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Matthew Blackburn

Institution: The Norwegian Institute of International Affairs 

Matthew Blackburn is a Senior Researcher in NUPI's Research Group on Russia, Asia and International Trade. He is also an affiliated researcher at the Institute of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University. His research mainly focuses on the politics of contemporary autocracies in Russia and Eurasia, including both domestic politics and interstate relations. He has published on contemporary autocratic legitimation and popular responses to state discourses, as well as on the concepts of nationalism and civilizationalism in contemporary politics. 

Reflections Upon “Civilizationisms”

A significant part of my research has studied the increased salience of culture and history to the legitimation of the Putin system since 2012. As part of this broader “cultural turn”, Russia is defined as a “civilization-state” battling to preserve its “civilizational code”. Such language, now imported into the official state documents such as the 2023 Foreign Policy Concept, reflect not only Russia’s great power ambitions for regional hegemony but also the need to counter to the challenge of nationalism to the multi-ethnic Russian Federation.

As Samuel Huntington argued, civilizational identity is the broadest identity that can be used to define a political community. The emergence of civilizationalism in Russia can be understood in its function as a macro-identity based on blurry notions of culture. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, some have characterised the Russian government as increasingly “nationalist”. More detailed studies of Russian nationalist movements in fact reveal their prerogatives are often at odds with those of the Kremlin. The civilizational imaginary deployed by the Kremlin is best understood as vision of nation-building that offers a third way from the ideal types of the inclusive Western civic nation or the monoethnic nation model. Civilizationalism encourages a broad definition of the political community that de-politicises thorny debates over nation, ethnicity, empire or territory. Presenting multi-ethnic Russian Federation as a Civilization-State transcends the divisions of nationality or ethnicity with calls for unity around a common civilizational code with its own unique and ancient culture and values.

Russia’s civilizationalism must also be understood as part of a broader turn in international relations. In the context of growing multipolarity, the key function of civilizationalism is to allow certain states (particularly those who were pre-modern non-Western empires: India, China, Turkey, Iran) to couch their claims to regional hegemony and great power status in a new language. In the Russian case it is important to note a general shift toward geopolitical realism and advocacy of multipolarity occurred before the “cultural turn”. In this sense civilizationalism is a cultural coating and justification for Russia’s foreign policy shift to conflict with not only the political West but a globalised Western culture that, so it is argued, aspires to global hegemony.

Civilizationalism in Russia has emerged alongside the complementary notions of the “Russian World” and “Holy Russia” that Russian nationalists, conservatists and traditionalists have developed. Russian civilizationalism simultaneously identifies Russia’s main enemies (the political West, colour revolution, globalised cultural imports) and offers a version of the Russian nation that incorporates great power nationalism, Orthodoxy, multiculturalism and multipolarity. Previous research has suggested that, while civilizationalism is a unifying idea for certain specific actors and groups, overall it is has not dominant in Kremlin discourse. Polling data also suggests civilizational discourse is not of major relevance to most Russians. In many ways, civilizationalism is largely defined as what it is against than what it is for; namely the rejection of a globalised Western civilization in the singular that promotes universal values it claims the whole world must adopt. 

With the declaration of the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine, Russia’s relations with the West have ruptured. Against this backdrop, civilizationalism has increased in significance to Kremlin discourse. Across the world, Russian diplomats have sought to refute Western and Ukrainian discourses on Russia as terrorist state and a force of barbarism in the world. Inverting the Western discourse on Russian imperialism, Moscow appeals for sympathy to the Global South partly by using civilizational rhetoric: Russia is presented as a civilisation-state struggling for its existence against the neo-colonial greed of the imperialist West. Clearly, as we enter the third year of Russia’s war in Ukraine, civilizationalism has entrenched itself as a key means of justifying and legitimating this struggle.