Both the two major world powers during the Cold War have had leaders who wanted to “make their nations great again.” Both hark back nostalgically to some imagined golden age. One, former U.S. president Donald Trump, MAGA-man, largely failed. He did, however, sow the seeds for a successor by pushing his Republican Party toward fascist extremes and rigging the U.S. Supreme Court such that it will collaborate in the regressive exercise.
The other, president of Russia Vladimir Putin, is largely succeeding. His country has been an imperialist power for many centuries. It didn’t get to be the world’s largest nation without gobbling up a few neighbouring properties. However when communism collapsed, pieces flew off the empire and Putin wants to put it back together again. In his mind, as he has famously said, the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Putin was a child of the USSR, so to him this was the summit to which he would like to return.
The pieces the empire lost don’t share his vision. Countries including Finland, the Baltics, Poland and, of course, Ukraine have at one time or another been sucked into the empire and they aren’t keen on being part of it again. So restoration is going slowly with, so far, only a chunk of Ukraine having been forced back into the fold.
His progress domestically is however going very well indeed. A nation that briefly showed the promise of becoming a free and democratic society has been ruthlessly returned to autocracy. Politics is now iron rule by Putin and organs of dissent have been co-opted or silenced.
And the children have not been forgotten. Putin has introduced sweeping changes to school curricula. Starting in first grade, Russian students will sit through weekly classes featuring war movies and virtual tours of the Crimea. They will be lectured on “traditional values” and celebrate Russia’s “rebirth” under President Putin. Schools across the country have been directed to hold pro-war propaganda classes.
All Russian children will be encouraged to join a new patriotic youth movement patterned after the Soviet Union’s red-cravatted “Pioneers.” They will be presided over by, who else, the president himself. In the words of senior government bureaucrat, Sergei Novikov, “We need to know how to infect them with our ideology. Our ideological work is aimed at changing consciousness.” Infected indeed.
Although Putin’s fear of NATO gets the publicity, he may be even more afraid of invasion by Western values. In his words, “They sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us. The attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.”
Putin refers largely to the LGBTQ community which he loathes. The screws on gays and trans are tightening with new laws proposed to further suppress their rights. Needless to say, the president has the support of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who refers to pride parades as “loyalty tests” to Western nations. Kirill also supports the Ukraine war.
Russian society as a whole is being reprogrammed, and there’s little doubt where the program comes from. Putin’s Ukraine war may not be the greatest success, but he is making very good use of it at home, creating a militarized anti-Western consensus.
Just as when the last revolution occurred with the arrival of the Bolsheviks, thousands of Russians are getting out. This time the exodus is rather more intellectual and creative, and less aristocratic.
Apparently Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms led to the collapse of communism, believes that Putin is undoing his life’s work. The end of “glasnost” and “perestroika.” Now it’s repression and regression. Back to the USSR.