Continuing World War Two: The Context of Putin’s War Cult

UA HES Special Event: Contested Ground
The Legacy of the Second World War in Eastern Europe

Continuing World War Two: The Context of Putin’s War Cult

Janusz Bugajski

Featured remarks by Center for European Policy Analysis Senior Fellow Janusz Bugajski delivered during UA HES Special Event: Contested Ground, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton AB, October 23-24, 2015. Janusz Bugajski and Margarita Assenova are co-authoring Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, to be published by the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC by the close of 2015.

Moscow is reviving and revising history in order to reinvent its great power status and to redraw its borders. To better understand this process it is valuable to explore the context and goals of Putin’s historical revisionism. In its eclectic ideological packaging, Putinism consists of a blend of Russian statism, great power chauvinism, pan-Slavism, pan-Orthodoxy, multi-ethnic Eurasianism, Russian nationalism (with increasing ethno-historical ingredients), social conservatism, anti-liberalism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Westernism. At the heart of this heady brew is the notion of restoring Russia’s glory and global status that was allegedly subdued and denied after the collapse of the Soviet Union through a combination of Western subversion and domestic treason.

In reviving the image of greatness, Russia continues to live in the categories of World War Two. The officially promoted historical narrative of the “Great Patriotic War” has been employed as a source of national unity and loyalty to the state. The war is a key element in Moscow’s self-glorifying propaganda. Russia is presented as a global power with a stellar history, while Stalinism is depicted as a necessary system that modernized the state and defeated Nazi Germany. This imparts the message that the current authoritarian regime can also violate human rights and capsize living standards, as long as it is determined to restore the glory of the “Russian World” (Russki Mir). World War Two myths in Russia present two stark stereotypes: people who support the Kremlin are patriots and antifascists, while those who oppose are labeled as fascists regardless of actual political persuasions.

The Putin administration believes that it can violate human rights and the integrity of neighboring states in the service of restoring Russia’s glory. The “ideology of identity” has grown into a vital component of national populism, expressed in the concept of the “Russian World.” This collectivist formula is both cultural and genetic and supposedly includes all Russian ethnics, Russian speakers, and descendants of both categories in any country. The term is underpinned by statist messianism, whereby the Russian government is obliged by history and divine fate to protect this broad community and defend it in particular against Western influences. Various elements of Soviet chekism (or the cult of state security) have also been revived and presented as a rebirth of national pride: “Growing reverence for the security apparatus reflects a broader trend toward reverence for strong statehood in Russia.” Putin is heralded as a chekist patriot who is restoring Russia’s internal order and international stature.

There are at least thirteen themes in Moscow’s eclectic ideologizing with World War Two woven into this mythic tapestry.

1. Claiming Victimization: State propaganda depicts Russia as a victim of Western subterfuge and aggression and periodically heightens perceptions of threat and danger to confirm its assertions. Officials cultivate a sense of grievance and resentment against the West for Russia’s alleged humiliation after the Soviet collapse. According to Moscow’s propagandists, the West either wants to eradicate Russia or to absorb it in the West: either way the purpose is to eliminate its uniqueness. Putin’s rule has ensured that Russia will no longer retreat while under pressure from its adversaries and will not succumb to destructive Western enticements couched as democratization and globalization. Victimization provides justification for the maintenance of a strong state and an authoritarian leadership that intends to restore the country’s military power, territorial reach, regional influence, and global ambitions.

2. Alleging Encirclement: Russia is surrounded by ostensible enemies and needs to pursue an aggressive posture to combat them. Moscow claims that NATO and the EU are encircling the country, pushing it into a corner, and forcing it to lash out. In an elaborate justification for its attack on Ukraine in 2014-2015, Moscow charges that Washington organized the overthrow of the legitimate government in Kyiv primarily to create an excuse for reinvigorating NATO and deploying American forces closer to Russia’s borders. In reality, NATO has been increasing its defensive presence in the region to deter Moscow’s escalating threats against Alliance members.

Russia’s leaders also contend that the US uses “irregular warfare” such as NGOs and multinational institutions, including the IMF, to conduct “colored revolutions” and destabilize Russia’s dominions. The next stage planned by Washington is to foster conflicts within the Russian Federation by exploiting civil society, the liberal opposition, the mass media, and human rights groups, and by supporting Islamic insurgencies in the North Caucasus. The goal is to destroy Russia’s unity, capture its territory, and exploit its natural resources.

