20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues the series of publications by prominent scholar Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. In this article, the author discusses the historical roots of the current Russian leadership’s “national patriotism.”



In telling the history of the ideology of Russian nationalism, it appears I made a mistake in starting with the 1830s and the dichotomy between the “official nationality” (“state patriotism”) and Slavophilism. In other words, it seemed logical to begin with the birth of this ideology; but actually, that would only be logical if the reader understood why the autocracy was without ideology prior to the 1830s. I immediately received a few reader comments that imply that this is not the case. The error worsens if the reader remains unclear why the rebirth of the “Russian idea” in the USSR began only in the late 1960s, and in the 2010s in post-Soviet Russia. I will try to amend the misunderstanding here.

But first, the comments: Two of them are illustrative enough. I was asked to explain the strange (at first glance) comment from Mikhail Leontiev. Leontiev was once a liberal and now he is an inveterate Eurasianist, an izborist—a member of the Izborsky Club made up of “national-patriotic” intellectuals who are enthusiastic about the idea of the “Eurasian integration of Russia” (a euphemism, the reader realizes, for recreating the twentieth-century Eurasian empire known as the USSR). Here is his comment: “At the moment when the Russian people become a nation they will cease to exist as people, and Russia will cease to exist as a state.”

This comment is not strange coming from a Eurasianist. It espouses normal imperial nationalism, which denies the nation for the sake of empire. But one must know the country’s history to see that Leontiev is merely a revanchist. And the liberals—the “Russian Europeans,” in the words of Vladimir Soloviev—do not know the history. That is why they find it difficult to stand their ground in the face of such an impudent revanchism. Evidence of this can be found in the other, liberal comment: “According to you, there are two isometric Russias, which for centuries have engaged in a tug of war, one Russia wins, then another. But, I think, one of these Russias is very big, and the second is small and weak. In order for the small European Russia to defeat the big Asian Russia ... Russia must stop being Russia.”

The Eurasian myth became popular only as a result of modern Russian society’s ignorance of Russian history.

Is it possible to interpret these two statements in any other way than as a twenty-first-century renewal of the dispute between Slavophiles and Westernizers? A century has passed. The Soviet twentieth century and its ambitious attempts to bring Russia back to the isolationist Muscovy it was in the seventeenth century and keep the country in opposition to the rest of the world—all this was left behind. It seemed that everything changed. But an old dispute is still with us.

The philosopher Georgy Fedotov was right in saying that “when the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary shock ends, all the problematic aspects of Russian thought will stay with new generations.” He was also right in the 1940s, when he foretold that “Bolshevism will die, as National Socialism died, but who knows what new form the Russian nationalism will settle in?”

And now let us examine the meaning of our controversial comments in detail.


The philosophy of the Izborsky Club

The Eurasian myth, voiced by Leontiev, is well known. It is easy to prove that this myth became popular only as a result of modern Russian society’s ignorance of Russian history. Why, from the myth’s point of view, is it so disastrous for the Russian people to become a nation and for Russia to become a nation-state? Because, Leontiev will tell you, the Empire gave birth to Russia; because modern Russia is the heiress to Genghis Khan’s Eurasian Empire and the attempt to become a nation could cripple its “cultural code” and its historical destiny.


A meeting of the Izborsky Club.


In short, according to the myth, the Russian state originates from the Tatar yoke. “There could be no Russia without Tartars,” proponents of Eurasianism claimed in the 1920s. What, however, is this myth (called to serve as historical justification for the philosophy of the members of the Izborsky Club) based on? On closer examination, it turns out to be nothing more than—don’t laugh—Marx’s speculation, picked up by the early Eurasianists. This is what Marx wrote: “Not the rough valor of [the] Norman era was the Cradle for Muscovy, but the bloody quagmire of the Mongolian slavery. Muscovy became strong on the backs of slaves. Freed, Muscovy continued to perform its traditional role of a slave that became a slave-owner, following the mission that it inherited from Genghis Khan. Modern Russia is no more than this metamorphosis of the Muscovy.” Let us agree that the members of the Izborsky Club have chosen a rather disgusting historical ideal. Pushkin, for instance, objected to it. He complained: “Tartars were not the Moors; they conquered Russia, but gave her neither algebra nor Aristotle.”

But the main problem is this: neither Marx nor the early Eurasianists have provided any evidence of the Tatar origin of the Russian state. Another issue is that present-day Russian Europeans do not oppose this story with a coherent alternative. They also see only “millennial slavery” in Russia’s past. How, then, can they stand against the izborists in today’s fight for the status of modern Russia’s “hegemonic idea”? Meanwhile, the alternative is obvious.


Checking the myth

The first volume of my trilogy, dedicated to the beginning of Russian statehood, is titled The European Century of Russia, 1480–1560.  Briefly, here are the arguments I put forth in it:

First, for the duration of the European century, the Czardom of Muscovy, which arose immediately after liberation from the foreign yoke, was not the Eurasian Empire. It was never an empire at all.

