A small group of intellectuals are working on a blueprint for a new Russian empire

This article is being co-published with our editorial partner World Policy Journal.

Last fall, a prominent right-wing Russian newspaper called “Zavtra” published a fictional story about an underground movement supposedly conspiring to get Vladimir Putin elected as Germany’s next chancellor. It was just a few days before the country went to the polls for parliamentary elections, with their real chancellor, Angela Merkel, facing unprecedented threats from the radical right as she bid for her fourth term.

The inspiration for Zavtra’s piece seems to have come from a report on a Swedish right-wing site, which claimed that posters had appeared in the German capital, Berlin, with the slogan “Vote Putin For Chancellor.” But upon closer examination, it was clear that the photo used in the report had been doctored — and the posters themselves may not even have physically existed.

It looked like a textbook case of online misinformation — an attempt to spread a contentious claim that could be easily exposed as fake, but which nonetheless stirred debate, creating the impression it might be true simply because it had been published.

That the story was in Zavtra gave it extra weight, because the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Alexander Prokhanov, is also head of an increasingly influential ultranationalist think tank. Known as the Izborsky Club, it is a self-described “intellectual circle” of philosophers, journalists, business-people and Orthodox priests, dedicated to promoting Russian power.

They call themselves “Izborists” and claim to seek a more “just” world order, but with clear imperial ambitions to put Russia at its center. And since Prokhanov created the club six years ago, he and its members have been working hard to try to make their ideas a cornerstone of Kremlin policy.

Named after the town in western Russia where it was conceived, the club advocates Eurasianism, expanding Moscow’s control and influence over a region encompassing the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia. The resulting totalitarian, Russian-led Eurasian Empire would eventually overthrow the West and the democratic values it stands for. In order to achieve this, the club also calls for Stalin-style industrialization policies, converting the Eurasian Economic Union into an autarky, and merging the government with the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Izborists don’t limit themselves to Zavtra, but also make full use of the openness of the internet and a host of other supportive sites to get their message out. They make regular appearances on television and at conferences too. The club is arguably the first successful initiative to bring all the competing factions of Russia’s far right, and their ideas, under one umbrella.

Triumph in Crimea

In June 2014, a delegation of more than two dozen Izborists gathered at the Livadia Palace on the coast of the Crimean peninsula. The visitors, dressed in pastels and casual business attire, trailed behind Prokhanov as they toured what was once the summer retreat of Russia’s tsars. Later, the club members would kneel to kiss Crimean soil and tour one of the battleships of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

A World War II army tank on the grounds was a reminder that this was not just a former imperial vacation spot, but also the setting for the 1945 Yalta Conference, where Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt divvied up the postwar world. In the eyes of the Izborists, it was a moment that put a block on Russia’s rightful global ambitions.

But this time, they were here to celebrate Russian power. A few months earlier, the Kremlin’s forces had successfully annexed the peninsula. Clasping hands and raising their arms to the sky, the jubilant Izborists posed for a photo framed by the white granite palace. Sixty years after Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine, Vladimir Putin had brought it back — in their view — to its rightful owner, Russia.

Among the Izborists celebrating was Nikolai Starikov, a writer and the co-chairman of the conservative, pro-Orthodox Great Fatherland Party. Crimea’s annexation, he told Russian reporters, was “the starting point of a certain development of events, not only in Russia, but in the world.” It looked like the start of a new era for Prokhanov and his followers too.

The founder of the Izborsky Club has followed an interesting trajectory. He first made his name as a publisher, during Soviet times. After the fall of the USSR, Prokhanov started a magazine aimed at the far right. He then started to collaborate with the right-wing philosopher and strategist Alexander Dugin, a man regarded as one of the torchbearers of extreme Russian nationalism.

Now the most famous of the Izborists, Dugin has had an even more varied career, advising politicians and serving in high-level academic posts, while also helping to spawn some of the ultra-conservative clubs and institutions from which the Izborsky Club sprang. He is a prolific writer, with his own YouTube channel.

