The ‘new Oprichnina’ and the engineering of souls

Commentary

This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


The creation of Vladimir Putin’s new National Guard has echoes of the darker moments of Russia’s history.

Imagine a corporation whose PR department has joined forces with its security department and taken over strategic development. Not just on a temporary, crisis management, basis, but permanently, as a matter of policy. And the chief executive is totally OK with that. Or, to extrapolate Stalin’s adage it is not just writers and journalists who are deployed to be engineers of the human soul, but also – and perhaps especially – the wielders of force.

If late Putinism adheres to any ideology – and, given the president’s recent order to “clarify” nationhood, that point remains murky – it increasingly appears to be this thread of divinely inspired force permeating Russian history. The government’s security structures do not just enforce state ideology, they create and spread it.

Any government security agency needs a strong mission statement, but among modern Russian officers there has always been a palpable demand for something far more dramatic than “protect and serve.” Officers I have interviewed in the past, whether former Federal Security Service (FSB), police or even Foreign Intelligence Service, have voiced a surprisingly common frustration: the need for an ideology or divine mission. “What is our mission?” a former FSB officer asked me with some dismay in 2011. “Is it to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics?”

The content of that truth is hard to define and, much like current Russian ideology, is tautological: Russia is Russia and Russia is Putin and Putin is Russia.

That mission has increasingly been taking shape, but its contours do not seem to be emanating so much from Vladimir Putin as they do from mid-level measures and signals that appear to be directed both ‘up’, to Putin himself, and ‘down’, to his subjects. Particularly apt in the context of state security as engineers of the soul was last month’s unveiling of Russia’s first monument to Ivan the Terrible in Oryol– to exhortations of “God is with us,” no less. Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichniki, who wore black monks’ robes over their gold-embroidered finery, were, for the tsar, the sword of God’s word, however sadistic. As monks, they were not so much the enforcers of the truth as its carriers. And that truth was death.

It is easy to see how appealing all this can become. The modern Russian security officers who spoke of mission and ideals had a pretty good understanding of how the world works and, having survived the 1990s, got an inside view of how easily ideals and human souls – including their own – were corrupted on a salary of $50 per month, when stealing, as some admitted to me, became an imperative. A harshly Manichean worldview – with only one truth and one falsehood (the heretical West conspiring to undermine Russia), one winner and one loser – emerged for them as at least some sort of answer to their question.

The content of that truth is hard to define and, much like current Russian ideology, is tautological: Russia is Russia and Russia is Putin and Putin is Russia. It is for this reason that history, for the likes of culture minister Vladimir Medinsky, becomes a matter of faith and scripture.  As all alternatives and all possibilities of pluralism are stripped away, the truth becomes an ideological singularity defined by the fact that there is only One, it is Ours, and it is Good.

Russia’s current security structures have increasingly sought to act as bearers, not just enforcers, of this truth.

Last week’s appointment of former journalist and parliamentarian Alexander Khinshtein as ideological advisor to Putin’s newly created National Guard was just that kind of moment, when it emerged that his role went far beyond PR and would veer well into writing actual legislation. And, in the light of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s main investigative authority, creating a special partnership with the Union of Russian Writers earlier last month. That particularly Russian fusion of lethal force with matters of the soul is turning into a pattern. The security apparatus is not just a hydra, it is a hydra that is weaponising big, divinely inspired ideas.

Khinshtein was upfront about the wide scope of his role as advisor with both a strategic and a public role. “This will be normative work, preparing and passing laws in the interests of the agency, other normative acts,” he told Moskovsky Komsomolets in an interview.

Further on in the interview, Khinshtein hinted at matters of the soul and the great deeds of the NKVD: “A serviceman of Rosgvardia [the National Guard] is not a machine, after all, he is, first and foremost, a person. He should be a carrier of a certain set of values. Only people like that are capable of self-sacrifice.” These values could well be those of Soviet security service founder Felix Dzerzhinsky’s ideal Chekist, with his “clean hands, a cool head and a warm heart.” But, taken to an absurd extreme, as has historically happened, they can become the ravings of a certain Orthodox Archpriest Alexei Chaplin, who wrote last week that Russia’s main problem “is that we have forgotten how to be slaves. In the Christian tradition, the slave of God is the slave of the government. Only Orthodox slaves are capable of self-sacrifice…” (the Russian Orthodox Church distanced itself from these remarks and said they did not represent its official position.)

Unlike Rosgvardia’s chief Viktor Zolotov, who put Khinshtein in charge of engineering souls, Bastrykin appears to be his own ideologist.

Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin (who was recently touted to be on his way out but doesn’t seem to be going anywhere) went further into the minds and souls territory than Khinshtein when explaining the point of his agency’s union with writers. "It is becoming a more and more important and difficult task to preserve and protect the historical truth and reliably ensure the security of Russia's information. Therefore, [through our combined efforts], we will be able to make a contribution to the fight for the minds of the young generation." Apparently, Russia’s writers themselves – at least the ones who are members of the union – will be deployed in that fight.  

Unlike Rosgvardia’s chief Viktor Zolotov, who put Khinshtein in charge of engineering souls, Bastrykin appears to be his own ideologist. Last month, he dismissed his eloquent spokesman, Vladimir Markin. And in April he penned a manifesto outlining the ideological basis for repression, not so much as a matter of enforcing state goals, but as a policy in itself.

The point, it seems, is not so much about deploying a capable PR specialist to forge a security agency’s ideology as the need for that ideology to be a driver of the security agency in the first place.

The frustrations I heard expressed over the years from security officers were obliquely and carefully directed at Putin: they wanted to hear the mission statement from him.

Putin seems to have heeded their calls, but in a strange way: by allowing, or perhaps enabling, the security structures to take charge of ideology, without giving a coherent, constructive definition himself.

All of this is worrying, first and foremost because this kind of incestuous conflation of security, faith and ideology not only corrodes human rights, it is inherently incompatible with them from the start. But it should also be problematic from the Kremlin’s perspective as well: if the officers of Russia’s already unwieldly and incohesive security apparatus get to make their divinely inspired mission in house, what will keep the state from losing control of them entirely once what they preach goes to their heads?

Anna Arutunyan is a Moscow-based writer and author of The Putin Mystique.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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