“Spiritual Bonds” as State Ideology
No. 4 2014 October/December
Olga Malinova

Olga Malinova, Doctor of Philosophy, is a chief research fellow at the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences (INION) at the Russian Academy of Sciences. She is a professor at the National Research University-Higher School of Economics and at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).

Opportunities and Limitations

Article 13 of the Russian constitution contains a clause banning any state or compulsory ideology. The authors of the constitution had hoped such a clause would prevent a repeat of the Soviet indoctrination experience. In the last two decades, however, questions have been raised repeatedly about whether the Russian government’s ideological practices have gone too far. At the same time some have called for taking another look at this constitutional provision (which cannot be changed through the amendment process). Both views reflect a discord between commitment to the document and actual practice.

Does a state need an ideology? If not, how can it compensate for a “shortage of spiritual bonds?” Or if it does, how should the state develop and use this ideology? The notion of “ideology” is ambiguous, and the diversity of its manifestations adds no clarity to ongoing speculation.

If we understand ideology as collectively shared ideas of social order and a strategy to maintain or change it, which make government decisions legitimate, then modern politics certainly needs ideologies. Government decision-making in the modern era requires public explanations or justification. In fact, in the modern era it was the development of power-sharing institutions – the parliament and the press – as key channels of this public communication that gave impetus to the emergence of classical “isms” normally associated with the word “ideology.” That is, the political elite, including its ruling segment, cannot but appeal to certain established and recognizable systems of meanings. The quality of the latter, including the degree of their consistency, depends upon a combination of many factors.

Pro-government politicians unquestionably have more leverage to thrust upon society the systems of meanings they share, and this opens up many opportunities for “unfair competition.” Consequently, the claim that “a state should not have an ideology” can hardly be serious in the sense that official statements should not lean upon a certain system of values and notions (which always has its supporters and critics).

 There is also an obvious “abuse-of-power potential” to weaken opponents’ competitive opportunities as far as limiting ideological pluralism with a ban on publically stating certain ideas. This would make the above constitutional article a warning not to cross the red line: the ruling elite has no right to use state instruments of coercion to impose their ideas or forbid people from expressing different opinions.

Yet our arguments over ideology are not limited to legitimate forms of governance. In fact, they have to do with the problem of inconsistency between the format of public demands for “systems of meanings” and opportunities to meet these demands.


The era of ideological pluralism in post-Soviet Russia coincided with the end of “big ideologies.” Incomplete (“molecular” or “mini”) ideologies addressing a limited range of problems and having no global vision ambitions characteristic of classical “isms” became increasingly important in determining political divides in a majority of democratic countries due to social, political, and technological reasons.

Yet this does not mean that the big “isms” disappear without a trace; in any case, they serve as a starting point. However, when society is structured like a layer cake and mass communication technologies tend to take almost as much care of “the wrapper” of information as of its content, you can hardly expect the appearance of systemic or integral worldviews.

“Old” and “new” ideologies can interact if their traditions are maintained. In Russia in the late 1980s-early 1990s, however, “isms” were built from scratch, with Marxism-Leninism remaining the only “old” ideology. In fact, it needed adjusting too because of changes in the context. New ideologies were largely invented by adapting the modern Western experience, and, to a lesser extent, by selective reconstruction of domestic intellectual traditions. In both cases the end product depended on the capabilities of the post-Soviet elite, which regrettably was integrated into the world intellectual space far worse than Russian intellectuals before the Bolshevik Revolution. The post-Soviet elite had a poor knowledge of Russian history and, unexpected as it may seem of people with a Soviet background, was poorly prepared for ideological creativity.

On top of that, the configuration of the political system designed in 1993 did little to motivate political elites towards ideological work. The fact that the relationship between the articulation of public ideas and access to government jobs (especially implementing the proposed course) has been steadily weakening over the past two decades could not but impact the quality of “supply” of these ideas. The generation of meanings relies heavily on new projects in spin doctoring, and few politicians succeed in laying out long-term strategies in their public speeches.

At the same time, the scope of changes experienced by society has generated the demand for ideologies/worldviews. They were required to not only support the “technical” program of reforms (there was no shortage of this kind of proposed ideas), but also deliver cultural and emotionally acceptable meaningful frameworks to imagine society standing behind the new Russian state. I believe the inconsistency of “products” presented on the “market of ideas” with this mass demand largely caused what Putin called a “lack of spiritual bonds” in his state-of-the-nation address to the Federal Assembly in 2012.

Russia does not lack “good ideas.” But there is an obvious gap between the normative understanding of ideology based on the Soviet experience – that is, as an instrument of integration – and post-Soviet ideological practices. The cacophony of rival mini-ideologies sharply contrasts with reminiscences about the “complete and consolidated” system of beliefs that used to be supported by a ramified state and Party propaganda network.

Calls for inventing a “state” or “national” ideology to consolidate a society torn apart by discord are clearly nostalgic for the lost utopia. At the same time, viewing any manifestation of government symbolic policy as a “return of official ideology” indicates a persistent fear of centralized indoctrination. In any case, the government is viewed as the key player in this field.

