Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Putin No Nationalist but Now Playing Nationalist Card, Svanidze Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 17 –Vladimir Putin is “not a nationalist and has never been one,” according to Moscow commentator Nikolay Svanidze. But even though the Russian president understands the dangers Russian nationalism represents, he has nonetheless been willing to play the nationalist card to gain support from the increasingly nationalist population. 

            Writing in “Moskovsky komsomolets, Svanidze notes that Putin in the past has kept his distance from Russian nationalism because of its dangers but more recently in his birthday interview, the Russian leader made a comment that suggests he is now more open to nationalist thematics (

            Specifically, the Russian president said, Svanidze points out, that he feels that people view his actions as correct “and not only some sort of group of the intelligentsia which is respected by me but also the indigenous [ethnic] Russian people, or let us say the indigenous [non-ethnic] Russian people.”

            These “several words,” the Moscow commentator continues, “say a lot.” The references to the intelligentsia suggest that Putin is “finally disappointed in the educated stratum,” not only because its members have been critical of him but because the educated are “terrible far from the people” and have little in common with it, a frequent nationalist complaint.

            Moreover, Putin’s “accurate and careful half-correction,” his shift from “[ethnic] Russian people to [non-ethnic] Russian” is “also not accidental.  The non-ethnic “Rossiisky” is something that offends no one. “But ‘Russkiy,’ unfortunately is nothing other than a greeting to those whose slogan is ‘Russia for the [ethnic] Russians.’”

            The realization of this slogan, Svanidze continues, “would directly lead to the collapse of Russia” as Putin himself not only knows but has said repeatedly.  But public attitudes are shifting and Putin as a politician appears to be shifting with them and to be willing to play with nationalism “in the search for short-term political profit.”

             Putin’s shift, the commentator says, reflect the fact that Russian society has become more accepting of nationalist rhetoric, be it simple references to the nationality of a criminal suspect or complaints that parents in the Russian Federation are not giving their children “genuine” Russian names.

            (The latter complaint, Svanidze points out, is especially ludicrous because historical Russian names, even if they were largely derived from Greek and Latin saints’ names, very much continue to dominate the ethnic Russian community, including its president, Vladimir Putin.)

            But such remarks reflect a broader change in Russian life, he suggests.  One of his friends, Svanidze relates, “a real member of the intelligentsia,” nonetheless remarked recently: “My son’s best friend is a Chechen.”  That seemingly innocuous comment reveals more than the speaker intended.

            Svanidze points out that Americans “out of political correctness,” have “a classic text for xenophobia: if someone says that he has a black friend or a Chinese, or a Jew, or a Arab, the list is endless, then this means that he distinguishes people on the basis of nationality,” and this is defined as latent xenophobia.”

            The Russian who made the remark about his son’s Chechen friend is “not guilty,” the writer adds. “He wanted to say kind and sincere words and was guided by the best feelings. [But it is] simply the case that xenophobia has spread through the air we breathe, and it dictates its own language.”

            In the recent electoral cycle, Svanidze observes, various people played on social antagonisms, “the poor against the successful, the simple against the educated, the country against Moscow … the paternalistically inclined who seek government aid and the administered who are against the independent and self-standing.”

            In Russia, “religious and confessional membership is often confused with the ethnic. But the main thing is that the moral climate has changed.” Because various people have been playing with Russian nationalist themes of the most virulent kind, “radical, pogrom nationalism has risen from the bottom.”

            This is highly threatening, Svanidze says, and both Putin and the Russian people need to ask themselves whether they have the kind of “fire extinguishers” to prevent a conflagration.  “Can [the powers that be], corrupt and weak ... as they are, put back in the bottle the ancient but powerful and always passionate genie?” Or “will society itself have to do so?”

            Tragically, Svanidze concludes, declared “fascists who until recently sat in a hopelessly marginal underground, now proudly appear in whole echelons on federal television.  Today the wild advertisement ‘a Slavic family will rent an apartment, looks already so customary” that no one says anything.

            Russian nationalism, Svanidze adds, “has become not simply an every day matter but something fashionable and even respectable.” Putin who has given every indication before that he understands how dangerous this is nevertheless has now made a contribution not to reining in this “trend” but making it still worse.

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