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Vladimir Putin’s “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”
On August 20, 2022, political thinker and nationalist Aleksander Dugin was the target of an assassination attempt which ended with his daughter’s life instead. Speaking at her memorial service, Dugin said that if any Russians were touched by her death, his daughter would like them to remember that “they must fight for their great country, they must protect their faith, and they must defend their holy Orthodoxy.” Years before, in 2016, President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kiril of Moscow inaugurated a monument dedicated to Vladimir the Great, the 10th century ruler of Kievan Rus who established the foundations of the Russian nation and culture by converting himself to Christianity and marrying Anna Porphyrogenita, the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Romanos II. And in December 2015, the new Russian National Security Strategy formally recognized the use of the Russian “culture” as a way to ensure national interests.
Putin had revived Count Sergey Uvarov’s 19th century doctrine of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality,” having been reintroduced into the Russian psyche along with other Russian historical elements from contradictory Tsarist and Soviet times, as well as given life to ideas from (Neo-) Eurasian thinkers. Putin and his advisors had learned how to interpret the history and traditions of the Russian people, while executing them into specific intellectual and political contexts. The result was the creation of a cultural and national identity in which Putin and Russia have become interchangeable.
When Putin first came to power, he began that ideological transition with the inauguration of his 2000 National Security Strategy which called for the protection of Russian cultural, moral, and spiritual traditions. Thus, ontological security was interpreted to be crucial by Russian officials, as the Kremlin regarded defending Russian identity as equally important to protecting its physical integrity. This created the opportunity for a future clash with the Western post-1945 liberal international order, as this Russian conception of national and international affairs came to substitute communist ideology and its expansion. This shift is also critical, because Russian military doctrine defends the use of nuclear weapons to protect the survival of the Russian state.
The concept of Moscow as the Third Rome is a recurrent reality in the history of Russia, although it appears in a veiled way today. While not many Russian intellectuals allude to it directly, other than the Neo-Eurasian thinker Aleksander Dugin, it can explain both domestic and foreign politics. The concept has experienced diverse transformations, and this capacity for adaptation is what has allowed it to take deep root into Russian national identity. Indeed, Patriarch Kirill I’s objective has been to re-establish a powerful church, as the spearhead of Russian society and a tool of influence in the world.
Hundreds of years ago, Muscovite Russia became one of the most important religious centers in Christianity and rapidly absorbed Byzantine traditions. The rulers always respected the authority of Constantinople, and while relations were not always peaceful, they never tried to usurp the power of the Byzantine Emperor. After the fall of Constantinople, Moscow believed it had succeeded Byzantium. From the 15th century, Russia justified many of its actions on its condition as the people chosen by God to defend Christianity and preserve Orthodoxy.
In the 19th century, there was a resurgence of Pan-Slavism against the Petrine reforms, and the concept of the Third Rome became more influential among political and intellectual circles. Alexander I defeated Napoleon in 1812, successfully pushing back the West, while Nicholas I and Alexander II protected Christian Orthodoxy in the Balkans. Both Nicholas I and Alexander II were firm supporters of autocratic principles, and they identified the defense of the Orthodox religion outside their borders with the promotion of Russian national interests.
Through Count Uvarov’s doctrine of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationalism,” Russia supported the Greeks in their struggle for holy sites in Jerusalem and aimed to weaken and divide the Ottoman Empire, thus embarking on a war in Crimea. But in the Crimean War, the Tsar did not enjoy the support of the European powers, and Russia was defeated by the Ottoman Empire. The alliance between the Western European powers and the Ottomans was viewed by Russia as treasonous to the Christian cause, and it pivoted its priority to become an influential force in Asia.