To what extent did the ruling elite’s ideological initiatives provide reasons for such hopes or apprehensions? The topic of “state ideology” was first raised in 1996, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin suggested working out a “national idea” after several years of demonstrative ideological “neutrality.”

The issue was not raised for the sake of a formal solution. The government took on the role of initiator and organizer of public discussion, which, however, did not yield the expected accord. The zero-sum principle practiced by rival political groups prevailed over calls for unity. Given the previous Soviet experience, the stakes seemed to be too high to compromise over principles.

Admittedly, when the media were actively using the frame of ideological confrontation between “the Democrats” and “the Communists,” the head of state did not show much enthusiasm about accord. While refusing to fully share the Democrats’ guidelines, he did not miss the chance to criticize their opponents.

Caught in the conflict-ridden pluralism of the 1990s, the Russian political class was unable to cope with the production of meanings capable of consolidating a macro-political society. In the 2000s, a course was taken towards reaching “consensus at the top level” by restricting pluralism in the “heart” of the public sphere. Simultaneously, the authorities attempted to introduce a sort of “incomplete” ideology integrating parts of different discourses.

The strategy proved to be quite successful for “freezing” symbolic conflicts and consolidating “Putin’s majority” around a set of amorphous ideas, symbols, and gestures that allowed for various interpretations. At the same time, it effectively blocked the emergence of influential alternative programs capable of consistently structuring public discussions.

The discourse of the pro-Kremlin political elite focused on several key concepts: “a strong state” (2000), “sovereign democracy” (2005), “modernization” (2009), etc., which different actors used in different ways. During Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, the established set of meanings indicated a trend towards “specialization” in its use and further development. However, the Kremlin left unchanged the general guideline for reanimating the hegemony discourse, which integrated ideas popular with society.


This strategy was successful because of weak competition from alternative systems of meanings. Clearly this condition was secured by not only symbolic, but also administrative means. It was also backed up by society’s political apathy. However, the protest movement from December 2011 through March 2012 changed the situation: the inarticulate yet clearly visible street opposition undermined the hegemony of government discourse. During the presidential election campaign, Vladimir Putin’s headquarters had to experiment with different approaches to cast their candidate in the volatile ideological frame of reference.

Eventually, the Kremlin selected a modified version of a “unification” strategy envisioning consolidation of Putin’s “patriotic” majority against a “pro-Western” minority. Yet at some point – and a content analysis of Putin’s election articles shows it graphically – the people in power contemplated a version of an “away game” of meanings. The first publications released before the initial mass rally in support of the “key candidate” referred numerous times to “others” in Russia. It was not typical at all of Putin’s rhetoric (because criticizing “others” amounted to recognizing them as real political opponents).

Subsequent publications barely mentioned “others” at home, but the number of references to “others” outside of Russia sharply increased. Therefore, the opposition between Putin and his opponents was cast in the spirit of “patriotic” rhetoric, which offered a convenient opportunity to avoid discussion of meaningful opinions about the government’s policy.

Reinforcing this line, Putin presented the election results at a meeting with his supporters on Manezh Square on March 4, 2012, as a victory over his enemies who only had “one objective in mind: to ruin Russia’s statehood and usurp power.”

At first it was not clear if exploiting the idea of alliance between “others” inside and outside of Russia was a tactical maneuver (incidentally, it was not new, because it had been used repeatedly since the “color revolutions” of the mid-2000s) or a long-term strategy. It seemed that the degree of Russia’s integration in the world economy inhibited the promotion of the “hostile West” topic, because its excessive use delegitimized the Russian elite, deeply involved in international cooperation.

Nevertheless, the first moves of the new government included a crackdown on mass protests (tougher penalties for violations of the law on demonstrations, reinstatement of criminal prosecution for slander, and possible blocking of websites), countermeasures against “external influence” (the law on foreign agents for certain non-government organizations and a ban on the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens), and protection of the Kremlin’s understanding of public morals (the law banning homosexual propaganda and harsher penalties for insulting the rights of religious believers).

The campaign to “nationalize the elite” launched in the autumn of 2012 had an obviously “patriotic” undertone, too. Regardless of how effective the new rules were, banning high-placed officials, parliamentarians, and state-run companies’ executives from having bank accounts and assets abroad, they were certainly a landmark in terms of the economy: “patriotism” was becoming almost the key principle of legitimizing the elite amid mounting anti-Western rhetoric.

Is this ideological turn accidental? Of course, ideology could be viewed as a veil according to Karl Marx’s “false consciousness” theory. This veil hides the true intentions of politicians; and in this case the change in ideology has roots in the struggle for material interests. But if we assume that the ideological/symbolic element of the political process has a logic of its own, we have to acknowledge that at the beginning of his third term in office Putin found it necessary to design a more consistent “ideology” to mobilize a “majority” against a “minority.” This might just be the case, as some analysts have begun to talk of “Putinism” emerging before our eyes.

