Staunton, February 6 – Like all previous Russian leaders, Vladimir Putin has relied on the imperial nature of Russian patriotism to build his authoritarian and aggressive political system, Aleksey Shiropayev says; and the only way out of this dead end is to form a series of Russian republics within the Russian Federation.
That idea, floated by Boris Yeltsin and his entourage in the early 1990s, would have the effect of changing the nature of Russian identity and thus of the way in which Russians manifest their patriotism; but because that idea was not realized, the old and dangerous matrix of Russian imperial patriotism has returned with a vengeance under Putin.
In an essay on Rufabula.com, the Russian regionalist points out that “Putin came to power on the basis of patriotism,” and using it, he “was able to turn the country back to the past” because he understood that “patriotism is a primitive but powerful instrument for ‘the elite’ to govern ‘the herd’ in its interests” (rufabula.com/articles/2016/02/03/overcoming-of-patriotism).
The hopes of August 1991 were not destroyed “by the absence of lustration or the preservation of the KGB but by the content of the minds of the masses, above all by Russian patriotism” and by the readiness of the powers to exploit this patriotism against democracy and a peaceful life.
That was true at the time of the 1905 revolution when the authorities employed the Black Hundreds against the liberation movement. That was true during perestroika when the regime deployed Pamyat and its ilk against the democrats. And it is true now when the Kremlin is using its version of patriotism against “the possibility of a Maidan.”
“Russian patriotism,” Shiropayev writes, “is always about preservation, it is always conservative and always statist and militarist and also oriented toward a strong power, toward a tsar.” It is in short always informed by reactionary and imperial values and insists on “the idea of Russia as an empire.”
A Russian “may consider himself whatever he likes, a liberal or a European, but at one fine moment, Russian patriotism turns him against independent Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic countries. It makes him ‘a Crimea is Ours’ supporter, a backer of “Novorossiya,’ and a hater of ‘Gayeurope.’”
“In the paradigm of Russian patriotism,” the regionalist writes, “not only Crimea is ‘ours,’ but Kyiv is ‘ours and also Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. Russian patriotism is informed by the phantom losses of the Russian Empire and the USSR.”
The issue for today and the future is whether this kind of patriotism can be neutralized and replaced by a genuine non-imperial kind. According to Shiropayev, that is possible but only if the Russian Federation is reformed as Yeltsin proposed by adding to its “seven [ethnic] Russian republics – the Far East, Siberia, the Urals, the Volga, Central Russia, South Russia and the Russian North.”
“The regionalization of the Russian people would lead to the collapse of the ‘big’ all-state Russian patriotism and to the birth of an alternative, regional patriotism, one not aggressive and free from the imperial ‘karma,’ one based on democracy and local administration,” Shiropayev continues.
By awakening and strengthening regional identitites, this change would “neutralize” what is “an extremely dangerous factor of political reaction” – the imperial nature of Russian patriotism as it now stands. Unfortunately, Yeltsin did not carry this out because he and his team did not understand fully what was at stake, the need to change values before institutions.
Putin, of course, is counting on the imperial nature of Russian patriotism to keep him and his system in power, Shiropayev says. But the current crisis is calling some of that into question and may lead more people to begin to think about the need to change the organization of the country and the values on which it is based.
There are indications that some Russians are thinking about precisely this but also that the regime is counting on being able to defeat them by conflating the pursuit of the regionalization of Russia with the pursuit of its disintegration, something that the current imperial nature of Russian patriotism will lead them to react against.
Yesterday, in the Altay Republic, the local office of the FSB announced that it had launched a criminal case against an unnamed individual for posting on Youtube a call for the independence of Siberia, exactly how Putin’s version of imperial patriotism will present any call for the development of regionalism (altapress.ru/story/172936).