August 22, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 514

Without A Clear Ideology, Russia Remains Weak And Unappealing

August 22, 2023 | By Dr. Alexey Salin*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 514

Russia considers itself the leader in the fight against "neocolonialism." This idea resonated in Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech celebrating the integration of the new territories, the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (DPR and LPR) and the Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions, into the Russian Federation last year,[1] and has recently blossomed very vividly in the 2023 Russia-Africa summit.[2] It may not be obvious, but becoming a key player in the fight against "neocolonialism" is connected to the definition of Russia as "a state-civilization," as is stressed in the 2023 Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation.[3]

(Source: Russia in Global Affairs)

Clash Of Civilizations And Decolonization

However, why has Russia suddenly found itself fighting "neocolonialism"?

Russia is trying to live on the USSR's legacy, which was ideologically opposed to Western colonialism, to strengthen its relations with the countries of the so-called Global South, in a time in which they are rebelling against cooperation with Western countries, as happened recently with the coup in Niger. Russia's stance against "neocolonialism" is also becoming the country's soft power, as this position is appealing to the intellectual milieu in Russia and abroad, especially among the youth.[4]

Yet, in Soviet times, the struggle against colonialism was based on the Marxist-Leninist ideology. The current Russian elite is not communist, and it considers communism a failed ideology. Hence, it is not the socialist "classless" state that fights colonialism, but the Russian state, which aims to be a legal and political embodiment of a civilization with its own distinctive culture and history. Russia, as a state-civilization, is not fighting colonialism based on an idea of social justice, but rather based on the idea of civilizational injustice. "Is it not equally important to maintain cultural, social, political and civilizational diversity? At the same time, the smoothing out and erasure of all and any differences is essentially what the modern West is all about. What stands behind this? First of all, it is the decaying creative potential of the West and a desire to restrain and block the free development of other civilizations," Putin stressed at the 2022 Valdai International Discussion Club meeting.[5]

Colonial Struggle Against Colonialism?

But there is a problem: How can Russia claim to be fighting colonialism if it is struggling for influence in neighboring territories? Isn't it an contradiction, after all, that Putin declared war on neocolonialism in a speech dedicated to Russia's annexation of new lands?

Theoretically, there are some ways to untangle this difficulty. For example, Russian non-imperial nationalists, like renowned Russian philosopher Konstantin Krylov, who passed away in 2020, believe that Russians were not the colonizers but the colonized, first under the Russian Empire and then under the USSR.[6] If one accepts this view, the current territorial disputes with Ukraine could be viewed as a legacy of the Soviet colonial past, which Russia is precisely fighting. The Soviet Union was a colonizer that drew territorial borders, moved people from one territory to another without thinking at all about the "natural" borders between different ethnic groups. According to this viewpoint, the Soviet nomenklatura was a colonizer, treating its own land as 19th- and 20th-century France treated the colonies in Africa. In this case, Putin's aggression against Ukraine could be viewed not as a struggle to colonize a land, but a struggle against the vestiges of colonialism, comparable to the recent coup d'état in Niger.[7]

However, this view poses plenty of problems. Even if we suppose that Russians were a colonized people in the times of the Czars and of the Soviets, it is obvious that there were other colonized peoples who lived in the same territories with Russians like Tatars, Buryats, or Chechens. If the war in Ukraine is a process of fighting against the vestiges of Soviet colonialism, why could other colonized peoples not fight them too and claim their political independence from Russia?[8]

Russian Imperial Nationalism

Another possible way to remove the contradiction would be to adopt the stance of Russian imperial nationalism and to claim that the Russian people have a specific culture or even a "spiritual power" that helps integrating different peoples into one great state-civilization. In this case, fighting for new lands may be legitimized by the need to integrate all peoples that are culturally and historically close to Russians, into one state-civilization thereby saving them from the Western colonizers.[9] At the same time, this view would not legitimize the right of peoples of the Russian Federation other than Russians to have their political independence because it is exactly the Russian people that build the statehood and grants it to its neighbors.

It may seem to be a somewhat doubtful option. Nevertheless, Russian imperial nationalism would respond to such criticism by insisting that the dominance of Russians over other peoples in the country is not of colonial type. Russian dominance is allegedly about the "harmonious co-existence" of peoples.[10] That is how Russian imperial nationalists like Egor Cholmogorov legitimize Russian political domination in the country and the very idea of the Russian Empire: "This is exactly the distinct crystalline structure of the Empire – the main imperial ethnos with its vital energy, its identity, its cultural and historical type – and a hierarchy of ethnoses shaped around it according to the complementarity principle and to how they incorporated the basic principles of its culture."[11]

The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation seems also to adopt such an imperial nationalist stance: "[Russia is] a unique country-civilization and a vast Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power that brings together the Russian people and other peoples belonging to the cultural and civilizational community of the Russian world."[12] The statement implies that all peoples of the Russian Federation (not only Russians) belong to the "Russian world" (Russkiy mir), a term used to refer to the sphere of cultural, civilizational, geopolitical and religious influence of Russian people. Nevertheless, there is a crucial element for Russian imperial nationalism that lacks in the official political agenda, namely the specific spiritual and cultural identity that would grant Russia an ability to consolidate the whole "Russian world" and "to ensure harmonious coexistence of different peoples, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups on one common territory."[13]

What Is Russian Civilization Actually?

