Orthodoxy. Autocracy. Nationality.
Photo source: kremlin.ru

Even countries need “vision statements,” it seems. God help them. For Tsar Nicholas I, the younger son groomed to be a soldier yet who became emperor in 1825, he found it in “Official Nationality,” a trinity of ideas assembled by his Minister for Education, Sergei Uvarov: Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” Almost two centuries later, it appears that the words which appealed to the soldier-turned-tsar work just as well for the spook-turned-president, and Vladimir Putin has drifted into pretty much the same ideology.

To understand this trinity, separately and in compound form, we need to acknowledge both that the exact meanings of each are necessarily different in detail in the twenty-first century. However, for all that together they do nearly define “new Putinism” (or “developed Putinism”, or – for the optimists – “late Putinism”, or whatever else you want to call the current iteration of his views and his vision for Russia.)


One of the striking images in this year’s record-breaking Victory Parade in Moscow was Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a Tuvan Buddhist by all accounts, crossing himself beneath an icon before putting on his cap and heading out to lead the event.

This could be interpreted as a little crowd-pleasing (or Church-pleasing) hypocrisy, but I think that would be to misunderstand Shoigu and above all to misinterpret the role of Russian Orthodoxy in today’s Russia. Just as a pre-Revolutionary peasant would as often as not describe his identity as “Orthodox” as “Russian,” so too it has become something of a touchstone of patriotic adherence to the Russian state today. To cross yourself before an icon (or, indeed, to endow a church) is not, or at least not necessarily, an act of religious devotion but a recognition of one’s political allegiance. The flipside of Byzantine Caesaropapism – the subordination of spiritual to political authority – is that the secular leader and the political structure over which he presides becomes infused willy-nilly with spiritual legitimacy.

So when Shoigu crosses himself, or when the FSB academy gets its own church, or when priests bless troops heading to Ukraine, it is not that we are seeing a Muscovite theocracy emerge. After all, 5-10% of the population are Moslem, another could of percent are accounted for by other faiths, and even of those notionally professing Russian Orthodoxy fewer than one in ten attend church regularly or otherwise demonstrate any particular fervor. 

The 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations stated that while “Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions … constitute an inseparable part of the historical heritage of Russia’s peoples,” it was necessary even for an avowedly security Russian state to recognize “the special contribution of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia and to the establishment and development of Russia’s spirituality and culture.” This really gets to the heart of things: Orthodoxy is not, or not just a religion, it is a distillation of “Russianness.” The Church itself has already been bought and paid for by the Kremlin, in Belkovsky’s words it “has finally transformed itself into an appendage of the state’s politico-ideological machine.” But to respect Orthodoxy is not to make a choice of faiths but to make a choice of allegiances, and to acknowledge the historical and well as moral authority and legitimacy of the current regime.


It would be glib and easy simply to say that Putin is as much an autocrat as Tsar Nicholas I. And it some ways it would be true, not in the sense that Putin is a divine right monarch, but that even Nicholas himself came to understand – and bemoan – the practical limits on his power. The more honest way of putting it is that Putin is no more of an autocrat in practice than Nicholas.

Of course, there are also huge differences. Putin is an elected head of state, and while the elections were clearly managed on a massive scale, not least by the effective exclusion of any real opposition from the process. (Marx must be rolling in his grave and Lenin, were he not stapled down, in his mausoleum at the way the Communist Party under Zyuganov has comfortable acquiesced in becoming part of Putin’s political sham.) For all that, Putin is no absolute dictator. He is constrained by both popular and elite opinion. There is a limit as to how egregiously the regime can rig the elections – witness the Bolotnaya protests – hence the efforts to build and maintain a personality cult around Putin himself, control the media and generally win public support. 

Putin also depends on the elite actually to run the country, a constraint he shares with Nicholas. Just as the tsar tried bringing in Baltic German aristocrats in the hope they would be more honest and efficient than their Russian counterparts (in the main they were, but too few to change the system), so too Putin has brought in siloviki (who actually have turned out to be no more efficient and in many cases possibly even more corrupt). Either way, managing the elite is a crucial part of the job of respective so-called “autocrats” and also a massive check on their practical power.

Instead, the real heart of “autocracy” is the political primacy of the state. Nicholas was vehemently opposed to anything which appeared to be creating parallel or alternative sources of power and authority. Indeed, he was so committed to this notion that Russia became under his regime the “Gendarme of Europe,” eagerly willing to help other authoritarian regimes crush their home-grown revolutions. At the same time, Nicholas’s concept of autocracy also carried with it both a belief in the primacy of laws (however draconian) and also a paternalistic obligation from the ruler to the ruled.

The modern world is less easily controlled but it is clear that having been relatively relaxed about civil society in his earlier terms as president, so long as it did not explicitly challenge the Kremlin, Putin is now much less tolerant. The “Foreign Agent” laws, the FSB/E Center pressure on outspoken NGOs, the crackdowns on liberal media, all of this speaks to a new determination to break and tame civil society, to ensure it acts as an agent not a critic of state policy.

I’ve commented in the past on Putin’s creeping convergence with Mussolini’s style of fascism. His dictum Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato (“Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”) no doubt has resonances in today’s Russia, and best encapsulates the new model Autocracy.


In some ways this is the trickiest concept, in some ways the most familiar. Again, this does not mean nationality in the classic ethno-linguistic sense. Instead, even under Nicholas, narodnost’, “nationality,” was defined by statehood rather than pure ethnicity. (Remember those Baltic Germans in whom he put his faith?). In other words, “Russian nationality” is at least as much about what passport you have as your ethnicity.  

This is, of course, a practical necessity in a multi-ethnic state, especially one in which the Kremlin has often to govern with and through local elites. But it also reflects Russia’s historical evolution, one in which a national identity has been formed through the sometimes collaborative, sometimes antagonistic relationship of central government policy and grassroots interests and initiatives. After all, an ethnic Russian chauvinist regime would be unlikely to have a Tuvan defense minister, or a half-Tatar chair of the Central Bank, and Jewish ministers, and formerly a Tatar interior minister, and so on… A glib point, to be sure, but a way of encapsulating the central tenet of Russian-style narodnost’ – it’s about how you choose to define yourself, it’s about a fundamental historical, cultural, political identity and how willing you are to adopt it. Follow the rules, wear the orange-and-black gang colors, observe the rituals and obey the chain of command, and then it doesn’t matter if you’re Ivan Ivanovich or Gérard Depardieu, you’re fine.

Wanna be in my gang? If so, Putin – like Nicholas – will be happy to let you in.

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