At least until February 2022, the regime has been committed to the principle of “managed pluralism” and thus the maintenance of a certain degree of ideological polarization within the ruling elite. To evidence this claim, I show that state support for Russian hawks has gone through cycles, going up and down, and that it severely contracted ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While a core ideological substratum consolidated over the years in official speech around concepts such as strong state power and multipolarity of the world order, further ideological content remained variable. Different idea networks were promoted or demoted through the distribution of state resources depending on how it would contribute to maintaining policy flexibility in a changing strategic environment. This variation can explain the major changes in Russia’s foreign policy and most importantly the evolution of the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy whereby the preference went from diplomatic negotiations to resolve the Donbas conflict in 2014 to a fully revisionist use of force in 2022.
Therefore, as I see it, ideology plays a structuring role in the Russian political system, as it forms the collective language constitutive of elite groups whose competition, administered through authoritarian control by the executive power, shapes the set of policy options available to the leader. In this respect, I depart from strictly realist approaches, which only consider material interests and capabilities as explanatory variables in policy choices. However, I also highlight what classic constructivist approaches may not be so good at seeing – the interactional and competitive process through which idea-producers seek policy influence.
On the one hand, the rise of the Russian hawks resulted from the strategy of cultural influence that they deployed to gain recognition of their ideas and move from the margins to the center of the public sphere. On the other hand, their ascension was fostered by their top-down co-optation by decision-makers seeking legitimizing and mobilizing resources for the regime’s distinction from Western liberalism.The hawks’ strategy of media mobilization: A successful culture war (1991-2005)
The group of Russian hawks was formed at the end of the Soviet Union, when nationalist intellectuals and conservative members of the Soviet political establishment came together to criticize the liberalization led by Mikhail Gorbachev. The political unity of this coalition was welded into the Communist Party of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), created in 1990 to compete with the reformist-dominated Communist Party of the USSR. The RSFSR’s Communist party’s chief ideologist, Gennady Zyuganov, proposed an alliance of “national-patriotic” forces against the liberals. At the same time, the intellectual Alexander Prokhanov founded the newspaper Den
(Day) to serve as a media spearhead for this community, which he referred to as gosudarstvenniki
(“supporters of the state”). Den
brought together a broad spectrum of intellectuals who shared the goal of maintaining the Soviet Union as a military superpower in confrontation with the West.
Defeated and marginalized with the collapse of the USSR, the national-patriots nevertheless represented an active opposition to Boris Yeltsin's government, deploying both direct action strategies and a strategy of regaining cultural hegemony. Den
, replaced by Zavtra
(Tomorrow) in 1993, became the social and doctrinal factory of an ideology advocating the restoration of Russia as a strong imperial state that would combine the traditional and religious values of the Tsarist era with Soviet military and technological might. Some of the most popular Zavtra
contributors included Zyuganov, the monarchist Orthodox clerics Father Dmitri Dudko and Metropolitan Ioann, the Eurasianist thinker Alexander Dugin, the National-Bolshevik writer Eduard Limonov, neo-Nazi nationalists like Alexander Barkashov and Islamic traditionalists like Geydar Dzhemal and Shamil Sultanov. This eclectic group was bound by their rejection of post-Soviet democracy, economic liberalization, the Westernization of Russian society, and US dominance of the international order.
authors railed against their exclusion from the public sphere, they were still directly engaged in the construction of the post-Soviet political order. Indeed, through their abundant publications, they contributed to structuring post-Soviet political cleavages by shaping the binary opposition between two groups: the “conservatives” and “patriots,” on the one hand, and “traitors,” “democrats” and “liberals” on the other.
In addition, their delegitimization and demonization of the ruling elites helped feed popular stereotypes about post-Soviet politics, such as the corruption and criminalization of politics, the theft of the country’s resources by mighty oligarchs, the influence of tycoons on the regime and the manipulation of popular opinion by media corporations. In this language, they painted the patriotic opposition as the group that represents Russian society’s grievances and collective traumas.