Just how much influence he has on Russia’s foreign and domestic policy is debatable. Certainly, the Western media have sometimes overplayed his significance, and he has been cold-shouldered at times by the Russian government. Nonetheless, he still has a voice that gets listened to. His textbook “The Fundamentals of Geopolitics” remains a staple of the curriculum in many higher education institutions in former Soviet countries. And taking back Crimea had long been a key feature of Dugin’s master plan, a necessary first step to give Russia better maritime access to the European continent.

That’s not the only way in which the Izborsky Club appears to be an intellectual engine room for Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Its members are just as concerned about the threat of “color revolution” in Russia, following the various uprisings that have toppled governments in former Soviet states over the past 15 years. The Izborists also strongly back Putin’s initiative to create the Eurasian Economic Union and turn it into a rival to the European Union. And Russian efforts to interfere with the U.S. presidential election similarly align with their goals.

They also have a direct line into the Kremlin. One of its members, Sergey Glazyev, is currently an adviser to Putin, while others have held past government positions, or have close relations with the Russian leader. Bishop Tikhon, one of the Orthodox priests in the club, is known as Putin’s personal confessor.

Yet for all their establishment links, the Izborists have also shown a willingness to antagonize some of their natural supporters. In 2015, Prokhanov provoked the ire of priests in the southern city of Saratov by christening an icon depicting Stalin surrounded by Russian wartime generals and crowned by four saints and the Virgin Mary and child. The local bishop condemned the gesture as a “gross distortion of religious and patriotic feelings,” urging church bodies and other institutions not to cooperate with the Izborists and Prokhanov personally.

That same year, the club joined with other nationalist groups in criticizing Putin for withdrawing support for the so-called “New Russia” project — an imagined confederation of states in southeastern Ukraine, where armed conflict broke out in 2014. It had suited the Kremlin to support the concept at the peak of the fighting. A year later, the government’s priorities had changed, and the Izborists found themselves out of step, and off air on state-controlled media — a typical Russian government tactic for exploit and controlling nationalist groups.

But that was hardly the end of the Izborsky Club. It is far too useful to the Kremlin for that, providing a source of ideas that it can borrow from when “convenient,” says Mark Galeotti, a historian who specializes in Russia. Prokhanov and other Izborist members declined all requests for comment.

The club also serves as a conservative threshold in Russian politics, closing down any voices who advocate a more liberal approach, or getting closer to the West. This works the other way too, allowing the Kremlin to keep its distance, labelling them as too extreme when necessary. “The state is actually quite happy with this [club],” says Galeotti. “Once you have this collection of barking far-right people…it makes you look centrist.”

Nonetheless, in disseminating extremist views through the media and their public appearances, the club’s members still have an effect, moving politics rightwards. And they are busy on other fronts, trying to build international alliances with other right-wing forces.

Germany has been a particular target, where Prokhanov and Dugin have been building ties with publisher Jürgen Elsässer. Elsässer was once an extreme leftist who opposed German reunification. Today, he runs the ultraconservative “Compact” magazine, which holds that there has long been a Eurasian alliance between Germany and Russia. He has taken Russia’s side in the conflict in Ukraine and has close ties with Germany’s new far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which won more than 90 seats in last year’s elections.

The Kremlin may have had a hand in the AfD’s breakthrough, via propaganda broadcasts targeted at German citizens of Russian descent and efforts to stir up divisions around issues like migrants and refugees. Other Russian organizations, such as the International Parliamentary Forum, are also complementing Izborist initiatives to build ties with pro-Kremlin politicians elsewhere in Europe.

But while there are similarities in outlook, there are differences too between the Izborists and other far-right groupings outside Russia. Germany’s AfD for instance, actively promotes Islamophobic attitudes against all Muslims. Russian Eurasianists, on the other hand, generally support Muslims who take an anti-American stance.

These are small details though for a group as ambitious as the Izborsky club. Political groups like this prosper by taking multiple bets simultaneously. And for now the club seems to be thriving, announcing a new branch in St. Petersburg last year. This was its 22nd regional office, including its headquarters near the Kremlin in central Moscow. It is a sign that the Izborsky Club’s time has come, according to Alexander Dugin.

“The people are Izborists,” he said in a video interview. “Our country is Izborist.”

Illustration by Zura Mchedlishvili.

Natasha Bluth is a journalist covering human rights issues and the politics of identity in the former Soviet Union. @natashabluth