"…the worst thing the West is doing is trying to pit the two Slavic fraternal nations against each other."
Vladimir Putin, Speech at the Security Council meeting on 21 February 2022
What are the ideological roots of the Russian war against Ukraine? More broadly, to what extent is Russia's policy ideologically motivated? One widespread opinion holds that contemporary Russian elites are concerned exclusively with personal enrichment and political survival and do not have any ideological agenda. However, a short retrospective shows that the issue of a new ideology has been continuously under discussion since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The notion of Russia being a "distinct civilization" has increasingly been employed by top officials, including Vladimir Putin himself. While he pragmatically adapts his discourse according to circumstances, Pan-Slavic ideas serve as one of the sources of the president's civilizational rhetoric. The speeches by Putin and top officials appear to contain discursive elements dating back to the late imperial times.
Slavophile ideology historically played a significant role in the Russian intellectual and political tradition. It appealed to Russia's Slavonic origins, Orthodox faith, and the traditional wisdom of the people. It also appealed to Russia's unique position as a single Slavic empire that presumed its special historical mission. Russian Slavophilism of the 1830s and 1840s was an answer to cultural problems caused by the processes of modernization and Westernization. The Slavophiles responded to the problem of change in Russia by opposing the liberal ideas coming from the West. In their writings, Russia appeared as Holy Rus, the land of God's chosen people. Accordingly, any pro-European orientation (including Petrine reforms) constituted the betrayal of the Slavic roots (Walicki 1975, Kohn 1960).
The national humiliation of the Crimean defeat brought about the dream of restoring Russian national glory. The idea of revenge stimulated the move from Slavophilism toward Pan-Slavism in the mid-1850s. In the following years, Slavophilism generally lost its religious and philosophical content and started to play a significant role in Russian foreign policy. In the writings of I. Aksakov, I. Samarin and N. Danilevsky, it developed into a militant program of Russian expansion in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East. Pan-Slavists underlined Russia's unique historical role, based not only on her size or military might, but also on moral superiority over the decadent West.
One of the most telling cases is the example of Nikolay Danilevsky, a Russian conservative philosopher and a prominent Pan-Slavist. In 1869, he published a book that has gained the reputation of being a "code of the Slavophile doctrine."
Danilevsky divided all the civilizations into a number of cultural-historical types. While nine of them proved to be non-historical, the tenth type (Franco-German) was about to prove itself non-historical soon and provide space for a new Slavic civilization. Danilevsky identified Europe as being of the Franco-German cultural-historical type and claimed that its influence would gradually diminish, and that the new world would become dominated by Slavdom. For Danilevsky, Russia and Europe represented different cultural-historical types, so it was impossible and harmful to adapt European models to Russian conditions: "Europe is not only foreign to us, it is indeed hostile. Europe's interests cannot be ours, but not only that: in most cases, they will be in direct opposition to one another." Danilevsky claimed that Europe instinctively hated Russia, so Russia's foreign policy should be determined by the Slav interest and aimed at the destruction of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires and the creation of a Slav Federation under the Russian Tsar. Among Slavic nations, Danilevsky viewed Ukraine as "the first and the closest of Slavic brothers" and an essential part of the all-Russian nation. He considered Kyiv a source of Christianity and Russian spiritual capital (Eltchaninoff 2018).
Similarly to the way in which the humiliation of the Crimean War gave rise to Pan-Slavism, the identity crisis after the collapse of the USSR and the trauma of post-Soviet transformation provoked nostalgic feelings among a significant part of the Russian population, which Putin and his circle consciously exploited. They attributed the hardships of the 1990s to the corrupting influence of the West and appealed to damaged national pride.
The latest developments around N. Danilevsky's heritage can be seen as a typical case of the current instrumentalization of 19th-century ideas. This writer became the subject of intense academic, quasi-academic and political discussion, beginning from the first post-Soviet edition in 1995, and particularly during the last decade. Several conferences (some directly supported by the government) not only celebrated Danilevsky's heritage, but used his ideas as analytical tools for current political developments. This tendency became more and more visible after 2014. The most high-profile conference on "The Legacy of M. Danilevsky in Ensuring the Development of Civilization and Spiritual Sovereignty of Russia" (Moscow, January 2016) was organized by The Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISI). The institute was founded by the president of the Russian Federation and headed by the former prime minister Mikhail Fradkov. Another analytical article by former foreign minister Igor Ivanov "Why is Europe hostile towards Russia?" was published by the Russian International Affairs Council – also a government-sponsored institute.1
The main ideas of Danilevsky from his opus magnum appeared in the speeches of Vladimir Putin more than once, both directly and implicitly. Using the concept of state-civilization as a marker of relevant discourse, one can see it being consistently present and filled with special meaning: "It is precisely the state-civilisation model that has shaped our state polity", said Putin addressing the Valdai forum in 2013.
