Meet the Author | Alicja Curanović

'Russian messianism is a counter-hegemonic narrative of Russia as an underdog'

Patriarch Kirill and President Putin at the dedication of a monument to Alexander Nevsky Alexander Demianchuk/TASS

In her new book 'The Sense of Mission in Russian Foreign Policy', political scientist Alicja Curanovic explores the influence of messianism and mission narratives in Russian foreign policy. Analysing more than 25 000 documents, she identifies 15 mission roles ascribed to Russia by the elite.

How does your approach to messianism differ from that of other researchers?

First of all, we have to take a closer look at the term messianism [1]. It originally described a religious phenomenon, but is also used in the political context, especially in the case of Russia, where it is part and parcel of the national culture. The books I’ve read about Russian messianism all treat it as something specific to Russia. But given my background in international relations, I was interested in messianism not merely as an aspect of domestic politics, but as something connected to international dynamics. Needless to say, I doubted that messianism was only found in Russia. Of course, there are books that show that messianism is present in American politics too. But there is a perception that some nations are traditionally messianistic, including Russia and Poland. And I thought that there has to be a way to think about messianism as a universal phenomenon. So I approach it not only as a culturally rooted phenomenon, but also show how it plays a role in status seeking by a state on the international stage. It’s a mechanism that helps a state boost its ontological security and maintain a coherent identity in the international arena.

What is unique about the Russian sense of mission?

I looked at the connection between how a country talks about its mission in the world and what status it has in the hierarchy of other states. Dominant states talk about their mission as a way of legitimising their dominant position. In this case, the mission is often about going into the world and changing it into one’s own image and likeness, for example by spreading freedom and democratic ideas.

Russia’s messianism in the area of foreign policy is different. So, of course, when Russia talks about its mission in the countries in its immediate neighbourhood, where Russia has a dominant position, the mission serves to legitimise its dominance. But there is also a counter-hegemonic narrative, where Russia’s mission is understood to be about helping Russia ease the pressure put on it by the West. With reference to the motives behind this mission, Russia says: Our economy might not be as good as yours, we might not be as technically advanced as you, but we are morally superior. And we have a great historical mission to fulfil, which should put us on equal footing with you.

A second difference is the main idea underpinning Russia’s mission, which is not freedom but justice. Bringing justice and protecting the world from evil. This emphasis on justice reveals that Russian messianism is a counter hegemonic narrative of an underdog who tries to protect itself and other nations from the pressure exerted on it by more powerful countries that dominate the normative order.

Interestingly, Soviet Messianism was an exception to the rule in the Russian messianic tradition. Soviet messianism more closely resembled the Western model. It was about legitimising dominance and turning the world into the image and likeness of the Soviet Union, as happened, for example, in the Eastern Bloc. And in contrast to the pre-Soviet messianic tradition, it lacked the idea of an automission, when a country says it has a special role to play, but in order to be able to save the world, it has to first save itself from whatever threat there is. In Russian messianism, the goal is preserving Russian civilisation, which means sometimes going into isolation in order to save its soul and, later, save the world.

Alicja Curanović with her book Alicja Curanović

Do Russian elites have a different understanding of the country’s mission than ordinary citizens?

There is a common denominator for both of these groups: the strong conviction that Russia is and should remain a major power. Differences emerge with the question: does being a major power mean that it should pursue a mission? The Russian elite very often says that the Russian people need a sense of mission in order to feel good. But if you ask ordinary Russians, they’ll say ‘Yes, we want Russia to be a major power, but we would really prefer this status to be achieved and maintained as a result of domestic reforms. And not so much in the context of pursuing a grand mission in the international arena.’ For ordinary people, Russia’s status as a great power is important, but they believe it should be due to its performance in the domestic sphere. They want to live in a prosperous country. If the mission means tightening one’s belt, then ordinary Russians don’t want it. It’s the elites that talk about Russia’s mission in foreign policy terms. They think that a genuine major power should have a mission beyond its borders. For the elite, this discourse is a mechanism for self-affirmation that helps it to close ranks and create or boost a collective identity.

