Russia's Newest Weapon Is Blind Patriotism

A Russian honor guard greets Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen. Wikimedia Commons/Mark Rutte

The Kremlin’s national-security vision now integrates national pride.

Vladimir Putin loves the topic of patriotism. In February 2016 he described Russian patriotism as “the only possible” national idea and encouraged its promotion on all levels. In 2015 Putin argued that patriotism is “the sacred duty of Russians” and “a moral guideline” for teenagers. Even in his first program article, in 1999, Putin discussed patriotism and the related issues of national pride and dignity.

In recent years, however, the topic of patriotism has also become popular in Russia’s security and military ideology, where it has been increasingly connected to Russia’s national security and the preservation of the current political system and regime. For example, a decree “On the Russian Federation’s National Security Strategy” mentions a launch of a system of “spiritual, moral and patriotic education of citizens,” among “ways of ensuring national security in the field of culture.” Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine mentions “patriotism” three times and also recommends “patriotic education.”

So what do Russia’s patriotism and state security have in common, and why do they increasingly go together?

Patriotism—an attachment to one’s country—can be divided into two distinct types: constructive and blind patriotism. Studies show that constructive patriotism, a attachment that allows for questioning and criticism, correlates with multiple indicators of active political involvement, political efficacy, interest and knowledge. By contrast, blind patriotism, an attachment to one’s country characterized by unquestionable positive evaluation, staunch allegiance and intolerance of criticism, is found to be positively associated with political disengagement, nationalism, perceptions of foreign threats, perceived importance of symbolic behaviors and selective exposure to information favorable to one’s country. “Blind” patriots are also particularly susceptible to emotional, rhetorical and symbolic appeals from politicians. The susceptibility of “blind” patriots to emotional and symbolic slogans makes them a particularly good target of political manipulation.

“Blind” patriots have historically dominated in Russia, due to the statist orientation of its political culture and the almost complete absence of a liberal tradition. Hill and Gaddy contrast Russian and Western approaches toward the relationship between the state and individuals. In the United States, the state exists to protect the rights of its citizens. In Russia, individuals exist to defend their state (which might occasionally reciprocate, but doesn’t always have to). Russians conceptualize the state as a structure that is autonomous of the people, always comes first, and fully subordinates individuals and society to its interests.

Historically, Russia has lacked powerful independent institutions (such as the churches in Europe) to counterbalance and challenge incumbent rulers’ indiscretion. The historical dominance of the unchallenged ruler’s authority formed a narrative that couldn’t differentiate between the concepts of “country,” “political system,” “state” and “authority,” and instead mixed them together into one concept of an all-embracing State, the backbone of Russian civilization and the only guarantor of societal existence. The collapse of such an authority would hence mean a global catastrophe, the complete destruction of the social order—and even Russian civilization.

Importantly, Vladimir Putin himself shares a similar perception of the state. Hill and Gaddy list “statism” as the first and key characteristic of Putin’s personality. They point out that Putin suffers from the same failure to distinguish between the concepts of State and political regime. Putin understands the collapse of the Soviet Union primarily as the collapse of the Russian state rather than the collapse of a Communist political system. He came to power obsessed with a necessity to rebuild a strong Russian state out of the chaos of the so-called “dashing 1990s,” and still regards that as his key achievement. In his 1999 inaugural address he argued: “Russia will not soon, if ever, become a second edition of, let us say, the U.S.A. or England, where liberal values have a long historical tradition. In our country the government, its institutions and structures have always played an exclusively important role in the life of the country, the people. A strong government is for the Russian citizens not an anomaly, but, on the contrary, the source and the guarantee of order, the initiator and main force of any change.”