From the Russian Empire to the Russian Federation, the world's largest country has always struggled to define itself. Russia sprawls across the top of the Eurasian landmass and encompasses a dizzying array of ethnic groups and petty regional identities. Leaders at the center have each taken their turn in the never-ending quest to overcome these centrifugal forces. President Vladimir Putin is no different. He has searched throughout his nearly 17-year reign for the common thread that will knit together these divisions and muffle dissent against his rule.
In 2012, after two years of fractious political protests, he formed committees to debate social and ethnic policies with the aim of defining what it means to be Russian. The committees failed to reach consensus and fizzled out. Putin has recently decided to renew those efforts. On Oct. 31, he said he supports federal legislation that would clarify the government's understanding of the definition of the Russian nation. This comes at a critical time for Putin, who is facing increasing domestic pressure and mounting challenges abroad.
The stereotypical Russian identity is Slavic, Eastern Orthodox Christian and ethnically Russian. This identity, however, excludes large swaths of the population. For example, the Muslim population in Russia reached 13 percent of the nation this year and is expected to grow. Even the Orthodox Slav umbrella conceals numerous subgroups and divisions. These splits, in particular, are getting deeper. The nation is in the midst of a generational shift. Today, 27 percent of Russians were born after the fall of the Soviet Union. For them, even the instability of the 1990s is a distant memory. This is particularly problematic for Putin, whose legitimacy is based on having quelled the chaos.
The rising generation is divided into three camps: liberal, politically apathetic and ultra-nationalist. The last of these is anti-Muslim and advocates a hyper-aggressive foreign policy. And among all age groups, class divisions are widening amid rising poverty caused by the ongoing recession. This, too, undermines Putin's power, which relies on promises of economic prosperity. Revolution and stalemate in Ukraine have also made the president's promise of increased global influence problematic.
The Kremlin is well aware of these multiplying divisions and has become increasingly paranoid about resistance and instability. The government has passed draconian laws criminalizing protests or speeches critical of the government. And all of this comes with the haunting 99th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution just a week away. The Security Council is already feverishly preparing for the centennial next year and has established a center to develop an approved historical narrative for media and schools to follow. This official history is likely to downplay the toppling of the czar and emphasize instead the stable Soviet system that followed.
The Old Ways
But controlling the message of the Russian Revolution is only part of the strategy. The Kremlin's push for a unifying identity is the second — and more long-term — component. In this, it can look back over a long history for inspiration. The czars vacillated over how to promote unity. The most popular tactic was simply to eliminate diversity entirely. Russification used brutal force to compel minority groups to lay aside their identities and adopt the Russian language, culture and faith. In the mid-19th century, Czar Nicholas I proposed an ideology to replace Russification with a motto known as the Triad: "Autocracy, Nationality, Orthodoxy." This meant that anyone who subscribed to at least one of these could consider themselves Russian. This gentler approach, however, fell apart amid conflicts over which part of the Triad to adhere to.
At least at first, the Soviet bid to unify the nation was more successful. It cast aside ethnic and religious differences and focused on unity under a single class. The model was called "matryoshka" after the classic Russian nesting dolls — a metaphor for the layers of Soviet identity. The concept jettisoned the central role of ethnic Russians under the imperial system and attempted to supersede all political, national, class, gender and ethnic divides. The linchpin of this system was the common enemy and rival global hegemon: the United States. In the face of such an adversary, all were supposedly equal in working for the preservation and glory of the Soviet Union. Cold War tensions were a key reason that Moscow managed to perpetuate a single Soviet identity for more than seven decades. Eventually, however, the energy it took to maintain such a belief system across such a large nation caused the system to break down.
Now Putin has inherited the problem of unity. The current president wants more than an idea. He needs an actionable ideology he can implement at the political and cultural level. In recent years, for example, the Kremlin has managed to mobilize a strong sense of patriotism. Through heavy-handed propaganda, Moscow has used the current stand-off with the United States to rally nationalist fervor against a common enemy. Following Russia's failures to prevent a revolution in Ukraine, it presented Crimea as a source of pride for the Russian people and the subsequent annexation as justified payback. Russia has also used its intervention in Syria as a moral crusade against the Islamic State and alleged U.S. failure. Moscow has drummed up fears in Russia that the United States is attempting to dismantle Russia entirely. The Kremlin has even rekindled fears of a third world war and nuclear conflict. Where the West accuses Russia of aggressive foreign policies, Moscow portrays its acts as heroic defense of the downtrodden, a reaction to U.S. exceptionalist rhetoric or a justified response to aggression.
But unity under the guise of patriotism and a revived Cold War is difficult to maintain. Its activist foreign policy is rapidly draining Russia's financial reserves and sapping both its military and political bandwidth. And the rhetoric also depends on the outcomes of difficult overseas conflicts and unpredictable actions of rivals. Moreover, patriotism tends to ebb and flow around events and ultimately cannot circumvent the much deeper issues Russian citizens face every day. Putin, like the czars and party apparatchiks before him, will continue to struggle with defining and thereby uniting the nation.