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Spurred by Western criticism, Russians experience something new: patriotism

In the past, Russia was an empire, then a communist colossus, then a 'defeated' power expected to adopt Western ways. But current tensions with the West are fostering what may be the birth of a distinct Russian nationalism.

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    Yury Shaparin, a veteran of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, sits at his desk in Desantnik, a private downtown Moscow military-patriotic club started in the 1980s and run by former special services officers. Mr. Shaparin says he founded the club to foster patriotic values among young people in practical ways, mainly through physical training.
    Fred Weir
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The snapping point came for Pavel Melikhov, he says, when he heard President Obama compare Russia to a disease.

In a speech to the UN last September, the president listed the top threats to global security, with Ebola coming first, "Russian aggression in Europe" second, and the Islamic State group in third place. Mr. Melikhov, a middle-aged Moscow-area businessman, says that moment crystallized his way of thinking about his country and its place in the world.

He had felt supportive when Moscow annexed Crimea last year – as did a huge majority of Russians – and says he believed that President Vladimir Putin was defending Russia's natural interests by backing Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine against a revolutionary, anti-Moscow government that took power in Kiev last year. But Mr. Obama's remark jolted him by revealing a gaping chasm between what seemed obvious to him, as a Russian, and the way people in the West seem to perceive the same events.

"It wasn't just me. All my co-workers were stunned," he says. "The leader of the US put our country on a blacklist with a virus and a terrorist organization. That says it all. The masks are off. The US is not a friend; it's 'us' and 'them' now. I have finally and completely understood that."

Melikhov is not an outlier in today's Russia; indeed, he appears to be part of the new normal. Over the past year something has happened in the broad public mind, which looks to some experts like the birth of a distinct Russian nationalism for the first time in history.

In the past, Russia was an empire, then a communist colossus, then a "defeated" power that was expected – even by its leaders – to adopt Western ways. To be a "Russian" always meant being part of a state with grand ambitions and an ideology that did not address, or even admit, a separate Russian existence.

But amid a global geopolitical crisis over Ukraine, its pro-European revolution, and the civil war it triggered, "we see Russians groping for an identity more intensely than ever before in the past quarter century," says Masha Lipman, an independent political expert.

"There's a clear nationalist drive, yet still no clarity on what the new identity is. Russia is no longer an empire, but not yet a nation state," she says.

Patriotism, awakened

It's not that Melikhov was unpatriotic before. When he was a boy, he was a regular at Desantnik, a private downtown Moscow military-patriotic club started in the 1980s and run by former special services officers. There, young people are taught paramilitary skills like hand-to-hand combat, flying, parachuting, and marksmanship.

The club's president is Yury Shaparin, a veteran of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, who says he founded the club to foster patriotic values among young people in practical ways, mainly through physical training. He kept it going through the bitter years following the USSR's collapse, when the economy imploded and then-President Boris Yeltsin led Russia down a path that seemed to accept not only the West's hegemony, but also its political, economic, and cultural values.

"There seemed like no room for being a Russian. It was hard to feel patriotic under Yeltsin," Mr. Shaparin says, standing in Desantnik's gym, where about a dozen young people are learning to kickbox. Nearby there is a rack of Kalashnikov rifles, for shooting practice.

The past decade-and-a-half under Mr. Putin have been years of relative prosperity, when people got on with their private lives and paid little attention to politics. But, according to Shaparin, the events of the past year have awakened a sense among Russians that they are not like people in the West, their country has its own interests, and they have no one to rely on but themselves.

"We don't wish for war, and we don't feel the West is an enemy, but many people now see that they are trying to force us into a box, surround us with military bases, make us give up Ukraine, and break up what's left of our country," he says.

"What we teach here is that Russia can be saved, and all these sanctions and NATO threats can be defeated, if Russians grow more aware, learn to be strong and fit, and be willing to work together to build a better country. Nothing good will come from giving in to outside pressure."

Anti-Americanism

Public opinion surveys offer snapshots of this emerging mood.

Most frequently cited are the approval ratings of Putin, which have remained at a stratospheric 80-plus percent over a year – a span that started with anti-Moscow revolution in Kiev. That was followed by fallout of all kinds: the hasty annexation of the mainly Russian-populated Crimean peninsula; covert Kremlin support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's bitter civil war; increasing Western sanctions on Russia's economy along with efforts to isolate Moscow on the world stage; a harsh economic crisis; and a near-catastrophic plunge in the value of the national currency, the ruble.

A year after the annexation of Crimea, a poll by the state-run VTsIOM agency found that two-thirds of respondents approved of the action, and 89 percent believed the territory shouldn't be returned to Ukraine under any circumstances. A March survey by the independent Levada Center found that 68 percent believe that Russia is a "great power," up from 30 percent in an identical poll taken 10 years ago.

