ussia’s story today is largely Vladimir Putin’s story, and this story is neither short nor simple —nor yet anywhere near its end. Contrary to the fairly common view, which Putin himself encourages, key decisions that have shaped and will continue to shape that story are not made on an ad hoc basis, in fits of rage, or out of pique or petulance.
This is not Putin’s way of doing things. He is a judo enthusiast, a judoka. By every account, including those by Putin himself, judo has been far more than a sport to Putin. It has changed him profoundly. It remade a mama’s boy, hooligan, C student, and street urchin from the slums of Leningrad into a determined and hard-working man. Putin became the judo champion of Leningrad. His former judo partners are still among his closest friends (and billionaires). As president, he journeyed to St. Petersburg for the funeral of his judo coach.
In judo, you usually don’t win by a single throw, Ippon, which gives you 10 points and an instant victory. Instead you win by accumulating points using moves of varying effectiveness, with lower scores of Wazari, Yuko, and Koka. Patience is the key. You watch your opponent like a hawk in order to catch him off balance—and then exploit the advantage in a lightning strike. Pauses are only ever a prelude to further assault. Putin’s sport has provided him with a temperament befitting his worldview. The deliberate nature of his decision-making now serves his pursuit of a long-term geopolitical project, a self-imposed personal historic mission, and the immediate political imperative of his regime’s survival.
Much of the way that Vladimir Putin views Russia and the world—and his understanding of how his country should live and what it should strive for—is rooted in Eurasianism: part philosophy, part history (often dubious), but mostly a sensibility based on myth and wishful thinking.
Look at Russia’s position on the map: neither fully in Europe nor in Asia but somewhere in between. But the term’s meaning is intended to evoke something larger than geography: a separate civilization, bound by an almost mystical unity—linguistic, cultural, religious—and profoundly distinct from Europe and its values. In all ways, Russia stands apart. Although the boundaries that separate the Eurasian Russia from Europe may be invisible, they are real, eternal, and impermeable—a kind of civilizational watershed. And despite occasionally foolish attempts on either side to breach or move it, the border magically renews and reasserts itself time and again—usually in battle, blood, and tragedy.
In this narrative, Russia is perennially victimized, yet always morally superior to its tormentors, heroic, and ultimately victorious. In the process, Russia is also Europe’s savior: from the Mongols, from Napoleon, from Hitler.
Eurasianism is best understood as a peculiar combination of almost Calvinist predestination and agency, unyielding fate, and personal greatness.
Eurasianism is a peculiar combination of almost Calvinist predestination and agency, unyielding fate, and personal greatness. Geography is destiny. History is destiny. Religion is destiny. One cannot fight fate. And one must not! Instead, destiny must be embraced as a sign of fate’s—and increasingly, God’s—intent for greatness.
The key to fulfilling this destiny is an omnipotent Russian state. Those Russian rulers who tried to deviate from this destiny by weakening the state have brought Russia nothing but shame and defeat, with the most recent traitorous liberalizers being Khrushchev, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin. Those who embraced Russia’s destiny by strengthening the state have added to its glory and become heroes regardless of the crimes they committed and the blood they spilled: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and of course Josef Stalin.
There is little doubt about which category Putin wishes to be in. His spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, has declared him “the defender of Russians wherever they live.” Putin’s deputy chief of staff has avowed: “There is no Russia without Putin.”
uch of Putin’s Eurasian sensibility appears to have been absorbed from his favorite philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, an émigré and a refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution who died in Switzerland in 1954. Putin cites his speeches and even assigned one of Ilyin’s books (Наши задачи, or Our Tasks) to regional governors to read over the 2014 Christmas break. He had the remains of Ilyin and his wife, Natalia, moved from Switzerland and re-interred in one of Russia’s most hallowed grounds, the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow.
Superimposed on his professional training as a KGB officer, and likely explaining to him his own and his country’s recent history, Eurasianism and Ilyin have shaped what can be called Putin’s operational credo. “Western nations don’t understand and don’t tolerate Russian identity,” Ilyin wrote. “They are going to divide the united Russian ‘broom’ into twigs to break those twigs one by one and rekindle with them the fading light of their own civilization.”
Hence the first, overarching tenet of Putin’s credo: The West’s plots against Russia are relentless, and while truces with the West are often tactically advantageous to Russia, genuine peace is impossible. This is because the West’s hostility to Russia is eternal and prompted by jealousy of her size, natural riches, and, most of all, her incorruptible, saintly soul and a God-bestowed mission to be the Third Rome, the light among nations.