Secondly, according to the historian Vasily Klyuchevsky, the supreme power was limited by “the governing aristocratic class, which was recognized by the government.” In other words, there was no autocracy at that time in Moscow—there was a law that protected people from government despotism, unlike in the Horde.

Thirdly, the vast majority of the population—peasants—was free in Muscovy, as it was in Europe. In other words, there was no huge, bonded “peasant kingdom” yet.

Fourth, freedom of speech, or, as one would say today, ideological pluralism, was absolutely uninhibited at that time in Moscow. The monk Joseph of Volotsk could publicly accuse the ruler of aiding “Judaize” heretics and threaten him: “and if the one who wears the crown continues to sin, he will be cursed in this century and in the future.” And not one hair fell from the head of the oppositional thunder-bearer.

At the beginning of Russian statehood, Muscovy was more like Sweden than like Horde. In essence, it was a European country.

Fifth and most reliable: the migration vector. As the outstanding Russian historian Mikhail Dyakonov demonstrated, people fled not from Moscow to the West, but from the West to Moscow. Would they have moved with their families from very affluent Lithuania or Poland to the Horde? One could say that it was the Orthodox who fled eastward. But why, then, was there a flood of the Orthodox who rushed from Moscow after the autocratic revolution of Ivan IV in the 1560s?

Generally, in discussions about the beginning of Russian statehood, Moscow is described like this: it was an absolute monarchy, which was normal at that time in Europe, “with aristocratic government personnel”—a Nordic country (its southern border was somewhere in the region of Voronezh and its economic center was in the North). Muscovy was more like Sweden than like Horde. In essence, it was a European country. The difference between Russia and the other Nordic countries rested in what it had that they did not: an open, unprotected border with the East. The Eurasian temptation, if you will. And of course, Moscow could not resist it … but that is another story.

For the time being, I draw the reader’s attention to one thing only: Unlike the izborist myth, which was concocted out of the thin air, each of the above five arguments for the European origin of the Russian state is carefully documented. And this gives Russian Europeans an initial head start in the fight for the status of modern Russia’s “hegemonic idea.” But will they be able to use it?


Advantages of the izborists

In the second comment, we saw how today’s liberal paradigm—to use the academic jargon—of Russian history looks: There has always been the “very big” Asiatic Russia and the “little and weak” European Russia. And for the “little and weak” to triumph over the “very big,” “Russia must stop being Russia.” With such a paradigm, isn’t it obvious that Russian Europeans are doomed to defeat? Experience shows us that paradigms change slowly and with great difficulty—and only as a result of fierce ideological struggle. But they do change. Otherwise, we would still think that the sun revolves around the earth. That, too, was a paradigm.

To be honest, now my hope is with the writer Boris Akunin and his grandiose historical project; though, judging by his published plans, he is hardly aware that a paradigm shift can be the only worthy goal for his project. In this article, we’ve seen how the current paradigm came into being: the mythical Horde paradigm of the Russian state was replaced with a European paradigm. Later, I will show you that Russia did not forget its origin and that the “tug of war” penetrates the entirety of Russian history.

But now let us talk about the izborists, who today play the role of the Mediaeval Inquisition, i.e. they defend the old paradigm to death. They prepared for the ideological struggle better than the Russian Europeans. In contrast to those who are stuck with opposition to Putin, they look ahead. Take Eurasianist Alexander Dugin, for example. Of course, Putin is an “extremely positive figure” for him, but he knows that “Putin does not have sufficient internal view to carry out consistent patriotic reforms.” Something else is significant for Dugin: that, Putin or no Putin, “ideas important to us become a guide to actions for the state.”

Valery Averyanov, director of the Institute of Dynamic Conservatism, who wrote the book New Oprichnina as a guide to action, develops Dugin’s idea: “Instead of public television, which is in danger of becoming the institutionalization of the Bolotnaya Square protests, we need to create a media holding company, which carries the purpose of a patriotic strategy, appealing to the majority’s values. Instead of the path to unknown freedom, we offer the path to building a united country. But such a path is impossible without a de-Gorbachevization of Russia.”

The Slavophiles would write “without de-Peterization,” but the meaning would be the same. Russia has to sever, to isolate itself from the heretical world, from “the coming Anti-Christ,” and return to Muscovy (according to Slavophiles) or resurrect the USSR (according to the izborists). One unconsciously recalls the famous recommendation of the philosopher Konstantin Leontiev: “Russia has to be frozen so as not to rot.” But for all the grotesqueness of these plans, let us not forget what Shakespeare said 400 years ago: “In troublesome times, a blind man runs after a madman.” And the Izborsky Club’s advantages are obvious. They are mobilized; they are ready to fight. But liberals do not realize that Putin is only the beginning of an ideological struggle.

And now, what was promised.


The “tug of war”

When Ivan IV turned against the West, shattering Russia’s European century, he didn’t think that he “appealed to the majority values.” His aim was the same as Nicholas I’s was in the legendary manifesto he addressed to stunned Europeans on March 14, 1848: “God is with us! Nations, understand and submit yourself, God is with us!” But with a difference. After the inapprehensive “nations” put Moscow on its knees, dark days and the enslaving of peasants came to the country—a country already utterly ruined by the oprichnina and the four-century Livonian War. And after Nicholas I’s capitulation in the Crimean War, Alexander II introduced his great reforms.

