Why Putin says Russia is exceptional
Such claims have often heralded aggression abroad and harsh crackdowns at home.

Oleg Pchelov / Shutterstock.com

Article Highlights

  • Russia is a unique "state civilization," bound together by ethnic Russians, according to the Russia president.

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  • To Putin, Russia is exceptional because it is emphatically not like the modern West.

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  • Russians must choose between living in a normal country or in one that is aggressively and chauvinistically exceptional.

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In the winter of 2012, something surprising happened to Vladimir Putin: He discovered, as he wrote in a government newspaper, that Russia isn't just an ordinary country but a unique "state civilization," bound together by the ethnic Russians who form its "cultural nucleus." This was something new. In his previous 12 years in office, first as Russia's president and then as prime minister, Mr. Putin had generally stayed away from grand pronouncements on culture and ideology.

And Mr. Putin wasn't done with this theme. Elected in March 2012 to a third term as president—in the face of massive antiregime protests, replete with banners and posters scorning him personally—he told the Russian Federal Assembly the following year that it was "absolutely objective and understandable" for the Russian people, with their "great history and culture," to establish their own "independence and identity."

What was this identity? For Mr. Putin, it was apparently easier to say what it was not: It was not, he continued, "so-called tolerance, neutered and barren," in which "ethnic traditions and differences" are eroded and "the equality of good and evil" had to be accepted "without question."To Mr. Putin, in short, Russia was exceptional because it was emphatically not like the modern West—or not, in any event, like his caricature of a corrupt, morally benighted Europe and U.S. This was a bad omen, presaging the foreign policy gambits against Ukraine that now have the whole world guessing about Mr. Putin's intentions.

There is ample precedent for this sort of rhetoric about Russian exceptionalism, which has been a staple of Kremlin propaganda since 2012. In Russian history, the assertion of cultural uniqueness and civilizational mission has often served the cause of political, cultural and social reaction—for war and imperial expansion, as a diversion from economic hardship and as a cover for the venality and incompetence of officials. As the great 19th-century Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin wrote: "They [the powers that be] are talking a lot about patriotism—must have stolen again."

The pedigree of Russian exceptionalism stretches back to a 16th-century monk, Philotheus of Pskov, a city about 400 miles northwest of Moscow. Constantinople had fallen to the Turks a century earlier and Rome was possessed by the "heresy" of Catholicism, so it fell to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, Philotheus averred, to preserve, strengthen and expand the only real and pure Christianity: the Russian Orthodox faith.

Muscovy wasn't just a growing principality but, Philotheus wrote, a "Third Rome," endowed by God with a sacred mission to redeem humanity. Such ideas were ready-made for the centralizing ambitions of the founders of the modern Russian state, Vasily III and his son, Ivan IV, known as "The Terrible." This is how Ivan became "czar," the first Russian sovereign to be so crowned—a title derived from Caesar and, in the new state mythology, a ruler whose authority could be traced back to Augustus himself.

"Two Romes have fallen. The Third [Rome] stands, and there shall be no Fourth," Philotheus declared with a literary flourish, which has inspired Russian messianism ever since. Ivan the Terrible, for his part, responded during his reign (1547-84) with incessant wars in the West and the East, imperial expansion and sadistic purges.

These are the seeds of Mr. Putin's newly adopted worldview. But Russians themselves have often rejected this notion of national uniqueness. In particular, a number of Russian leaders have tried time and again to bring their country into the orbit of the "civilized world."

In the early 18th century, the brutal modernizer Peter the Great forced his nobles to shave off their traditional beards, to swap their Byzantine robes for stockings, breeches and wigs, and to send their sons to Europe to learn navigation, engineering and the modern sciences. Catherine the Great's effort at Westernizing Russia during her own rule (1762-96) was incomparably milder, but she was just as determined. Nor was the "Third Rome" to be found in the discourse of Russia's three greatest liberalizers: Czar Alexander II, who freed the serfs in 1861, and Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who brought the Soviet Union to an end and explicitly sought what they called a "road to the European home."

By contrast, Mr. Putin's recent rhetoric harks back to Russia's two most reactionary rulers: the 19th-century czars Nicholas I and his grandson, Alexander III. These are the sovereigns who made Russia's secret political police a key state institution, with Alexander giving it virtually unlimited powers by declaring, in effect, a perennial state of emergency. At the same time, Russia's allegedly distinctive identity was crystallized in the official state ideology of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality." With minor linguistic adjustments, this slogan of Nicholas I and Alexander III seems now to have been adopted by Mr. Putin.

One of the most troubling aspects of this concept of Russian uniqueness is that it is has been defined largely in opposition to an allegedly hostile and predatory West. According to Mr. Putin's favorite philosopher, the émigré Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954), "Western nations don't understand and don't tolerate Russian identity…They are going to divide the united Russian 'broom' into twigs to break those twigs one by one and rekindle with them the fading light of their own civilization." Mr. Putin often quotes Ilyin and recently assigned his works to regional governors.

One can hear distinct echoes of Ilyin's views in the fiery speech that Mr. Putin delivered this past March after Russia's annexation of Crimea. The West, Mr. Putin said, "preferred to be guided not by international law in its practical policies but by the rule of the gun" and wished to "drive Russia into the corner." He traced this hostility as far back as the 18th century and said that, in the post-Soviet era, Russia "has always been deceived, has always been [confronted with] decisions made behind its back."

