Moscow pitches patriot games

An ambitious $6-million plan designed to 'increase patriotism' strikes critics as a throwback to Soviet era.

Sasha Khaliulin, a young computer specialist in Moscow, is fed up with his homeland.

"I've become convinced that Russia has no future," he says. "Nothing ever works in this place. You build something, it sinks into mud. The country moves from disaster to disaster, and things only get worse. Staying here would mean accepting permanent failure." Mr. Khaliulin plans to emigrate to Canada or another Western country as soon as possible.

Moscow is ready to spend millions to change his mind, however, with a sweeping and controversial new effort.

Call it Retro Russia. Or Patriot Games. Or Happy Days are Here Again.

Whatever the rubric, President Vladimir Putin's recipe for restoring Russian pride and nationalism includes far more than bringing back the old Soviet national anthem.

Remember those massive Soviet-era military parades, with columns of tanks and missiles rumbling past cheering crowds? Or the nationwide youth organization that taught children to salute, strip down a rifle, and chant: "Always ready for defense and labor"?

That's the sort of mass attitude the Kremlin hopes to bring back.

Earlier this month, the Kremlin unveiled its most comprehensive effort to date, with a $6 million program designed to "reeducate" the population.

An official statement of the program's goals says it aims to counter a wave of "indifference, individualism, cynicism, unmotivated aggression, and ... disrespect for the state" since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago.

Among the solutions, are more lavish military holidays, the reinstatement of Soviet-era military cadet training in high schools, and cash awards for "patriotic" artists, journalists and filmmakers.

The $6 million plan

A top-level commission, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko, has been given $6 million to devise ways to heighten patriotic feelings and stimulate a readiness to sacrifice for the motherland. The five-year project could ultimately spend $50-million or more to reshape the education system, influence the mass media, and create a net of "military-patriotic" youth clubs throughout the country.

"The main goals of this program are to consolidate social stability, revive the national economy, and strengthen Russia's defense capacity," says Deputy Culture Minister Anatoly Rakhayev, a member of the commission. "This is a top priority for the state, and we can only hope we are not getting started too late."

President Putin has outlined an ambitious strategy to revive Russia's moribund economy and restore its Soviet-era status as a global power. But while most of his reforms remain on paper, the education project appears already to be taking off. Mr. Rakhayev says his ministry will oversee the writing of a new history textbook for schools - to emphasize past military glory, such as the Soviet Union's victory in World War II, and Russia's traditional place as a great power on the global stage. "Russians need exposure to their own history to help them regain their bearings," he says. "The present generation has lost its ideals through the shocks of the past decade. It's a terrible thing to have nothing to believe in."

The media will be pressured to make space for "authoritative intellectuals" to redress what government officials say are "patriotic deficiencies" in regular news coverage. Also in the works are new museums and exhibitions to celebrate patriotic themes. Factories that produce calendars, knickknacks, and souvenirs with upbeat messages may get tax breaks.

Task No. 1, say supporters, is to raise the profile of Russia's demoralized and widely despised armed forces. According to official figures, 25,000 Russian men evaded the draft last year. Other estimates range much higher. A lack of adequate food, shelter, and equipment, and brutal hazing are among the reasons. Recruits also face being sent to Chechnya, where a more than year-long campaign against separatist rebels continues with no end in sight.

"The prestige of the Army is at low ebb," says Alexei Podberyozkin, head of Spiritual Heritage, a nationalist brain-trust that advises the Kremlin on cultural issues. "Officers are ashamed to walk in the streets wearing their uniforms. Young people refuse to serve in the military. It is crucial to increase respect toward service to one's country."

The program's obvious undertones of Soviet revivalism have prompted derision and outrage from some quarters.

"I thought we had abolished the official notion of patriotism in this country, but now we see it creeping back under Putin," says Galina Belaya, a professor of Russian culture at the University of Humanitarian Arts in Moscow. "Official patriotism has always been nationalist, militarist, and authoritarian. But for average people, patriotism has always meant, above all, a feeling of pain for Russia that is bigger than the feeling of pain for self. Although these have been very tough times for everyone, real patriotism has never diminished."

Another Soviet flourish is the plan to create committees of "cadres," including teachers and students, in schools and colleges to supervise patriotic education and extracurricular activities.

Earmarked for major increases in status and funding is Rosto, the former-Soviet organization that promoted the image of the armed forces among youth through paramilitary activities, sports events, and visits to Army bases. "The majority of young people need only a little encouragement to express their patriotism," says Vladimir Dranishnikov, the deputy chairman of Rosto. "Our task is to help youth prepare for their duty."

Patriotism is 'more than guns'

Critics say the program is, at best, a scam by venal bureaucrats looking for a new trough from which to feed. At worst, it is Kremlin history repeating itself, this time as farce rather than tragedy.

"The military brass who are behind all this seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing since Communist days," says Valentina Melnikova, chairwoman of the Committee of Soldier's Mothers, a grass-roots group. "Why can't we finally understand in this country that patriotism doesn't mean running around with guns? We should be teaching democracy and human rights in the schools. And the government should be listening to people rather than trying, yet one more time, to tell them how they should think."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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