Asked about which national idea his country most needed, Vladimir Putin responded on multiple occasions that “Patriotism is the only possible ideology” for Russia. In the Russian political glossary, “patriotic” is almost synonymic to “nationalism”, adding a nuance of some kind of supremacy and/or victimization of the nation compared with competing countries, rather than just a generic love for the motherland. “Nationalist” is a political definition usually applied (with a negative connotation) only to other nations, whereas nationalist forces within Russia have called themselves “patriotic” from the very beginning of the modern Russian political scene, when in the late Eighties came to life the association “Pamyat” (Memory), the proto-party which invented or at least brought to public dimension the most aggressive Russian nationalist rhetoric. Putin – whose propaganda in the last decade imposed in Russia a sometimes awkwardly mix of Soviet nostalgia borrowed from Communist era and monarchical revival rooted in the Romanov's empire, with a pantheon of heroes ranging seamlessly from the cosmonauts to the saints and from Stalin to Alexandr III – knew exactly what he wanted to say when he called the only possible ideology for his regime “Patriotism”.
The last two decades proved the Russian President more often right than wrong: his own popularity peaked every time he moved along “patriotic” lines, whether launching a war against Georgia or Chechnya or annexing Crimea from Ukraine in the name of the “rebirth” of a Russia which “rised from her knees”. The post-Communist evolution transformed the ideological package of the “Atomic Orthodox” – which heavily relies on xenophobic discourse, the Church's most reactionary branches and imperial militarism – from very marginal in the early Nineties to a well represented political current which gained strength after the economic crisis in 1998 and NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999, until it became the official ideology adopted by Putin after his return as President in 2012. We can observe this trajectory looking at Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the so called “Liberal-democratic party”: his populist and xenophobic speeches appeared in 1991 as a sort of political stand-up comedy, while today he is an influential leader, perfectly integrated into Putin's political system, and his rhetoric sounds much more mainstream now when compared to the past, mainly because the mainstream shifted towards a hardliner discourse.
Being a Nationalist in Russia presents a dilemma: no opposition can hope to conquer a reasonably wide quota of public opinion without being more or less “patriotic”, but at the same time becoming “patriotic” means to cross a border closely watched by the Kremlin, a political territory which remains under the monopoly of the official power. Western analysts and media often label the Russian opposition as “liberal”, something more fitting the small community of activists and intellectuals that analysts and journalists speak with, but in a way, all real Russian opposition has to be “liberal”, otherwise it would find some place inside the political system. This is also the reason Kremlin for years almost ignored the English-speaking opposition leaders which looked very at ease holding lectures at Western universities: opinion polls show that the overwhelming majority of Russians, even if unhappy with some of the government’s economical and political choices, would never look at the “liberals” for an alternative solution.
The Kremlin is much more concerned with the potential rising of a “patriotic” opposition leader, someone who would surpass Putin from the right, outplaying him in his own game. The Kremlin watches any potential rising stars in the nationalist field closely, and while these are usually its own creatures they can be considered at some point too dangerous, as was the case of Igor Strelkov-Girkin, the Russian agent who started the full scale war in Donbass and was recalled to Moscow after becoming too much popular in Nationalists circles. Zhirinovsky or Dmitry Rogozin's Rodina party, co-opted in the power system, channel toward the Kremlin the most extreme right-wing feelings, the “Nationalism from the caves”, which Putin considered too dangerous compared to what he called “the most righteous and efficient Nationalism, which I represent”. Such a statement recalls Alexandr Pushkin's idea of the government (of Nicholas I, not the most enlightened ruler in the Russian history) as “the only Russian liberal”; playing on the élite's fear of a Russian people being violent and prone to tyranny, the leader would act as a katehon which holds the reins and protects the country from the wild chaos. The think tank founded by some of the most prominent Russian Nationalists like “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev and reactionary philosopher Aleksander Dugin, also flirts with this idea and is called Katehon.
This is why the Kremlin is much more afraid of Alexey Navalny, whose capability of calling hundreds of thousands to protest in the streets depends greatly from his being perceived as a “true Russian”. In a country where it is still common to speak about “us” and “them”, where the “other” can be the West as a whole or just any other country, official propaganda tries to discredit Navalny as a “foreign agent”, while it tries to discredit him as a “nationalist” in liberal Western circles. Navalny, whose origins lie in the perfectly “liberal” pro-Western party Yabloko, chose to explore territories forbidden to his kind, and tried to win the support of different Nationalist groups, even appearing at the ill-famed “Russian March” of extreme right-wingers. A political niche he soon abandoned, probably not only because it was too distant from his own views of a Russia which “can only develop according to the European model”, but also because of its very limited potential: anybody longing for a “Make Russia great again” would be more inclined to find themselves at ease inside Putin's system, especially after the annexation of Crimea and the return of a grand-imperialist rhetoric noted since 2014.
The Russian paradox is that you cannot be a popular politician without being in some way “patriotic”, but if you try to be a patriot you can easily be dismissed as Putin's regime associate. Navalny experimented with both sides: he lost almost a third of his then-followers on Twitter after he openly took the sides of Ukraine in the Maidan revolution and in the war against Russia, and he alienated (or at least worried) a big chunk of liberal public opinion both inside Russia and in the West (not to speak of Ukraine) stating that, as a President, he would not immediately return the peninsula to Kiev. Navalny is riding the great wave of discontent which has become majoritarian in Russia, but he clearly understands that while a demographical change has brought a new generation, immune to Soviet nostalgia and imperial mystics and longing for “European model”, a huge part of Russians despite being disappointed with Putin do not want somebody different, they desire just to bring back the old Putin they lost between wars and rouble's devaluations. Their “patriotism” cannot be transformed into Western Liberalism overnight; it has to be rewired from the “Atomic Orthodox” to something more pragmatic and human-centred to be proud of.