Putin’s Russia: A Tabula Rasa for Sociological Transformations

In the intricate web of Vladimir Putin's political discourse, historical vignettes are meticulously interwoven to validate his global manoeuvres.

In the intricate web of Vladimir Putin’s political discourse, historical vignettes are meticulously interwoven to validate his global manoeuvres. Putin extols the USSR as a continuation of Russia’s millennia-old statehood, asserting its significance amidst the flux of geopolitical narratives. However, this portrayal stands in stark contrast to his acknowledgment, in a 2000 interview with journalists from Japan’s NHK and Reuters, of post-Soviet Russia as a “completely new state” emerging from the ruins of the Soviet Union.

This duality in Putin’s rhetoric reflects the complexity of Russia’s historical narrative and its manipulation for contemporary political ends. Putin’s selective memory extends to Ukraine, where he asserts its absence from the Russian Empire while sidestepping the disjunction between the modern Russian Federation and its imperial past. Indeed, Russia’s historical evolution is marked by discontinuities and ruptures, challenging the notion of a seamless historical continuum, with contemporary Putin’s propaganda referring only to glorious and brilliant past.

In the tapestry of Russia’s historical evolution, the modern Russian Federation stands as a distinct entity, bearing little resemblance to the Russian Empire that dissolved in 1917. The legal and cultural ties between the Russian Federation and its imperial past are subjects of contention, as narratives attempt to bridge the gap between present-day Russia and its storied history.

Vladimir Putin frequently asserts that “Ukraine was not part of the Russian Empire,” highlighting territorial distinctions while sidestepping the broader context of Russia’s imperial legacy. However, in this narrative, there’s a notable omission: the Russian Federation itself did not inherit direct lineage from the Russian Empire. The empire was the domain of the Holstein-Gottorp (Romanov) dynasty, epitomized by Nicholas II, whose reign was marked by the proclamation of “Master of the Russian land.” Yet, in Putin’s discourse the Russian Empire, with its grandeur and complexities, remains a potent symbol in the collective consciousness, often invoked to validate contemporary narratives of Russian identity and power.

A state undergoes various transformations, including disintegration, reunification, and revolutions, yet it must maintain legal and cultural continuity to claim a continuous history. However, Russia’s supreme power, particularly since the 18th century when centralization began, has often rejected historical continuity, presenting Russia more as a project than a historical state.

Indeed, Peter the Great’s ascension to the throne in 1682 marked a pivotal moment in Russian history. His reign saw the transformation of Russia from a collection of disparate lands under the rule of a Tsar to a centralized empire. Peter’s title as Tsar listed the lands he owned, emphasizing ownership rather than management, and by the end of his reign in 1721, he had assumed the title of Emperor of All Russia. This period witnessed a profound shift in Russia’s culture and governance, disrupting traditional norms and ushering in a new era of modernization.

Prior to Peter’s reign, concepts of “state” and “society” were nebulous in Russia. The state, if considered at all, was synonymous with the sovereign, encompassing the Tsar, his retinue, and his domain. It was only under Peter’s rule that the concept of the state as distinct from the person of the sovereign began to take shape, laying the groundwork for the emergence of modern Russian civilization. The term “society” gained prominence later, particularly during the reign of Catherine the Great, coinciding with the expansion of education initiatives initiated by Peter.

Thus, Peter the Great can rightfully be regarded as the architect of modern Russia. His reforms not only centralized power but also catalyzed the development of Russian society and laid the foundations for the state as it is known today. Not only he transformed Russia, Peter cut away the previously existing cultural tradition. Indeed, who knows anything substantial about pre-Peter-the-Great Russia? In this light, the legacy of Peter’s reign looms large in Russia’s historical narrative, shaping its trajectory and defining its identity.

The next disruptor of Russia emerged in the form of Vladimir Lenin, whose revolutionary fervor in 1917 birthed a new state atop the ashes of the Russian Empire, propelling a seismic shift in culture, tradition, and societal norms. The emergence of Homo Sovieticus under the USSR stood in stark contrast to the inhabitants of the Russian Empire, embodying a new ethos forged in the crucible of communist ideology.

The space occupied by the USSR became distinctly separate from the Russian Empire, marked by a another rupture in legal continuity as Lenin’s Bolsheviks swept away the remnants of imperial governance. The collapse of the Russian Empire was absolute, with not a single legal norm transitioning into Soviet Russia, symbolizing a decisive break with the past.

Yet amidst this upheaval, one country stands as a testament to the persistence of continuity: Finland. De jure, Finland retained elements of its legal framework from the Russian Empire, notably preserving the Criminal Code of Emperor Alexander III. The Code of Laws of 1889, bearing the imperial imprimatur, still holds sway in modern Finland, underscoring a rare instance of legal continuity amidst tumultuous historical change.

Despite subsequent reforms, Finland has upheld select laws enacted during the Tsarist era, particularly those concerning forests, local roads, and water usage. Moreover, the continuity of private property rights, dating back to the Russian Empire and even preceding it to the Swedish era, endures as a cornerstone of Finnish legal tradition. This preservation of the state’s continuity reflects a unique historical trajectory, embodying the resilience of Finnish society amidst shifting geopolitical landscapes.

