August 31, 2008
MOSCOW—Russians have so many reasons to relish their nation’s resurgence. Glitzy, glass-walled malls dot their biggest cities. Heftier paychecks are putting them in Chevy Blazers and on the beaches of tony Mediterranean resorts. But through the remarkable rebound, something has always been missing, Russians say—the superpower swagger that their homeland once brandished.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the decade of economic torpor that followed took that swagger away. With it went the pride Russians felt for a country that could throw the gauntlet down at the West’s feet and feel good about it.
Now, however, Russia’s invasion of Georgia is convincing Russians that their nation is getting its swagger back.
“The message to the West is that Russia is a superpower again, a great power, and Western nations are going to have to bear this in mind from now on,” Margarita Mayor, 36, a nurse from the Siberian city of Mirny, said as she strolled through Red Square with her 8-year-old son, Kirill, in tow. “People are beginning to feel that we are regaining our might and influence. This is important for our spirit.”
Few events in Russia’s post-Soviet history have crystallized national pride like the war in Georgia, won swiftly and decisively against a government many Russians believe was propped up by Washington.
Guided by state-controlled media that have been toeing the Kremlin line, the majority of Russians believe that President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were justified in sending bombing raids and Russian tanks deep into Georgian territory after Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s Aug. 7 attempt to regain control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
Russian troops have since pulled back, but they continue to maintain checkpoints and patrols beyond the borders of South Ossetia and Georgia’s other separatist enclave, Abkhazia.
‘Indeed a great country’
However, the reasons behind Russians’ overwhelming support for the Kremlin’s actions in Georgia run far deeper than mere agreement in justification for the war.
For many Russians, the conflict served as on-the-ground confirmation that Russia has regained its status as a self-sufficient power ready and able to stand up to the U.S., NATO and Western Europe. And it buttresses the belief among Russians that their nation’s resurrection on the shoulders of record oil prices and vast natural gas reserves is not just economic, it’s geopolitical.
“We used this as an opportunity to demonstrate that we are indeed a great country, that we have stopped being poor and dependent,” said Elena Kitayeva, 40, Moscow music teacher. “It was important for our self-respect, which is the basis of national pride. And a nation without pride is not worth a pin.”
Russians’ thirst for their country’s return as a superpower is a byproduct of the trough that the country found itself in after the Soviet collapse.
The breakup cost the Kremlin vast stretches of territory, but it also plunged the nation into a period of political and economic aimlessness. Under Boris Yeltsin, millions of Russians lost their life’s savings. The government gave away the country’s vast natural resources wealth to well-connected businessmen, making them instant billionaires. On the world stage, Russia’s influence withered.
For many Russians, the Kremlin’s actions in Georgia mark the best evidence to date of how far Russia has come from the rudderless days of the 1990s.
“We are strong enough now to make others listen to us,” said Yekaterina Markova, 31, a Moscow engineer. “We no longer need to go begging to the rest of the world. That was so humiliating.”
The revival of patriotism has been a cornerstone of Putin’s rule, achieved largely through Soviet-inspired images and strategies. The Kremlin engineered the start-up of political youth groups such as “Ours” and “Young Guard” that mimic communist-era Komsomol organizations. Newscasts on state-controlled television networks long ago shut out critical voices.
The hallmark of the revival, however, has been an “us against them” mentality that once defined mind-sets on both sides of the Cold War—a mind-set that experts say the Kremlin never relinquished.
“We are getting back to a scenario that Russians were once accustomed to—that of a superpower surrounded by enemies,” said Boris Dubin, an analyst at the Levada-Center in Moscow, Russia’s leading polling group. “It’s the image of a superpower able to protect its interests, by use of force if necessary, and a superpower that others are afraid of. This is the main outcome of Putin’s second term.”
Critical of United States
In the waning years of his presidency, Putin repeatedly portrayed the U.S. as an arrogant, bellicose power that directly threatened Russia’s interests. In 2007, on the Russian holiday that commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany, he obliquely likened the U.S. to the Third Reich. Both he and Medvedev have tried to convince Russians that U.S. plans for a missile system to defend Europe against a potential attack from Iran is actually directed against Russia.
Last week, Putin appeared on CNN and accused the White House of engineering Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia to boost the campaigns of one of the American presidential candidates.
“Our authorities think that the Cold War never ended,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading expert on Kremlin affairs and a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Sociology Institute. “As a result, all of our surveys show that the U.S. is now perceived as Russia’s primary enemy.”
Russians are especially sensitive about Washington’s strong alliances with countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union, such as Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and the Baltic states. The Baltics—Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia—are now NATO and EU members, and both Georgia and Ukraine are pursuing NATO membership.
“Russia, like other countries in the world, has regions where it has privileged interests,” Medvedev said in a speech broadcast Sunday on Russian television. “These are regions where countries with which we have friendly relations are located.”
Kryshtanovskaya says Russians have never fully accepted the notion that former Soviet republics can or should function outside Moscow’s orbit.
“The way of thinking is as follows: Yes, the Soviet Union collapsed, but the former Soviet republics remain in our zone,” Kryshtanovskaya said. “Their people remain our people, they speak Russian as we do and have the same mentality.
“So, the majority of Russians welcome the spread of Russian influence over the former Soviet republics and want Russia to lead those countries as it did in Soviet times. It’s not unlike what happened with the Roman Empire or British Empire. People always regret the decline of a great power, the end of a golden age.”