The Russian Identity Crisis

By Shlapentokh, Dmitry | Contemporary Review, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The Russian Identity Crisis


Shlapentokh, Dmitry, Contemporary Review


The dramatic changes in the Russian government that led to the purging of key players in the cabinet including Prime Minister Chernomyrdin has filled many people with apprehension, especially since the Russian political and social order is already quite fragile. Despite this, however, many Russian citizens have withdrawn from active political discourse, responding only to those problems that directly affect their material well-being. Of course, abrupt changes in the government's course could change this indifference. Although Russians' political passivity has many root causes, the deep spiritual crisis that has gripped a considerable portion of the population seems to be one of the most overwhelming. This loss of historical guidance can be seen in the recent unsuccessful attempt of a special committee to reinvent the 'Russian idea', which, like the 'American dream', has given the country a sense of identity and purpose.

For the past year or so the committee, made up of some of Russia's leading citizens, has been working on what could be called a national mission statement - that is, a new version of what is usually called the 'Russian idea'. It is believed that a new ideology will bind the nation and provide it with guidelines for future development.

Yet, after spending almost a year on its task and employing an array of leading historians, philosophers, sociologists, and economists, the committee has come to the conclusion that it cannot provide a blueprint for the nation's leaders and its citizens. One should not be surprised at the committee's disappointing conclusion. The committee's failure to succeed was owing to a peculiar dichotomy in post-Soviet Russia. Indeed, although the country has discarded the old 'Russian idea' in its Soviet transmogrification, the country is unable to replace it with the 'American dream'.

To start with, the idea to create a committee for the task of diagramming a sort of state sponsored ideology was met with criticism from the outset. Those on the Left, President Yeltsin's severest critics, were against it for a simple reason. They stated that the rich and the poor could never share equally in any ideology. Yet the Left's criticism cannot explain the inability of the Russian people to embrace a new variant of the 'Russian idea', for a polarization of the rich and poor is hardly something unique in present-day Russian society. Such a division can be found in any society, and as a matter of fact, it was prevalent in Soviet Russia where the communist bureaucracy enjoyed a much better standard of living than the majority of the population. Despite all the opposition to the Soviet regime, however, there was a strong belief in the country and the special mission it should play in global history. All Russians, even the majority of the dissidents with their hatred of the regime and those ethnic minorities who equated the Soviet regime with Russian imperialism, acknowledged the greatness of the USSR (even if negatively) and its crucial role in the historical development of humanity. In a twisted way, they too had embraced the 'Russian idea' in its Soviet modification.

The existence of a consensus on the USSR's global importance and special mission, whether positive or negative, proves that the 'Russian idea' was not just the handiwork of a state controlled propaganda machine, nor was it fear of 'Big Brother'. The reason for this is clear: despite all its problems, the USSR was a formidable power and one of the world's leading economies. The situation is quite different today.

Although one cannot be certain that the present-day economic decline will cease and the economy be reborn, it is clear that the Russian economy is behind not only Western countries but also behind quite a few Third World countries. Moreover, it is quite unlikely that the country, even if it makes a recovery of some sort, will be able to catch up anytime in the foreseeable future. It is doubtful that Russian cars or computer chips will ever be able to compete with American products as was the case with Japan, who because of its economic growth has been able to move from its imperial past to post-imperial present by re-inventing the 'Japanese idea'. …

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