The current outburst of tensions over Ukraine is typically described as a replay of a centuries-old Russian tradition of imperial dominance of its neighbors. Yet, beneath this “Russia as usual” façade there might be a truly tectonic shift: For the first time in centuries, it appears that the Russian state does not have a modernizing project. This means nothing less than a reinvention of the Russian state.

Back in the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great insisted provocatively in her programmatic “Instruction” that “Russia is a European power.” Decades later, Alexander Pushkin conceded that the government “is the sole European in Russia.” “European,” here, was synonymous with modernity, and the implication was that most of the country is un-European—i.e., archaic—and that only the government could be relied upon to behave in a European fashion and, perhaps, even Europeanize the rest. A recently released draft of the government’s cultural policy doctrine, however, insists that “Russia is not a European power.” While this and similar statements, readily echoed by the official media, are part of a calculated effort to mobilize public opinion, they also reflect a wider cultural and social change in the country.

Catherine the Great insisted in her programmatic “Instruction” that “Russia is a European power.”

Modern Russia began with Peter I, and from that moment on, Russia's society and culture, but also politics, was based on an assumption that Russia and the Russians ought to become something they were not, and that it was the state that had a right and a moral obligation to effect this transformation. Peter famously worked to modernize his armed forces, to build a navy, to introduce the latest European technologies, but perhaps even more famously, he forced his nobles to wear foreign dress and speak foreign languages, to dance foreign dances and read foreign books. These efforts, successful as they were, defined Russia’s social-cultural paradigm for the next centuries: At its core, the country had a cultural gap between the elite and the “people,” with the elite embodying a superior—more modern—cultural model, and the rest of the populace being archaic, backward, and inferior. Most visibly, at the height of the Soviet period, movies and mass culture invariably presented an authority figure: a teacher, an officer, a senior and more “conscious” worker, a Party member. This figure was more educated, more urbane, more cleanly and formally dressed, better able to exercise self-control and self-restraint. He was juxtaposed against “the people” as their role model.

Naturally, the definition of what counts as modern has changed over time. The depth of the desired modernization has also varied. Peter and his successors certainly did not dream of a thorough reformation of the peasantry. The cultural split between different tiers of society was viewed as permanent and necessary, as it followed naturally from the differences in their social and economic functions; the elite were there to shepherd the people, making them more regulated, more industrious, or perhaps, more moral, while preserving their essentially archaic nature. At the later stages, and especially during the early Soviet period, the modernizing project in Russia openly called for a total reconstruction of the lower classes.

That does not mean that the relationship between partners in modernization (the elite—especially some portions of it—the intelligentsia, and the state) was easy. In fact, since the late eighteenth century, their interactions have been somewhat tortured. And yet, it was this partnership in modernization that provided the state and the elite with a mission. Why does the state have a right to dominate the people, to extract resources, to rule without consulting with the people? Because it is modern, and because it leads the archaic people toward modernity. Thus, at all stages, joining the elite meant accepting, at least outwardly, the "modern" ways in everything—in everyday life, dress, social intercourse, work ethics, the law, and individual autonomy. 

This distinction between the Russian elite and the rest of the population has now come to an end. To some extent, one last attempt to reenact this hierarchical relationship was attempted with the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s–2000s. At that time, archaic cultural and economic models were depicted as “Soviet,” and some portions of the elite attempted to set up a new vision of modernity for the people, to turn them from a paternalistic, collectivistic "sovok"—a highly pejorative term for people with a “Soviet” mentality—into modern, autonomous liberal subjects. Thus, the neoliberal reforms of education and social services were designed to reflect not the “will of the people,” whatever it might have been, but the vision of the “experts” acting on their own notions of modernity and “efficiency.” Implicitly, it was assumed that though the people might not initially like the new framework, eventually they would internalize the behavioral models and “learn” to be modern. In many ways, the post-Soviet reformers were heirs to this centuries-old tradition of modernizing the people, and this tradition decisively shaped their mode of thinking: their reliance on the state and their top-down approach, their distrust and, frankly, disdain of the backward masses.

Peter I worked to modernize his armed forces, to build a navy, and introduce the latest European technologies, ideas, and fashions.

Yet, these efforts were probably doomed from the very beginning. By the early ’90s, the modernizing elites had already lost control over the army and the school—the key instruments of the state. Instead of being the tools of modernization, these institutions (since the last Soviet decades) have increasingly reproduced and cemented traditional models of thinking and behavior. It is at school and in the army that the young Russians learn to operate in the world of informal practices, to ignore law, to prioritize ethnicity-based group solidarity and group responsibility, to prefer strategies based on paternalism. These institutions do not expose young Russians to “modern” role models, nor do they persuade anyone that behaving in a modern way is a key to success in life. And having lost control of these institutions, the modernizing elite itself lost much of its mission.

Thus, today, apparently for the first time in centuries, the state is not asking Russians to become something they are not—to become more moral or more enlightened, more modern or more European, to display “proletarian consciousness” or to follow “The Moral Code of the Builder of Communism.” It’s not a transformative state anymore: The government’s strategic programs do not call for making Russians more educated, more moral, or more industrious. The Russians are being told by their state that they are fine jut as they are: Federal TV channels sympathetically present lower middle-class types, poorly educated and lacking in entrepreneurial or cultural ambitions, reassuring their mass audience that it is they who are the norm. Indeed, whatever formal rules—cultural, legal, or others—are mentioned in the media, they are presented as irrelevant; breaking them and acting according to informal “folk” rules is glorified.

Most striking, perhaps, is the presentation of science in state-controlled media. This media celebrates folk scientists—an “average person” who has allegedly discovered some new “laws of the universe” in his garage and is oppressed for that by official academic hierarchy. In a recent case, the state paper-of-record approvingly reported on an amateur “scientist” in Chechnya, who has allegedly invented a power generator that does not require any fuel and breaks “the laws of Newton and Pythagoras, defying gravity and friction.” It might appear counterintuitive that the current Russian state would take such an emancipatory stance toward its citizens. Yet, while the state itself has only recently begun denying the very existence of externally imposed—international or universal—norms and values, it has for years been telling its citizens that there are no external authority figures who might legitimately tell the Russian how to behave.

The consequences of this abandonment of modernizing mission is momentous. On the one hand, the traditional cultural duality made any meaningful democracy in Russia impossible. Indeed, if the state derives its raison d'être from a mission to change the people, it could only view its citizens as objects to be manipulated, not as voters-subjects. Thus, overcoming such a cultural duality is a necessary—but by no means a sufficient—condition for any progress toward building a democracy and modern civil nation in Russia. On the other hand, if the Russian state exists not for modernizing the people, not for changing them into something they are not, what does it exists for? How could it legitimize the dominance over society, the dominance that it certainly is not willing to relinquish? In that sense, the Crimea campaign is, among other things, an attempt by the regime to find a new raison d'être for the state, and a seemingly successful one, at least for the time being. If it will continue to be so in the future, and what other repercussions Russia’s search for a new mission for its state might have for her neighbors, are open questions.