Russia’s Identity Crisis

Russia may be one of the easiest nations to locate on a globe, but to define a Russian is a far more difficult proposition. To a Westerner, ideas about Russians are inherently complex and paradoxical. On the one hand there is the magnificence of Russian authors, artists and composers, from Tolstoy to Repin to Rachmaninov; Pasternak to Fabergé to Mussorgsky. On the other, though, we must grapple with the specter of Communist Russia, the terrors of the Gulag concentration camps, and the Soviet Union’s paralyzing economic and cultural inertia.

This difficulty is even more pronounced (and more crucial) for Russians themselves. The paradox exemplifies the problems faced by those who wish to cultivate the Russian Idea, an identity from which natives can derive comfort and formulate a way of life. Journalist Robert Parsons of Radio Free Europe notes that “the idea of defining a concept of Russian national identity is almost as old as Russia itself—and just as elusive.”

Russia’s centuries-old struggle for national identity mirrors similar pursuits by virtually every individual and body of people since humanity began. Our identity, whether personal or collective, is perhaps our most treasured and guarded possession. If an identity is lost, we will strain to recover and re-form it. Thus Russia’s search for identity is in many ways like any other. Reading Russia’s quest sheds light on our own need to know who we are and begs a vital question: How does one form a sense of identity, whether as a nation or as an individual?

A Return to Power

When former Russian president Vladimir Putin announced on December 10, 2007, that Dmitry Medvedev would be taking his place as political head of United Russia, the country’s ruling party, he marked the end of the first phase of his nation’s current rehabilitation. Upon his ascension in 1999, Putin had moved deliberately to reestablish Russia’s image. His vision, destined to continue under Medvedev’s leadership, was a resurrected national identity.

Post-Communist Russia has understandably struggled to assert itself. In the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the nation has endured disintegration, the sale of national assets, two ferocious (some would say unwinnable) wars in Chechnya, a collapse of the ruble, and (since 1999) the marked tightening of government control. It is an uncertain nation. Formerly one of the two verifiable world superpowers, its once-mighty structures have been crumbling for years. Zinovy Zinik, Moscow-born novelist and broadcaster, says that “Russians are in a state of permanent identity crisis.”

Russians don’t know any longer who and what they are and therefore they are resentful of any attempt to define them.” 

Zinovy Zinik, “Censorship and Self-Alienation in Russia” (2005)

It is their memory of the Soviet Union, at once great and terrible, that causes Russians most problems. Natives initially welcomed the coup that replaced communism with free-market democracy, seeing in it their chance to benefit from the riches and freedom promised by Western propaganda for decades. New president Boris Yeltsin, acting on advice from Western capitalists, requested carte blanche for 12 months of unrestricted power to fix the convulsing Russian economy. The new democratic parliament accepted, and the people shivered with excitement at the possibilities.

The reality was insufferably disappointing. Yeltsin initiated a comprehensive auction of national possessions to private investors, undermining the Kremlin’s power and creating a small upper class of extremely wealthy oligarchs. The rich became super-rich, and the people suffered under a volatile ruble that finally collapsed in 1998. According to journalist Vladimir Vorsoben, “Russia is still recovering from the exhausting 1990s.” For Russians, democracy and free-market capitalism are horrendously tainted by those times.

As a reaction to this chaos, today’s youth contemplate the apparent stability of the former Soviet Union—a culture they never truly experienced—with affection. In their book Kremlin Rising, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, former Moscow bureau chiefs for the Washington Post, cite outspoken Russian teenager Tanya Levina as an example: like most of her classmates she tottered between the propaganda of two very different eras. Embracing idealized views of the past and critical of the corruption under her nation’s experiment in democracy, she confidently told her history teacher that Bolshevism “was the best choice for Russia. . . . They had concrete ideas, concrete goals, and concrete plans for the development of this society.” And Tanya is not alone in her belief.

It is these “concrete plans,” so different from the anarchy of the 1990s, that some Russians treasure most. They look back at Communist days as a time of stability and therefore welcomed Putin’s Soviet-tinged authoritarian government.

