MOSCOW — Among Vladimir Putin’s headaches as he headed into the weekend were an international tug of war over a medieval saint, an infamous revolution he would rather that no one remembered and crowds of angry men calling for his imprisonment.
And you think you had a rough week.
The Russian president, when he is not fighting a proxy war with the United States in Syria or trying to outwit U.S. presidential campaign managers, has a day job that entails keeping together a massive multiethnic country whose 140 million people, 25 years into Russia’s post-Soviet existence, still struggle to find a common message to rally around.
And because there is no serious political opposition, internal dissent, no second-guessing — “Vladimir Putin’s only adviser is Vladimir Putin,” says Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy radio — it falls to the Russian leader to address the problem himself.
Putin has tried mixing and matching shards of Russia’s fragmented history to create a version his countrymen can embrace while discarding some of the uglier material. He has tried to come up with a “national idea” for them no fewer than three times: After toying with “competitiveness” and “saving people,” earlier this year he told a meeting of regional business leaders that he had settled on “patriotism.” He has publicly asked legislators to define the “Russian nation” by law, although there is confusion about what that means.
“We don’t really know what it’s going to be,” Ildar Gilmutdinov, head of the legislative committee charged with drafting the bill, acknowledged last week.
A recent poll published by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that 44 percent of respondents to the question said the country had found unity, down from 54 percent a year ago.
Then there was Friday’s national holiday, the first day of the three-day weekend in November that used to be reserved in Russia for celebrations of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In 2005, the Kremlin replaced that with National Unity Day, a commemoration of an early 17th-century military victory credited with ending the strife-torn years called the Time of Troubles. It was a way to let Russian people keep their long weekend without the annual reminder that a rabble of commoners can overthrow an autocrat.
More recently, Unity Day has evolved into an effort to contain and co-opt nationalist sentiment among ethnic Russians, and head off the chance that any of the country’s 190 or so ethnic minorities will spring the kind of separatist ambitions that led to more than a decade of bloodshed in Chechnya.
At first glance, the holiday on Friday went spectacularly: Braving a damp, chilly snow, tens of thousands of marchers moved peacefully through a heavy police presence in central Moscow, waving the Russian tricolor and banners proclaiming “We Are United” and “United We Cannot Be Defeated,” and chanting slogans such as “Motherland! Freedom! Putin!”
Outside the Kremlin, Putin unveiled a large statue of Grand Prince Vladimir, who according to legend converted eastern Slavs to Orthodox Christianity in 988. He praised his medieval namesake as a farsighted ruler who “laid down a moral foundation that defines our lives to this day.”
That brought a rebuke from Ukraine, in conflict with Russia since Moscow seized Crimea in 2014, which sent a tweet reminding the Russians that Prince Vladimir — called Volodymyr in Ukrainian — ruled from Kiev, where his statue has gazed over the Dnieper River for generations.
More worrisome discord on Unity Day was found closer to home, in a southeastern Moscow neighborhood where hundreds of ultranationalists chanted “Glory to the White Race.” One slogan made an allusion to sending Putin to a prison colony in the Far East; another chanted a sinister response to the more benign slogan repeated downtown: “Blood, fatherland, faith.” Grim riot police with batons kept the crowd in control; authorities agreed to allow the protest just before Unity Day, fearing an unsanctioned rally might get violent.
“There’s this sense that this holiday hasn’t taken root,” was the deadpan comment of Russia-24 TV analyst Peter Lidov. “Something is missing.”
Putin is not the first Kremlin leader to try, and fail, to come up with a miracle pill for unification.
In the dying days of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to consolidate the country with his idea of socialism “with a human face.” Boris Yeltsin made anti-Communism his rallying cry until the Communists were gone; then he told Russia’s regions to “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow,” which led to years of conflict in Chechnya. Yeltsin’s most loyal newspaper then held a contest, but no one came up with a Russian slogan that stuck like, say, “the American Dream.”
In a way, Putin has come the closest to that. The English word “Russian” is actually the translation of two distinct concepts: “Russky,” which refers to ethnic Russians; and “rossiisky,” which is in the formal Russian name for the country and refers to the nation as a whole, similar to what many Americans mean when they say “Americans.”
On National Unity Day, when Putin took that concept for a spin, handing out the first-ever medals for service to the rossiisky nation, other people started saying it.
So there’s that.