Tuesday, 2 September 2014

What buttons does Putin push?

The national psyche of any country may be made up by a complex web of associations in memory and myth running through history, culture and literature. It would be very easy to put down all of Russia's problems to its long history of authoritarian rule and chauvinism. However, we must remain aware that this is itself a construction of how the West would like to see itself - as standing out against the wretched backwardness of the East. This is a projection and we shouldn't fall into the convenience of old ideas in new conflicts. In fact, that's sort of the problem the Russians are having in the recrudescence of nationalism. I've covered this:

One of the first decisions undertaken by Putin after the 2000 election was to restore the Soviet National Anthem by Alexander Alexandrov. It was a symbolic break with the Yeltsin era. The anthem replaced the Patriotic Song of Mikhail Glinka that the Russian Federation had adopted in the wake of the dissolution of the USSR. Many in the West perceived this as an ominous sign of things to come. As the 1996 election was deemed to be the last hope for Russia’s Communists, the alternative to Yeltsin had always been framed as a throwback to the days of Stalin. 
The return of Alexandrov’s anthem seemed to confirm Putin was looking to recreate the old Soviet Union. This perception was widely shared, particularly by free market advocates, fearful that their revolution was coming to and end. Leading liberal Grigory Yavlinsky said, “We see this as a signal of where our society is heading, of what awaits us in the near future”. Yavlinsky was a proponent of the 500 Day Programme, first articulated in the late 1980s. It called for the mass-privatisation of state assets combined, with market reforms and the stripping away of regulations. All in 500 days. The programme was eventually implemented, in diluted form, under Yeltsin. 
What was lost on market liberals like Yavlinsky was that it wasn’t just about economics. The Soviet anthem has an equally significant nationalist side to it. After all it comes from Stalin’s Great Patriotic War, and supplanted the traditional socialist anthem the Internationale with its revolutionary patriotism. It was this side of the Russian campaign that Putin was tapping into, not a retreat back to the state capitalism of the Communist era.

The Russian nationalist narrative has a lot of sway and popular appeal because it holds factual ground. That isn't to say it is accurate of the full story. Pavel Stroilov recently produced an article exploring the popular claim in Russia that the West - principally, manifested in its expansion of NATO eastwards - reneged on its promises at the end of the Cold War. Stroilov put his own right-wing perspective on it and appears to be woefully uncritical of NATO and Western foreign policy. Even still, it is worth a read. You can read the rest of my article on Russian nationalism at Souciant.

No comments: