Putin’s Russia: a Protean Ideology

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Eurasianism among Russian political emigrants — a philosophical and political theory that asserts the uniqueness of Russian civilization as belonging neither to Europe nor to Asia and pleading to renounce the European way in favor of integration with the peoples of Central Asia. Resurrecting Eurasianism, Alexander Dugin, its main current theorist, created the International Eurasian Movement in 2003, with branches in 29 countries around the world. Last month, a “New Eurasia” movement was created in Russia (see Newsletter n°4). Is Eurasianism part of the official ideology of Putin’s regime?

Interview with Marlene Laruelle, historian, specialist in Russia and Central Asia at George Washington University, associate researcher at IFRI, author of Russian Eurasianism: An Ideology of Empire, Woodrow Wilson Press/The John Hopkins University Press, Washington, D.C., 2008

Interview by Natalia Kanevsky

Vladimir Putin came to power at the end of 1999. What was the relationship between the new president and the followers of this old-new ideological trend?

At the beginning of his presidency, the neo-eurasianists considered Putin too pro-Western. Dugin claimed that his political and economic views were too pro-American and liberal. On the other hand, Dugin always recognized that Putin had two identities: liberal and patriotic. It is interesting to see, over the last twenty years, how Dugin has lost influence. Today, he is only one voice among others, competing with much more influential ideological figures.

Is this marginalization related to Dugin’s personality, or is it a rejection of his ideas by the Kremlin?

Even though the Russian state has appropriated the notion of Eurasia, Dugin has not benefited from it. He has been marginalized and is not institutionally recognized as the father of Eurasia, in the sense that the Kremlin uses the term. Dugin’s writings are far too complex for him to become an official figure. He has esoteric sides that cannot be transformed into a political ideology. Moreover, the Putin regime is ideologically nourished by many other figures offering ideological products compatible with the exercise of power.

What has been Putin’s ideological evolution in twenty years of power?

Putin began as a relatively liberal person. In his 1999 manifesto, he defined his objectives: to recentralize the state, to save Russia from a possible collapse, to promote the patriotism of citizens, to re-establish Russia as a great power on the international scene. The essence of his regime is already there, but it is formulated in a rather liberal and flexible way. As the years go by and the regime becomes more rigid in order to remain in power, Putin’s discourse loses its liberal side and focuses on patriotic elements and power. But the international scene has also changed. In 2000, Putin was much more optimistic about Russia’s integration into the international arena than, for example, in his 2007 Munich speech, not to mention those of 2012 and then 2014. With each international crisis, as hopes for integration into the Western space dwindled, the regime’s ideological options narrowed.

Does Putin’s Russia have an ideology to export?

Russia still has an ideology to export, but it is a light ideology. It is no longer an old-fashioned ideology, like Marxism-Leninism. It is an ideology that promotes so-called traditional values, as well as the notions of sovereignty and multipolarity. There are indeed ideological elements that Russia seeks to export, but they are disparate ideological elements, intended for different audiences, and do not form a coherent whole, as the Soviet doctrine could. If one thinks of ideology in the sense of Marxism-Leninism, then no, there is no ideology in Russia. But if one thinks of something more flexible, malleable — yes, there are ideological products, sometimes contradictory, that Russia seeks to export.

Are these ideas original?

Traditional Russian soft power is not specific. All the great powers use soft power, including France. What is specific is that Russia projects a global discourse with well-developed notions, such as the return to the sovereignty of nation states and conservative values. So there are specific ideological elements, which are not shared by liberal countries and which other countries do not promote.

Who is this discourse aimed at?

The Russian diaspora is not the main objective of Russian soft power. Its objective is to talk to different audiences in Western countries by adapting its discourse. To right-wing and far-right groups — the discourse will turn around conservative values. To other more heterogeneous audiences, including the left, around issues of national sovereignty and anti-Americanism. Russian soft power is aimed at limited audiences in different countries. When Russia speaks to the Vatican, it speaks as a Christian power. When it speaks to Middle Eastern countries, it speaks as a Muslim power. When it speaks to China, it speaks as a former communist or Asian power. It is a protean discourse.

What is the Russian ideological project for the years to come? Should we expect Putin to become more rigid, or does he hope to restore lost partnerships by demonstrating goodwill and a degree of flexibility?

The Russian regime adapts to political changes when they occur and to the situation at the time. The Kremlin hopes that, in the long run, its relations with the West will improve, but it is also prepared to deal with the opposite case and is preparing for several scenarios in parallel, including that of almost total isolation from the Western world. That is why the regime has been doing quite well so far — because it does not have a prewritten scenario. It has several and adapts according to the situation. The consensus among the ruling elites is that the West’s global influence is waning and that over time the West will be less able to squeeze Russia, giving the latter more room to manoeuvre.

Does the arrival of Biden in the White House change anything for the Kremlin?

It does not change much because the Russian authorities had no expectations of the Biden administration. The Kremlin knows that it will be difficult to maneuver, especially that it is more favorable to Ukraine and human rights issues than the Trump administration. Still, Moscow hopes to reopen some lines of communication on very specific and technical points, and this did indeed happen at the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva. At the same time, these improvements, if realized, will be limited — for example, Moscow has no illusions that sanctions will be lifted: the Russian leadership knows that it must prepare the country to live with them for a long time to come.

Born in Sevastopol, she built her career in Israel and France as a journalist and translator. Since 2013, she has been based in France and served as the correspondent for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in Paris. She is currently the correspondent in France for the public radio of Israel and also works as a sworn translator and interpreter at the Court of Appeal in Amiens.

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