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The roots of Putinism

In debates about the underlying reasons for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is easy to lose ourselves in conjecture. The three texts presented in this dossier give us a clearer picture of what lies behind this aggression. The Russian president has taken it upon himself to create the “fifth empire.”
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In Volume 6, Issue 9, October 2022

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1 In debates about the underlying reasons for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is easy to lose ourselves in conjecture. The three texts presented in this dossier give us a clearer picture of what lies behind this aggression. The first, written by the historian Françoise Thom in the aftermath of the 2008 war in Georgia, sets out the genesis and development of a solidly constructed ideology that the West did not take seriously. The collapse of the USSR generated a thirst for revenge among the KGB and influential intellectuals, founded on the need to restore the Russian nation and empire. Thom presents us with direct quotations from the little-known writings of the ideologues who have consolidated Putin’s way of thinking. The Russian president has taken it upon himself to create the “fifth empire.” The ambition of the new great Russia projected in this vision is to check American hegemony and to establish—including in Western Europe—a counter-power that can effectively oppose the supposed nonsense of the globalizing liberalism propagated by the West. Taking advantage of a “limp and lifeless” NATO, Russia will, according to this vision, be able to reclaim the Russian territories that have been taken away from it. A divided Europe led by weak and corruptible politicians will become dependent on Russian gas and will not have the means to respond.

2 In the second article, two political scientists shine a spotlight on the ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, who has been close to Putin since his accession to power in 2000. Dugin is strongly influenced by the Slavophile ideas of the Russian Orthodox Church, according to which Moscow is the “Third Rome,” and he leads the “International Eurasianist Movement,” which he created in 2003. He is an official advisor to the Duma and head of the Center for Conservative Studies at Lomonosov Moscow State University.

3 Putin’s own words are an important source of information, as illustrated by the two excerpts from speeches he gave in 2004 and 2007 included in Françoise Thom’s article. The third text in this dossier is a speech Putin gave in 2014, in the wake of the referendum held in Crimea following the Russian invasion. Reading this, it is clear that the Russian president is fully committed to the ideology of the intellectuals and leaders discussed in the previous two articles, as demonstrated by his claims that “the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders,” and that “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”

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5 OUR SELECTION:

6 Françoise Thom, Stéphane François, Olivier Schmitt, and Vladimir Putin.

Vladimir Putin, February 2020 / CC4.0, Kremlin.ru

Toward the fifth empire

Protests in Georgia against the Russian occupation/ CC4.0, Giorgi

7 The summer of 2008 saw two unrelated but simultaneous events unfold: the Russian invasion of Georgia, and the financial crisis in the United States. Six months later, the historian Françoise Thom, a specialist on Russia and the USSR, published an article in the journal Commentaire that helps us to understand Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine thirteen years later.

8 Thom highlights the blindness of Westerners to a well-structured, long-established strategy, opening with the claim that “the West does not understand the mental universe in which the Russian leadership operates.” At the heart of this is the revanchist ideology of the "siloviki, the former KGB agents whom Putin has given a dominant position in the state apparatus.” This ideology was developed by intellectuals such as Aleksandr Dugin (the modern architect of “Eurasianism”), Mikhail Leontyev, Konstantin Pisarenko, and Alexander Prokhanov. Thom provides excerpts from their texts alongside extracts from Putin’s speeches and remarks, illustrating the coherence of their ideas.

9 Prokhanov explains his theory of the five empires as follows: after the empires of “Kiev and Novgorod” and then “Muscovy” came the “Romanov” empire, which “lasted 300 years” and “collapsed in February 1917, when liberal values triumphed once again.” Stalin then “pulled Russia from the abyss” and built the “fourth empire,” after which “the USSR fell to liberalism.” Putin is now building the fifth: “After the Second Chechen War, the Russian empire was reborn.” The war in Georgia “shows that Russia is now ready to return to the regions from which it had retreated in its time of weakness.”  He adds: “Every empire has its own perception of space. We must speed up the union of Russia and Belarus, and add Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Kyrgyzstan. Ukraine might be included, if it can overcome its Western faction.”

10 But in Thom’s view, Russia’s ultimate goal is even more ambitious: to extend its hegemony over the entirety of Europe. In 1999, Putin said to Bill Clinton: “You have North and South America, you have Africa and Asia. Why can’t you at least leave us Europe?” Russia has thus pursued an offensive policy of propaganda and corruption of European elites, of which Gerhard Schröder and Nicolas Sarkozy are among the most striking examples, along with an economic strategy designed to “make European energy dependence a vector for the projection of Russian power.”

11 Russia’s strategy is also one of divide and conquer: to split the allies of the United States, in particular the European Union and even NATO, perceived in 2008 as “a limp and lifeless political club,” in the words of the politician Dmitry Rogozin, then ambassador to the organization. Rogozin also described the war against Georgia as “brazenly throwing down the gauntlet to the leader of the modern world.”

12 The enemy to be destroyed is liberalism in the political sense of the term, the standard bearer of which is the American empire: in the view of Mikhail Leontyev, “Russia cannot respond to the challenge from America in a liberal manner.”

Françoise Thom is an emeritus lecturer at the Sorbonne. She recently published La marche à rebours: Regards sur l’histoire soviétique et russe (Sorbonne Université Presses, 2021).

