Text resize: A A
Change contrast

The return of ideology

Russia and Iran are well known for their traditionalist politics both at home and abroad. Despite this, questions still remain as to how these outlooks are supported and maintained over time. It appears that deeply rooted social factors are responsible for this reality.

February 16, 2024 - David Hallbeck - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Lia_Russy / Shutterstock

Much of what has long been perceived of as western or European values seems to be under attack. The war against Ukraine looks like a conflict centred around security and territory, but if one looks deeper at it, it is not unlikely that much of the conflict is ideological. In the modern period, and I see this modernity as the time when we have had relatively educated, more or less literate populations, ideology has played a role in territorial conflicts. It probably aggravates them too. A territory is of limited use but ideology, if seriously believed, is universal and unlimited. During the last thirty years, ideology has not played much of a role on the surface in Russia or the West.

Now, however, ideology, latent for long, seems to be emerging again on the front line of politics. Russia just introduced a compulsory academic course which is hard to see as anything but ideological in intent, and Iran sees the Russo-Ukrainian War as something that accelerates the arrival of the twelfth Imam, the Mahdi. Mahdism has long been an important ideology within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In this article I will compare Russia to Iran, a society which has been possibly developing an ideological longue durée since 1979 and in some respects has structures that are similar to those in Russia.

The new Russian academic course is titled “Foundations of Russian Statehood” and is a kind of tendentious, value-based course about Russian history and politics.

The course is, to some extent, based on presidential ukazy or proclamations. The fact that they are the reason for the course’s existence probably says something about the importance of ideology in Russian society and as I will discuss later, the relation between orality and political power in traditional societies.

On March 31st, 2023, ukaz number 229, which is quite often quoted in the material for the course, appeared.

The ukaz insists on Russia’s thousand years of history and simultaneously on its deep relations to traditional Europe, which is also interesting in the contemporary political context.

In order to animate national and ideological thinking in an academic context, the Soviet-era society Znanie was revived a few years ago as a new legal entity. A few films have been published on the society’s website and seem to directly target students. One, which is titled “Russia as a state and as a civilization”, seems to be “programmatic” in nature. It applies a relatively essentialist perspective, claiming that the various states which preceded the contemporary Russian Federation were only emanations of one Russian civilization.

The video also insists on the cultural value of the Russian language, presented as much more than a means of communication, but as a bearer of tradition. We will see later why this is much more essential than the authors themselves probably realized.

If we look at Iran, we can see, as has been noted by Saeid Golkar and Ali Rahnema among others, an increase in the importance of ideology over the last few years. This has made something that was largely implicit before now explicit. After the 2009 elections, a need to strengthen the government’s legitimacy seems to have been felt. It is a fundamental tenet of Shia Islam that there have been twelve imams, and that the last went into so-called “occultation” in the ninth century in order to protect himself from enemies. It is believed that he will return to create an empire of peace and justice. Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected under dubious circumstances in 2009, the “Hidden Imam” has often been invoked in the official and close to official discourse of Iran. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the Jamkaran mosque in Qom was profiled as a national site for the veneration of the Hidden Imam, and the mosque seems to have huge numbers of visitors, perhaps millions. However, we are dependent here on official sources.

Already in 2005, Ahmadinejad announced that “the Islamic government which is today wearing the garb of an Islamic Republic has no other responsibility but that of preparing for the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam.” In 2009 he pronounced that “We have a mission – to turn Iran into the country of the Hidden Imam.”

Fundamentally, this becomes an apocalyptic doctrine about the end times, where there is a need for a certain, radical type of activism.

Since at least 2002 ideological training has played an important role in the Revolutionary Guard and amounts to 50 per cent of the time dedicated to training since 2009. Ideological orthodoxy and commitment are also much more essential for promotion within the organization than technical expertise. In the Guard’s volunteer organization, the Basij, or “Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed”, ideological and political training also plays a role. According to Saeid Golkar, the Basij has more than three million regular members, 800,000 active members and 200,000 special members. This organization had, around 2010, approximately 30,000 trainers providing ideological and political training.

As examples of the extent of the Basij courses, it is worth mentioning that a course in “Awareness”, which aimed to “identify internal and foreign threats, explain religious and ideological principles and interpret current political issues”, and includes a three-day, forty hours programme, was taken by more than 1,400,000 members in its first year in 2003. A course in “Righteousness”, writes Golkar, started in 5000 Basij bases in 2008 and is based on the Supreme Leader’s sermons and edicts. This is, as we will see, structurally very important.

