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Russian constructivism: a lens for understanding Moscow’s political actions

The individual Russian citizen possesses an identity formed by their history, values and national identity. The domestic relationship between the country’s people and government rests upon the pillars of economic and national security, which naturally form an integral part of the country’s international goals. These two points have encouraged Russia to pursue competition with the West.

January 10, 2022 - Caroline Beshenich - Analysis

Residential area in Moscow. Photo: Pavel L / Shutterstock

Understanding the “enigma”                       

In July 1944, the Soviet army approached the city of Warsaw and promised to help the Polish Home Army and civilians within the city. The Home Army was concerned that the Soviets would take advantage of their weakened condition and simply seize the capital. As a result, the Polish forces launched the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi occupiers in an attempt to retake the city and prevent a Soviet occupation. The Red Army did entertain the possibility of assisting the Poles, yet ultimately waited until the bloodshed had ended, before entering the city. The question is why? And from the answer, what can such a decision tell us about Moscow’s politics?

Winston Churchill believed that the key to understanding the “enigma” of Russia was to understand its foreign policy. My tool for understanding the country, the “Russian Constructivist Paradigm”, is focused on the government, which ultimately carries out this foreign policy on the international stage. Domestically, the Russian system of “presidential democracy” acts as a vehicle that allows the president to use his authority in such a way as to steer and manipulate the citizenry into accepting Moscow’s will. Russian political affairs are rooted in a unique relationship between the government and the people it both rules and protects. In order to understand Russia, therefore, it is necessary to first understand the ways in which this relationship is formed in the country. These links ultimately influence both Russian foreign policy and the general framework of Russian politics.

The social contract between Moscow and its people naturally plays a key role in the country’s politics. The distinct character of the Russian government and the country as a whole has transformed two western concepts (Constructivism from international relations theory and the social contract ideal visible in liberal political and philosophical thought) into specifically Russian varieties that prioritise and enable the country’s political goals. The result is a symbiotic paradigm that both cooperates with and motivates Russian political thought. The core of Russian decision- making is made up of this distinct “social contract” and this acts as the theoretical basis for the construction of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy.

Constructivist paradigm

Many issues in politics are affected by a wide variety of factors. Of course, it is a rare situation indeed when an issue may be taken at face value. A handy method for understanding these issues and the wider “big picture” is philosophy. By peering through the lens of a philosophical paradigm, certain political solutions that were not immediately obvious may become more apparent. The individual actors that make up politics grow and adapt to current realities. On the other hand, paradigms are stable structures that can help explain these changes over time. Using a Russian understanding of constructivism to analyse the country’s politics means looking at the unique thinking and logic that goes into making certain decisions and plans. By understanding the Russian worldview that influences these decisions, it is possible to understand why international events elicit certain responses from the Kremlin.

Constructivism believes that the concept of international relations is ultimately constructed by societal and historical peculiarities. These realities are not unavoidable outcomes of world politics or human nature. This understanding results in groups and individuals acting according to their own perceptions of reality. Governments notice these actions, independently review them, and ultimately devise legislation in response to these actions. Constructivist thinkers subsequently focus on those ideas that are collectively held by the greater part of society, such as “knowledge, rules, beliefs, and norms”. These ideas place constraints on state power and ultimately construct the interests and identities of the state. Essentially, it could be said that they provide the state with its “character”. Government actions must reflect this character, which comes from the people. These two groups cannot be isolated from each other as they otherwise risk conflict.

As a paradigm, constructivism looks to understand the ideas that are responsible for the creation of policies and governments. One of the fundamental principles of constructivist theory is that people interact with objects (including other actors) on the basis of the meanings that those objects hold for them. The meaning is connected with the individual’s identity and the identity of the wider group. Constructivism generally understands that actions on the global stage cannot be anticipated by actors. Instead of anticipation and planning, actions depend on the construction of events around them.

Constructing the government I choose

“Government legitimacy” is a notion that is crucial to modern politics and integral to the Russian constructivist perspective. Legitimacy gives certain groups authority over the regulation of other people’s natural freedoms. This places people in a position outwith the lawless state of nature and allows them to focus on goals beyond self-preservation. Authority in a state is necessary because every person has their own understanding of what is right and what is wrong. A single voice is needed to make an overarching pronouncement that society can follow together.

Max Weber proposed that the idea of legitimacy is a social fact found in the inherent structure of politics. At the same time, he also argued that belief in the fact of legitimacy is only valid on a subjective basis. Outside of beliefs, government legitimacy must be visible to its associated population. Another point that Weber made regarding legitimacy is that citizens comply with social conventions because they will be met with general social disapproval if they violate such ideals. In other words, people follow the law to avoid punishment. As the law is upheld by government, it is necessary that the people recognise its authority. Otherwise, people will naturally be less inclined to follow the law.

