For centuries, a good majority of Russia's young and well-educated elite have looked westward for inspiration and role models—some of them revolutionary like Karl Marx, or more recently free marketers like Margaret Thatcher. Even during the years of Boris Yeltsin's chaotic reforms, most educated Russians still believed on some level that Russia's best hope for becoming a "normal" country was to follow the West's course of democracy and capitalism. A significant core of liberal democrats remained well into the eight-year rule of Vladimir Putin,and his relentless campaign to restore Russia's position as a great power.
But the August war in Georgia and the ongoing economic and financial collapse mark a tipping point. For the first time in generations, a mood of patriotism, jingoism and staunch Russian nationalism have become pervasive among even educated Russians who once considered themselves pro-Western liberals. Yes, most Russians have been reflexively patriotic all along. But Russia has seldom in living memory been more nationalistic—and seldom have Russia's brightest and best found themselves more in agreement with the people—as well as the Kremlin—on their country's greatness. In the spring of 2008, 65 percent of Russians felt "generally positive" about the United States, according to the Yuri Levada opinion polls center in Moscow. But after the war in Georgia, that indicator dropped to just 7 percent. At the same time, Putin's approval ratings have climbed eight points between July and September to 88 percent; Dmitry Medvedev's increased 13 points, to 83 percent.
The sharp increase underscores the "quick evolution of Russian empire complex," says Levada expert Natalya Zorkaya. "After the war the general feeling in society was, Hurrah! Russia, get up off your knees!" she says. Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Mozkvy, the last liberal national radio station still broadcasting opposition voices, says the patriotic mood has pervaded the elite to a remarkable degree. "I do not know a single Russian who would like to see his country dependent or weak—we all want Russia to be strong, wealthy and happy." Even the Union of Right Forces, once a radical free-market liberal party, last week split into pro- and anti-Kremlin factions, with the pro-Kremlin wing keeping the lion's share of the party members and offices.
The reasons for the change run deep. Rich or poor, a whole generation of Russians has gone from naive infatuation with the West's ideals in the 1990s to a deep disappointment and resentment fueled by perceived Western hypocrisy in ignoring Russian objections over the bombing of Serbia and the Iraq War—plus the widely held belief that Western economic advice during the 1990s was deliberately designed to weaken and dismember Russia. Now, for the first time in a generation, Russians have a short, victorious war to crow about, after defeats in Afghanistan and Chechyna. The financial crisis, even though it is hitting Russian markets hard, has given the Kremlin fodder for gloating that the West had finally received its comeuppance, and that finally, America will have to share the pedestal with other countries. "Putin inspired a kind of state-nationalism—he gave people hope that Russia can become a big player again," says Alexei Makarkin, vice-president of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies.
Among those who have turned: former Duma deputy Vyacheslav Igrunov, a founder of Memorial, a civic association devoted to the victims of Stalinism, as well as the liberal Yabloko Party. Jailed in the '80s for anti-Soviet activity, he was a classic dissident, a liberal and, in the jargon of the day, a "progressive intellectual." But like many of his fellow travelers, he experienced a disenchantment with the West, which crystallized, he says, after NATO supported Georgian "aggression" in Ossetia. Similarly, Sergei Markov, a one-time liberal dissident who "fought for freedom" in the 1980s by trying to overthrow communism and bring Russia's democrats to power, is now a Duma member for the Kremlin-created United Russia Party. He says the West "has lost all its authority for Russian intellectuals," by supporting Kosovo's independence but not Ossetia's, and because of the financial crisis, which undermines the Western free-market ideal. Now he advocates that "Russia should be preaching its own nationalistic and patriotic ideas in defense of the West's anti-Russian aggression," and the Kremlin has charged him with the task of organizing a series of initiatives to help, in Markov's words, "clean up the morals of the Russian elite" and create an ultrapatriotic breed of leaders who will help make Russia "a Christian, conservative European country, with genuine human and moral values."
Russia's leaders have done their utmost to promote a passionate nationalism. Putin promised this summer that the state would fund a new generation of patriotic films and television programs. News of this plan was rapturously received by an audience of academics and journalists at St. Petersburg State University. "The state should be taking a lead in forming the intellectual and spiritual life of Russians," says Alexander Zapesotsky, president of St. Petersburg's Trade Union Humanitarian University. The Kremlin has also continued to promote the ideologically motivated youth gangs it hatched in the aftermath of Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004. Their intent at the time had been to prevent the same kind of movement that had helped bring down Ukraine's government. Now these movements have spawned a network of ideologically correct organizations to organize—or, in their own terms, "modernize"—Russian business and society. The focus is on attracting young professionals and embryonic think tanks, which have proved effective in attracting ideas if only because of the promise of state funding for successful applicants. In July, Nashi leader Nikita Borovikov unveiled a plethora of new offshoots to Medvedev. Among them: "Nashi Builders," a group of young architects and designers who would brainstorm ideas for construction companies. Three years ago, management professor Vladimir Nechayev founded the Moscow Higher School of Management to train a new generation of Nashi leaders in universities across 45 regions of Russia. The core idea: "I value the success of my country as much or even more than my own success and ambitions." Some 50,000 students have since passed through its various courses—including a class of managers of the state-owned Russian Railways.
There are, of course, profound risks in the Kremlin's nationalistic tack. The NGO Sova, which monitors hate crimes, reports that 75 foreigners have been killed as a result of racist attacks and 291 wounded in Russia from January to September 2008, a steep increase over previous years. Medvedev's anti-U.S. rhetoric is dangerous too, largely because as the financial turmoil continues the temptation to shift blame onto a foreign enemy grows greater. Economic crises have historically led to ugly upsurges in nationalism—and the Kremlin is stoking the fire, a cynical ploy with sinister precedents, made all the more dangerous because there are now so few Russians left willing to oppose it.