The activist character of the Revolutionary Guard’s goals is visible already in their description in the 1979 constitution. This becomes even more explicit if one takes into account the pronouncements of the supreme leader’s representative to the Guard, Saeedi, who claimed in connection to its involvement in Syria that “The role that the IRGC is playing in Syria today is to lay the international and regional ground for the emergence of the Imam of the Age.”

The popular appeal of the heavily ideological statements made both by Russian and Iranian politicians, writers, poets, ideologues, militaries and teachers is of course very hard to assess. We can, however, see that in Russia the mobilization waves did not encounter much resistance, and the war against Ukraine seems to be supported by a considerable part of the population. In Iran, we do have protests now and then, but until now they have never been successful, which probably indicates a certain popular support for the regime, which, as such, must not be the support of the majority. It is hard for a regime to stay in power for long if it applies only the threat and use of violence. Why is it thus possible that the regimes of Russia and Iran, indifferent to the rights of man and both using a heavily ideological discourse, can stay in power? Probably some populations are more prone to accepting a society more or less governed by ideology than others. I am here, of course, speaking about structural factors and not about any Russian or Iranian “essence”, by which all individuals would be bound forever. This is important to remember, since, when one says correctly that the political behaviours of certain nations tend to repeat themselves, one often tends to see this as the expression of the essence of a national character. However, this political behaviour is not a necessity forever. Once the structural factors lose their influence the situation will change.

Russia and Iran indeed have structural similarities that are very interesting. The model I apply to the study of those countries takes into consideration four elements:

  1. Orality and literacy
  2. The presence of elite residual orality
  3. Pre-industrial family systems
  4. A residual patriarchal ideology, shared by both men and women in contemporary Russia and Iran.

Orality and literacy in Russia and Iran

Not long ago, Iran was an almost completely oral world. The Iranian intellectual Shahrokh Meskoob (1924-2005) speaks about “the unquestioned importance of oral methods in the transmission of culture” in traditional Persia, stating about the clerics that “From the pulpit, they expatriated on the tragedy of Karbala, on other Shi’i martyrs, and delivered elegies and eulogies.”

In the beginning of the 20th century Iran had a literacy rate of approximately five per cent. In 2017 it had reached 87 per cent. This can be compared to Russia, which had a literacy rate of five to ten per cent in the middle of the 19th century and now has a literacy rate of 100 or almost 100 per cent.

It is important to remember that those older statistics reflect a low degree of reading and writing capacity.

In the 1970s, the general literacy rate of Iran was 37 per cent. The literacy rate for men from 15 to 19 years was 74 per cent but for women of the same age it was 48 per cent. In 1913, that is right before the Russian Revolution, the literacy rate of Russian conscripts had reached 68 per cent. Around 1900, the general literacy rate of European Russia was 19 per cent, which can be compared to 83 per cent in France, 95 per cent in England and almost 100 per cent in Sweden and Germany.

The characteristics of oral societies, that is societies with no or very low literacy, have been described by the American scholar Walter J. Ong, who also studied the characteristics of societies where literacy has been newly introduced and is spreading but where characteristics of oral societies survive for a few generations. Ong calls this “residual orality”. I claim that both contemporary Iran and contemporary Russia are clear residually oral societies in spite of a high contemporary literacy rate. It is interesting that Shahrokh Meskoob, who, differently from Ong, lived in a residually oral society, mid-20th century Iran, arrived at very similar conclusions to those of Ong in a series of lectures given in Paris in the 1980s under the title of “Iranian National Identity and the Persian Language”.

Oral and residually oral societies are, in order to preserve and transmit knowledge, dependent on repetitive formulas that can be remembered. This also influences thinking as such. Ong states that “An oral culture does not put its knowledge into mnemonic patterns: it thinks its knowledge in mnemonic patterns. There is no other way for it to proceed effectively. It must use as integral constituents of its thought balance, antithesis, epithetic (that is, standardized) qualifiers, proverbs or other memorable sayings, clichés of any and all arts. It does not add formulaic patterns to its thinking. Its thinking consists in such patterns. Clichés constitute its thought.” This also accounts for the heavy presence of poetry and pompous political rhetoric built on formulas in such societies. This does not mean that all those who take an interest in poetry in Russia and Iran always adhere to this type of thinking. Poetry does, however, preserve its status in such societies thanks to its closeness to rhetoric and its earlier mnemonic functions. 

