Patriotic Euphoria And Anti-Western Paranoia Prevail In Russia
06 June 2014
By Markaz Kavkaz
The Wall Street Journal writes about patriotic
euphoria and anti-Western paranoia that swept over
Russia under the influence of the hysterical KGB
- In the winter of 2012, something surprising happened
to Vladimir Putin: He discovered, as he wrote in a
government newspaper, that Russia isn't just an
ordinary country but a unique "state civilization",
bound together by the ethnic Russians who form its
This was something new. In his previous 12 years in
office, first as Russia's president and then as prime
minister, Putin had generally stayed away from grand
pronouncements on culture and ideology.
And he did not stop there. Elected in March 2012 for a
third term - against the background of the mass
protests against the regime, during which there were
many posters and banners with scornful reviews about
him personally - Putin said next year at the Russian
Federal Assembly, that for such people, as Russian,
with their "great history and culture," the assertion
of independence and self-identity "is an objective and
And Putin wasn't done with this theme. Elected in
March 2012 to a third term as president—in the face of
massive antiregime protests, replete with banners and
posters scorning him personally—he told the Russian
Federal Assembly the following year that it was
"absolutely objective and understandable" for the
Russian people, with their "great history and
culture", to establish their own "independence and
What was this identity? For Putin, it was apparently
easier to say what it was not: It was not, he
continued, "so-called tolerance, neutered and barren",
in which "ethnic traditions and differences" are
eroded and "the equality of good and evil" had to be
accepted "without question."
To Putin, in short, Russia was exceptional because it
was emphatically not like the modern West—or not, in
any event, like his caricature of a corrupt, morally
benighted Europe and US.
This was a bad omen, presaging the foreign policy
gambits against Ukraine that now have the whole world
guessing about Putin's intentions.
There is ample precedent for this sort of rhetoric
about Russian exceptionalism, which has been a staple
of Kremlin propaganda since 2012.
In Russian history, the assertion of cultural
uniqueness and civilizational mission has often served
the cause of political, cultural and social
reaction—for war and imperial expansion, as a
diversion from economic hardship and as a cover for
the venality and incompetence of officials. As the
great 19th-century Russian satirist Mikhail
Saltykov-Shchedrin wrote: "They [the powers that be]
are talking a lot about patriotism—must have stolen
The pedigree of Russian exceptionalism stretches back
to a 16th-century monk, Philotheus of Pskov, a city
about 400 miles northwest of Moscow.
Constantinople had fallen to the Turks a century
earlier and Rome was possessed by the "heresy" of
Catholicism, so it fell to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy,
Philotheus averred, to preserve, strengthen and expand
the only real and pure Christianity: the Russian
Muscovy wasn't just a growing principality but,
Philotheus wrote, a "Third Rome", endowed by God with
a sacred mission to redeem humanity.
Such ideas were ready-made for the centralizing
ambitions of the founders of the modern Russian state,
Vasily III and his son, Ivan IV, known as "The
Terrible." This is how Ivan became "czar," the first
Russian sovereign to be so crowned—a title derived
from Caesar and, in the new state mythology, a ruler
whose authority could be traced back to Augustus
"Two Romes have fallen. The Third [Rome] stands, and
there shall be no Fourth," Philotheus declared with a
literary flourish, which has inspired Russian
messianism ever since. Ivan the Terrible, for his
part, responded during his reign (1547-84) with
incessant wars in the West and the East, imperial
expansion and sadistic purges.
These are the seeds of Putin's newly adopted
worldview. But Russians themselves have often rejected
this notion of national uniqueness. In particular, a
number of Russian leaders have tried time and again to
bring their country into the orbit of the "civilized
In the early 18th century, the brutal modernizer Peter
the Great forced his nobles to shave off their
traditional beards, to swap their Byzantine robes for
stockings, breeches and wigs, and to send their sons
to Europe to learn navigation, engineering and the
Catherine the Great's effort at Westernizing Russia
during her own rule (1762-96) was incomparably milder,
but she was just as determined. Nor was the "Third
Rome" to be found in the discourse of Russia's three
greatest liberalizers: Czar Alexander II, who freed
the serfs in 1861, and Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris
Yeltsin, who brought the Soviet Union to an end and
explicitly sought what they called a "road to the
By contrast, Putin's recent rhetoric harks back to
Russia's two most reactionary rulers: the 19th-century
czars Nicholas I and his grandson, Alexander III.
These are the sovereigns who made Russia's secret
political police a key state institution, with
Alexander giving it virtually unlimited powers by
declaring, in effect, a perennial state of emergency.
At the same time, Russia's allegedly distinctive
identity was crystallized in the official state
ideology of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality."
With minor linguistic adjustments, this slogan of
Nicholas I and Alexander III seems now to have been
adopted by Putin.
