If ‘patriotism’ was the word that most people associated with Russia five years ago, it seems that not much has changed in that respect. Jussi Lassila was interviewed in Aleksanteri News 2/2011 on pro-Kremlin youth movements. Nashi and its predecessor, Idushchie Vmeste, were part of Putin’s patriotic political programmes but also a reaction to the moral and economic chaos in the 1990s.
How has the role of patriotism evolved in public discussion and atmosphere in Russia during these five years?
“The principal difference of the current situation from the pre-Crimea period is that patriotic policies in 2000-2012 were emphatically moderate, or “centrist.” They aimed to find a sort of balance between Russia´s Western-oriented modernisation policies and creeping anti-Westernism. The latter has been present in Russia since the early 1990s. Nashi and other state-led youth projects played the central role in this “patriotic centrism” which – as we have seen in terms of the demise of Nashi and other patriotic youth projects – were not particularly effective. On the one hand, patriotism was a loose compensator for the ideological vacuum that Russia faced after the collapse of the USSR strengthened by the chaos of the 1990s. On the other hand, patriotism was a safe political option for the Kremlin since it effectively tamed more nationalistic and anti-Western forces while liberals were incapable to challenge the Kremlinʼs political course of stability. People were largely satisfied with the improving consumer society and were emphatically reluctant to deal with political issues.”
One would guess that, for example, the ongoing economic crisis has strengthened patriotic feelings among Russians. Did the annexation of Crimea have the same influence – or on the contrary?
“This is certainly true but in terms of domestic politics, I would see the major rupture in 2011-12: large-scale protests wiped Russia´s big cities, and it became apparent that the politics of patriotic centrism and stability did not provide satisfiable agenda for the people anymore. Putin´s public support was declining, indeed rather dramatically in terms of presidentialist authoritarianism. The revolution in Ukraine and the issue of the Crimeaʼs status – which has been criticized by Russia´s nationalist-imperialist circles – were effectively instrumentalized for the regime´s political survival.”
The absence of pro-Kremlin youth movements in today’s Russia is noteworthy. According to Jussi, it reveals that the Kremlin does not see any prospects of delegating any state-led patriotic initiatives. “Since 2012, after the protests, the regime has become more and more dependent on Putinʼs personality in terms of its political projects. In this vein, patriotism is not a safe political option anymore. It has become a necessity in the political tradition in which the authoritarian leadership must be an initiator of any politically resonating issue. Within the conflict with the West, the Kremlin has to have a control over patriotic supply, and this has led to the situation in which the Kremlin has become a hostage of its patriotic stance. It seems that it has no easy or peaceful way out.”
For the last couple of years Jussi has been a member of the FiDiPro project Regimes, Institutions and Change: Politics and Governance in Russia in a Comparative Perspective led by Vladimir Gel’man. “I think the major finding in studying the interaction of ideas between the regime and opposition since 2011 is that the Kremlin has become even more reactive in the ways it approaches the political process”, states Jussi. “For instance, in contrast to claims of the Kremlinʼs ideological turn since 2012, we have not seen a consistent populist agenda by the regime. That is, populist in terms of providing a durable or systematic basis for popular mobilisation against a common, “elitist” enemy. Although the West figures as a sort of common enemy in the state television and numerous political commentaries in Russia, Putin and the Kremlin have been emphatically reluctant to show any active political engagement with the people, nor it wants to point a finger at some “eternal enemies”, typical for charismatic populist leaders.”
“Crimea did not become a loud reference for political mobilisation since the annexation euphoria in 2014. Indeed, after two years it seems that this “historical justice” is attempted to see as a “non-topic” in everyday life. However, at the same time with Russiaʼs ideological emptiness and the lack of future prospects, Putinʼs public acceptance is extremely high. In this respect the forthcoming elections in 2016 and 2018 will take place, again, in very interesting circumstances.”