Why Do Russian Politics Tend Toward Notions of the End Of The World?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 31

(Source: Boston Globe)

In January 2023, Emory University professor Mikhail Epstein published his new book, Russian Anti-World: Politics on the Verge of Apocalypse (Lulu.com, January 26). This is perhaps the most profound philosophical study of the political, cultural and psychological transformations that have taken place in Russia in the year since the start of Moscow’s full-scale war against Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

According to Epstein, the fighting in Ukraine is not merely a war, but the deepest of civilizational splits, during which the official Kremlin slogan of the “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) takes on the features of an “anti-world” aimed against all surrounding humanity. The author draws such a radical conclusion based on careful analysis of statements and sentiments coming from Russian politicians and propagandists in recent years, the intensity of which has also steadily increased, including direct threats to the “satanic West” with nuclear weapons (BBC Russian Service, November 4, 2022).

Even during the Soviet era, the Kremlin’s leaders did not turn to such radical rhetoric. At the time, they were busy implementing the doctrine of communism, albeit false, but still focused on a specific future. Today, the Kremlin’s policy is mostly inspired by the mythologized past, its ideal is a “great empire” that combines the features of the former empires—Tsarist and Soviet—and therefore is fundamentally incompatible with the modern world. Epstein argues: “If we take a closer look at the features of the ‘Russian world,’ as it is seen by its ideologists and implemented in the course of the ‘special military operation,’ then it all consists of ‘anti,’ of antitheses to the world as such, including the peaceful state of being.”

The entire doctrine of the “Russian world” is built on a purely negative identity. Throughout the Putin era, it has become clear that Russia is not in a position to propose its own civilizational project and thus can only define itself as a “negation of the West.” As the author points out: “[The] Kremlin no longer needs any ideology, neither Orthodox messianic nor communist. What remains is naked hatred and expansion in itself.” The most obvious example of this was Moscow’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories; but one can also recall earlier examples, including the invasion of Georgia and military expeditions in Syria and Africa, among others.

Such a policy is no longer amenable to rational analysis, and therefore, the author uses other tools to interpret it, which may seem unusual. On this, Epstein introduces some interesting, albeit frightening, neologisms. For example, necrocracy is a cult of “fallen heroes,” ranging from processions with portraits of victims in World War II to mass dressing of young children in military uniforms (Region.expert, February 3). Or he mentions ontocide, a tactic of total annihilation, a “scorched earth” tactic that the Russian army is demonstrating in Ukraine. Epstein emphasizes: “Sometimes such tactics are carried out by the retreating army to prevent the aggressor from using the captured resources. But even such tactics are prohibited by international norms of warfare. And in the current war, the scorched-earth tactics are used by the attacking army, which devastates the territory as such, turns entire cities into ruins, destroys civilian infrastructure, takes away heat, light, water from the civilian population, destroys the foundations of existence”—or simply, destruction for the sake of destruction.

Schizofascism is another demonstrative neologism that the author uses to explain Russian politics. Using openly fascist methods of violence, the Kremlin justifies such acts precisely by arguing Russia is “fighting Ukrainian fascism.” Moreover, in propaganda, the war itself is portrayed as a direct continuation of the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II) (Rtvi.com, December 29, 2022; see EDM, February 2).

The Russian Orthodox Church fully justifies and supports this militant policy, since the institution is just as much an instrument of the state as the Russian army. Moreover, church leaders are actively spreading the apocalyptic notion that, if this war is lost, it will mark the “end of the world,” which is quite consistent with the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail (see EDM, November 21, 2022; Region.expert, February 7).

In Russian media today, this fundamental and sharply critical book practically went unnoticed. As Epstein’s analysis is too radically at odds with the official Kremlin worldview, it is possible that this book will be declared “extremist” in Russia and subsequently banned. However, it is already being actively read in the countries that neighbor Russia, highlighting their concerns about the future intentions of the “Russian Anti-World” (Rus.Postimees.ee, February, 2).

And yet, Epstein’s book can hardly be characterized as completely pessimistic. The author traces some contours of a way out of this imperial-apocalyptic obsession in possible spatial changes. In truth, a distant historical analogy can be drawn with 1492, when many Europeans expected the apocalypse, but it was “canceled” due to the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, which significantly changed the consciousness of that era.

Russia, according to Epstein, is under the rule of a “territorial curse.” It is striving for constant expansion, but the self-interested “gathering of lands around Moscow” over the centuries has not led these regions to develop fully and enjoy prosperity. As such, it is no coincidence that this empire collapsed twice in the 20th century alone: in 1917 and 1991. Russia still remains the largest territorial country in the world, but its war against Ukraine has reawakened many regionalist movements (see EDM, August 10, 2022). Therefore, quite possibly, we are on the eve of a new collapse.

At the same time, the historical specificity of the Russian Empire—unlike others, such as the British or Spanish empires—lies in the fact that Russian lands proper were also eventually colonized within it. Here, Epstein’s conclusions echo the ideas of another philosopher, Alexander Etkind, who authored the book Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (Etkind, Internal Colonization, 2011). Despite the official doctrine of the “Russian world,” the Kremlin’s actual policy is also directed against the Russians themselves, who in their own regions cannot freely choose their leaders. Additionally, Moscow takes all their resources and taxes, and over the past year, they have been turned into cannon fodder for the imperial war against Ukraine (see EDM, April 20, 2022).

Within the book, Epstein included his long-standing interview with analytical portal Region.expert regarding the prospects for Russian regionalization (Region.expert, March 27, 2018). Along these lines, it seems only the modern development of independent post-Russian regions will make it possible to move away from the “edge of the apocalypse” narrative, to which the Kremlin imperial power has ascribed the entire world.