Venal Perverts

Putin’s Dream of Empire Doesn’t Stop at Crimea, Or Even Ukraine

Why stop at Crimea? How Putin uses “political myth” to persuade his people they have every right to rebuild their former empire.

Sasha Mordovets/Getty

After the Russian anschluss in Crimea last week, people around the world are asking themselves uneasily: How far will Moscow go? What does Russian President Vladimir Putin really want? The answer can be found in the words of his supporters.

Consider this widely shared Facebook post by a Moscow yuppie named Artem Nekrasov: “If Putin manages to annex Crimea and the southeast of Ukraine peacefully I personally forgive him everything: wild corruption, the lawlessness of officials, lack of any prospects in the economy, disorder in education and journalism and even the common stupefaction of the people....” The post is popular because, as polls show, it reflects the common mood in Russia. Putin’s approval rating is 75 percent since he announced the annexation of Crimea.

A Moscow television channel interviewed old Soviet veterans at the Nahimov naval academy occupied by the Russian army in Sevastopol, Crimea. Like Putin, they longed for the old days. “Because of the disintegration of the USSR we lost Odessa [on the Black Sea] and a part of the Baltic,” one said. “But our current commander-in-chief [Putin, of course] is a gatherer of Soviet lands. We place our hopes in him!”

Roman Kokorev, a senior researcher in the International Law Department of the Russian Federation government, goes still further. “The next step is Moldova and all Ukraine!!!” he writes on Facebook. He wants all the old territories of the Soviet Union back; he wants Russian military power, once again, to reign supreme. He wants the Baltics and Finland and Poland and “Alaska will be returned,” he writes, “because all these lands are Russian.” (Sarah Palin, watch out.)

As journalist and political scientist Alexander Morozov writes in his widely-read essay “Conservative Revolution: Making Sense of Crimea,” Putin’s logic is no longer tied to those rational considerations of cooperation and economic interdependence on which the West puts so much faith. His is now a “revolutionary” mindset in which he and his followers are ready to sacrifice Western capital, risk having their assets frozen, and rely on “political myth”—a focus on heroism, sacrifice and martyrdom—to generate public support. There is no rational response to this. Those infected by the myth cannot imagine any other possibility for the future but success: “Crimea is ours!”

Morozov suggests the Kremlin could roll its troops up to the border of the Baltic states and demand the withdrawal of NATO units there. “Nothing keeps it from taking such steps now, because its moves are defined by revolutionary logic not political rationality,” writes Morozov. “If you can force your jackboot in the door, you can try to go all the way.”

So, Russians appear to be possessed by their desire to pull together all the lands held by the Russian Empire a hundred years ago. Even to the most simple-minded of Putin’s supporters, this has come to seem a spiritual mission, though few could explain it convincingly before an audience. Popular Russian media suggest two ways to conceive of this cause, one based on “Spiritual Ties” among Russians, the other as resistance to the “Venal Perverted West.” Constant propaganda impresses on the minds of average Russians that they are exceptional because of where they were born and the language they speak, but apart from that does little to elucidate the riddle of this exceptionalism. Instead they fall back on the “Mysterious Russian Soul,” which means “something perfect that nobody can explain,” and those who would dare to try intepreting it are playing the game of the “Venal Perverted West.”

But such primitive and fanciful ideas are just the skin on top of hot milk. An ideologue named Sergey Kurginyan has tried to articulate a much more extensive and coherent vision of Russian superiority to justify what he calls “USSR 2.0.”

“The only possible form in which our country can exist is as an empire that is a union of equal peoples,” writes Kurginyan. The Russian people should form the state at the center, “a nucleus around which other peoples are gathered.” In his opinion Russia cannot be a part of Europe, because Russia is Europe, too, but a different alternative Europe descended from the Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium, while modern Western Europe comes from the Western Roman Empire.

Kurginyan outlines four versions of societal development: modern, counter-modern, post-modern and what he calls “super-modern,” presumably exemplified by Russia. But the definition of the term is so vague that Kurginyan produced a whole cycle of television shows, The Essence of Time, without fully explaining what this “super-modern” thing might be. His speeches are like a session with hypnotist, and his respect for the truth is a very relative thing. Asked by an interviewer in 2009 when he chooses to lie, Kurginyan said, “When it seems to me that there is some higher reason that can justify it, or when I understand firmly that I am in a game where everybody is lying.”

Kurginyan defines USSR 2.0 as a new form of Soviet Union that takes into account the mistakes of the past. One has to admit that a totalitarian empire is impossible without the Iron Curtain or a system of complete information isolation. That’s not going to happen in a country with access to the Internet. But in Russia, even though there is wide access to independent sources of news on websites, some 75 per cent of the population prefers the propaganda on the official TV networks. It is so reassuring, after all: Mother Russia stroking and cooing, goading and inspiring with the message that they are exceptional just because they are who they are. Only someone working for the “Venal Perverted West” would question it.

If we ask ourselves at the end of the day, “What does Putin want?” the simplest answer would be “to keep 75 per cent of the Russian people behind him.” And the only way to do that is to foster and preserve the myth of the Russians’ innate superiority. Military adventures work. So do hypnotic diatribes on television. Put the two together and we are where we are today.