Russia’s Future: Nation or Civilization?
No. 4 2009 October/December
Igor A. Zevelev

MGIMO University (Moscow State Institute of International Relations)
Moscow, Russia
Doctor of Science (Political Science)
Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center, Washington, USA
Global Fellow: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/person/igor-zevelev


ORCID: 0000-0003-0579-2679
Scopus Author ID: 6506359127
ResearcherID: AAH-5983-2021
Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=OrfxYF4AAAAJ


E-mail: [email protected]
Address: One Woodrow Wilson Plaza, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington DC 20004, USA

The collapse of the Soviet Union did not resolve the “national
question” for Russians. Rather, this event gave birth to the
question. For the first time in centuries, millions of people who
consider themselves Russian have found themselves separated by
political borders and now have to live in several neighboring
states. Since 1992, Russia’s policy towards ethnic Russians living
abroad has been built as a cautious and moderate response to this
challenge. Russia did not support irredentist sentiments in the
Crimea, northern Kazakhstan and other places where ethnic Russians
live in compact communities. Russia made the first attempt to
protect its citizens and compatriots abroad by military force in
August 2008 in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where ethnic Russians
make up only about two percent of the local population. Does this
mean that the ethnic factor does not play a significant role in
Russia’s perceptions and policy vis-aґ-vis the post-Soviet space?
Can the situation change in the future?

The attitude to the fact that about a quarter of Russians live
outside Russia, of whom more than a half live in neighboring
states, may become a major factor in the development of Russia’s
national identity and the system of international relations in
Eurasia in the 21st century.

There are two main approaches to the “Russian question” in
Russia now. The first is a radical nationalist discourse on a
“divided nation,” which, however, does not have a strong impact on
concrete policies. The second approach embraces moderate concepts
of “the diaspora” and “the Russian world,” as well as the
governmental policy towards “compatriots.” If we place these two
approaches in a broader context of the formation of Russian
identity over the last two centuries, then we can say that they
reflect the traditional coexistence of two principles –
ethno-national and supranational.

After the Soviet Union’s disintegration, it seemed that many
factors created favorable conditions for strengthening the ethnic
awareness of Russians and their leading role in the formation of a
new national identity of Russia. Russians, who now make up about 80
percent of the country’s population (compared with 43 percent in
the Russian Empire in the late 19th century and 50 percent in the
Soviet Union), are an absolutely dominating ethnic group in the
country for the first time in the last two centuries. Russian
ethnic nationalism received a strong intellectual impetus from the
works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was the first great thinker to
challenge the supranational tradition in its imperial form. The
deep economic crisis of the 1990s and the difficulties faced by
ethnic Russians in neighboring nationalizing states created
prerequisites for political mobilization around this issue. The
inflow of migrants to big Russian cities during the last decade has
provoked the spread of xenophobic attitudes and extremist

However, Russian ethnic nationalism has not become a serious
force in Russia yet and it does not have any significant impact on
the country’s policy towards neighboring states. Supranational
aspects of Russian identity in various forms (imperial, Soviet,
civilizational and universalist) continue to play a significant
role. Why? Can the situation change in the foreseeable future? What
international implications can there be in this case?


The experience of other countries has shown that it is usually
ethno-nationalists that start building a nation-state on the ruins
of an empire. Kemalist Turkey began its experiment with the
construction of a nation-state with genocide and the expulsion of
Armenian, Greek and Kurdish minorities. Austrians welcomed the
Anschluss after having lived for twenty years in a small
post-imperial state. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia and
Croatia began to display aggressive nationalism and tried to redraw
the post-Yugoslavian political map. All former Soviet republics
harbored ethno-political myths that depicted the state as the
motherland of an indigenous people. In all these cases, such views
grew out of traditions of historical romanticism, which suggest
that humankind can be neatly divided into nations, and historically
or ethnically predetermined nations have certain sacred rights.

Due to a number of historical factors, Russia emerged on the
debris of the Soviet Union as an immature nation with a
surprisingly low level of self-consciousness and without any mass
national movement. This was its fundamental distinction from the
other former Soviet republics, in particular from the Baltic
States, Georgia and Armenia.

