By Natylie Baldwin
Originally appeared at Oped News, June 23, 2020
Many American pundits and politicians have referred to Vladimir Putin as a nationalist. This has always been a disingenuous characterization of the Russian president to anyone who has studied him carefully over the years. Putin is more what could be termed a sovereigntist. He believes unequivocally in national sovereignty and in Russia’s right to be an independent nation that freely makes its own decisions in its perceived interests – engaging in multilateralism when appropriate, but as a respected equal. This is not nationalism in the commonly understood meaning of the word, which connotes a form of national chauvinism – the idea that a country (or ethnic group) is superior to others and has the right to do what it wants at anyone else’s expense. I have never heard Putin say anything that suggests this kind of ideology, unless he’s being quoted out of context, which happens frequently in the western press. Moreover, there are real nationalist politicians in Russia, namely Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the LDPR Party and one of the more popular opposition politicians. One can get an idea of some of his more outlandish ideas here – including support for monarchy and denigrating diplomacy.
In an interview with Oliver Stone in June of 2019, Putin specifically gave his opinion of nationalism:
Vladimir Putin: In general nationalism is a sign of narrow-mindedness.
Within the context of domestic Russian politics, Putin is a moderate. He sees himself as a Russian patriot and pragmatist whose top priorities are the security and stability of Russia as well as improving Russians’ living standards. Anyone who has an understanding of Russian geography and history immediately comprehends these priorities and why they resonate with the Russian people, who overwhelmingly believe that Putin, whatever his flaws, took a country that was literally on the verge of being a failed state in 2000 and turned it around. In order to keep the country together after the disaster of the 1990s, it was necessary to foster social cohesion. Consequently, Putin encouraged the trend, already underway, of the re-discovery of Russia’s pre-Soviet cultural heritage, with the Orthodox Church playing a significant role and Russians’ cultural conservatism acknowledged. All this reflected the need to emphasize boundaries, rootedness and order in the search for stability after the chaotic Yeltsin era that plunged the nation into massive poverty, crime and its worst mortality crisis since World War II. There is also a strong sense of duty and loyalty that Putin personally values.
These qualities have made him attractive to some western conservatives, despite the fact that in many ways Putin is a statist as is fitting with Russia’s long political history, which does not include the libertarianism that a large segment of American conservatives have traditionally embraced. Conversely, Putin’s cultural conservatism has been weaponized by liberal Democrats, especially as it pertains to gay rights. Ironically, this obscures the fact that Putin’s actual record shows a leader with a more nuanced and moderate socio-political view as he’s overseen the expansion of individual rights for Russians within the justice system and opposes re-institution of the death penalty. Meanwhile Russian women enjoy maternity and child benefits that American women could only dream of.
In an interview with Rossiya 1 on May 17th, Putin stated that Russia – a country straddling two continents and 11 time zones – was more its own civilization than just a country.
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