Once a government has legitimacy, it can establish a social contract. This is an agreement between a government and its citizens that creates benefits for both sides. The people surrender certain rights and liberties to their government in order to gain and preserve wider peace and prosperity. This idea originated with philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote that the social contract is ultimately the foundation of political society. It provides an escape from the state of nature through common will and agreement.

The Russian social contract is derived from the state’s ability to deliver a certain standard of living to its citizens, ensure their salaries and pensions, and offer them the possibility to build a future. The government must provide stability and security for the ideal to be made a reality. This unspoken agreement is rooted in the Russian economy and translates into people’s dependence on the state to make their life tolerable. 

Throughout his political career, Vladimir Putin has supported the idea of the Russian social contract. After decades of turmoil, a sense of peace (albeit tenuous and delicate) has been brought to Russia. This, in turn, has legitimated the power and rule of Vladimir Putin. I believe the development of both security and economic stability in Russia has ensured that the people (even if not all of them) will vote for Putin again. No one would say that everyone in Russia supports Putin. But the point is that enough people in the country are willing to support him to the extent that he will retain power for as long as he wishes. Although not completely understood by the West, the Russian social contract’s current form matches historical developments regarding Russian politics and power. The agreement is unique and characteristic of the Russian historical record of leadership. 

Isolation and a change of character

The 20th century saw several shifts of power occur in Russia. The Soviet Union formally replaced the rule of the Tsars in 1922, only for it to fall itself in 1991. From there, Boris Yeltsin (as the first president of the Russian Federation) worked to give Russia a new future by moving the country closer to the West. It is important to remember that Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev also attempted to build a relationship with the West while simultaneously ensuring national interests. Renewed relations with the United States were meant to provide Russia with geopolitical parity. However, Moscow was determined to see that this new equality would not involve surrendering any of its political power to the West.

Following his re-election in May 2018, Vladimir Putin presented a plan to improve and advance the lives of the Russian people. This plan is known as the “Executive Order on National Goals and Strategic Objectives of the Russian Federation Through to 2024”. The plan aims to advance science, technology, and socio-economic development in the country. Overall, the project hopes to increase the country’s population, improve the living standards and conditions of Russian citizens, and create an environment in which all Russian people can fulfil their potential. The plan’s goals relate to issues such as population growth, life expectancy, personal and national economics, housing/living conditions, and technological and infrastructural development.

By focusing on improving the Russian economy and very publicly working to improve the citizenry’s standard of living, it could be suggested that Putin is attempting to draw his people’s attention away from the effects that three rounds of sanctions (imposed by Australia, Canada, the European Union, Norway, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the United States) have had on the country. These sanctions contributed to the Russian ruble’s collapse and a financial crisis. Putin has refocused the energy of Russians on a more nationalistic path by unveiling a series of objectives that are intended to improve the lives of the Russian people. Economic improvements will legitimise Putin’s power and strengthen his political base.

The government’s legitimacy is secured through this continued loyalty. In light of the aforementioned executive order, Moscow has been able to demonstrate its concern for the welfare of its people. The seemingly unjust actions of Western powers do not only help promote a victim complex within the country. Indeed, they also give the Russian government a paternal appearance to its people. This is built on the fear of the “unknown” (the West), which has also inflicted pain on the country. Effectively, the people return to the known (the Russian government) and invest it with their trust because it represents their values and offers some possibility for enabling their goals.

Russia’s goals and values as a country are echoes of the personal and group identities of the Russian people. These outlooks are ultimately reflected back at the people by the Russian government that asserts these identities. This relationship is then visible in Russia’s official foreign policy, which ensures the global interests of the country. Russia’s foreign policy has changed many times since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In contemporary times, the policy builds and projects Russia’s power and ensures its national and international interests. At the same time, this doctrine maintains both a rhetorical equality with the West and legitimacy in the eyes of its people. This foreign policy promotes the security of Russia and its people, as well as the economic prosperity of the country and its citizens. The Russian people give their trust and freedom to the government, thus legitimising the authorities and enabling them to take the actions needed to protect their economic and security interests.

The context of the Warsaw Uprising

Returning to the scenario that introduced this article, it must be said that the Red Army’s actions throughout the Warsaw Uprising remain controversial in Poland. They are a topic of great debate among historians and politicians alike. The uprising itself started when the Red Army arrived just outside Warsaw, as Polish citizens in the capital believed that the Soviets would help them resist Hitler’s army. They supposed the conflict would only last a few days before Soviet forces would arrive to assist their efforts. Despite this, the Red Army did not come to the assistance of the Polish people. For forty days, Soviet forces remained a mere ten kilometres from the centre of Warsaw and offered no help. Why? When looking at this question through the lens of the Russian Constructivist Paradigm, it is clear that Stalin did not want to assist a Polish Home Army, that was at best sceptical of Soviet influence. Indeed, this group would most likely oppose the construction of a communist regime in Poland following the war.

