Building the homo militaris: Russia’s long game of militarized patriotism

The illustration taken from Russia Post with permission. The slogan in Russian says “Give birth to meat.”

The Kremlin’s promotion of militaristic patriotism has had a strong effect on Russian society. But the Soviet legacy of cynicism and “double-think” is actually working to mitigate it. Global Voices is reprinting an article by Mariya Omelicheva, a professor of the National Defence University (US) from the Russia Post with their permission. 

There is a new all-Russian youth movement called The Movement of the First, organized on the initiative of the Russian leadership. Eighty percent of adult Russians support the idea of an organization to instill patriotism and “traditional Russian values” in Russia’s youth.

Many Russian schools have opened memorial spaces to honor Russian “heroes” from the “special military operation” in Ukraine (the Russian government calls the Russian Invasion of Ukraine that). President Putin formalized these practices in a presidential order. Russia’s top e-commerce and shopping websites — Wildberries and Ozon — have noted record sales of goods with the logos of PMC Wagner (which is a contracted private army where mostly convicts serve). 

For nearly a decade, the Russian government has engaged in a top-down campaign of promoting militarized patriotism. The main purpose of this was to legitimize the regime, in the name of defending the Russian nation. 

This systematic campaign, relying on traditional and social media, cultural and religious institutions, and schools, has left a deep imprint on Russians, resulting in the emergence of a new archetype of the Russian citizen: homo militaris. 

Characterized by a conspiratorial mindset and embracing military prowess as a symbol of Russia’s greatness, homo militaris admires Russia’s military victories, especially in relation to the sacrificial heroism in World War II. Without clamoring for violence, homo militaris lends unconditional support to any actions of the government and military as a trademark of patriotic solidarity.

Russia’s failed attempt at rapidly conquering Ukraine did not stop the evolution of homo militaris. On the contrary, it provided a context for war myths. However, the Russian government has not to date succeeded in translating people’s beliefs in mythologized war into a willingness to volunteer as soldiers. 

A critical limitation of Russian militarized patriotism is that it bears the Soviet and post-Soviet legacies of political cynicism, as well as the habit of finding workarounds in dealing with the government. Those habits commonly resulted in displays of symbolic patriotism in public, along with deceiving the state in private, to avoid personal commitments.

A survey-based portrait of homo militaris

Deluded by anti-Russian conspiracy theories and narratives, homo militaris has accepted a view that Russia is locked in an existential rivalry with other powerful nations. Homo militaris is a person who believes in “organic” solidarity with the government and regards support for its actions, however brutal, as a sign of patriotism.

In the 1990s, Russian citizens who emerged from the Soviet Union’s collapse were more introspective in their search for the sources of Russia’s problems and oriented to the West. Things began to change rather quickly with the political advent of Vladimir Putin. Whereas in the 1990s roughly one half of Russians were either unsure or did not believe that Russia had external foes, by the 2000s nearly 80 percent had developed this view. Since 2014, the US and Ukraine have consistently come to be named as two of the most “unfriendly” nations. In 2021 a record 83 percent believed that Russia had enemies, with 62 percent fearing yet another world war.

The percentage of Russians who consider Russia a great power jumped from 31 percent in 1999 to 68 percent in the wake of Crimea’s annexation in 2014, and has been hovering above 70 percent since 2017. The meaning that the Russians ascribe to the idea of a “great power” has also changed during this time frame. Whereas in 1999 only 30 percent of Russians viewed the country’s military might and nuclear arsenal as constitutive of great power status, by 2015 this number had risen to 51 percent, and has not decreased significantly since then. Achievements such as the country’s economic development, the population’s overall well-being and scientific and cultural achievements have given way to the victory in the “Great Patriotic War” (WWII) as the symbol of Russia’s greatness. While views on WWII and its place in Russia’s 20th-century history have remained stable, a feeling of shame for the dissolution of the Soviet Union has grown.

As military might has become central to Russian people’s image of their country, their views on the Russian military have also evolved. Since 2014, the army has been cited as the second most trusted public institution, after President Putin, while between 2017 and 2021 it rose to number one, overtaking Putin. In the 1990s, only one third of Russians were in favor of spending more resources on the military. Meanwhile, since 2014 more than half of Russians have supported increased military expenditures.

The tropes of World War II have become central to Russians’ beliefs about themselves. The Putin regime has emphasized this theme to contrive a national identity of triumphant Russia.

The making of homo militaris

The emergence of homo militaris who offers unwavering support for the government and the military waging a brutal war in Ukraine is the outcome of a decade-long campaign to legitimize the authoritarian regime in the name of defending Russia. At the heart of this campaign is the process of “enemification,” which involves the a construction of “enemies” inside and outside Russia who seek to destroy the great Russian civilization/state. The regime has engaged in fearmongering about another war in which Russia would have to defend itself against a menace comparable to that of Nazi Germany.

 Unlike the late Soviet state, which, while militarized, represented itself as peace-loving, Putin’s regime is creating a powerful cult of war that should serve as a symbol of Russia’s greatness.

Russia’s Victory Day, traditionally celebrated on May 9, has long evolved from a day of solemn remembrance of the veterans and fallen into a lavish display of Russian military achievements. The government has offered generous financial support to the production of movies exploring historic battles. 

By criminalizing non-conforming and alternative thinking, the Kremlin creates a narrative of “us” versus “them”: the patriots of the motherland are united in “organic solidarity” with the ruling regime, while an ever-growing batch of domestic dissidents, feminists, LBGTQ+ activists, Americans and Ukrainian neo-Nazis are “them.” Russia’s “special military operation”of 2022 was cast as a natural continuation of World War II.

Despite the losses of the Russian military in Ukraine, the war has enabled the Kremlin to cement its campaign of patriotic mobilization. The government has reframed its “military operation” into an existential war between Russian civilization and the West, an interpretation that is now supported by the majority of the Russian people. 

This reframing of the war, reinforced by the international effort to isolate Russia, has put a binary choice for many Russians: either side with the government and the military as a true Russian patriot or be excluded from native communities, labeled as traitors and even persecuted. In line with the regime, the Orthodox Church said that “heroic death” in a righteous war would cleanse any mortal sins.

The limits of militarized socialization 

No authoritarian government has ever succeeded in creating a homogeneous society. Despite the rallying around the flag by a majority of the Russian population, there are many — between 14 and 26 percent who do not support Putin and the Russian government, respectively, and its brutal war in Ukraine. 

Young people are more often critical of the war, which explains the Kremlin’s special emphasis on military indoctrination targeting youth. 

The true limits to Putin’s patriotic militarization campaign may lie not so much with the young generation, however. Instead, the better bet is on the Soviet legacy of cynicism and “double-think.” The old habit of deceiving the state and getting around its demands while simultaneously maintaining a display of public support and obedience has not gone away. 

Thus, a Russian may back the government in its war in Ukraine, but is generally unwilling to volunteer to fight in the war and sought to dodge the mobilization. As a citizen, homo militaris demonstrates his loyalty to the state through collective symbolism and performance. As an individual, his interests are in the private space, and he mostly wishes to eke out some personal advantage.

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