Come October, and I cannot help but think about the fate of Russian ‘national-patriots’. On the 3 and 4 of October is the commemoration of the confrontation that, more than any other, defined the fate of contemporary Russia. On these days of 1993, Boris Yeltsin decided to crush the power of the Soviet Supreme, then the Russian parliament. On these days, Russia made a decided step towards a liberal political order – if only formally – and the main opposition to that order, the national-patriots were defeated. Since then, the ideological cleavage between national-patriots and liberals has structured the Russian ideological field – so much that one can say without exaggeration that without that cleavage, Russian politics is almost impossible to understand.
But what is exactly national-patriotism? I will try to draw a sketch of that ideology by examining the works of Gennady Zhivotov, the main illustrator of the journal Zavtra. Founded in 1990 by the Russian writer Alexander Prokhanov, Zavtra (‘Tomorrow’) is the historical flagship of national-patriotism. It first called itself ‘the journal of the spiritual opposition’, then ‘journal of the Russian state’ – no less.
But first, 1993. Russia is then living under a situation of double power (dvoyevlastye): that of the Russian parliament – congregating in the White House – and that of Boris Yeltsin. The country still does not have a proper constitution, and the balance of power between President and Parliament is in flux, barely checked by the Constitution of Soviet Russia, amended hundreds of times. Boris Yeltsin’s economic reforms are already sowing the devastation of the Russian economy and met with a fierce opposition from the Supreme Soviet. To break its resistance, Yeltsin decides to call for a referendum. It gave ambiguous results: the people maintained its support for Yeltsin and his economic reforms but refused to dissolve the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin decided to dissolve it nonetheless, and the Soviet Supreme decided in turn to destitute Yeltsin. The deadlock was broken by force: Yeltsin launched the army against the White House where various nationalist and communist forces had gathered in arms. 1993 is both the apex and the downfall of the national-patriots, and since then, they national patriots commemorate those of them who died defending the White House.
The 1990s: the cursed, wild, and liberal decade
National-patriots share a unanimous negative judgment on the ‘1990s’, a decade of impoverishment and moral decadence.
The responsibility for these calamities lies first and foremost on the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, the ‘pro-American’:
Perhaps even more hated among liberals is Yegor Gaidar, Yeltsin’s Prime-Minister and architect of the ‘shock therapy’ economic reforms:
Another bête noire of the national-patriots: Anatoly Chubais, minister for privatisations in the 1990s – I don’t recognize the man on the right. The scarecrow figures liberalism and its dreadful consequences: civil war, pornography, same-sex marriages, paedophilia, etc.
Russia’s radiant past: from the Orthodox Middle-Ages to Stalin
National-patriots share a conception of Russian history where the Soviet Union succeeds (without much rupture) the Russian Empire and, beyond, the Russia of the Middle-Ages. They ardently wish for the return of these glorious times:
Here, Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka, the Soviet secret-police – apparently a true friend of children – frightens decadent liberals (I could recognize among them Boris Nemtsov and Yegor Gaidar.)
This exaltation of the Soviet past is selective: national-patriots are shameless Stalinists, and generally look down on Khrushchev. Here he is, in a vyshivanka, the traditional Ukrainian dress (though he is not Ukrainian), called a ‘traitor’ by the happily reconciled Red and White soldiers. Beyond his anti-Stalinism, Khrushchev is hated for having ‘given’ Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic.
Stalin is the most revered figure among national-patriots: the builder of socialism in one country, the leader who made the Soviet Union a derzhava, a great power – the greatest objective of national-patriots. Here he is, compared somewhat favourably to Khrushchev (with the shoe he used to bang on his delegate-desk at the UN), Gorbachev, and Yeltsin the drunkard.
National-patriots interpret Russian history as a synthesis between Orthodox Christianity and Soviet Communism, uniting morality, Russian greatness, and social justice. This synthesis can be illustrated by this representation of an archangel celebrating one of the most famous socialist realist sculptures: Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Kolkhoz Woman.
Here, a Stalin looking like the Christ of Corcovado:
The national-patriotic synthesis encompasses the totality of Russian history, from Medieval prince to Soviet spaceship.
