments for implementation of the strategic national project [titled] ‘Protection of Russia’s traditional spiritual and moral values, culture, and historical memory’ in the part concerning the defense of Russian traditional spiritual and moral values (further referred to as ‘traditional values’).” Article 2 of the draft lists the normative legal basis for the Foundations, which includes: the Russian Constitution, the universally recognized principles and norms of international law, and the international treaties of the Russian Federation. A number of presidential decrees, as well as an entire bouquet of strategies, doctrines, and foundations were also taken into account in developing this document: the Strategy of the state national policy of the Russian Federation for the period until 2025, approved by presidential decree dated December 19, 2012; the Informational Security Doctrine, approved by presidential decree dated December 5, 2016; and the relatively recent Federal Law No. 489-FZ “On youth policy” dated December 30, 2020.

Article 3 of the draft posits that “traditional values are the moral guidelines that shape Russian citizens’ worldview and are passed down from generation to generation, provide for civic unity and form the foundation of the Russian civilizational identity and the country’s united cultural space, which are uniquely and distinctly manifested in the spiritual, historical, and cultural development of Russia’s multinational peoples.” It also specifies that traditional values include: “life, dignity, human rights and freedoms, patriotism, civic consciousness, service to the Fatherland and responsibility for its fate, high moral ideals, strong family, contemplative labor, priority of the spiritual over the material, humanism, mercy, justice, collectivism, mutual help and respect, historical memory and intergenerational continuity, and unity of the peoples of Russia.”

According to the authors, a new state policy on preserving and strengthening traditional values must be implemented in the spheres of culture, education and upbringing, working with the youth, science, international and interconfessional relations, the media landscape, and international collaboration. It also should be part of exercising power by the government institutions that focus on defense and public safety (article 6). This hints at the document’s upcoming crescendo: starting with culture, the authors quickly move on to their true goals—defense and security. 

A century ago, the second part of the draft, titled “Current situation, threats, risks, development scenarios” would have been titled “Soviet Russia in the circle of enemies,” as its paints the following picture. Here we have the Russian Federation, which has undertaken efforts to develop its spiritual potential, leading to the strengthened cohesiveness of the Russian people such as that citizens themselves realized the need for preserving and strengthening traditional values in the face of a global values crisis, resulting in humanity’s loss of traditional spiritual and moral guidelines and principles (article 7). However, comrades, the international circumstances are such that immediate measures must be taken to defend Russia’s traditional spiritual and moral values. The activities of extremist and terrorist organizations (their origin is not listed, since there are grounds to suppose that they include not just foreign and international organizations, but also Russian ones,—author’s note), against the United States and its allies, against transnational corporations, against foreign nonprofit organizations—all of them clearly threaten Russian traditional values (article 8).

Further in the document, the word “ideology” and its derivatives are mentioned quite often; in particular, the term “destructive ideology,” which is defined as a system of ideas and values that are foreign to the Russian people and destructive to Russian society, and that are disseminated through ideological and psychological influence on Russian citizens. This destructive ideology includes “a cult of egoism, overindulgence, immorality, rejection of ideals such as patriotism, service to the Fatherland, propagation, contemplative labor, and Russia’s positive input into world history and culture. The activities of the destructive ideology conduits contradict the Russian Federation’s national interests.” 

A century ago, the second part of the draft, titled “Current situation, threats, risks, development scenarios” would have been titled “Soviet Russia in the circle of enemies.”

Next, the first powerful crescendo comes in: “Reforms in the spheres of education, science, culture and informational activities, conducted without accounting for national traditions and the experience accumulated by the Russian society, complicate the transfer of traditional values from generation to generation and facilitate the spread of destructive ideology.” Here readers are led to face the main thought behind the draft: we must counteract destructive ideology or something terrible might happen. “Something terrible” is described in detail in article 9. Out of the most terrifying and certainly new threats, the “destruction of the Russian language’s semantic value coordinate system” deserves a mention. Out of just as terrifying, but already well-known issues—known from the 2020 constitutional amendments—one might note threats of the “weakening of the state-forming Russian people,” “destruction of historical memory,” and the “distortion of historical truth” (the consequences of these are also known thanks to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation). I am not sure, however, how readers of sound mind can be scared with the alleged “loss of trust in state institutions, and especially in law enforcement agencies,” but it does seem as if there is always more work to be done.

