Sovereign Democracy: A New Russian Idea or a PR Project?
No. 3 2007 July/September

The absence of a grand systemic project
for Russia’s modernization, as well as vagueness in the contours
and inarticulate formulation of “the Putin course,” meaning a lack
of formalized goals and inmost notions in words, ideologemes and
imagery, can be justly viewed as one of Russia’s major problems
during Vladimir Putin’s presidency.


From the very start the new authorities
positioned their essence, goals and tasks by manifesting their
intentions through a rejection of the past, showing that Putin’s
regime was not the same as Yeltsin’s. They wanted to show that it
differed from the rule of repressive oligarchs and had nothing to
do with managerial chaos, the decay of the state, and surrendering
international positions. The political regime formulated the goals
of restoring the vertically integrated state power and regaining
the subjectness in international policy as the opposite to the
realities of the Boris Yeltsin era. But there is still a short
supply of positive content in development strategies.

All political regimes throughout
Russian history have had a short supply of supreme motivations and
ideas about long-term goals and meanings about the country’s
development, and this poses a serious threat to the country’s
existence. Given the specificity of Russia’s infrastructures, a
transition to strictly pragmatic utilitarian motivations cannot
ensure social mobilization and hence is not efficacious. A state
like this can exist without an ideology or clearly articulated
values and priorities for a certain period of time, but eventually
it will slide into a serious break down of the political regime, a
crisis of the elite, de-modernization and anarchy even if there is
economic stability. When meanings are replaced by figures, the
sense of existence grows shallow in the final run.

Vladimir Putin’s conceptual statements
and his annual state of the nation addresses to parliament, as well
as statements and deliberations by government officials,
pro-Kremlin ideologists and members of the presidential team, who
expound on the topic of what the government wants, are significant
in analyzing the current political process and simulating the
future. They come up with phrases like ’sovereign democracy,’
’managed democracy,’ ’a doubling of GDP,’ ’construction of an
efficient state’ and ’national projects.’ In spite of their
bombastic nature, they are not all signs of an over-exuberant
existence of Putin or his associates but, rather, a “binder
solution” essential for the structure of the state.

Politicians, the experts servicing the
government and the United Russia Party have produced a mass of
statements, formulations and documents on the issue of sovereign
democracy of late. Central among them is a speech that Vladislav
Surkov, a senior Kremlin aide, made on February 7, 2006 to students
of United Russia’s Center for Party Personnel Training, and his
manifesto-like article titled The Nationalization of the Future.
The time and place of the publication (in November 2006 on the eve
of United Russia’s congress) prove that the concept should be
viewed as an attempt to formulate Putin’s discourse in the form of
a textual/contextual political quintessence of the current era, not
as a mere ideological party platform.

The very fact that the government and
the organizations beating around it have rolled up their sleeves to
produce an ideology is without a doubt a strictly encouraging sign.
The efforts to formulate an ideological project of this sort may
testify to the party’s willingness to modernize Russia on the basis
of innovative technologies or to the necessity of reuniting and
remotivating the entire political elite or because the plain truth
is that there is no place to retreat to on the eve of the crucial
2008 presidential election.

Yet for understanding the prospects for
Russia’s statehood and state ideology it is important to clear out
the social and functional status of the texts and concepts the
authorities are generating now. Are they part of a new Russian idea
or a new modernization strategy? Or are they a PR project, a
statement of mission by the governmental cartel that some people
have ironically called ZAO Rossiya (the Closed Joint Stock Company
Russia) lately? Or might it be that the transition at the start of
the decade to a corporate state, which jettisoned its “superfluous”
social, geopolitical, ideological and CIS-related functions, has
made conceptual differences between national ideas, corporate
missions and post-modernist PR projects, generated through
manipulations with national archetypes, insignificant?

As a concept, slogan, national idea, or
ideological point of reference, ’sovereign democracy’ represents a
comprehensive multi-tier political and ideological project that
calls for an equally multi-tier interpretation. Its non-linear
nature implies that, given certain circumstances, this project will
awaken to an independent life regardless of the contents its
authors wanted to impart to it.

