22.05.23 Review

Blind Patriotism: Why and how russians tend to justify the war

Russians often justify the war in Ukraine on the grounds that it is their country that is at war, and it would be unpatriotic not to support it in such a situation. Such patriotism is referred to by scholars as 'blind' or 'militaristic.' According to surveys, positive and benign patriotism is characteristic of Russians to the same extent as it is of residents of other countries, but the level of 'blind' patriotism is higher in Russia than among Europeans, significantly higher than in residents of Northern Europe, and with a smaller margin compared to residents of former socialist countries. The effect of 'blind' patriotism is not related to the propaganda of the Putin era and was observed as early as the mid-1990s. In other words, its prevalence in Russia does not explain the invasion of Ukraine, but it has made it easier for the authorities' to draw the nation into the war and to adapt to it.

In-depth interviews have revealed that in the explanations given by many Russians as to why they support the war in Ukraine, the argument of 'solidarity' (such as 'our guys,' 'my country is at war,' 'now that we have started, we cannot lose') occupies an important place. For these people, this argument overrides the question of how justified the decision to invade Ukraine was and how just this war is. In Russia, the popularity of this argument is commonly explained by the special patriotism of Russians, but in reality, it is not entirely true.

When describing different types of patriotism, sociologists have referred to this type as 'blind' or 'militaristic.' It refers to an identity that is not integrated into basic value systems but, rather, is opposed to them. Thus, Russian supporters of war invariably state that they are actually supporters of peace, but not when it comes to the security of their country.

Sociologists who have studied the issue of Russian patriotism have repeatedly concluded that the patriotism of Russians is greatly exaggerated. For instance, a study conducted in 2015-2016 (after the annexation of Crimea, which triggered a surge of imperial-patriotic sentiments in Russia) showed that Russians were not generally inclined to sacrifice their personal interests for the sake of restoring the country's great power status. Only 8% of respondents at the end of 2015 were 'absolutely' willing to approve of policies aimed at restoring Russia's international power and defence capability, 'even if these measures were associated with a significant decline in their standard of living,' while 30% were only willing to accept such costs 'to some extent.' However, in 2015, Russia experienced an economic crisis linked to falling oil prices, which heightened the population's sensitivity to living standards issues.

In a recent study, however, researchers decided to assess the patriotism of Russians from a comparative perspective, comparing the extent of their 'benign' (non-militaristic, non-aggressive) patriotism and their 'blind' patriotism with residents of other countries, based on several waves of international surveys. This comparative approach revealed that the 'benign' patriotism of Russians is within the normal range, not differing significantly from the level displayed by residents of other countries. However, 'blind' patriotism is much more prevalent among Russians. In this regard, Russian residents stand out noticeably. ‘Blind’ patriotism is least characteristic in the developed countries in Northern Europe such as Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Germany, as well as in Japan. On the other hand, former socialist countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Slovakia follow Russia in the ranking of 'blind' patriotism, albeit they trail with a significant gap (the panel consisted of 14 countries).

Moreover, the researchers note that this deviation is not related to the propaganda of the Putin era. It has been observed since the first measurements in the mid-1990s and has remained unchanged over the past 25 years. Therefore, in their view, it is associated with a kind of post-imperial syndrome. This deviation itself is not the cause of Russia's attack on Ukraine, but it has made it easier for Russia's leadership to involve the country in the armed conflict.

Further, we might add the special role played by the myth of Victory in the collective identity of Russians to this post-imperial and post-Soviet syndrome. During the transition period, the Victory myth compensated Russians for economic failures and the partial loss of great power status. As evident from surveys conducted by the Levada Center, the Victory myth has consistently maintained a high level of prominence among respondents as a source of national pride throughout the Putin era, while the significance of other 'positive' factors of pride has declined. As a result, the narrative of reenacting the 'feat of Victory' has become one of the central constructs through which military propaganda has been able to activate 'blind' patriotism following the invasion of Ukraine.

Which events and phenomena in our country's history evoke a sense of pride in you? % of respondents surveyed*