The question, which perhaps will never be fully answered, is why did the Soviet government not interfere? What was it waiting for? I will offer my own answer using the perspective of the Russian Constructivist Paradigm[1]:

  • Political. The Polish government-in-exile requested help from Great Britain and the United States. Following extensive communications with Ambassador Mikolajczyk, it was apparent to Stalin and his advisors that the Polish authorities had no interest in creating a communist state. Instead, the government was prepared to fight against any interference in their country. As a result, the Soviet Union simply waited for the physical, on-the-ground resistance to be wiped out before taking the area.
  • Military. In 1588, Stephen Bathory and the Polish-Lithuanian army fought against Russia in the Livonian War. Ultimately, the Poles were victorious and denied Russia control over the territory. Since then, Poland has participated in at least 15 formal armed conflicts with Russia, including Polish resistance to the Soviet invasion in 1939. After the uprising, the Soviet authorities were still faced with the anti-communist resistance of the “Cursed Soldiers”. Even after the Katyń massacre (which devastated the officer corps of Poland’s army), both Poland’s armed forces and the Home Army were more than willing to fight to the death to defend Poland’s sovereignty.
  • Economic. There was no point in providing supplies to the Warsaw Uprising if there would be no future cooperation in building a communist Polish state. It was simply more cost effective to let the Germans defeat the Polish resistance and then rebuild a new communist territory from the bottom up.
  • Social. Polish society did not share the same values as Soviet society. Poland is and was a state and society built on Roman Catholic ideals, whereas the Soviet Union was an officially atheist entity built out of a formerly Orthodox country. The Polish state was built on a foundation of almost a thousand years of distinct political and philosophical doctrine. This reality naturally found itself in opposition to Marxist ideas. Polish society was not a communist society but one erected on capitalism that appreciated innovation and creativity. As a result, it would not willingly conform to the mandates of a communist state.
  • Infrastructural. Poland may be described as the geographic doorway to “the East” – those areas within the Russian sphere of influence. It is the “last step” from Western Europe to the East and it is the barrier that the East faces in accessing the West. The Soviet Union needed to neutralise Poland in order to prevent the Western powers from getting too close to the Soviet Union and spreading their influence. At the same time, Moscow needed Poland’s infrastructure to provide materials and a means of transportation to other Soviet and communist territories. In contemporary times, the unease surrounding Poland’s border with Belarus may be likened to a similar situation. The zone of “Eastern” (Russian) influence lays on one side, and the zone of “Western” (European Union and the United States” influence on the other.
  • Informational. If the Warsaw Uprising had been successful and a communist Polish state established in the wreckage of the Nazi-German front, it would have demonstrated that the Soviets could also be potentially defeated. The occupied peoples of Eastern Europe were connected, albeit haphazardly, via radio. Such knowledge of what the Poles had managed, with assistance, could have led to the formation of other plans for future uprisings with coordinated, international assistance from other satellite areas.

In each area of observation, it is clear that Poland was not aligned with Russia’s interests. The Warsaw Uprising simply hastened the process of conquering Warsaw and subduing the Polish population. The Nazis did the majority of the work and the Russians simply took over following the end of the war. From the ashes of a city destroyed by the Nazis and left by its own government − which was paralysed and unable to help from London − the Soviet Union rebuilt Warsaw from the ground up under the guardianship of a new authority that assumed leadership in the physical absence of any rivals. 

Ruling through a “social contract”

This article has discussed how Moscow’s social contract effectively constructs politics using an identity that is based upon the legitimisation of the government. This power is built on providing the people with security and economic stability. Russia constructs the idea of government legitimacy as something given by the people in fulfilment of the terms of its social contract. With their support, the government can further its goals and subsequently guarantee national security.

I have introduced the Russian Constructivist Paradigm, which is based on the Russian social contract. These are both fundamental components of the Russian system. The Russian government’s power is constructed from the “social contract” it shares with its people. The individual Russian possesses an identity formed as a result of their history, values, and national identity. Economic and national security form a core part of the domestic relationship that exists between the government and the people. The international goals of Russia rest upon these hopes as they are extensions of what the people and their government want. These two points have only encouraged Russia to seek competition with the West. This focus on rivalry is ultimately constructed from the goals and values of the Russian people at the domestic and individual levels.

Caroline Beshenich is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on an extra-mural basis at the Jagiellonian University’s Department of Political Philosophy in the Institute of Political Science and International Relations. Additionally, she is studying philosophy with the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow. Her research interests encompass the issues of international security, anti-human trafficking, the Russia and CIS area, ethics, and finding the non-apparent connections between issues,

[1] My usage of the Russian Constructivist Paradigm in this case is structured according to the “PMESII” model, an analytical tool detailing the political, military, economic, social, infrastructural, and informational systems within an operational environment.


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