Saturday, February 12, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Growing Nationalism Reflects Russians’ Sense Their Country is Going in the Wrong Direction, Gudkov Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, February 12 – Nationalist sentiments among Russians as measured by expression of support for the slogan “Russia for the [ethnic] Russians” have reached 58 percent, tying the previous high of a decade ago, a trend that reflects their sense that Russia is headed in the wrong direction.

According to Lev Gudkov, the director of the independent Levada Center polling agency, “this idea has passed from the arsenal of the more radically inclined and intolerant groups into the more moderate and careful strata – and consequently” support for this term may not mean exactly what it did before (

Instead, the sociologist suggested in an interview given to “Svobodnaya pressa” and described by the New Region agency, what most Russians mean by giving their support to this term now means what earlier surveys captured as “’Russia for the [ethnic] Russians in moderation.’”

Thus, the polls capture a situation which is quite different from the one in 2001 when a similar percentage of Russians expressed support for this idea. Then, he said, “the causes were the post-crisis time, Putin’s propaganda of the need for ‘a strong hand,’ and the war in Chechnya.”

“Now,” Gudkov suggested, “there are no such bases [for that declaration and its sources lie “in the new increase of the sense of the population that Russia has enemies – on this question the peak was reached in2003-2004, when it rose to 77 percent in the relatively well-off 2006-2007.” At present, that sense has gone backup to 72 percent, “a very high level.”

Such feelings of isolationism and of a hostile environment are “generally speaking,” Gudkov continued, with a sense that things are moving in the wrong direction. And he noted that “periodically when Russians lose an idea about the future, then in balancing compensation rows hostility to the external world and the sense that their country has internal enemies.”

Only about 12 to 15 percent of the Russian population is more or less constantly xenophobic, Gudkov argued. Moreover, “by themselves, nationalistic, racist and chauvinist attitudes [of other Russians who may say they back “Russia for the Russians”] are relatively passive if one does not include this most radical nucleus.”

The problem intensifies and protests begin, he said, “when nationalism combines with social protest and dissatisfaction.” Under those conditions, it “acquires an explosive character – anti-government, anti-regime, and becomes a very significant force” often quite unexpectedly given the general passivity of people with these views most of the time.

“Russian nationalism by its character, unlike the nationalisms of the Baltic, Georgia and so on is very conservative and directed at the defense of the existing situation or compensatory in its character,” manifesting itself in “antipathy or hatred” of others only when they are assumed to be a threat,” Gudkov said.

Another “special feature of Russian nationalism,” again in sharp contrast to the other nationalisms he mentioned, is that “it cannot be combined with the ideas of freedom and democracy as they exist in Western countries and thus be converted into ‘national democracy,’” as happens elsewhere.

Russians “have not had a basis for national self-assertion during the last 20 years,” Gudkov said, and as a result, Russian nationalism constantly returns “in its rhetoric to earlier periods, to the war, to Stalinism and to the Soviet Union.” Such a nationalism is not suitable for setting goals for the future.

But that does not mean that it is not a powerful and potentially dangerous force if it combines with “social protest, dissatisfaction and anti-regime attitudes.” Such a coming together is not yet “very clearly expressed,” Gudkov argued, except in Moscow and a few other Russian cities.

The authorities, however, are already sufficiently worried about the situation, he continued, that they are pushing forward government-controlled opposition parties, such as the LDPR and Rodina in order to try to control and direct these sentiments in ways that will be less threatening to themselves.

Given the attitudes the Levada Center has found, Gudkov said, it is completely likely that the regime will create additional “such pseudo-parties” even though with all such groups “the Kremlin is afraid of losing control.” In the past, the powers could count on the patriotism and nationalism of the population to be supportive of the regime.

Now, however, Russia’s leading pollster concluded, these ideas are in the process of transmuting themselves and thus are becoming a potential threat, with there being a very real chance that “protest actions will become uncontrolled” and thus beyond the capacity of the regime to rein in.

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