Russian Identity and the Challenges of the Time

The collapse of the Soviet Union was caused among other things by an awakening of Russian national identity. However, the new state, the Russian Federation, found itself facing the problem of whether it was a successor and legal heir to the Soviet Union or to the Russian Empire? Or is it a completely new state?

Identity is as complex and vague a definition as “society”, “culture”, “order” and others. Discussions around this definition have been going on for a long time and will continue to do so. What is clear is that without an analysis of identity we cannot find an answer to a number of significant questions, among them: who are Russians in the 21st century; what unifies them and motivates them to move in the same direction; do they have a common future etc.?

These questions are to be dealt with by the leading thinkers and intellectuals at the forthcoming Anniversary Summit of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Russia in September. But now is the time to pave the way to these discussions with some of my principle points.

Firstly, identity is not created once and for all. It is constantly changing as part of the process of social transformation and interaction.

Secondly, we hold a “portfolio of identities" these days, which may or may not contradict each other. One and the same person is, for instance, within Tatarstan - from Kazan , when in Moscow - a Tatar, when abroad - a Russian and if in Africa - a white person.

Thirdly, identity usually weakens in times of peace and gets stronger (or, on the contrary, falls apart) in times of crisis, conflict and war. The US War of Independence created the American identity, the Great Patriotic War cemented the Soviet identity, the wars in Chechnya and Ossetia gave significant food for thought about modern Russian identity.

Modern Russian identity includes the following dimensions: national identity, territorial identity, religious identity and finally ideological or political identity.

National Identity. During Soviet times an international Soviet identity took over from the formerly imperial identity. Though a Russian republic existed within the framework of the USSR, it did not possess the most important signs of statehood.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was caused among other things by an awakening of Russian national identity. However, still in its infancy, the new state, the Russian Federation, found itself facing the problem of whether it was a successor and legal heir to the Soviet Union or to the Russian Empire? Or is it a completely new state?

The competition of arguments regarding the history and succession of the Russian state continues.

The neo-Soviet approach considers modern Russia as the “Soviet Union without ideology” and appeals to the restoration of the USSR in one form or another. In the political arena these views are mainly represented by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).

The second approach considers Russia as a multinational state in its current borders, a legal successor to both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. It currently sees no need for territorial enlargement, but thinks of its own territory, including the non-Russian regions, as sacred and indivisible. According to this approach, Russia also has preferential interests and even a mission in the territory of the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Therefore, on the one hand, it must try (in different ways) to integrate this space, and on the other hand, it must protect the rights of its compatriots living in the Newly Independent States (NIS). This approach is shared by the majority of Russians and is proclaimed by President Putin and the United Russia party.

The third approach asserts that Russia is a state of Russians, that the Imperial and Soviet past are equally tragic pages of history which should be closed. Instead of this a reunification of Russian land is desirable – the land being part of Russia, Crimea, North Kazakhstan, etc… At the same time, parts of territories, primarily the North Caucasus and Chechnya in particular would be better being given away.

The right of natives from the labour abundant republics of the North Caucasus to freely migrate (without loss of their language and faith) to the large metropolis and originally Russian regions is the major challenge to national Russian identity nowadays. Although legally there are no obstacles to this process, it causes the greatest tension and leads to the strengthening of Russian nationalist attitudes, including the most extremist.

Territorial Identity. The territorial aspect of Russian identity has been the most important throughout last 500 years. The territory of the Russian Empire and later the USSR had been constantly expanding leading to the creation of the largest state on Earth, and this ability of Russia has long become a pantheon of our pride. Any territorial loss is taken with a lot of pain, thus the collapse of the Soviet Union created the gravest trauma to Russian self-consciousness from this point of view as well.

The war in Chechnya demonstrated the readiness of Russia to fight for this value, without consideration to any victims. Even though at moments of defeat the idea to agree to the secession of Chechnya was gaining in popularity, it was the restoration of Russian control over this republic that became the foundation of the unprecedented popular support for Putin in early 2000s. The vast majority of Russians think that maintaining the territorial integrity, unity and wholeness of Russia is the most important element of Russia’s identity and the most important principle by which the country should be led.

However, challenges - more important than “local brands” - slowly erode the “territorial identity” of Russians.

Putin's centralizing policy is switching its contrast due to the fact that local authorities are more interested in the opinion of the Center than of their own electorate and at the same time they are losing financial sources to develop their territories. A feeling of “being lost” by the Center, of “not being needed” by it is increasing in the border regions, such as Kaliningrad and the Far East - the regions neighbouring the dynamically developing states.

The pride in victory in the Chechen war is forgotten, but public discontent is still growing because of Chechnya’s special status, its huge financing from the general state budget and the arrogant behaviour of high-ranking Chechens in Moscow and in other places. This attitude is gradually spilling over into Dagestan.

