Is the End of Russian History Close at Hand?
Never before has Russia been simultaneously so frightening and fragile.
Vladislav Surkov, an ex-aide to Vladimir Putin, claims that, under Putin, Russia entered a new historical era—“the long state of Putin,” in which it returned to “its natural and only possible state of a great expanding and land-gathering community of people.” Per Surkov, Russia will exist in this capacity for hundreds of years.
Surkov states that Russia is back to its old imperial self. There is even a new clause in the Russian constitution allowing the inclusion of new territories into the Russian Federation. Numerous public figures, including Putin, claim that gathering lands for Russia is a historically just endeavor. Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian politician who has served in several key positions in the Russian government, even claims that Russia has a right to take back any lands where Russians have shed their blood and sweat.
Yet Surkov’s prediction regarding the longevity of the “state of Putin” is unlikely to come true. Indeed, under Putin, Russia has entered a new historical era: both the most frightening and the most fragile in its history. It is the most alarming because of the unprecedented nature of the new nationalism of Russia’s political leadership. It is the weakest because of the weakness of Russia’s institutions of power, armed forces, and national unity.
This newly promoted nationalism is belligerent and retrogressive. For the first time in Russian history, the ruling elite praises nearly all of Russia’s past, all its powerful leaders, and all its wars. Moreover, a seemingly unthinkable merge of Czarism and Communism has taken place. The best symbol of this merge is the order of the “Hero of Labor,” a civilian award introduced by Joseph Stalin in 1938 as the “Hero of Socialist Labor.” In the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, the first Russian president Boris Yeltsin eliminated the order. Yet Putin restored it in 2013 under a slightly different name, “The Hero of Labor.”
In the Soviet Union, the order was in the form of the five-point golden star embossed with the hammer and sickle: the symbols of communist ideology and working-class solidarity. Putin’s new “Hero” order is also in the form of the golden star, yet now it is embossed with the double-headed eagle: the symbol of the Russian Empire. The two initially warring ideologies stand reconciled under the banner of Russian expansionism.
The Russian government now portrays all wars Russia has fought over centuries as both necessary and just. The Russian constitution legalizes this in a new amendment: “The Russian Federation honors the memory of defenders of the Fatherland and safeguards the defense of historical truth. Diminishing the significance of the heroism of the people in defending the Fatherland is not allowed.” Following this logic, Putin now justifies the “Winter War”—an act of brutal aggression by Stalin’s Soviet Union against Finland in 1939–1940. Even in the Soviet Union, especially in the post-Stalin era, this war was not portrayed as necessary or just.
Most frighteningly, Russia’s new nationalism borrows directly from German Nazism. One of the slogans, posted on billboards throughout Russia and on the occupied territories of Ukraine, reads “One People. One History. One Country.” This a direct reference to the Russian-Ukrainian War, which is almost identical to the Nazi slogan “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuehrer” (One People, One County, One Leader). The latter was used during the Nazi-led referendum on the annexation of Austria on April 10, 1938.
Similarly, Russia’s ruling elites, with the personal involvement of Putin, lionize the legacy of Ivan Ilyin, a Russian anti-communist philosopher who was expelled from the Soviet Union shortly after the Communist Revolution and who expressed sympathy for fascism. In 1933, Ilyin wrote that Hitler did Europe a huge favor by rescuing it from Bolshevism, declaring “While Mussolini leads Europe and Hitler leads Germany, European culture gets a break.” After World War II, when the crimes of the Nazi regime became widely known, Ilyin still justified fascism, calling it a complex phenomenon within which “one finds elements of health and illness.” In October 2005, the remains of Ilyin were brought back to Russia and reburied in Moscow under the personal patronage of Putin. Putin even cites Ilyin in his speeches.
Primordialism, or the desire to have one long continuous history, is another facet of Russia’s new nationalism. The Russian elites want to be heirs of all its purported predecessors: Kyivan Rus, the Mongols, the Byzantine Empire, and, most unbelievably, the Aryans. Viacheslav Nikonov, one’s of Russian most prominent political and media personages, who happens to be a grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister Viacheslav Molotov, called Russians the Aryans in a statement posted at some point on the website of the Russian parliament.