Another recent VTsIOM poll found only a slight majority of Russians were even aware of Western sanctions against the country, but of those, well over 80 percent believed the sanctions were imposed with ill intent toward Russia. Less than 1 percent thought the West had "good intentions."

Most alarmingly, anti-American sentiment is at its highest peak since reliable polling of Russians began in the mid-1980s. According to a March Levada survey, 73 percent of respondents had a "negative" attitude toward the US, up from 56 percent a year earlier.

'A process, not an accident'

These data points connect to make a coherent picture, say experts. The Ukrainian crisis was just a trigger for a process that was waiting to happen, says Olga Kamenchuk, an expert with VTsIOM. "Such changes in popular views do not come out of the blue."

Russians have been mentally distancing themselves from the Western model of life for some time. But the Ukrainian crisis brought forth a flurry of reactions, including solidarity with Russian-speaking "compatriots" such as Crimeans and eastern Ukrainians, the sense that a hostile West is working to surround Russia and thwart its regional interests, and vaguer yearnings for a deeper sense of national purpose.

"Whatever is happening in modern Russia is a process, not an accident, and it can be expected to unfold further," says Ms. Kamenchuk.

The Kremlin has worked hard to shape these perceptions and harness them to ensure its own political survival. Some basic concepts of the new patriotism have been initially expressed by Putin, then amplified by the vast state propaganda machine, which dominates what most Russians see and hear.

They include the notion of the "Russian World," whose geography extends beyond Russia's borders to embrace people whose language, culture, and mindset – though not necessarily ethnicity – are Russian, such as Crimeans, Abkhazians, Transdnistrians, and quite a few other far-flung groups.

The assertion that Russia has a responsibility to protect such populations, and perhaps gather them back to the Motherland, has set nerves jangling around Eastern Europe. Another, also originating with Putin, is the claim that liberals, gays, and other "Westernized" Russians represent a "fifth column" that threatens to subvert Russian society from within.

"For Russian mass opinion, the appeal to force is very popular. Force increases respect," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center. "Russians easily accept that the West's antagonism toward our country is based on pure hostility. Even if living standards are worsening, they don't doubt the official explanation that it's due to 'enemy action' and not our own policies. Basically, Russians have always wanted to live in a strong country, and they are prepared to pay a price for that."

The limits of patriotic sentiments

But while Russians may be more patriotic than ever in their hearts, most have yet to express that patriotism through action. Attempts to convince Russians to actually join patriotic organizations and stage huge, Soviet-style pro-Kremlin street demonstrations, have not proven to be so successful.

Nikolai Starikov is a writer and organizer of the apparently independent Anti-Maidan movement, which seeks to raise patriotic consciousness and actively oppose any sign of Ukrainian-style, pro-democracy revolution in Russia.

He presided over a small demonstration of his supporters outside the US embassy, on a blustery April afternoon in Moscow. About 50 protesters, mainly university students, held up banners decrying NATO expansion and "US interference" in Ukraine.

"Our American partners have unleashed a war inside the Russian World and at Russia's frontiers. They do not conceal their plans to change the regime in Russia," he says.

But most Muscovites, hurrying by in the late winter snowstorm, seemed completely oblivious. It was a tiny turnout – though the Anti-Maidan movement debuted in February with a march of about 35,000 supporters through downtown Moscow – and the entire group folded their banners and hurried away after about 15 minutes.

"It's difficult to organize people, so that they get together" Mr. Starikov laments. "Public opinion is changeable."

In fact, the Kremlin directly sponsored several youth movements to oppose any domestic pro-democracy revolt following the 2004 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, including Nashi and the Young Guard, but despite the infusion of considerable official resources, those attempts petered out after a few years leaving little trace behind.

A massive Red Square rally in March to commemorate the annexation of Crimea, led by Putin personally and themed "We Are Together!", was slightly marred by social media postings showing hundreds of participants, mainly young people, lining up later to receive their payouts.

'A time of great opportunity'?

"Of the two pillars of the current nationalist consensus, one is transient. That is the extremely broad support for Putin, but Putin will not be forever, right?" says Ms. Lipman. "The other is too negative. Anti-Western sentiment may be deep and genuine, but being anti-Western does nothing to help shape a sense of who we are."

Melikhov, the businessman, has a tentative answer to that.

"We should use this situation, and all this energy," he says. "I've never seen a time when people felt so consolidated and ready to be constructive. For me, patriotism means to go out and build something, improve my business, help others to start something. This could be a time of great opportunity for our country, and ourselves."

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