Russian Narrative: Constitutional Amendments, Civilizationism and Multipolarity

Russian Narrative: Constitutional Amendments, Civilizationism and Multipolarity

. 10 min read

In late October 2023, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University hosted its 75th Anniversary Celebration. Central to the deliberations of the regional experts who gathered for the occasion was the evolving rhetoric surrounding Russia’s war in Ukraine. Serkhii Plokhii, the Mykhailo S. Hrushevs’kyi Professor of Ukrainian History and Director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, contended that Russia has structured its claims to Ukraine around a “pan-Russian narrative” that has its foundations in Russia’s imperial legacy. An examination of the evolution of post-Soviet Russian national rhetoric, with a focus on recent amendments to the Russian Constitution, can help to contextualize Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Putin’s Promise

When the USSR dissolved in 1991, some feared that Russia would follow a similar trajectory. Russia is home to a plethora of ethnic groups, which were incorporated into the Russian empire and remained part of Russia as Soviet subjects. In Soviet times and at present, the Russian Federation was and is constituted by both ethnicity-based (republics, autonomous oblasts, autonomous okrugs) and territorial (oblasts and krais) federal subjects, as well as three federal cities. The Soviet Union was similarly home to many different ethnic groups organized into union republics.

Given these structural similarities, it was not clear why Russia’s federal subjects should continue to be part of a united Russian Federation while the union republics went their separate ways. Russia sought a new model of national unity in reinvigorated federalism, which the country attempted to enshrine first in a 1992 Federation Treaty and then in its new Constitution, ratified in 1993. Neither the Federation Treaty nor the Constitution succeeded in establishing a viable legal framework for the peaceful coexistence of Russia’s federal subjects. The proliferation of bilateral treaties between the central government and the federal subjects after the ratification of the Constitution led to the weakening of central authority, culminating in the failure of the central government to fend off the threat of secession during the First Chechen War.

Putin’s rise to power has been propelled by his successful campaign to fill the vacuum of central authority left in the aftermath of the ratification of the 1993 Constitution, beginning with the victory of the central government in the Second Chechen War under his leadership in 1999. Addressing the nation in his Millennium Manifesto on New Year’s Eve that year, Putin made clear that rebuilding a strong state would be one of the priorities of his administration. Unlike Yeltsin, Putin did not attempt to solve the federal question by creating a new constitution. He instead proposed to resolve the contradictions between local laws and the federal Constitution so as to foster national unity on the basis of the rule of law.

The 2020 Constitutional Amendments

In the two decades following his first experiment with centralization, Putin has moved away from framing his reforms in the context of a struggle to uphold the 1993 Constitution in its original form as announced in the Millennium Manifesto. This change of strategy can be seen in the 2020 constitutional reforms.

At the Davis Center Anniversary Celebration, George F. Baker III Professor of Russian Studies Terry Martin explained “the incoherence of Russian patriotic discourse” with reference to the existence of four different viable boundaries of Russianness: (1) russkiy, or ethnic Russianness; (2) rossiiskiy, or legal belonging to the Russian Federation; (3) Soviet identity, which took over rossiiskiy from 1917 to 1991; and (4) a “Triune” Russian or All-Russian identity, a concept which Putin revived in his 2021 article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” according to which the Russian nation consists of Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians. Some of the more rhetorical amendments to the Russian Constitution can be read as an attempt to reconcile these four visions of Russianness.

The opening sentence of the Constitution invokes the “multinational people” of the Russian Federation. This formulation constitutes the 1993 Constitution’s solution to the question of what defines rossiiskiy. An early November 1990 draft of the Russian Constitution had proposed a definition of rossiiskiy as belonging to “historically united peoples,” a concept problematic because of the fusion it implied between the constituencies of the Russian Federation and the historic domains of the Russian Empire. This concept ultimately made its way into the Preamble of the 1993 Constitution. The 2020 amendments reasserted the historical argument in the form of a new provision, Article 67.1 § 2. This article stipulates that “[t]he Russian Federation, united by the millennium history, preserving the memory of the ancestors who conveyed to us ideals and belief in God [...] recognises the unanimity of the State that was established historically.” The explicit reference to God contradicts the Article 13 § 2 provision that “[n]o ideology shall be proclaimed as State ideology or as obligatory.” The new religious reference is justified by its association with tradition insofar as religious ideals are passed on by “ancestors.” Secularization is one of the concepts that the Russian Constitution borrows from the Western legal tradition. The mention of God in the amended Constitution, along with the emphasis on Russian tradition and history more broadly, can hence be read as a reflection of Russia’s shift away from the West.

