Lucian Kim

Putin vs. Russia’s New Nationalists

Vladimir Putin isn’t a man who usually acknowledges his mistakes, but on Monday he confessed that during his 12 years in power, his government had failed to propagate tolerance and understanding among Russia’s more than 100 ethnic groups. “Unfortunately – and I must direct this criticism at myself as well – government agencies are doing little on the federal level and virtually nothing on the regional level, save for some formalities,” Putin said, speaking  at the Forum of the Peoples of Southern Russia in Kislovodsk, a former czarist outpost in Russia’s restless North Caucasus region.

The astonishing admission came only hours after Putin had published an article entitled “Russia’s National Question (click here for the official English translation), in which he wrote that “any responsible politician or public figure must understand that one of the main conditions for our country’s survival is civic and interethnic harmony.” He warned that Russian nationalists were threatening to destroy what was left of Russia following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the convoluted treatise, Putin simultaneously appealed to Russia’s “polyethnic civilization” while pillorying Western multiculturalism, admitted that corruption and bad governance were fueling ethnic conflict, and suggested creating a government agency to deal with minorities – a decade after he abolished a federal ministry dedicated to ethnic relations.

The commentary, splashed across three pages in the liberal-leaning Nezavisimaya Gazeta, was the second installment in a promised series of articles by Putin laying out his vision for the country as a candidate in the March 4 presidential election. In a photograph on the front page, Putin was shown donning a traditional cap during a visit to Buryatia, the historically Buddhist region squeezed between Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border.

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Last week Putin made his first campaign pitch in the pages of Izvestia, basically arguing that he deserves a third – and possibly a fourth – presidential term given his record as the man who had saved Russia from collapse. In this week’s article, Putin takes on Russia’s most explosive issue in the same rambling style, with moments of incisive analysis interspersed by conflicting claims and cavalier optimism. Again, the reader gets the feeling that Putin is trying to say something important, only it’s not clear exactly what.

“We are a multiethnic society, but we are one people. Nobody has the right to put their ethnicity or religion above the laws of the land.” 

The fall of the Soviet Union left the people living in Russia confused about their own identity. While Estonians, Georgians or Armenians had the goal of building their own independent nation-states, the new Russian Federation was almost as ethnically diffuse as the Soviet Union. Russians had a weak sense of national consciousness, because as the dominant ethnicity in the USSR, they had unwittingly acquired the non-ethnic, imperial identity of Soviet citizens. At the Kislovodsk forum, Putin remembered that when he was growing up, people didn’t make distinctions based on somebody’s ethnic background. Of course the Soviet Union’s ethnic minorities never really gave up their languages or identities, and “the national question” became the crucible that caused the communist empire to break apart.

In the article in Nezavisimaya, Putin outs himself as very much the Soviet man, whose first allegiance is to a multiethnic state and not any one nationality: “We are a multiethnic society, but we are one people.” A person living in Russia should be aware of his roots, Putin writes later. “But above all, he should be a citizen of Russia and be proud of that. Nobody has the right to put their ethnicity or religion above the laws of the land.”

Lucian Kim

While Putin’s words seem to echo stock phrases uttered by politicians in the U.S. or western Europe, they are grounded in a completely different logic. At the beginning of his article, Putin takes aim at the “failure of the multicultural project” in the West. Russia, on the other hand, is a unique civilization that grew organically around a “Russian cultural core.” In Putin’s thinking, Russia’s multiethnicity is not predicated on fuzzy values such as equality or tolerance; it is a reality on which Russia’s very statehood depends.

Putin’s assertion in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century is often cited as evidence of a hankering for totalitarianism or revanchist designs. But Putin doesn’t mourn communism or even the Warsaw Pact, he mourns the mighty state that he grew up in and pledged to defend as a KGB agent. Putin is a statist, and it is his conviction that the Russian state – whether it’s called the Soviet Union or Russian Federation – must be preserved at all costs.

Putin doesn’t mourn communism, he mourns the mighty state that he grew up in. Putin is a statist, and it is his conviction that the Russian state must be preserved at all costs.

