20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. In this new essay, the author discusses the key concepts of the Russian idea and their reincarnation in today’s Russia.



In the beginning of this series of articles on the history of Russian nationalism, or the Russian idea, I introduced the reader to the subject’s central characters, i.e. to the Decembrists’ “European choice” and their age-old rival, her Majesty Russia’s idea: starting with its first embodiment—Nicholas I’s official nationality—then with Slavophilism, which replaced it with post-Nicolas Russia. More fundamentally, we met Nicholas I, the autocrat, who was using the patterns of Russian ideas to create the same “archaic old regime” that was destined (let’s remember N. V. Ryazanovski) “to be destroyed in the fire of 1917.” And, of course, I introduced the reader to the Russian Europeans, to the philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev, who predicted the disastrous custom, new in his time, of loving “the motherland with á la Samoyed’s love,” and to the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, who succeeded, in one short formula, in outlining the path to the “self-destruction” of the great country that was so captivated by the Russian idea.

Now, before moving on to a chronological narrative of that fateful path, we need to get acquainted with the vocabulary of the Russian idea—with its basic concepts—with its language, if you will. Some of these concepts we have already picked up along the way; we know about Osobnyachestvo and National egoism, and Soloviev’s Stairway. But some key terms, without which we cannot do in the future, are still in the dark. For example…


The Hegemonic Idea

I borrowed this term from the famous Italian dissident Antonio Gramsci, who was a most interesting person—twice a dissident, so to speak. A major theorist of Marxism and the former secretary general of the Communist Party of Italy, Gramsci spent the last decade of his life in a Nazi prison (he died in 1937). And in The Prison Notebooks, he challenged Leninism’s sacred cow, the theory that only a “party of a new type,” like the Bolsheviks, could win the struggle for power.

Gramsci matched that with another experience. In the era of reaction following World War I and the Bolshevik victory in Russia (he nicknamed this period the “interregnum”), Gramsci believed that ideas were more important than party structure. In 1922, a dissident idea won over minds and seized power in Italy. In 1933, National Socialism won the battle in the ideological war in Germany. Gramsci called the phenomenon of an idea that dominates minds a “hegemonic idea.”

With regard to Russia, everything was, of course, more complicated.  Slavophilism had never been a party, and was not the “new type” of party, consisting only of dissident coteries, but it achieved hegemonic-idea status in post-Nicolas times (in the sense that it overcame in the minds of the Decembrists the idea of the “European choice,” and indeed dictated the course of the country for three generations to come), though it did not possess public authority. And yet it managed to bring the country to a standstill, and its power over minds remained virtually unchallenged until the collapse of Petrine Russia.

How else can one explain why, in July 1914, the already fully Westernized establishment in St. Petersburg, facing a critical choice, made the Slavophile decision: to get involved in a war that was unnecessary and disastrous for Russia? Nothing was at stake for Russia in this war. Nothing, that is, except Slavophile fictions—the long-lost Russian influence in the Balkans, Constantinople, and the cross on St. Sophia. Think, what else could justify the deadly risk Russia took then? It could only be justified by the strength of the hegemonic idea, unconsciously assimilated, as Soloviev predicted, not only by its supporters, but also by its opponents.

On the other hand, why were the Decembrists defeated in Russia in 1825 and in the revolution in Europe in 1848? In both cases, Gramsci explains, the idea of the constitution did not win over the majority of the educated class; the idea did not become hegemonic. And in general, it appears that no social movement can succeed without first crushing its opponents in the war of ideas.


Russia’s Napoleon Complex

Let’s be fair, the Napoleon complex is not specific to Russia, but is a pan-European disease. Every powerful state that ever had the historic misfortune of being a superpower, especially if it did so twice, suffered this illness. In modern Europe, no one but Russia has concocted Napoleonic plans like the “Russian miracle” or the “big breakthrough” (see IMR articles about the Izborsky Club), and nowhere else has the president’s advisor approved them. Not even in France, the country that was the most prominent exemplar—and victim—of the Napoleon complex.

The French emperor cut and reshaped Europe as he liked it. And no one, except for Britain, which hid behind the English Channel, dared to contradict him. But even the genius Napoleon could not explain why France needed his conquests. And who cared about his triumphs anyway, if a whole generation of French youth died on European and Russian fields, and there was absolutely nothing to show for these triumphs but unmarked graves of unmourned foreign soldiers in distant lands?