At this moment, the sovereign democracy
project makes it possible to:

  • Provide grounds for new legitimacy of
    the party in power;
  • Make the party’s core agencies
    efficiently competitive as regards other elitist
  • Make a new social contract between the
    political regime and the nation;
  • Put the initiative on ideology-making
    into the party’s hands;
  • Verbalize Putin’s course, to which
    Russia’s next president and new political elite must keep their
  • Position United Russia as the core of
    the party’s power-wielding camp;
  • Create a main message in United
    Russia’s election campaign in the fall 2007 parliamentary
  • Become a mobilizing and consolidating
    factor in the face of new challenges and threats in foreign and
    domestic policy likewise;
  • Animate the image of Russia as a
    “besieged fortress” so as to consolidate the electorate in a
    situation critical for the power-wielding camp (like the
    presidential election at the beginning of 2008);
  • Expand the field for political
    maneuvering for the power-wielding camp in the context of the 2008
    presidential election;
  • Provide ideological and operative
    grounds for narrowing the scope of public politics;
  • Counteract the scenarios of a ’birch
    revolution’ in Russia and sanction fighting with ’birch


It is quite important to identify the
coordinates of sovereign democracy on the map of Russia’s
intellectual culture.

It is believed that Russian social
philosophy and social-political thought in the period from the
early 19th century to the present day can be classified, despite
its diversity, as a division between Westernizers and Slavophiles.
The Westernizers (liberals and revolutionary democrats) insist on
modernization through ’Westernization.’ Landmark figures among them
included Chaadayev, Herzen, Belinsky, Granovsky, Kavelin, Struve
and Sakharov. Westernizers believe that the Western Christian
civilization demonstrates a universal model of development.
Slavophiles (in the broad sense of the word) espouse the theory of
a model wherein modernization is not pinned to Westernization.
Given the closeness in the theories of various Slavophile groups,
like pochvenniki (traditionalists) and ’Eurasians,’ the most
important personalities in this school of thought are Khomyakov,
Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Danilevsky, Leontyev, Nikolai Trubetskoi,
Savitsky, Ilyin, and Solzhenitsyn.

Yet Russian social and political
thinking offers a much greater diversity than the divisions between
Westernizers and Slavophiles. In fact, one can discern in it three,
not just two, conceptual epicenters. Standing apart from both
trends mentioned above are representatives of the
conservative/preservationist trend who create various theories of
“official narodnost [national spirit].” Preservationist
conservatism seeks to bolster the existing social relationships and
state structure. The preservationists include Karamzin, Speransky,
Uvarov, Pogodin, Tyutchev, Katkov, Pobedonostsev, Tikhomirov and

This three-epicenter matrix reproduces
itself perfectly well in the social and political reality of
contemporary Russia – in political philosophy, ideological
arguments, polemics in the mass media, informational wars and,
occasionally, even in the real political process. Quite naturally,
each ideological epicenter allows for variations of ideas and
differences on one or another position, but the basic ideological
and ontological outlooks within each of these ideological
communities are quite homogeneous.

The Liberal (Westernized)

  • Politicians and political projects:
    Mikhail Kasyanov, Irina Khakamada, Anatoly Chubais, Valeria
    Novodvorskaya, Boris Nemtsov, Garri Kasparov, the Union of Right
    Forces (SPS), Yabloko, the Other Russia.
  • Mass media: Novaya Gazeta, Ekho Moskvy
    Radio, Polit.ru news portal, RTVi satellite channel.
  • Ideologists and publicists: Leonid
    Radzikhovsky, Yulia Latynina, Alexei Venediktov, Viktor
  • Basic values: discrete ontology,
    liberty, individualism, modernization through Westernization,
    market economic principles, acceptance of a strategy of Russia’s
    dependent development.

(Slavophile) epicenter

  • Politicians and political projects:
    Sergei Glazyev, Dmitry Rogozin, Natalya Narochnitskaya, Eduard
    Limonov, the Rodina party in the early periods of its history, the
    Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) (partly), the
    National Bolshevik Party (partly). The newly formed Spravedlivaya
    Rossiya (A Just Russia) party may develop along that line in the
    future too.
  • Mass media: newspapers Zavtra and
    Limonka, People’s Radio, Internet portals Pravaya.ru and APN.ru
  • Ideologists and publicists: Alexander
    Prokhanov, Alexander Dugin, Mikhail Delyagin, Vitaly Averyanov and
    authors of the Russian Doctrine project, Mikhail Remizov,
    Konstantin Krylov.
  • Basic values: development, blending of
    traditions and innovation, modernization without Westernization,
    organic principles of society construction, patriotism, a weighty
    social element in government policies in many cases.


