Putin and the Cult of Leadership

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at a campaign rally at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, March 3, 2018 (Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin/via Reuters)
A dark romantic nationalism is on the rise.

On Sunday, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin won an unsurprising reelection-campaign victory against Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, by a margin of 76.7 percent to 11.8 percent. The results were unsurprising because Putin is a tyrant who murders or imprisons political rivals, and who isn’t afraid to use electoral manipulation in order to achieve Kim-family–like results.

Here’s what is surprising: Young Russians are Putin’s most supportive demographic group. They approve of Putin’s approach by an 86 percent to 13 percent margin. That’s for three reasons. First, young Russians don’t remember life before Putin, let alone life under the Soviet Union; second, young Russians experienced significant economic growth from 2000 to 2014, before the fall-off in oil prices undercut Russia’s economy; third, young Russians are invested in a return to global greatness.

The first rationale – forgetfulness of the impact of Soviet centralization – is understandable. Despite left-wing propaganda to the contrary, young people aren’t the best equipped to make policy decisions without historical reference; all too often, their enthusiasm leads them to support dynamic leaders who become monstrosities. The most obvious example comes from the Nazi party: high youth unemployment, anger at the older generation’s supposed surrender in the face of alleged international aggression, and belief in a charismatic leader led to disproportionate youth support. But virtually every radical movement begins as a youth movement.

The second rationale – economic growth – is a function of short timeline as well. High growth rates in Russia over the past decade and a half were largely a result of oil production. But Putin is smart enough to ensure that his government doesn’t run massive deficits or allow runaway inflation. At some point, Putin will have to grow the economy rather than engaging in state-sponsored oligarchy. But that time hasn’t come quite yet.

The third rationale is the most dangerous: romantic nationalism.

The history of romantic nationalism is long and inglorious.

The history of romantic nationalism is long and inglorious. Rousseau found the apotheosis of meaning in the state itself, which embodied the general will – the nearest modern man could come to regaining the natural goodness he had lost in the movement from a state of nature to civilization. His philosophy was mirrored in Prussia’s Johann Gottfried Herder, who celebrated “the most natural state . . . one people [volk], with one national character,” and his intellectual descendants Johann Fichte (who called the state “divine”) and Georg Hegel, who said that individuals were defined by the “life of the state.”

The first modern nation-state took root in Revolutionary France. In 1793, the government of France drafted the entire population into its world-historical mission with these stirring words: “The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.”

Despite foreign threat, the French state survived and thrived militarily – and other nations around Europe soon took note. The era of nationalism was born. It has not yet ended. George Orwell was quite correct when he noted in 1940 that guarantees of solid middle-class living didn’t animate the young – something darker often did: “Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.”

In her Nobel Prize–winning oral history Secondhand Time, Svetlana Alexievich quotes a former Communist factory worker imprisoned and beaten half to death by the regime. A year later, he was released. Then, during World War II, he met his interrogator, who told him, “We share a Motherland.” As an old man, this cruelly wronged man said, “When I go into my grandchildren’s room, everything in there is foreign: the shirts, the jeans, the books, the music . . . Savages! I want to die a Communist. That’s my final wish.”

Romantic nationalism gives people a feeling of meaning. In doing so, it allows them to look beyond the failures of their leadership, and to ignore even material privation. And romantic nationalism is on the rise. Perhaps we have lived too long in the sunlight of capitalism and freedom, without bothering to educate our children on why these magnificent things exist; perhaps Nietzsche’s death of God left a hole in our hearts that cannot be filled by walking-around money. Whatever the reason, Putin’s continuing popularity should be a warning sign to freedom-lovers around the globe: Cults of leadership are on the rise. And if we don’t provide an alternative worldview for millions of young people from Russia to the United States, bad men will fill that gap with alacrity.

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