Russians, like Americans, have historically had a sense of special destiny among the nations — exceptionalism, if you want to call it that. The history and special nature of Russian nationalism is worth understanding because it is embodied in Vladimir Putin. Like many 19th century Russians, he has a sense that Russia is not fully accepted as a member of the European family of nations, and, like them, he sees Russian destiny as a Eurasian, not just a European, nation.
Russian culture is rooted in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and its converts in “Kievan Russ” in what is now Ukraine. The region was overwhelmed by the Mongol Golden Horde and ruled by their descendents, the Tatars. The present-day Russian state when the rulers of Muscovy threw off the Tatar rule. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, some Russians started to refer to Moscow as “the Third Rome”. Just as Constantinople became the capital of the Roman Empire after the fall of Rome itself, they said, so Moscow succeeded Constantinople. The title Czar derives from Caesar.
Over a few centuries, Russia became the largest nation in the world in area, covering a sixth of the world’s land surface. Its remarkable spread is shown in the historical maps above and below , a historical saga as remarkable as the spread of the United States from sea to shining sea during the 19th century.
Through the years, Russian thinkers have been divided among what historians call the “Slavophiles” and the “Westernizers.” The Westernizers saw Russia as a backward nation that needed to learn from the more modern nations of western Europe. The Slavophiles thought Russia had a special spiritual wisdom that the western Europeans never would understand. They thought Russia needed autocratic rules, and the democracy and individual rights merely reflected human selfishness. They also thought that the western Europeans never would accept them as equals, and that Russia’s destiny lay toward the East, not the West. These attitudes are shared by Vladimir Putin today.
I think the Russian resentment of western European attitudes has some basis. During World War One, Czar Nicholas II sought to be a loyal member of the alliance with Britain and France against Germany, and responded to their calls to sacrifice Russian lives in the common effort. If he had been a less loyal member of the alliance, or if Alexander Kerensky, the head of the provisional government that took power after Nicholas abdicated, had not committed to keeping Russia in the war, the Bolshevik Revolution might not have happened — at least not in the way it did.
The same attitudes are reflected in British and American histories of the Second World War, which fail to acknowledge most of the fighting against Hitler’s Germany was done by the Red Army, which suffered most of the casualties.
Alexander Solzhenitzyn, the great 20th century Russian novelist and dissident, was a Russian nationalist. He said that the Soviet Union was not Russian  and that the most oppressed people under Communist rule were the Russians themselves, because the Bolsheviks sought to wipe out Russian religion and traditions. He advocated liberation of the Baltic and central Asian states, and the formation of a new state in which Russians were the majority — Russia proper, Belorussia, Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan.
This is the area which Vladimir Putin hopes to form into a “Eurasian Union,” an economic bloc comparable to the European Union. Interesting, he has signed a new naturalization law which will allow anyone born in the territory of the former Soviet Union, who speaks Russian, to apply for Russian citizenship. This could be the basis for intervention later on in these regions to protect Russian citizens.
A friend of mine, a naturalized American citizen who was educated in the old Soviet Union, watches Russian-language television on-line. She tells me the Russians are chauvinistic, and openly contemptuous of other peoples, in a way that would not be acceptable in the USA today. She said they regard Ukrainians as an inferior people, and us Americans as weaklings and fools, and they regard Russia as being on the march. I don’t doubt the accuracy of what she says.
Vladimir Putin came out of the old Soviet KGB and he said the breakup of the USSR was a geopolitical catastrophe. But it seems to me that he is not so much trying to recreate the old Soviet Union as he is the pre-1914 Russian Empire, with its traditions of autocratic government, an established religion and little tolerance for dissent. He reportedly has a portrait of Peter the Great in his office. He reportedly quoted Czar Alexander III as saying that Russia has only two trustworthy allies, its army and its navy. He is not a second coming of Hitler or Stalin, but that doesn’t make him a friend of democracy or freedom.
I don’t speak Russian, have never visited Russia and can’t claim to be an expert on Russia on the basis of having read a few books and magazine articles. But since the real experts disagree among themselves, I feel entitled to judge which of them make the most sense.
Here are links to articles I’ve read on-line about Russian nationalism and Vladimir Putin.
The Errand-Boys of Europe by Padraig Murphy for the Dublin Review of Books. This is a brilliant sketch of the history of Russian nationalism, and of why Russia is suspicious of the West. If you have time to click on only one article related to Russia and Ukraine, I recommend you click on this one.
The Accidental Autocrat by Paul Starobin in The Atlantic. This 2005 article sketches Putin’s personality and how his outlook is rooted in the traditions of Russian autocracy and Orthodox Christian religion.
Putin’s Brain: Alexander Dugin and the Philosophy Behind Putin’s Invasion of Crimea by Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn for Foreign Affairs. Background on an influential Russian thinker who says it is Russia’s destiny to unify Eurasia and fight liberal Western materialism.
Kyrgyzstan Ponders the Impact of Russia’s Citizenship Law Amendments by Asei Kalybekova for EurasiaNet. The geopolitical implications of easy Russian citizenship for
natives of [speakers of Russian in] the former Soviet republics.
Putin’s Not Post-Communist, He’s Post-Fascist by Jan Fleishhauer for Der Spiegel.
‘A Partner for Russia’: Europe’s Far Right Flirts With Moscow by Charles Hawley for Der Spiegel. Putin’s Russia gets support from Europe’s ultra-nationalist, anti-EU political parties.
 The maps fail to show that the Russian Empire at different times included Finland and Alaska.
 Solzhenitzyn in arguing the non-Russian nature of Bolshevism pointed out that Lenin was part-German in ancestry, Trotsky was Jewish, Stalin was a Georgian, Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, was Polish, and Lenin’s personal bodyguards were Latvians.