When the first Russian pilots returned to Voronezh air base as part of the recently announced military drawdown from Syria, they were greeted with a hero's welcome. Russian women in folk costumes offered loaves of bread with salt. Robed Orthodox priests gave the pilots icons to kiss. Crowds carrying balloons, flowers and Russian flags hoisted the pilots onto their shoulders and tossed them into the air. It was a picture of patriotism, broadcast live across the nation.
But that picture has changed throughout the years. The sentiment the Kremlin used to shape its interventions in Syria and Ukraine evolved from a kind of nationalism that was often used in the early years of President Vladimir Putin's government. Rabid and inspired, it was based mostly on civic patriotism and duty. Today's nationalism, on the other hand, taps into the deeper identity of the Russian people — their sense of moral virtue, their survival instinct and their belief in Russia as a global power.
In Good Times ...
Nationalism has rallied in tandem with popular support for Putin and his administration. At the beginning of 2016, Putin's approval rating was 81 percent, just shy of the all-time high of 86 percent. Social sentiment in support of the country is also at 82 percent. This comes as Russia remains mired in its second recession in seven years, it is under continuing sanctions by many global powers, and it has failed to prevent former ally Ukraine from shifting toward the West.
Early in his presidency, Putin laid a foundation of national support for himself and his government. He was seen as the savior of Russia, stabilizing the country after the chaos that followed the Soviet Union's collapse. He promised a future of stability and wealth, along with a return to global power. In return, the Russian people offered loyalty and a willingness to disregard the administration's heavy hand.
As the Russian state consolidated most major aspects of the economy — including energy firms, media outlets and the telecommunications industry — the Kremlin vilified the oligarchs who had previously run these industries. The state promoted the idea that it was taking over businesses to make Russia strong again, while the oligarchs were only in it for personal gain. In security matters, Putin blamed the failure of the First Chechen War on his predecessor, and Moscow clamped down on Chechnya, launching a second war. Today Chechnya is fairly stable, and terrorism in Russia is at its lowest level in decades. Moreover, the Chechen leadership is fervently loyal to Moscow, something unimaginable a decade ago.
He promised a future of stability and wealth, along with a return to global power. In return, the Russian people offered loyalty.
Over the past 10 years, the Kremlin harnessed religion as an important tool to foster nationalism. Russian Orthodox affiliation under Putin has skyrocketed: At the start of the 1990s, less than a third of Russians considered themselves Russian Orthodox, as opposed to roughly 72 percent today. The Orthodox revival gave Russians an identity after the years of uncertainty that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin has used this to its advantage, so effectively portraying support for Putin's government as a religious duty that the church is now seen as part of the state apparatus.
Realizing that people born after the fall of the Soviet Union were growing up, the Kremlin started pro-government youth organizations in 2005 to instill a sense of nationalism in the new generation. These groups appealed mainly to lower-class ethnic Russians, giving them a sense of community and structure. The most notable group, Nashi ("Ours"), was created by current presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, who also helped design the plan for a stable Chechnya. At its height, Nashi alone boasted some 150,000 members.
These strategies all hinged on the principles that the state was only as strong as its people's support and that, therefore, support for the state was a civic duty. And Putin's system used them to such success in part because Russia benefited from years of economic plenty at a time when a global challenger — the United States — was distracted with two wars. But nationalism can grow stale, particularly in the face of challenges.
... And in Bad
Things began to change in 2008, when Russia was hit hard by the global financial crisis. Going into the crisis, Putin's popularity was high, bolstered as it was by Russia's success in the war in Georgia. But as the government struggled to keep the country financially stable, the Russian people began to feel as though Putin was not holding up his end of the bargain. His support dropped accordingly.
Dissatisfaction culminated in 2011, when the Russian government, concerned over a decline in support, blatantly tampered with parliamentary elections. The Russian people had mostly ignored such interference in more prosperous years. But this time the flagrant manipulation — combined with a weak economy — sparked mass protests across the country. The protests swelled as Putin announced that he would return for a third term as president. Support for the government tumbled from 88 percent to 61 percent between 2011 and 2012, shaking the very ground on which the Kremlin stood.
The Russian people began to feel as though Putin was not holding up his end of the bargain.
Nationalism could no longer rely solely on civic patriotism. So in recent years, Moscow has incorporated traditional beliefs about Russia's position in the world and the deeply ingrained love of the motherland. To this end, the Kremlin has promoted the idea of Russia as a unique place misunderstood by the rest of the world. Or, as the 19th-century romantic poet Fyodor Tyutchev put it, Russia's "soul is of a special kind, By faith alone appreciated."
In 2012, Russia began the process to formalize its Eurasian Union. Although the concept had been around for decades, Putin put a new spin on the initiative. He promoted the project to the Russian people as a way to protect Russia from future economic crises and to put the country in its natural place as the land bridge between east and west.
