Just before the invasion of Ukraine, in an interview with one of his favorite television journalists, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked: “Why do we need the world if there is no Russia in it?”
In hindsight, it’s a question the rest of the world probably should have listened to more carefully. It goes to the heart of Putin’s view of his country and what he sees as its exalted place on the planet, a view that has animated much of what he has done as Russia’s leader. That question is at the center of the ideology that the Kremlin uses to justify the “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Putin and his senior advisers have a name for it: “Russkiy mir” — or “Russian world.” It is a concept that predates Putin’s rise to power. But he has aggressively embraced it and made it his own. Among other things, it means that when Putin says “Russia,” he does not mean a state called the Russian Federation within its current boundaries. He means any place where Russians live, where the Russian language is spoken — even by a small minority, any place where the influence of Russia or Russians has been felt. By 2021, Russkiy mir was much more than a message for the Russian people. Here is how one of Putin’s leading ideologists Vladislav Surkov described it in June 2021, on the eve of the meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Putin:
“The idea of the ‘Russian world,’” said Surkov, “did not come up yesterday. I introduced it into the structure of state policy. Putin said, ‘Russia has no borders’; I think he meant it. What is the Russian world? It is everywhere where people speak and think in Russian. … Where our Putin is respected. And he is respected in many places by those who do not speak Russian and who have a rather vague idea about Russia. Where people are afraid of Russian weapons, this is also the Russian world. This is our [sphere of] influence. Where our scientists, our writers, our art are respected. This is all the Russian world.”
What is “Russkiy mir/Russian world”?
In one sense, Russkiy mir is a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners view of the non-Russian world. In another, it’s an updated version of the communist mantra, “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” — the flagship of which was the Soviet Union. The initial idea of the Bolsheviks who seized power in Russia was “global revolution.” Following the establishment of pro-Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe, life in the 20th century was marked by the confrontation between the “Soviet” and “free” worlds. Only the deaf will miss the nostalgia for those times in Surkov’s words — and Putin’s as well.
“Any country that hopes for Russia, for its protection, patronage, for the fact that it can lean against it in the event of a conflict” said Surkov. “This is the ‘Russian world’ for me.”
Russkiy mir — and the war in Ukraine
This expansionist ideology offers a clear justification for sending soldiers into Ukraine — where some Russians live, where Russian is spoken, where Russian culture is present. All the ingredients, in other words, for a Russian world.
There is of course a serious difference between the Soviet world of the 20th century and the Russian world of the 21st. The Soviet world, in addition to its anti-Americanism, was animated by a clear and precise ideology, however flawed it may have been: a strategy for building a new society, formulated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and improved by Vladimir Lenin. Putin’s Russian world cannot boast of anything like this.
And this is where the trouble begins — for the ideology of Russkiy mir and its execution. Despite titanic efforts and billions thrown into propaganda, and state media’s endless recitations of the concept, what, at the end of the day, is the Russian world, and what are its ramifications beyond Russia’s borders?
“Russkiy mir” has probably been the most popular phrase in Putin’s Russia for the last 15 years. If you are a foreigner and want to grab the attention of a Russian diplomat, official, politician or anyone who supports Putin and his policies, just tell them that you are interested in talking about the idea of the Russian world.
Take your pick of seminal moments in recent Russian history, and the concept of Russkiy mir was there, playing some kind of role. The 2008 war with Georgia, and the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; the defeat of the Russian opposition and the elimination — literally, in some cases — of opposition leaders associated with the West; Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012; Russia’s ban on the foreign adoption of children in 2013; the 2014 annexation of Crimea — under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking population, and now the invasion of Ukraine under similar false pretenses.
The list is long. Putin would tell you it’s simple: It’s all about protecting the Russkiy mir.
A few days after the start of the current war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it this way: “This is not about Ukraine at all. Or rather, not so much about Ukraine, but about the world legal order. … It reflects the battle over what the world order will look like.”
Put differently: Will it be a Russian world or someone else’s?
This may seem far-fetched — the idea that a vague, two-word term might have been the catalyst for so much bloodshed.
But as a Russian who watched Putin’s ideology evolve, I can tell you that it’s not far-fetched at all.
Where the idea was born
The concept of a Russian world was cultivated by Putin’s close associates in the early 2000s.
