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Shoigu, Succession Politics, Ideology-Building, and Cultural Discourse in Russia, Parts 1 and 2 (Complete)

by Gordon M. Hahn

Recently signals issued forth indicating that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ‘holds the post position’ in the cryptic race to be President Vladimir Putin’s designated successor or, given the Medvedev outcome, at lease next temporary successor. This article looks at those signals and how the scheme of Shoigu’s ideologist fits in with Russia’s new ideology and cultural value of ‘wholeness’ or tselostnost’.

Signals for Shoigu’s Succession

For the second vacation in a row, Putin chose to be accompanied by Shoigu ( Putin’s fellow traveler or co-vacationer can accrue great authority among the elite and that can put said traveler in a position to succeed Putin if Putin’s decides to maintain his status through this and other types of signaling. Vacations with Medvedev and the publicity and authority they lent him appear to be a thing of the past. Rather than Medvedev accruing authority should the former ‘tandem’ vacation or otherwise socialize together, it is more likely Putin’s authority would suffer within the elite, which is dominated by traditionalists closer to Putin than moderate ‘system liberals.’ It is a rare occasion now when Putin appears publicly with Medvedev even in an official work context. This is a function of Medvedev’s now great unpopularity. Medvedev’s unpopularity is rooted in his relative liberalism, demonstrated during his term as president in 2008-2012, which puts him out of favor among traditionalist. On the other side, it is rooted among liberals by the weakness Medvedev demonstrated in his failure to challenge Putin and run for a second term in 2012, leading to the creeping authoritarianization under Putin ever since.

Shoigu has replaced Medvedev as the potential ‘crown prince’ of Kremlin politics and appears to have an edge of other contenders such as Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin ( In the most general terms, should Putin wish to put out a more liberal, technocratic, economically focused image and agenda for post-Putin Russia, Sobyanin would be a more likely choice than Shoigu. However, this is an era of growing international tensions, external threats in Ukraine, Belarus, and elsewhere and from NATO. It is an era that feeds Russia’s security vigilance norm and has led to the turn to entrenching traditionalism and a hardening authoritarianism. In such a world and from such a mindset, Shoigu is a more likely successor than Sobyanin.

Thus, the signaling supporting Shoigu was a notch stronger during this September’s Putin-Shoigu camping trip in Siberia, elevated by a long programmatic article titled “Time of Big Decisions” published by Shoigu’s advisor Andrei Ilnitskii published in a Russian state newspaper, the Duma’s Parlamentskaya gazeta. The article argues that Russia’s time for developmental “inertia” is over and now begins a moment of “big decisions” in order to overcome “the lack of focus on goals and the lack of will of the authorities” ( Such formulations would be a risky for Shoigu if he did not have Putin’s support for this agenda or at least autonomous agenda-setting, since it easily can be read to imply that Putin’s leadership has lost vitality. On the other hand, Putin, if he is preparing to leave the presidency, might not object to a less robust interpretation along these lines; simply put – that it is time for a change.

Shoigu’s ‘Russian Idea’ and the New Russian Ideology

The article is in line with the Russia’s new ideological orientation, which I outlined previously. It contains several of the ideological elements I detailed in that article: national solidarity, universal traditionalism, Russian Orthodoxy Christianity, and neo-Eurasianism ( Ilnitskii’s article reflects both the ‘civilizational-ness’ (if not explicit Russian-Eurasian civilizational conceptualized as encompassing civilizations and territories lying outside Russia’s territorial boundaries as in typical neo-Eurasianism) and the Orthodox component of the new ideology and does so in messianic terms: “(The Russian idea) is in our civilizational Orthodox mission, in (our) just conciliarity (sobornost’), which combines all peoples and religions.” Neo-Eurasianism is implied and probably assumed by the author when he proposes the massive “Russia’s Big Project” which envisages building new state-of-the art cities medium-sized ciities and infrastructures across Russian Siberia and the Far East (see below). In traditionalist fashion the abandonment of large urban megapolises is justified in part on the claim that this pattern of development was “imposed by the West” on Russia. Universal traditionalism – the traditional values of family values and religious faith embodied in the traditional civilizations of Eurasia’s various civilizations in contrast to Western secularism, hedonism, and LGBT sexuality – is little reflected in the article. Ilnitskii mentions the need for “reliance on the traditional values, history, and culture of Russia.”

National solidarity is defined as the norm of preserving or aspiring to national political, ontological (cultural and identity), and territorial unity. Thus, in proposing “Russia’s Big Project” (see below) Ilnitskii notes how crucial such national solidarity is for Russia, noting “the trust and solidarity in society that is critically significant for Russia.” The solidarity norm is  reflected in the project’s “Big Ideology,” which places near the top of its list of principles “the idea of a united economic plan of the country as the key organizing document for the rebirth and recreation of the national economy. Ilnitskii and Shoigu seek to weave the country’s regions and population together through more even development and population distribution, deeper economic integration, and more robust transport and communications infrastructure and thereby strengthen national political solidarity by buttressing weak links of depopulation and underdevelopment and removing the tension between highly developed Moscow, St. Petersburg, and oil and gas-laden Tyumen with the poorer provinces in places like Siberia.