Religious Identity. Nowadays, over 80% of Russians call themselves Orthodox Christians. The Russian Orthodox Church has a semi-state status and wields notable influence on the politics of the authorities in those spheres that are of significance to it. The Russian variant of the “symphony” of the Orthodox ideal of cooperation between civil and religious power, between the high priest and the emperor is clear.

Nevertheless, the prestige of the Church has taken a beating over the course of the last two years. Firstly, the unofficial taboo on criticizing it, which had been in place for the past two decades, has been lifted. The liberal part of society has come to openly confront the Church.

In such a situation atheism, forgotten after the collapse of Communism, is gradually making a comeback. However, it is the missionary activity of non-Orthodox Christian confessions, especially Protestant ones, which pose a far greater threat to the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as the spread of Islam beyond its traditional areas. What is most important is that the strength of faith of the new converts among Protestants and Muslims is significantly higher than that exhibited by members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Polls demonstrate that the activities of the overwhelming majority of the Orthodox faithful are limited to christenings, celebrations of Easter and participation in traditional half-Orthodox/half-Pagan rituals.

Therefore, the return of post-Communist Russia to Orthodoxy is of a solely superficial, ritual nature. A real catechization of the nation has not taken place. State benefits given to the Orthodox Church cannot make up for its internal weakness and inability to compete with other religions – not as hierarchic and rich, but energetic and active. But what is even more dangerous challenge to the Orthodox part of the Russian identity is its inability to promote a moral renaissance of Russian society, which is flooded with disrespect toward the law, by domestic violence, by disgust toward productive labour, by a neglect of moral values and a complete absence of mutual cooperation and solidarity.

Ideological Identity. From the Middle Ages, Russian national self-consciousness was based on the idea of opposition to others, primarily to the West, and affirmed its differences as positive characteristics. The collapse of the USSR made us feel like an inferior, "wrong" country, which had long ago taken the “wrong road” and was only now coming back to the world family of “right” nations. But this inferiority complex is a heavy burden and Russians were glad to be rid of it as soon as the horrors of oligarchic capitalism and NATO intervention in Yugoslavia destroyed our illusions about the “brave new world” of democracy, market economy and friendship with the West. The image of the West as a role model had been completely discredited by the late 1990s. The rapid search for alternative models and values began when Putin became President.

Unfortunately, this quest, similar to processes in Eastern Asia (where “Asian values” are also being sought) has not been very fruitful. First, there was a view that after Yeltsin stepped down “Russia needed to get up from its knees”. Then the slogan of Russia being an “energy superpower” appeared. And, finally, the concept of “sovereign democracy” authored by Vladislav Surkov emerged. It asserts that Russia is a democratic country, but with its own national specifics and no one from abroad should point out what kind of democracy the country should be building.

So what is left of sovereign democracy in the self-consciousness of Russians? First of all, it’s admittance of democratic values as the way of ruling the country. Concurrent ideologies – Soviet and monarchic – are less popular. Simultaneously, the majority of Russians are convinced that Russian democracy is different and that it will always differ from its Western analogue, and that it should correspond with the specifics of the Russian Federation.

Russia has no natural allies, as the firm majority of people believe that being part of European civilization does not mean it shares a common fate with Western Europe and America. The younger and more educated sector of Russian society is still leaning towards the EU and would like Russia to join it, but these people are in the minority. The majority want to build a democratic Russian state according to their own views, expecting neither help nor advice from abroad.

The public ideal of modern Russians thus can be described as follows: an independent and influential state in the world, a state highly developed from an economic perspective with a solid level of well-being, competitive science and industry, a multinational country, where the Russian people play a particular, central role, but where the rights of people of other nationalities are respected and protected. This is a country with a strong central power, headed by the President with wide authorities. It is a country with the rule of law and where all people are equal in the eyes of the law. It is a country with restored justice in terms of the relations of people between one another and with the state.

Unlike most of the Western countries, in Russia’s societal ideal there are no such values as importance of change of power in an alternative manner; view regarding the opposition as the most important institute of political system; value of separation of branches of power, moreover, their rivalry; idea of the Parliament, parties and representative democracy in general; value of minority rights, and largely, human rights in general; value of openness to the world, which is viewed as rather a source of threat, but not possibilities.

Some important values are absent in Russian self-conscience, in Russian identity - the values, based of which the modernization of the country could be carried out. For example, they are directed towards the past, not the future; they are concentrated on threats, not possibilities; the look at the world is the one filled with enemies, not partners.

Those are the most important challenges to Russian identity, which we should find solutions for if we want to achieve the national goals: solid life, public justice and respect towards Russia in the world.

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