Hero of our Time of Troubles. Ilya Shablinsky on why Putin needed a “new ideology”

8 December 2023

by Ilya Shablinsky

Source: Spektr.press 

Recently, Investigative Committee Chair Aleksandr Bastrykin declared—not for the first time—the necessity of formulating a state ideology for Russia and codifying it in the Constitution. According to his assurances, “Simply dismissing this, saying there cannot be a state ideology, won’t work.”

The head of Russian investigators has made similar statements regularly, most recently last May, when he tried to give his call some content and even uttered the timely formula, “Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality.” Such, one must assume, was the fruit of Mr. Bastrykin’s years-long intellectual efforts along the ideological line. At the same time, by all accounts, his keen comrades-in-arms wonder each time whether he is carrying out some secret assignment from the supreme commander. Anything is possible!

For instance, Bastrykin’s call was answered by the chairman of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society under Putin, Valery Fadeev. This May, while keenly sniffing out the scents hovering at the heights of power, he did not pick up anything demanding immediate reaction and reported that “making changes of an ideological bent to the Constitution is premature.”

Now, though, at year’s end, Fadeev has obviously decided it would be good to support Bastrykin somehow. Right now that might be the ultimate manifestation of loyalty. It was just a matter of choosing the proper form. And that form has been found. As Fadeev announced, “The ideology being created in Russia right now is being created primarily in Novorossia, in the Donbas.” 

He found a solution.

Senator Klishas also took successful evasive action by declaring in response to the chief investigator’s call that the Constitution does not prohibit any ideology in principle.  And the constitutional provision about how “no ideology whatsoever can be established as the state ideology” is simply aimed at supporting diversity.

Also well put.  Meanwhile, the senator noted that the Constitution is not a statue and can be altered given public demand.

Who is to argue? Of course, it’s not a statue.

Putin’s press security, who was well informed about all these statements, expressed himself along the lines of the Kremlin not having a position on the Investigative Committee head’s idea.

And possibly it really doesn’t. The Kremlin has other things on its mind.

Is there any point in following how Kremlin officials exploit the theme of ideology and compete over who shouts more loudly, who jumps higher?

It must be admitted that there is. Unfortunately, in Russia the regime’s fairly swift transformation into an absolute military dictatorship continues, as it acts more and more aggressively and attempts to control more and more spheres of the life of society. Right before our eyes, theatrical productions are being banned, journalists and bloggers are being detained, and directors are being held in prison—not for some cooked-up embezzlement now but for the content of their scripts. We are seeing the Z-forward regime meddling in universities and schools, into the content of textbooks and curricula. The Ministries of Culture and Education are readily carrying out the orders of the dictator and his suite.

We have to see this and we have to analyze it.

Our present regime has no integrated ideology or even precisely formulated ideas. But they don’t need that to construct a dictatorship and establish complete control over the spheres of education and culture. Over state and municipal media. (As yet control over the entire media space has not been accomplished due to such phenomena as Telegram and YouTube.)

Yes, it has no precisely formulated ideas, but Putin evidently has an array of more or less vague notions. It is his worldview that the present regime (or rather, its media bloc, including the dictator’s personal speechwriters) is attempting to reproduce, trying to pick out the letters and words it needs. Bastrykin is attempting to oblige him in this, to guess his secret thoughts.  His preferences for the immediate future.

The problem, though, is that it’s inconvenient to declare the most important of these preferences directly, to formulate and publicize them openly. Although they are perfectly obvious.

First is the establishment of an absolute personal dictatorship that rules out any discussion at all of fundamental questions on which the dictator himself has already adequately expressed himself.

Second is the course toward outward expansion, the continuation in one form or another of the war to expand territory, of which there is not enough in the Russian Federation—a state not large in area, as we well know. This is the essence, the pivot of the “Russian world” idea. Meanwhile, the aggression against Ukraine has also turned into a deep dependence on China, which, in essence, has become the real patron (that is, the dominant protector) of the Russian Federation, having replaced its partners from Europe.  