  • Politicians and political projects:
    Boris Gryzlov, Sergei Ivanov, Oleg Morozov, Valentina Matviyenko,
    Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the United Russia Party, the Liberal
    Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), the youth movement
  • Mass media: ORT television, the
    state-run RTR broadcasting company, Ekspert and Russky Zhurnal
  • Ideologists and publicists:
    intellectuals concentrating around the Efficient Policies
    Foundation, Gleb Pavlovsky, Sergei Markov, Valery Fadeyev, Alexei
    Chadayev, Mikhail Leontyev, Vitaly Tretyakov, Vyacheslav Nikonov,
    Andranik Migranian and some others. Analysts traditionally say that
    Vladislav Surkov, the chief ideologist of the “sovereign democracy”
    project, falls into this category too.
  • Basic values: order, stability,
    steadiness and a controllable political system, continuity of
    power, state paternalism, restrictions on or absence of public
    politics, patriotism.

Historically, the Slavophiles and
supporters of the conservative/revolutionary trend have had the
most unstable and disadvantageous position. In the 1840s, they
clearly fell out of the format of the “official narodnost”
doctrine. Tsar Nicholas I hated them, and the theological works of
Alexei Khomyakov (and note that they contained apologetics of
Orthodoxy) were banned in the Russian Empire and were printed
abroad in French. As regards today’s political, information and
intellectual space of Russia, the Slavophiles often look like
losers and outcasts. They cannot count on support from the state,
from oligarchic businesses or from Western funds.

The Westernizers can rely on financial,
organizational, moral and political support from Europe and the
U.S. It was not only Alexander Herzen, the publisher of the
émigré Kolokol magazine in the past, but also hundreds of
non-governmental institutions and foundations that built “democracy
and civic society” in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s with a great
deal of commercial success.

The preservationists can always hope
for getting ’a state contract’ and support from administrative
resources. Their group includes well-calculating conformists,
enlightened loyalists, or simply committed people who honestly
believe that any departure from the “the strategic guidelines”
opens the road to turmoil, instability, chaos or ’orange


An analysis of Vladislav Surkov’s
policy document called The Nationalization of the Future reveals
that the author borrowed the bulk of his ideas from the
conservative/revolutionary ideology and political

Surkov shows that he works in the
conservative/revolutionary conceptual field by breaking with the
intellectuals, for whom the sun rises in the West, and with the
decadents, who claim that Russia has become overstrained under the
burden of its imperial mission and is now bowing out of history; by
dissociating himself with isolationism and autarchy; by declaring
the “conserving of the people” as a goal and tool of rejuvenation;
by saying that Europe need not be idealized, and by decrying
so-called “progress.”

The four priorities of sovereign
democracy keep up the same spirit and apparently go down to Ivan
Ilyin and “solidarity concepts.” They are civic solidarity as a
force preventing social and military conflicts; the creative class
as society’s leading stratum replenished in the course of a free
competition of citizens and envisioning innovative approaches and
synergies on the part of creative groups of people; culture as an
organism of notion-building and ideological influences and
education and science as sources of competitiveness making the
economy of knowledge an important priority.

Surkov’s text contains tentative covert
polemics with Anatoly Chubais’s liberal thesis about a “liberal
empire” and even with Putin’s thesis about an “energy superpower.”
The author speaks with superlative overtones about a “puissant
energy power” that will rise “out of a struggle for possession of
high technology and not out of an overgrowth of the energy

The author’s former pro-Western liberal
convictions show through the Eurocentric thesis about Europe as the
main generator of modernization processes. Also, he describes
Russia as “a most influential European nation.” The same spirit
glimmers behind his interpretation of Russia’s historic credo – “to
avert a falling out of Europe and to abide by the West is an
important element in constructing a new Russia.”

A discussion in absentia with the
leading forces of the Georgian and Ukrainian ’colored revolutions’
surfaces only once, and yet everything suggests that this is the
main point of reference on which the metaphysical and technological
legitimacy of the whole concept of sovereignty hinges. “The
multiplication of entertaining ’revolutions’ and democracies
governed by external forces, which seems artificial, is a natural
fact precisely in such countries,” Surkov writes. This is to say,
the countries that do not set themselves the goal of attaining
genuine sovereignty and hence exist under the patronage of other
states. He defines Russia as “non-Ukraine” and “non-Georgia.”
“Long-lasting foreign rule is inconceivable here.”

Given the fact that Surkov’s
conservative/revolutionary ideas are largely addressed to the
United Russia Party, whose ideology, rhetoric and key
functionaries’ image put it into the conservative/preservationist
ideological camp, a question comes up about how big the
mobilization potential of that ideology really is.