It is worth noting that it is not clear what Russia as a state-civilization is, especially because Russia did not develop an official ideology. Hence, the so-called "cultural code"[14] that one must defend against the collective West is rather opaque.

However, Russian right-wing imperialist nationalists seem to have a clear explanation: Russia as a state is a political and legal manifestation of the Orthodox civilization.[15] This is quite consistent with the so-called "civilizational approach"[16] to history, stressed by the Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation. In this case, the values and cultural code that the Russian state-civilization offers and defends would be simply those proposed by the Russian Orthodox Church.

However, the idea of Orthodox Christianity as the civilizational basis of Russia would not mobilize people to fight against the liberal West. This has been demonstrated precisely by imperial nationalists, who sounded the alarm about the lack of interest in the Orthodox faith among young people.[17] Furthermore, an ideology based on religion would contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation that declares Russia to be a multi-national and secular state where all the peoples and religions are politically equal. These elements of the Constitution can be amended only referendum or by a Constitutional Assembly.[18] Since there is no federal law that would regulate the formation of a Constitutional Assembly and carrying out a referendum may be a dangerous option for a regime that has recently survived a mutiny, an attempt to change the Constitution again is hardly an option.


As a result of a lack of an official ideology, most of the official articles reflecting Russia as a state-civilization suffer from a lack of a meaningful definition of the special cultural code and the values for which Russia is struggling against the collective West. For the moment, Russia says only that it is fighting for the traditional family, love of the homeland, and faith.[19]

Yet, "Homeland" is a too general concept to be used to point to Russia's special cultural mission. The traditions of patriotism are not at all alien to the liberal West. Regarding faith, there is no such thing as faith in general, there are religions, and Russia cannot explain what religion exactly it struggles for, as not only Christianity, but also Islam is a part of the Russian historical heritage (the natives of the North Caucasus are almost entirely Sunni Muslims).

All that remains is Tradition, which supports a "traditional family" (with a biological man as a father, and a biological woman as a mother), and fights against the LGBTQ "ideology" of the liberal West. With the ongoing war, human deaths and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse, these ideological endeavors seem unconvincing, to say the least.

Dr. Alexey Salin, who holds a PhD in Philosophy, is a member of the Independent Institute of Philosophy Association and a researcher at MEMRI.


[1], September 30, 2022.

[2] Ahead of the second Russia-Africa Summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an article, titled "Russia And Africa: Joining Efforts For Peace, Progress And A Successful Future," in which he stated: "We are sure that a new multipolar world order, the contours of which are already seen, will be more just and democratic. And there is no doubt that Africa, along with Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, will take its worthy place in it and finally free itself from the bitter legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism, rejecting its modern practices.", July 24, 2023.

[3], March 31, 2023.

[4] Russia's Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote: "The free world will definitely win and the decolonization process that started at some moment will not be over until the last non-self-governing territory gains its independence.", August 4, 2023.

[5], October 27, 2022.


[7], March 20, 2018.

[8] Konstantin Krylov even considered it possible that some parts of Russia, like Chechnya, would separate themselves from Russia., August 12, 2023.

[9] Putin said: "There is nothing stronger than the decisiveness of millions of people who, due to their culture, religion, traditions, and language, consider themselves to be a part of Russia, whose ancestors lived in one state for centuries.", September 30, 2023.

[10] Russian imperialist Telegram-channel "Readovka Explains" posted: "It seems that differences between western colonial empires and Russia are well-known. They have the distinct separation between a metropole 'sucking life sap' and overseas territories being exploited. We have a centuries-long neighborship and harmonious development... Russians have never oppressed anyone. Russians have never exploited anyone... The Russian Empire is an empire of a healthy person.", August 12, 2023.

[11], 2023.

[12], March 31, 2023.

[13], March 31, 2023.

[14], August 21, 2023.

[15], 2023.

[16] Danilevskii N. I. Russia and Europe: The Slavic World's Political and Cultural Relations with the Germanic-Roman West. Slavica Pub, 2013.

[17], 2023.

[18] See the Constitution of the Russian Federation, Chapter 9:

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