The fascination with the West is at the core of Russian identity, says Russian cultural scientist Dina Khapaeva. This is not meant positively: “Without the rejection of the West, the Russian identity does not exist.”

Khapaeva deals with Putin’s politics of remembrance, the aim of which is “the restoration of an empire, the militarization of public opinion and the propagation of state terror as a great national tradition”. “Because Putin and his cronies have no project for the future, they can only look back and imitate the past,” she says.

The cultural scientist refers to a Russian novel from 2006 that fits “perfectly into Putin’s politics of remembrance.” Set in the future, the book describes how Russia subdues Europe. In it, the building of the Russian empire begins with a war against Ukraine. In this novel, Russia is ruled and terrorized by a military police force. From Khapaeva’s point of view, today’s Russia is on the way to such a system: “What we are seeing today is a demand for state terror,” she says in an interview with “Unfortunately, a significant part of the population believes that state terrorism, when it happens, is for the good of Russia.” A few years ago you wrote in a book about the “Histories of Nations” that the leitmotif of Russian history was “a constant fascination with the West, coupled with the urge to surpass it in order to evade its influence “. That sounds like a love-hate relationship.

Dina Khapaeva: The idea of ​​the West is central to Russian identity. Without the rejection of the West, Russian identity does not exist. This makes them very different from other European cultures. The fascination with the West is at the core of Russian identity. It’s not just a love-hate relationship: Russia cannot imagine itself without comparing itself to the West and without rejecting the West. It’s a very peculiar culture in that respect.

How can Russia and the West ever have a peaceful relationship on an equal footing?

After the war in Ukraine, I don’t think this is possible. In my opinion, this war is the result of a policy of remembrance that Putin has been pursuing very consistently for at least twenty years. The war is also the result of an unwillingness to take responsibility for Stalinist crimes. It may well be that Russia will be defeated militarily in this war. If it then ceased to exist as a country, it could help eradicate its imperial ambitions.

Russia should stop being a country?

I think it is quite possible that because of this war the Russian Federation will cease to exist and split into several independent states. In the Russian Federation there are many national entities that could become independent nation-states.

But you don’t mean that the West should attack and dissolve Russia?

No of course not. I hope that this regime collapses after the defeat in Ukraine. I also hope that the West will provide much more determined military support to Ukraine. After the war, the West must not be fooled again by the Kremlin’s rhetoric that Russia needs “recognition,” is “offended,” and must “get off its knees.” In 2007, when my family and I were still living in Russia, our dear friend Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht came to visit us…

… the German-American intellectual and university lecturer.

He visited us in St. Petersburg. We were very concerned about the direction the country was taking, and he told us that Time magazine had just named Putin its “Man of the Year.” The appointment of Putin as “Man of the Year” was completely inappropriate: the regime’s attacks on human rights organizations and on democratic freedoms were already in full swing. When I now read that Western politicians are making the pilgrimage to Moscow to meet with Putin, or that Macron spends hours on the phone with Putin, I find that shameful. When Western politicians communicate with this war criminal on an equal footing, they undermine democracy in their own countries. A mafia state should be treated as mafia crooks should be.

On May 9, in his speech in Moscow, Putin said that Russia is “a country with a different character.” “We will never give up love for the motherland, belief in traditional values, customs of our ancestors and respect for all peoples and cultures.” what does he mean with that?

The answer to this question has two aspects. First, I don’t think Putin’s thought process is complicated enough that we should bother to analyze it. I think what he says is mostly what his KGB think tank is producing for him. One must not forget: Putin is neither a Napoleon nor an Alexander the Great. This is just an ordinary KGB crook who, by accident or luck, has risen to the top of this vast nation. I’m not denying his ability to seize and hold power, but we shouldn’t assume he has complex ideas. When he came to power with his gang, they weren’t concerned with ideology. They wanted to rob the country.

At one point they believed that the Orthodox Church would provide them with some sort of legitimacy, but the Church was unable to do so. So the Russian extreme right started feeding Putin and the other crooks the most simplistic ideas about Russia and Russian history. And because Putin and his cronies have no project for the future, they can only look back and emulate the past: let’s be like our ancestors, let’s stick to conservative values! Her favorite historical events include Stalinism and World War II, as well as the Russian Middle Ages, particularly the period of Ivan IV “the Terrible,” 1565-1572. These are the two periods of state terror in Russia. By the extreme right in Russia, these times are seen as fundamental to the building of the Russian empire. The glorification of these two cases of reign of terror is reflected very clearly in what I call the neo-medieval politics of remembrance and the politics of re-Stalinization that Putin has pursued for the last twenty years.

Putin also said that Russia will give special support to the children of soldiers who died or were wounded in Ukraine. “The death of each of our soldiers and officers is a pain for all of us and an irreparable loss for their families and friends.” Rhetorically, that’s no different from how American politicians talk about fallen soldiers, is it?

When Putin speaks of “respect for all peoples and cultures,” he uses Western language. This is the second level that needs to be considered when understanding Putin’s remarks: Western public and politicians hear him and think he sounds similar to them. But they shouldn’t listen to his words, but look to his actions : The terrible war in Ukraine has been going on for more than three months now – is that what he means by “respect for all people”? The Ukrainian civilian population is terrorized, cities are devastated, the Russian army uses mobile crematoria for its own soldiers. Bodies of Russian soldiers are left behind. Young men, little older than boys, are sent into a senseless war, sometimes without dog tags. When they die, they cannot even be identified, so their mothers will never know their fate. That’s a level of cynicism I can’t imagine in American and European politicians. By the way, many soldiers who die in Ukraine are too young to have children. So it’s no big deal when Putin says he will support their children.

What about Russia’s “different character”?

