A Yardstick for Russia
No. 3 2005 July/September


tumultuous changes that are occurring in the post-Soviet space – a
zone where Moscow’s traditional influence has never been challenged
– present Russia’s ruling authorities and society with an identity
problem. “One of the weaknesses of our society and state,”
according to Andrei Kokoshin, Russian analyst and State Duma
deputy, “is that not only the nation, but even the intellectual,
political, and business elite lack a clear understanding as to the
exact identity of our people and society.”


ideological confusion that characterized Russia’s elite following
the collapse of the Soviet system, together with the bitter
disappointment that accompanied the post-Soviet liberal model,
highlight the need to explore the fundamental characteristics of
Russian civilization. Unless Russia takes into account the national
characteristics that to a very large degree shaped the Russian
Empire, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation today, it will
be impossible to devise a new model necessary for adjusting to the
realities of the modern world.

then, are the core characteristics of the traditional Russian




to the sociologist Igor Yakovenko, the Russian mentality possesses
several distinguishing features: syncretism, Manicheanism,
insularism, and a split cultural identity.


(syncresis) is a state of society and culture that is characterized
by the fusion and blending of their elements. A primitive society
may be described as one where neither social roles nor professions
are separated, and institutions such as the family or private
property do not exist. In a syncretic society, knowledge about the
world – the norms of behavior, literature, religion, abilities and
skills – exist in an aggregate, non-discrete form. The entire
history of mankind is a continual process that works toward the
fragmentation of primary syncretism. It is noteworthy that this
process advanced faster and more vigorously in the West than in the
East, where it was checked or impeded by culture.


fundamental feature of the Russian mentality is that it fixes the
level that has been achieved in the fragmentation of syncretism as
final, obstructing its further fragmentation. Moreover, it views a
return to its primary state as the ultimate ideal. If forced to
choose, a Russian traditionalist will predictably opt for a model
that is characterized by a higher level of syncretism. This
explains why the idea of universal equality is so popular in
Russia, while the ideal society – i.e., Communist – set forth in
Soviet ideology obliterates the opposition between town and
countryside, manual labor and brainwork, and presents a utopian
plan for the eventual merging of socialist nations; this plan
includes the evolution of a new community of people which would
eliminate the division between rich and poor. It is not difficult
to see that this ideology has similarities not only with Christian
ideas of Heaven, but also with the popular vision of an ideal
kingdom that is embodied in numerous folk tales and


surprisingly, at the height of their influence Communist ideas
quickly gained a wide following in Russia. The other side of the
coin is that the evolution of a civil society is now progressing
very slowly. The development of civil society is, in fact, the
replacement of a limited number of rigid, vertically integrated
political and social structures with a diversity of self-governing
entities that have a complex interaction with each other, as well
as with the ruling authorities. Thus, civil society is
characterized by a higher degree of syncretic


Manichaeism. The doctrine of Manichaeism pertains to the
Persian religious reformer Mani (3rd century A.D.) who reviewed and
summarized the dramatic process that followed the disintegration of
primitive mythological/ritualistic syncretism. The diversification
of human activity and worldview resulted in the emergence of
culture and a fundamental watershed between good and evil.
Manichaeism sees the world as an arena of the eternal struggle
between two forces – light and darkness, good and evil. In this
struggle there are “them” and “us.” “Us” are always on the side of
light, while “them” are on the side of darkness. A Manichee always
needs an “enemy,” real or imaginary. Anyone can serve as an enemy –
the man next door, a foreigner, and a person of another faith.
Enemies may also be ideological opponents or business competitors.
In the context of interstate relations, stereotypical enemies of
the Manichean type are: a hostile environment, imperialist circles,
backstage intrigues or simply “forces of darkness” that are out to
“destroy, dismember, or take control of everything.”


posits that the real world wallows in vice, while all attempts to
rectify and improve the situation are doomed to failure. The ideas
of insularism are deeply ingrained in Russian traditions: For
example, they are related to monasticism, non-acquisitiveness, and
modern varieties of a “who cares” attitude. Insularism generates a
great diversity of asocial complexes – from decadence, depression
and hopelessness to justification in the mass consciousness of any
idea or initiative that fails in practice (from building socialism
to democratization to the monetization of in-kind welfare benefits,
for example), the basic reasoning being: Nothing will work anyway
since the world is hopeless.


cultural identity. Briefly, this specific feature of the Russian
mentality can be described as the existence in society of two polar
opinions on any matter of consequence.
They arise from
different systems of values, concepts and arguments, as well as
methods of their verbal expression. There can be no dialog between
proponents of these positions. Instead there is a system of
monologs. Furthermore, opponents are also affected by purely
Manichean complexes in relation to each other. In this situation
the predominant aspiration is to suppress or, if possible, destroy
an opponent. Yet another outcome of this standoff is the ineptness
of the decisions made, which is due not to the inability to
formulate ideas, but to deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes.