The post-Stalin decay of the empire was delayed for two generations, but when it finally collapsed, nothing was left but a peripheral oil and gas station with atomic bombs. Russia’s Napoleon complex ended just as it did for the French and the Germans—with zilch.

More surprising, however, is that even the obvious vanity of Napoleon’s superpower triumphs did not stop his imitators, who, one after another, lined up for “first place among the kingdoms of the universe”—not Nicholas I, nor Napoleon III, nor Wilhelm II, nor Hitler, nor Stalin, nor even George W. Bush. They couldn’t stop themselves, despite the fact that even a simpleton could see that this coveted superpower status never takes up permanent residence; it roams from country to country, from continent to continent, like the ancient nomads. Agree: This is a very strange feature of our world.

It is even stranger that this disease has the insidious characteristic of being recurrent, and that its primary phase is inevitably followed by a second, even fiercer one. This second phase consists in national grief for a lost superpower. Did not this violent longing lead Napoleon III to take the place of Napoleon I, Hitler the place of Wilhelm II, and Stalin the place of Nicholas I? If the primary phase of this disease is based simply on the law of the strongest, the theme of the second phase is revenge.

One could liken the experience of a country that has lost its superpower status to that of a man who has lost his hand. He doesn’t have his hand, but it still hurts. The man understands that this pain is a phantom ache, but it does not make it less painful. Similarly, each former superpower experiences the phantom Napoleonic complex. Unlike the man, though, it is obsessed with the desire to return what has been lost. And, as a rule, it restores it for a while—only, however, to be replaced by the phantom pain once again.


Secondary Superpower Statehood

Germany restored its country’s superpower status faster than others. Hitler became, like Napoleon, the master of the continent, just fifteen years after the fall of the First Reich. But his triumph was short-lived. And it ended poorly for Germany: the winners divided it amongst themselves.

France needed three and a half decades for revenge. When it happened, Paris surrendered to Napoleon III (the “little Napoleon”) with enthusiasm, and he indeed became the most influential politician in Europe for more than two decades. But this experience of secondary superpower statehood ended badly, with France’s capitulation in the Franco–Prussian war, civil war, and the occupation.

Russia was the slowest starter of all. In fact, the Russian idea became revenge for Slavophiles, but they did not see it. And it is understandable why. The more obviously Russian culture won over the world, the faster the Russian idea pushed the country toward self-destruction. And the hotter the Slavophiles’ phantom passion flared, the more comical they appeared. To fulfill their Slavophile dreams took a great revolution, fresh blood, and the replacement of the stunted tsarist autocracy with “the peasant kingdom,” which had been looming behind the Petersburg establishment from the time of Peter I.

But the time came—almost a century after the Crimean surrender—when Stalinist Russia swallowed half of Europe without choking. Of course, this fulfilled only the minimum of Mikhail Pogodin’s plan, achieving a “Great Slavic Empire” as the author termed it in a letter to the tsar in the 1850s. And it was far from Fyodor Tyutchev’s dream of the “Orthodox Pope in Rome succumbing to the Russian emperor in Constantinople.” It was farther still from Pogodin’s full plan, that of a “universal empire.” Nicholas I, Pogodin believed, was “closer than Charles V or Napoleon” to the “universal empire.” Yet some degree of superpower status was recreated under Stalin. And again, as under Nicholas, Europe was in awe of it.

The only trouble was that, as in all other cases, it was a temporary triumph. The post-Stalin decay of the empire was delayed for two generations, but when it finally collapsed, nothing was left but a peripheral oil and gas station with atomic bombs. Russia’s Napoleon complex ended just as it did for the French and the Germans—with zilch.


Why Do We Need A Lexicon?

We need a lexicon because without it, we will be unable to understand the tragic history of post-Nicolas Russia, in which we have yet to make detailed sense of the Russian idea in this series of articles; nor will we understand the Soviet history, nor, as we shall see, the post-Soviet history, up to today.

