20 years under Putin: a timeline

The 70th anniversary of the victory over Germany in World War II has been increasingly viewed in Russia as an unprecedented event of historic and national scale. This view has been shaped by the sharp rise of patriotic sentiment caused by the Kremlin’s adventures in Ukraine and hysterical propaganda in the state media. According to independent Russia analyst Ezekiel Pfeifer, the tragedy of today’s patriotic campaign is that it relies on deceit and obscures the fact that Putin has failed to foster real achievements for Russians to take pride in.


Side effects of Putin’s patriotism push have been rising nationalism and encouragement for hard-liners who favor an even more authoritarian style of government. Photo: AP


On May 9, more than 78,000 people will celebrate Victory Day by parading through the streets of 40 cities across Russia, from Khabarovsk in the Far East to Kaliningrad in the west, with more than 1,800 military vehicles and weapons on display. For the grandest show in Moscow, special projectors will further brighten a massive array of fireworks, while artillery guns will fire off 30 salvos and small armaments will discharge 10,000 volleys. More than 15 warships will travel down the River Neva in St. Petersburg, and more than 2,000 Yekaterinburg residents will dance a coordinated waltz, after which they will spell out the word “spasibo” in a message to World War II veterans.

What is the point of these grandiose demonstrations? The main goal is to boost patriotic sentiment, of course. President Vladimir Putin has made this a priority in recent years, clamping down on dissent after the massive protests against his rule in 2011–2012 and turning up the volume of propaganda efforts. Russia’s hosting of the Sochi Olympics and the annexation of Crimea last year rallied Russians around the government even more. The effect of these policies is clear: while in 2006, 48 percent of Russians told a national pollster that they were proud of their country, last month 70 percent said they were. (To be fair, Russia’s GDP also more than doubled over that time, so that’s certainly had an effect as well.)

The tragedy of this campaign is that it relies on deceit and obscures the fact that Putin’s Kremlin has failed to foster real achievements for Russians to take pride in. Potentially worse, it has created a stockpile of patriotic sentiment that Putin may misuse, or lose control of altogether.

Victory Day, which marks the Allied forces’ defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, has always been a beloved Russian holiday because of the enormous and tragic role played by the Soviet people in repelling Hitler. In a recent poll, 42 percent of Russians cited Victory Day as one of the most important holidays to them, making it the third-most cited day after the New Year (80 percent) and loved ones’ birthdays (44 percent). Some see a new artificiality in the way that state officials are celebrating the day this year, however: in Yakutia, divers are planning to take a World War II victory flag to the bottom of a lake, while in Nizhny Novgorod vendors are wrapping vodka bottles in St. George’s ribbons, actions that one commentator says would never have happened in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s. These regional actions mirror recent stunts by the federal government, which sent a World War II victory flag to the International Space Station.

Some of these officials and vendors are likely doing these things just to please higher-ups and to show loyalty to the state line. Similarly, some of the extreme steps being taken to get rid of every swastika and image of Nazis—including removing toy Nazi soldiers from a Moscow toy store and taking an anti-Nazi comic book off the shelves because it had a swastika on the cover—are apparently motivated by the desire to avoid possible inquiries by overzealous officials. But some of these activities are likely motivated by real fears that, just as in World War II, Russia is currently under attack and needs to be unified and defended—because Putin and other senior officials constantly give the impression that this is the case (and some of them seem to believe that this is actually true). There is also another, more frightening, possibility: that many Russians are suffering from a form of Stockholm syndrome. That is, having been essentially captured by the Putin regime, they are supporting it out of a survival instinct. Writer and artist Andrei Bilzho, who is also a trained psychiatrist, has said the trend of people putting St. George’s ribbons on everything from trash carts to BMWs represents something close to “mass psychosis.”

Using these tools of manipulation and playing on Russians’ pride and fear, Putin is effectively stockpiling patriotism. But why, and what will he do with it?

First, the Kremlin is clearly using this campaign as part of its crisis plan: Given Russia’s current economic woes and the additional tribulations to come, the government wants to gain as much support as possible. This will help rally people in the face of adversity and could help prevent popular unrest over the economic downturn.