In the last decade, the entire communist universe, like a Soviet Atlantis, disappeared from the map of the world and sank into oblivion. We are no longer sure what country under the name of Russia we are dealing with.” 

Zinovy Zinik, “Censorship and Self-Alienation in Russia” (2005)

For a people unhappy with Russia’s post-Soviet disintegration, Putin was a godsend. He oversaw the rise of Russia in the world order and thereby reinflated national pride. Buoyed by vast renationalized gas and oil reserves, Russia’s economy is resurgent; the World Bank says it has returned to near-1989 levels. Longsuffering local investors are happy to see the end of the misfiring 1990s. Russia’s foreign debt has been slashed—helped by the $22.5 billion Paris Club payment, the largest single amount in history—allowing the state to bargain and trade with whomever it wishes. Set free of international obligation, Putin deliberately sought independence from the West and pursued economic partnerships with Indonesia and China. Notwithstanding the undoubted farce of recent elections (some sources reported that Putin achieved a 109 percent approval rating in Mordovia), support for the president was undisputed: in a February 2008 poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, 47 percent of respondents thought it would be better for Russia if Putin were to remain president for a third term, despite the fact that the Russian constitution specifies a two-term limit.

This new national strength is reflected in Putin himself. Diametrically opposed to Yeltsin’s image as a heavy drinker and something of an embarrassment, Putin is visibly fit and muscular, even holding a black belt in judo. He deliberately cultivated his persona: implicit in his determination that Russian identity is less about projects (for example, the worldwide Communist mission) than about people was a hope that ordinary Russians would interpret his masculine strength as an ability to restore the nation to its former sovereignty. (In a 2002 hit single that some say was orchestrated by Putin’s underlings, the Russian girl band Singing Together declared, “I want a man full of strength, . . . who doesn’t drink, . . . who doesn’t hurt me, . . . who won’t run away. I want a man like Putin.”)

Through the careful construction of his own personality, the immensely popular Putin was clearly constructing a fresh identity for contemporary Russia. Contrary to the fears of many commentators, some of whom lazily predicted that a resurgent Russia would mean a new Cold War, for him this meant a deliberate break from the past. That said, there are still echoes of what Russia used to be. In many ways, Putin’s Russia is simply a reconfiguration rather than a new creation, a phoenix rising from the flames of the ’90s.

Many Russians are displaying a cautious optimism, and if not that, then certainly a contentment with the status quo. The anointing and consequent election of Putin’s close associate Medvedev as president suggests that his mentor’s vision will continue for the near future at least.

And yet history testifies that, no matter how strong, identities without certain important elements may not last long. In its thousand-year history, Russia, not unlike other nations, has seen countless identities falter. Thus one cannot help but wonder how long Putin’s vision will prevail.

Russian intellectual Igor Chubais wrote in 1998 that “a new system of values cannot simply be thought up by someone or artificially constructed.” Speaking of his own people, he added, “We must search for a common Russian idea by analyzing our history and our culture.” Indeed, a study of Russian history and culture reveals the elements that make up their current identity and may even suggest what is missing in the current Russia.

The Role of Religion

Religion has always been an important foundation for Russians. In the 10th century (the conventional date is 988), Prince Vladimir Sviatoslavich of Kiev chose Russian Orthodoxy, a Byzantine version of Emperor Constantine’s Christianity, as the land’s official religion. His aim was “to consolidate and legitimize his rule over a large and culturally diverse set of territories,” writes historian Simon Franklin. In other words, he sought to create a common religious identity for his disparate subjects. This religious inclination remains strong despite communism’s deliberate secularization, and Russian Orthodoxy is today reemerging as a national force.

Our modern conception of Russia as a body politic did not arise, however, until the 15th century. Religion, though superficially a great unifier, could not prevent the region’s subjection to roving Mongol hordes. The last of the Mongols faltered in the late 1400s, allowing emergent Muscovy princes to begin a period of aggressive expansion that persisted over the next century. Buoyed by the profitable fur trade, Muscovy—led initially by Ivan III, who styled himself Grand Duke of Muscovy and all the Russias—spread its territory west to the Polish borders and east to the very edges of Siberia. Ever since, Russia has been known for its size: Chubais notes that nationalist poets have focused most on the idea that “Russia is an enormous expanse, very rich in nature—a mighty country.” The attendant nationalist pride, clearly seen in the phrase “a mighty country,” has become a Russian hallmark.

