20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Constitution of the Russian Federation unequivocally bans the establishment of a state ideology. However, the recent conservative trend in Russian politics increasingly resembles a regime-supported official ideology. According to political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the crisis in Ukraine served as a powerful boost to the creation of a new ideological base for Vladimir Putin’s regime.



After Putin’s return to the presidency, observers noted the strengthening conservative tendency in the political sphere. Mass street protests, the cooling of Russia’s relations with the United States, and fear of the growth of a “fifth column” within Russia have served as powerful boosts to the development of conservatism. As a result, the pressure on the nonsystemic opposition has increased. Such cases as the “Bolotnaya case” and the criminal cases initiated against Alexei Navalny illustrate this shift. Moreover, many stringent laws have been adopted in the past two years that restrict individuals’ ability to organize protest meetings and increase state control over the media. A campaign directed at encouraging fear of “foreign enemies,” characterized by the return of the term “foreign agent” used with regard to NGOs and anti-American propaganda, is also underway.

However, the regime’s understanding of conservatism has recently taken on new significance. In his 2012 address to the Federal Assembly, Putin declared that there was a deficit of “spiritual bonds” in Russia—a phrase that made many critics of the current regime grin. However, very soon afterward, these “spiritual bonds” became an almost-official ideology of the regime.

In the public space, a new ideology first manifests itself in the attempt to revise history. The State Duma seriously considered a bill that would have criminalized criticism of the role that the Red Army and the Allied forces played in World War II. A recent episode concerning the Dozhd TV channel is also worth mentioning: Russian cable providers removed the channel from their packages after a Dozhd show ran a poll about the necessity of the Nazi blockade of Leningrad—a question that Russian officials found inappropriate. Such cases suggest that the regime is actively looking for convenient historical incidents that could serve as “spiritual bonds.” The concern for “accurate” history manifests itself in the government’s claim of a moral right to judge carriers of alternative points of view and impose “sanctions” on them in the broad sense. The ongoing anti-Western campaign, which aims to create an image of the West as an immoral and cruel world that, unlike Russia, has lost its values, fits well into this strategy. Toward this end, Russian state media have recently extensively covered such topics as the case of the giraffe Marius killed in a Danish zoo, the Belgian law on euthanasia for children, problems of juvenile justice, and, of course, LGBT issues in Europe. These topics are offered as proof of the perversity of European society.

At the same time, pro-Kremlin experts and journalists are writing numerous articles about the importance of an ideological base of society and the demand for “public morals,” “spirituality,” and the education of “Russian patriots”—in other words, about the necessity of developing “enlightened conservatism”. An article by Andranik Migranyan, director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York, in Izvestia newspaper is also worth mentioning. Migranyan writes that “if [Hitler] were known only for uniting Germany, without spilling a single drop of blood, with Austria, Sudetenland with Germany, Memel [the German name for Klaipeda], and thus achieving what Bismarck could not; if Hitler only did that, he would have been remembered in his country’s history as a politician of the highest order.” The article’s only objective was to stand up to those “rotten liberals” who compare Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938.

At the same time, a large number of organizations ranging from the All Russia Parents Assembly to associations of World War II veterans and blockade survivors have been emerging in Russia in support of the preservation of “traditional values.” The authorities use these groups to create the illusion of a “unity of will” that supports the nation’s “healthy majority.” Consequently, individual opinions that express alternative points of view are cast as being opposed to the opinion of the “progressive majority.”

Despite the constitutional ban, ideology will become a key factor of political life as well as an instrument of control. In practice, it means that a clear “friend-or-foe” system is being created. Dissident groups will be subject to persecution and repression.

Finally, as Vedomosti newspaper reported, the first of a series of educational seminars organized for officials of the domestic policy directorate and the public projects directorate of the presidential administration was recently held in the Kremlin. The series of seminars will cover the following topics: Russian conservatism, the ideology of conservatism and conservative policies, the relevance of Russian and foreign experience for Russia’s foreign and domestic policies, and the national idea and the history of Russian patriotism. Alexander Shirinyants, head of the History of Social and Political Studies Department of Moscow State University and a specialist on Russian populist ideology, and Olga Vasilyeva, deputy head of the public projects directorate and an expert in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and its role in the state, will give lectures as part of this series. Shirinyants is known for writing extensively in his doctoral dissertation about the “possibility of forming a new ideology in Russia without adopting any Western models.” He also emphasized the concept of “social conservatism, combining the patriotism and loyalty of cultural conservatism with the social idea of the right to a decent life, solidarity, and justice.” The audience will be offered the doctrines of such ideologists of conservatism as Nikolai Berdyaev, Ivan Ilyin, Lev Tikhomirov, Nikolai Danilevski, Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov), and Konstantin Pobedonostsev.

After educating the presidential administration, similar lectures have been given to mayors, governors, Kremlin political operatives, State Duma deputies, and United Russia party activists. As participants in the seminar told Kommersant, Vasilyeva’s lecture emphasized the opposition of conservatism to revolution, nihilism, and political terror. According to her interpretation, a conservative state policy involves a focus on moderate progress and is based on traditional (often Christian) values and the sacrifice of public officials.

All these tendencies suggest that Russia’s ruling elite is getting ready for a new political climate in which, despite the constitutional ban, ideology will become a key factor of political life as well as an instrument of control. In practice, the introduction of an official ideology will be a sign that a clear “friend-or-foe” system is being created. Dissident groups (that is, those that do not agree with the “accurate” conceptualization of historical events and the official political discourse) will be subject to persecution and repression. Compared to the powerful Soviet ideological machine, such attempts at introducing ideology into modern Russian society may seem ridiculous. However, if the concept of “state ideology” is important enough to appear in the Russian Constitution, its appearance in society should not come as a surprise. In this case, other classic attributes of a totalitarian system should be expected as well, including an official party with an ideological monopoly, party control of social mobility, censorship, and repressions.