Staunton, VA, August 16, 2016 – The claims of officials and the results of some polls notwithstanding, Elena Omelchenko of the Center for Youth Research at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg says that it is “a myth” that young Russians are becoming more patriotic at least in the militaristic sense the Kremlin seeks to promote.
Having conducted research on patriotism in Russia for more than a decade, Omelchenko says that in the last three years, the government has promoted a shift in the meaning of patriotism from “love to one’s small motherland” to “an obligation” to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the state.
In the wake of the annexation of Crimea, that effort appeared to have achieved its goals, she says; but very quickly, and especially among the young, there has been a shift in “attitudes toward [such] hurrah-patriotism,” a shift that polls alone seldom capture but that is nonetheless very important.
Young people felt “a certain disappointment” that the Crimean events did not lead to more; but because they did not want to isolate themselves from society, Omelchenko says, they have continued to tell pollsters that they are patriotic in Putin’s sense. “This is a myth,” as all “serious” investigators of the issue know.
It must be remembered that young people are “not a monolith … On the one hand, we see in society a growth of enthusiasm about military service” but that reflects not only patriotic feelings but also the difficulties of finding jobs in today’s economy. And on the other, young people in the capitals are far more cynical than are those in the villages.
Students in the major cities “also talk about the need to fight for the motherland,” she says; “but this is more sloganeering, a rhetorical move, behind which a real willingness to do so does not always stand.” One reason for that, Omelchenko continues, is that patriotism without a vision of the future is unlikely to be strong.
Many in the Kremlin confuse things: they see people being proud of Russia as meaning that they are satisfied with conditions in it; and they believe that the negative attitudes about the West that polls show reflect the real state of affairs.
In fact, Omelchenko says, young people have a divided view about the West. For them, “there exist as it were two parallel worlds. They can experience definite negative feelings for example toward America but at the same time watch with pleasure American films” and they can express homophobic attitudes collectively but have friends who are gay.
Criticism of the West, she suggests, is for many such young Russians “simply a game,” one that recalls the double think characteristic of Soviet times when people knew what declarations they had to make but had their own views which more often than not were the basis of their personal activity.
Young Russians do not connect patriotism and love for the motherland with state policy. Instead, such people “often respond to us in interviews that ‘I love Russia but I hate the state.’” That is part and parcel of their low level of trust in state institutions. At the same time, their trust in Putin. “That is a separate phenomenon,” the sociologist says.
In addition to introducing confusion in the thinking of the elites, promoting patriotism of the imperial and militarist kind entails certain real dangers, including “a high level of xenophobia.” In a multi-national state and an interconnected world, such attitudes are dangerous and can lead to violence at home or war abroad.
Omelchenko says in conclusion that she is especially worried that the new patriotic education effort will lead to the division of the nation into “patriots and non-patriots or even more true patriots and untrue ones. In Soviet times, this led to a situation in which people could go to prison for a lack of patriotism. [And] we know what that led to.”