The aforementioned elements comprise the
core of Russia’s cultural and mental continuum. (The cultural core
is an integrated system: Said elements are not isolated or
separated from each other but are systemically interconnected. They
support and complement each other, and therein are found an
important source of their stability.) Among other components, it is
essential to note the sacral image of the ruling establishment – on
all levels (in the eyes of the majority of Russians, the state has
always been the Ultimate Entity, always opposed to its subjects,
with any supreme leader invariably grasping a problem faster and
fathoming it more profoundly than any expert or specialist in the
field). An essential factor here is the “primacy of expansionism”
which has always been related to violence (against nature, people
or neighboring countries) because new resources cannot be
introduced without coercion.

The Russian mentality is also
characterized by the squandering of resources, including human
resources – a condition that arises from the primacy of
expansionism and the sacredness of power.


It should be noted that traditional
Russian culture, which evolved simultaneously with the Russian
centralized state in the 13th-16th centuries, was (and still is)
considerably exposed to the trends of modernization, thus
assimilating new ideas and features. At the same time, traditional
characteristics were not degraded or destroyed; they were simply
sidelined, oftentimes operating on the purely subconscious


Nonetheless, even though they exist on
the subconscious level, these fundamental cultural elements
influence intellectual, spiritual, public and political life in all
of its manifestations and on all levels – from everyday life to the
halls of power. These “civilizational specifics” also predictably
impact on the course of foreign policy.




A person who is guided, perhaps
subconsciously, by the core values of Russian civilization is, of
course, better off and more comfortable living in a “correctly”
organized world – for example, a world that is divided into
political blocs by oppositional alliances. It is preferable that
two blocs exist – for instance, the Entente and the Alliance of
Central Powers or the Warsaw Pact and NATO. In such a situation,
everything is understandable and logical, and it is clear who is
“friend” and who is “foe.” Furthermore, a “friend” is always right,
and “friends” are never betrayed. In its desire to defend
“friendly” Serbia in 1914, Russia took the risk of being dragged
into a European war (which is in fact what happened). Likewise, by
defending “friendly” Cuba in 1962, Moscow ignored the potential
danger of a nuclear missile conflict with the United States (which,
fortunately, was avoided at the last moment). The Soviet Union
assisted its allies from the socialist camp, providing them with
colossal amounts of funds.


In this setup, every country must be
classified as either “friend” or “foe.” If, for example, Egypt and
Syria are considered to be  “friends,”
they must be supplied with billions of dollars worth of arms even
though it is obvious that these arms will never be paid for or even
used properly. By contrast, Israel is a “foe;” so, first, it must
be denounced as a conduit of reactionary Zionist ideology; second,
all relations with it must be discontinued; and third, Soviet Jews
must be thoroughly discouraged from emigrating to Israel; it does
not really matter that this course effectively pits the country
against the rest of the world.

Also indicative is the swift
transformation of some “friends” into “foes.” Thus, in 1948 Josip
Broz Tito went from a national hero into a “Nazi stooge”
practically overnight. More recently, we witnessed Victor
Yushchenko suddenly emerge from a pragmatic, cooperative politician
into “a person who has conducted a lavish election campaign paid
for with other people’s money, sold out his independence, and is
now ready to sell the independence of Ukraine” (as taken from an
election campaign leaflet signed by Victor Khristenko, deputy
chairman of the Association of Ukrainian Communities in the Russian
Federation). “As pro-Russian as Moldova’s new president – the
Russian Communist Voronin – seemed to be, now he is apparently
pro-Western and pro-U.S.,” as Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian
political scientist, quipped, highlighting this trend.


Meanwhile, the concept of “correctly”
organized international relations is rapidly losing ground in the
modern world. The explosive growth in the number of new states
makes the principal mechanism of international relations, adapted
to the world’s bloc-based structures, ineffectual and unmanageable.

The need for global coordination in the
second half of the 20th century brought about new mechanisms, as
well as new international organizations. According to some sources,
by the mid-1980s there were 365 intergovernmental and 4,615
non-governmental international organizations – twice as many as in
the early 1970s. This is where the focus has shifted in the
decision-making process on matters of international coordination
and cooperation.