When literacy is introduced, what happens is not that it is used to liberate oneself from the need of memorization, it rather reinforces the characteristics of an oral society and makes it possible to speak with a plethora of references and quotations. This is what happened in the European Renaissance, where scholars like Erasmus edited collections with an enormous number of Latin expressions, which were used in order to make speech more copious and in order to be able to say one thing in many different ways, thus proving vast knowledge and rhetorical skill. But we speak about a knowledge of quotations, not of an analytical approach. This knowledge of quotations is, however, politically fundamental in residually oral societies. In Soviet Russia, the leaders mastered a plethora of ideological quotations, which they could repeat for hours during speeches. In Iran those who rule master a plethora of quotations from the Quran and commentaries thereto.

Poetry plays a huge role in residually oral societies. It is here important to take into account the proximity between rhetoric and poetry, which seems to be a constant in societies with low literacy. Rhetoric is associated with political power, while poetry is associated with rhetoric. In both contemporary Iran and contemporary Russia political leaders master, write or take an interest in poetry (Lavrov, Khamenei and earlier also Khomeini). I will come back to this when studying elite residual orality in those societies. Literature and high culture represent the written variety of those fundamentally oral phenomena.

When Dante writes about language and poetry, he does this under the title De vulgari eloquentia, or On eloquence in the vernacular, which tells a lot about the intricate connection between poetry and rhetoric in traditional, semi-oral societies. Dante’s main question is which form of the vernacular is the most apt for poetry. The perfect vernacular is, among others, illustrious and royal, that is, in Dante’s world, potentially belonging to a royal court, the absence of which in Italy he regrets. The connection between rhetoric, poetry and political power is essential in traditional societies and, in practice it is, of course, usually male power. I will come back later to the connection between patriarchy and orality.

Giambattista Vico speaks in the 18th century in his autobiography about teaching eloquence. This is seen as the same as teaching wisdom and making the students’ spirits universal.

As late as the 1950s, the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre spoke about Lord Byron’s eloquence when speaking about his poetry.

A revolution often comes with claims for a new poetry, which probably shows the close connection between rhetoric, poetry and politics in semi-oral societies. Ideology, when it has social and political success, is much more about form than content, as it consists in a certain rhetoric based on essentialized concepts. People do not necessarily believe in it in all respects, but it is normal for them to live in a society where those formulas are constantly present, as has been noted by Masha Gessen.

One can compare the constant quotations of classical literature and poetry in contemporary Iran and Russia.

It is also essential to mention other characteristics of oral and residually oral societies. They tend to think, both in an everyday perspective and politically, in dichotomies: friends and enemies, social estates, men and women. They tend not to evaluate situations from a very moralistic point of view but rather take into account usefulness and success in particular situations. The necessity of convincing orally implies the use of bombastic and pompous language, full of simplifications and exaggerations and deprived of the nuanced and analytical.

The association of oral and physical performance also often appears. According to Ong, “Ancient oral performances and ancient literature associate oral and physical bravado…”

When contemporary Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin speaks about Pushkin on a TV show, he praises both his poetry and the fact that he was always carrying a metal stick to defend himself.

Although literacy was rising quite fast before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, it had a very oral character and also among intellectuals. This is important to remember, as the elites conserve the same approach to the spoken and written word as the masses, just in a much more exquisite form. When literacy rises, the repetitive formulas tend to become ideological and are often perceived as essences. This is what happened during the Iranian Revolution, and most other revolutions as well.

What seems to happen in many cases is that when 50 per cent or more of young men become literate, the slogans and catchphrases that were also earlier an important part of everyday life in an oral culture assume an ideological timbre and appear almost as essences. These do not have an explanatory value but which just have to be rendered explicit. Both “scientific Communism” in the Soviet Union and “Imamate” in revolutionary Iran could be characterized as such essentialized concepts. Perhaps the concept of a “state-civilization”, from the course on the foundations of Russian statehood, could become such an essentialized concept or catchphrase in contemporary Russia. A demographic fact that could possibly influence the near future in Iran in the sense of preservation of ideology is that, as late as 2006, 50 per cent of the Iranian population was younger than 25 years old. It is important to remember the importance of young men as the most receptive to ideology.