While Putin is often characterized as a nationalist, it would be more accurate to call him an opportunist who exploits other people’s prejudices when politically expedient. Nothing indicates that he believes ethnic Russians are superior to others. In his article, he writes that Russian identity doesn’t depend on somebody’s ethnicity but on whether they have adopted the “cultural code” of Russian civilization.

(It’s also a misconception that Putin hates America. He was trained to view the U.S. as a worthy superpower rival and today has mixed feelings of envy and admiration. In the Nezavisimaya article, for example, he writes that Russian schools need a similar “Great Books” program as in the U.S. and credits Hollywood for its role in propagating American interests and values.)

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If Putin saw Chechen separatists as the main threat to Russia’s unity when he came to power 12 years ago, he now appears to consider Russian nationalists the biggest danger.

Putin crushed Chechnya’s aspirations for independence and installed a loyal regime, now led by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. What was left of the Chechen guerilla movement morphed into an underground Islamic insurgency that spread across the North Caucasus region and has carried out terrorist attacks in Moscow. Putin’s attempt to pacify the impoverished area with a flood of petrodollars has yielded disappointing results. The motivation of corrupt local elites to lift their people out of poverty decreases with every new payment out of the federal budget.

Lucian Kim

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a generation of Russians has grown up without the propaganda that preached a common identity and the brotherhood of nations. Many young people, regardless of their social standing, have gravitated toward Russian nationalism in the political vacuum that replaced communism. Various people call themselves Russian nationalists, from pagans, skinheads and monarchists to Panslavists, white supremacists and National Bolsheviks.

The strand of nationalism seeking to capitalize most from the anti-government protests that began last month belongs to the so-called national democrats around blogger Alexei Navalny. National democrats openly discuss Russia shedding the “imperial burden” of the North Caucasus, conquered by the czars in the 19th century after fierce resistance. Other historically Muslim regions such as Tatarstan or Bashkortostan, which have been part of Russia for hundreds of years, would remain because no “civilizational fault line” separates them from the Russian heartland. To nationalists, Putin is a traitor to Russia because of the power he has surrendered to leaders such as Kadyrov. In October, Navalny appeared at a small rally in Moscow with the slogan “Stop Feeding the Caucasus.”

“The idea of a Russian ‘national’ mono-ethnic state contradicts our 1,000-year history. Furthermore, it is the shortest way to the destruction of the Russian people and Russian statehood.

In his article in Nezavisimaya, Putin lambastes Russian nationalists for their “false talk about Russians’ right to self-determination, ‘racial purity’ and the necessity ‘to complete the business of 1991 and finish off the empire that’s hanging around the Russian people’s neck.’” He continues: “I’m deeply convinced that attempts to advocate the idea of a Russian ‘national’ mono-ethnic state contradict our 1,000-year history. Furthermore, it is the shortest way to the destruction of the Russian people and Russian statehood – or any other functioning, sovereign state on our land. When they start shouting ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus,’ tomorrow another appeal will inevitably follow: ‘Stop feeding Siberia, the Far East, the Urals, the Volga Basin, Moscow Region…’ This was exactly the same formula used by those who led to the fall of the Soviet Union.”

Lucian Kim

As impassioned as Putin gets in his defense of a multiethnic Russia, something doesn’t quite click. If he believes so firmly that the country’s existence depends on interethnic harmony, why has so little been done to cultivate it over the past decade? Putin is the first to admit that “we need a strategy of national policy based on civic patriotism.” In another passage, he writes that “it’s clear we need to increase the quality of our migration policy by an order of magnitude.”

Putin sounds like an opposition politician lacking a team of advisers, dispensing solutions both vague and commonplace. He proposes the creation of a new agency to deal with ethnic relations that “shouldn’t be a usual government body.” Young Russians should get a better civic education, while immigrants should be required to learn Russian language and literature. The authorities need to police migration more conscientiously; newcomers should respect local traditions; and Russia should compete with other countries for the most qualified immigrants.

The necessary measures degenerate into a critique of Russia’s criminal justice system. Ineffective law enforcement agencies and corrupt courts only exacerbate interethnic tensions, Putin writes.

He makes every connection but the connection to himself.

(Disclosure: At present, Lucian is mentally but not physically in Moscow.)

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