Letter From the Editors

In the last 10 days, Moscow has made a dazzling series of pronouncements that both celebrate and denounce the ideological legacy of the Soviet Union. First came the Russian Federation’s National Security Strategy, updated from 2015. As one would expect, this document emphasizes Russia’s need to protect itself from potential aggression by the US, Europe and NATO. However, Gennady Petrov detects a new note of urgency that goes beyond military matters. “The new version of the Strategy [has] a new vocabulary. Or rather an old one, very reminiscent of the one from Soviet times. Hostile action now applies not only to attempts to overthrow the government, but also to ‘the imposition of alien ideals and values’ [by] transnational corporations, nongovernmental organizations and terrorists.”

Indeed, the 2021 Strategy contains a section on the defense of cultural and spiritual values, which presents a plan that would have been applauded by the Bolsheviks of the 1930s: “Drawing up a state order on the creation of works of literature and fine art . . . aimed at preserving traditional Russian culture and spiritual and moral values, protecting historical truth and preserving historical memory, and ensuring ‘quality control’ over the implementation of this state order.”

Of course, the Soviets would have talked about promoting something like “proletarian class struggle” instead of “traditional Russian culture” – and here is where Putin’s Russia breaks with its socialist heritage.

Which brings us to the next manifesto from Moscow: the president’s article “On the Historical Unity of Russian and Ukraine.” After outlining the history of Ancient Rus and describing the modern Slavic peoples – Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians – as its descendants, Putin criticizes the 1924 Soviet Constitution for planting a “time bomb” – i.e., giving republics the right to leave the union: “In the 1920s and 1930s, the Bolsheviks actively promoted the ‘localization policy,’ which . . . enshrined at the state level the existence of three separate Slavic peoples . . . instead of the large Russian nation, [which was] a triune people comprising the Velikorossy, Malorossy and Belorossy.”

It may sound strange to hear a former KGB agent revive terms from 19th-century imperial Russia. Stranger still, these terms were also used by one of the KGB’s bitterest enemies – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – in his 1990 essay “How We Can Revitalize Russia.” This piece, which advocates the dissolution of the USSR, was roundly criticized by Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders (see this Digest article) – and yet Putin chose in 2007 to award Solzhenitsyn the State Prize of the Russian Federation.

How to make sense of this bizarrely contradictory stance, which seems to idolize the Soviet Union while rejecting its “multinational” principles?

Aleksandr Kobrinsky offers the following explanation: “It seems that with this article Russia actually assumes the role of the patron and protector of all Russian-speakers around the world – just as the Russian Empire used to be the patron of Russian Orthodox believers throughout the world.” Although the article devotes a lot of space to scolding modern-day Kiev for sowing hatred toward Moscow, Kobrinsky argues that Ukraine’s ruling clique is not Putin’s intended audience: “It is the collective West, not Ukraine, that Putin is talking to. . . . The Russian president is sending a clear message to the countries that have created the ‘anti-Russia’ project and that keep supporting it.”

So this is where the Putin empire draws its battle lines: the “brotherhood of Slavic peoples” versus the rest of the world. Grigory Yavlinsky, for one, is fed up. The Yabloko Party veteran made a historic announcement: He is not running for the Duma this year, because Russian politics has fundamentally changed: “Russia has become a corporate, quasi-mafia superauthoritarian state . . . that has nothing to do with the modern European world – and, most importantly, does not want to have anything to do with it.”

A Soviet dissenter became a national hero for a later regime; should that give us hope for the dissenters of today?