I think that 70-year-old Putin has fully defined himself with these ideas of his. But how can these preferences be cast in bronze or reproduced in the Constitution? How? By convention, they have been concealed. Or covered over with propaganda clichés and euphemisms, establishing more and more new records for hypocrisy. We don’t have a dictatorship, we have our own, special Russian democracy. We don’t have a war with Ukraine, we have a clash with Nazism. Not a seizure of foreign territories but a struggle with neocolonialism.

Putin spoke recently at an event called the World Russian People’s Council. About the war that Russia has started and is waging with Ukraine, he said that it is a battle that “has a national liberation character” – for Russia. Nothing more and nothing less. If anyone remembers, such words were used to denote wars fought by colonies, paramilitary rebel groups against their metropolises – usually for the creation of national independent states. Is the Russian Federation anyone’s colony? Or can the Russian armed forces and their leadership be likened to the Indian National Congress during India’s struggle for independence? Or the National Party of Indonesia during the struggle against the Dutch metropolis?

Or maybe someone remembers: when Putin last attended the G8 meeting in 2013 as a full-fledged member of the club, did anyone imply that Russia is someone’s colony? Or its territory has been seized by another state?

To say that this is just paranoia would not be entirely accurate.  After all, these absolutely false formulations are used to justify aggression. To cover up the seizure of other people’s territories.

Yes, partly Putin is reproducing old Soviet propaganda – slightly modernized. He is reproducing what he himself was brought up on. But where is the new ideology?   

Yes, there are some small innovations. The fight against LGBT, for example. Or abortions. But even here there are echoes of Soviet cannibalistic decrees: the article of the Soviet Criminal Code on “sodomy”, Stalin’s ban on abortions…..    

A few more words about legal aspects of the matter. It should be remembered that part two of Article 13 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation prohibits any state ideology, taking into account the grim experience of the 70-year domination of the Communist Party. Its ideological monopoly led in its time to the extermination of “dissent” and “dissenters”, and to the freezing and stagnation of public discussion of ideas about society. And it will not be possible simply to abolish this prohibition. According to the same Constitution, changing any of the provisions of Chapters 1 and 2 requires the convening of a Constitutional Assembly, which either leaves everything as it was or adopts a new Constitution. A whole new one.

That is an option that I wouldn’t rule out, although I think it’s unlikely. It seems that the options of constitutional development will depend on the outcome of the current war.

And it’s not that Putin cares about some lines in some Basic Law. The current Constitution in no way hinders him. The matter is rather different.

Dictators usually need new constitutions for two reasons. The first is when they want to somehow formalize their successful rule by means of a text in a beautiful frame. To give the Constitution the look and style of a personalized document. Does “Putin’s Constitution” sound good? I think he likes the idea.

The second reason is if it is necessary to create a convenient legal basis for taking repressive measures against those who get in the way. True, there are no clear ideas on this, but there are enough of those not very clear constructions that propagandists have created in recent years. After all, can one already be prosecuted for failing to comply with the law on “foreign influence”? Yes.  A dozen more articles in a similar vein can be added within the framework of, say, the “merciless fight against Russophobia”.

Theoretically, one can imagine a text in which the dictator and his punitive agencies could easily find the words necessary for such repression. The current Constitution of 1993 – even after all the garbage amendments of Putin’s time – is not suitable for these purposes. They simply ignore it. They spit on it. But it unsuitable for repression placed on a conveyor belt.   

Let’s also remember something now called “elections-2024”. I don’t expect anything good after the beginning of the current dictator’s fifth term.

State ideology and a new constitution are not even in the top ten on Putin’s list of things he needs. Now the top issues in this list all concern various types of weaponry and manpower.  

But things may turn out in such a way so that even a temporary ceasefire will have to be passed off as a victory. And then Bastrykin, with his punitive committee and his obsession with a new ideology, may suddenly be needed. So maybe it is not for nothing that he is trying to shout the loudest.

And yet the history of the 20th century shows that all dictatorial regimes which aimed at creating a single ideology for a country that had had experience of freedom ended in obloquy. Most often after the death of the dictator. But sometimes even during his lifetime.

Translated by Marian Schwartz and Simon Cosgrove

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