The difference was this: In Peter the Great’s Russia, both the “new oprichnina,” and the enslaving of peasants were unimaginable, because Russia, thanks to him, was already a European country. Peter brought it back to basics; in his time, the “small and weak” European Russia defeated the “very big” Muscovy. After that, Catherine II’s order declaring that “Russia is a European power” became possible. This subsequently inspired the Decembrists and Alexander I, who was an associate of the dissident Radishchev, and Alexander II, who signed a constitutional draft, albeit after a quarter-century delay.

Unlike Muscovy, this version of Russia was already a “spoiled Europe.” The autocracy and the peasant slavery spoiled it. And it was spoiled by its tremendous size, which was easily confused with greatness. It was spoiled by the fact that, according to Sergei Witte, “Russian people have a passion for conquests, or, rather, to grab anything that is not protected.” Finally, it was spoiled by the symbolic embodiment of this “spoiling”—by the “Russian idea.” But despite all that, Russia was a European power from 1700 to 1917. The “spoil” was gradually removed. Peasant slavery disappeared. After that, autocracy disappeared. However, the empire remained, and with it, the hope for the reconstruction of Muscovy.

Moreover, starting with Peter the Great, Muscovy’s “peasant kingdom” always loomed ominously over European Russia and for centuries waited for its time to come. It tried to gain power during Pugachev’s time in the eighteenth century, but achieved it only in the twentieth century, under Lenin, because of the “Russian idea.” And everything went through a second cycle: again the peasant slavery, again the autocracy, again “the passion for conquest.” In one word, again all of Muscovy’s “spoil.” Only this time it could commit the evil of separating itself from the world, having ceased to be a European country.

Putin considered himself the main European in the country, and suddenly European Russia turned against him.

And still the life of the Soviet “peasant kingdom” was even shorter than in the times of Muscovy. It collapsed after three generations. Again the “small and weak” European Russia defeated the “very big” new Muscovy, as had happened in the eighteenth century. Yes, the new Muscovy was able to extend the Russian dark ages for nearly a century more—but that was the most it could do. And the main thing that still haunts the izborists is the realization that there is no empire—it disappeared under the rubble of the “peasant kingdom,” along with slavery and the new autocracy. Sorry, but what kind of Muscovy was it without an empire?

Such things happened in the “tug of war” of Russian history.


What does Putin have to do with it?

When Putin said to the world, “in patriotism, I see the basis for the consolidation of our policy,” he started a new post-Soviet historical cycle of the “Russian idea,” known from the times of Nicholas I as “state patriotism” (or “official nationality”). He started it only in 2012, but it is obviously in the same spirit. All his life, Nicholas I was ready for peasant revolts, but he didn’t expect European Russia to turn on him. And so he was shocked by the Decembrist revolt and vowed to put an end to the “madness of our liberals.” That’s where his “state patriotism” came from. Here is the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article: how did the autocracy manage without ideology before 1825?

Putin was also shocked with the hundreds of thousands of protesters who appeared in Bolotnaya Square in December 2011. He considered himself a major European in the country, and suddenly European Russia turned against him.

To ensure I’m not exaggerating, we can read his January 15, 2002, interview in Gazeta Wyborcza: “The essence of any country and its people,” Putin said, “is determined by its culture. In this respect, Russia is a European country without doubt, because it is a country of European culture. There cannot be any doubt.... This is a country of European culture, which means it is a European country.”

As we see, at the beginning of the century, Putin was infinitely far away from the current izborists (who were struggling against the “Anti-Christ West”) and from the “national-patriots” of the time. Remember September 11, 2001, when Islamic extremists buried thousands of innocent people under the burning wreckage of the twin towers. Who should Russia lend its helping hand to—the murderers or the victims? The “patriots” didn’t have any doubts: of course, to the murderers. “America must not obtain help from Russia,” wrote the late Alexander Panarin, their ideologist and head of the department of political science at Moscow State University. And he threatened: “Those who will ignore Russia’s point of view risk their political future.”

Putin risked: “We are with you, Americans!” And the “patriot” Alexander Prokhanov shot back: “Bush’s steel gloves squeeze Putin’s chicken neck firmer and firmer. And the squeak grows thinner, the eyes more mournful, the legs almost didn’t twitch and the yellow wings hardly tremble.”


Ten years later

Now Prokhanov, chairman of the Izborsky Club, is trying to forget his comment about Putin’s “chicken neck,” and Putin doesn’t seem to recall the unfortunate interview in Gazeta Wyborcza. Now, they both think about “Eurasian integration.” But Dugin reminds them: “Without history, the present doesn’t have any sense. If we forget history, we lose the logic of the narration, part of which we are ourselves, and this means we lose ourselves.” These words are golden. They refer not just to the past decade, but to the whole dramatic history of the “Russian idea.” Forgetting it, we risk repeating it all over again.