The Specter of Russian Nationalism

The Specter of Russian Nationalism

When he was named acting president of Russia on December 31, 1999, Vladimir Putin inherited a country still reeling from the Soviet Union’s breakup: economic woes caused by the rapid privatization of state assets and the August 1998 financial crisis, ethnic unrest and war in Chechnya, and Russia’s demotion from superpower status. Over the next seven years, the Putin government introduced a series of national reforms aimed at making Russia once again a major player on the world stage. Dmitry Medvedev’s election as the new president means that his term will be a continuation of the policies set in place by his predecessor and mentor, who stays on as prime minister and seems literally prime—“first in rank, authority, or significance,” as the Oxford English Dictionary says.

Putin’s time in office has left its mark. Until recently, the economy had grown steadily for ten years, largely because of Russia’s oil and natural gas reserves, which make up around 60 percent of its export earnings. Gazprom, the energy monopoly once chaired by Medvedev, supplies a quarter of Europe’s natural gas. The inflow of foreign investment capital contributed to growing prosperity in large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg; reflecting this growth, for the last three years Moscow has been ranked as the world’s most expensive city. According to Forbes, it is also the world’s billionaire capital, with seventy-four; the total number of billionaires in the country is eighty-seven, second only to the United States. However, this economic growth has slowed since the summer because of the global decline in oil prices, as well as the war with Georgia, which made foreign investors wary and caused a capital outflow of thirty billion dollars within just a month of the end of the conflict.

Despite these sobering prospects, recent times have been a far cry from the tumultuous years under Boris Yeltsin, and the result is widespread support for Putin, Medvedev, and their United Russia party. In the eyes of many Russians, Putin represents a stabilizing force, ready and able to advance the national interest after the country was eclipsed by the West for too long. Although much has been written about his consolidation of power, silencing the opposition, and curbing the free media, it can’t be denied that he retains a high degree of popularity among young and old. A candidate like Medvedev, almost completely unknown and never having held elective office before, could never have won the presidential election without Putin’s backing.

With Russia’s reemergence and Putin’s popularity, there are more than enough factors to worry any democratic observer. Aside from the steady accumulation of power—the Kremlin authorities call it “sovereign democracy”—there is a revival of populist nationalism at home that coincides with Russia’s increasingly hard-line foreign policies. The looming presence of nationalism in Russia’s publi...