Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) attends a ceremony to sign documents, including a decree recognising two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent, with the leaders of the self-proclaimed republics Leonid Pasechnik (left) and Denis Pushilin (centre) during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 21. Photo: Sputnik/AFP
James V. Wertsch
James V. Wertsch

The grand narrative driving Putin’s vision of a strong and spiritually pure Russia

  • Having inherited the narrative of victimhood at foreign hands and the need for a strongman leader to realise Russia’s destined greatness, Putin is only putting it into practice
  • Moscow’s actions on Ukraine and Georgia can only be fully understood in this context
On Monday, Vladimir Putin recognised the independence of two separatist regions of Ukraine, pushing Russian actions one step closer to large-scale conflict in Europe.

In doing this, the Russian president is following the same game plan that he used in the five-day war with Georgia in 2008, meaning that the next step will be calls by ethnic Russians in these regions for Moscow to rescue them from alleged “genocide” by Ukrainians. But this is a much more serious conflict than in Georgia and is likely to lead to much more deadly and long-term consequences.

Throughout this crisis, the same general question has remained: what does Putin want? Does he want Nato and America to take Russia’s security concern more seriously? Doe he want to regain Ukraine as part of a Russian empire? Is he deflecting attention from economic and demographic problems at home?
People in Donetsk, a territory controlled by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine, wave the Russian national flags to celebrate Russia recognising its independence on February 21. Photo: AP
Some combination of these is surely part of the answer, but another, little-noticed factor is also at work. This is the long-term vision of Putin and his circles for advancing Russia towards its destiny as the global model of spirituality and strong autocratic rule. This is an old idea to which Putin seems to be applying new muscle.

A key figure in shaping Putin’s ideas on this issue is Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954), a philosopher who left Russia after the Russian Revolution and lived most of his life in Germany and Switzerland. Putin routinely quotes Ilyin, has instructed Russian elites to study his writings, and has brought Ilyin’s archives from Michigan State University and his remains from Switzerland to Russia.

In Ilyin’s view, Russia is an innocent and pure nation that has repeatedly been victimised by invasions and the infiltration of alien ideas designed to weaken and destroy the nation. As outlined by Western historians such as Timothy Snyder, Ilyin provided a metaphysical and moral justification for an authoritarian state of the sort that Putin is now trying to build.

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Such a state rejects representative democracy and the rule of law as direct threats to Russian purity. Instead, what’s needed is an indomitable leader, fortified by strong Russian Orthodox spirituality, who is unafraid to take brutal action to repel foreign enemies and root out domestic ones.

For Putin and his followers today, Ilyin has become something of a guru with a road map to a fiercely proud, spiritually pure, unconquerable Russia of the future.

The view of Russia as the perpetual target of alien enemies has been touted by many Russian thinkers other than Ilyin. And popular memory in Russia is in sync with such notions. Most Russians can easily reel off a list of invasions such as the Mongols in the 13th century, the French in the 19th century, and the Germans in the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call World War II, to name just a few.

Honour guard soldiers march in the snow near the Motherland monument at the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery where most of the Leningrad Siege victims were buried during World War II, during a memorial ceremony marking the 78th anniversary of the battle that lifted the Siege of Leningrad, in St Petersburg, Russia, on January 27. Photo: AP

These accounts have coalesced into a general narrative template about how an alien enemy invades and nearly destroys Russia, but eventually is repelled by the sacrifice and heroism of Russians. This way of thinking is reinforced daily through stories from parents, schools, the church and the media.

The narrative encourages Russians to see existential threats from armies and ideas where others do not. It was the tool Putin used in 2008 to justify a massive invasion of Georgia, a small country of 3.7 million, which he viewed as the tip of a Nato spear aimed at the heart of Russia.

In Georgia then, and in Ukraine today, the existential threat that Putin sees is the model they present of rising democracies that could tempt the Russian population to question their own government.

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It is reasonable to wonder why Putin, and Ilyin before him, rely so heavily on Christianity as an essential part of defending Russia. This, too, is an old idea in Russia. Most Russians today are very familiar with the notion of Moscow as the “Third Rome”, as formulated by the monk Filofei of Pskov in 1510.

The assertion is that after corruption and moral decay caused the downfall of Rome and then Constantinople, Moscow rose to become the centre of pure Christianity.

This idea comes as a surprise to most Western readers, but that is the point. Without knowing about this narrative and the tenacious hold it has on Russian thinking, we miss the context which holds clues to what Putin wants in Ukraine – and beyond.

Protesters hold placards during a rally outside the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv on February 21, urging action to curb Russian aggression. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/TNS

This is not to say that Putin’s actions are wholly driven by Christian fascism. Like any leader, he must also worry about the real, practical world. Russians, like people everywhere, are generally less interested in philosophy than in the price of food and rent and how their children will fare in years ahead.

The grand idealistic mission Putin sees for Russia is one that triumphs over democracy and encourages the rise of Christian fascism everywhere. It may take decades or even centuries to fulfil, but it provides a backdrop for decisions in the present.

The good news for the West is that the handiest argument against such mystical yearnings is hardcore pragmatism. People need to eat and pay rent. Economies need investment and development. Possibly, the West’s threat of major new sanctions may tip the balance.

In the long run, though, we would do well to remember that, in Russia, there is an animating grand narrative behind most decisions. Putin did not invent this narrative, and the narrative will not die with him. Whenever we try to predict Russia’s next move, we must try to game it out through a very Russian mindset.

James V. Wertsch is David R. Francis distinguished professor and director emeritus of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University in St Louis, where he teaches courses in anthropology and global studies