3. Imagining Russophobia: Putin has made the struggle against “Russophobia” a cornerstone of his eclectic ideology, depicting Russians as an ostracized people despised by Western powers. Criticisms of Russian government policy by alleged Russophobes allegedly indicates a prejudicial disposition, a psychological illness, or a personality disorder. Some propagandists have sought to equate Russophobia with anti-Semitism thus depicting criticisms of Moscow’s policies as a form of racism, which should be internationally condemned and outlawed. Almost any incident that casts Russia in an unfavorable light can be depicted as motivated by Russophobia. Hence, Kremlin spokesmen have portrayed the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane over the Donbas on July 17, 2015 by a missile fired from an area controlled by pro-Moscow rebels as a Western plot to discredit Russia.

4. Russian Supremacism: Moscow’s imperial ambitions are undergirded by the concept of the “Russian World” (Russki Mir). According to this notion, all ethnic groups living on the territory of the former Soviet Union form part of a distinct multi-national entity and should be brought within the same state or multi-state union. Several categories of people are included in the “Russian World,” including ethnic Russians, regardless of where they live; Russian-speakers and alphabet users, regardless of their ethnicity; and “compatriots” and their offspring who ever lived on the territory of the Soviet Union or even in the Russian Empire. Russian officials and the Kremlin’s ideological preachers frequently stress the manifest destiny of the allegedly unique Russian culture and the deeply spiritual “Russian soul” infused with a “special morality.” They deliberately ignore the deep demoralization evident in Russian society, as exemplified in its demographic trends including shorter life spans, declining fertility rates, and rising alcoholism. Russia’s alleged spiritualty is supposed to compensate for its economic failures.

5. Russian Unification: The concept of a “Russian World’” is based on the assumption of a divided nation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. By promulgating Russian culture, education, language use, and political mobilization in neighboring states Moscow tries to create the illusion in the West that these countries belong within Russia’s cultural and political space. Hence, the government is simply pursuing a natural course of unification. The Russki Mir concept has been introduced into several laws creating the legal basis for protecting compatriots abroad. One of the laws provides for the legal right to use Russian troops in other countries to actively defend these compatriots.

6. Pan-Slavism: In Russia’s official version of history, Ukrainians and Belarusians are considered to be offshoots of the Russian nation. This is based on the historically incorrect idea that Kyivan Rus (9th to 13th centuries AD) was a “Russian” state. In fact, there were no distinct Russians, Ukrainians, or Belarusians during that period in history but numerous East Slavic tribes and tribal unions. After the 14th century, Muscovite Russians formed an enduring state entity that subsequently occupied Ukraine and Belarus for long periods and imposed the Russian language, church, and culture on the local populations. As a result, Moscow believes it has the right to control all the East Slavic peoples and those that are opposed are dismissed as traitors, as is the case with many Ukrainians since the Majdan revolution. Russian pan-Slavism is also extended by its proponents to include selected South Slavic and West Slavic groups by appealing to those nationalist elements that traditionally view Moscow as a protector and liberator from Turkic, Germanic, and other occupying powers. This often includes Serbia and Bulgaria.

7. Religious Invocations: The Russian Orthodox Church is vocal in defending the allegedly endangered Christian Orthodox faithful in neighboring countries. It has a long tradition of serving as an instrument of government foreign policy before, during, and after the communist interlude. The Moscow Patriarchate helps to maintain Russian influence within the former USSR among Orthodox believers and promotes anti-Western, illiberal, and anti-democratic values by stressing the divine nature of Russian nationalism and pan-Slavism. Putin has revived Stalin’s instrumentalization of the Orthodox Church and gained Patriarch Kirill’s blessing for his trans-national “Russian World” concept. Moscow steers the Patriarchate to exert its influence in states such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia in order to maintain pro-Russian sentiments and undermine any autocephalous Orthodox Churches that support independence and disassociation from Russia.

8. Revising History: To undergird its aim to rebuild a Greater Russia, Moscow is engaged in extensive historical revisionism. State-sponsored propagandists are rewriting the period of Soviet occupation as a progressive era of Russian benevolence rather than an era of retardation of Central and East Europe’s political and economic development through the imposition of a failed ideology, a one-party dictatorship, and an incompetent economic system. Moscow also claims that the Cold War ended in a stalemate, rather than admitting that the failed Soviet system disintegrated from within and could not compete with a more dynamic West

According to current historical rewriting, Russia naively tried to to join the West during the 1990s but was rebuffed and ostracized. In reality, Russia failed to qualify for either EU or NATO membership because of its glaring inadequacies in the rule of law, democratic governance, and market competition, and its numerous conflicts with neighboring states. Officials contend that NATO and the EU captured the post-communist countries when Russia was weakest, instead of conceding that these states were determined to join both institutions as protection against future empire building by the Kremlin. Distorted histories justify contemporary moves to revise borders and international alliances in order to rebuild a Russian sphere of dominance.

