Staunton, October 13 – Most commentaries on Russian attitudes since the Crimean Anschluss have focused on the role of the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus in creating a new sense of Russian national identity. But Yevgeny Ikhlov argues that what is going on has deeper roots than that.
In a commentary over the weekend, the Moscow commentator says that what has occurred is rather typical of the kind of “euphoria” that often accompanies the birth of a nation and argues that annexation of Crimea was “the detonator of the birth of a Russian political nation” (forum-msk.org/material/politic/10536643.html).
In Russia, he suggests, “people have ceased to complain about poverty and need because the nation is emerging from a state of psychological depression,” and that is happening because it is “now at the stage of euphoria arising out of the birth of a nation,” something that usually but not always requires the emergence of a civil society at the same time.
Indeed, at least in part, Ikhlov says, “Putin has fulfilled the work of Navalny and Kasparov: he has created an [ethnic] Russian political nation,” one that has emerged in a way that is psychologically “comfortable” for Russians because it has not required that they break with their “imperial inheritance.”
That is how it was “with the Turks under Ataturk and with the Germans under Hitler,” and with Russians now, it has allowed them to feel united with anyone who believes that “Crimea is ours” and view the world not as “gray” and full of problems in which they are “losers” but as one of bright colors in which they are winners.
Under Putin and since Crimea, “Russians are being given the priceless sense of a meaning for existence – the struggle with a most horrific evil,” however defined. And that has brought them together, just as it brought the Black Hundreds and the Democrats together during World War I.
Even better for ordinary Russians, this new sense doesn’t require any heroic actions. Indeed, the powers that be are happiest if people “sit at home and be patriots,” Ikhlov says, adding that “a sense of national revenge has replaced the sense of cultural incompleteness” that had characterized Russians since 1991.
And he argues that a model for this “Russian national revenge” is quite close at hand: the diatribes of Ilya Ehrenburg during World War II when in fact the Soviet writer created for Stalin “the ‘Russian idea,’” the idea that “the simple Russian had a culture much higher than the one the German had,” even though the latter’s had been viewed as the height of European culture.
Putin has given Russians “the happy chance to feel themselves proud and unique,” but he has succeeded not by virtue of his propaganda but rather by exploiting a feeling that has long existed among Russians that they should be allowed to escape a sense that they are somehow a lesser people and be able to take pride in what they are.
In short, Ikhlov says, the Kremlin leader “has been able to give people what they want at a unique instant in their history, the moment of the birth of a nation.” His propagandists may have given people a vocabulary for this, but they have not, the Moscow commentator says, created the conditions for the response that they are given credit for.
Exactly the same thing happened in Germany and with Hitler, Ikhlov says. When Germany lay defeated after 1918, its people were lost and felt they were somehow lesser than the Europeans. But “then an explosive growth of national self-consciousness began,” as Germans began to ask themselves why they should feel that way.
Hitler arrived and exploited this and understood that he could tightly unite the overwhelming majority of Germans by attacking Jews and communists. But like Putin, he succeeded at least for a time because what he sought to do was what his population was on its own quite ready for.