Although they remained in opposition, starting from the mid-1990s, some of the Russian hawks’ cornerstone political ideas gained traction within the regime’s official discourse. During the October 1993 crisis, Yeltsin’s unconstitutional decision to dissolve the legislature and his authoritarian resort to armed force to defeat the opposition challenged the liberal democratic ideals claimed by his party Democratic Russia and marked a conservative turn in his rule. Ironically, the crushing of the national-conservative opposition was followed by an effort to assimilate some of their ideas – justifying strong state power and promoting a national ideology and the celebration of Russia’s cultural and religious traditions. In particular, the launching of the First Chechen War in 1994 coincided with the Russian government’s effort to build a new official state patriotism to combat separatism. In 1996, Yeltsin’s decision to establish a commission to define “the Russian idea” and to “think about what national ideal, what national ideology is the most important for Russia” grappled with one of the long-term concerns of the conservative opposition.6
At the end of the 1990s, the hawks’ ideas attracted an even wider audience. In 1998, the country’s default, together with the devaluation of the ruble and the ensuing financial crisis, led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko and bolstered the Russian people’s opposition to capitalist economic reforms. Subsequently, in 1999, anti-Western attitudes became predominant in Russian public opinion in reaction to NATO’s expansion to include Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic and to NATO’s military operations against Serbia without a United Nation mandate. As reported by figures from the polling and research institute Levada Center
, in 1999 75% of Russians agreed with the statement that “the U.S. is taking advantage of Russia’s troubles to turn it into a second-class country,” while 60% were confident that “the U.S. wanted Russia to break into several parts.” Criticism of the West even grew significantly in important liberal media outlets such as Izvestia
. In addition, the military campaign against Chechnya launched by then-Prime Minister Putin in September 1999 drew unanimous support and fostered a “patriotic ecstasy” among the various political parties represented in the Duma.7 In this context, the campaign for the presidential elections held in March 2000 resulted in what the scholar Sergei Prozorov has described as the dispersion of conservatism as the “hegemonic discourse” in Russian politics.8 Although Putin was positioned as the direct heir to Yeltsin, his first term as president in 2000-2004 selectively departed from Yeltsin’s legacy. Political scholar Harley Balzer has put forward the concept of “managed pluralism” to qualify the Putin regime’s balance between authoritarian and liberal principles, which Balzer interprets as an endeavor to limit “the diverse cultural influences accompanying globalization while still reaping economic benefits from the international economy.
This context of general backlash against the West and the legacy of the 1990s provided a favorable environment for the circulation of national-patriotic discourse, which even started reaching a segment of the liberal intellectual elite. A case in point is the editorial volte-face of the Ad Marginem publishing house. Known in the 1990s for publishing Russian translations of French Theory philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida, the editors decided, staring from the 2000s, to turn to ultra-nationalist Russian authors such as Limonov and Prokhanov. In an interview for Zavtra,
Ad Marginem’s founder and director Alexander Ivanov explained that his initial “excitement with the West” had grown “into a subsequent monstrous disappointment.” Ivanov held capitalism and consumerism as responsible for the “decline in interest for Russia.” He associated the “need to play by Western standards” with Russia’s loss of self-identity and “dignity.” Ivanov’s about-turn is indicative of the new, more populist understanding of left-wing identity in Russia at that time, which shifted from emulating Western liberalism to promoting the country’s “own history,” “self-reliance” and specific “path of intellectual and cultural development.”
In addition, in the early 2000s, a new generation of hawkish intellectuals entered the Russian public sphere and began to formulate an updated version of Russian conservatism. Born in or close to the 1970s, these “Young Conservatives” had studied philosophy and history at Moscow State University (MGU) in the 1990s and shared an interest in religious Russian philosophy, political conservatism, nationalism and traditionalism. Prominent members of this group include Vitaly Averyanov (1973-), Egor Kholmogorov (1975-), Konstantin Krylov (1967-2020), Boris Mezhuev (1970-) and Mikhail Remizov (1978-).
Although they did not share their forerunners’ nostalgia for the past and ambition of restoring the Soviet Union, they did concur with their rejection of globalization and ambition to restore Russia’s great-power status based on both the country’s civilizational identity and technological might. In contrast to the older generation, however, the