Imagine the unimaginable: Suppose an American supreme court chief justice asserts in an interview that “slavery in the United States, despite its extremes, was a principal bond that maintained the deep unity of the nation.” Now replace “slavery in the United States” with “serfdom in Russia,” and you have the exact quote from an article by the chairman of Russia’s Constitutional Court, Valery D. Zorkin, published on Sept. 30.
In legal terms, serfdom, an institution that bound peasants to the land, is considered to be a less-cruel form of bondage than slavery. In practice, however, Russian serfs were routinely bought and sold and regularly physically abused. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 paved the way for the Great Reforms aimed at modernizing the Russian empire and setting free 23 million people, or more than a third of Russia’s population.
Mr. Zorkin wrote his comments while discussing a newly proposed law that would make failure to register with the local police authorities at a place of one’s residence a criminal offense. He further suggested that Russia during the 1990s under the leadership of President Boris N. Yeltsin was similar to the period of the Great Reforms in the 1860s. Then as now the reforms produced political chaos and social disorder, requiring counterreforms and repression to restore stability.
But if Mr. Zorkin sounds like an unreconstructed 19th-century Russian landlord, he is not alone. On April 17, President Vladimir V. Putin, in his televised question-and-answer session with the public, emphasized the inner strength of the Russians, particularly their readiness for self-sacrifice, which he said distinguished his country from the West. He hastened to add that these qualities would soon come in handy. Mr. Putin further suggested that country’s great strength was its peoples’ “unique and very powerful genetic code,” and that Russians possessed greater souls and superior moral values than self-indulgent Westerners. His glorification of the Russian soul and spiritual values repeated a popular theme among Russian nationalists throughout the 19th century.
Enter Mr. Putin’s inner circle. Dmitri O. Rogozin, a deputy prime minister in charge of the military industry, is known for his hawkishness and his numerous pronouncements of Russia’s readiness to use nuclear weapons. In September, he reiterated his statement that, if attacked, Russia would respond with nuclear arms. In Mr. Rogozin’s words, they represent a perfect “weapon of retribution” intended to stop Western aggression against Russia. There have been several reports that Russian officials informally threatened their Ukrainian counterparts with nuclear weapons.
Russia also has its own, nonfictional, Dr. Strangelove. Dmitry Kiselev, the head of the news network Russia Today, is widely considered to reflect Kremlin views. In one of his programs early in the Ukrainian crisis, he told his audience that Russia was “the only country in the world capable of turning the United States into radioactive dust.” He illustrated his case with charts showing the trajectories of Russian missiles, adding that even if the United States was able to intercept these, the missiles from nuclear submarines would do the job.
If this sounds alarming, consider the boundless anti-Americanism of Mr. Putin’s close adviser, Sergei Glazyev. Just last month, Mr. Glazyev recapped a favorite theme: The United States has started a series of regional wars in preparation for World War III. Why? Because America is in decline and needs war in order to prevail in its competition with China, weaken the European Union and undermine Russia. Only then will it be able to control Eurasia.
The troubles in Ukraine, Mr. Glazyev argued, were a part of Washington’s strategy. In the past, Mr. Glazyev frequently called for bombing and a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which he invariably referred to as the American-installed “fascist, Nazi junta.”
These and other pronouncements by the Russian president and his close advisers are increasingly stated in vague and mystical language, with references to the “Russian world.” The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, explained during his regular TV program on Sept. 8 that the “Russian world” is a distinct civilization and that its unique spiritual and cultural values must be preserved. According to the patriarch, it includes Ukraine, Belarus and any non-Slavic peoples who share these values. He derided the concept of a melting pot, suggesting that it was a perfect example of the failure of contemporary Western civilization.
Such pronouncements may appear bizarre. Yet they cannot simply be dismissed as the ideas of the political fringe because they belong to the Kremlin’s inner circle. In a desperate attempt to preserve their power, Russia’s ruling class has concocted an ideological brew that borrows from every corner of the repressive and outdated world of Slavic nationalism, isolationism and anti-Westernism.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was right when several months ago she described Mr. Putin as inhabiting his own mental universe. Worse, the worldview of Mr. Putin’s Russia leaves little room for compromise.
Michael Khodarkovsky, who grew up in the Soviet Union and is a professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago, is at work on a history of the Russian empire.
“…Russia’s ruling class has concocted an ideological brew that borrows from every corner of the repressive and outdated world of Slavic nationalism, isolationism and anti-Westernism.” Yes, thank you. So let’s keep pushing them into that corner, right? This is what I argued against in “The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia.”