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Don’t Let Putin Destroy Fluid Russia

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Contributed by Vera Michlin-Shapir

In my book Fluid Russia: Between the Global and the National in the Post-Soviet Era, I argue that analysis of Russian national identity largely overlooks the extent to which globalization shaped Russian society and politics. Throughout the book I demonstrate the profound impact of globalization on legislation, discourse, and ordinary people’s practices in Russia. Such analysis helps explain the rise of authoritarian politics in Russia as a reaction to the disruptions produced by global trends. It also gives hope that Russian society, which is more of a part of the global world than it seems, can still be open for dialogue.

In the book’s conclusion, however, I warned that “external changes in the global context, such as an international conflict” might drive “Putin’s project to solidify Russian national identification… beyond its shallow nature and result in a deeper transformation in Russia.” This scenario is materializing right now. The West must make sure that it does not help Putin to isolate the Russian society, a process which would have long-lasting effects.

In these precarious conditions, a desire to reaffirm a stronger identity comes from the need for a sense of security.

Fluid Russia argues that when the Soviet Union collapsed, borders opened, censorship lifted, and Marxist-Leninist ideology was cast aside, individuals were ever freer to travel, to live where they wanted, to express what was on their minds, and to form their own understanding of Russianness. But this transformation also revealed globalization’s disruptions, where greater freedom and more flexibility are often experienced as an insecure existence. In these precarious conditions, a desire to reaffirm a stronger identity comes from the need for a sense of security. Putin’s rise to power and his project to reaffirm a stronger Russian identity should be construed as a campaign to address a deficit of security that was lost in the post-Soviet quest to integrate into the global world.

Accounting for the impact of globalization allows to tell a more complex story about Putin’s Russia. Putin never tried to reverse history and recreate the Soviet Union. Instead, he positioned himself as one of the most vocal and active challengers to globalization and to the hegemony of Western liberal values. He argued that Russia was in a struggle with the neoliberal Western-dominated world and framed this confrontation in existential terms. In this context, Ukraine’s drifting westward closer to NATO and to the European Union was seen as both a geopolitical-strategic and an ideological challenge.

Yet, for many years Putin and his allies continued to enjoy the fruits of globalization and have never fully isolated Russians from the global world. They tried to perfect a new type of global oppression, corruption and disruption, which derided globalization while at the same time using its perks. Putin’s bet was that what he called “Western double standards” and hypocrisy would allow him to ride two horses at once. As a result, the Russian society was in a hybrid state, where elements of global openness were mixed with more exclusivist and closed political agenda that the Kremlin promoted. The popularity of Western social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube are examples of the profound headways that global trends made in Russian society.

While Western sanctions send an important message to the Kremlin, they carry the risk of playing into Putin’s hands.

Putin works hard to fight these trends, and the West must make sure that the introduction of sanctions would not help him accomplish his mission. While Western sanctions send an important message to the Kremlin, they carry the risk of playing into Putin’s hands. By isolating Russia from the global economy, sanctions also cut it from global trends and may help Putin to isolate Russians from international flows of information. This will make it ever easier for the Kremlin to shape public opinion.

The Kremlin recently closed the last independent Russian media outlets and blocked access to websites. In his recent address, Putin called the Russian people to segregate “patriots” from “traitors,” calling for the persecution of anyone who holds Western values or enjoys its lifestyles. Popular online bloggers, like Veronika Belotserkovskaya whose well-crafted cookbooks I discuss in Fluid Russia, are being prosecuted and may face up to 15 years in prison. These steps aim to isolate Russians as much as possible from the outer world, so that the only narrative available for them would be Putin’s twisted story about a “limited military operation” in to “demilitarize” and to “denatzify” Ukraine. Within this narrative, Western sanctions could be viewed by ordinary Russians as a disproportional, vengeful and indiscriminate collective punishment, and reinforce Putin’s claims that the West is inherently anti-Russian.

In order not to let Putin win, the West must acknowledge the holistic character of the struggle that Putin engages in. We must stand with Ukrainians, who heroically defend their freedoms. We must also find channels to communicate with ordinary Russians, and not let Putin complete a deeper transformation of the Russian society that might outlive his presidency.

*Featured photo: Putin at Russian chapel, Vršič. Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Cover image of Fluid Russia
Read more about this book.

Vera Michlin-Shapir is a Visiting Research Fellow at The King’s Centre for Strategic Communications, King’s College London.

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