But these two foundational building blocks—religion and might—were still not enough to construct a distinctive Russian identity. Being simply big was irrelevant when facing the cultural sophistication of Western Europe. Muscovy, after all, had declared itself the Third Rome (after Rome and Constantinople), yet it was in many ways an agricultural society dominated by folk and Eastern traditions.

Eighteenth-century monarch Peter the Great bewailed the cultural disparity between the bright lights of Paris and the “dark” and “backward” customs of Moscow. He disliked the Asiatic religion of Orthodoxy, preferring the Enlightenment religion of European nobility. Peter determined to change this and create a “European Russian, [part of] the modern Western world of progress and enlightenment,” writes Orlando Figes in his 2002 cultural history of Russia, Natasha’s Dance. Peter’s transformation was centered on the newly created St. Petersburg, a truly mythical city, a pastiche of Europe’s finest. Peter’s reforms brought Russia into the European sphere, replacing its Asiatic ideology with a Western one. For two centuries afterward, French was the preferred language for the Russian aristocrat. A Russian—at least an upper-class Russian—was now, despite his history, a European.

Russia’s love affair with Western Europe continued into the 19th century but was given a rude shock in 1812. Napoleon’s failed invasion, known later as the Fatherland War, “fundamentally changed the quality of national consciousness in Russia,” according to Russian scholar Hubertus Jahn. Russians, in the face of French aggression, no longer worshiped their European peers from afar. This transformation spread beyond the aristocracy to the common man, to whom Tsar Alexander I appealed for help to expel the French foe. The war brought the noble class, the generals, in close contact with lowly soldiers, educating the former in the ways of the “common Russian,” who remained immersed in Byzantine Orthodox culture.

What followed was a discarding of European identity. National pride, so long couched in European values, threw off the proxy mantle and sought something more specificallyRussian. Politicians and artists alike returned to the common man, to Asiatic traditions and folk songs.

The movement, slow at first, received a major jolt from an unlikely source. Russian philosopher Petr Chaadaev, in his first Philosophical Letter (1836), summarized his nation’s history as “a brutal barbarism to begin with, followed by an age of gross superstition, then by a ferocious and humiliating foreign domination.” He concluded that “we are alone in the world, we have given nothing to the world, we have taught it nothing. We have not added a single idea to the sum total of human ideas; we have not contributed to the progress of the human spirit.” Strong words indeed. The Letter electrified Russian creativity: Tsar Nicholas I called Chaadaev insane, but intellectual Alexander Herzen said later that his trenchant assessment had the effect of “a shot that rang out in the dark night.”

To this letter we can attribute in large part the thrilling burst of Russian artistry in the 19th century, from Mussorgsky to Dostoevsky to Repin. Russia suddenly had a culture of its own, one in which (especially seen in the continuing idolization of Aleksandr Pushkin) it reveled. No longer folkloric, religious or foreign-dominated, Russia reconstituted its identity and became celebrated for its culture worldwide.

Cracks in this self-regard began to show at the turn of the 20th century, however. Discontented Russians moaned at the continuing self-aggrandizement of the Romanov tsars. Their disregard for the poor fueled revolts in 1905 and ultimately their overthrow in 1917 by the Bolsheviks. Lenin and his followers ushered in a new ideology and a very different set of values. Communist Russia discarded artistic invention, banished or executed most luminaries, squashed religion, and instead pursued a worldwide socialist revolution focused on the workers (parodied as the “Average Man” by emigrant novelist Vladimir Nabokov). The new, soviet Russia was something unique, known primarily for its brute force and stagnating tyranny.

A Redefinition

All this, of course, came to an end in 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s government crumbled and the USSR itself abruptly disintegrated. The great nation of Soviet Russia was broken, but in its place was chaos. Yeltsin vainly attempted to stabilize the troubled land by discarding Soviet symbols and creating a new constitution, but this was short-lived and disastrous. Russians, complete strangers to democratic capitalism, began to yearn for their immediate familiar past, for their erstwhile national pride.