It was not the brightness of life or
any kind of ideological mutation that prompted the authorities to
assimilate the parlance of the conservative/revolutionary milieu.
The real reason was the exhaustion of the government’s own
conceptual reservoirs. Values like order, stability, and keeping
the balance delivered the goods at the start of Putin’s presidency,
but in the past few years the power-wielding camp has run out of
resources. The anti-’orange’ rhetoric as a factor for the
legitimacy of the regime is losing its vigor right in front of our
eyes, while the regime’s mobilization demands have grown,
especially in the light of the parliamentary election in fall 2007
and the presidential election in 2008.

That is why the matching of the
political, organizational and media capabilities of the
conservative/preservationist camp and conservative/revolutionary
values with some semblances of liberal rhetoric emerges as the most
adequate response to the challenges of time from the viewpoint of
political and ideological marketing and the survival of Putin’s
political regime.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that
the conservative/revolutionary discourse and notions remain alien
to the ideologists of sovereign democracy, its operators and its


Quite remarkably, Vladislav Surkov, the
author of the ’sovereign democracy’ manifesto, a document
consisting of conservative/revolutionary concepts, is a person
whose outlooks and objectives in his previous life (the one before
he took to ideology making) could be identified as liberal. His
professional activity as deputy chief of the presidential
administration developed in the conservative/preservationist vein,
and his musical and poetic oeuvre draws on post-modernist and
decadent-Gothic learnedness.

Many of the people who map out the
political, notional, information and ideological contours of
today’s Russia and the incumbent political regime rose up as
professionals in corporate PR and political technologies. Their
professional mentality is specific due to their faith in the
omnipotence of humanitarian technologies. This is where Surkov
comes from. It has not been ruled out that this background had an
impact on the pragmatism and feasibility of the ’sovereign
democracy’ concept he codified.

In terms of style and semantics,
Surkov’s concept bears striking resemblance to the songs of the
Russian pop group Lyube, with their down-to-earth patriotism.
Incidentally, the group’s vocalist Nikolai Rastorguyev is an
advisor to Putin on cultural affairs. On the one hand, Lyube’s
songs carry a claim containing something “genuine, personally
experienced and painful.” They tell us about a battalion commander
“who never hid his heart behind the boys’ backs,” the rustle of the
birch trees that spellbinds the Russians, the simple, robust “guys
from our courtyard” and many other things that sound like
revelations in an era of collapsing spiritual values and showbiz
PR. However, Lyube’s success came from clever marketing, studying
the demands of the target audience and a calculated pursuit of the
fashion for “genuineness.”


Russian political and expert
communities are split on the issue of sovereign democracy.
Liberally-minded politicians – Dmitry Medvedev, Mikhail Gorbachev,
Mikhail Kasyanov – had a lukewarm reception to the concept. Some of
them believed that the very phrase was an oxymoron sounding like
’hot snow’ [the title of a novel about the battle of Stalingrad by
Soviet writer Yuri Bondarev – Ed.]. Others, including Putin, said
that ’sovereign’ and ’democracy’ are notions standing for two
different phenomena, with ‘sovereign’ denoting a country’s position
in the outside world and ‘democracy’ being a method of organizing
society and the state. That is why the formula is awkward even if
the idea behind it is correct, they said. Some ideologists,
including Alexander Dugin, have proposed that the power-wielding
camp augment sovereign democracy with the concept of ’commissar
dictatorship’ evolved by the German conservative philosopher and
lawyer Carl Schmitt. “We’re heading for a dictatorship, but don’t
get frustrated […]. It’ll meet the interest of the entire people,
the nation, and the interest of Russia instead of the interest of
narrow oligarchic groups or even classes.”

It seems, however, that the assessment
of sovereign democracy as a mechanical merging of two antiliberal
concepts – a collective democracy model in the style of Jean-Jacque
Rousseau and Hans Morgenthau’s realistic international policy model
– is the most precise one.

The phrase ’sovereign democracy’ came
into use long before Surkov. During the Cold War, it meant a
democratic state independent of the Soviet Union and the Communist
camp and having an appropriate political regime. In today’s world,
it is broadly used in Taiwan where it provides an explanation for
the island’s independence from China and juxtaposes the democratic
principles of the regime in Taipei to the regime in

Sovereign democracy has a structure, in
which the accent alternates between sovereignty and democracy
depending on the circumstances. The current situation in Russia as
interpreted by Surkov necessitates an accent on the problem of
sovereignty and Russia’s international substantial, thus proving
that the existing top list of threats and challenges differs from
the one of the beginning of the decade.