This is in fact the “crushing of
syncretism in the making,” with regard to the system of
international relations. The “simple and understandable” structure,
where all connections are predicated on a dozen or so treaties and
where it is clear who is “friend” and who is “foe,” is being
replaced by a complex scheme of interaction where everything is
interconnected by an intricate, multitiered system of agreements
and protocols and where there are no friends or foes but rather
partners formulating and upholding their own interests. In other
words, a rigid hierarchical structure is giving way to a flexible
and mobile network structure, and herein is to be found the essence
of the current phase of historical evolution.


Similar processes are also occurring
within the internal structure of international terrorism – a highly
relevant development for Russia. International terrorism is a
mobile and flexible network of interacting but essentially
autonomous structures that do not have a single command and control
center. Therein is its strength, making it especially difficult to
fight. Thus, it would be mere fantasy to assume that terrorism will
be eradicated once the antiterrorist coalition captures the
semi-mythical Osama bin Laden, or destroys the mythical al Qaeda
headquarters. Network beats hierarchy.


Reflecting on three centuries of Russian
politics (from the Time of Troubles until 1917), Alexander
Solzhenitsyn talks about the “missed opportunities for internal
development and the extravagant wasting of human resources on
external objectives that were unnecessary for Russia: They were
more concerned about European interests than their own people.”
Now, what about the country’s foreign policy after 1917? First,
there was the preparation of a world revolution, then fraternal
assistance to countries of the socialist camp, as well as countries
“taking the path of non-capitalist development.” Finally, in the
modern era, there has been assistance to the former fraternal
republics that have now become independent sovereign states. What
are all of these examples if not foolishly wasted efforts?


Thus, despite the different historical
circumstances and conditions, similar foreign policy paradigms and
mechanisms are being reproduced. In some way or other, they reflect
the fundamental characteristics of core cultural values that
influence the formulation of doctrinal foreign policy concepts. For
Russia, the philosophy of syncretism plays a decisive role and
manifests itself by a tendency to reduce the entire range of
international relations to a confrontation between a small number
of alliances or blocs, identifying the “poles” of influence and
staking out the zones of special interests.




Like any theory, the concept of Russia’s
civilizational specifics, while addressing a number of problems,
raises many new questions. The main question is, perhaps, how the
known mechanisms of civilizational specifics correlate with the
development strategy of modernization.


Complaints are frequently made about the
“hangover” of the Russian mentality that is hindering the country’s
integration into the world economy, international labor markets and
modern international relations. First, no development strategy can
ignore civilizational specifics as a fundamental objective factor.
Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to seek a target-specific
adjustment of a nation’s specific features which impede
modernization. But in any case this is a prolonged and painful


Second, the following question is also
perfectly valid: Are the fundamental characteristics of the Russian
mentality really an impediment to any modernization projects in the
country and, therefore, subject to elimination? Or perhaps there
are some positive Russian characteristics that, on the contrary,
could be successfully called upon for the modernization


There certainly are; the ability of
Russian culture, for example, to assimilate different features from
other cultures, as well as other cultural identities, without
jeopardizing its intrinsic nature. This particular feature, which
also arises from the Russian proclivity to syncretism, was noted
long ago by Fyodor Dostoevsky: “It was not with hostility (as might
have been expected) but with friendliness and great affection that
we accepted geniuses from other nations to our hearts, knowing
instinctively how to recognize, forgive, and reconcile differences,
thus expressing our readiness and proclivity for mankind’s global
reunification.” (Incidentally, Dostoevsky presaged the evaluation
of Russia’s policy that was offered by Alexander Solzhenitsyn 100
years later: “What has Russia been doing with its policy during the
last two centuries if not serving Europe, probably far more than
serving itself? I do not think this was only due to the ineptitude
of our politicians.”) Thus, a commitment to syncretism can play a
positive role. This is especially important in the age of
globalization, when a country’s “globability” – that is, its
ability to respond to the challenge of globalization – plays an
increasingly significant role. 


Here is another example. In 1945, the
U.S. military occupation administration, led by Gen. Douglas
MacArthur, set out to turn Japan into a country committed to
democratic and free-market values. Many experts warned, however,
that Japan’s traditional adherence to communal values would become
a natural impediment to this mission. Yet, 30 years later, Vladimir
Tsvetov, one of the best Soviet experts on Japan, in studying the
mechanism of the Japanese “economic miracle,” quoted the CEO of a
major Japanese shipbuilding company: “We were lucky. Communal
relations had prevailed in Japan up until 1945, and during the
relatively short spell of confusion following the end of the war,
the communal spirit did not disappear.”