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The shadow cast by Aleksandr Dugin

Aleksandr Dugin, at the Civilizations of the Eurasian Area meeting on February 26, 2018 at the Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran / CC4.0, Fars Media Corporation

15 Aleksandr Dugin—quoted in Françoise Thom’s 2009 article (see above)—is presented as “the main ideologue of the Russian New Right” by political scientists Stéphane François and Olivier Schmitt. In their article for the journal Diogenes, they describe his rise to prominence and demonstrate his influence, not only among Russian circles of power, but also on the European far-right, especially in France.

16 Born in Moscow in 1962, Dugin has a doctorate in the history of science and in political science. Until 1998, he held office in the National Bolshevik Party, before becoming the “driving force behind the historico-religious association Arctogaia,” which has a “predilection for Eurasian cultures and religions.” In 1998, he became an advisor to the President of the Duma on strategic and geopolitical issues, “a function which he continues to fulfil.” He drew closer to Putin in the early 2000s following his creation of the Eurasia movement, which became a political party in 2001 and “changed in November 2003 into the International Eurasianist Movement.” Its “Governing Council” included individuals close to Putin, including the Minister of Culture Vladimir Sokolov. Dugin is also head of the Center for Conservative Studies at Lomonosov Moscow State University.

17 Dugin’s thinking “is strongly influenced by the Slavophile ideas of the Russian Orthodox Church, which considers Moscow to be the ‘Third Rome.’” One of his inspirations is the French intellectual René Guénon, whose 1927 book La Crise du monde moderne [The Crisis of the Modern World] he has translated into Russian. Guénon considered Western civilization to be decadent and valued what he called “the metaphysical doctrines of the East.” For Dugin, the United States is the ultimate enemy: a chapter in one of his books, translated into French, is entitled “To be Russian means to be anti-American, or why we do not like the United States.” François and Schmitt explain how Dugin “[rejects] a globalization which might lead to the evolution of a ‘unipolar’ world.” The same idea has been espoused by Putin, as shown in this passage from his 2007 speech in Munich, quoted by Françoise Thom: “What is a unipolar world? [. . .] At the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one centre of authority [. . .]. It is [a] world in which there is one master, one sovereign.” According to François and Schmitt, in France Dugin has built a “network of far-right militants [. . .] made up of people who strongly reject liberalism (whether philosophical or economic), the United States and Western values.”

Stéphane François is a professor of political science at the University of Mons and an associate member of the Groupe sociétés, religions, laïcités (Societies, Religions, and Secularisms Research Group) (CNRS-EPHE). He recently published Géopolitique des extrêmes droites : logiques identitaires et monde multipolaire (Cavalier Bleu, 2022).
Olivier Schmitt is a director of research at the Institut des Hautes Etudes de Défense Nationale (French Institute of Advanced Studies in National Defense) and professor of political science at the University of Southern Denmark. His books include Pourquoi Poutine est notre allié ? Anatomie d’une passion française (Hikari Editions, 2017).

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A speech by Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin in Crimea, 2014/ CC4.0, Kremlin.ru

19 Two days after the referendum held in Crimea following the Russian military invasion, Vladimir Putin gave a major speech to the Duma, which was reproduced in French in the journal Outre-Terre. Below I have extracted some passages that help us to understand the Russian president’s attitude toward Ukraine.

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Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptised. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. [. . .]
After the revolution, the Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons—may God judge them—added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the southeast of Ukraine. Then, in 1954, a decision was made to transfer the Crimean Region to Ukraine, along with Sevastopol, despite the fact that it was a federal city. This was the personal initiative of the Communist Party head Nikita Khrushchev. What stood behind this decision of his—a desire to win the support of the Ukrainian political establishment or to atone for the mass repressions of the 1930’s in Ukraine—is for historians to figure out.
What matters now is that this decision was made in clear violation of the constitutional norms that were in place even then. The decision was made behind the scenes. Naturally, in a totalitarian state nobody bothered to ask the citizens of Crimea and Sevastopol. They were faced with the fact. People, of course, wondered why all of a sudden Crimea became part of Ukraine. But on the whole—and we must state this clearly, we all know it—this decision was treated as a formality of sorts because the territory was transferred within the boundaries of a single state [the USSR]. Back then, it was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia may split up and become two separate states. However, this has happened. [. . .]
Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders. [. . .]
We expected Ukraine to remain our good neighbour, we hoped that Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Ukraine, especially its southeast and Crimea, would live in a friendly, democratic and civilised state that would protect their rights in line with the norms of international law.
However, this is not how the situation developed. Time and time again attempts were made to deprive Russians of their historical memory, even of their language and to subject them to forced assimilation. [. . .]
I understand those who came out on Maidan with peaceful slogans against corruption, inefficient state management and poverty. [. . .] However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day. [. . .]
In short, we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.
After all, they were fully aware that there are millions of Russians living in Ukraine and in Crimea. They must have really lacked political instinct and common sense not to foresee all the consequences of their actions. Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this. [. . .]
Our concerns are understandable because we are not simply close neighbours but, as I have said many times already, we are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.

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Military base at Perevalne during the 2014 Crimean crisis / CC3.0, Anton Holoborodko
Translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations
Translator: Hayley Wood, Editor: Matt Burden, Senior editor: Mark Mellor
In debates about the underlying reasons for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is easy to lose ourselves in conjecture. The three texts presented in this dossier give us a clearer picture of what lies behind this aggression. The Russian president has taken it upon himself to create the “fifth empire.”

Uploaded on Cairn-int.info on 30/11/-0001
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