A set of symbolic resources for a new ideology was selected during the first year of Putin’s new presidential term. It certainly has a conservative element if it is understood as a wish to lean on “traditional values” (the proposal to create a standard history textbook for schools) and religion (the law protecting the feelings of religious believers). At a Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin called for “avoiding a vulgar, primitive understanding of secularism.” The problem is that in the Russian context it is not easy to identify a “tradition” that could be used as a reference point, while heavy reliance on orthodoxy in a secular and multi-confessional state is fraught with negative consequences.

Putin’s new ideology has an element of populism suggesting a formal appeal to Demos and democratic principles. Declarations proclaiming the priority of interests of a patriotic majority over the minority critical of the government, or speculations about international norms being non-democratic can serve as examples. As an auxiliary tool, this element lends democratic respectability to the authorities’ actions.

Patriotism” and imperial nationalism have been crucial ingredients of the state-supported system of beliefs from the very beginning, as they assert the importance of keeping Russia’s status of a great power for the well-being of its citizens at present and in future. Patriotic rhetoric relies on broadly shared feelings, and appeals to the protection of habitual practices. Thus it can serve as a convenient instrument for mobilization. But because of the pluralism of lifestyles in present-day societies, this “ism” is a shaky foundation for demarcating political boundaries, because one can hardly impose on others a certain way of understanding patriotism as universally-acknowledged without resorting to symbolic violence (which is happening as part of the securitization technology, to be considered below).

Finally, anti-Westernism actually makes up the core of Putin’s new ideology, leaning on a well-rooted repertoire of stereotypes. It is easily mobilized and has a good consolidating effect. Admittedly, this resource, if used repeatedly, makes parts of the ideological “equation” much simpler. For example, it rids the government of the inconvenient necessity of demonstrating its commitment to democratic values (even in the spirit of “sovereign democracy”), or allows for using isolationism as a defense against the West’s “soft power.” Also, anti-Westernism helps finalize a body of “traditional values” which are easier to define as being different from others, rather than by proving their real historical continuity.

The above system of meanings can hardly be viewed as a full-fledged ideology offering a coherent worldview. Rather, it is a fragmented ad hoc construct based on available symbols and primarily intended for consolidating Putin’s new majority. However, several elements can appeal to the international audience as well: for example, Putin’s statement at the Valdai forum about “whole regions of the world which cannot live according to universal templates” amid the Syrian crisis was certainly meant to evoke a positive response.

However, after the incorporation of Crimea, Russia itself became a violator of international order (it is not accidental that the Kosovo case, which Moscow formerly criticized, now is viewed as a precedent – “We were not the first to do it”). It is hard to say yet whether Russia will be able to find an ideological construct that would combine revisionism with conservative protection of the order and whether it will meet the pragmatic task of justifying its own foreign policy.

The Ukrainian crisis and the incorporation of Crimea have adjusted the symbolic resources used to build the new Putin ideology. There is a growing demand for patriotic rhetoric, while the obvious reluctance of Western partners to heed Russia’s arguments and the “war of sanctions” started by the West create fertile ground for the rise of anti-Western sentiment. At the same time, in the conditions of real confrontation with external “others” the modality of patriotic ideas is changing: what earlier had a shade of alarmism is now presented as a pressing challenge, to which Russia gives a proper response, thus affirming its independence.


In any case, the ruling elite’s ideology now has a clearer outline, with stronger odds that state resources will be used to impose it as obligatory amid the mounting foreign policy crisis. Some signs of this scenario are already visible in frenzied propaganda on television, plans to launch lessons in patriotism at educational institutions, and calls to stigmatize dissenters as “national traitors.”

Is the return of Soviet indoctrination practices on a new ideological basis possible? I do not think so. Indoctrination is not possible without a doctrine. It requires canonical texts (“landmark” political speeches are not up to the role: they depend on a rapidly changing context and are constantly “re-written” by the orator’s new actions) and a hierarchy of people to interpret them. But a mini-ideology, unfit for indoctrination, can serve as an instrument of symbolic violence, if securitized; i.e. tied to the fundamental value of security and presented as a condition for the survival of a political community.

Regrettably, securitized “spiritual bonds” can prove too destructive a weapon: an amorphous ideology open to arbitrary interpretations can become a dangerous instrument for settling political scores. Eventually, it may lead to its symbolic devaluation: the weapon will no longer be effective. Sadly, even the fruitless attempts to reanimate Soviet ideological practices will leave behind grave consequences resembling a “scorched field” of depreciated values.

Modern political communities need ideologies to discuss social problems, identify options, and guide citizens through the labyrinth of politics. The ruling elite has to engage in generating meanings; the more serious it is about this task the better. But in the 21st century it is no good yielding to the temptation of establishing a state or compulsory ideology, even if it seems that this ideology is needed or that such a possibility exists. Not only is the attempt doomed to failure, but also it is counter-productive to designing “spiritual bonds.”