Population of the Russian Federation Has to Work Out its National Identity

The Russian national identity – this is something that are Russians themselves. Any country, the West, China can’t influence much on the way the people and political elites define their own political identity.

Valdaiclub.com interview with Angela Stent, a nonresident senior fellow in Foreign Policy and director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, member of the Valdai Discussion Club.

How do you access the Valdai Club efficiency during these 10 years?

The Valdai Club meetings have been tremendously interesting for all of the foreign participants, and for the Russian participants too. We’ve learned a great deal from our discussions with our Russian counterparts. The first half of the meeting was discussion on different things – we’ve talked about energy, we’ve talked about history, national identity, different forms of government. And on the second half we’ve been privileged to meet key opinion makers. We’ve met with president Putin every year since the first Valdai, even when he was prime minister too. We did meet with president Medvedev, when he was in the Kremlin, with foreign minister Lavrov, Mr. Surkov, with Sergei Ivanov. We had interesting meetings with party leaders. It’s been an opportunity for the international participants to have access to the key Russian decision makers.

What do American experts usually expect from these meetings? Do the expectations usually come true?

We usually come away with a feeling that we’ve learned a great deal. Expectations, of course, have been very high since the beginning, because the first meeting in 2004 took place just after the tragedy in Beslan. We did have a long meeting with president Putin, with Sergei Ivanov and some of the other key leaders. We usually had high expectations to discuss a wide range of issues with the decision makers. So far our expectations have not been disappointed.

What features of the Russian society can become a basis for the new Russian identity?

I think it’s interesting for us as foreigners to be invited to discuss the question the Russian national identity in Russia. It’s unusual. I can’t imagine Americans inviting Russians to discuss American national identity. This is a very interesting phenomenon. For me the key question will be the extent of our discussions in Valdai this time - the theme of Russia as unique and different civilization, and the extent in which Russia identify itself. I think we will be interested in whether we can find some communalities, or there will be discussion on distinctiveness of the Russian culture and civilization.

Does Russian identity basis have something in common with American one?

We do have features in common. We are both large countries, Russia is much larger than the United States. We are both multiethnic and multi-confessional countries. Those things do shape the national character. Our look at the world could be similar. In those basic things we do share something in common.

What is the role of national elites in national identity formation?

National elites have a very important role in national identity, particularly, in terms of the media in different countries, both printed and electronic media. So the elite does play a role, but the national identity is of course something that forms the basis of society, the roots of society. Communities, small communities in different countries have a sense of who they are. There is always an interaction between the level of the people and then the level of political elites.

Should the West take part or provide help in new Russian identity formation in spite of the fact that some Russian officials consider this as interference in internal affairs?

I think that the Russian national identity – this is something that are Russians themselves. The population of the Russian Federation has to work it out itself. I don’t think that any country, the West, China or other can influence much on the way the people and political elites define their own political identity. We can listen as Western participants of the Valdai discussions, we can really offer some views, but this is really something that the Russian people and their leaders have to decide themselves.

Had the Valdai Club discussions any influence on the Kremlin’s policy-making during these 10 years? Are the Russian leaders ready to pay attention to foreign experts opinions?

Obviously the Kremlin and the Russian leaders have listened to the discussions we had. It would be very difficult for me to say whether any of our discussions had an impact on what the Kremlin’s leadership has done. I’m sure that most of these decisions are taken on the basis of the Russian national interests. Maybe the leaders have learned from these discussions, of what our questions and our concerns are about. A say again the main sovereign decisions are made by the leadership.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.