The opening sentence of the Constitution is echoed in the document’s revised provisions on language. Article 68 § 1 of the 1993 Constitution established that “[t]he State language of the Russian Federation in all of its territory shall be the Russian language.” Amendments in 2020 left this part of the provision intact but proceeded to define Russian as the “language of the state-constituting nation [included in] the multinational union of equal nations of the Russian Federation.” This provision implicitly elevates ethnic Russians above the other constituents of the Russian Federation, as members of the “state-constituting nation.” An amendment to Article 69 qualifies this apparent asymmetry through a provision affirming that “[t]he state protects the cultural identity of all peoples and ethnic communities of the Russian Federation and guarantees the preservation of ethnocultural and linguistic diversity.”

Taken together, these amendments suggest a rhetoric of rossiiskiy predicated simultaneously on the superiority of russkiy and the acknowledgment of ethnic diversity. The commitment of the federal state to defending diversity can be read as an attempt to undermine the assumption, prevalent since the 1990s constitutional debate, that there is a tradeoff between centralization and the interests of the ethnic republics. The Russian federal government as portrayed in the amended Constitution is, though more assertive than its 1993 predecessor in its emphasis on the primacy of russkiy, also more committed to preserving the diversity of its constituents.

Russian Civilizationism

The tendencies evinced by an examination of the 2020 constitutional amendments can be understood in light of the theory of a “Clash of Civilizations” developed by Samuel Huntington in an eponymous article published a few months before the 1993 Russian Constitution was ratified. With the decline of ideology as a unifying force following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Huntington predicted that governments would increasingly attempt to mobilize support by appealing to common religion and “civilization identity.”

The concept of civilizationism is reflected in Russian state rhetoric. At the level of domestic policy, it has manifested itself in the creation of a compulsory university subject, “Foundations of Russian Statehood,” which has been on the national curriculum since September 2023. Among the five units featured in the official curriculum are “[t]he Russian civilization-state” and “[t]he Russian worldview and the values of Russian civilization.” The course is structured around the civilizational model of history, and it teaches that the West “is in decline, while Russia (as a distinct civilization) has not yet reached its full flourishing but ‘marches towards the peak’ of its development.” The civilization model rules out the existence of common human values, a view that lends credence to Russia’s condemnation of the West’s universalizing rhetoric. According to this argument, the decline of the West is corroborated by the “failure of multicultural projects in Western countries, followed by a loss of ‘cultural continuity.’”

This understanding of the West is in tune with the rhetoric promulgated by state-owned media outlets such as RIA Novosti, which in October 2023 featured an article explaining that US officials “are doing everything in their power to ensure that hatred of Jews around the world simply explodes.” The article adds that “racial, religious, ethnic and other social conflicts, including those involving violence, are an integral part of the American system.” Russia’s multinationalism, revalorized in the 2020 constitutional amendments and showcased in the “Foundations of Russian Statehood” curriculum, compares favorably with this portrayal of the predicament faced by the United States.

While the “Foundations of Russian Statehood” course and state-owned media promote civilizational rhetoric domestically, other measures inject civilizationism into international discourse. The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, approved by presidential decree on March 31, 2023, uses variants of the word “civilization” eleven times. Article 4 presents Russia as “a unique [state]-civilization and a vast Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power that brings together the Russian people and other peoples belonging to the cultural and civilizational community of the Russian world.”

The “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) referenced in the decree is a central tenet of Russia’s civilizational rhetoric. The Russkiy mir became a recurrent theme in Putin’s lexicon starting in the mid-2000s, when it was evoked to legitimize Russia’s interventions in neighboring countries with significant Russian diasporas—notably Georgia in 2008, in the context of the passportization of Georgian citizens, and Ukraine in 2014, where the Russian intervention was justified by the need to protect Russian speakers from “linguistic discrimination.” The concept of Russkiy mir was institutionalized in the form of an eponymous organization founded by presidential decree in 2007 as a joint project of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Education and Science with the goal of promoting Russian language and culture abroad. Closely related to the Russkiy mir is the “geopolitical imaginary” of Novorossiya, a term used in imperial times to emphasize the common heritage between Russia and southeastern Ukraine, and which re-entered Russian discourse during the annexation of Crimea.