The ideologist Ali Shariati (1933-1977), who had a certain importance in the years before the Islamic Revolution, mostly communicated his message through speeches in an Islamic cultural centre in Tehran, where he spoke in front of crowds of students, intellectuals and radical clergy over consecutive nights. Most of Shariati’s writings are based on notes, both his own and his audiences’ lecture notes. The people who listened to him were probably in most cases highly or relatively literate. This is a good example of the fact that in an oral society the normal way, even of intellectual and ideological communication, is oral even among the literate.

However, if we consider Khomeini and Shariati as two of the most important ideologists of the Iranian Revolution, both perceived Islam as an ideology.

Ali Shariati, for example, stated when lecturing in the Hosseinieh Ershad Islamic centre in Tehran that Islam was both “an ideology and a social revolution…”

Shariati’s book Ummah and Imamate is interesting from the point of view both of orality and ideology. It is based on lectures given over three nights at the Hosseinieh Ershad in Tehran and is, one could say, an analysis of the political aspects of the leadership of the Imam.

Quite soon, he essentializes words and concepts, stating that “the name that one gives a thing is an indicium of the function of the thing.”

He then goes on to discuss and establish what a community is. He rejects race and nations as foundations and speaks with reservation about class as the foundation of a community. The real community is one built on a community of thought, that is on ideology: “it is thus those who develop the same thought and the same ideology who belong to the same community.”

One can ask if the real function of ideology in residually oral societies with certain family systems is creating cohesion within a community and thus the community itself. When a community with more collective and communitarian characteristics rather than individualistic attains a certain educational level, that is that of general literacy, and has a certain number of members, it is much easier to identify who belongs or who does not if you have an ideology and a community of thought to decide this.

Ideology, as well as heavy, bombastic rhetoric is, with some exceptions, something that is usually produced by men. This will be important to remember when we take into account the patriarchal ideological residue in Iran and Russia.

Khomeini’s performance was also, although he was a very learned and literate man, mostly oral when it came to ideologically influencing both the masses and the intellectuals. He much resembled the religious scholars about whom Meskoob wrote and “who wrote about religious science among themselves in Arabic,” and “had oral communication with the faithful…” What is new is the ideological character of Islam.

Also in contemporary Iran, ideological speeches and oral teaching of ideology seem to play an enormous role. Iran has long possessed a bardic caste of so-called eulogists (maddahs) or preacher-performers, who appear and perform orally and musically during religious ceremonies.

Rahnema writes the following about the most famous maddah, Mansur Arzi: “Arzi now stands at the apex of a powerful organization of religious preachers and performers whose job is to move their pious audience to a state of exalted frenzy and are naturally in opposition to any political platform promoting reason, rationality and reform. Mahmud Ahmadinejad had a close affinity with this group of religious preacher-performers (my italics). He was one of them and had preached in the Turk’s mosque at Tehran’s central bazaar.” According to a documentary made by the Prague-based Radio Farda, some maddahs have participated in the violent suppression of anti-government protests, carry weapons and have joined the Basij. This could be another example of the connection between oral performance and violence in traditional societies.

Here we, essentially, although in another context, have the answer to the candid, but relevant question that is always asked in the West: how is it possible that Russian literature is so sublime and plays such a central role in Russian society while Russia is simultaneously so brutal? If we perceive of literature as having a certain social status connected with the written continuation of poetry and rhetoric, we here have two aspects of one thing.

The presence of elite residual orality in Russia and Iran

Oral and residually oral societies seem to bring to power or maintain in power and influence people who appreciate cultural phenomena closely linked to orality.

In Europe, Italy, a country with relatively late literacy and communitarian, patriarchal family systems in its central regions, is perhaps the country which, for long, did the most preserve elite residual orality. Silvio Berlusconi was indeed a corrupt and bombastic Italian politician, corresponding with the general, well-founded or not, stereotypes about Italian politicians. He was also the editor of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the champion of Renaissance European residual orality (Elogio della follia, Erasmo da Rotterdam, Introd. di Silvio Berlusconi, Milano, Silvio Berlusconi editore, 1990), in whom the Italian prime minister seems to have taken a life-long interest.

In the beginning of the 20th century, when the literacy rate was around five per cent in Iran, the so-called “notables”, a landed aristocracy, played a huge political role and especially in the countryside. Many of them were literary and cultural figures or members of the clergy. This implies the huge presence of people among the powerful who distinguish themselves above all through the spoken and written word, and by the mastery of quotations which, to a large extent, are transmitted orally.