From 1999, Putin sought to create a new way of thought, genuinely Russian, derived from Slavic thinkers and those political, cultural, and spiritual foundations. Patriarch Kirill I believes that Russia was responsible for being the conscience of the international community and that this historical commitment is also a contemporary task for Putin. For Patriarch Kirill I, the Putin presidency has been a miracle of God, and Putin and Kirill both share a sacred view of Russian national identity and its exceptionalism, namely that Russia is neither Western nor Asian but a unique society representing a distinct set of values that are inspired by God. During the annexation of Crimea, Putin announced the Orthodox Church as the spiritual force that had unified diverse peoples into the Russian nation. He meant to defend the idea that Orthodoxy is the common foundation between Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia.
Prior to the annexation of Crimea, Putin clamored for Russia to preserve its identity in a rapidly changing world and denounced the West for its rejection of Christian values. In the 19th century, Russia believed its mission was to rejuvenate Europe as it was spiritually bankrupt, while aspiring to unite all Slavs under the same flag. Ukraine is so important to Putin because it represents the gap between the territorial and cultural body of Russia, that is, its perception as a nation. What is more, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the majority of the Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, who had since the 17th century obeyed the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus, switched to the Patriarch Filaret. Supported by nationalist sectors in Ukraine, Patriarch Filaret was elected Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, causing a schism between the churches. The independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church meant for Moscow the loss of an important part of its historical legacy and a rupture with its imperial traditions and past. Indeed, it was in Ukraine where Prince Vladimir converted to Christianity in the 10th century, and in Kyiv where both the Saint Sophia Cathedral and the Kyiv Monastery of the Cave are located.
In 1991, 31 percent of Russian adults identified as Orthodox; this figure rose to 72 percent by 2008. Indeed, Orthodoxy came to be identified with what it meant to be Russian. Putin supports the restoration of Christian monasteries and returning Orthodox properties confiscated during the Soviet era, while Patriarch Kirill I diffuses his apocalyptic vision that humanity has terrible challenges ahead. The Orthodox Church has been critical of the West, declaring human rights to be an insult to the national and religious values of Russia. Some of its members have even expressed the need to reclaim the doctrine of Moscow as the Third Rome, arguing that Rome and Constantinople had betrayed the message of Christianity.
With the counsel of Vladislav Surkov, Putin came to talk about the importance of sovereign democracy, which was absolutely necessary for the existence of Russia and without which Russia could not exist in the world. This was meant to address the dignity and strength of the Russian people, supported by the development of policies that placed a strong emphasis on Russian language, Russian literature, and Russian history, all of which constitute the foundation of a people conscious of their identity. For Putin, sovereignty and culture had become the same. The Russian state began a process to protect religious values and symbols, and it created the Russki Mir or Russian World, supported by Patriarch Kirill I, and whose mission has been to diffuse Russian culture and its ambitions in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Putin has an understanding of Russia as a nation that is not defined by its territorial borders. While other imperial powers underwent decolonization, the Russian Empire—absent seas to fragment it and with a more stable yet still diverse national make up—conserved its territorial integrity. Even when considering the Russian Federation, it can be understood as an empire in everything but name. Its borders are, roughly speaking, the same territories that Peter the Great passed on to his successor. Putin shares with Nicholas I a hierarchical conception of Russia in relation to other European nations, placing emphasis on matters of national dignity and the need to preserve both its internal order and its condition as a great power on international matters. But Russia has also always felt the need to use spaces or zones of influence to buy time in order to react to an invasion or an attack. In fact, a constant historical problem has been access to open seas from their territories. This has made it a priority for Russian strategy to gain access to the open sea. Indeed, Russian conquest of the North destroyed the Finnish tribes and restored the idea of Russian unity.
When Putin came to power, he said “Russia can rise from its knees and hit hard”. His aim was to give the Russian people a sense of dignity and the nation an international status. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had gone through tumultuous times. While the presidency of Boris Yeltsin produced the Russian Federation, it also caused the social and economic collapse of the country. Yeltsin’s presidency had never been celebrated by the Russian people, and Russians had been exhausted by its failed attempt at westernizing and democratizing Russia. While some Russians felt that these values were alien to their upbringing under Soviet customs, a large segment of the Russian population welcomed the changes. But by 1999, Russia experienced economic collapse, and a country which housed the largest oil reserves in Europe was rationing fuel for heating, and even for some basic products, reminding people of living conditions during the 1980s.