Article 10 of the draft explains exactly how we can preserve and strengthen traditional values, and what exactly needs to be perfected, provided for, supported at a state level and developed in order to reach that goal. Here, everything is clear—plenty of varied and exciting work lies ahead. Two scenarios of future developments—positive and negative—are also outlined. At this point, yet another crescendo emerges: whether we are to enter a fairytale with a happy ending or a Hitchcock horror film depends entirely on whether “a systematized and consistent state policy in the field of traditional values, developed over the course of Russia’s millennium-long history” is implemented in the country (article 11). If it is, we are to expect prosperity and joy; if not—despair and desolation. State policy in the field of traditional values is apparently our only way to avert catastrophe, it is what will pave the road to a bright future.

The goals and objectives of such state policy are spelled out with maximum clarity:

  1. Preserving and strengthening the system of traditional values and their transfer from generation to generation;
  2. Countering the spread of destructive ideology;
  3. Securing Russia’s moral leadership in international relations and its role as a keeper of traditional universal values.

The plentiful objectives of the state policy on preserving and strengthening traditional values, listed in article 13, are strewn with familiar phrases: “preservation of historical memory,” “protection of historical memory from falsification,” “protection of the institution of marriage as a union between a man and a woman,” “elevation of Russia’s role in the world,” etc. It may seem as if every letter of this draft breathes care for the country and the fate of ordinary Russians. However, something completely different can be sensed beneath this delicate breathing. Here we finally approach the funeral march. 

The authors of this draft must have read the Russian Constitution, and even if they haven’t, someone must have told them about it. That is why they divert from the tried-and-tested Soviet political practice (e.g. “let’s respond to the White Terror with the Red Terror”) and do not recommend countering destructive ideology with a constructive counterpart. Instead, they push for the implementation of state policy on preserving and strengthening traditional values. “Why?” the curious reader unfamiliar with chapter 1 of the Russian Constitution might ask. Because article 13, part 2 of this chapter states: “No ideology shall be proclaimed as State ideology or as obligatory.” Chapter 1 itself is titled “The Basis of the Constitutional System.” This basis is unshakeable, and the provisions of chapters 1, 2 and 9 of the Constitution cannot be revised by the Federal Assembly (article 135 of the Constitution). The authors, however, seem to imagine that if they can proclaim a state ideology under the guise of state policy on preserving and strengthening traditional values, no one will notice. And the foundations of this state policy outlined in the draft are nothing other than state ideology, just under an alias.

This is not the first attempt by the Russian government to create a loophole and bypass a constitutional norm through a presidential decree. On August 25, 2021, President Putin issued a decree that established that a Russian citizen who holds citizenship of a foreign country that has not been terminated due to reasons outside of his or her influence, can be hired by a state or municipal agency and appointed to office. It is worth noting here that several amendments to the Russian Constitution that went into force in July 2020 prohibit foreign citizenship or permanent residence in a foreign country for a wide spectrum of individuals. Those include state and municipal officials, top regional officials, heads of federal state agencies, members of the Federal Assembly, deputies of the State Duma, judges, prosecutors, federal ministers, other heads of federal organs of executive power, the prime minister, and the president himself.

However, in the case of the draft reviewed in this article, the problem is even more serious. This document is a clear encroachment on one of the foundations of the constitutional order, which includes a ban on proclaiming a state ideology. Incidentally, foreign and international NGOs are put on the “undesirables” list for this very offense (encroachment on the foundations of the constitutional order).

The federal law “On enforcement measures against individuals implicated in the violation of fundamental human rights and freedoms of citizens of the Russian Federation” (article 3.1) states: “The activities of a foreign or international NGO which threatens the foundations of the Russian Federation’s constitutional order, the country’s defense potential or state security… can be deemed ‘undesirable’ on the territory of the Russian Federation”. But, as kids say today, “it hits different.”

A famous Latin saying goes, quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi, or “what Jupiter can do, the bull cannot.” In the modern Russian context, the translation can be adjusted: what the government can do, foreign and international NGOs cannot.


Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.