Ayatollah Khomeini did write relatively secular poetry in his youth. The contemporary Supreme Leader seems to have moved among poets during his youth in Qom and expresses a great respect for classical European literature, stressing the importance of reading during one’s youth. Ali Shariati also wrote poetry.

A cult of western letters and culture seems to play a notable role among the Iranian (and Russian) educated elite. Concerning the debate about the famous anti-western book “Westoxication” (1962) by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, Meskoob said in an interview in the 1980s, when asked about his attitude to the West, quoting what he had earlier said in another context in Iran, that what one usually evokes about the West, pornography, violence and money, are only the negative aspects of the West. He then says that the West “…is also Dante, Cervantes, Goethe – if these, too, are the West, then I long to be “Westoxified””.

This is not how the contemporary West perceives of itself, neither when praising itself nor when rejecting itself. This is a perception of western high culture that one finds only in residually oral cultures, probably more in those which also traditionally have patriarchal and communitarian structures.

The same cult of western cultural phenomena seems to survive in contemporary Iran. In Russia, we have Sergey Lavrov and Vladislav Surkov who publish poetry and essays, in Lavrov’s case a relatively classicist poetry.

When one finds this type of residual orality, that is the obsession with the written forms of orality, among the intellectual and political elite, one will have another type of society than that of the contemporary West. This is the predictive value of the presence of elite residual orality.

Pre-industrial family systems in Russia and Iran

The Czech Republic and Slovakia are two countries which have been one state for long, have very similar languages, are geographically close to each other and have many personal ties between them. However, politically they are very different. Slovakia had, in the 1990s, a voucher privatization very similar to that of Russia that was marked by high corruption. The contemporary Prime Minister Robert Fico is part of a certain clan system and many of its members are now in prison. Slovakia also seems to entertain, in spite of some small territorial conflicts, good relations with Hungary. Slovakia to a considerable extent supports Russia in the current war and has a long tradition of Slavophilism. When the new Fico government took office, it attracted attention and surprise in the Czech Republic through the recital of a poem by the 20th century Slovak poet Milan Rufus at the culture ministry in Bratislava. If we look deeper at it, Slovakia has structural characteristics similar to those of Russia. Those are the communitarian, exogamous, patriarchal family and relatively late general literacy (approximately 50 per cent illiteracy before the First World War, whereas the Czech lands had close to zero per cent illiteracy in the same period). When this family type was present before industrialization, it always seems to be accompanied, in the contemporary world, by collectivist authoritarian political structures and a certain rhetorical style due to late literacy. The influence of pre-industrial family systems on contemporary political and economic outcomes has been studied extensively by Emmanuel Todd. I am here to a large extent using his research, although I also take into account the results from Mikołaj Szołtysek and other scholars who have studied this theme.

The communitarian family type, which associates a father and his sons, which are relatively egalitarian brothers but under a strong authority, was dominant, with huge regional differences, before the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861. It is important to remember that the relevant variable is the family type, and not serfdom. When one looks at the contemporary political and educational outcomes serfdom seems to be relatively neutral and not to have much of an explanatory force. Iran did not have serfdom in the 19th century, although tendencies similar to serfdom seem to have appeared in Iranian society during the 20th century. The communitarian family type, however, seems to be primary, able to produce or not produce serfdom.

Iran has a pre-industrial family type which is similar to the Russian one, the communitarian patriarchal endogamous family type, with still a relatively high degree of cousin marriage. It seems to produce similar political outcomes as the family type of Russia and Slovakia and many other countries of the world, although it probably promotes a higher degree of family cohesion and perhaps also greater protection for private property.

In contemporary Iran, the nuclear family is predominant. The correlation between pre-industrial family types and contemporary political outcomes remains.

However, also in contemporary Iran more characteristics of the traditional family type, such as endogamy, seem to survive and also, at least in the 1990s, one could find many examples of communitarian family life. This means that one cannot exclude that the influence on contemporary politics of the traditional family type is even higher in Iran than in countries which have completely abandoned it in everyday life.

In western Iran we had in 2001 a 30 per cent rate of cousin marriage. In central Iran this was 26 per cent and in the same year in Caspian Iran it was 16 per cent, which is a survival of the communitarian endogamous family.