Unlike many European counterparts, the Russian Federation distinguishes itself by the absence of historical provinces akin to Normandy, Occitania in France, or Catalonia in Spain. Instead, its population identifies with administrative units such as oblasts, krais, and republics, even extending to the nomenclature of cattle breeds, which bear the names of regions like Yaroslavskaya and Kostromskaya. Meanwhile, Ukraine, which is not so different from Russia in terms of culture, consists almost entirely of historical regions (Volyn, Podolia, etc.) similar to the German and Austrian lands.

Since the era of Peter the Great, Russia has remained ensconced in a state of military-colonial despotism, where colonization has been directed inward, shaping a distinct landscape from the colonial empires of the West. This internal colonization, coupled with absolute centralization of power, has fostered a totalitarian society characterized by hypertrophied vertical links between centers and periphery, and diminished horizontal connections between peripheral points.

The totalitarian administration of Russia has engendered a unique administrative-territorial division that holds unparalleled significance within the nation. Administrative units such as oblasts, districts, and municipalities serve as the foundational cells of societal life, akin to houses and apartments. This landscape has deeply influenced Russian culture, where interpersonal relationships often mirror bureaucratic hierarchies.

Thus, the administrative-territorial division in Russia not only structures the physical landscape but also permeates the social fabric, shaping patterns of interaction and governance. In this totalitarian landscape, the contours of power and identity are intricately intertwined, defining the essence of contemporary Russian society.

Russia seems to undergo a recurrent process of self-reinvention, akin to a perplexing cycle of sociological hard disk formatting. However, this radical reboot often entails a profound rupture with established cultural practices and traditions. Despite aspirations to catch up with and surpass the West, these overhauls paradoxically contribute to Russia’s lagging behind, as they undermine the foundation of development: the knowledge and labor accumulated by previous generations.

Putin’s Russia frequently appeals to tradition, yet tradition in Russia appears more mythical than tangible. In contrast to Europe, where tradition is palpable and enduring, Russia’s historical continuity is marked by periodic resets, eroding accumulations, status, knowledge, and even historical memory. The real historical memory of Russians often fails to extend beyond the Second World War, illustrating the fragility of cultural continuity.

In Europe, tradition persists despite wars, with families inheriting centuries-old books and household items, and retaining a deep awareness of their history. In contrast, Russia’s cyclical nullification of achievements impedes the formation of tradition, rendering talk of traditional values by Russian authorities a mere abstraction, divorced from lived experience. Thus, while tradition thrives in the West as a living legacy, in Russia, it remains a myth, perpetually eclipsed by the specter of societal reset.

The death of historical memory in Russia is underscored by sociological research revealing that the life histories of only the closest generations, namely parents and grandparents, are known to the majority of Russians (60%). A mere 21% possess knowledge of family history spanning at least four generations, while 19% lack any insight into their familial past.

Moreover, the very concept of a unified Russian ethnos is a relatively modern construct, emerging toward the end of the 18th century and solidifying in the late 1920s under Stalin’s regime, aimed at forging a cohesive identity for the nascent USSR. Prior to this, the term “Russian” functioned as an adjective denoting origin from the land of Rus, rather than denoting a distinct people. The populace was formerly known as Ruthenians, encompassing diverse groups such as Great Russians, Malorossians, and Cossacks (the latter unofficially recognizing themselves as a separate entity), alongside Belarusians.

However, even the notion of Ruthenians remained largely formal until the 19th century. Individuals identified primarily by their place of residence, prevailing occupation, or adherence to Orthodox Christianity. This lack of cohesive national consciousness persisted even into the tumult of the First World War, as territorial affiliations often took precedence over a unified identity. General Denikin’s recollections highlight this sentiment, with phrases like “We are of Tambov, the German will not reach us” epitomizing the prevailing mindset.

The famous phrase attributed to the 18th-century military leader Suvorov, “we are Russians! God is with us,” has become a rallying cry in Soviet and Russian patriotic propaganda. However, historical accuracy reveals that Suvorov could not have uttered such words due to the absence of self-identification as “Russian” during his time. This discrepancy underscores one of many historical myths perpetuated by the Russian Federation.

Even Vladimir Lenin, in a pre-revolution questionnaire regarding national identity, referred to himself as a “Velikoross,” (a term existing together with “maloross” and “Belarus”) highlighting the unpopularity of the generic term “Russian” at the time. Lenin’s early work on the national question, titled “On the national pride of the Velikoross,” further emphasizes this sentiment. Thus, the conception of the Russian people as a cohesive community with a shared identity as “Russians” emerged only within the last century, coinciding with the development of national literature.

Thus, Russia’s historical narrative is marked by fluid identities and shifting loyalties, underscoring the multifaceted nature of its cultural and social fabric. Yet, amidst the echoes of imperial glory, the modern Russian Federation stands as a testament to the fluidity of history, forging its own path distinct from its imperial predecessor. Putin’s strategic framing of history reflects not only a quest for legitimacy but also a deliberate effort to shape Russia’s geopolitical narrative on the global stage. But these efforts are based on false narratives, exposing Russia as a country of historical myths and sociological illusions.

Russia’s freedom from historical heritage, coupled with the regular nullification of tradition, has created a tabula rasa, making it an ideal subject for sociological transformations. While the easiest transformation manifests as an empire with centralized power and a compliant society, this same flaw may offer hopes for alternative, potentially more successful transformations in the future.

Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin is a Russian pro-democracy activist and member of Advisory Board of Creative Cluster, a French-tech ecosystem partner. He has previously worked at the National Democratic Institute in Moscow.