Ilnitskii’s article follows up on Shoigu’s comments on August 5th to a conference in the academic city of Novosibirsk in western Siberia, where the Defense Minister proposed building three to five scientific and industrial cities in Siberia that would have from 300,000 to 1 million in population each. Such size would put these cities in the upper middle tier among Russian cities, which has 16 cities with population of more than one million – what Ilnitskii calls “mehapolisies.” Only three such cities (Novosibirsk, Chelyabinsk, and Krasnoyarsk) are located in the Urals, Siberian and Far East regions – all lumped under the term ‘Siberia’ by Ilnitskii. Thus, Shoigu proposes connecting these new cities and ‘Siberia’ by building a highway and transport corridor he calls the “Cedar Tract.” Ilnitskii describes the Cedar Tract in the context of the need for a safe transport corridor, noting the “current situation in Afghanistan.” Thus, the idea may also serve as a component or “safe” competitor to China’s One Belt One Road project for connecting Europe to the Asia-Pacific regions. For Russia, the Big Project – Cedar Tract is inextricably linked to Russia’s national security, not suprising Russia’s revived national security culture and norm, as I have noted elsewhere. In Ilnitskii’s iteration, Russia’s Big Project – Cedar Tract “should become a spatial-terriorial redevelopment of the country, because the balanced distribution of points of growth of the economy and population are a key element of Russia’s national security.” It is this no coincident that it is Russia’s Defense Minister making this poroposal. The new cities “of a new type,” “of the most advanced architecture” should be built in “comfortable natural climatic zones, and the logic of their placement and development…will be linked to natural resources.” They must be constructed “with developed infrastructure and science, education and health care, comfortable cities, attractive and interesting for life – youth first of all,” and they should become magnets for attracting the Russian diaspora back home – “gatherings of the Russian world!” In addition, Ilnitskii proposes moving some of the federal government to Siberia, much as the Constitutional Court was moved to St. Petersburg a few years ago. In short ‘Russia’s Big Project’ is intended to buttress Russian national solidarity in all its forms. It is important to note that Shoigu was born in the Southern Siberial republic of Tyva, graduated from Krasnoyarsk Polytechnical Institute located in Siberia, and worked in construction as a civil engineer in Siberia early in his career. This has personal meaning for Shoigu. In addition, Shoigu’s long stint as Minister for Emergency Situations and now as Defense Minister had to put in situations in which he was confronted by challenges posed by Russia’s poor infrastructure in the provinces and the distant, undeveloped territories of Siberia and the Far East.

Some amendments perhaps can be made to my interpretation of the new Russian ideology in light of this and other authoritative statements by Russian eleites. The first is security vigilance, especially in relation to the West and NATO but also in relation to domestic threats fomented willfully or by example by the West, as I have noted several times in recent articles. Ilnitski calls Shoigu’s Siberial developmental policy and development balancing “geosocial policy,” and it, he avers, is strictly linked to the military-territorial structure and security issues of the country.” He also notes that “questions of security are crucial! This is the base platform for the realization of the Big Project and the development of Russia as a whole.” One of the reasons Ilnitskii cites for moving away from megapolises and “megapolis urbanization” towards a society based in smaller cities is to avoid color revolutions. He notes that “all mass protests of recent decades – ‘color’ revolutions, national liberation movements, bloodless and bloddy coups – they all had capitol cities and metropolises as their central stage.”

A second addition to the ideology must be statism. Ilnitskii constantly refers to the state’s role in the new Russia to be fashioned with the Big Project’s reformation of the country’s economy and territorial-spatial design. It is the state that will design the ‘united economic plan’ that will regenerate the country. According to Ilnitskii, there will be “a synthesis of the best aspects of state planning and market self-organization.” Moreover, the country’s state and economy should switch to a clearly “mobilizational” model of economic development.

