Is the Kremlin rallying Russians for a new 'USSR-lite'?

At military parades in Moscow and newly annexed Crimea today, Putin gave further hints of a new Russian doctrine that combines Soviet nostalgia with ethnic Russian themes.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin (r.) meets military personnel today during events marking Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea. Mr. Putin went to Crimea on Friday for the first time since Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March.

Victory Day, Russia's annual homage to the 27 million Soviet citizens who died in the colossal struggle to defeat Nazi Germany, has always been more than a day of remembrance.

Both Soviet and Russian leaders have sought to enhance their own legitimacy by bathing in the reflected light of that triumph, and blatantly used the annual parade of tanks, troops, and intercontinental missiles to advertise continuing military prowess.

But there were some fresh notes this year that suggest the Kremlin may be recasting Soviet nostalgia and a sense of Russian superiority into a new doctrine: one that would gather ethnic Russians and other former Soviet "compatriots" into a new Moscow-dominated empire that will once again challenge the West.

This idea, combined with a renewed taste for military expansionism that was test-driven in Crimea, may spell more trouble in future.

"This new Russian nationalism is being blended mostly out of Soviet revivalism, and the feelings of nostalgia for the times when the USSR was an empire that ruled big parts of the world," says Nikolai Svanidze, a famous Russian TV personality in the same vein as Bill Moyers. "The taking of Crimea is perceived, and presented, as a step toward the restoration of the USSR. Even if it's a kind of USSR-lite, it's being used to stir public moods, and it's dangerous."

Recalling past glory

President Vladimir Putin made no direct reference to Ukraine or Russia's annexation of Crimea in his brief Red Square address today, nor was there any sign of the former USSR's communist ideology. But the subtext was all about the ongoing virtues of patriotism, national determination, and the need to stand up to external threats. Then he sent a more explicit message by flying to Crimea, where he was greeted by rapturous crowds and presided over a massive display of Russian naval and aviation might.

In his speech after signing the treaty to join Crimea with Russia, Mr. Putin spoke evocatively of Russia's humiliation at being treated like a vanquished country after the cold war ended, and of his anger at how the West exploited Russia's weakness to expand NATO eastward into former Soviet territory. The final straw, he said, was US and European encouragement of a street revolt in Kiev that brought a pro-Western government to power that did not represent the interests of millions of Russians and compatriots in Ukraine's east.

"Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress a spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard," Putin said.

That kind of talk clearly works with Russia's public. Putin's popularity ratings have soared since the Ukraine crisis began, especially after the annexation of Crimea. A late April survey by the independent Levada Center found a near-record 82 percent of Russians approved of Putin's job performance.

Russian media commentators have consistently claimed that the pro-Western interim government in Kiev is dominated by fascists, making the clear suggestion that Moscow's pushback against the new Ukrainian regime is in some way a continuation of the Soviet Union's war against Nazi Germany. The same thought seemed to lurk between the lines of Putin's Victory Day speech as well.

"Here and there militant nationalism is again raising its head, the same kind that brought on the appearance of Nazi ideology," Putin told a Kremlin meeting earlier this week.

Turning racial?

But experts say it's Putin's emphasis on defending the interests of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine – and potentially other former Soviet lands – that's changing the political conversation in Russia.

In the ex-USSR, the term "Soviet citizen" was employed to obscure ethnic and national differences, in keeping with the "internationalist" stance of Communist authorities. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin invented the term "Rusyanin," meaning a citizen of Russia, to avoid using the word "Russky" which applies to ethnic Russians.

But, as the crisis in Ukraine grew, official rhetoric has talked more about defending ethnic Russians, now trapped in foreign countries as a result of the Soviet breakup – and threatened with discrimination or worse from non-Russian authorities.

"Official nationalism hasn't changed, but in the mass media it's becoming more about race. When they speak of nationality now, they mean ethnicity," says Alexander Verhkovsky, director of the independent Sova Center in Moscow, which tracks extremist movements.

That could hold future implications for several former Soviet republics, such as Kazakhstan and Moldova as well as Ukraine, where substantial pockets of Russians live.

"What has really changed is the idea of expansionism has appeared in our authorities' discourse. Never before was it said that Russia has a mission to restore some parts of the lost empire. Now we've actually done that, in Crimea," says Mr. Verkhovsky.

But he adds that the changes are tactical, and that he doesn't believe Putin is trying to create a full-fledged neo-Soviet ideology.

Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, agrees. "An ideology needs to be oriented toward the future. But what we're seeing is many incoherent elements, mostly celebrations of historical triumphs and appeals for people to work together as they did in the war. But restoring the glorious past is hardly a plan," he says.

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