The release of a “patriotic stop-list” of undesirable foreign organizations is just the latest manifestation of the short-term ideological thinking that is currently ascendant in the Kremlin.

A World War II veteran lays flowers at the tomb of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin at the Kremlin wall. Photo: AP

This week the Russian authorities announced an initiative that could produce a chilling effect on foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia: the so-called “patriotic stop-list” of undesirable organizations that was proposed by the head of Russia’s Federation Council, Konstantin Kosachev.

The list will include primarily Western organizations from the U.S. and Europe, including Freedom House, Open Society (the Soros Foundation), National Endowment for Democracy and even the MacArthur Foundation, a prominent U.S. nonprofit organization supporting young researchers and activists.

At the same time, Russian media reported about the decision of the Dynasty Foundation, the well-known NGO that supported science and research projects in Russia, to cancel its activity in Russia amidst controversial accusations of being a foreign agent. It was exactly these accusations that might have forced Dmitry Zimin, the head of the foundation, to leave the country.

All of these news items highlight the importance of a recent discussion at Carnegie Moscow Center on the future of the Kremlin’s post-Crimean ideology. Coincidentally, the discussion took place when the list of the undesirables was confirmed and sent to the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office to inspect them to see if they are conducting the type of activity that the authors of the stop-list describe as undermining the country’s political stability.

The dangerous undercurrents in the Kremlin’s current ideology

A mix of isolationism, nationalism and imperialism is a commonplace mentality now in Russia and— amidst post-Crimean political overtures—this mentality creates a fertile soil for imposing a dangerous political ideology, according to Andrei Kolesnikov, the head of Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.      

Nevertheless, the expert admits that ideology is sometimes necessary as a tool of bringing people together around a common idea and image, for the sake of a strategic understanding of the future. But this can be applied only to politically healthy and robust societies. That’s why, for Russian society and the government that cannot propose a cohesive and clear strategy for future development, ideology is very dangerous, according to Kolesnikov.

“Ideology is like cholesterol,” he summed up. “There is bad cholesterol, and there is a good one.”

Kolesnikov argues that even though the official ideology can be “a tool of governing the country and manipulating the consciousness of huge swathes of the population,” it doesn’t resolve the key challenge for Russia’s current political regime: the lack of a clear understanding of the future and the absence of long-term strategy. He sees the regime as “very situational.”

“It [the regime] allows governing and tactically winning today, but it prevents the society from further development,” he said. “In this regard it is worse than during the Soviet Union, because the Soviet authorities, at least, had an image of the future: Communism was their goal.”

This situation creates a trap for the Kremlin, the very trap that is likely to emerge after 2018.

Yet, experts also agreed that there was demand in Russian society for a conservative political agenda. Putin felt this demand and used it to manipulate society.

Today the symbol of this ideology is Crimea, abstract spirituality, but this ideology is fed with the bones of the past: the war, Stalinism, some achievements, or rather failure of the Soviet era,” said Kolesnikov, adding that the major goal of this ideology is to save the power of a certain group of people in the Kremlin and make this power even more sacred.

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Another goal of the ideology is to anaesthetize the protest movement, impose fears and force people to follow the mainstream ideas imposed by the Kremlin, instead of taking to the streets, according to Kolesnikov.   

Another participant of the discussion, a member of the Committee of Civil Initiatives, Alexander Rubtsov, argues today’s ideology in Russia is implicit and latent, rather than explicit. He sees such phenomenon as an “ideological unconsciousness,” which drives many Russians who still feel the inferiority complex after the collapse of the Soviet empire.

The recent manifestation of such latent ideology is the government’s attempt to come up with a uniform history textbook, which will interpret history in accordance with the Kremlin’s patriotic agenda, according to Rubtsov.

Ideology as an institutionalized phenomenon in Russia

Rubtsov broadens the understanding of Russia’s ideology. He sees it not only as “the system of ideas, but also as the system of institutions.”

Indeed, today the ideological clichés come from Russia’s governmental institutions such as the Ministry of Culture, State Duma or Federation Council. The notorious patriotic stop-list, the laws on undesirable organizations and "foreign agents" are the recent examples of the ideology-driven society and government. Moreover, the rhetoric and the actions of the Kremlin or its fervent supporters aggravate the problem and spur the rise of conspiracy theories in society.

