Staunton, May 9 – Leonid Brezhnev proclaimed that the Soviet Union in his times had entered the era of developed socialism. Now, but without a declaration in this regard, Vladimir Putin has led Russia into “an era of developed militarism” in which myths about victory in World War II are the primary values holding Russians together, Lev Gudkov says.
Any open discussion about the war, in contrast to the situation at the end of Soviet times, is now “taboo,” the Levada Center director says, because “the war has been transformed into a holy symbol of the greatness of the Russian power” which must not be “subject to doubt and analysis” (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2019/05/09/80447-epoha-razvitogo-militarizma).
This trend is not widely recognized by Russian society, Gudkov continues, in large measure because Russia has been at war more or less constantly. “Out of the 27 years of its post-Soviet history, Russia for 19 years had conducted and its continuing to conduct limited wars” – in Chechnya twice, in Syria and in Ukraine.
“Beginning in 2004,” he says, “Russian patriotism (national pride” has become fused with ideas about our military power, our possession of nuclear weapons and our ability to destroy every living thing. In public consciousness, the conviction has grown that in the world ‘they respect us because they fear us.’ No other bases for Russia’s authority in the world remain.”
And that in turn has meant that “victory and military power have been transformed into the most important foundations for the legitimation of Russian authoritarianism” and the ouster from the constellation of things that make Russia great of science and cultural achievements and the well-being of the population.
There are some paradoxes in this, Gudkov says. “Almost all the wars which Russia conducted in the 20th century are viewed as unjust by the majority of Russians,” with one singular exception, the Great Fatherland War which is viewed as “absolutely justified” by almost all and as justifying the view, increasingly widely held, that Russia has a special significance in world history.
This growth in militaristic sentiments has been accompanied by changes in mass attitudes about Putin’s contribution to the country. In the first decade of his rule, he was celebrated for having brought stability and economic growth. In the second, Putin is praised for strengthening the country’s military power.
Indeed, “the peaks of Putin’s popularity and approval” have occurred precisely at the time of military campaigns – in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea and Ukraine in 2014, the sociologist says. And Russians widely recognize that Putin’s power rests on the military and the security services.
Another part of this trend is that approval for the military and thus the character of Russian militarism as changed over the last century in terms of its objects “but the meaning of the defense of the existing powers under the cover of the defense of the country and the people has remained unchanged,” Gudkov says.
And that means the following: “the chief thing in this picture of the world is the enemy; and its function is to secure the unity of the people and the powers” and to ensure that the former will serve the latter without reservation.
But in this there are yet more paradoxes in these attitudes, the pollster continues. On the one hand, Russians at the individual level aren’t eager to serve in the military, surveys show, even though they approve of the use of the military power which requires personnel in almost all cases.
And on the other, when domestic crises do arise, they “sharply reduce the significance and importance of militarist rhetoric whereas periods of flourishing, in combination with anti-Western propaganda and a foreign threat lead to outbursts of patriotism and trust in the army,” Gudkov says.
This growing militarization of Russian society has not been in a straight line. “The de facto defeat in the first Chechen war, corruption scandals in the upper ranks of the military, the loss of the Kursk, and the shameful behavior of the leadership and higher ranks in this situation strongly undercut the authority of and trust in the army.”
“But after Crimea, the situation was completely reversed: already in 2015, a crisis year, 52 percent of Russians said they would support ‘an increase in spending on defense even if this created problems for our development.” Only 34 percent took the opposite position. And Russians show little understanding of the links between military outlays and domestic cuts.
What all this means, Gudkov concludes, is that “the current militarist propaganda is awakening a feeling of collective pride which has not however grown over into fanaticism and self-sacrifice as was the case in the past.” But what has happened is that ever more Russians feel now as they did in the past that they are all together, “like everyone else” in their country.
Support for the current militarist course “thus doesn’t indicate ‘hot approval,’” he says. Rather it shows “the passive acceptance of the current situation of things, when the powers that be decides on its own how to spend the taxes it collects.” And that in turn means that Russians cannot discuss the problems of their own lives.
That may benefit the powers that be in the short term just as the notion of “developed socialism” did Brezhnev. But over the longer haul, it is extremely dangerous because problems not discussed become crises and can lead to explosions no regime can cope with.