This West’s hatred of Russia leads to the next precept: The end of the Cold War was Russia’s equivalent of the 1919 Versailles Treaty for Germany—a source of endless humiliation and misery. The demise of the Soviet Union was, in Putin’s words, “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” During the Gorbachev revolution, Putin was deployed in East Germany, the Warsaw Pact country most insulated from the moral and intellectual ferment of glasnost and perestroika. As a result, Putin’s most vivid memory from that time is an angry crowd surrounding the KGB residence in Dresden after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Inside, Putin and his colleagues were burning documents, expecting to be stormed and perhaps lynched at any minute.
Thus the third and final precept: The ultimate strategic goal of any truly patriotic Russian leader (not an idiot or a traitor like Gorbachev or Yeltsin) is to rectify this profoundly immoral historical injustice by recovering and repossessing at least some of the key political, economic, and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state at its fall. A few years back, I called this the Putin Doctrine, which the Russian president proceeded to implement virtually from day one of his first presidential term in 2000.
n the years between its inception among Russian émigrés in Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany in the 1920s, elements of Eurasianism have surfaced among nationalists on both the left and right in the émigré community, among the Soviet dissidents, and within post-Soviet parties, especially the Communists. But never before has as much of its content reached so high among the country’s leaders. Eurasianism binds many—perhaps most—key political actors in Russia today. This is especially true of the cohort closest to Putin, the so-called siloviki: top members of the secret services and armed forces, many of them graduates, like Putin, of the Soviet KGB. In their articles and interviews, they portray a Russia menaced by external forces, the greatest of which are NATO and the United States.
In his speeches and articles during the run-up to the 2012 presidential election in Russia, Putin declared Russia a “unique civilization,” bound together by the ethnic Russians who form its “cultural nucleus.” The culture and values of this civilization are profoundly different from what Putin called a “neutered and barren” Europe.
In the most important oration of his life, the March 18, 2014, address to the joint session of the Russian National Assembly on the annexation of Crimea, he declared that the West is “guided by the rule of the gun” and seeks to “drive Russia into a corner.” And in the post-Soviet era, Russia “has always been deceived, has always been [confronted with] decisions made behind its back.”
Since Putin’s election to his third term, public-opinion surveys have consistently and increasingly revealed the embrace of key precepts of a Eurasion Russia.
The implementation of the Putin Doctrine has been supported by two overlapping propaganda narratives, both straight out of the Eurasian canon’s core of fate and heroism, predestination and agency. The first is that Russia is “rising from its knees,” and because of that, the West—first and foremost the United States—declared war on it. And second, although threatened on all sides by implacable enemies, Russia has nothing to fear so long as Putin is at the helm: Not only will he protect the Motherland, but he will also restore Russia’s status of being feared and respected again.
Without a doubt, it has been an effective and relentless propaganda campaign. But Putin’s success in selling his agenda to Russia has signaled something far more dangerous: the emergence of a Eurasian Russia. Since Putin’s election to his third term in 2012, and especially since the Crimean Anschluss, public-opinion surveys have consistently and increasingly revealed the embrace of the key precepts of Eurasianism not only by Putin and the top government elite but also by strong pluralities or outright majorities of Russians. Thus, according to polls conducted by the Levada Center, an independent Russian research organization, Russians now believe that their country is “peaceful” and does not seek war; war is threatened only from the outside. If there is to be a war, the fault is “not anything Russia has done, and the blame is apriori on the West or its ‘marionettes.’” Proxy battles with the West, first and foremost the United States, are already raging in Syria and Ukraine. Most important, Russia and the U.S. are the “two main world powers, the two poles of the modern world.”
Although people are aware of the worsening economic situation, they are “ready to bear it for the glory of the nation,” leading Russian political sociologist and pollster Alexei Levinson concluded in October 2016. Russia is ready to respond to any threat: It has nuclear weapons and, most important, it is “always more right than they,” the West. Historic justice is “always on Russia’s side.” Levinson called this “a key” element of Russian public opinion today. “A unique consensus of the public and the authorities has been created,” Levinson wrote. “It has proven its value: two-thirds of the population now approves of the activities of [the authorities’] chief representative, Putin.”
This is not the Cold War. But as we look at Putin’s Eurasian Russia, we find less and less comfort in that fact.