It is worth saying a few words about the middle class in this context. It is still hard to say how the pre-industrial family types influence the presence and importance of a middle class in the contemporary world. If one looks at the countries with a pre-industrial communitarian and exogamous family, they usually have and have always had a very little developed middle class. One can also say that communitarian, very collectivist ideologies have usually been present in societies with a structure consisting of the masses and a small group of party or other aristocracy, and not really in societies with a developed middle class. The same applies mutatis mutandis, to Russia before the revolution.

A study from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow from the year 2019 shows that one can, for sure, speak about a middle class of perhaps 7.5 per cent within the Russian population. However, if one looks a little further at the parameters, they do not correlate with anything. This middle class cannot have bought what they own with incomes related to specific knowledge, given that one arrives at a median income among those 7.5 per cent of approximately 400 euros per month. Even when one applies relatively severe criteria for education, income, wealth and professional position, they simply do not correlate in any meaningful sense. The middle class is an anomaly in contemporary Russia.

If one looks closer at Iranian statistics, it is clear that most of the people usually defined as middle class in Iran have a very modest income and are extremely dependent on the state, which is not surprising, given the enormous economic influence of the state foundations, controlled, among others by the Revolutionary Guard.

Traditionally, Iran has the commercial, so-called bazaar middle class. This middle class, however, remained, and probably remains very traditional, close to what I prefer to define as the bearers of orality and quotations, the clergy.

In the West, the middle class is rather non-ideological. We see, however, in Iran, that the communitarian endogamous family, if it produces a middle class, produces one which is rather eager to adhere to and promote ideology. The middle class is not everywhere as such hostile to collective ideologies, although it might potentially be the structure from where the refusal of ideology might once begin.

Residual patriarchal ideology in Russia and Iran

If we take into consideration values associated with the present war, they are, in Russia, supported both by men and women. Russian women have no problem appearing as propagandists or being accepted as such, the best examples being Maria Zakharova and Margarita Simonyan. They participate in typical residually oral propaganda, which in the West one would rather associate with men. This leads to one interesting question: could it be that Russia, a country which at least superficially has a relatively developed equality between the sexes, preserves a residually patriarchal ideology that is shared by men and women and which could be linked to the survival of certain characteristics of the communitarian family? Would the same be the case in Iran?

If we look at a few sensitive questions related to both gender and politics, we find that, in societies with pre-industrial communitarian, patriarchal family systems and late literacy, a striking coincidence emerges between the attitudes of men and women. This can be found in responses to the “World Values Survey” in countries like Russia and Iran.

In the Iranian answers to this survey from 2020, one can see a tendency among women toward religious, and perhaps also strong, authorities. Among men, one somehow sees a tendency towards the egalitarian. The differences are very small, though. One example would be question number 235, which looks at “Having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliaments and elections”. Here we have exactly 18 per cent of men and women who find this idea very good, and 22.1 per cent of men and 18.8 per cent of women who find this idea very bad.

Those results would indicate, in spite of Russia being a country with relatively emancipated women and even Iran moving in this direction on a more superficial level, the presence of a residually patriarchal ideology in both Russia and Iran that is shared by men and women. This is probably more noticeable on the ideological than the everyday level, given that also Iran is developing fast when it comes to everyday gender relations. 

When it comes to the distance between the values of men and women, we can at present see this difference between the communitarian patriarchal pre-industrial family systems with late literacy and other systems. Perhaps a community of values between men and women is, in the modern world, a better indicator of a residual patriarchy, which also preserves characteristics of orality and makes the population more receptive to ideological thinking, than people’s everyday behaviour. Many Western European countries do not have this community of values. They also have different ideological outcomes, or rather a very low presence of ideology at all.

Conclusions and prognoses

I have tried to connect demographic and statistically describable facts with cultural and ideological elements. Have I succeeded? The capacity of making prognoses based on the system will show this.

If we use the examples we have, we can say that societies with a pre-industrial communitarian family structure have, for long, been very receptive to ideologies and collective beliefs. They all remain quite oral, there being no such society with a very long history of general literacy. Russia is probably the best example of a big country with with historically communitarian family systems with a relatively long history of literacy, but it is short, anyway, compared to Western Europe. This makes it difficult to examine the very long-term consequences of education on those societies.

Those societies go through fast modernization processes, both technically and when it comes to mores and family structures. In Iran, the nuclear family is indeed the most common family form, although cousin marriage remains high. What we can say is, however, that ideologies and receptiveness to ideologies are rather a residue. They seem to remain even if the surface structures that once were the cause of them have disappeared even long ago. We can also see relatively strong patriarchal structures reflected in the collective beliefs of men and women, surviving in spite of an apparent modernization process.

