The Power of Patriotism


Forward for the Sake of the Motherland! 

According to, patriotism is a “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.” Similarly, nationalism is a “devotion and loyalty to one’s own country; patriotism.” Ironically, patriotism is often seen as an admirable quality to possess because of the pride one feels for their country, whereas nationalism is often met with a negative connotation and equated with radical extremism. In my mind, the new patriotism the Soviet Union found in the late 1930s can just as accurately be described as nationalism because of the militant undertones it exuded.

In his essay The New Patriotism, James von Geldern states that though “most historians associate the notion of posthumous rehabilitation to the post-Stalin era, the practice was in fact launched in the late 1930s. The positive reevaluation of national heroes from the tsarist era had reached full swing by 1939. The most robust applause was reserved for long-deceased military heroes…” Viewed in the context of Stalinist Russia, the timing of the resurgence of past military heroes is not coincidental; in his book Russia: A History, Gregory Freeze notes that “the Great Purges continue to fascinate and appall. Emblematic of Stalinism, the ‘repressions’… of 1936-8 seem to have been so arbitrary in victimization, so elusive in motivation as to defy explanation” (364). Further, “most scholars assumed that Stalin was intent on eliminating any potential source of opposition, beginning with past opponents but eventually including any who might appear to be unreliable in the future” (365). Because Stalin did not trust anyone around him in the military high command, it would make sense for him to exhume the images of fallen national heroes so that their legacies would be associated with him and the public would be more likely to place their trust in him as a military commander.

This resurgent patriotism also manifested itself through posters, videos, and music.

Better an Honorable Death than a Shameful Life! 
There is No Power that can Enslave Us
Children of Chapaev

What is interesting about the propaganda posters shown above is that they all contrast the current, modern Soviet military and its capabilities to the armed forces of the past. Furthermore, they contrast dark and faded colors to bright red in order to catch the viewer’s eye. Also, one can see the progression in weaponry from the past to the present, with both swords and machine guns being pictured, and also in clothing and hair styles as all of the modern soldiers are clean-shaven with short hair and the past heroes have long hair and beards. The purpose of these posters is to show the populace that they are descendants from these great heroes, and therefore inspire them to act in the same fashion.

One famous film from the period was Alexander Nevskii directed by Sergei Eizenshtein, which covers the famous battle on the ice. According to Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, “Nevsky here is presented as a paragon of Russian nationalism and leadership, sentiments that would have been out of place in the thirteenth century, but were entirely appropriate to Stalin’s era.” Further, Geldern notes that Nevskii defended Novgorod against Swedes, Mongols, and in 1242, the Teutonic Knights. He also achieved sainthood in Russian Orthodoxy, and his example for the Soviets at the time was manifest “in the explicit identification of the thirteenth-century Teutonic knights that he defeated with twentieth-century German fascists (aka Nazis), highlighted by the similarity of their helmets.”

Lastly, patriotic music was revitalized during The New Patriotism era, with Life for the Tsar by Ivan Susanin serving as the first great nationalistic hymn.

What this period teaches us about Russian history is that all facets of culture, art, film, and music, came together to promote Stalin’s goals; he had complete control over Soviet society and used the great leaders of the past to make up for his own lack of ability and paranoia.

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8 thoughts on “The Power of Patriotism

  1. I enjoyed your analysis and comparison of both patriotism and nationalism. I think it is interesting how Stalin’s use of the military during events like the Great Purges translated into the arts, as the posters, video, and music you linked to show. Excellent work!


  2. I really like the posters you used for this… they really bring together your argument on the merging of different generations. Propaganda and public image were a huge part of the rise of Stalin so the ability to promote historic glory and associate with himself made an impact on the public’s attitude towards him. I know the Nazi government had a ministry of propaganda…did the Soviets have something similar?


    1. Thanks for your question and insight! The Soviet Union did have a department of propaganda that was largely responsible for carrying out the same tasks that the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda did!


  3. I agree that the posters you found speak volumes about the creation and reinforcement of a narrative of patriotic military defense of the motherland. Since the rise of fascism in Germany meant that war was inevitable, it’s also important that the defense of the Soviet Union’s present be anchored in military glories of the past – especially victories over Germans (Teutonic Knights). Your post fits really nicely with some of the issues Jason brought up here:


  4. One of my PSci professors explained nationalism as a pathological version of patriotism, like narcissism is to pride. Of course, there’s a fine line there and most countries involved in WWII built up nationalism to support total war. When you look at how many casualties the Soviets took in WWII and the fact that they still won you really see how powerful a sense of nationalism the government was able to build. Great job!


  5. I found your analysis of the posters most interesting because it showed how Stalin kept a tight grip on both the past and future. It was a great political move to remind the population that the current warriors decent from these great warriors and therefore keep the military under a spotlight of scrutiny. Stalin had a hand in every aspect of soviet life and that is evident from the vast amount of support from pop culture.


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