Putin’s Russia has partly given them exactly that, plus the regeneration of orthodox religion. There are signs of cultural revival, but much more than this, Putin revived Russia’s strength and independence. He did not pander to the West as Peter did; instead, he made trade deals with China and Indonesia. He reestablished a form of the Russian Idea.

Until we restore our identity, until we figure out our own value system, until we find our own idea, we will not really be able to solve a single other problem.” 

Igor Chubais, “From the Russian Idea to the Idea of a New Russia: How We Must Overcome the Crisis of Ideas”

Putin’s Russia is still missing something, though. Every incarnation of Russia as a nation has failed to satisfy. Prince Sviatoslavich’s vision was too vague, Peter the Great’s too un-Russian, Stalin’s too tyrannical; and modern commentators have similar complaints about today’s version. Novelist and broadcaster Zinik says that “people in Russia are only defined by their fences.” He goes on to describe a startling lack of goodness, or sense of community, in Russian society: “When you don’t know exactly who and what you are, where you come from and what is expected of you in the immediate future, your universe is limited to whatever is necessary for the sole survival of your lonely self. The notions of empathy, sympathy, compassion and involvement become abstract, located somewhere above and beyond the preoccupations of your daily life.”

In a nation still tyrannized by secret police and rigid government controls, empathy and compassion seem far away. A more fulfilling identity is surely to be found where such notions are central. Perhaps the greatest lesson is that despite its strength and religious heritage, Russia’s identity, like so many identities the world over, has persistently lacked the sustainable moral element that underlies a sense of community, which in turn is central to a sense of identity—who we are and where we fit in the greater scheme of things.

Our Collective Search

Russia, of course, is not alone in its struggle for identity. Ex-imperialist powers, notably France and Britain, are still coming to terms with the mixed legacy of their empires, while many in the postwar generations of the German people have tried to understand and explain an earlier generation’s complicity with Adolf Hitler. The rise of militant Islam—itself an identity issue—has shaken nations the world over, forcing them to reevaluate themselves in the face of terrorism. Russia stands simply as a particularly interesting example in the world’s collective search for a fulfilling identity.

This leads us to a point well worth contemplating; namely, that such an evaluation is as important on the individual level as it is on the national level. Former Russian dissident Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, in his latest book, remarks that “strong identities are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to secure and committed well-functioning individuals” (Defending Identity, 2008). With that in mind, Zinik’s remarks about Russia’s lack of goodness might effectively be applied to each of us personally: “When [we] don’t know exactly who and what [we] are, where [we] come from and what is expected of [us] in the immediate future, [our] universe is limited to whatever is necessary for the sole survival of [our] lonely [selves].”

Like the nations they comprise, individuals must learn to look beyond their own interests to grow and succeed. Otherwise they become like every nation-state that faced demise because of self-interest and indulgence. Exploring where we came from and what is expected of us is crucial to forming a positive, fruitful and resilient identity for ourselves, an identity that encompasses the otherwise abstract principles of empathy, sympathy, compassion and involvement. But where does one begin? Where can one find the solid sense of place and of purpose that is foundational to a strong identity and fundamental to an ability to see beyond the self?

Sharansky, who spent several years in a Russian gulag, may offer a clue. He remarks that identity “opens a world of meaning larger than physical and material life. It asserts that all of life is not merely immediate.”

If identity encompasses and illuminates more than the physical, the material and the immediate, then shouldn’t we look beyond such things to find answers to our most fundamental questions? The Bible is such a resource. It outlines an individual and collective identity driven by personal behavior—the kind of behavior that produces the empathy and compassion that Zinik mourns the loss of in Russian society. This still-relevant source is often overlooked or undervalued even by traditional religions, dependent as they tend to be on accumulated human traditions. It presents a code of action that offers both purpose and encouragement and speaks universally to humanity. When individuals live by this code, an inner strength is produced that effectively unifies families, communities and nations.

This may be, in essence, just what Russians (as well as the rest of the world) have been seeking for centuries.