A sticker with the word "Obey!" during an opposition protest on Revolution square in central Moscow February 26, 2012. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov
In late 1991, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, a Russian economist named Yakov Karamitsky invited me to dinner at his Moscow apartment. When I got there, an American flag nearly covered the wall of the small foyer.
Over dinner, Karamitsky exulted that Russia was at “the most important turning point in the thousand-year history of this much-suffering country. Russia at last is becoming a free and democratic country.” The flag in the foyer symbolized the model that he felt Russia would follow.
Yakov was no fool. He was a good economist. He knew languages and the West. And, like most Russians at that moment in history, he believed in the tooth fairy. He was sure that, once Communism went, a Western utopia would bloom.
With expectations like that, disillusion and a backlash were inevitable. Now, twenty-five years into the post-Soviet era, they’re still going on.
Nowhere is this more visible, or more consequential, than in the new Russia’s search for a true national identity. If it’s not the Soviet Union any more, what is it? Yakov hoped it would become like the United States, but that hasn’t happened either.
A national identity is built both on a country’s self-image – what it thinks of itself, its history, its place in the world – and the face that it wants to show to the world. If a country cannot agree on what it is, it cannot decide where it wants to go. The wild swings in Russian policy in the past quarter century – both in domestic and foreign policy and in its attitudes toward the United States – reflect this confusion.
This search for an identity has deep foreign policy implications. Twenty-five years ago, Russia turned a friendly face toward the West, because it wanted to be Western. Now, disillusioned with the West, it is seeking a new Eurasian identity that not only sees Russia as a unique civilizations but glories in its opposition to Western values and in its “otherness.”
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a clearly defined national image. It was an imperial power, ruling an empire from the Pacific Ocean to the Brandenburg Gate. It was the leader of the Communist world, from Eastern Europe to China to Cuba. It had its own military alliance, called the Warsaw Pact, and its own common market, called Comecon. It preached that Marxism-Leninism, the secular faith that it created, would one day conquer the world. It shared world leadership with the United States, which treated it as the superpower it was.
The European part of the empire broke free in one season, the autumn of 1989. China had long since begun to go its own way. Everything else, including the Soviet Union itself, disappeared in another brief season, the winter of 1991. So, almost overnight, did the national identity.
Several studies have documented this search for a post-Cold War Russian national identity. Generally, they break this search into three brief time periods:
- The late 1980s and early 1990s, when Russia’s elites, like Yakov Karamitsky, saw Russia as the newest member of the West, a newly-minted market economy and parliamentary democracy. This didn’t work, partly because the West wasn’t ready to absorb a newcomer as big and as nuclear and as chaotic as Russia, and partly because Russia itself in those years was an economic and political basket case.
- The mid-1990s until the early 2000s, which became the era of the oligarchs and the arrival of a gaudy new class of business elites who turned Russia into a caricature of capitalism, leading to the discrediting of the Yeltsin years and the arrival of a new leader, Vladimir Putin. Bitterly disappointed in its flirtation with Western values, Russia sought a new identity.
- The early 2000s until now, as Putin tamed the oligarchs, enjoyed a relatively short-lived economic boom, turned his back on Western integration, and embraced a politics that is more reminiscent of tsarist and Soviet autocracy than of any Western democracy. Part of this is a foreign policy that has become increasingly anti-Western and anti-American.
Some Western pundits blame this anti-Americanism on the mistakes of the various U.S. administrations since 1991. If only the Americans had given Russia’s interests the respect due to a great power, they say, Russia would be more democratic, more cooperative and more like us.
But Russia’s foreign policy, including its anti-Americanism, responds more to domestic events, including its economic ups and downs, then to outside pressures. Many analysts have noted that Putin’s strident anti-Americanism has done wonders for his political standing at home, even as his economy declined.
Putin’s Russia also has become ever more authoritarian. In a sense, this is a nod to Russian history. But authoritarianism is a form of government, not a national identity. Putin may describe his regime as a form of “sovereign democracy,” but this doesn’t tell us how Russians see themselves and their country.
Walter Laqueur, the 95-year-old Polish-American historian who has been studying Russia for sixty years, has called it a county that cannot “exist without a doctrine and a mission.” It’s precisely that doctrine and mission that post-Communist Russia has failed to define.
Under the tsars, Russia saw itself as the “third Rome,” the successor to Rome and Byzantium and the divinely inspired seat of an eternal civilization. “Two Romes have fallen,” said the 16th century monk, Filofey, “the third stands, and there shall be no fourth.” The Soviet Union inherited this messianic mission and saw itself as the new pinnacle of mankind’s striving.
This is a hard act to follow. Tsardom seems to be dead, the Russian Orthodox Church is hardly a global faith, and no one, including Putin, wants to restore Communism. At the moment, Putin seems to be promoting a philosophy of Eurasianism, based partly on Russia’s geographical sprawl across two continents and partly on the Third Rome concept of Russia as the spiritual link between East and West.
Russia has long been divided intellectually between the Westernizers, who feel Russia’s future depends on adopting Western values and technology, and the Slavophiles, who see Russia as a unique and superior civilization. Broadly put, Yeltsin was a Westernizer and Putin seems to a Slavophile. Onto this, he has grafted nationalism and authoritarianism, both with roots in the Russian past.
There may be the seed of a new Russian national identity in all this. Russia’s past identities, both tsarist and Communist, were top-down ideologies, imposed by the tsars or commissars who ran the country. Putin is in charge now.
But it’s too soon to tell if this Slavophile/Eurasian philosophy will satisfy the thirst in the Russian soul for a new national mission. The past quarter century has seen the rise and fall of several candidates for this role. This new Putinism is the latest candidate but, like Putin’s virulent anti-Westernism, is too recent to have roots.