Putin's Brain

Alexander Dugin and the Philosophy Behind Putin's Invasion of Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007. (Damir Sagolj / Courtesy Reuters)

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has searched fruitlessly for a new grand strategy -- something to define who Russians are and where they are going. “In Russian history during the 20th century, there have been various periods -- monarchism, totalitarianism, perestroika, and finally, a democratic path of development,” Russian President Boris Yeltsin said a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “Each stage has its own ideology,” he continued, but now “we have none.”

To fill that hole, in 1996 Yeltsin designated a team of scholars to work together to find what Russians call the Russkaya ideya (“Russian idea”), but they came up empty-handed. Around the same time, various other groups also took up the task, including a collection of conservative Russian politicians and thinkers who called themselves Soglasiye vo imya Rossiya (“Accord in the Name of Russia”). Along with many other Russian intellectuals of the day, they were deeply disturbed by the weakness of the Russian state, something that they believed needed to be fixed for Russia to return to its rightful glory. And for them, that entailed return to the Russian tradition of a powerful central government. How that could be accomplished was a question for another day.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, to whom many of the Soglasiye still have ties, happened to agree with their ideals and overall goals. He came to power in 1999 with a nationwide mandate to stabilize the Russian economy and political system. Thanks to rising world energy prices, he quickly achieved that goal. By the late 2000s, he had breathing room to return to the question of the Russian idea. Russia, he began to argue, was a unique civilization of its own. It could not be made to fit comfortably into European or Asian boxes and had to live by its own uniquely Russian rules and morals. And so, with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin began a battle against the liberal (Western) traits that some segments of Russian society had started to adopt. Moves of his that earned condemnation in the West -- such as the criminalization of “homosexual propaganda” and the sentencing of members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk-rock collective, to two years in prison for hooliganism -- were popular in Russia.

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