The use of the terms "Eurasian" and "land bridge" evokes 19th- and 20th-century Russian philosophers and historians who believed that Russia was neither eastern nor western. Russia was unique. As the bridge between Europe and Asia, Russia and the Russian people are great unifiers. As a result, they are also naturally more enlightened than those who know only Eastern or Western culture, according to Soviet historian Lev Gumilyov, whom Putin frequently mentions in speeches. And while most outsiders would not catch these brief references, the Russian people understand the significance of this exceptionalist attitude.
Overcoming the Past
But the spark that truly revived Russian nationalism came from Ukraine. At first, the Russian government looked weak, having failed to predict the uprising in Kiev that led to the installation of a pro-Western government. Moscow's failure to galvanize large parts of Ukraine against the new government exacerbated this sentiment. In the end, Russia was left supporting just a sliver of breakaway territory in eastern Ukraine.
However, over the past two years, the Kremlin has turned the narrative on its head. Putin has advanced Russia's duty to protect the Ukrainian people from the lawlessness caused by the new government's unconstitutional takeover in Kiev. To emphasize Russia's obligation, Putin has invoked the two countries' historical connection. In a 2014 speech, he called Ukraine Russia's "heartland" and its capital "the mother of all Russian cities." Russia has also alluded to Western-backed color revolutions, claiming that the latest uprising in Kiev was "foreign sponsored." He even compared Russia's support for eastern Ukraine to the West's support for Kosovo. And the rhetoric seems to be working: Currently, more than two-thirds of Russians favor military support in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 boosted pro-Kremlin sentiment in Russia. In a speech to the Duma in the weeks after annexation, Putin compared the action to the 1990 German reunification. With this reference, like the heartland reference before it, Russia framed the annexation as a fulfillment of its historic imperative to reunify the territories. Some 85 percent of Russians now believe Crimea should be part of Russia. Support for Putin rose 10 percent just after the annexation, reaching a three-year peak at 71 percent.
At the same time, the action invited sanctions by the United States and European Union against Russia, bringing a new decline in the Russian economy. Foreign direct investment fell by 67 percent in 2014 to $22 billion, and then 94 percent to only $1.3 billion in 2015. And when oil prices tumbled in 2014, Russia slid into its second recession in seven years. The Kremlin blamed the West for many of Russia's troubles, referring once again to history. In a speech following the sanctions' imposition, Putin concluded that "the notorious policy of confining Russia, pursued in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today." Most Russians feel that the West not only misunderstands them but is also attacking their leader.
Western pressure has fueled Russian nationalism. Russian culture has a generational legacy of survival. Russia's territory is a hostile habitat, with extreme winters and a history of devastating famines and invasions from all sides. And Russians have survived through the direst circumstances, including the Nazis' 900-day blockade of Leningrad during World War II. Russia's current climate of economic recession and isolation from the West has triggered its cultural survival instinct, which has fortified support for the Kremlin.
Most Russians feel that the West not only misunderstands them but is also attacking their leader.
Russia's operations in Syria have filled the Russian people with even more pride. When Russia initially launched airstrikes in Syria, nearly 85 percent of Russians opposed the intervention. Now, the reverse is true, as Russia has not only made progress in its bombing campaign, but also showcased its modernizing military far away from home. In addition, by getting involved in Syria, Russia stood up against objections from NATO — particularly the United States and Turkey — winning even more approval from the Russian public.
The church's repeated references to Russia's intervention as a "holy war" have encouraged these positive feelings. The reference has rekindled the belief in Moscow as the Third Rome, a term first coined by a Russian monk in 1510. Throughout history, from the 18th century to Stalin's rule, the Kremlin has rallied behind the Third Rome concept, positing Russia as the world's moral and ideological leader, the heir to Constantinople and Rome.
Russia intervened in Syria despite Western and Turkish opposition. And however contentious its claim to a victory there, Russia announced its withdrawal with fanfare — a stark contrast to the quiet and defeated withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the late 1980s. It is as if Russians feel they have overcome their past.
Nationalism can be misleading, however. The Kremlin first fostered nationalist feeling to rebuild its state from collapse and chaos. But now the Putin administration is using it to cover the cracks within Russia and to retain its grip on power. Russia has economic problems with no solutions in sight. It is also experiencing a demographic shift that will one day change the religious and cultural fabric of the state. The generation that remembers the heyday of the Soviet period is fading. In 2018, Putin may run for his fourth term as president. The only solution to unify in spite of all these pressures is to draw on a singular sense of Russian nationalism — one deeply rooted in the past.
Unless otherwise specified, all polling numbers are from independent Russian pollster Levada.