Think: Russia finally had a chance to become a normal post-imperial state for the first time in a century full of misery. It was a chance to shed its secular loneliness and, like its former superpower club colleagues, France and Germany, join the “great European family,” as an equal member. Pyotr Chaadaev wrote about it nearly two centuries ago. Following the Soviet nightmare, previously unsolvable existential problems would solve themselves if Russia became a legitimate part of the European geopolitical space after the second crash of its empire in a single century.

Russia could have solved all its problems with an independent judiciary, an innovative economy, and a half-empty Siberia (an obvious temptation for its authoritarian neighbor with a population density much greater than Siberia’s). It’s hard to imagine a more delightful prospect. But something prevented Russia from taking advantage of this unique opportunity. What? Now, having mastered the vocabulary of the Russian idea, we know what to call this “something”: the phantom Napoleon complex.

Does a country with no independent judiciary and no innovative economy—a country that has bigger things to worry about than a “big breakthrough,” namely simple survival—is this a country capable of such a “big challenge” let alone a new mobilization?

Alas, Russia has still not recovered from this complex, despite all the horrors of the empire’s collapse; despite the fact that there is no longer a mighty “peasant kingdom,” by virtue of which the country overcame the downfall of the Russian Empire in 1917; despite the fact that today, the country is on the verge of a demographic disaster. Still its rulers fantasize, conspire to cheat with the idea of ​​the half-mad “big breakthrough,” and still they confuse value with greatness.

And, as it must be in Russia, which learned Marxism so well, this was all built on the “scientific” idea of the academician Sergey Y. Glazyev, advisor to the president on matter of Eurasian (i.e. imperial) integration. His idea, which is based on the economic wave theory of Nikolai Kondratieff, is this: “We are on the verge of a large wave elevation.” Riding on this wave first, Russia will again lead the way; only this requires one “big breakthrough.” Glazyev proposes that we need the “big challenge of all our forces, the mobilization of all our resources” for this breakthrough to occur. And the Izborsky Club, inspired by the academician, is planning this mobilization.

There’s one small thing they refuse to consider, though. Does a country with no independent judiciary and no innovative economy—a country that has bigger things to worry about than a “big breakthrough,” namely simple survival—is this a country capable of such a “big challenge” let alone a new mobilization?

How should we treat all these plans of educated Russia? With indignation? With fury? With sarcasm? With irony? I would myself have treated them so, had I not known that our history already possessed a hegemonic idea that once—at the end of the Russian Empire, shortly before its “self-destruction”—led Russia to try something similar.

I would not consider my mission accomplished if I neglected to introduce the reader to this episode in the history of the Russian idea, an episode directly related to its lexicon. It refers to the third generation of Slavophiles, or in other words, to the hegemonic idea of post-Nicolas Russia. By the 1890s, the autocracy had almost turned into a police state. So much so that philosopher Peter Berngardovich Struve titled his article about these years “Russia Under Police Supervision.” Here is the episode:

In 1870s, Ivan Aksakov, the leader of the second-generation Slavophiles, sadly explained his defection to the conservatives by saying that “there is no more middle,” and someone had to protect the “Russian identity” against the encroachments of liberals. The third-generation Slavophiles openly mocked this timid defensive tactic. They were no longer interested in the “middle” between liberals and the absolute power of the secret services: they represented the intelligence agencies. And that’s what one of their leaders, Sergei Sharapov, wrote: “Just recently, Aksakov had to fight for [Russia’s] identity. What is this identity, when the West already understands that the Russian genius is not going to defend himself from western attacks, but will turn and subdue all new culture and will bring ideals into the world, will infuse a new soul into the West’s senescent body?”

If someone failed until now to grasp the Napoleon complex, here it is in front of us. For some twenty years, the Russian authorities have completely lost touch with reality. The “big breakthrough” has already occurred—in their clouded minds. And they, let’s not forget, dictated the political course of the country, embodied the hegemonic idea of their time. It’s little wonder that in July 1914, the government made a decision equivalent to Petrine Russia’s self-destruction.

Isn’t this a living example of how it could be deadly dangerous for the country to allow Glazyev’s idea and his Izborsky Club to become the hegemonic idea of today’s Russia? Only we, Russian Europeans, can stop it. Nobody else. The past, embodied in the lexicon of the Russian idea, teaches us this, teaches us of the need for a brutal ideological war.