A second possible use for this cache of patriotic feeling is as fuel for a future incursion into Ukraine, perhaps one that is open, unlike the current covert war. The Kremlin would likely need to spend some political capital to convince people of the need for a more open confrontation, given that more than 60 percent of Russians say they feel positively toward Ukrainians and 40 percent say they think Russia’s top priority vis-à-vis Ukraine should be restoring friendly ties.

If Putin continues trying to puff up the nation’s collective ego using these weapons, things will only get worse. And then the supply of patriotic sentiment he has collected will dissipate like air out of a balloon—or, if he blows the balloon too hard, it will explode.

A potentially dangerous outcome of Putin’s manipulations is that he may lose control of this stockpile of patriotic sentiment and that it may fall into the hands of unpredictable forces. Side effects of the patriotism push have been rising nationalism and encouragement for hard-liners who favor an even more authoritarian style of government. Figures in this camp such as Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, Federal Security Service chief Alexander Bortnikov, pro-Kremlin philosopher Alexander Dugin, and former Donetsk separatist leader Igor Girkin—representatives of a group that one Putin adviser apparently calls the "hotheads"—have been increasingly gaining prominence and influence. Putin is famously known as being a master arbiter of the disputes between these forces and more liberal players, but many fear that the current atmosphere could cause him to lose his grip on the hard-liners. The brazen killing of Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin in late February and Putin’s subsequent week-long disappearance from public view fed speculation that powerful ultra-conservatives were gaining strength. A brewing conflict between the federal security apparatus and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has provided a glimpse of just how dangerous this situation could become for Russia’s stability.

These are all hypothetical results of the patriotism policy. But perhaps the worst thing about it is its very nature: it is deceptive and backward-looking. It is largely built on state propaganda that rests on the lie that the Western world is out to destroy Russia, and it is built around glorification of the past instead of plans for the future. Comments by hard-liner Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov in a recent interview on English-language state channel RT serve as an example of these problems: “In the U.S. and certain Western European nations, politicians are intentionally trying to rewrite history and distort facts, for instance, by equating communism and fascism,” Ivanov said. “None of this is accurate—it is simply false. Our veterans, just like the majority of Russians, will never agree with this. And as more time passes, Western countries are more persistently resorting to what I think is this rather unethical approach in order to isolate Russia.”

He later said that “in European countries,” 60 percent of people believe that the United States and the United Kingdom played the deciding role in defeating Nazi Germany instead of the Soviet Union, while only 40 percent of these people thought so 10 years ago. The factual merits of these statements can be argued, but their intent is clear: they are aimed at making people think that Russia is under assault by the West. This is simply not true, and it distracts people from the truly pressing issues the country faces.

Meanwhile, the pomp of the Victory Day celebrations—Ivanov spent the first part of his interview talking about the billions of rubles being spent, the thousands of people participating, and the dozens of cities where events will take place—underscores the Kremlin’s emphasis on past victories and its lack of an effective plan for the future. Not that it completely lacks a plan—it plans to spend tens of billions of dollars to improve the military, for example, and Ivanov mentioned the brand-new equipment that will be on display May 9, such as the Armata tank. But even this spending may not be effective, since Russia’s military-industrial complex is a mess. More importantly, economists like former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin say that these massive defense outlays make it impossible for the country to invest adequately in more vital areas, such as infrastructure and education.

During Soviet times, spending may have been badly allocated in favor of massive state projects, such as the Space Race, but at least the country competed for first place back then, giving Soviet citizens something to be proud of. Compare that to Russia’s current space industry, another recipient of significant state funding: the flagship Vostochny cosmodrome in the Far East has been plagued by delays and worker protests, and the recent Progress shuttle failed to reach the International Space Station as intended and will fall to Earth, the latest in a long line of failures. (In a perhaps fitting coincidence, the remains of the Progress shuttle are set to fall on Victory Day.)

As a result, almost 70 percent of Russians see the future as murky and have little sense of what direction the country is moving in or what goals the government has. The state has admittedly made certain efforts to modernize, taking steps such as encouraging technology startups. But these kinds of initiatives, touted prominently by Dmitry Medvedev when he was president, have received much less attention from Putin and the current regime. Putin is obsessed with sovereignty and territory, apparently believing that Russia can regain great-power status through warfare waged with guns, gas, and propaganda. If he continues trying to puff up the nation’s collective ego using these weapons, things will only get worse. And then the supply of patriotic sentiment he has collected will dissipate like air out of a balloon—or, if he blows the balloon too hard, it will explode.