Managing patriotism: how the government “helps” the Russians understand the world

The debate about public support for Kremlin’s foreign policy often start from such notions as the effect of “rallying around the flag”, or assume that the abundance of Patriotic broadcast in the national media stimulates support the official foreign policy. However, patriotism is an insidious concept, and it is not clear that the Patriotic mood directly transformed in support of the foreign policy of the government. Despite constantly increasing over the last fifteen years the Kremlin’s efforts to intensify Patriotic education, presentation of Russian citizens about patriotism diverse, sometimes contradictory and often apolitical. Consideration of the understanding of “domestic patriotism” Russians provides the ability to identify the sources and limits of support for the Kremlin’s foreign policy.

In this article, we review the results of the 65 in-depth interviews conducted with Russian citizens in Tyumen (2014) and Perm (2015), followed by focus groups with civil servants, pensioners and students in Perm. Respondents were asked questions about their daily life, about what it means to be a patriot, their understanding of the Motherland, about the difference between patriotism and nationalism, their thoughts about the Soviet era and the 1990s, and the duty of a patriot.

Official and everyday patriotism

Since 2001, the Russian government began to pay special attention to Patriotic education. A special state program focused on military-Patriotic education using mass media, public organizations, scientists and lawyers. In the face of increasing external challenges, the task has become a priority. Accordingly, the draft program for 2016-2020 offers budget increase by more than 300% to 1.9 billion rubles. Head executors of the state programme are the Ministry of defense, EMERCOM, the Ministry of culture, Ministry of education and science and Federal Agency for press and mass communications/Rospechat.

The draft programme for 2016 understand patriotism as a set of social principles and practices: “[Patriotism is] a basic orientation of social behavior of citizens, expressing the higher meaning of life and activities of the individual, the manifestation of duty and responsibility, shaping the understanding of a citizen of Russia of the priority of public interests over individual up to self-sacrifice, disregard of the danger to personal life and health while protecting the interests of the Fatherland.”

In contrast to this interpretation, the majority of Russians defines patriotism simply as “love of country”. In General, the patriotism in the eyes of most is seen as something apolitical and very personal. For example, the celebration of Victory Day — is associated with patriotism, as the Soviet Union suffered in the Second world war huge losses were seen in almost every family. Emphasizing the importance of family ties, the participants in interviews and focus groups indicated that the action “Immortal regiment”, and has a powerful emotional effect on viewers and participants. At the same time, about the exploitation by the authorities of such characters as George ribbon, opinions were divided.

Respondents identified the patriotism mostly from the point of view of space and culture: to do my job, to take care of their neighbors and relatives, not to leave his native city (or from Russia), to preserve the Russian language and cultural traditions, to teach and study the Russian history. At the same time citizens vary patriotism in General, and the concept of “being a patriot”: the latter concept has a political connotation. In other words, patriotism — personal, normative, and abstract, while “to be a patriot” this is public policy. Respondents were considerably embarrassed and even worried when they were asked what it means to be a patriot in today’s Russia. In almost every case, they said, if I was interested in their personal opinion or how it is understood all other.

Patriotic practices and foreign policy

Among the many associated with patriotism practices identified two sets associated with Russian foreign policy. The first set includes the respondents ‘ assessments of the policy (the comparison and nostalgia). The second set concerns individual action or subjectivity (opposition, protection and consumption).

Comparison. Regardless of the political orientation of respondents, comparisons with the West are used to demonstrate the normality of Russia: it commits the same error in the historical development, is also nostalgic about the past, committed to the same universal goals and values. Some respondents even expressed concern that the Russians insufficiently Patriotic compared to Americans or Ukrainians. However, during the second series of interviews (particularly pensioners and civil servants) began to emphasize the normality of cultural differences between collectivist and individualistic Russia of the West.

Nostalgia. In today’s Russia, nostalgia is primarily focused on the late Soviet period, and more specifically on the experience of the Soviet young people. For older generations and distinctive memories about participation in the pioneer organization, production brigades or the Moscow Olympics of 1980. Respondents often emphasized that the nostalgia for the Soviet past has a political component, although in the focus groups it influenced the evaluation of social policy.

A different picture gives the study of Russian youth. As shown by interviews in focus groups with students of Russian universities, nostalgia for Soviet times launching various narratives: through rose-colored glasses, students can see that the Russians were functioning in the state, guaranteed employment, excellent education, social capital, safety and respect, a high standard of living at low prices. For all generations of nostalgia associated with the concepts of normality, and this time the normality of the data is defined through narratives of the Soviet past. In contrast to the more ambivalent practices of comparison, nostalgia strengthens perceptions of Russia as having its own, separate from the West way.

Opposition. For those who are skeptical of the government, to be a modern patriot means to consider the enemies of the United States, NATO and the West in General. As expressed by one Respondent, “we are surrounded by enemies. We could do something good or noble, but they hinder us”. The opposition does not have to take the form of war; it was interpreted more as protection than as aggression. For most, the juxtaposition of the West’s adequate response to Western sanctions (import substitution) and for Western intervention in the Affairs of Ukraine (assistance to refugees or Donbass). The juxtaposition is justified because of the illegal actions of allies from Western countries (the most recent example was Turkey), a malicious image of Russia Western propaganda and overall perception of the behaviour of the West in the history of its relations with Russia as arrogant and exploitative.

