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National pride revives Russian soul


'Foreign Influence', by Chris JohnstonFor a newly arrived Australian volunteer in a Russian regional city, it is startling to be labelled an 'American agent' by an animated local. That is what happened to me midway through my time in Russia, after a casual political discussion with some Russian friends.

I was reminded of this conversation by some of the emphases in former president Vladimir Putin's recent State of the Nation address, made on the eve of his departure from the presidency. It reiterated a theme that was broadcast across the airwaves repeatedly during the months I spent in Russia: the negative influence of 'foreigners'.

On any morning at the University of Novgorod the students were all concern for my wellbeing and happiness. At home with my host family it was no different. But this welcome was interlaced with a wariness or sensitivity that occasionally bubbled to the surface.

I wondered why. After all, in Russian people's everyday lives, foreign influence is often positive. My students made extensive use of the American library in town. The Dutch businessman down the road from my family, who was investigating expanding business activity to the region, epitomised the promises of foreign investment. My own appearance in Novgorod was a symbol of positive foreign interest. So why the sensitivity towards a foreign presence?

The former president's speech offers a partial explanation. Its central theme was the growth of Russia into an economic and military powerhouse, 'a country that others heed and that can stand up for itself'. Interestingly, within this theme of national unity and 'stable development', Putin made a point of referring to the need for transparent democracy and pluralism.

He knows well that, historically, Russian attempts at pluralism have been set against the backdrop of social and economic crises such as during the term of the Provisional Government in 1917 and more recently during the Yeltsin years. So in many Russian minds 'unity' and 'stability' only arrive in counterpoint to pluralism through centralised government.

By linking in his speech the representatives of pluralism — opposition leaders — with 'attempts to divide society' and, importantly, 'foreign help', Putin implied that both those who oppose his administration and critical foreigners have the same goal: the destabilisation of Russia. Russians had seen, he said, 'how the lofty slogans of freedom and an open society are sometimes used to destroy the sovereignty of a country'.

Following the political pattern, the Russian Orthodox Church, instead of fostering dialogue and openness, seems more concerned with articulating an identity that can be interpreted as an expression of nationalistic pride. It seems that there is a symbiosis between the Russian Orthodox leadership's understanding of the Church and Vladimir Putin's own strategies.

The relationship is an interesting one. In one issue of the St Petersburg Times, the front page featured a large picture of Putin praying, hands covering his face. Putin and I had crossed paths it seems, as the photo had been taken as he celebrated Orthodox Christmas in a Novgorod Church — and Novgorod, with its tenth century churches and its extraordinary icon tradition, calls up elemental Russia.

This kind of imagery plays a role in the President's casting of himself as the 'authentic Russian'. I cannot help thinking the Russian Orthodox Church is being appropriated. Certainly Putin's relationship with it strengthens his appeal. His displays of respect for the Orthodox Church and for Patriarch Alexei appeal to most Russians, religious or not.

The Russians I met had a strong sense of patriotism. After the embarrassment of the Yeltsin period, Putin has sought to revive Russians' pride in their nation's achievements.

But although Putin's brand of nationalism is new, nationalism in Russia has a long and complex history. Before the 19th century emancipation of the serfs — the majority of the population — nationalism belonged to the sensibilities of the higher classes. Now Putin is extending to all the ownership of Russian cultural pride. He draws on the great span of Russian history, not only the recent Soviet past, appealing to the renowned 'spirit of the Russian people'. This is something that, by implication, no foreigner is capable of understanding. I could not possibly know the 'Russian soul' that apparently moves all Russians, Putin included.

A chorus of voices urged Russians to vote in the presidential election, for a strong turnout would mean an appearance of legitimacy. On the other hand, independent election monitoring was effectively discouraged. For the Kremlin, internal recognition is what matters. Foreign approbation is not an essential ingredient, either politically or culturally. But as demonstrated in Putin's State of the Nation Address, this is fed more by angry resentment at Russia's sidelining post perestroika. And at the level of my Novgorod neighbours, a deep hurt at the conditions in which they find themselves.

So when it comes to political debate, being a foreigner can be difficult. The Kremlin's message of distrust, of 'us and them', has an effect. As a non Russian, I understand, I was disconnected from the insights and experience that made Russian particularity comprehensible.


Ben ColeridgeBenedict Coleridge completed year 12 in 2006. In 2007 he worked as a language assistant at a university in Novgorod just south of St Petersburg. He is currently studying Arts at the University of Melbourne.


Image: BBC News


Topic tags: ben coleridge, russian nationalism, vladimir putin, state of the nation address, russian election



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Existing comments

You write intimidatingly well for someone so young! This, and your article on Gaza this week ... good stuff Ben.

Charles Boy | 16 January 2009  

Very interesting article to read. Very fascinating.

Paul K | 20 November 2009  

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