The Putin doctrine? How the ideas of a 20th century thinker sidelined by the Soviets help shape Russia’s new foreign policy – Valdai Club


In recent years, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly referred to the ideas of Lev Gumilev – one of the fathers of modern Eurasism – in the context of the roles of civilization and cultural factors in Russian domestic politics.

In an article ostensibly on Ukraine, published last week, the Russian president expanded on Gumilev’s initial argument, describing what we might now call Putin’s civilizational doctrine in international relations.

Before analyzing the key points of this doctrine and the potential international consequences, allow me to step back and briefly trace its roots. Why Gumilev, and why now?

Lev Gumilev was the son of Russian literary icon Anna Akhmatova and Nikolay Gumilev, Tsarist officer and poet. He became a distinguished social geographer, ethnographer, and anthropologist whose work focused on the role of culture, history, geography, and spirituality in the Russian nation-building process. He was a representative of Russian uniqueness and greatness.

Such thoughts were not popular with the leaders of the multinational Soviet Union, and the authorities rejected his ideas, while banning the publication of most of his texts. However, it eventually gained the attention of the general public during the Perestroika years in the late 1980s.

Being a unique civilization does not exclude, according to Gumilev, the acceptance neither of European values ​​nor of political multipolarity. His views provide a model, as British journalist Charles Clover argued in the Financial Times, “for a synthesis of nationalism and internationalism which could form the founding idea of ​​a new Eurasia, a political unity. singular benefiting more or less from the same borders as the USSR. “Gumilev’s Russia has its own destiny but must be open to dialogue between civilizations. stets in stark contrast to certain more extreme and closed versions of neo-eurasism.

For a conservative politician like Vladimir Putin, ruling Russia during a time of global turmoil, Gumilev’s blend of cultural and spiritual prophecy of Russian greatness served as a good basis for Putin to suggest that the civilizational uniqueness of the Russia can be used in not only the national but also international agenda. Thus, Putin proposed that Russian civilization could become a frame of reference for relations with neighboring countries.

In other words, he proposed that history, culture and faith be de facto fundamental alternative links that unite Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in addition, alternately, even against the level state-to-state relations.

Basically, Putin has put forward four proposals. First, he recognized that history matters a lot in international relations, because “Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all descendants of ancient Russia, which was the largest state in Europe,” creating a unifying base very strong for their statehood and nation building. . Second, the fact that Russian civilization simultaneously embraced three nations and Soviet policies disrupted this: “[…] Soviet national policy ensured at the state level provision on three distinct Slavic peoples: Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian, instead of the great Russian nation, a Trinitarian people comprising Velikorussians, Malorians and Belarusians . Third, he argued that […] Modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era: “We know,” Putin writes, “and we well remember that it was shaped – to a large extent – on the lands of historic Russia.” Finally, he proposed that the cultural, spiritual and historical unity be disrupted by the current Ukrainian political elites.

I will leave it to historians, anthropologists and sociologists to discuss Putin’s historical claims about past relations between Russia and Ukraine, and I am sure his arguments will spark much heated debate among them.

But what is most interesting from an international relations perspective are the ideas that form the basis of Putin’s new Russian doctrine of IR, which treats civilization as a powerful frame of reference in interstate relations. In the cases of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, cultures can transcend other formal associations. “The Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians,” writes Putin, “are [all] the heirs of ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe. The suggestion here is that civilizational ties could be more stable, deeper and even more human than intergovernmental relations based on national and intermediary interests by the current political leaders of the three countries.

Putin’s article opens at least four interconnected avenues of interpretation of how Russia can behave internationally and structure its relations with the immediate neighborhood.

This may signal that Russia joins other powerful actors like China, India, Iran and other “revisionist states” in seeing world politics as entering a new era defined by the multiplicity of cultural discourses and civilizational, in which civilization becomes one of the crucial elements. elements of the new structure of international relations (in addition to states, international organizations and law, and regional / global social movements).

This may suggest that the Russian leader believes that the long period of the past three centuries in which the West has been a dominant economic, cultural and political force is not only coming to an end but is being replaced by a new paradigm. This paradigm presents the emergence of the civilizational model of international relations and regional dialogue, in which cultural / civilizational similarities and differences will perhaps influence global models of collaboration, confrontation and dependence.

It may also mean that in the world of civilizations, some small and medium-sized states (such as Belarus or Ukraine) will have to make crucial choices that may reshape the current form of power-based geopolitics to adapt. to a membership-based model. to a regionally or globally dominant civilization.

As civilizations become an essential part of world politics, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus will have to square the circle between rational and cultural / spiritual factors influencing the evolution of interstate dialogue with Ukraine and Belarus. This need arises because civilizations encompass religious, cultural, unconscious and historical considerations – as described by Putin’s article – which can become an important factor in political decision-making. Civilization is based on the faith of its participants to join a specific current of history. While the final historical destination is unclear, a built-in sense of belonging forms the basis upon which members of a civilization build their sense of purpose. So the choice to be together or apart (in the case of Ukraine and Belarus) is primarily the choice of the people rather than the political establishment of the day.

It remains to be seen whether Putin’s intention was to outline a framework for a coherent civilizational approach – a doctrine of international relations – which begins with Ukraine and Belarus and will then be applied to other countries. So far, his article has given us a lot to think about when it comes to changing the framing of Russia in its approach to the immediate neighborhood.

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