Chief among them was Surkov, known as “the grey cardinal,” the leading evangelist of Putin’s Russia and the concept of Russkiy mir.
It was Surkov who said, among other things, that the Russian world is “a world where they are afraid of Russian weapons,” and Surkov is a key architect of so much of what his boss is doing in the name of Russkiy mir.
Who is Vladislav Surkov? I first met him in 2005. For 12 years, he was deputy chief of staff in the president’s office, then deputy prime minister and, most recently, a top assistant to Putin. Surkov has been called the “eminence grise” of the Kremlin, the one who solves all issues related to the country’s domestic policy, but his thinking extends far beyond his country’s borders. Surkov has inspired and coordinated Russia’s policy toward Ukraine for years, including the creation and supervision of the self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas.
In the early 2000s, when we knew each other, Surkov positioned himself as a broad-minded conservative with liberal habits. His office was decorated with portraits of John Lennon and Che Guevara, modern rock sounded from the speakers, and in conversation he quoted Confucius and Lao Tzu.
When we met, I had just been removed from my position as a popular presenter on Russian television for having criticized Putin on a number of fronts. Surkov suggested I think about using my talents for the good of the country.
We both agreed that the world faced significant challenges, and that Russia should play a leadership role in solving global problems. I suggested the idea of creating a nationwide personal transformation movement that would help Russians learn the lessons of their history, to become a nation of free and happy people and, thus, a good example for neighbors and a worthy partner for other powers. Surkov cautioned jokingly that free and happy people do not need a government. He invited me to join a Kremlin-led project on ideology. I refused. After a few years, I realized just how different our ideas were when it came to Russian society and the global order. Russkiy mir — Russian world — was, in his view, the animating ideology for both.
The idea of a Russian world was spreading rapidly, but it was most actively raised on the shield in the winter of 2014, during the first Ukrainian uprising. After the annexation of Crimea, only a lazy Russian politician did not mention the two words in public, and on the eve of the 2018 presidential elections, it was even used to justify the extension of Putin’s powers with another six years as president.
In 2018, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, then vice speaker of the Russian parliament, put it this way:
“Today, all our people are electing the head of the Russian state, the supreme ruler of the Russian world, whose borders we have not yet designated.” Zhirinovsky was an ardent nationalist and racist politician, but he had a considerable following. “We choose not only the owner of the Russian land,” he went on that night, “but also the ruler of the entire planet, because without Russia no one can solve anything. … Time will pass, and all of them will listen to the chimes of the Moscow Kremlin in the morning. And no one will dare to start a war against Russia.”
The Russian world: an assessment
To me the principal features of the Russkiy mir, in 2022, are these:
The first is nationalism. It is positioned as a healthy and necessary phenomenon.
The second is imperial ambitions.
The third is an alternative to the existing world order, the opposition of the “spiritual Russian world to the unspiritual West.”
The fourth — and this is extremely important — is the cult of personality. The common slogan “No Putin — no Russia” is the unquestioned authority of, and unquestioning obedience to, the national leader.
The fifth largely dictates today’s military agenda: the principle that “the great cause is more important than personal goals.”
Sixth — without which Putin would not have remained in power for a single day — life according to “ponyatia” (special unspoken rules) and not according to laws.
Next — a bet on military force and the export of fear. Fear and the trembling of strangers are an indispensable condition for the existence of the Russian world.
The next point involves the natural genetic features of the nation and the notion of a Russian exclusivity. This also includes spirituality as a driving force, the idea of a “chosen nation,” a spiritual vector for the world, of morality and purity.
Here was Putin at a press conference in 2014: “It seems to me that a Russian person, or to put it more broadly — a person of the Russian world, he first of all thinks that there is some kind of higher moral destiny of the person himself, some higher moral principle. … We are less pragmatic, less prudent than representatives of other peoples. But on the other hand, we have a broader soul, maybe this reflects the greatness of our country, its boundless dimensions. We are more generous in spirit.”
It’s been a long time since I was with Surkov. I no longer live in Russia or in “Russkiy mir.” I choose to live in a more diverse international order. But a lot of my close friends from childhood still choose to live in Putin’s world, which suggests that this war — and the ideology that animates it — will not end soon.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.