Patriot Games

Patriotism.  A vexing word.  To some it symbolizes the emotional adulation of the state; to others it is nothing more than a politically correct nationalism where love for the state is conflated with love for the nation.  Still, its power to inflame the emotions of a citizenry can’t be denied.  It can be linked with any political, economic, or social system.  All that is required, it seems, is a nation-state that portends to stand for the people as a whole, and by virtue of some ideological trickery, the people’s belief that they stand for it.

As Sergei Minaev notes in Kommersant Vlast’, patriotism seems to be on every leader’s lips and its meaning tends to be only illuminated through the the Other.  “We are not like people in other countries, and we are proud of this.”  “Assurances of a firm resolve to assert national interests at any cost and defend the country’s way of life from interference from other countries plays a central role in leaders’ speeches.”  Ironically, what gives patriotism’s force to create unity within is done by excoriating those from without.   As Hegel instructed, the identity of oneself is constituted through, not in spite of, the Other.

But patriotism is not something that is allowed to flow freely.  Its meaning, application, and expression is very much controlled by what Althusser called the “ideological state apparatuses”.  Through their ritualization–which can be as simple and innocuous as displaying a flag, saying a pledge of allegiance, or standing to the national anthem at a sports event–patriotism not only becomes instilled as a political-ideological idea, but bores into the very heart of our emotional being.   Therefore the desecration of a national symbol becomes more than an ideological offense; it is also an affront to our emotions.  Patriotism is one site where the ideological becomes truly affective.

But patriotism’s political strength doesn’t simply lie in some timeless concept.  It’s power is in how it’s deployed by the leader.  As Kommersant Vlast’ notes, patriotism is at the heart of Putin’s understanding of the Russian state.  His concept has no particular roots in one ideology or personality (To show how indistinguishable the patriotic idea can be across ideological, cultural and national divides, Kommersant has even provided a test for you to match world leaders with their patriotic quotes).  In fact, how patriotism is positioned in Putin’s rhetoric aligns him with a whole litany of world leaders, past and present.

According to Shamil Idiatullin, like Mussolini and Churchill, Putin is convinced of patriotism’s unifying role.  Like Hitler and Nehru, Putin thinks that patriotism’s historical significance is to improve the lives of his countrymen.  Like Shinzo Abe and John F. Kennedy, Putin thinks that the essential part of patriotism is the love for one’s neighbor and the readiness to care, defend and admonish him.  Like Castro and Hugo Chavez, Putin feels that patriotism is a factor not just in economic development, but in economic survival.  And like Musharraf and Stalin, Putin sees the ability to sway one’s enemies only strengthens confidence in oneself.

Unity, improvement, community, prosperity, and influence.  These five words sum up Putin’s vision of the modern Russian state.  A vision where people’s emotional attachment to the state has a direct connection to the state’s positive expression of power.  Is there any better way to capture the essence of his doctrine of sovereign democracy?

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