Third, Ilnitskii/Shoigu’s Russian idea also echoes themes in a recent article by influential Russian international relations expert Sergei Karaganov, in which he attempted to outline the framework of a new Russian ideology. In particular was the idea of Russia as a militarily victorious country. Karaganov noted: “The first and most important thing that we must realize: we are a victorious people who defeated all great conquerors: the Genghisids, and the Swedish Karl, who conquered half of Europe, and Napoleon, and Hitler. There is no other such nation in the world! Second: we are a nation of not just traditional values…. Third: we are a liberating people. We liberated Europe from Napoleon, from Hitler, and now we are liberating the world from Western hegemony. And we should be proud of that. We are also a people of outstanding cultural openness who are absolutely foreign to racism. These are the things that should underlie our offensive ideology”(“Satanizatsiya vopreki. Sergei Karaganov o novoi kholodnoi voine i russkoi idee,” Argumenty i fakty, 21 July 2021, ( Ilnitskii writes similarly: “(The Russian idea) is in our peace-loving. Russia is a country-peacemaker. A country, surviving tens of wars, losing millons, but rising again from the ashes and being victorious, values peace as no one and as nowhere ( Military power has always been central to Russian national security and power; recall Tsar Alexander III’s famous statement: ‘Russia has only two allies: its army and the navy.’ Thus, Ilnitskii emphasizes that “the Russian army and the military-industrial complex (are) the center of mobilization, economic revival, including the principles of control and planning to be based on the State Defense Order (SDO); the Russian army is the main source of the ideology of service to the Fatherland, the center for the formation and education of new, nationally-oriented managers for the state (education, medicine, science, etc.) and, among other things, for the revival of Russia through Big Projects.” Thus, this theme of the peaceloving, victorious and liberating Great Power warrior state is also becoming an element in the new ideology.

In sum, the official Russian ideology that is emerging should be amended from that which I outlined earlier. In addition to Solidarism, Universal Traditionalism, Russian Orthodox Christianity, and Neo-Eurasianism there should be added: (1) Security Vigiliance, (2) Statism, and (3) the idea of Russia as peacemaker-liberator, which might be called ‘Beneficent Great Powerism’ (Dobryi Derzhavizm).

Shoigu’s Russian Idea in the Russian Cultural Context of Tselostnost’

Ilnitskii’s article and Shoigu’s idea also reflect what I have termed Russian ‘tselostnost’’ (wholeness or integrality) in a book manuscript I hope to publish and a recent article here. I delineate four types of tselostnost’: monism, universalism, communalism/collectivism, and solidarity. I define ‘monism’ as the aspiration to or assumption of integrality in religious theology (Orthodox Christianity) and philosophy, including the truly formal philosophy that emerged in late 19th century Russia. Monism is reflected in the Christian, in particular Orthodox Christian, theology and ideas regarding the unity of Heaven and Earth, God and humankind, and matter and spirit, much of which has been expressed in Russian secular philosophy, most robustly by the late Imperial era’s idealist ‘God-seekers’ and ‘intuitivists.’ The second form of tselostnost’, universalism, is defined as an aspiration to world or human unity or a Russian unification with some external subset of the world or human community: Slavdom, the Orthodox world, the Christian world, Europe, the West, and Eurasia. Communalism or collectivism has political implications here, but it is primarily socio-cultural and centers around the subordination of the individual’s being, identity, interests and/or preferences to those of some larger societal group. Communalism encompasses Russian ideas such as Christian and Orthodox ‘conciliarity’ (sobornost’), the pre-Soviet village institutions the obshchina and mir, and pre-Soviet and Soviet ideas and practices of collectivism. Finally, solidarity represents the belief in, aspiration to, and pursuit of national unity – particularly political, cultural, and ideological integrality – and has greater political (and political-cultural) implications than the other forms of tselostnost’.

The author moves to tselostnost’ at the article’s outset before formally introducing his “Russia as an idea” or Russian idea, as it usually is phrased, offering the idea of monist tselostnost’. Ilnitskii notes: “Field Marshal General of the Russian Army Christopher Minich, a German by birth, wrote back in 1765: ‘The Russian state has the advantage over all the others that it is ruled directly by the Lord God himself. Otherwise, it is impossible to explain how it is generally controlled…’” Although Field Marshal Minich may have been speaking in figurative terms, Ilnitskii appears not to have been. Indeed, the quote bespeaks of Russians’ historical belief in God acting in the world and Russia as a ‘God-carrying’ nation. This is a somewhat primitive version of monist tselostnost’ in its more sophisticated theological and philosophical variations rooted in Russian Orthodox Christianity’s eschatology and Orthodox-influenced philosophical thought which posits the existence of and the aspiration to the integration of Heaven and Earth, God and humankind, the Divine and the material world.

