The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Surveys show Russian nationalism is on the rise. This explains a lot about the country’s foreign and domestic politics.

The Russian and Olympic flags fly side-by-side during the 2014 Olympic Games in the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia. (KAY NIETFELD/Eureopean Pressphoto Agency)
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Is nationalism what really drives Russian politics?

Many politicians and political scientists (including, for example, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Zbigniew Brzezinski) argue that the 2014 annexation of Crimea showed President Vladimir Putin’s desire to construct the “Soviet Union 2.0” — and direct global affairs once more. Nationalism has been used to explain everything from Russia’s intervention in Syria, Russia’s unusually large number of hate crimes and the regime’s rush to host sporting mega-events such as the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup.

Understanding nationalist sentiment in Russia — and how it might direct the country’s future foreign policy decisions — prompted the Research Council of Norway to fund a three-year research project. The Nation-building and Nationalism in Today’s Russia (NEORUSS) study analyzed surveys conducted in 2013 by the Russian polling agency Romir. National surveys polled Russians’ views of nationalism and national identity. Romir also conducted surveys in Moscow, Vladivostok and the southern cities of Krasnodar and Stavropol. Some of the surveys were then replicated in 2014, post-Crimea.

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Yes, Russian nationalism is on the rise

Pal Kolsto and Helge Blakkisrud edited “The New Russian Nationalism” (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), which examines the survey results. Here are some of the main findings.

Ethnic Russian nationalism has been growing since the fall of the Soviet Union, along with attempts by the regime to commandeer it — what Emil Pain terms “imperial nationalism.” On the one hand, Putin and his administration recognize the leading role of the ethnic Russian people in forming the Russian state. On the other, naked ethnic nationalism could provoke separatism in a multiethnic country such as the Russian Federation. Imperial nationalism offers a middle ground. Putin can present the country as a great power and tie a desire for ethnic greatness to the greatness of the state.

Imperial nationalism is tied to Russians’ belief that Russia represents a Europe different from the one supposedly dominated by American-led liberalism. The figure below demonstrates that more Russians in all four of the survey cities identified Russia as being either its own civilization or a mixture of European/Asian civilizations. Fewer respondents considered Russia basically part of European civilization — a notable finding, since the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, saw the Soviet Union as part of a “common European home” that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

There’s a growing “ethnification” in Russian nationalism that has helped give rise to militant Russian nationalist sentiment, as Pal Kolsto describes in Chapter 1 of the survey volume. This sentiment in part traces back to the end of the Soviet Union, when Russia became a state dominated by ethnic Russians.

Russian radical nationalists headed to Crimea

Until the early 2000s, Russia was fragmented among different groups supporting a restoration of the USSR, anti-Westernism and anti-Semitism. Since 2000, nationalist sentiment has turned against “culturally alien” migrants (those from Central Asia and the Caucasus). There has been growing support for preferential treatment for ethnic Russians, as seen in the “Russia for Russians” movement (see the chart below).

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This sentiment poses major challenges to the stability of the regime and, correspondingly, international politics.

In annexing Crimea, Putin managed to steal the thunder of the supremacist Russian nationalists. But as long as waves of migrants who are perceived as culturally alien keep coming, the storm clouds will still exist and influence Russian politics. The regime will have the unpalatable choice of allowing the growth of radical forces vehemently opposed to democracy, even its “managed” variety, or yielding to popular demands to create an apartheid state.

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Imperial nationalism also helps explain a decline in hate crimes, which fell off sharply in 2014. In 2008, according to Russian NGO statistics, Russia had an enormous number of racist (and LGBT and other minority) murders. In fact, Russia had the highest level of hate crimes anywhere in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Some Russians were frustrated by the regime’s unwillingness to vigorously to support ethnonationalist causes inside and outside Russia. This frustration, at times, manifested itself in violence against those perceived to be culturally different.

Although hate crimes in Russia remained at exceptionally high levels, compared with other countries, in the early 2010s, the regime’s intervention in eastern Ukraine prompted an outflow of radical nationalists to support the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine. But the return of these radical nationalists (who now have combat experience) might mean a much more militant, and even terrorist, radical nationalist scene at home.

Chapter 3 of the survey volume, by Alexander Verkhovsky, details the evolution of the highly fragmented radical nationalist scene since 2007-2008, the years that saw the highest number of hate crimes in Russia. In 2007, for example, a video of the grisly murders of two “colonizers” from the Caucasus underneath a Nazi flag in a forest circulated on the Internet.

Verkhovsky argues that the Russian government began to repress and co-opt the radical nationalist movement in 2008. In particular, he notes the “totally unexpected anti-migrant campaign conducted over several months on Russian television” in 2013, which featured vigilante groups assisting federal police authorities in raids on migrant dormitories and led to “an unprecedented rise in ethno-xenophobia in society.”

A return to realpolitik

The authors bring up an interesting point — the idea that present-day Russia actually looks a lot like the Russian empire nearly 100 years ago. From the Kremlin’s re-invigoration of a Cossack movement last seen in the 19th century through promoting local Cossack organizations and empowering street patrols to popular references to the Russian empire, not the Soviet Union, the evidence suggests that the 70 years of Soviet rule were a break from the natural state of the country.

But, as Mikhail Alexseev and Henry Hale detail in Chapter 7 of the survey findings, Russians don’t seem interested in expanding Russia. Comparing the results of a national survey in May 2013 and November 2014, seven months after the official annexation of Crimea, national pride was high and increased slightly in the later survey. Yet the 2014 survey showed a marked decline in support for further territorial expansion.

So maybe Russia’s current international relations should not be labeled a “Cold War II” scenario. Perhaps a more suitable understanding would be a “return to realpolitik.” Any peaceful resolution to future or ongoing international confrontations will have to take account of pressures on the Kremlin.

Richard Arnold is associate professor of political science at Muskingum University, where he teaches classes on Russian politics and works on a number of projects related to Russian nationalism. His book, “Russian Nationalism and Ethnic Violence,” is due out from Routledge in June 2016.