There are two important aspects here.
First, this “representative of monopoly capital,” as Tsvetov
describes him, states that, contrary to predictions by American
experts, communal relations, far from becoming an impediment,
proved an essential engine of Japanese economic modernization. More
importantly, this period following the end of the war – when the
U.S. administration was pursuing the most radical transformations
affecting all spheres of life in Japanese society – was described
as a brief “spell of confusion.” During this period, Japan
experienced democratic elections, the adoption of a new
Constitution, and the imposition of checks on military-industrial
corporations. Furthermore, Shintoism was stripped of its status as
a state religion, thus causing Emperor Hirohito to lose his
divinity status. Finally, there was the free distribution of 10
million copies of the Bible, the expurgation of school textbooks,


MacArthur recalled that he had been
granted absolute power to control the life of 80 million people and
rebuild their nation, which included the need to fill the
political, economic, and spiritual vacuum that had come about
following the war. Three decades later, however, this feverish
activity was effectively dismissed as a “short spell of confusion;”
and what Gen. MacArthur only saw as different types of “vacuum” in
fact turned out to be a repository for the core elements of culture
which subsequently ensured the spectacular and dynamic rise of
Japanese society.


Here is yet another example, borrowed
from Alexei Zudin, a Russian political scientist. In the 1950s,
many authors attributed the economic stagnation of Southeast Asia
to Confucian ethics: After all, Confucians are oriented toward
contemplation, introspection, passivity, etc. Twenty years later,
however, these regions became economic growth areas, producing the
proverbial “Asian Tigers.” Today, experts argue that Confucian
ethics was a principal factor in this success story: the philosophy
orients the individual toward self-discipline and concentration,
and as soon as favorable opportunities arise, an individual
releases his energy.


At the same time, society’s historical
transformation may be accompanied by a revision of basic attitudes
and values. The deep changes that occurred in Turkey in the 1920s,
for example, were related not just to the form of governance but
affected the attitude to religion and the empire. The revolution
that was carried out by the Young Turks and led by Turkey’s first
president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, changed the core elements of
culture, effectively forming a new nation.


The modern world dictates its own
requirements. Nevertheless, the possibility for a transformation
that ensures the vital evolutionary dynamism is obviously limited
by the systemic characteristics of culture. Thus, a carefully
planned, target-specific adjustment of social traits is becoming a
historical imperative.




Russia’s history shows that forcible
methods of changing its national mentality – by adjusting it from
above, for example – are counterproductive. The only possible
strategic course that can produce a positive result within a
relatively short time is the modernization of the national
education system. The wide array of social disciplines from the
Soviet system of higher education borrowed many of the traditional
elements unique to the Russian mentality. A modern liberal-arts
education, however, does not provide answers to questions related
to a nation’s identity. Meanwhile, these questions cannot even be
formulated properly outside the broad global context whose
understanding presupposes the inclusion into the humanities of such
obligatory systemic, fundamental courses as the history of culture
and the history of religion. Sufficient knowledge has already been
accumulated for developing training courses that could conveniently
be described as the theory of civilizations or civilizational


The acquisition of analytical skills is
especially important for liberal-arts students. Analysis is, in a
certain sense, the opposite of syncretism. The Russian
traditionalist perceives a syncretically fragmented world as a
daunting chaos. He believes that chaos can be overcome by
simplifying the situation and enforcing order – via economic
regulation, the vertical chain of command in society, and a new
multipolar world order.


Meanwhile, complex-system modeling has
long been a subject of analysis. Today, there exists a special
branch of mathematics known as “chaos theory.” Any student of the
humanities must understand that there is an adequate mathematical
apparatus for modeling random network structures and analyzing the
processes occurring within them. Generally speaking, it is vital
for liberal-arts students to study mathematics in order to build
mathematical models to analyze the current status of objects or
phenomena, as well as forecast prospects for their development.
Liberal-arts students also need the ability to operate in the
modern information space. To make effective decisions in our
increasingly complex world, already at the project feasibility
stage, it is necessary to analyze the complex and diverse
connections of an object or phenomenon and to assess the possible
consequences of a particular scenario. This kind of analysis cannot
be carried out without tapping and processing a huge volume of
informational resources. And, of course, comprehensive problems
cannot be resolved without a coherent strategy or its in-depth
discussion in society. And this involves, importantly, a review of
the core elements of cultural values.