Primordialism leads to the idea of a civilization-state: the belief that Russia is a unique civilization with its own political, social, and cultural norms. Per Putin, “it is precisely the state-civilization model that has shaped” Russia’s state polity. This model is discriminatory both in practice and by the letter of the law. The Russian constitution now labels the Russians a “state-forming people.” Whether being a Russian is determined by one’s physical appearance, culture, language, or religion is not discussed. Neither is it clear who decides whether a person is Russian.
This horrid nationalism notwithstanding, Russia today is fragile as never before. Putin and his cronies are aware of this. Therefore, they introduce draconian amendments and laws banning any kind of dissent and, “God forbid,” separatism.
Several key factors explain why the current political regime is unlikely to survive after Putin.
First, Putin now rules as a petty and capricious tyrant, resulting in unwise decisions. It was his sole choice to launch a full-scale war against Ukraine in February of 2022. Even Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, was reportedly unaware of Putin’s plans. And just two days before the war, Putin publicly chastised Russia’s otherwise hawkish spymaster Sergei Naryshkin for appearing indecisive on invading Ukraine. This is exceptional even in Russian history. The Russian Czars and Soviet Leaders consulted their inner circle on key issues. For example, the decision to send Soviet troops to Afghanistan in December of 1979 resulted from long and collegial discussions at the Politburo, the highest Soviet governing authority.
Second, there are frictions between the three elements of the Russian invasion—the regular military, the Wagner Group, and the various Chechen battalions. The Wagner Group is a mercenary army and criminal organization owned by Putin’s notorious pal Evgeny Prigozhin. It is known for its brutal war tactics, including recruiting convicts from prisons and executing those who refuse to fight on the battlefield. The Chechen battalions are semi-autonomous, as they are allegiant to the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, and Chechnya itself rather than to Putin or Russia. Prigozhin and Kadyrov have publicly criticized Russia’s military command, claiming that it has been their forces that have realized Russia’s recent territorial grabs.
Third, Putin wages this war with a colonial-style army. Russians from affluent families dodge the draft and flee Russia en masse, forcing the Russian military and the Wagner Group to recruit from ethnic minorities—Lezgins, Avars, Buryats, Tatars, Chuvash, etc. However, since Russia has historically oppressed its national minorities, it is implausible to imagine that they have a genuine allegiance to the Russian state. If the situation permits, they may cease fighting or even turn against Russia. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the great Russian writer and humanist Leo Tolstoy called Russia “a combination” and predicted that it would eventually collapse. “The circumstance that all these nationalities are regarded as parts of Russia is an accidental and temporary one,” he wrote.
Lastly, and perhaps most disturbingly, Russian propaganda has never been so aggressive and simultaneously absurd. For example, TV presenter Olga Skabeeva has claimed that the entire West is now at war with Russia, just like allegedly during World War II. Surely, Skabeeva knows that the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain were allies after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941. Another TV presenter, Vladimir Soloviev, scorns German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, saying that a Nazi uniform would fit her the best. The political commentator Igor Korotchenko says that Russia should treat Germany’s Chancellor Scholtz as Adolf Hitler and repeatedly calls for nuclear strikes on the United States.
It is difficult to imagine that the Kremlin can keep Russia in this state of national psychosis for a prolonged period of time, especially after Putin goes. The United States, the European Union, and NATO are currently strategizing how to enable Ukraine to end Russian aggression. This is a noble cause. Yet it is also time to prepare for the potential collapse of Putin’s or post-Putin’s Russia. Given Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, it may not be beneficial for everyone involved, including Ukraine. If Russia disintegrates along the borders of its national autonomous republics—Dagestan, Chechnya, Tatarstan, etc.—this could very well turn into a nuclear Armageddon. The United States, the European Union, and NATO need to have a long-term strategy to avoid this.