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Putin’s stern condemnation of ‘caveman nationalism’ strongly contradicts Western attempts to paint him as Russian ultranationalist

Putin’s stern condemnation of ‘caveman nationalism’ strongly contradicts Western attempts to paint him as Russian ultranationalist
Commentators have attempted to compare Vladimir Putin to various fascist political figures from the past. In reality, the Russian president embodies a state-centred patriotism that celebrates Russia as a multiethnic community.

“Putin, like Hitler, is an ultranationalist.” If one was looking for the de-facto Western orthodoxy about Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, this headline from 2014 would just-about sum it up. As American journalist Martin Kalb put it, in his book Imperial Gamble, Putin is above all “ultranationalistic,” a leader who is “convinced that only an authoritarian, ultranationalist regime can protect Russia from its enemies.”

What is meant by “nationalism,” let alone “ultranationalism,” is never explained, although the implication is always that it is something very bad and that Putin is an adherent. Which makes it very hard to explain why, in a video meeting this week with parliamentary leaders, Putin denounced in no uncertain terms what he called “caveman nationalism”. Something doesn’t add up.

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The idea that Putin is an ultranationalist has been a common theme of Western reportage for at least a decade, with even the most minor statements being used as evidence to justify the nationalist label.

For instance, in a meeting last week with the heads of Russian media agencies, Putin used the word “passionarity,” a term invented by the Soviet ethnographer Lev Gumilev. The president had used the word once before, in a speech to the Federal Assembly in December 2012. For Financial Times journalist Charles Clover, long forgotten in Moscow, this was an indication that Putin had adopted an aggressive new ideology and was, as Clover wrote, “extolling chest-thumping nationalism.”

Unfortunately for Clover, a quick look at the rest of Putin’ speech shows that the reference to Gumilev had nothing to do with nationalism. Moreover, the one other time Putin had mentioned Gumilev, at a meeting in Kazan in 2005, he said the following:

“Russia, developing as a multinational country, could organically integrate the richest heritage of the Volga land, or, as Lev Gumilev said, ‘the great steppe culture.’ … Without exaggeration the principle of toleration, both national and religious, was central to the formation of Russian statehood. … Thanks to its multi-ethnic unity our country withstood many trials … the preservation of social, interethnic, and inter-religious peace is the basic, fundamental condition of Russia’s successful development. … In opposing nationalism and extremism the state must rely on all the Federation’s subjects.”

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Clover was so convinced that Putin’s reference to Gumilev proved the Russian president’s “chest-thumping nationalism” that he wrote a whole book to prove his point. But in reality Putin has used Gumilev to do the exact opposite – to denounce nationalism and extremism.

This sort of sloppy reporting is, unfortunately, all too common. On another occasion, Putin cited nineteenth-century philosopher Konstantin Leontyev’s phrase “flowering complexity,” and then went on to refer to Russia as a “state-civilization.” This was interpreted as a fundamental shift in nationalist rhetoric, indicating that Putin viewed Russia as a distinct “civilization.” But, actually, Putin went on to say: “It is precisely the state-civilization model that has shaped our state polity. It has always sought to flexibly accommodate the ethnic and religious specificity of particular territories, ensuring diversity in unity. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions are an integral part of Russia’s identity, its historical heritage and the present-day lives of its citizens. The main task of the state, as enshrined in the Constitution, is to ensure equal rights for members of traditional religions and atheists, and the right to freedom of conscience for all citizens.”

In other words, Russia is not a civilization founded on any specific ethnicity, religion or culture, but is a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional country, whose citizens are bound together by a common state.

This is what you might call civic nationalism. Of course, one can be a civic nationalist and also be an aggressive imperialist – there’s no shortage of historical examples – but one imagines that civic nationalism isn’t what people have in mind when they apply the nationalist label to Putin.

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Instead, one suspects that what they are thinking of is a sort of chauvinistic ethno-nationalism that asserts the superiority of the Russian people over others. Certain developments in recent years have served to justify this image. One is the Russian government’s assertion of a right to defend the “Russian world” (Russkii mir), incorporating the diaspora of Russians living outside the borders of the Russian Federation. Another is changes to the Russian constitution last year which included a phrase in the constitution that says, “The state language of the Russian Federation on all its territory is the Russian language, as the language of the state-forming people.”

This last phrase greatly pleased Russian nationalists, as it seemingly grants Russians a special status within the Russian Federation. In reality, though, one can view it as a scrap thrown to the nationalists to keep them quiet, while also being something which is purely symbolic and has no practical consequences whatsoever.

This is in keeping with Putin’s general approach to politics, which involves occasional nods to nationalism and any number of other ‘isms,’ but in a decidedly superficial way. Pragmatic concerns of state take priority over ideological constructs.

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Russia’s rulers have always been aware that they govern a multi-ethnic country with numerous cultures and religions and that Russian nationalism is liable to exacerbate tensions among Russia’s 100+ nationalities. Putin is no exception. This explains his statement this week. “Caveman nationalism, with its slogan ‘Russia is only for Russians,’ only harms Russians, only harms Russia. …. We must make sure that the culture of every nation, its history, and roots … is respected and honoured in our country,” Putin explained.

Vladimir Putin has said this sort of thing many times in the past. One must assume that he has a reason for repeating it. Most likely, that reason is a perceived threat from nationalists on both the left and the right, who demand such things as restrictions on immigration or a more assertive foreign policy in defense of Russians abroad, particularly in Ukraine. Putin’s statement about “caveman nationalism” was clearly an attack on such forms of nationalist politics.

Putin can indeed be called a nationalist, in the sense of being an advocate of a state-centered civic nationalism and an assertive defender of state interests at home and abroad. This isn’t, however, what most people mean by the term “nationalist.” It would probably be better if the word were abandoned when discussing the Russian leader’s politics and something more suitable was found. It obscures far more than it enlightens.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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