Written by Louis Rawlinson
Back in June of 2019 I traversed from West to East on the eclectic Trans-Siberian railway. The buildings of St Petersburg suggested a Parisian city with a Roman soul. It was in Moscow however, the spiritual and political heart of Muscovite civilisation, where I experienced a city undergoing its own national renaissance. With a President intent on maintaining the size and scope of the Soviet sphere, he looks to the star of ‘Greater Russia’ for inspiration. Today, we are witnessing first-hand the invention of the post-Soviet nation, and its makeup is inherently Russian.
Outside the Kremlin stands a mural which harks back to Russia’s Tsarist past. After hearing my guide notion that those names of historic noblemen had replaced the former plaque of “Soviet heroes”, this reflected a Russia seeking to mirror to itsImperialist past. But how could this city, which for so long had been regarded as the centre of a global socialist revolution, celebrate its long-gone Imperial history? In finding the answer to this question we must admit that Russia never forgot the Soviets who “liberated” Europe, nor the collective history which the post-Soviet generation shares, and this is the vision being promulgated by Putinists today. President Putin, in seeking to legitimize the Imperialistic ambitions of Russia, perceives the peoples who have once fallen under the Red hue of the Soviet Union as sharing one blood, and through his eyes it is they who comprise of the ‘Greater Rus’.
Academic Julie Pattarin-Jossee writes of the endeavours of Soviet cosmonautics and how this helped to embellish the Soviet regime. She writes ‘All national identities depend on the practise of rituals that contribute to collective memory and collective belonging.’ (Julie Pattarin-Josse, Global Nationalism: Ideas, Movements and Dynamics in the Twenty-First Century [Editors: Pablo de Orellana, Nicholas Michelsen], World Scientific Publishing Ltd, Pub: 2023, Pg.179) It is the collective belonging of the Soviet era which Putinism seeks to reinvigorate in his vision of Russia, and through contemporary Russian nationalism. Nowhere is this more apparent as through the bombastic image of the Russian President atop a Siberian bear. By appearing to ride this infamous symbol of Russian grandeur, Putin seeks to write himself into history as commanding the post-Soviet Nation. He strives to picture himself much in the style of a modern Tsar Alexander III, whose macho image has likewise seen him blast through Europe’s door as an uncompromising strongman. Putin’s political posturing and his nationalist agenda beckons to the post-Soviet generation. Today Russian nationalists view the technological prowess of the Soviet Union and the Imperial grandeur of Tsardom exist within the same sphere of Rus civilization. In their eyes, this can only be resurrected through a strongman figure. In Putin, the long deceased Alexander Romanov faces a competitor to the game of rejuvenating Russian nationalism, but this modern Tsar will not pound on the Europe’s door any longer, as the world witnessed with the invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022.
For contemporary Russian nationalists the Soviet spirit is interchangeable with having ‘Russian blood’. The borders of Russian culture, according to the nationalist vision of the post-Soviet people, span ever outwards. This reflects the grandeur which Putin considers post-Soviet Russia to possess. The power and appeal of this post-Soviet nationalism can be gauged through seeing how NATO and the West are demonized as an existential threat to Russian security. Whilst NATO’s origins derive from the recent historic context of the US and Soviet bipolarity, it is conveyed as being an inherently existential threat to a “Russian” civilization that harks back to the age of Rus. This kind of Russo-centric narrative highlights how the deliberate historicization of the past by post-Soviet nationalists is so critical for those justifying Russia’s militaristic actions today. Yet it also exposes how the aggrandized post-Soviet nationalism is in dire need of a demonized and an aggrandized enemy, and this is whereNATO plays a critical role. Just as German nationalists in the nineteenth century viewed the nation as being a persecuted hero, fallen at the hands of the dwarf Alberich, as Wagnerian nationalism goes (The Ring Cycle in a nutshell | Opera North), Russian nationalism relies on a similar level of romanticism. In his essay entitled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians Putin claims that the birth of Russian Orthodoxy remains a definitively national event for Ukrainians as well as Russians. He writes ‘The spiritual choice made by St Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev, still largely determines our affinity today’ (Vladimir Putin – On The Historical Unity Of Russians And Ukrainians : J.S. Brown : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive). It is this Russification of Eastern Europe’s history which is being used to define the Russian nation beyond its officially recognized state borders. In a similar vein, those who seek to challenge this Russification are viewed as seeking to persecute the Russian nation.
In his 2018 inauguration speech President Putin proclaimed that Russia needed to develop in all her sectors, and followed with ‘Each one of us will have to pull this way together’(LIVE: Vladimir Putin inaugurated as Russian president for 4th term – YouTube). Although the days of the hammer and sickle are no more, the universalist jargon of the Soviet Union, and most crucially the Soviet citizen, remains core to the unifying rhetoric of Russian nationalism. Just as Soviet citizens used to sing of the unity of Soviet peoples in their anthem, today Russians sing of “The age-old union of fraternal peoples” (What are the lyrics to Russia’s national anthem, and what do they mean? – Classic FM). The emphasis which Putin seems to place on Russia’s artistic and creative past marks how post-Soviet nationalism bestows on all former Soviet citizens the achievements of all Russia’s poets and artists, past and present. Post-Soviet nationalism has come about through the definitive imbibing of Russian culture from across history in such a way that Russian culture claims itself to be superior and, crucially, all-encompassing. The nationalist undertones of post-Soviet Russia continue to preach that Russian social values span as far and wide as the borders of the Soviet Union once had, but this time under a single Russian sky.
Featured Imagery: Double-Headed Eagle (Kremlin).