Friday, September 20, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin Draws ‘Red Lines’ Within Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 20 – Perhaps the only thing more frightening than drawing red lines for other countries and then not enforcing them is feeling compelled to speak about red lines within one’s own country that no one must cross. But today at the Valdai Club meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin did exactly that.

            In the course of his remarks to Russian and international experts about a wide variety of subjects having to do with national identity in his country, Putin said that “sovereignty, independence and the territorial integrity of Russia are absolute values. These are the ‘red lines’ pastwhich no one must go” (

            The Kremlin leader undoubtedly intended this as nothing more than a rhetorical flourish given all the references to that term in the context of American policy toward Syria.  But the context of his remarks means that they are very likely to be read in a different and from Putin’s perspective less positive way.

            (For an example of someone who will certainly read Putin’s reference to “red lines” as an indication that Russia is in trouble precisely because of Putin’s neo-imperial authoritarianism, see the lead article by Rashid Akhmetov in the current issue of Zvezda Povolzhya, no. 35 (September 19-25, 2003.)

            Putin followed that sentence with these: “Despite all the differences of our views, a discussionabout identity and about a national future is impossible without the patriotism of all its participants. Patriotism,” he stressed, “of course in the purest meaning of this word.”

            “Too often in national history,” Putin continued, insteadof opposition to the authorities, we encounter opposition to Russia itself … and we know how this ends – with the demolition of the state as such.” That has been the lesson of the past century, and almost every family in the country has suffered as a result.

            “Questions of the assessment of this or that historical event,” he said, “up to the present are dividing the country and society. We must cure thesewoundsand restore the integrity of the historical fabric. We can no longer deceive outselves” that it will be enough to avoid this problem.

            And the Russian president continued that “it is time to stop noting in history only the bad and cursing ourselves more than our ill-wishers do.  Criticism is necessary, but without a feeling of our own worth, without a love for the Fatherland, this criticism is humiliating and unproductive.”

            “For Russians and for Russia, questions like ‘Who are we?’ and “How should we be?’ resound ever more loudly,” Putin said. Russia has left both Soviet and Russian Imperial definitions behind and cannot return to either, but the expectations of many in 1991 that these questions would be answered automatically have not been realized.

            Nor can these answers be imposed from above or by those who promote only their own point of view.  Specifically, Putin said, “the nationalists must rememberthat Russia was formed as a multi-national and poly-confessional state” and that exploiting any particularist nationalismwill put the country “on the path of the destructionof tis genetic code.”

            “In essence,” the Russian president said, “we will begin to destroy ourselves.”

            Russia also faces challenges to its identity from changes abroad which deny “any traditional identity -- national, cultural, religious or even sexual,” Putin stressed.  It must defend its own national and Christian traditions and help others defend theirs as well rather than fall victim to such radicalism.

            Noting that some have attepted to call Russia “a prisonhouse of peoples,” Putin said that “over the ocurse of a century not a single even the smallest ethnos has disappeared” there.  (That is simply untrue as experts at the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology and internationally have shown.)

            All of the peoples of Russia, he continued, “have preserved not only their internal self-standing and cultural identity but also their historical space.” (That also is demonstrably untrue for almost every single ethnic community in the country from the largest, the ethnic Russians, to the very smallest.)

            Putin said he learned “with interest” and hadn’t known earlier that in Soviet times, the state  was supportive of the languages and cultures of some of the smallest peoples of the country. He suggested that such policies should be examined and in part restored, even as the government promotes a common and unifying civic identity.

            The Russian political leader concluded with the observation that “our country is not only Moscow and St. Petersburg,” but a large one that requires the development of federalismon the basis of “its own historical experience” and that the economic challenges of the future require closer integration with Russia’s neighbors.

            In many respects, Putin’s statement simply summarizes his policies in recent months and puts them in the context of identity issues, the focus of this year’s Valdai meeting.  But precisely because he has done that and because he has spoken of red lines not to be crossed, he acknowledged more clearly than ever before that challenges to those lines now exist.

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