Friday, October 31, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Playing with Russian Nationalism Already Backfiring

Paul Goble


            Staunton, October 31 – Like so many Moscow leaders before him, Vladimir Putin’s incautious and insensitive playing with Russian nationalism is backfiring in his multi-national country, raising questions about how well he understands its nature and leading Russian nationalists to act in ways certain to infuriate the non-Russian quarter of the population.


            Responding to a question at the recent Sochi meeting of the Valdai Club, Putin acknowledged that “patriotism can grow over into nationalism” and that “this is a dangerous tendency.” But then he said something which undercut his own comments: the Kremlin leader said he is “the biggest nationalist in Russia” (


            Putin qualified that declaration by saying “the most correct nationalism is the arranging of actions and policies in such a way that this will work for the good of the people, but if under nationalism is understood intolerance to other peoples and chauvinism, this will destroy our country which from the beginning has been a multi-national and poly-confessional state.”


            Such comments, Erik Khanymamedov, a Central Asian who blogs from Volgograd, might be ignored if they were made by another leader in another state, but “in multi-national Russia … such presidential words about ‘the biggest nationalist’ will be taken by many practically as a direct instruction for actions that will be far from seemly.”


            At a minimum, they will intensify “the everyday intolerance to other ethnoses” on display in Russia and particularly “great power chauvinism” among ethnic Russians toward minorities. Indeed, some of the latter will ignore all the nuances of Putin’s remark and assume that his self-identification as a Russian nationalist justifies their own attitudes and actions.


            Khanymamedov says that he remains “deeply convinced” that the Soviet Union fell apart because of ethnic issues rather than economic ones and that Putin does not appear to understand that or that “a certain part of [Russia’s] population will immediately arise [as a result of the president’s words] the destructive formula ‘Beat … and save Russia!’”


            That is all the more likely, he continues, because Putin on numerous other occasions has insisted that Central Asians coming to Russia to work must know and respect Russian ways, even though many Russians do not know anything about Central Asia and even though his remarks generate doubts about what he knows.


            Indeed, Khanymamedov says, Putin’s remarks lead one to recall the words of Yury Andropov that “We do not know the country in which we are living.”


            In Soviet times, he continues, it was possible for the leader not to be an ethnic Russian. Indeed, for most of the life of the USSR, its leaders came from other nationalities. That was a reflection of “the true nature of justice” in that system. But now, the Volgograd blogger says, the situation has changed, and one can’t imagine a Central Asian or Caucasian as Russian president.


            Today brought a report that suggests some Russians are reading Putin’s latest comments as calling for an open season against non-Russians.  In Vladimir, persons unknown scribbled “Russia for the Russians!” on the entrance of a mosque, adding a picture of a bear and the slogan “Forward, Russia!” with the tricolor flag (


Rinat Ibragimov, the imam-mukhtasib of Vladimir oblast, told Interfact that “this incident offends the feelings of believing parishioners of the mosque who are members of various nationalities. Especially upset are older people because they at the risk of their lives defended the Motherland both during the Great Fatherland War” and in other conflicts.


Unfortunately, this isn’t the first such incident at the Vladimir mosque. It has been vandalized, attempts have been made to burn it down, and parishioners have received threatening letters. Even more unfortunately, this situation is not limited to that one Russian city or to Muslims alone.


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