Just as Stalin is the vozhd’, the guide and leader par excellence, the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War is the apex of Russian history. They also interpret the Great Patriotic War in light of the orthodox-communist synthesis:
Looking for a ‘New Russia’
National-patriots have, of course, supported wholeheartedly the pro-Russian insurrection in the East of Ukraine. They saw in this event the signs of a true renewal for Russia, the rebirth of the ‘New Russia’ (here figured by the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic):
Among the leaders of the insurrection, Colonel Igor Strelkov (Girkin) emerged as their hero. Once a Defence Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Strelkov accomplished the very synthesis national-patriots long for. An avowed nostalgic of Imperial Russia, he was a passionate war reenactor (with a preference for White officers), while at the same time talking in immediately recognizable Soviet political jargon.
Here is Strelkov with the decorations symbolising the continuity and succession of Russian history: Russian Empire, Soviet Union, Russian Federation, Donetsk People’s Republic. All these decorations come with the black and orange Saint George ribbon – the unavoidable symbol of Russian patriotism these days.
National-patriots have opposed the Maidan, and even the very existence of an independent Ukraine. They contrast the chaos of the Maidan to the peace and harmony of the Russian fleet stationed in Sevastopol, Crimea.
Maidan leaders, and Ukrainian authorities in general are seen by national-patriots as Nazis pure and simple, and they never fail to recall the collaboration of Ukrainian nationalists (banderovtsy) with the German occupiers.
They draw an explicit parallel between the Ukrainian army and the Nazis, as in this drawing: ‘Grand-father in Stalingrad, grand-son in Lugansk’, one of the centres of the Donbass insurrection.
They are not only Nazis, they are also the creatures, the puppets of the United-States. Here, several Ukrainian politicians: Ihor Kolomoïsky, Petro Poroshenko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Down with America!
Among national-patriots, hatred for America runs high. It is rooted in a civilizational worldview opposing the merchant, rootless liberal America society, to the grounded, spiritual, conservative Russia. It was of course fuelled by the American support to Yeltsin, and the wars in Yugoslavia, where national-patriots unanimously supported ‘Serbia, my love’, here symbolised by the martyr Radovan Karadzic.
Under the presidency of Barack Obama, anti-Americanism took racist connotations:
Here, the decadent smoker Obama is close to being sunk by a fleet of Russian nuclear icebreakers.
With anti-Americanism and latent antisemitism comes hostility to Israel. This hostility is also coherent with a usually sympathetic vision of Islam. Considered a ‘traditional’ and autochthonous religion of Russia, national-patriots tend not to lapse into islamophobia. Here, for example, a parallel between the fate of Gaza and the Donbass.
Putinism: a moderate national-patriotism?
To Western minds, National-patriotism forms a bizarre ideology, but it would be a mistake to deem it a cabinet of political curiosities. The Zavtra journal and Gennady Zhivotov’s drawings constitute the chemically pure form of what is a coherent ideology. In contemporary Russia, national-patriotism is not eccentric. It is the spontaneous ideology of a fair share of the population. The ideology of the first force of the opposition, the Communist party of the Russian federation, has much more to do with national-patriotism than with Marxism-Leninism per se.
Moreover, national-patriotism has inspired the ideology of Vladimir Putin and of the Russian authorities in general. Politically, Vladimir Putin is the heir of the liberals in power: he was trained by one of their leaders, Anatoly Sobchak, and then designated by Boris Yeltsin. Ideologically, he has accomplished a synthesis between liberalism – formal constitutionalism and free-market economy – and typically national-patriotic ideas, such as the continuity of Russian history from one regime to the other, or the (conservative) compatibility of communist and orthodox ethics. If one wants to look for Putin’s ideological inspirations, national-patriotism is the place to start. Much has been said of the ‘eurasist’ inspiration of his ideology. Contrary to national-patriotism, eurasism is an esoteric, eccentric, and complex ideology; it is much further from a certain Russian political ‘common sense’.
It may very well be that Putin succeeded by combining the realism of capitalist and liberal institutions and the nostalgic imaginary of national-patriotism. And while it is hard to see a great future for national-patriots, their ideas will probably live on. They are one of the political embodiments of the trauma and protest caused by the fall of the Soviet Union, the political form of that nostalgia.
[Originally published in French, March 2016]