Russia is using "obligatory patriotism" and university "deans of ideology" to ward off separatist movements that challenge the central authority.
MOSCOW — After the much-discussed laws against “foreign agents” and “homosexual” propaganda, Russia is moving on to a new bogeyman: separatism. And its strategy for fighting this apparent evil is obligatory patriotism.
Over the past two weeks, expressions of patriotism — within the government and among the intelligentsia, the masses and the media — has increased exponentially. It’s as if Russia is preparing to fight off some enemy at the beginning of December.
It’s no coincidence. The ground is being meticulously prepared for a proposed law in Russia’s legislative body, the Duma. It aims to outlaw “separatist propaganda” and proposes “deans of ideology” at St. Petersburg universities, not to mention a seminar for vice governors about “Russian identity.”
An informal group known as the “Russian Sovereignty” has developed in the Duma, and that group is now taking it upon itself to promote “patriotic education” with an associated government administrative and even entries in the criminal code.
This group has suggested a “Separatism Propaganda” article that would create criminal penalties for anyone who, with words or actions, “puts under doubt the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.” The maximum sentence would be 20 years in prison.
“Separatism — that is an attempt to separate a country from its parts — is an anti-government act similar to a coup or terrorism, so calls for separatism should be treated as a crime against the country,” explains Evgenii Fedorov, one of the Duma members who has introduced the legislation. “Right now, those kinds of crimes are not regulated, and political separatism, including separatism financed from abroad, is not punished. After the adoption of this law, violators will be considered foreign agents whose actions are meant to liquidate Russia.”
A coalescing movement
The members of the Russian Sovereignty group say that the law is likely to pass, pointing to precedents such as legislation forbidding foreigners from adopting Russian children, and preventing government officials from owning property abroad. Fedorov has also suggested a law (though it is not being considered at the moment) that would classify the media as “foreign agents.”
The Duma is also considering legislation that would establish preferences for Russian businesses that do not have foreign debt, lower barriers to credit for Russian companies and even changing the national holiday from June 12 — the day that the modern Russian constitution was adopted in 1992 — to Sept. 21. The September date would celebrate the establishment of the first Russian state in 862 AD.
The movement has managed to recruit a significant contingent of young people. One of the leaders is Nikolai Starikov, an activist and author whose books include The West Against Russia: Russia’s Primary Enemy, and Let’s Remember Stalin Together.
“The proposal is ridiculous,” says Ivan Klepitskii, a professor of criminal law at a Moscow University. “What does ‘express sympathy towards separatist movements’ mean? Let’s say I like Giuseppe Garibaldi a 19th-century Italian general and revolutionary and I say so in public. Does that make me a separatist?”
A documentary recently aired on television with the title, Investigation: Who Wants to Break Up Russia? The show singled out a writer, a human rights activist and an art dealer as “separatists” who, according to the television show, wanted to create some kind of United States of Siberia.
If it were just this one television program, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but the message that separatism is Russia’s biggest problem is clearly coming from high-level government officials.
Completing the troika
Separatism is now spoken about in the same way that “foreign agents” and “homosexual propaganda” were recently discussed, completing the troika of modern Russian bogeymen. Apparently, this is how to tell if someone is patriotic: He is not a separatist, he doesn’t prostitute himself to foreign powers and he’s not gay. Love of country, modern though that country may be, has once again been reduced to conservatism and defensiveness.
In 2012, there were more than 300 “patriotism education” programs at universities around the country, and around 40% of students took part in such programs. But participation varied drastically from region to region — some regions strongly associated with separatism had no programs whatsoever.
In 2014, participation will not longer be voluntary. Every governmental institution — federal, regional and local — will be expected to have a center for patriotism education.
“Every time that patriotism in Russia is discussed on a governmental level, it has two very unpleasant characteristics,” explains Igor Mintusov, a professor at St. Petersburg State University. “First of all, it is being sold for money. A government patriotism program is like selling love. It’s a magnet for people who want to get something out of it. The stronger you embrace your country, the more you will be forgiven — for anything from misbehavior to corruption. Secondly, our patriotism always has a military component, and is not remotely civilian. In addition, the political elite wants to make the government equal to country in people’s minds: If you’re a patriot and you love your country, you should also love your government officials and your courts. That’s not really the same as loving your country.”