The idea of justice has the potential to bring ordinary Russians and the elite together again. Opinion polls and field research in Russia show that this idea is still important for ordinary Russians, precisely because they see the deficit of social justice and justice in general at home. Playing to this idea in foreign policy could be a way of getting more people to buy into the messianic narrative.

What role do religion, identity and politics play in the Russian understanding of mission?

The Russian Orthodox Church is the actor that talks most openly about Russia’s mission in the twenty-first century. But even it talks about the mission of the state rather than the church. This is a very important difference from Russian messianism in the nineteenth century, when the responsibility for carrying out Russia’s special mission was thought to lie with three main actors: the nation, the church, and the state. After the Soviet experience of secularisation, Russia is a secular state, and even in the church’s narrative, it is the state that is responsible for fulfilling the mission. There is a sacred element to this. In terms of identity, there is the self-image of Russia as a great country, which from the very beginning has played an important role in the history of the humankind, starting with Kievan Rus. Of course, the mission itself and the roles change, but this is something that is constant in Russian history. This narrative is present to a certain degree in political discourse, but especially in public discourse in Russia. Talking about the country’s mission is a way to prove that Russia is the true Russia. It is definitely a key component of Russia’s understanding of what Russia is in the world. This is a great power. It was a great power and it should remain a great power in order to be the true Russia, where the real Russian identity is preserved.

You identified 15 mission roles in your book. Could you name just a few that are specific to Russia and say what is special about them?

These 15 roles have been ascribed to Russia by the elite. What’s interesting about most of them is the fact that they can already be found in nineteenth-century Russian messianism. You could say that in essence the mission roles ascribed to Russia haven’t changed very much. Yet of those 15 roles, three are completely new. One is the provider, which underlines Russia’s unique role in securing food supplies to the world. However, it appears only three or four times in the 25 000 documents I analysed. The other two are directly connected to the power of the Soviet Union. The first is about Russia as the maker of Russkiy Mir after a diaspora emerged outside the borders of the Russian Federation. And the second one is about Russia as the keeper of historical truth. This is connected to keeping the true memory of the Second World War alive in the face of attempts to falsify it.

So there are three new roles. All the others were already prefigured in the nineteenth century. If I were to name the three roles that form the core of Russian messianic thinking, I would say they are the guardian of justice, the bringer of balance, which is closely connected to Russia’s political position, and the shield, which presents Russia as the great power predestined to protect the world from evil. Others, like the defender of faith and values and the patron of its kin emphasise a close alliance between Russia and Slavic nations, Orthodox Christian nations, and Christians in general.

The interview was conducted by Elena Goerttler-Reck, Trainee Communications ZOiS.

Alicja Curanović is a political scientist and associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Warsaw.

Alicja Curanović: The Sense of Mission in Russian Foreign Policy. Destined for Greatness! Routledge, 2021.

[1] To put it simply, messianism is a set of ideas that assume that the history of humankind is heading towards the realisation of a certain Ideal in accordance with Providence’s plan. In this plan, the ‘chosen one’ (individual or collective) has a special role to play (mission). There have been numerous attempts at defining and differentiating messianism and missionism, or religious and secular messianism, but the following three core components of messianism can be discerned from the relevant literature: (1) a vision of history as a linear and teleological process; (2) universalism; and (3) mission. Mission, the imperative to transform the world according to the messianic Idea, is the most relevant for foreign policy. This category is therefore central to my research. I define mission as the conviction that a certain community (state/nation) is exceptional and that this exceptionality manifests itself in its special destiny. There are three distinctive, but interconnected features of ‘mission’: (1) the conviction that one has a special destiny; (2) a sense of moral superiority; and (3) the conviction that the state’s activity is motivated not only by its own national interest but also by a higher cause important for a broader (regional, global, etc.) community. A ‘mission narrative’ is a narrative with direct references to a mission or to any of its three features mentioned above. This conceptual approach to the sense of mission has made it possible to identify messianic motifs in the highly regulated, secular language of modern diplomacy.