One year after the annexation – or reunification, depending on the point of view – of Crimea, Russian mass media is doing its best to keep up the degree of patriotism – or nationalism, again according to the point of view – within the population. Although Crimea is proving a heavy burden on Russia’s budget – being the most onerous ‘recipient’ region of the Federation with its 85% subsidization level from the federal budget and its integration far from being completed – its symbolic return to the motherland plays a fundamental part in the Russian propaganda. Last month, the celebrations of the first anniversary of Crimea’s ’come-back’ became the main topic of Russia’s media and the live reportages of the “We are together” event were broadcasted on the main TV channels, with Vladimir Putin himself singing Russia’s anthem on the stage.
Since the very beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the Russian common parlance was flooded by long forgotten words and expressions typical of the Cold War period: fifth column, traitors of the fatherland, junta, just to name a few. Russian authorities have openly declared to have engaged in an information war against both the Western propaganda and any type of internal dissent – with all the rules applicable during wartime put in place.
Since today’s Russia seems to keep in a much lower esteem the recognition of its position by the international community, paving its own way to isolation, the internal unity in front of the external menace is demanded to be unconditional and unprecedented. At the same time, Russia has still never admitted its involvement in the war in Ukraine. Russia’s position on this issue gained an aura of ’sacredness’ that is hard to account for in reasonable terms. The Russian society has been metaphorically divided in two opposing blocks, with the true patriots on the one hand and the liberal intelligentsia, serving the western interests, on the other. These oversimplified labels brought to an actual polarization within the society, so much so that aggression and even extremism can be justified by patriotic rhetoric. It may be said that the majority of the population substitutes a clear understanding of the genuine meaning of the concepts like patriotism or liberalism with an emotional connotation of them.
Numerous patriotic organizations that mushroomed in the last year are carrying out controversial activities aimed at consolidating the nation’s consensus around the idea of traditional Russian values, in opposition to western pragmatism and moral decay. Their activities are indirectly supported by the Russian government, which set an example showing that the interests of the ‘Russian world’ are to be protected by all means, the military ones included. It is often very difficult to understand what these patriotic organizations and activists actually do. Their composition is extremely mixed and controversial, including local war veterans, bikers, kazaks, famous for their military preparation, and orthodox activists. These heterogeneous groups have in common an idea of the Russian world as something ‘unique’, and Russia’s exclusive mission to preserve its specific traditional values. The most blatant examples of their activities are the ‘Antimaidan’ movement, the “Russian march” and the recently held International Russian Conservative Forum that brought together in St. Petersburg representatives of far-right parties from all over Europe. The latter vent was extremely controversial, since propaganda usually depicts Russia as a staunch “anti-fascist” champion. Nevertheless, the widespread loyalty to the Putin’s politics has blurred the borders between nationalists, communists, left and right wing radicals.
This patriotic fever has spread throughout the cultural sphere as well. The conflict between the church and representatives of the culture started with the film ‘Leviathan’, by Andrey Zvyagintsev, accused of being anti-Russian, anti-patriotic and anti-orthodox. The crude portrayal of Russian reality provoked various reactions, with the majority of the public regarding this representation as offensive for Russian people, while some other focused on the artistic value of the film. The absence of an official position or a response by the government was interpreted as an implicit permission to these groups to carry on with this kind of action. The case of the Novosibirsk opera theatre is very telling in this sense. The local authorities of the Orthodox church claimed the right to check the staging of Tannhausen opera for its alleged homosexual propaganda and for extremist content. As a result, the director of the theatre Boris Mezdrich was fired by the Minister of Culture. This case had a huge public resonance and triggered a discussion on how to allow for social responsibility and liberty of artistic expression to co-exist.
However, Russian nationalists and orthodox patriots have also been experiencing a serious struggle for the leadership of Russia’s patriotic movement. Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Chechen republic, famous for his controversial statements, has recently become the second most popular politician in Russia after Putin. For example, after the arrest of Zaur Dadaev, the alleged assassin of Boris Nemtsov, one of the most prominent leaders of the Russian opposition killed in the end of February, Kadyrov said that “He has always known him (Zaur Dadaev) as a true patriot of Russia”. The alleged killer was one of commanders of the “Sever” special corps and was even granted a state award two years ago. This raises an important issue about who are the real patriots of Russia and what are the means through which this recognition can be gained This process questions, at least to a certain extent, the “monopoly of violence” that is supposed to be firmly in the hand of the government – so much so in so assertive one as Putin’s – and raises the issue whether this monopoly can be shared – without formal authorization – with others in exchange for help in the fight against its political opponents.
The progressive climate of hatred and aggression under the disguise of patriotism, launched and alimented by the State and media propaganda, have started to get out of control and to work their way inside of the Russian society, laying the ground for a very serious problem for Putin, who will eventually have to come up with a way to deal with this home- (and to a significant extent self-) grown monster.