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Turning Back The Clock: Putin Distancing from Freedom and Security

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On December 26th, 1991 the Soviet Union was officially dissolved, seeing a huge scale break-up of states and the end of a superpower that had dominated globally alongside the United States since 1945. For many it was seen as a day of liberation and freedom, however, for many more Russians, it was life-changing. For Russians specifically, it signified not only an implosion of their political system but also a loss of their own identity. This loss of identity and fragmentation of the Russian people exacerbated the issues that began to plague the new Russian Federation. 

When Vladimir Putin came to power on May 7th, 2000, he saw this loss of identity and the following dissolution of unity across the nation as one of the greatest problems facing the Russian Federation. This can not only can be seen through many of his policies and actions as president but Vladimir Putin also openly acknowledged this being a key issue, and swore to change it in his inauguration speech, “I consider it my sacred duty to unite the people of Russia…” Additionally, Gleb Pavlovsky, an aide and advisor to Putin at the time said that they had to “create some sense of nation.” Putin seemed to make it his mission from the beginning to create ideas of nationhood and unity for Russia. To do this Putin specifically focused on the history and past to recreate a sense of identity and unity, reminding people of the prestige of the old Russian Empire and early Soviet State. This idea is referred to as the process of ‘restorative nostalgia’ by Svetlana Boym, the idea that the past or memory of the past has a powerful effect upon mobilizing people into action and unity. 

Boym references Trump’s use of the idea of ‘make America great again’, or the Brexit campaign, utilizing the idea of a restoration of a nation’s height of power, especially if the populace can easily be persuaded to see a fall from grace. The more recent the fall or perceived collapse, the greater the power of restorative nostalgia. For Russia this meant any reflection on the loss of identity and nationhood was especially poignant, as it was only nine years before Putin’s inauguration that the Soviet Union had collapsed, meaning it was in everyone’s living memory. Furthermore, it can also be argued the greater the loss or fall from grace, the more powerful this ideology is as well, for America and Britain restorative nostalgia had a medium effect, with some strongly backing the notion, but many more making light of the idea of a ‘return to greatness. 

Again for Russia, the fall from grace was monumental, to go from a dual superpower position in the world, being the sole power block to oppose America, to falling to a level where even Yeltsin worried there was potential for Russia to become a third-tier nation, with little influence or power upon the world. Therefore, for Putin, the potential of restorative nostalgia was possibly strong enough to heal the fractured nature of the Russian nation, both in its identity loss and fragmentation of unity.

Russian history was rich in periods, events and great figures Putin could utilize. Much of the Soviet History post-1945 is problematic due to the nature of the political system, the purges and the negative global and internal view of the Soviet Union, making it difficult to use it to resonate with the entire country. The Imperialistic period of Russia had a strong possibility of helping restore a sense of nation, effectively turning back the clock to the pre-Bolshevik Revolution. However, naturally the memory of the Imperialist period was beyond anyone’s living memory and therefore not a strong cohesive factor. Despite this, there are key symbols of the Imperialist period reflected in modern Russia under Putin, especially the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church and the restoration of the army, although that could be argued as a constant theme in Russia from its ‘creation’ in the 13th Century to modern-day. The Second World War is not an immediately obvious choice, mainly due to its Soviet ties and the hugely problematic actions of the Soviet Union during the war, taking part in anti-Semitic Pogroms, the invasion of Poland and early alliance with Nazi Germany.

 However, Putin carefully restructured and rewrote the war celebration not to necessarily focus on the grand view of the war, but the personal. Focusing on the courage, and spirit of the Soviet people during the war, he can try and compare the hardships of today and the 1940s, suggesting if Russia overcame insurmountable odds in 1941, they can face their nation’s issues now and overcome them if they show the same qualities. By reflecting on the achievements of the people and not just the nation and great men, Putin aimed to elevate all Russians with the pride of their past to unite and restore the whole nation.  

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