’Sovereign democracy’ is related to
’managed democracy.’ But the latter emphasized Russia’s domestic
problems in the early years of Putin’s presidency. It legitimized
the young political regime and fixed the power-wielding camp’s
exclusive status regarding the heritage of the Yeltsin era marked
by a collapse of the state, the rule of oligarchs, chaos and total
de-modernization. Sovereign democracy highlights international
problems in the first place. These are global competition, the
struggle for energy resources, attempts by some countries to
restrict the sovereignty of other countries, ’colored revolutions,’
etc. But the goal is roughly the same – to furnish the
power-wielding camp with grounds for claiming the exclusive right
to the upkeep of its preponderant status and to legitimize itself
in the eyes of the nation and the world community.

’Sovereign democracy’ carries two
simultaneous messages to Russian society. The first message says
that we are a party wielding state power and a sovereign elite, and
the sources of our legitimacy are found in Russia, not in the West,
like it was during the ’guided democracy’ of the Yeltsin era.
Second, being a power-wielding force we are the guarantors of
Russia’s sovereignty and survival in the context of globalization
and other external super-threats.

Constructive elements of the ’sovereign
democracy’ concept make it similar to the well-known
Orthodoxy-Autocracy-Narodnost [national character] triad stipulated
by Count Sergei Uvarov [Russia’s education minister in the
1830s-1840s – Ed]. Autocracy might probably serve as a prototype of
Surkov’s sovereignty while narodnost as a prototype of democracy.
The basic difference between ’sovereign democracy’ and ’official
narodnost is the absence of a spiritual benchmark of some kind, the
one that Orthodoxy provided in Uvarov’s formula. Was it dropped
owing to pragmatism, political correctness or equidistant
positioning of religious denominations?

The evidence shows that political
correctness or unwillingness to give a religious coloring to
politics was the least likely reason. The mentality of the creators
of ‘sovereign democracy’ does not leave room for any transcendence
and that is why the very concept breathes with utilitarianism,
pragmatism and technicality.

Since ’sovereign democracy’ is
understood in this concept as a collective phenomenon ruling out
the rise of democratic procedures to the level of institutions,
democracy in it may invoke comparison with the concept of sobornost
[togetherness] offered by Alexei Khomyakov. The comparison looks
reasonable at first glance since, according to Khomyakov, the Sobor
– a council or a decision-making assembly representing all strata
of society – reflects the idea of a gathering, not necessarily
convened in a single place as such assemblies can function without
a formal binding, and means, in fact, unity in a magnitude of
diversities. For the Church, the principle of sobornost dictates
that neither the Patriarch, nor the clergy nor Ecumenical Councils
are the holders of truth. The only such holder is the Church as a
whole, the Church that is identified as a transcendent reality.
“The Church is not a multitude of persons taken separately in their
individuality but, rather, a unity of God’s Grace that exists in
innumerable sensible creatures submitting themselves to it.” In
other words, sobornost is an ontological condition and not a
mechanical mass of people or a technology governing them. Democracy
in Surkov’s concept has only a superficial resemblance of
sobornost. It has a similar form and leaves out the formal
institutions and norms of law as chief regulators of relationships
in society. The problem is that sobornost compensates for this
absence with the aid of heavenly Grace, a transcendent factor,
while the concept of ’sovereign democracy’ does not have it,
replacing it by interest and rationality. That is why it would be
appropriate to view ‘sovereign democracy’ as technology without


The emergence of the ’sovereign
democracy’ concept signifies a big step forward compared with the
Yeltsin era or the beginning of Putin’s presidency.

All facts suggest that any text on
’sovereign democracy’ would have been labeled as fascist,
chauvinistic, anti-democratic or anti-Western during Yeltsin’s term
and its author would have been pushed out of the effective
information space. Now such texts have become mainstream and their
authors are operators of the ’official narodnost.’

The concept of ’sovereign democracy’
has mobilization objectives. It does not aim to explain being, it
aims to transform the social and political reality. That is why, if
the power-wielding camp decides to change along with rhetoric the
actual ideology (conservative/revolutionary instead of
conservative/preservationist) and to replace the actual priorities
of the country’s development (innovative modernization instead of
stability), there will be grounds to claim then that ’sovereign
democracy’ has broken out of the framework of utilitarian political
technologies and has been fleshed out with real content. Otherwise
this ideological program will remain nothing more than beautiful
words devoid of both ontological veritableness and mobilization