Several crucial points make current official Russian rhetoric a direct heir of Pan-Slavism in its most aggressive form. First of all, the core idea of Slavophilism is one of common Slavic character and destiny based on a common language. The media and officials used the fate of the Russian and Russian-speaking population of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics as a manipulative tool or even a weapon for many years. Orthodox Christianity played a similar role. In the context of imperial ideology, both Slavdom and Orthodoxy are identified with Russia. Back in 1867, the delegates of the Slavic Congress in Moscow, the highest point of the Pan-Slavic movement, were "told that Slav unity demanded unity of faith, of the alphabet and language, the acceptance by all the Slavs of Orthodoxy, of the Cyrillic alphabet and of the Russian language." (Kohn 1960) This aim is still on the agenda for many Russian politicians, at least when Ukraine is concerned. In his address to the Conference on Christianity in Ukraine in 2013, Putin claimed: "Here at this site, at the baptismal site on the Dnieper River, a choice was made for the whole of Holy Rus, for all of us … the foundations of this heritage are the common spiritual values that make us a single people". "Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us," Putin said in a speech three days before the war. "It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space."
The next point concerns the idea of the moral superiority of Slavic nations over the decadent and spiritually inferior West. Putin pointed out, speaking at the Valdai forum in 2013: "We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious, and even sexual." Consequently, Russia officially justifies its increasing self-isolation and anti-Western policies through the necessity to protect its people from the "rotting" influence from the West and its anti-Russian stance.
The anti-Western attitudes are so persistent in Russian imperial discourse that texts that were written one and a half centuries apart sound remarkably similar. Danilevsky wrote in 1869, "You should not deceive yourself. Europe's hostility is all too obvious: it is not a matter of random combinations of European policy, not of the ambition of a statesman, but of its fundamental interests." In the famous "Crimean" speech, Putin reminded his audience that "In short, we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, continues today."
In other words, in the official narrative, the West still fulfills its traditional role for Pan-Slavic ideology as Russia's significant other, an opponent, and (increasingly) an enemy. In this dichotomous view of the world, Ukraine has been assigned the role of the "agent of the West" and the main enemy of Slavdom within Slavdom. Russian propaganda interprets its pro-Western geopolitical orientation as a conscious anti-Russian policy to hurt its core and limit the Russian role in its "natural" sphere of influence.
The idea of Russia's leading role in the region, especially among other Slavic nations, has deep historical roots. Some authors point out the relations with Southern Slavs and the Eastern Crisis as the key episode. Under the influence of the Russo-Turkish wars, the ideas of Slavic brotherhood and cultural-religious links had been transformed into an expansionist ideology of conquest and incorporation. Ivan Aksakov, the representative of classical Pan-Slavism, saw the liberation of the Southern Slavs as a national task, the way to achieve redemption "through war and death." (Duncan 2000) In his view, the goal of the Russian State was to become the Messiah for the Slavs.
The idea of Russia's messianic role (either real or imagined) is currently very much present in the official discourse. Speaking on 18 March 2014, Vladimir Putin underlined the special mission of his country: to protect Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens from "neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites." The Russian president explicitly linked the annexation of Crimea to the need to protect Russians across Ukraine. In February 2022, Putin used this very argument to declare war against Ukraine: "It was necessary to immediately stop this nightmare – the genocide against the millions of people living there, who rely only on Russia, hope only on us."
Three days into the war, the state-owned agency RIA Novosti mistakenly published (and immediately removed) an article with an ambiguous title, "The Arrival/Attack of Russia and the New World." The editorial mistake had to do with the Russian government estimations that Kyiv would have fallen by that time. The key messages of the article once again repeat the idea of "Russia ... restoring its historical fullness." The author hoped that despite "brothers, separated by belonging to the Russian and Ukrainian armies ... still shooting at each other, … there will be no more Ukraine as anti-Russia”.
The recent revival of the ideas of Pan-Slavism in the official discourse might seem absurd at first sight, considering the bloody conflict between closest "relatives", culminating in the annexation of Crimea and a full-scale war, but the situation is certainly not unique. In the past, Pan-Slavism was used to justify a brutal anti-Polish and anti-Ukrainian policy. Then, as well as now, the regime was trying to preserve the existing political system. The fact that this kind of strategy is popular among Russians proves that their identity is still quasi-imperial and, as such, is still based on a number of outdated myths. Moreover, Ukraine is at the core of Russian imperialist mythology. The idea of Ukraine as a component of Russian civilization, which the West seeks to use in the fight against Russia, was one of the reasons for the current "brotherly war."
Andzej Walicki. The Slavophile Controversy. History of a Conservative Utopia in Nineteenth Century Russian Thought. Oxford University Press 1975.
Hans Kohn. Pan-Slavism, It’s History and Ideology. New York: Vintage Books 1960.
Michel Eltchaninoff. Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin. Oxford University Press 2018.
Peter J.S. Duncan. Russian Messianism: Third Rome, Revolution, Communism and After. London 2000.