In Mr. Putin's view, it is the West's intention to interfere with Russia's historic mission and to thwart the rightful "integration of the Eurasian space." As for those in Ukraine who resisted this effort, he described them as boeviki (fighters), a term that, until then, had been used only to designate Muslim militants fighting in Russia's North Caucasus. Mr. Putin's other innovation was to label the critics of his regime not just as "fifth columnists" but as "national-traitors," natsional-predateli—a precise Russian equivalent of Nationalverräter, the term used by Hitler in "Mein Kampf" to refer to the German leaders who signed the treaty of Versailles after Germany was defeated in World War I.

Mr. Putin's approval ratings, which fell to the low point of his career at the end of 2013, are now sky-high. How could they not be? Russian government propaganda about the Ukraine crisis goes completely unchallenged on state-owned and state-controlled national television networks, where 94% of Russians get their news. In this coverage, Mr. Putin is presented as the defender of the motherland and his ethnic Russian brethren in Ukraine, who are said to suffer assault, torture and butchery at the hands of the "junta of fascists" in Kiev. To Russian ears, "fascist" inevitably recalls the Nazi invaders of World War II.

Russians are hardly the only people in modern history to be intoxicated by the ideological cocktail of national victimhood and triumphalism, by the vision of a heroic nation-on-a-mission, abused by foreigners yet always ultimately victorious. Over the past century, Germans, Italians, Japanese and, more recently, Serbs have embraced such narratives, once their regimes silenced critics through censorship, harassment, forced exile, jail and murder. These and other histories of state-sponsored campaigns of national "uniqueness" suggest that the regimes and leaders that flatter their peoples most shamelessly are precisely the ones that end up decimating them with the greatest indifference and in the largest numbers, whether through war, starvation, concentration camps or firing squads.

It is hard, then, not to be troubled by Mr. Putin's suddenly opining, at the end of his four-hour call-in television show last month, about the "generous Russian soul" and the "heroism and self-sacrifice" that allegedly sets ethnic Russians apart from "the other peoples." The last time Russians were praised in similar terms was in Stalin's famous toast at the May 24, 1945, victory reception in the Kremlin for the commanders of the Red Army. The dictator extolled ethnic Russians as "the leading people," blessed with "steadfast character" and "patience" and, most of all, an unshakable "trust in the government."

As he spoke, Stalin was putting hundreds of thousands of those very same Russians through the hell of "filtration camps" and in cattle cars on the way to even greater suffering in the Gulag, where many of them died. The toast also presaged the end of wartime cooperation with the West, still greater repression at home and a campaign of aggressive, exclusionary patriotism, including the hunt for "rootless cosmopolitans" and "Zionists" in the service of American imperialism.

But today's Russia isn't the Russia of old. The period of highly imperfect but real democratization under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, as well as the protest and open discussion of recent years, has made Mr. Putin's assertions of Russian exceptionalism even more transparently self-serving. Leonid Kaganov, one of Russia's most influential bloggers, recently posted what he labeled the "Ten Commandments of the New Russian State." It opens, in pitch-perfect parody of the regime's latest line, with the statement: "Russia is [the country] biggest in size, population, level of development, culture, intelligence, modesty, honesty and justice." It goes on to lament that "We are completely surrounded by Gayropa and its whores on all sides," who "falsely worship a notion of liberty deeply alien to us."

Or maybe not so "alien."

Asked in a 2012 poll if their country needs to have a political opposition, more Russians agreed than disagreed. In polls over the past six months, a majority also endorsed the propositions that a state should be under society's control and that power should be distributed among different political institutions, rather than being concentrated under one entity.

Russians also have abiding doubts about Mr. Putin. In a 2013 poll by the Levada Center, Russia's most credible independent polling firm, Mr. Putin was "admired" by 2% of Russians and "liked" by 18% (the corresponding numbers in 2008 were 9% and 40%), while 23% were either "wary" of him, could say "nothing good" about him or disliked him, and 22% were either "neutral" or "indifferent."

Asked if they thought that Mr. Putin was guilty of the abuse of power, 52% answered "undoubtedly" or "probably" (13% were convinced that it wasn't true, while 18% thought that it didn't matter, even if true). Perhaps most alarmingly for Mr. Putin, more than 50% of Russians in another Levada poll in April 2013 didn't want him to remain president after 2018. In the words of Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, by January of 2014, "Putin stopped being a 'Teflon' [president]."

In today's Russia, these sentiments have been drowned in a wave of patriotic euphoria and anti-Western paranoia. But Mr. Putin may soon find that the effects of such strong and fast-acting stimulants are only temporary, with a heavy hangover to follow. In the short term, he is likely to continue manufacturing external hostility and "saving" ethnic Russians in Ukraine (and possibly in other regions as well). He will blame the inevitable economic hardship on the machinations and sanctions of the West, thus making it a patriotic duty to bear the deprivation stoically.

But the country's patriotic rapture will eventually cool as the economy declines even more sharply. After all, as Mr. Putin lamented a few years ago, almost half of Russia's food is imported (up to 85% in some of the largest cities), most of it from the EU countries. And this year the ruble has hit record lows against the euro.

Terror, censorship and indoctrination have long allowed dictators to maintain power even amid deprivation. Just look at Cuba and Zimbabwe, not to mention North Korea and Stalin's Soviet Union.

Mr. Putin's appeals to the unique ways of Russia and Russian civilization may not be enough, however, to force the country back toward dictatorship, especially after the brilliant moral explosion of glasnost and a decade and a half of liberty. Russia's fate will be determined by how much repression he is prepared to deploy—and by the wishes of the Russian people, who now face a choice between living in a normal country or in one that is aggressively and chauvinistically exceptional.

Mr. Aron is a resident scholar and director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is "Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991."

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