Saving the World: How Messianic Sentiments, Memory Politics, and Conspiracy Theories Made Putinism Effective
From the Series: Russia’s War on Ukraine
From the Series: Russia’s War on Ukraine
The Russian invasion of Ukraine will bring catastrophic consequences to all of Europe and might even lead to a global war. A large number of Russians have relatives and friends living in Ukraine. Yet, it is obvious that many Russian citizens uncritically believe the official propaganda put forth by Putin’s regime and support the war. In the following, I will try to make sense of this paradox. Why does Putinism as a political doctrine appear to be so successful with ordinary Russians?
In the late 1980s and early nineties, the republics of the former USSR witnessed an explosive growth in messianic religious movements that predicted future apocalypse and promised to save their followers, or even the whole world, from expected disasters. Among the most famous messianic leaders of the time was Sergei Torop, also known as Vissarion Christ, the founder of the Siberian Last Testament Church, who is now awaiting court proceedings in a Novosibirsk prison. Although related to particular religious ideas and practices evoked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, these messianic and apocalyptic expectations reflect deeper patterns of Russian social imagination that could be traced to at least the last decades of the nineteenth century, when the concept of “Moscow, the Third Rome” was extracted from a little-known text of a sixteenth-century monk from Pskov. Both the communist utopia and the victory in World War II were represented officially, and perceived by many Soviet people, as saving mankind from capitalism and fascism. These messianic patterns could be discussed as, for example, a by-product of suspended modernization, or a kind of imperialist ideology, or just an effective propagandistic device for social mobilization under authoritarian rule. I would not say that this worldview is somehow related to alleged “Russian religious mentality.” Rather, it was a local adaptation of European political thought. It constitutes an important, although not always explicit, component of what I would call “RusSoviet identity,” a contradictory hybrid of imperial, nationalist, and religious ideas and sentiments that became immensely popular in Russia under Putin. Besides the idea of saving the world, it inherited a quasi-religious idea of everlasting struggle between good and evil and images of secular martyrdom and self-sacrifice.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and disillusionment with the communist idea made these patterns problematic. It was not really clear where good and evil resided, why and how the world could be saved, and why personal or collective self-sacrifice should be performed. The “religious revival” of the 1990s did not seem to be really successful or consistent in Russia. Although Putin’s regime did try to employ the Russian Orthodoxy and other “traditional” religions to construct new post-Soviet identities, that did not prove to be effective, especially in terms of collective mobilization. However, there existed another influential dualistic, messianic, and sacrificial narrative: the World War II “post-memories.”
Official Soviet memorialization of the “Great Patriotic War” became especially intense under Brezhnev, with huge monuments, military parades, elaborate ceremonies, and commemoration of martyrs. One of the central motives of the official heroic narrative can be called genealogical, since war victims and heroes were praised as those who provided the very possibility of life for the Soviet people. There existed, however, another (and yet more influential) genealogical narrative of the October Revolution and collective path to communism; in the hierarchy of late Soviet holydays, November 7 stood higher than Victory Day. In the 1990s, the communist “master narrative” vanished almost completely and war commemoration began to wane. However, it was revitalized under Putin and gradually took the form of civil or political religion with sacred objects and landscapes, cults of heroes and martyrs, and the dead still present among the living. In 2012, TV journalists from Tomsk initiated a new commemorative ritual known as “the immortal regiment.” More than six thousand people in this Siberian city paraded on May 9 with portraits of their dead relatives who had taken part in World War II. The ritual gained rapid popularity in Russia. In 2015, the memorial procession in Moscow was led by Putin himself and gathered together hundreds of thousands of participants (Fedor 2017). One year later, an economist from the Russian Academy of Sciences even suggested that the war dead should receive voting rights in Russia, so that their descendents would have additional votes in elections. Thus, war memories were transformed into a cosmogonic and messianic narrative that appeared to be immensely successful in a country where nearly every family commemorated relatives or ancestors who had perished in the war.
However, the narrative itself did not deal with the problem of theodicy—that is, with how and why evil continued to exist in this world already “saved” by Russians. The answer was provided with post-Soviet conspiracy theories that usually concentrated on national freedom and morality threatened by evil outsiders. The so-called Dulles Plan, a conspiratorial forgery widely publicized in Russian since 1992 told, for example, about the secret postwar politics of the United States toward the Soviet Union, allegedly aimed at disseminating “false values,” “vulgarization of national morality,” promotion of “the basest feelings,” drunkenness and drug addiction, nationalism, and ethnic hatred (Panchenko 2020). This made the Putinist grand narrative consistent with a war with imaginary “fascism” and was reanimated by a militarized religion. Conspiracy theories explained that the nation’s freedom, morality, and “traditional values” were at stake in this war. In the 2010s, the narrative gradually became the basis of “RusSoviet identity” for millions.
Messianic, Manichean, apocalyptic, and conspiratorial narratives provide a language for collective political imagination. It is often unclear whether people take them seriously and if they could influence or shape social action, including violence and war. Unfortunately, in present day Russia, the Putinist narrative appears to have become so attractive that it has made too many Russians support the invasion of Ukraine. It is worth asking how this “collective delusion” works on a personal level. The Putinist narrative operates as a virus of mind that effectively creates what the American historian Barbara Rosenwein (2010, 11) called “emotional communities.” Exploiting the modes of emotional expression that people “expect, encourage, tolerate, and deplore,” it provides affective bonds and a sense of belonging particularly valued in the weak, atomized, and unequal Russian society of the present day.
Fedor, Julie. 2017. “Memory, Kinship, and the Mobilization of the Dead: The Russian State and the ‘Immortal Regiment’ Movement.” In War and Memory in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, edited by Julie Fedor, Markku Kangaspuro, Jussi Lassila, and Tatiana Zhurzhenko, 307–345. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Panchenko, Alexander. 2020. “The Dulles Plan for Russia: Conspiracy Theories and Moral Panics in Post-Soviet Societies.” In “Truth” and Fiction: Conspiracy Theories in Eastern European Culture and Literature, edited by Peter Deutschmann, Jens Herlth, and Alois Woldan, 131–144. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
Rosenwein, Barbara H. 2010. “Problems and Methods in the History of Emotions.” Passions in Context 1, no. 1: 1–32.