Putin evoked both the Russkiy mir and Novorossiya in an address to Russian citizens on June 24, 2023, in which he presented the Wagner uprising as a “betrayal” and praised the “heroes” who “fought and gave their lives for Novorossiya, for the unity of the Russian world.” On this occasion, Putin also contended that Russia “is repelling the aggression of neo-Nazis and their masters” and is “fighting [...] for the right to be and remain Russia—a state with a thousand-year history.” This version of events, in line with Huntington’s prediction thirty years ago, presents the war as an existential struggle between Russia—the Russkiy mir, given the context—and the West.

Russia’s Anti-Colonial Narrative

Angela Stent, Senior Advisor to the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and Professor Emerita of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University, noted at the Davis Center’s 75th Anniversary Celebration that Russia presents itself as an anti-colonial, anti-imperial power in a bid to garner the support of countries in the Global South that remember the role played by the USSR in bolstering their national liberation movements. Communication between the West and these countries is, in some cases, complicated by what the West perceives as these countries’ misconceptions of Russia; Stent cited the belief prevalent among some countries of the Global South that Russia is still a socialist state as an example. Stent believes that Putin’s support for Hamas is motivated by his desire to appeal to the developing world, capitalizing on resentment that many countries of the Global South harbor towards the war in Ukraine, which they see as diverting international attention from their own problems. Russia has managed to maintain this balance in its relations with China, simultaneously pursuing a rapprochement with China and presenting itself as a counterweight to Beijing’s growing presence in the Indo-Pacific area, thereby winning the support of such players as India and Indonesia.

The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation reflects Russia’s commitment to fostering a multipolar world. Article 56 of the decree asserts Russia’s commitment to deepening ties with the “friendly Islamic civilization, which has great prospects for establishing itself as an independent center of world development within a polycentric world.” Article 57 declares that “Russia stands in solidarity” with African states “in their desire for a more equitable polycentric world” and their efforts to rid themselves of the “social and economic inequality” brought about by the “sophisticated neo-colonial policies of some developed [i.e., Western] states.” The decree presents Europe as a natural partner (“Greater Eurasian Partnership in a multipolar world”) that has been diverted by its association with the United States. Article 63 notes that the trajectory of US-Russia relations will depend on the United States’ willingness to “abandon its policy of power-domination and revise its anti-Russian course.”

This view of the United States as a war-mongering state has resonated within Europe as well. Demonstrators in Germany have contended that “[o]rdinary Germans are paying because America wants to interfere in Russia,” calling for “NATO warmongers to stop creating a conflict between Germany and Russia.” Protests in Berlin this January featured posters bearing messages such as “World peace with Russia and China or World War with US/NATO” and “the USSR freed us and all of Europe from Nazi Terror—our thanks??!” These views echo Putin’s calls to “denazify” Ukraine. Although such sentiments do not reflect official government policy, their existence indicates that the rhetoric described in this article has gained footing within the Western world.

Moving Forward

The dominant Russian narrative presents Russia’s war in Ukraine as an attempt to materialize the Russian civilization-state. At the same time, Russia’s official foreign policy stance favors the restoration of local sovereignty in pursuit of a polycentric world that stands in opposition to the US-dominated international arena. Much of the Global South has, as Angela Stent noted, refused to recognize Russia’s actions as imperialistic. As Terry Martin put it during the Davis Center’s 75th Anniversary Celebration—with reference to the 19th-century unification movements in Germany and Italy—“our view now is nation-building projects, but at that time there were plenty of Bavarians and plenty of Sicilians who viewed them as imperial projects; and in the 19th century it was an open question whether the big Russian nation project would be viewed by Ukrainian speakers as an imperial or a nation-building project.” It is the reception of the project, Martin stated, that decides whether it is imperial or nation-building. Martin argues that 2014 and especially 2022 have been decisive in making the imperial reception hegemonic in Ukraine. Yet, the view of Russia as an anti-imperial, anti-colonial power charged with liberating the world from US hegemony persists in some circles. The key may lie in a redefinition of Russian nationalism away from what Martin has qualified as a “resentful, self-pitying, xenophobic, Russophobia-obsessed inflection” and its attendant emphasis on the militarily-promoted revival of the Russkiy Mir. How exactly this narrative transition is to be achieved remains an open, urgent question.