President Vladimir Putin is often and accurately depicted as the only decision maker when it comes to Russia’s policy on Ukraine. However, it is important not to underestimate the strength of his domestic mandate. Recent polls show he enjoys the support of some 68 percent of Russian citizens, and I can personally attest to the fact that many intelligent critics of Putin support his Ukrainian policy — a point often overlooked by Western media. Why do many educated Russians think this way?
One obvious observation is that the leading Russian mass media is under government control. According to polls by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center and the Levada Center, about 43 percent of Russians interviewed said they think “Western actions” are the chief culprit behind the crisis, though they are more circumspect when it comes to identifying who escalated it: Some 45 percent blame Ukraine’s ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, 38 percent blame Western leaders and 35 percent point the finger at the Ukrainian opposition.
While it is easy for Russians to access alternative views online, these sometimes serve only to highlight the double standards of Putin’s critics, legitimizing the Russian leader’s own double standards. A case in point is Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark on March 2 that “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext” — a statement that also conjures up President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
In any event, Russians have a long tradition of state censorship to thank for their highly refined ability to read between the lines of any media report and interpret it according to their own preconceived ideas. Russians typically will not believe any official information precisely because it is official, and that holds equally true for information from the West.
Another point often overlooked is that Russian identity is linked to empire, and many still see Ukraine as “our land.” Many Russians are ignorant about contemporary Ukraine, and the intelligentsia in both countries could do a much better job of educating their fellow citizens about the realities on the other side of their border. Yet history shows that Russians are perfectly capable of shaking off their prejudices — people in Moscow and St. Petersburg showed crucial solidarity with independence movements in the Baltic states in the early 1990s.
In the end, like other people, Russians care about their state’s interests as they understand them. So are they in fact supporting “Putin’s dictatorship” against “Ukrainian democracy”?
The situation is more complicated than that. Ukraine is experiencing a multidimensional, revolutionary crisis. All revolutions contain elements of civil war and international intervention, and the main means of extricating a country from a revolutionary state is to restore the state monopolies on violence and legislation. Revolutionary authorities must prove their legitimacy every hour, so the role of political culture and tradition increases dramatically in the course of a revolutionary crisis.
The problem is that after 23 years apart, Russians and Ukrainians have shaped very different narratives from the same Soviet memories. Soviet culture romanticized and sanctified revolution. But the revolutionary ideal could also be turned against the regime: In the late 1980s the Bolshevik slogan, “All power to Soviets,” acquired new connotations: Power indeed should belong to the Soviets, the peoples’ assemblies, and not to the Communist party.
Remember also that Boris Yeltsin made one of his most famous appearances atop a tank, an image borrowed directly from the iconography of the Bolshevik revolution. But that same symbolism was turned around when Yeltsin later used tanks against the Parliament in the 1993 constitutional crisis. This event is often invoked today in evaluating the situation in Ukraine.
I believe Yeltsin’s actions, and Putin’s, shaped a new politics of memory in Russia. The very term “revolution” has come to carry negative connotations for Russians. The Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev and the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, both of whom held a negative vision of any revolution, are often quoted in official speeches. This politics of memory resonates with today’s Russians — “stability” has become a core political value.
Nobody in Russia supports Yanukovych. But the immediate collapse of his deal with the opposition and European foreign ministers under the pressure of the revolutionary street provoked strong reservations even among Russians who are not supporters of Putin. Public opinion polls in Russia found that feelings of indignation among Russians viewing the images of burning barricades in Kiev grew from 13 percent in mid-December to 36 percent in mid-February. That same month, sociologists recorded a new emotion expressed by some 15 percent of respondents: fear. These emotions are undoubtedly a factor behind Putin’s actions.
In Ukraine the situation is very different. Ukrainian nationalists may reject the myth of the Bolshevik revolution, but they have picked up its aura of romance and sanctity, shaping their own new cults of heroes and martyrs. Many new Ukrainian national monuments resemble Soviet monuments.
More important, the Orange Revolution of 2004 endowed Ukrainian political culture with a rich new revolutionary tradition which was an important resource in 2013-2014: A diverse repertoire of protest was in place, and the very political topography of Kiev — of the Maidan — carried specific political connotations.
But events change perceptions. Some observers in Russia have argued that the Russian preference for stability over change is a major obstacle to needed political transformation. And history shows that any attempt to halt revolutionary movements elsewhere through intervention threatens to bring the revolution home — exactly what Putin’s supporters fear. At the same time, any attempt to resolve the Ukrainian crisis without taking Russian sentiments into account is also doomed.
Boris Kolonitskii is first vice-rector and professor of history at the European University of St. Petersburg. He is the coauthor of Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917, among other books.