The support for the war or for a particular ideology is not there because the propaganda machinery now decides to do this or that. When you have huge public actions by artists, writers and preacher-performers who indulge in communitarian and nationalist slogans, you essentially have a society which is very different from the contemporary West. You can manipulate the population in a certain direction by propaganda, not in another. “Manipulating” Russia in a liberal direction never really succeeded.

When various opposition movements appear in those societies, western observers often tend to believe that now, finally, the system will change. However, the ideological, patriarchal and oral residue in an apparently modern population implies that those changes, up until now, never take place.

The countries in question, Russia and Iran, also have a high degree of autonomy through enormous natural resources and large populations. They also do not score that bad on the Human Development Index or, in Russia’s case, when it comes to infant mortality, a parameter which has often turned out to be helpful in predicting people’s confidence in a society (see the work of Emmanuel Todd). Russia has lower infant mortality than the US, while Iran’s is considerably higher but lower than that of Brazil, which is probably the BRICS country which is, ideologically speaking, the most western. This life-world stability is also essential.

Both Russia and Iran have huge state control of the economy. Russia achieves this through state-owned energy companies and banks and Iran through the foundations controlled by the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij. This implies that many people are dependent on the state and that the state is close everywhere, also ideologically. This, however, is not the reason for, but the expression of a deeper communitarian structure.

Iranian and Russian industries are also relatively independent. The states have a relatively developed automobile industry owned by the countries themselves. Self-sufficiency, both ideological and material, will also be an important factor when it comes to political stability.

This, in total, implies that those societies have a considerable material resilience. The ideological resilience, is, however, much more important. We also have to understand that, given the scores on the Human Development Index and infant mortality, those countries are not in any meaningful sense the “Third World” anymore. Their attachment to traditional non-applied blackboard science has, at least in the case of Russia, in the world of informatics, turned out to be an advantage.

The mystique around the word is an advantage when it comes to mobilizing both the elites and the masses.

Those factors in general imply that the average person in the authoritarian, communitarian countries of Russia and Iran will probably have a certain, both everyday and ideological confidence in his government.

Russia and Iran can develop and change just like all other countries. In the current situation, however, with a huge conflict around the world, the bearers of traditional, aggressive and fundamentally oral and patriarchal attitudes will be strengthened. This applies both to a writer and propagandist like Zakhar Prilepin in Russia, and to the preacher-performers like Mansur Arzi in Iran as well as those who master Quranic quotations. This will delay a development which would have probably taken place much faster were it not for the current conflicts in the world.

Given the factors mentioned above, it is likely that both the governments of Russia and Iran will remain stable for a long time and that they will be able to continue their current policies.

The complex contemporary war can continue, in various forms and with interruptions, as long as the collective ideologies are attractive to certain communities and as long as they are materially resilient.

Given the strength of those countries and those ideologies, it is inevitable to ask: does Europe have a similar collective belief in its values and a cohesion around them which can be as strong?

David Hallbeck (LLM) is a former scholar of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, currently working for Accenture. A political scientist and philologist, he is preparing a book about residual orality in contemporary Russia.

Please support New Eastern Europe's crowdfunding campaign. Donate by clicking on the button below.

, , , , ,


Terms of Use | Cookie policy | Copyryight 2024 Kolegium Europy Wschodniej im. Jana Nowaka-Jeziorańskiego 31-153 Kraków
Agencja digital: hauerpower studio krakow.
We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. View more
Cookies settings
Privacy & Cookie policy
Privacy & Cookies policy
Cookie name Active
Poniższa Polityka Prywatności – klauzule informacyjne dotyczące przetwarzania danych osobowych w związku z korzystaniem z serwisu internetowego https://neweasterneurope.eu/ lub usług dostępnych za jego pośrednictwem Polityka Prywatności zawiera informacje wymagane przez przepisy Rozporządzenia Parlamentu Europejskiego i Rady 2016/679 w sprawie ochrony osób fizycznych w związku z przetwarzaniem danych osobowych i w sprawie swobodnego przepływu takich danych oraz uchylenia dyrektywy 95/46/WE (RODO). Całość do przeczytania pod tym linkiem
Save settings
Cookies settings