Ilnitskii/Shoigu’s explicit ‘Russian idea’ consists of several components. One component expresses universalism, communalism, and solidarism all at once. Ilnitskii opines: “Russia as an idea – what is it? It is in our civilizational Orthodox mission, in just conciliarity (sobornost’), which combines all peoples and religions. We are all different here inside and we are all Russian there – outside, especially when trouble comes.” Russia’s ‘Orthodox mission’ is a sufficiently explicit assertion of Russian universalist tselostnost’ or universalism in its Orthodox Christian (as opposed to communist revolutionary) variation – a messianic destiny to spread Russian Orthodox Christianity globally, at least as Orthodox believers would hear it. The mentioned ‘sobornost’’ is a quasi-theological idea inherited from Eastern Orthodoxy and popularized by Russia’s 19th century Slavophiles. It is a spiritual form of communalist tselostnost’ or communalism that presaged, first, secular pre-Soviet Russian communalism in the form of the village commune or obshchina and, later, Soviet collectivism. These communalisms place the community or collective above the individual, though Orthodox and Slavophile and contemporary Church and lay interpreters of sobornost’ insist that the spiritual community of mutual love in the Church provides a context within which the individual can freely develop. The most important point here is that Ilnitskii’s mention of sobornost’ is understood by Russian listeners to be a reference to Russian communalism and spirituality.

The second part of the abovementioned quote – “We are all different here inside and we are all Russian there, outside, especially when trouble comes” – heralds the tselostnost’ of solidarity. Russians may display their differences and even come into conflict among themselves, but when confronted with an outside threat, then they unify. Indeed, the aspiration to, quest for, value of tselostnost’ are tied, as I argue to be the case in Russian culture generally, to an actual Russian history of nearly constant conflict with external or between internal forces: “(The Russian idea) is “our thousand-year history where there were both revolutions and revolts,  betrayal by elites and the heroism of the people, great achievements and tragic defeats and resounding victories.” Here are references to attacks from both internal and external assaults on Russia’s national solidarity and security. This history of external and internal threats to solidarity and potential and not infrequent pattern of collusion between perpetrators of such threats is the progenitor of and contuning foundation for Russia’s security vigilance norm. That national political and ontological (cultural and identity) security have been subjected to both internal and external threats, collusion between them, and coming often from the West is assumed by many Russians. Thus, per Ilnitskii, Shoigu, and many others, the Russian idea “is in our armed forces. The Russian soldier loves life and does not seek death, but he is ready to give his life for our land – such is military duty, and it has always been so. We do not need what is someone else’s, but what is ours is ours.” Another principle of Ilnitskii/Shoigu’s Russian idea “is in our sovereignty. The essence of the idea of Russia is precisely in its thousand-year existence!”

 Anti-Westernism is present throughout the text and is a central component of the security vigilance norm and the aspiration to national solidarity tselostnost’. Ilnitskii defines the present watershed moment as requiring a turn away from the previous post-Soviet Russian approach to development of “measuring itself in terms of Western democracy,” a model which is “breaking at the seams.” This is especially so, he asserts, because “the West relying on a fifth column here unleashed against Russia a psychological war, the aim of which, having ‘reset’ (our) worldview, having supplanted the goals of Russians and youth first of all, to deprive us of a sovereign future. In the event of the realization of the worst, the ‘inertia-imitative’ scenario, the country will lose its wholeness (tselostnost’).” By tselostnost’ here, Ilnitskii appears to mean what I refer to as national political and ontological (cultural-identity) solidarity as well as territorial unity.


Thus, Ilnitskii/Shoigu’s ideas are fully in line with my expectation of articulations of the new Russian ideology and the somewhat related cultural strain of tselostnost’, especially in periods of the retrenchment of Russian traditionalism. The only type of tselostnost’ that has become a constituent element of Russia’s new official ideology is solidarism, and its weight in the culture and ideology is reflected in the programmatic article of Shoigu’s advisor and perhaps unofficial ideologist. The increasing harshness of what only a decade ago was a very soft authoritarian regime that was slightly liberalizing is an institutional expression of the security vigilance norm and the tselostnost’ of solidarism. In times of insecurity, Russians invoke authoritarianism in an attempt to ward off external threats (NATO on Russia’s western borders, crises in Bealrus and Ukraine) and internal divisions and maintain wholeness. There seems no end in sight at present to escalation of the new cold war and gradual authoritarianization in Russia and around the world.

It is of concern to read the call in Ilnitskii’s treatise for a “reset” and “nationalization of elites according to the principle ‘who is not with us is against us.’ Those ‘who are not with us’ should be aware that they risk being deprived of everything.” This seems to be a call to greater authoritarianism in an effort to intimidate bureaucrats and oligarchs who would resist Shoigu’s Big Project and switch to a more militarized and mobilizational planned economy in an effort to preserve their comfortable seats in the megapolis of Moscow. This is quite a long way from Putin’s former tandem partner, Dmitrii Medvedev, who called on bureaucrats to “stop creating nightmares for business” and once declared ‘freedom is better than non-freedom.’ Freedom is on the run everywhere, not least of all in Moscow. Shoigu fits well into Russia’s new ideological framework, its unity-seeking cultural discourse, and the brave New Cold War.




About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, forthcoming in 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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