One of the most troubling aspects of this concept of
Russian uniqueness is that it is has been defined
largely in opposition to an allegedly hostile and
predatory West. According to Putin's favorite
philosopher, the émigré Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954),
"Western nations don't understand and don't tolerate
Russian identity…They are going to divide the united
Russian 'broom' into twigs to break those twigs one by
one and rekindle with them the fading light of their
own civilization." Putin often quotes Ilyin and
recently assigned his works to regional governors.
(In 2006, more light on the identity of I. Ilyin was
shed by the then head of the Austrian Bureau of the
Moscow newspaper "Duel" in Vienna A.V. Dubrov. He
writes: "I pondered a lot thought why Putin brought to
Moscow from Switzerland for "reburial" the corpse of
"the well-known Russian nationalist philosopher" Ivan
Ilyin. Has the Kremlin gone crazy or what? Has the
world turned upside down? It became clear soon.
Apparently, the mother of a "Russian philosopher" bore
the name Julia Schweykert. I studied his photos. All
fits together. He was a senior Mason. When National
Socialists came to power in Germany, he was
immediately cleaned out of a German university. "Poor
and unfortunate", he had to spend his time during the
war as professor at a university in Switzerland. The
Kremlin is so predictable in creating myths. "Russian
nationalist philosopher" turned out to be a typical
"victim of Holocaust" - KC).
One can hear distinct echoes of Ilyin's views in the
fiery speech that Putin delivered this past March
after Russia's annexation of Crimea. The West, Putin
said, "preferred to be guided not by international law
in its practical policies but by the rule of the gun"
and wished to "drive Russia into the corner." He
traced this hostility as far back as the 18th century
and said that, in the post-Soviet era, Russia "has
always been deceived, has always been [confronted
with] decisions made behind its back".
In Putin's view, it is the West's intention to
interfere with Russia's historic mission and to thwart
the rightful "integration of the Eurasian space." As
for those in Ukraine who resisted this effort, he
described them as boeviki (fighters), a term that,
until then, had been used only to designate Muslim
militants fighting in Russia's North Caucasus.
Putin's other innovation was to label the critics of
his regime not just as "fifth columnists" but as
"national-traitors," natsional-predateli (anti-Putin
critics see it as a compliment - KC).
Putin's approval ratings, which fell to the low point
of his career at the end of 2013, are now sky-high.
How could they not be? Russian government propaganda
about the Ukraine crisis goes completely unchallenged
on state-owned and state-controlled national
television networks, where 94% of Russians get their
news. In this coverage, Putin is presented as the
defender of the motherland and his ethnic Russian
brethren in Ukraine, who are said to suffer assault,
torture and butchery at the hands of the "junta of
fascists" in Kiev.
It is hard, then, not to be troubled by Putin's
suddenly opining, at the end of his four-hour call-in
television show last month, about the "generous
Russian soul" and the "heroism and self-sacrifice"
that allegedly sets ethnic Russians apart from "the
The last time Russians were praised in similar terms
was in Stalin's famous toast at the May 24, 1945,
victory reception in the Kremlin for the commanders of
the Red Army. The dictator extolled ethnic Russians as
"the leading people," blessed with "steadfast
character" and "patience" and, most of all, an
unshakable "trust in the government".
As he spoke, Stalin was putting hundreds of thousands
of those very same Russians through the hell of
"filtration camps" and in cattle cars on the way to
even greater suffering in the Gulag, where many of
them died. The toast also presaged the end of wartime
cooperation with the West, still greater repression at
home and a campaign of aggressive, exclusionary
Asked in a 2012 poll if their country needs to have a
political opposition, more Russians agreed than
disagreed. In polls over the past six months, a
majority also endorsed the propositions that a state
should be under society's control and that power
should be distributed among different political
institutions, rather than being concentrated under one
Russians also have abiding doubts about Putin. In a
2013 poll by the Levada Center, Russia's most credible
independent polling firm, Putin was "admired" by 2% of
Russians and "liked" by 18% (the corresponding numbers
in 2008 were 9% and 40%), while 23% were either "wary"
of him, could say "nothing good" about him or disliked
him, and 22% were either "neutral" or "indifferent."
Asked if they thought that Putin was guilty of the
abuse of power, 52% answered "undoubtedly" or
"probably" (13% were convinced that it wasn't true,
while 18% thought that it didn't matter, even if
Perhaps most alarmingly for Putin, more than 50% of
Russians in another Levada poll in April 2013 didn't
want him to remain president after 2018. In the words
of Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, by
January of 2014, "Putin stopped being a 'Teflon'
In today's Russia, these sentiments have been drowned
in a wave of patriotic euphoria and anti-Western
paranoia, the newspaper concludes.