Patriotism fills Russia’s ideological void

Various forces are trying to guide the direction of political development in Russia. Civic education, grounded in strong patriotism, has become very popular in the country.

The foundation for Russia’s patriotic education was laid in the Soviet school system.

“The communist ideology set clear boundaries. The current official ideology is not coherent,” states Assistant Professor Anna Sanina from the National Research University Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg.

Sanin a visited the University of Helsinki in late October for the Aleksanteri Conference to present her research results. Her latest book, Patriotic Education in Contemporary Russia, discusses patriotic education from a sociological standpoint.

“It would be too simplistic to say that patriotic education is nothing more than a project to bolster the Russian government’s thirst for power,” Sanina says.

“Russian society has diverse social needs and a demand for political structures to fill the void created by the absence of an official ideology. The new rise of patriotic education is one example of this phenomenon,” she continues.

Teachers in a key role – self-censorship sets the boundaries

The key figures in patriotic education are teachers, school directors and local authorities. Part of the intention is to gain more professional esteem and content guidelines for these underpaid and under-resourced jobs.

The education is fairly free-form, but always Russia-centric. Other countries are barely even mentioned.

Part of the intention is to gain more professional esteem and content guidelines for these underpaid and under-resourced jobs.

“Teachers select non-controversial past events which fulfil the criteria of national heroism. The main theme is typically the Great Patriotic War and the role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War in general. The most important sites for patriotic education are school museums that commemorate the war,” says Sanina.

It depends on the teacher – their age, location, political opinions and information sources – what they teach and how.

At the moment, Russia’s public schools are highly dependent on the central government, and they do not want to voice overly liberal opinions.

“This is not to say that all teachers are unambiguously positive towards the Kremlin,” Sanina points out.

National days of remembrance and memorials have not lost their significance

The most clear remnant of the Soviet past in the education system is the youth organisation. New elements include teaching patriotism in preschools and kindergartens, along with close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church.

“May 9, or Victory Day, commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, is particularly important. Other important dates are Russia Day on 12 June and Unity Day on 4 November,” Sanina lists.

The celebrations feature a great deal of traditional Russian iconography along with folk songs, costumes and dances. Soviet symbols remind people of the shared tradition and the connection of the “sibling peoples”.

“In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was unimaginable that this kind of patriotism would return, but it has again become very visible,” says Sanina.

Familiar and safe?

Sanina, an esteemed scholar of the Russian national identity, offers a simple answer to the recent developments.

“It seems that in times of crisis, people cling to the values that they know, and which seem to work better than new, stranger ways of thinking.”

According to Sanina, newer ways of thinking, which are probably obvious to the liberal intelligentsia, are not disseminated to other groups.

“Russia has an internal communication problem. The ideas of the liberal media and scholars do not reach the Russian middle class – including schoolteachers,” she states.

Whither Russia?

The Aleksanteri Conference, organised 25–27 October at the University of Helsinki, focused on the trends in Russian social development from the perspective of politics, the economy, human rights and culture.

It featured a total of 50 panel discussions with nearly 400 participants. Videos of the conference keynote speeches will be published soon on the Aleksanteri Institute’s YouTube channel.

This was the 17th annual Aleksanteri Conference. It was also the closing seminar for the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies – Choices of Russian Modernisation.