This goes back to Putin’s usual statements about Russia’s uniqueness. To me that sounds like the beginnings of fascism in Germany and Italy. The idea that Russia is different, that it is unique: This is important for Putin and his ideologues, it helps them exempt Russia from international norms and claim that Russia has its own version of democracy and the West cannot judge if Human rights or democratic freedoms are violated in Russia. The Kremlin claims the right to do as it pleases because Russia is a unique place.

You recently published an article in the magazine “The Atlantic” in which you presented a utopian novel from 2006 as a model for Putin’s imperialist foreign policy: “The Third Empire” by Mikhail Yuryev. In this novel, a Russian ruler named “Vladimir II.” the cornerstone for an empire that also includes Europe. This expansion begins with a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Is there any evidence that Putin knows this book?

In 2014, the Russian daily Vedomosti called the novel “the Kremlin’s favorite book” and wrote that it was rumored that many members of the presidential administration, including Putin, had read the book.

Who was this Mikhail Yuryev?

Yuriev was one of the ideologues of the Russian far right who fed Putin with their neo-fascist ideas. Before he died in 2019, Yuryev belonged to what is called – in quotation marks – the “political elite”. Throughout his career he tried to influence Putin. In 2004 he published a pamphlet entitled “Fortress Russia. A Concept for the President” – a year after oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested and jailed on false charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. Khodorkovsky had sought to support opposition to Putin, and his imprisonment was part of preparations for Putin’s re-election to his second term as president. This is when many Russian nationalists, including Yuryev, began offering their ideological concepts to Putin.

Yuriev was one of the anonymous authors of the “Project Russia” book series, which promoted the ideology of the neo-Eurasian movement. The same ideology is in his book The Third Empire: Russia should return to the Middle Ages, Russia should be a patriarchal society led by a holy tsar, Russia should conquer the rest of the world, the West is Russia’s arch-enemy and must be destroyed . “Project Russia” was sent to all high places in the Russian government in 2005. A few years later it was published as a book by one of the largest Russian publishing houses.

That sounds pretty influential.

To give you an idea of ​​how much Yuriev belonged to the inner circle of power, in 1996 he became Deputy Duma Chairman. In the same year, Putin started his career in Moscow, in the Yeltsin government. Yuriev was a member of the executive board of the Eurasian Party, founded by “Putin’s Rasputin” Alexander Dugin, a notorious fascist. He did business with Putin’s closest confidants: together with Alexander Voloshin, who was a member of Putin’s government from 1999 to 2003, and Roman Abramovich, one of Putin’s oligarchs, Yuriev was an investor in the US company Ethane Company. Yuriev’s close friend and protégé, Mikhail Leontyev, a notorious propagandist whose talk show Odnako airs prime time on Channel One, was appointed vice president of the company by Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin. Sechin has been close to Putin since his St. Petersburg days and is probably one of the most influential people around him.

The cover of Yuryev’s book shows a world divided into five states. Is this division of the world the end of the novel?

The novel begins with Russia conquering the world and subjugating America and Europe. But that is not the main theme of the book. Two thirds of them deal with the new social order in Russia. It describes the rule of the oprichniks, a military police force formed by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. The book propagates a neo-medieval social program: Russia is a theocratic empire and a corporate society in which everyone lives according to their inherited social class. The oprichniks rule the country with unbridled terror, which Juriev describes in gory detail. They have all political power. The other two estates – the orthodox clergy and the third estate, which includes the rest of the population – have no political rights whatsoever.

Is “The Third Empire” part of the politics of remembrance you mentioned?

The book fits perfectly into Putin’s policy of remembrance, the Kremlin’s correction of Russians’ historical memory, which has been carried out over the past twenty years. The whole point of Putin’s politics of memory is to make Russians believe that medieval Russia was a great society, a wonderful alternative to democracy, much better than democracy. The goal of this politics of remembrance is the restoration of an empire, the militarization of public opinion and the propagation of state terror as a great national tradition.

What role does Stalin play in this ideology and for the Russian public?

There are two important trends in Russian memory policy that complement each other. One is the return to the Middle Ages, supported by films, TV series and monuments. The second trend is re-Stalinization: an open commitment to Stalinism, particularly militarism. The militarization of the public through the cult of victory in World War II is an important aspect of re-Stalinization. According to the official Kremlin reading, Stalinist terror made Russia stronger and helped achieve a Russian Soviet empire. So the terror was good.

Doesn’t the average Russian know that Stalin is responsible for the deaths of millions of people?

Yet. There are many opinion polls – including one I conducted with Nikolay Koposov – which show that Russians are well informed about the extent of the repression.

And still you like him? You’d think that would matter.

One would expect that, but it doesn’t. This society has never concerned itself with questions of historical responsibility. What we are witnessing today is a demand for state terror, constructed in the post-Soviet era through the politics of memory. Unfortunately, a significant part of the population believes that state terrorism, when it happens, is for the good of Russia.

There are two ways to translate the title of Yuryev’s book into German, either “The Third Imperium” or “The Third Reich”. Would that be a translation that does the book an injustice?

Oh no, that’s a great translation. “The Third Reich” evokes a very fitting historical connotation, especially because Yuriev – like many other Russian far-right ideologues – openly says that Nazi Germany offers great models for Russian politics. It is all the more ridiculous that Putin and his propaganda machine refer to Ukrainians as “Nazis” – a people who chose democracy over Putin’s totalitarianism.

That’s not a particularly encouraging conclusion to this interview.

The times we live in and the war in Ukraine are not encouraging. Unfortunately, no matter how far you stray from Russia, no matter how much you have written against Putinism, when you were born into this culture like me, there is this terrible sense of responsibility for the war in Ukraine, for the crimes of Putinism, that we couldn’t prevent.

Hubertus Volmer spoke to Dina Khapaeva