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For example, President Vladimir Putin’s statement about foreign foundations and their impact on Russia’s high school students send a clear anti-Western message to Russians. According to him, Western organizations are searching or, in his words, “ferreting about in the Russian schools under the guise of a charity foundation supporting talented youth,” to “get the students on the hook” of these grants and take them away from the country.

On top of that, recently Russia’s Ministry of Culture asked the director of Russia's Foreign Literature Library to close an American Corner in Moscow, as some Russian media report. The Corner has been a very useful and valuable place for those who are interested in American culture, history and politics as well as U.S.-Russia relations. It brings together a great deal of materials, including literature, movies and newspapers. In addition, it gives an opportunity to communicate with American native speakers, including academics, writers, educators, civil activists and journalists. Although there is no official confirmation from the Ministry of Culture about the closure of the American Corner in Moscow, its future seems to be in limbo amidst the search for foreign agents and fear of espionage. 

Likewise, the controversial case of the dismissal of American entrepreneur Kendrick White from the position of the Vice-Rector of Lobachevsky Nizhny Novgorod University is indicative. It reveals how these ideology-driven institutions work. White was fired after a critical report on a state-owned news channel, a TV program of Russia’s chief propagandist Dmitry Kiselev.         

Tracking the ideological shift in Russian society

Rubtsov argues such a radical ideological shift started not after Crimea’s incorporation to Russia, but much earlier, two or three years ago. Before such a shift, the Kremlin had a totally different rhetoric, with its focus on innovation and collaboration with the West. In 2011-2012, the Russian authorities had a sort of strategy, an image of the future, with its attempts to decrease its oil dependence and diversify the economy through investing in innovation.

“But the project of modernization failed before it really started,” said Rubtsov.

In pre-Crimean Russia, the authorities talked about material, tangible things (innovation and the Russian Silicon Valley known as Skolkovo); in the post-Crimean Russia there has been a U-turn shift to the idealistic, the spiritual and the emotional.

Previously, people were “flooded with money", today after Crimea “they are flooded with emotions,” Rubtsov said pointing out to a very strong, “drastic” and dangerous psychological effect, which Crimea’s incorporation produced on Russians.        

The head of Levada polling center Lev Gudkov, who also took the floor at the Carnegie Moscow Center discussion, goes even further and argues that the search for Russian ideology—what he describes as the national idea—goes back to 1996, the period when Boris Yeltsin was re-elected. The inferiority complex of the former superpower drove people and, finally, reached its first apex in 2008, during the Russo-Georgian conflict, “the rehearsal of the Ukrainian crisis,” in Gudkov’s words.

According to him, the Kremlin increased its ideological grip in response the 2011-2013 protests and squeezed the space for discussion and expressing alternative views. The state “monopolized the right” to interpret events and speak on the behalf of the people, it started expressing collective values, Gudkov said. It used pro-European Maidan protests and the psychological trauma of many Russians—their yearning for restoring national and imperial pride—in its favor to discredit liberal and democratic values promoted by Europe.

“The [Russian] society hasn’t changed, but was driven in a very agitated condition,” he said, adding even those who initially joined the protest movement and didn’t support Putin, finally, changed their mind and jumped on the bandwagon of the patriots who supported Crimea’s incorporation.   

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Gudkov explains that such reassessment and disappointment in the protest movement reveals the deficit of true values and self-sufficiency in Russian society.

Likewise, another participant of the discussion Leonid Gozman, democratic activist and fellow of National Endowment for Democracy, believes that the success of the Kremlin’s ideology partly results from the demand in Russian society.

He argues that people had been looking for dignity. It was the sense of offended dignity which drove people to the streets to protest in 2011-2013. Ordinary Russians felt the lack of respect from the authorities and took to the streets to express their indignation.

But the Kremlin re-directed these sentiments in the opposite way and concocted an ideological myth that it was the West (not the Russian authorities) that disrespected Russians and trampled on their national pride, Gozman concluded. And those who tried to find respect, order and stability at the Bolotnaya Square in central Moscow (the place of the first protests in 2011)—they reassessed their opinions of the Kremlin and turned their back on the West. However, such support is also dangerous for the authorities.

“This support has a weakness. It doesn’t forgive defeat,” Gozman said, implying that it will be very difficult to maintain such sentiment in the long run, especially in the case of failure and the exacerbation of the Crimean standoff.