What Is Russian Patriotism?

The kind of patriotism promoted in Russia has traditionally been about love for the state rather than the nation. But this country has demonstrated in the most vivid way that governments come and go while the nation, with its great achievements and potential, is here to stay.

On June 12, Russia celebrated one of its youngest national holidays – Russia Day. The celebrations came amid a resurgence of the debate over Russian patriotism. The findings of a recent survey show that more than a half of the population still does not know the significance of the holiday.

In your view, what does patriotism mean? According to Leo Tolstoy, “Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most undoubted meaning is for rulers nothing else but a means of realizing their ambitions and venal ends; for the governed it is a renouncing of human dignity, intelligence, and conscience, and a slavish submission to the rulers…” Would you agree with this statement?

Tolstoy is right in many respects. Indeed, in quite a few countries, the powers that be use patriotism as a tool for suppressing freedom. And, predictably, those who have their freedoms suppressed respond either with indifference or resentment. 

In my view, patriotism is love for one’s country that comes with a desire to improve the way it is governed. I do love Russia. This is my country. But while loving my country, I also want it to be run in a better, more humane fashion. Patriotism should manifest itself as a desire to translate this feeling into action, I think. An author like me can act by writing. Members of the public can act by voting in elections, making choices that could lead to improvements in the quality of life and governance. Each person has their own path toward patriotism. As for me, I came to it through an awareness of the Russian language and the richness of expression it is capable of.

Russian MPs are currently drafting a bill on patriotic education. It could be ready for a vote in the legislature after the summer recess. Do we really need such a law?

Trying to instill patriotism in this way makes no sense to me. Anything that is forced usually leads to horrific distortions. In this country, Tolstoy’s literary works do much more to promote patriotism than any law on patriotic education ever can. Our nation has plenty to be proud of. And promoting our historical and cultural heritage is a much more effective way of fostering patriotism than passing some law.

The champions of the new bill are speaking against the tradition of linking patriotic education to an outside enemy, and they believe it’s necessary to view the nation’s history in its entirety, admitting its errors. According to Valery Ryazansky, head of the Social Policy Committee in the Federation Council [parliament’s upper house], “we should speak openly about Stalinist persecution and political prisoners as a part of our history.” Do you think this is the right way to go about it?

Of course. The nation has been through many complicated, even tragic periods. Recognizing our mistakes is crucial – if only to learn the lessons of the past in order to avoid repeating them in the future. This is indispensable for the future of our country.

Some argue that in any healthy society, patriotism is always closely linked with nationalism. The Russian government, meanwhile, is trying to promote an anti-nationalist form of patriotism, given the nation’s multiethnic makeup. Do you approve of that idea? Do patriotism and nationalism have anything in common?

Patriotism should not necessarily have a nationalistic hue. Nationalism is a dead end for any country, and all real patriots should be aware of this. Especially now, in the 21st century. We are part of a globalized world. And we should find our place here. Patriots should think about how to find their country’s “place in the sun” in the world rather than isolating it from the rest of the world.

In a multi-ethnic and multi-faith country like Russia, a patriot just cannot hold narrow nationalistic interests. That said, there’s nothing wrong with an ethnically Russian patriot, for example, admiring Russian culture. Young skinheads who chant “Russia for the Russians” are misled patriots. They probably do love Russia, in their own way. But their perverse love is fraught with horrible consequences.

What role does the Church have to play in this?

Count Sergei Uvarov’s famous formula “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationality,” which he coined during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I and which reflected the autocratic nature of his regime, came as kind of an imperial response to the French revolutionary slogan “Liberté, egalité, fraternité.” But it isn’t relevant any more. In Russia, we have a great deal of people following religions and denominations other than Orthodox Christianity, as well as agnostics and atheists. Religion is a personal thing. If someone sees their country as a mystical, metaphysical creation, that’s their right and their personal vision. But imposing this on everyone else would be a new form of totalitarianism.

Loving one’s country is not the same as loving the state, or is it? Can one be a patriot while not liking the government and its institutions?

Of course. The kind of patriotism promoted in Russia has traditionally been about love for the state rather than the nation. But this country has demonstrated in the most vivid way that governments come and go while the nation, with its great achievements and potential, is here to stay.

How does patriotism influence domestic and foreign policies?

It has a tremendous impact. It’s love for one’s country that brings forth the idea of national interest, national ideals, and national policy. Only true patriots can be true rulers.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.