The specter of Russia's

homo militaris

May 1, 2023
  • Mariya Omelicheva

    National Defense University

Mariya Omelicheva argues that the Kremlin’s inculcation of militaristic patriotism has had a strong effect on Russian society, though the Soviet legacy of cynicism and “double-think” is actually working to mitigate it.

The one-year anniversary of Moscow’s barbaric war in Ukraine was marked by several developments in Russia. A new all-Russian youth movement called The Movement of the First, organized on the initiative of the Russian leadership, had its own TV channel DVIZH registered. Vladimir Putin suggested to change the movement’s name to emphasize the continuity with the Soviet All-Union Pioneer Organization. And indeed eighty percent of adult Russians support the idea of a Young Pioneers-like organization to instill patriotism and “traditional Russian values” in Russia’s youth.

Besides welcoming new chapters of The Movement of the First, many Russian schools have opened memorial spaces to honor Russian “heroes” from the “special military operation” in Ukraine, while President Putin formalized these commemorative practices in a presidential order. All the while Russia’s top e-commerce and shopping websites – Wildberries and Ozon – have noted record sales of paraphernalia with the logos of PMC Wagner. Fashion trendsetters have reported that military-inspired bomber jackets, cargo pants and army boots were back in style as well.

These developments are the multiplying signs of the tightening nexus between patriotism and militarism in Russia. For nearly a decade, the Russian government has engaged in a top-down campaign of inculcating militarized patriotism in Russian citizens, for the primary purpose of legitimizing the regime, in the name of defending the Russian nation. Indeed, since his first presidency, Putin has attached great importance to patriotic education.

The government has adopted a complete set of laws and regulations for this purpose, implemented by over 30 federal agencies and their local branches in Russia’s regions. However, the priorities of the federal programs for patriotic education adopted by the Russian government every five years have changed. Military themes and activities were elevated in the 2011-15 and 2016-20 programs, while the funding for militarized patriotism increased from RUB 497.8 million for patriotic education in 2006-10 to RUB 771.2 million in 2011-2015, and RUB 1,886.5 million in 2016-20.
Small children dressed up in military uniforms have become a familiar sight for Victory Day on May 9 in recent years (picture from 2019). Source: Yandex
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 halt the evolution of homo militaris. On the contrary, it provided a context for war myths and strengthening the military-patriotic nexus. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Russian government succeeds in translating people’s beliefs in mythologized war into a willingness to take arms on behalf of the state and the Russian nation. In other words, does the current performative loyalty to the state of Russian citizens translate into loyal military actions?

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 deceit of the state in private, to avoid personal commitments.

A survey-based portrait of homo militaris

Russia’s modern history may be seen as a saga of wars. The First Chechen War of 1994-96 was followed by a second military campaign, dubbed a “counterterrorism operation.” Six years after the 2008 war in Georgia, Russia annexed Crimea and extended its “hybrid” operations to the Donbas. Preceding the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military and paramilitary forces had joined in the protracted civil war in Syria and a number of smaller conflicts in Africa.
Homo militaris is the archetype for a person who has witnessed Russia’s growing reliance on the use of force to reclaim its global position and embraced militarism as a symbol of its greatness.”
Deluged by anti-Russian conspiracy theories and narratives about the transcendental – sacrificial and victorious – qualities of the Russian people, homo militaris has accepted a view that Russia is locked in an existential rivalry with other powerful nations, meaning that the use of force is necessary and always defensive. Homo militaris is a person who believes in “organic” solidarity with the government and regards support for its actions, however brutal and repugnant, 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 and Europe in their outlook. Things began to change rather quickly with the political advent of Vladimir Putin. Whereas in the 1990s between one half and one third of Russians were either unsure or did not believe that Russia had external foes, by the 2000s nearly 80% had developed a view that Russia was surrounded by threats (Figure 1). Since 2014, the US and Ukraine have consistently come to be named as two of the most “unfriendly” nations (Figure 2). In 2021 a record 83% believed that Russia had enemies, with 62% fearing yet another world war involving their country.
The percentage of Russians who consider Russia a great power jumped from 31% in 1999 to 68% in the wake of Crimea’s annexation, and has been hovering above 70% 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% 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% and has not decreased significantly since then. Achievements such as the country’s economic development, the population’s overall well-being and Russian scientific and cultural achievements have given way to the victory in the “Great Patriotic War” as the symbol of Russia’s greatness (Figure 3). While views on the Great Patriotic War 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 in the past decade.
* What do you associate, first and foremost, with the national identity of the Russian people?
** Which event in the history of our country elicits your pride?
*** What are you ashamed of, what events and developments in the 20th-century history of Russia elicit shame and regret?
(Respondents were presented with a range of responses to each of those questions and had an opportunity to choose more than one response.)
As military might has become central to Russian people’s image of their country as a great nation, 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 (Figure 4). In the 1990s, only one third of Russians were in favor of spending more budget resources on the military. Meanwhile, since 2014 more than half of Russians have supported increased military expenditures, even if they were detrimental to the country’s economic growth.

The tropes of World War II have become central to Russians’ beliefs about themselves. The Putin regime has emphasized this theme for contriving a national identity of triumphant Russia. It comes as no surprise that Russians’ views of the Kremlin’s accomplishments have tracked the spread of militarized patriotism. In the 2000s, Russians named “higher living standards” and “growth in wages and pensions” among the Putin’s key achievements. Ten years later, they saw them as Russia’s military prowess, domestic stability and strengthened global position.
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 enmification, which involves a discursive construction of enemies inside and outside Russia who seek to destroy the great Russian civilization/state. The regime has peddled threats through news media, schools, the military and religious institutions, and engaged in fearmongering about another war in which Russia would have to defend itself against a menace comparable to that of Nazi Germany.

The second element of this authoritarian legitimation involves an effort to recast patriotism in terms of pride for past military victories, ipso facto validating the claim of Russian exceptionalism and justifying the use of force as Russia sees fit.
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.
Schoolchildren from Rostov-on-Don in the ranks of the Young Army Cadets movement (September 2017). Source: Twitter
The cult of war has saturated Russia’s educational space. Starting in September 2023, all Russian schools and institutions of higher education will include “military education modules” that teach students basic military training. 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 as well.

The third element of the militarization campaign involves the transposition of historic events, particularly World War II, onto Russia’s current actions, as well as the utilization of war myths, to confer legitimacy to the Kremlin’s policies. By drawing these discursive parallels and 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 unthinkable losses and substandard performance of the Russian military in Ukraine, the war has not yet created any fissures in homo militaris. Instead, it 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 engendered 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. Even a criminal who put the “motherland” above all else is revered as a hero. 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. The Putin government is no exception. Despite the rallying ‘round the flag by a majority of the Russian population, there are many – between 14% and 26% – 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. In January 2023, for example, Putin ordered the screening of documentary films about Russia’s effort to “de-nazify” Ukraine in cinemas, while the Ministry of Education plans to include parents in the propagandistic “Conversations about Important Things” launched in all schools in 2022.

The true limits to Putin’s patriotic militarization campaign may lie not so much with the young generation, however, since it is, unfortunately, not immune to the government indoctrination. 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.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy