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Back to the former greatness: political myths that prevail in modern Russia

Just as myths in general, political myths work differently from critical thinking. It can be extremely challenging for people to question myths and see beyond them. That is why totalitarian regimes are so fond of using them, and modern Russia is no exception.

“Myth is not a fairy tale. It is a specific way to pass information and human experience in terms and words that people in a certain period can understand,” – explains Nataliia Kryvda, Ph.D., professor at the Department of Ukrainian Philosophy and Culture at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

Myth is a story about how people try to understand the world around them and interact with it, born from the collective experience. There is ancient mythology: stories about how the world was created, how the stars were born, how different tribes were formed, etc. There is a secondary level of mythology related to religion. And then there is the third one – political mythology.

“Myth is very subjective. It is not about the objective truth, it’s about how I (my community, my tribe) experience the world. Thus, no one can deny it,” – says Kryvda. 

Why are myths (and political myths) so powerful?

Mythological consciousness was the first and the deepest type of social consciousness. But it did not disappear over time. And it is still noticeably present in our lives today, especially when society falls into crisis and rational thinking feels defeated.  

There are several key features of mythological consciousness (according to Yeleazar Meletynskyi and Serhii Tokarev).

Indivisibility of the subject and the object. The first humans did not separate themselves from the world; they were a natural part of it. For them, the world was alive, and they built relations with it accordingly, like with a creature. This attitude was preserved to this day.

“Just listen to how we speak. The sun goes down. Nature wakes up in spring,” – Nataliia Kryvda explains. – “We build our relations with the world as with a living being: we bargain, we promise something, ask for something in the future and make sacrifices to get the predicted outcome.”

Symbolism. Symbols allow us to pack a massive meaning into a small sign and save a lot of time and effort in our communication. Christian cross, red heart, country flag, road sign, emoji, and even words are all examples of the symbols. 

Symbolism is a powerful tool created by mythological consciousness. And it is widely used in politics today, as symbols can carry plenty of information while also leaving a lot of space for personal interpretations.

“Modern Russia precisely and deliberately works with symbolism. Take a look at the letters “Z” and “V”: most likely, they were used to mark different directions. But the atrocities of the Russian army in Ukraine saturated those signs with a new meaning. The letter became a symbol, their version of the swastika, and Russians began to exploit it actively. They lined children up in the form of “Z,” put it on the Easter bread, and painted it on the fences,” – says professor Kryvda.

Etiology of the myth. Substitution of causal relationship by the precedent. Myth tries to give simple and clear answers to complex questions. Questions like how it was created, where did it come from, and why is it happening. Those answers, however, are not based on a true understanding of the causes.

Today, we still make most of our conclusions based on precedents and on previous experiences of ourselves, our community, our nation. It takes a lot of afford to accustom ourselves to use critical thinking and seek the true cause of things.

Existence of sacred and profane time. Sacred time is a time of the original creation when everything is created for the first time and therefore is perfect. Profane time is an ordinary time that comes after, a flawed copy of the ideal original world. Both individuals and communities have the need to reset and return to their sacred time, which can be done through a ritual. 

According to Nataliia Kryvda, the Revolution of Dignity became a sacred time for independent Ukraine. And for the next eight years, everything was compared to the values defined during that revolution. After February 24, 2022, a new sacred time for Ukraine began. “New heroes, new villains, new real values, new society and volunteer organizing, and new ceremonial practices are created now. For many years, all the following events will be marked as either worthy or unworthy of the sacrifices of this war” – says Kryvda.

“Indisputable truth.” Myth consolidates collective experience, and therefore, it is reliable and “true”. It is the wisdom of generations: it can hardly be even questioned. 

“Why do I need to act this way? – a young man asks. – Because our fathers did it. Who are you to change rules?!” 

“Carl Jung called mythology a total ideology. It is almost impossible to go beyond mythological consciousness, and all totalitarian regimes use myth for this reason. Fascists in Italy worked with a myth of eternal Rome and used symbols from the Roman Empire. National Socialism had a myth about the superiority of the Aryan race. The Soviet Union used myths about the superiority of socialism over capitalism and the dictatorship of the proletariat,” – Nataliia Kryvda explains.

Political mythology of modern Russia

Today Russia exploits the myth of former greatness. “In the “Ur-Fascism” essay, Umberto Eco defined fourteen general properties of fascist ideology. The cult of tradition is the first one of them: relying on the past becomes more important than searching for a new path. Modern Russia is all about returning to the past, to the glory of the Russian Empire (in terms of greatness and territorial encroachments, for example) and the Soviet Union (in terms of social guarantees and pseudo-justice, for example),” – Kryvda says.

Vladimir Punit in the exhibition dedicated to the 350th anniversary of Peter I.
The inscription behind him says “Peter I. The birth of an empire”.
Photo: Mikhail Metzel / EPA

For Russia, the sacred time, the time of the original creation, is still the imperial time and the October Revolution of 1917. And everything that ruins their idea of a great empire (like the independence of the neighboring countries) becomes a part of the profane time. Russians view the war against Ukraine as a ritual of returning to their primordial unity and restoring the power of the Empire and Soviet Union as its reincarnation.

The idea of the fortress country is also rather prominent in Russian political mythology. It means that everyone around is seen as an enemy. They believe that they are the only ones in the right and that they are forced to defend themselves.

Another important part of Russian political mythology is sacrifice. “The new world can not be born peacefully, it requires a bloody sacrifice. They paid with blood for a new world, and then made another sacrifice to protect it during World War II. Now they want a new, restored Russia, and thus yet another sacrifice must be made”, – Nataliia Kryvda explains.

Read more: «Pobedobesie» (victory frenzy) in its purest form. How Victory Day in Russia raises young murderers and rapists

A myth about the great Russian culture is also powerful. It does not matter that most of the population of the country live in poverty and do not have even basic household conveniences  – as long as they have the great Russian culture. Works of Russian authors often depict tiny humans in a huge world where everything is against them.

What can be done to change those myths?

Ukraine should work to minimize the negative impact of those Russian myths abroad by building and widely communicating its own original and argumentative (not only emotional) narrative about real Ukrainian history, culture, and language. However, there is no recipe for a change of those myths inside Russia itself, states Nataliia Kryvda. It might take decades and require both outside input and inner rethinking.

A political rally and a concert in Moscow on March 18, 2022. Around 200,000 people gathered at the stadium.
A poster above says “For a world without Nazism. For Russia (using the letter “z” instead of Cyrillic “з”)”.
Photo: Alexandr Vilf / AP

“The Nuremberg trials (1945-1946) were organized by the Allies, not by the Germans. Germany suffered a crushing defeat in World War II. Along with the plans for economic recovery, new values and meanings, new generation were brought and planted into the country. And it still took 20 more years of repentance and internal transformation for the Germans to start to judge themselves for the crimes of national socialism,” – says Kryvda.

In Russia, the process of reformation can begin when the powerful external public pressure coincides with internal awareness. Those myths will be destroyed after a critical mass of Russians will go through the path of understanding, repentance, and rebuilding of their identity. 

“Education plays a significant role here. But it will still take years, decades for them to build a new understanding of themselves and change their external manifestations accordingly” – says Kryvda.

Expert: Nataliia Kryvda, Ph.D., professor at the Department of Ukrainian Philosophy and Culture at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

Author: Veronika Lutska