THE BLOG
24/07/2012 07:57 BST | Updated 23/09/2012 06:12 BST

Taking a Leaf Out of V.V. Putin's Book?

Russia remains ever ready to subsume the worth of the individual under that of the state and in this way can never hope to nurture the responsible civil society which Putin himself claims to want. While Britain is at risk of becoming entirely listless and resigned to an inconsequential existence at odds with its unparalleled role in shaping the modern world.

On 27 July, in Perk's Field at Kensington Palace Gardens, Russia Park will host a screening of the Olympic opening ceremony taking place in the east of the city. Perk's field is that patch of grass between the entrance at Notting Hill Gate and Billionaire's Boulevard, normally hosting only a set of the royal goal posts and doubling up as a helipad from time to time. The idea is to piggy-back promotion of Sochi 2014 on the current games. It also serves as a convenient departure point for considering the respective ways in which Britain and Russia deal with some more fundamental challenges they share.

The geopolitical processes in train in Britain and Russia are strikingly similar. Both the Union in Britain and Federation in Russia are at the mercy of centrifugal forces that pull the peripheries away from the core. Both have sizeable and influential populations in the capitals that, in part, will these processes forward or are wholly indifferent to them. And both have provincial populations that are inherently conservative and care more about nationwide cohesion, even if they do not feel their opinions count for much.

Whether these structural currents are inherently good or bad is a different matter. There is certainly scope for arguing that a process whereby Moscow's influence recedes is good for Russians, their neighbours and those beyond. Externally, Russia does not export a political alternative to the West, no matter how much the increasingly savvy Russian media advocate such. Rather, one can point quite clearly to a less evolved attitude towards power in Russia reminiscent of Britain and other Western states several centuries ago.

The projection of Russian power is therefore anathema to both Europe and the democratic aspirations of the post-Soviet space, not to mention those in places like Syria. The average Russian will explain this putative need for concentrated power, and fear of political competition, in terms of the space Russia occupies on the map. Some will even recognise that its unwieldy size and concomitant reliance on the commodities of the peripheries are what stifle innovation and inhibit political maturity.

In Britain, where the Union seems to consolidate a small island quite neatly, it is much more difficult to appreciate any benefits of it fragmenting. Without going at length into the ramifications of Scottish secession, it is enough to say the more Britain erodes its domestic cohesion, the less it can project its values abroad. Indeed, certain privileges would become absurd, such as its permanent seat on the Security Council, without which it would be much more difficult to challenge what is directly opposed to British interests, such as Russian irredentism.

Yet the responses diverge markedly. In Russia, inside the apparatus of power, all hands are on deck to stem the process of dispersion. In Britain, it is difficult to see the same resolve, despite David Cameron's declaration that he is 'passionate' about the Union. This is one of the reasons why Russian nationhood may continue to grow stronger under Putin while Britain's erodes.

The ace up the sleeves of Putin and people like his chief strategist-come-ideologue, Vladislav Surkov, is entreaty to powerful patriotism. Integral to this is the concept of the Russian Soul (Dusha) - essentially a version of imperial exceptionalism - together with the image of the hero-victim on the back of successfully repelling a number of unprovoked invasions. Also implicit is the understanding that the state is an end in itself, not recognised as a human construction that requires values to legitimise, but rather is the source of values and legitimacy.

Whether this approach induces empathy or derision, the cohesion that comes of its nationwide acceptance affords strength to be dynamic. For Russia this means holding together the Federation by instituting a strategy of offence as defence in the form of the envisaged 'Eurasian Union' - the next evolution of the Russian state. Putin will try to extend cohesion within the ethnic Russian population to include the post-Soviet space peoples, for which there are genuine, if unexamined, feelings of responsibility.

It would be disingenuous, too, to simply dismiss the idea of a project based on collective effort and reduced individualism as a model without resonance in the Euro-Atlantic community. Is that not partly the idea behind the European Union and did not JFK entreat Americans to ask not what their country could do for them but they could do for their country?

Yet little evidence of the same cohesion and agreed roadmap can be seen in Britain today. For this, there are plethora reasons, though foremost amongst them must be an education culture that has denounced the positive aspects of imperial heritage and its Union connection; an ambivalent position in the EU as neither leader nor independent entity, and mass immigration that enormously complicates the task of reconciling disparate histories.

Of course it is difficult to calibrate the balance between healthy patriotism and what Lord Salisbury called its bastard brother, jingoism. And of course one must be careful of appearing an apologist for Putin and Surkov. Perhaps the better view is that Britain and Russia both have the calibration wrong. Russia remains ever ready to subsume the worth of the individual under that of the state and in this way can never hope to nurture the responsible civil society which Putin himself claims to want. While Britain is at risk of becoming entirely listless and resigned to an inconsequential existence at odds with its unparalleled role in shaping the modern world.