Three news items appeared this week that concern Russian nationalism: the Nashi camp in Tver, the Russian government’s earmarking of 500 million rubles for “patriotic education” and the group of nationalists trying to get the Moscow courts to ban Jewish organizations. These three incidents all point to what I call in very mild terms the general redefinition of Russian national identity. In harsher terms these three signal the potentially scary growth of Russian nationalism.
I’ll first deal the attempt to ban Jewish organizations. This has been going on for a while now and would probably be ignored if Russia didn’t have such a long and strong history of anti-Semitism. The case involves the Russian translation of a Jewish text called the Kitsur Shulhan Arukh. The Kitsur is an ancient religious text that gives elaborate rules about Jewish daily practices of the self: mostly about washing, eating, and clothing. The Russians who’ve brought the case to court claim that the text spreads hatred because it calls Christians “worshipers of idols.” Moscow Rabbi Zinovy Kogan admits that there are some “incorrect passages” but they hardly spread hatred toward Christians or Russians for that matter. The most comical aspect of this story is that those who are bringing the case to court is claiming that Jewish organizations foment ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism. Huh? That’s right you read that correctly, Jewish organizations spread anti-Semitism.
The Moscow prosecutors apparently saw the absurdity of this issue when they dropped the investigation whether the Kitsur spreads hatred. That didn’t deter the unidentified Russian nationalists. They brought an appeal to the court I hopes that they reexamine the case. This whole issue would probably just fade away if it didn’t actually have some real support. In January, 19 Russian lawmakers signed a letter that accused Jewish organizations of fomenting hatred, citing the Kitsur. Mikhail Nazarov, a historian and writer is quoted as saying that any politicians who “support the principles” of the text should resign.
Statements like Nazarov’s would also be easily dismissed if other recent events around the issue of Russian nationalism didn’t rear its head. This week the Russian Government earmarked 500 million rubles to promote “patriotic education.” The Patriotic Education Program for Russian Citizens, which spans 2006 to 2010, seeks “to prepare the strategy of developing the personality of the Russian patriot” and “prevents attempts to discredit or deprecate the patriotic idea in the media.” The Program will do this by printing pamphlets on “correct reproductive behavior,” developing patriotic video games, producing cassettes and CDs of patriotic songs, as well as launch a Fatherland Program on television. But before everyone gets all hot and bothered about the Russian attempt to instill “patriotism” among mostly young people, keep in mind this figure: The United States will spend $88 million in 2006 to promote “democracy” in Russia, while the Russian government will only spending 77 million rubles (around $2.75 million) on patriotism.
While the Patriotic Education Program for Russian Citizens might be a bad throwback to the USSR, I’m afraid the pro-Putin youth organization Nashi might pose a real concern. I’ve already mentioned their “commissar” training camp in Tver. I wanted to touch on the Nashi camp again to point out some of its similarities to the old Communist Youth League in a 21st century key.
Nashi seems to have some pretty strong institutional support. According to a Moscow Times report, land for Nashi’s Seliger Camp was donated by the Tver governor, who gave 2 hectares, and the Russian Orthodox Church which handed over five. In return Nashi members helped restore the nearby Nilova Pustin Monastery. At the camp, Nashiisti chopped wood, visited the camp internet caf?, read the Nashi newspaper, Nashi Izvestia, swam, ran, and sang songs. The Moscow Times article provides an interesting picture:
“Soviet-era songs drifted from the main stage in the center of the camp, where the commissars gathered at 8 a.m. They stood at even intervals on an enormous grid of plastic strips. Young people who had birthdays that day were called to the stage and congratulated, then most of the group left for the daily five-kilometer run. Two circles of young women performed aerobics for the eager lenses of photographers.”
The future Nashi “commissars” also listened to lectures about new ideas, politics, and the future of Russia from politicos of United Russia. The deputy head of the Putin Administration, Vladislav Surkov addressed the crowd. Surkov’s speech set off a litany of rumors about what other important figures would visit Camp Seliger. Rumors, fueled by hope, also spread about a possible appearance from Vladimir Putin himself. There was no Putin, but the hope among Nshi young members shows desires if not the cult of Putin’s personality.
But what does this all represent? What is Nashi and what will they become? It is too early to tell. Perhaps this quote from Svetlana Kalinina, 19 year old “commissar” from Yaroslav, gives some indication:
“I know they call Putin an authoritarian in the West, but the Russian people have always needed a strong leader. Its part of our character.”