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The cocktail of ideologies behind Putin

Rayna Breuer
March 24, 2022

Eurasianism is an idea dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. Largely ignored by the West, it has become a geopolitical concept guiding the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin, arms raised, crowds in the background
Putin giving a speech on March 18 in Luzhniki Stadium in MoscowImage: Ramil Sitdikov/Novosti Host Photo Agency/REUTERS

One year, five months and nearly three weeks: That's how long Peter the Great's travels through Western Europe lasted from 1697 to 1698. His goals were, among others, to open up his country to Europe and on the other hand, to win allies against the Ottoman Empire, which was constantly growing westwards. Russia was to become a European superpower.

The czar drew geographic boundaries anew: The Urals would mark the borders between Europe and Asia and in that manner, the western part of Russia would permanently become a part of the "old continent."

The city Peter the Great developed, St. Petersburg, was inspired by the ideals of Rome and Versailles and created a new connection with the rest of Europe through the Baltic Sea; the monarch is, therefore, remembered as having opened the "window to the West."

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Since then, the question of whether Russia belongs to Europe has been a constant theme in the country's history and has regained importance following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Russia's leadership in Eurasia

After czarist autocracy was violently abolished and communist leadership was established by the Russian Revolution, the idea of Eurasianism began to develop in Russian emigree circles in the 1920s.

Two of its most famous representatives were linguist Nikolai Trubetzkoy and author Pyotr Savitsky. They aimed for Russia to take on a leading role in a future, large "Eurasia" — a neologism that defined a new continent between Europe and Asia.

Eurasia-supporters saw Bolshevism, which was establishing itself at the time, as a Western import and held the modernizing efforts of Peter the Great as the reason for the collapse of the czarist empire. They wanted to work against a marginalization of Russia and supported a Eurasian empire, with the orthodox church as the basis and modeled on the strong Mongolian empire, as a counterweight to the Romano-Germanic cultures.

"The first Eurasians interpreted the Mongol yoke as positive [Editor's note: the Mongol yoke refers to the attacks and the hegemony of the Mongolian empire between the 13th and 15th centuries]," Ulrich Schmid, a professor for Russian culture and society at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, tells DW.

This attitude allowed Russian culture to productively approach Asian influences. "For this reason, the Eurasians said at the time and do so today, Russia is predestined to expand towards Asia and to build economic and political relations there. And that is, in principle, also against the great civilizational project of the West," adds Schmid.

However, the idea of Eurasianism did not establish roots and faded into the background.

A century later, the myth of Eurasia was brought back and since then, it is witnessing a proper upturn in Russian discourse, which likes to present itself outwardly as integrative towards the people and ethnicities of Central Asia and Islam.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the reinvention of Russia

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia found itself in an ideological vacuum. Once again, it began looking to the West, albeit in a hesitant and vague manner.

Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, repeated the metaphor of a "common European house," which was postulated by his predecessors Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Khrushchev in the 1970s and the 1980s. Boris Yeltsin prophesied the "Return to European civilization" and even Vladimir Putin spoke about Russia being a European power.

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Initially, the impression was that the generational change in the Kremlin had let the old Soviet idea of the unbridgeable divide between East and West to fade with time. But the rapprochement with the West was short-lived.

During the turn of the millennium, the old ideology was realigned and developed into a political paradigm for many Russians: the idea of neo-Eurasianism. "A constant feature in the Eurasian thinking in Russia is the geopolitical assumption that Russia is not a part of the West," Schmid says.

Russian cultural core as a magnet

During his first term from 2000 to 2008, Putin seemed to take a friendly approach towards the West, but in 2012, the newly reelected president increasingly distanced himself from Europe.

"One of Putin's great ideological projects involved creating a new Russian nation with a Russian cultural core, which would be determined through the Russian language, Russian literature and to some extent, the Russian Orthodox Church. This Russian core would hold everything, which belonged to the Russian empire, like a magnet," Russian studies expert Schmid says.

In the logic of neo-Eurasanism, Russia is obliged to be great — refraining from expansion would call into question the very existence of the Russian people. The peoples of Eurasia have to unite under Russia's leadership.

One of the advocates of the theory is Aleksandr Dugin, an author, political analyst and co-chairman of the now-banned National Bolshevik Party of Russia. In his books "The Fourth Political Theory" and "The Foundations of Geopolitics," Dugin develops the theory of an opposition between Atlantic maritime nations and Eurasian land-based ones. The former stand for the American globalized, liberal and individualistic culture, while the latter are the complete opposite — a strong, conservative, anti-liberal, authoritarian culture that rejects humanism in its universal assumption.

All over the world, many far-right proponents see Russia as a strong ally against their own liberal-dominated countries. The alt-right in the US and the Identitarian movement in Europe — two groups that mix racism, white supremacy, antisemitism and populism — are among those celebrating Dugin and his radical statements.

Committed to greatness

"Putin and the Kremlin keep a cautious distance from Dugin, although, of course, the Kremlin's program and Dugin's Eurasianism tie in on many issues," Schmid says, arguing that by not adopting Dugin's extreme positions, the Russian president comes across as more moderate in the eyes of the public.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of the 1973 non-fiction book "The Gulag Archipelago" also played important role in Putin's political orientation, Schmid says. The two met a few times in the 2000s, the Swiss professor notes, adding that they "agreed on the need to restore the East Slavic unity of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and that a Western democracy as a form of government would be harmful for Russia."

Mix of ideologies

For the most part, experts agree that Eurasianism is not the only theory behind Putin's domestic and foreign policy. The Russian president is regarded as an eclectic who focuses on different perspectives from various ideologies.

In his book "Technologien der Seele" (Technologies of the Soul), Schmid looks at two other ideologies underlying Putin's decisions.

One is the imperial approach to Russia's own history, "the oft-repeated argument of Russia's alleged 1,000-year statehood, dating back to Kyivan Rus and extending through the Moscow Principality, the Czarist Empire, and the Soviet Union to the present-day Russian Federation."

"Putin assembles a patriotic program that amounts to the restoration of what he calls historical Russia and which refers to the 1,000-year-old Russia in which Belarus, Ukraine and Russia belong very closely together," Schmid says.

Legitimized by history

The Russian president integrates theories he likes that fit into his overall concept and presents the outcome as legitimized by history, all the while pitching his country and his people as caught up in a battle against nationalism and fascism.

At the same time, however, he openly supports far-right parties and movements in Western Europe and the United States.

Vladimir Putin holds spech behind a desk
Vladimir Putin chooses parts of ideologies as they suit himImage: Kremlin

In Putin's view, the Russians are the good guys, the allies, the saviors of the Slavs and perhaps even the whole world — ideas underlined by state media propaganda. In Putin's speeches, Russia is never the aggressor, yet he started a war of aggression against another Slavic people.

Again, the image of a strong and united Russia plays an important role in state propaganda. But how united can a country be that persecutes the opposition and arrests citizens who demonstrate peacefully?

This article was originally written in German.

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