It is worth noting that the opposition as a practice smoothly moves from external to internal enemies. Some of those who support the regime, depict opponents as a “fifth column” or “agents of influence”. However, almost all respondents described participation in politics as contrary to patriotism: if patriotism is individual and a real love for the country, politicians are trying to turn this love and distort it for their own purposes. Belt-tightening in the era of sanctions for many means that bureaucrats and politicians have no right to travel abroad or own foreign assets.

Protection. As a Patriotic practice protection is widespread and, at the same time, diverse. In an interview with defense associated with a number of sites — the home, government interests, domestic markets, ecology, historical memory, and so on. In this sense, the protection is rather abstract principle depends on the perception of threat. Of course, some respondents believed that there is a direct internal threat, expanding the concept at the expense of defending the country from enemy agents. One Respondent noted: “I don’t know foreign agents, however, I’m sure they exist. No wonder they talk about [in the media]”. Most respondents identified patriotism with the constitutional duty to defend the country (note, this was one of those rare occasions when the Constitution mentioned in conversations about patriotism), and regardless of, whether they served in the army.

Consumption. While respondents virtually ignored the consumption as a Patriotic practice in 2014, he began to mention the end of 2015. Through this practice one can imagine the impact of the pervasive public discourse about sanctions, import substitution and economic crisis. Respondents talked about buying local and Russian products in General, but many were able to cite specific examples.

Mechanisms Patriotic simplification

Patriotism is a complicated concept, although most people intuitively expect simplicity. In focus group discussions repeatedly reached the point where participants noted that the understanding of patriotism is overloaded and goes beyond common sense. Foreign policy is also complex and contradictory, but with some moment of Patriotic citizens replacing complex understanding, using a variety of cognitive strategies.

Some people simplify foreign policy through personifications: they describe such prominent political figures as Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as home-loving people and believe that their actions are reduced to this love. Public servants most prone to personification; in this case, it often translates into a direct accusation of foreign countries (especially Western Europe and the United States). In a typical skirmish, one of the participants of the focus group said: “Most of the country supports [Putin]. When we say “Crimea is ours”, we are giving America what she deserves… It’s inspiring.” The connection of patriotism with family also found its expression through the rejection of homosexuality as a disease of the West, threatening family values in Russia.

Others resort to simplification through the appointment of those responsible: the foreign policy problems are due to the unfortunate consequence of myopia or unlawful acts of other States. In the end, Russia is limited in its ability to do the right thing in international Affairs. In group discussions most of all pensioners were inclined to apportion blame. Mostly they were concerned about American soft power and America’s plans to “divide” the Russian society.

Simplification can also be carried out by means of externalization, in which an intuitive understanding of patriotism and morality associated with the role of the state in international relations. Most often, it involves nostalgia for the Soviet period. As quipped one Respondent, “as a patriot, I do not know the Russian national anthem. But I know the Soviet national anthem, which I learned in school.” Students tended to externalize, assessing the current state of Affairs in accordance with Soviet achievements in domestic and foreign policy. However, students also tend to link the nostalgia for the Soviet past with modern forms of consumption. Students also appreciated the humanitarian aid to Eastern Ukraine and other regions as evidence of the growing influence of Russia on international Affairs to the level of the USSR. At the same time, they were much better informed about the constitutional structure of the state and believed that politically active citizens are useful to Russia.

Conclusion: from the Patriotic practices to accountability policy

You should pay attention to what concepts were not mentioned as relevant to foreign policy. Religion and in particular Christianity, is barely seen in this context. Despite the popularization of the “new Russia” in the official and media levels, on the Royal period in connection with the Patriotic practice, was mentioned by very few respondents. It is also worth noting that ethnic nationalism, often referred to in discussions about patriotism, is rarely present in the estimates of foreign policy or policy of the Kremlin towards Ukraine. Finally, in the context of foreign policy never mentioned corruption, although respondents with disapproval spoke about the desire of the elite to travel abroad and send their children to live and study abroad. The fact that these various practices was not mentioned in interviews and focus groups, is strikingly dissonant with the conceptualizations of Russian foreign policy the Western experts and the media, often equating support of Putin to more or less the unanimous support of all that makes the Kremlin.

Overall, three of the previous analysis of the mechanism of Patriotic simplification based on extended assessment comparisons and nostalgia. However, among social groups is manifested in different ways: among public servants protection easily to personification, the opposition in the appointment of the guilty among pensioners, and consumption goes into the externalization among the students.

Each mechanism thus varies through the prism of the problems of accountability in foreign policy. Combination of protection and personalization, in fact, gives the Russian leadership a carte Blanche; it is not surprising that these practices are most characteristic of civil servants. The combination of contrast and purpose of the perpetrators transformirovalsya in support of the foreign policy of the pensioners, but with a greater degree of skepticism and distrust of the media. Finally, consumption and externalization entails the application of high regulatory standards for the conduct of international Affairs and their linkages with domestic consumption. The fact that the last combination is the most characteristic of modern students, means that for Russian foreign policy, perhaps to the greatest extent, ensures the younger generation. It is not surprising that this generation, which is the target audience of the State program of Patriotic education, are most familiar with the formal structure and activities of state institutions. While the younger generation often expresses his patriotism through consumption, and it can be expected that it will be more sensitive to the effects of the prolonged economic downturn in the country.

Original: J. Paul Goode. “Everyday Patriotism and Putin’s Foreign Policy PONARS Eurasia

The authors ‘ point of view, articles which are published in the section “Opinions” may not coincide with ideas of editorial.