9. War Cultism: One central theme, which has virtually become state scripture in Russia, is the official narrative about the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany (1941-1945). By reviving history and developing myths about the war, Moscow is seeking to generate pride in Russia’s achievements. It stresses the country’s sacrifices and victories against the Third Reich and ignores such facts of Moscow’s active collaboration with Hitler in launching World War Two in September 1939, Stalin’s decimation of the Red Army leadership which left the country prone to Hitler’s attack in June 1941 and resulted in millions of casualties, as well as the mass murders and ethnic expulsions perpetrated by Putin’s Chekist predecessors in all territories occupied by the Red Army throughout Europe’s east.

The ”cult of victory” has been converted into a civic religion, which both state and church resolutely guard. Putin’s Russia lives in the categories of World War Two and the officially promoted historical memory is a source of political unity against the Western enemy. A focus on the “Great Patriotic War” to define Russia’s identity and legitimize the current regime also rehabilitates Stalin and glosses over his massacres and repressions. It likewise depicts the West as veering toward fascism in a purported replay of World War Two. The Kremlin funds international “anti-Nazi” organizations, claiming that fascists have penetrated several Western governments.

10. Inciting Anti-Americanism: The West in general and the US in particular are depicted as decadent and declining civilizations. But even as it allegedly deteriorates, America is charged with pursuing “democratic messianism,” in which perverted Western values and political systems are forced upon defenseless states. All US administrations are accused of a multitude of imperialist designs, including unilateralism, militarism, undermining the independence of states, overthrowing governments, and breaking up sovereign countries. The fate of Yugoslavia usually serves as the Kremlin’s primary example, even though US administrations actually tried to steer clear of the conflict during the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The US also stands accused of being untrustworthy: by criticizing elected governments on the grounds of democratic shortcomings and other “ideological” misdemeanors, Washington purportedly challenges their survival and ignores the will of voters.

11. Dividing the West: In its propaganda assaults, Moscow seeks to drive a wedge between the “Anglo-Saxon” states of the US, Canada, and the UK, and continental Europe, with the latter viewed as more malleable, corruptible, and exploitable. The message is conveyed that American arrogance and hegemony limits the sovereignty of all EU member states. In the most poignant example, Washington allegedly pushes them into unwanted conflicts with Moscow by supporting “political adventures” in countries along Russia’s borders. The Kremlin’s objective is to divide the West and preclude any lasting trans-Atlantic solidarity against Russia and in support of Moscow’s targeted neighbors.

12. Promoting Anti-Europeanism: Among the themes stressed by Kremlin propaganda outlets against the EU are: the degenerate nature of European liberalism; Western immorality and its alleged anti-religious and militant secularist campaigns; lack of sovereign state decision making; democratic paralysis and political chaos; recurring financial crises in the Eurozone; failed multiculturalism and uncontrolled immigration; and an inability to deal with radical Islamism and jihadist terrorism. In contrast, Russia is depicted as a bastion against Muslim extremism that is avowedly enveloping Europe because of the latter’s liberalism and tolerance.

All these themes help Moscow to stimulate and influence a “fifth column” of movements and parties inside the EU that resembles the communist international during Soviet times. In particular, Moscow exploits an assortment of radical right and ultra-conservative parties in numerous European states to reinforce its message of Western decadence and Russia’s superiority. In addition, the Greek economic crisis and the country’s potential ejection from the Eurozone currency union has proved beneficial to Moscow. Officials and propagandists can contend that the EU project is running out of steam and thereby raise the profile of Euroskeptics throughout the continent.

13. Combative Traditionalism: Russia’s allegedly superior Eurasian civilization is starkly contrasted with the avowedly decadent Atlanticist civilization led by the US and the EU. It supposedly embodies the key moral foundations, including social traditionalism, “family values,” religious conservatism, sexual “normality,” cultural purity, and state patriotism. Russia is depicted to both domestic and Western audiences as the true defender of traditional values and social morals, while the West is allegedly deeply depraved through homosexuality, bisexuality, and other “deviations,” while its governments seek to impose an intolerant secularist ethic on all societies. In this vein, a personality cult has been developed around President Putin, who is depicted as a patriotic and fully masculine heterosexual defender of traditional values and whose resolute stance is applicable to every culture. The traditionalist concoction is also impregnated with Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism in order to appeal to Christian fundamentalist or white supremacist sentiments.