As soon as President Vladimir Putin signs the treaty making Crimea part of the Russian Federation, they begin to gather. Soon, thousands are standing on Red Square, holding the Russian tricolour aloft into the whipping wind and snow. Others wield tattered Soviet banners, or newly printed flags with Mr. Putin’s face on them.
“Russia! Crimea! Putin!” they chant as they wait for their hero to appear on a stage erected just outside the Kremlin walls.
“We welcome any regions of Ukraine that want to join us,” says Sergei, a 30-year-old entrepreneur holding a sign that simply reads: “Putin – Correct.” When I ask him what Mr. Putin has been right about, Sergei turns hostile: “Are you saying he’s not?”
Politically passionless for most of the past two decades, Russia suddenly seems to be in the grip of a sometimes-angry, flag-waving fervour.
Such nationalism is now driving foreign policy as ideas about a Great Russia locked in confrontation with a hostile West have moved from the political fringe to the very centre of the Kremlin.
In the beginning, such loud patriotism was meant to be a mere distraction. Eleven years ago, the Kremlin oversaw the creation of a new political party, called Rodina, or “Motherland,” as a ploy to split the vote of the then-powerful Communist Party. The goal was to clear the way for Mr. Putin’s own United Russia movement to win control of the country’s parliament, the Duma, then one of the few institutions still beyond its grasp.
The concept was simple: Led by Dmitry Rogozin, a firebrand populist, and Sergey Glazyev, a prominent left-wing economist, Rodina would siphon off some of the angry nationalist vote with a platform featuring open xenophobia and the need to protect ethnic Russians wherever they live. The party proudly billed itself as Mr. Putin’s political spetznaz – “special forces.”
What the Kremlin spin doctors weren’t prepared for was how well Mr. Rogozin and Mr. Glazyev would fare. Their assignment had been to steal perhaps 5 per cent of the Communist vote in 2003. But they won almost twice that, causing the Kremlin to wonder just what it had unleashed. (Between Rodina and the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, more than one-fifth of Russians voted that year for parties some called “fascist.”)
With Rodina rising, Mr. Glazyev announced that he would challenge Mr. Putin in the next presidential election. He was defeated easily, but afterward Mr. Putin abolished the upstart party and invited its leadership duo to join his inner circle.
Mr. Rogozin was made Russia’s ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and later deputy prime minister responsible for the defence industry. The Ukrainian-born Mr. Glazyev was handed the sensitive task of being Mr. Putin’s point man on the rapidly changing situation in his native country.
Both were on the first U.S. and Canadian lists of officials to be targeted for sanctions. Mr. Rogozin responded with characteristic flair by posting a photograph of a bear sitting at a table with a Kalashnikov rifle and a bottle of vodka over a simple caption: “We await the sanctions.”
The two men (who declined requests for an interview) brought their ideas with them when they arrived at the Kremlin. The belief that Russia has a responsibility to protect Russian-speakers abroad, particularly in other parts of the former Soviet Union, was always central to Rodina’s politics. Suddenly, after Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012 for a third term as president, it’s also very much the country’s foreign policy.
“The Kremlin thought that the people running [Rodina] were talented, which is why Rogozin was brought into a government position, so he wouldn’t be an obstacle,” says Sergey Utkin, head of the department of strategic assessment at the state-funded Russian Academy of Sciences. “At the same time, the Kremlin was changing, making itself part of this conservative way.”
Mr. Utkin says Mr. Putin decided to adopt the conservative, nationalist agenda as his own following the street protests that sullied his 2012 return as president (after serving two terms from 2000 to 2008, he had spent four years in the theoretically junior post of prime minister).
He understood from the demonstrations – which frequently drew tens of thousands into the streets under the banner of “Russia without Putin” – that he had lost the support of the country’s urban middle class. He also felt the unrest had been sponsored and directed from Washington, which hardened his long-held belief that the West was intent on keeping Russia weak.
Mr. Putin decided that his third term would be about restoring Russian greatness, solidifying his support base by appealing to the nostalgia for Soviet times that lingers among the country’s rural and working-class populations.
Calling the 2012 election “the turning point,” Mr. Utkin said that “maybe Putin always wanted to implement this conservative agenda, maybe he was afraid of losing control.”
As Russia has tightened its hold on Crimea in recent weeks, the Kremlin has simultaneously moved to lock down the home front, making the nationalist upsurge seem as much generated as genuine. (Some of those chanting on Red Square admitted that they were there only because their employers had told them to join the rally.)
Many doubters have been cowed into silence, as the country’s last independent media have been throttled in a transparent effort to squelch coverage of the Ukraine crisis.
As well, opposition leader Alexey Navalny is under house arrest, banned from using the Internet or his mobile phone, while academics sense a creeping return to Soviet-style censorship of what they say and write.
State-owned television has played a lead role in stirring up the patriotic mood, alternating news reports of Russians being threatened abroad with movies about the Soviet Union’s triumph in the Second World War.
“We don’t have censorship in Russia, we have theatre on television, theatre that the government creates for the people,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, who spent a decade helping to create that theatre as Mr. Putin’s chief spin doctor before he quit the Kremlin in 2011.
Mr. Pavlovsky said Mr. Putin has always surrounded himself with advisers from across the political spectrum, letting them debate until he weighs in with a decision. But Mr. Glazyev gained the President’s trust by correctly predicting months ago the way the Ukraine crisis would unfold, allowing Russia to react more quickly than the West to the changing situation.
And the nationalist shift in foreign policy has resonated with ordinary Russians.
Despite the country’s economic stagnation, the growing political repression since Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin, and the very real threat now of isolation from the West, opinion polls this week showed his support rating hitting a five-year high of more than 70 per cent. Xenophobia, and specifically anger at the West, is also on the rise.
“Putin is considered a protector of the Russian people, not just in Russia, but also in Ukraine,” said Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Centre, Russia’s lone independent pollster. “For Russians, the breakup of the Soviet Union was a terrible event. Any action that can restore the respect and authority that the Soviet Union had is regarded positively.”
The Rodina ideology appears to be driving what Russia may do next. On Thursday, as the Duma was voting to ratify the annexation of Crimea, Mr. Rogozin was chairing a parliamentary meeting on the question of Trans-Dniester, a breakaway pro-Russian region of another former Soviet republic, Moldova.
Trans-Dniester has had de facto independence from Moldova since a war in 1992 and plays host to 1,200 Russian “peacekeepers.” This week – amid complaints from Moldovan President Nikolae Timofti about Russian interference – it formally requested to follow Crimea’s example and join the Russian Federation. Analysts here believe that the Kremlin, rather than backing down under Western pressure, is seriously considering accepting Trans-Dniester’s application.
Mr. Utkin said the sanctions announced by Canada, the United States and the European Union are squelching internal debate about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and encouraging the nationalist narrative that the West is forever set against Russia, and that Russia is thus better going it alone.
“I call it ‘imperial syndrome’ – it’s an illness that comes when a great country falls apart,” commented Lev Ponamarev, a 72-year-old veteran of the country’s pro-democracy movement.
Mr. Ponomarev briefly thought his battle was won 23 years ago when the Soviet Union collapsed and something like democracy looked set to take its place. Now – like others – he makes comparisons between the bruised, angry nationalism in Russia, and the mood in Germany between the two world wars.
“People have lost their minds a little bit. They’re not thinking about their families, or how the economic situation might become bad [if Russia is isolated]. This national fervour is controlling things now.”