Yeltsin’s open doors policies provoked the massive entry of drugs which, along with uncontrolled alcohol consumption, had a devastating effect on the population. Far from facilitating an orderly transition to a capitalist and democratic system, Yeltsin allowed the exploitation of the Russian economy while discrediting Russia on an international scale. Yeltsin’s fragile government, doomed by its foreign debt, and unable to pay the pensions, subsidies, and salaries of the public sector, was forced to request billions of dollars from the IMF. At the same time, NATO expanded East towards Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, while it intervened in Kosovo. These events were humiliating for Russians and their pride.
In this background, Putin portrayed Western values and politics as a trojan horse and instead promoted a national culture, entrenched in old customs but proliferated by new technologies. When he dealt with the military problem in Chechnya, he solidified his position as a strong national leader and created the personality that Russian people required, one that would be capable of mitigating their anxieties and giving stability to a people whose culture has given more value to order than to law. Putin annihilated the decentralization of the state under Yeltsin and moved to centralize power. He reigned in the oligarchs, by respecting the privatizations made under Yeltsin, in exchange for their non-interference in the Kremlin’s policies and politics. The high demand for hydrocarbons and oil prices allowed the Russian state to multiply its revenues and led to a decrease in unemployment, the payment of pensions, and the forging of a new middle class.
Despite the fall of the Tsarist Empire, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the beginning of the post-Soviet era, the transformations in Russian national identity have been slow, and this has helped to generate a collective national identity that has been particularly constant. While much has been written about the debates and the different directions between Westerners and Slavophiles in Russia, the truth might be blurrier in practice than in theory. Both Westerners and Slavophiles agree that the unique identity of Russian civilization is an essential factor that provides unity to Russia and gives it the ability to confront external threats. Both agree on a union between Slavs and that those peoples who speak similar languages or dialects to Russian should constitute a unique political entity with the Russian people. Both agree on the importance of Ukraine, in terms of identity, sovereignty, and security. In fact, after the fall of the Soviet Union, while Westerners were more predominant, as exemplified by Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Kozyrev, who did not view the United States or NATO as enemies and sought some kind of rapprochement, one of their primary objectives remained to reunify the former Soviet republics into Russia.
The Kozyrev doctrine was later replaced by Putin with Eurasian policies, and the Primakov doctrine sought to maintain a balance with the West while recovering influence through the integration with Eurasia. What has been challenging for Putin, especially before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, was how to engage in the development of commerce and technology with the West while maintaining stability in internal affairs, which has always been a constant in Russian history.
Henry Kissinger believes that to understand Putin, you need to understand Fyodor Dostoyevsky. While Dostoyevsky originally felt that the purpose of the Russian man was to reconcile European contradictions, he later came to believe that Russia was not European and that its mission consisted in uniting Slavs, looking towards Asia, and civilizing and conquering that continent. Back then, nihilism—introduced to Russian society through the work of Ivan Turguev to awaken a sense of rebellion and reconfigured by Dostoyevsky as threats to Imperial Russia from theories originating in Western Europe—foreshadowed how Putin and the Orthodox Church perceive Western values as threatening contemporary Russia as well as the measures they have taken to confront those Western ideas.
While it is difficult to know how much of an expert Putin is on Dostoevsky, what is extremely clear is that Russia has proliferated policies grounded in Russian traditions and history that seek to guide the Russian citizen and that Putin has many times alluded to Russian thinkers including Konstantin Nikolayevich Leontiev. What’s more is that Russian ambition for recognition and their feeling of exclusion from the West has created a certain national resentment and pattern for an aggressive foreign policy. There is no doubt that while these precepts create a unique vision for Russia, they also foment a clash of civilization with the West.
Carlo J.V. Caro is a political and military analyst. He holds graduate degrees from Columbia University.
The views expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent CERL’s official views.