For centuries, there were no clear-cut and historically
substantiated criteria in the minds of Russians that would let them
distinguish between “us” and “them.” The unclear situation with the
Russian people’s boundaries was an important factor that shaped the
historical development of Eurasia for at least three centuries and
that facilitated the construction of a giant empire.

The Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union, were
territorially integral entities, like the Hapsburg or the Ottoman
empires: there were no natural boundaries between the center and
the periphery. In Russia and then the Soviet Union, it was not some
central territory but the capital – first St. Petersburg and then
Moscow – that performed the function of the center. It was the
geographical factor that played an important role in the formation
of Russia’s national identity. Its main feature was a combination
of closely intertwined ethnic and imperial components. Importantly,
the Russian Empire took shape before the modern Russian national
identity developed. For centuries, the Russian elite was more
interested in expanding the empire’s frontiers than in
strengthening the national identity.

The lack of clear-cut boundaries between the empire and its
Russian core allowed some analysts to conclude that there was no
dominant ethnic group in Russia: all groups, including Russians,
were subjects of the imperial center. This view, which at first
glance serves as a self-justification for Russians, plays a crucial
role in their post-Soviet consciousness. There is no political
force in today’s Russia that would view the empire as an instrument
for advancing the interests of Russians at the expense of other
peoples. This factor is in sharp contrast with the ideology and
official historiography of other newly independent states. More
importantly, it reflects the belief, deeply rooted in the
post-Soviet Russian mind, that the empire was a burden for Russians
(Alexander Solzhenitsyn), or that it served the interests of all
peoples (Gennady Zyuganov), or that it was an evil for all because
of its Communist nature during the Soviet period (liberals).

Another factor that until recently held back the formation of
mass Russian nationalism is the commonality of the cultural,
linguistic and historical roots of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and,
therefore, the lack of clear-cut boundaries between the East Slavs.
For centuries, this circumstance caused the Russian elite to
“soften” its nationalism, just as the existence of the “home
empire” (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) in the United
Kingdom suppressed English nationalism.

Another factor that played an important role in weakening
Russian nationalism was the concept of  “the Soviet people”
and the realities that supported it. Children of mixed marriages,
people who lived far away from their “historical homeland,” and
Russians in large cities – all these categories proved to be
particularly receptive to this concept. Russians took it more
willingly than other ethnic groups, because to be “Soviet”
indirectly meant being a Russian-speaker and acknowledging the
“civilizing” mission of Russian culture and its extraterritorial
nature throughout the entire Soviet Union.

Theoretically, the “Soviet people” concept in the Soviet Union
and the “melting-pot” idea in the U.S. had much in common. (The
American concepts of “multiculturalism” and “diversity” also had
their ideological cousins in the Soviet Union – the concept of “the
free union of flourishing nations.”)

Some nationalists complained that the imperial role deprived
Russians of their ethnic identity. Slavophile writers expressed
concern that “Soviet patriotism” destroyed Russian national
consciousness and complained that residents of Russian cities
increasingly often described themselves as “Soviet people.” It has
become fashionable nowadays to dismiss the existence of realities
that were behind the emergence of the “Soviet people” concept;
however, this concept adequately reflected some tendencies (such as
amalgamation of peoples and the formation of a new community),
although it ignored some other phenomena (for example, national
awakening, primarily among non-Russian peoples).

State institutions facilitate nation-building. In the 20th
century, nations were mostly created by states, not vice versa.
Ethnic Russians viewed the entire Soviet Union as their native
land, which was in sharp contrast with other ethnic groups, for
whom only their own ethnic republic was their homeland. The Russian
Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) within the Soviet
Union lacked many characteristics that other Soviet republics had.
The imperial center had merged with the ethnic Russian center. The
RSFSR did not have its own capital, nor a Communist Party of its
own (until 1990), or its own membership in the UN (unlike Ukraine
and Belarus). The underdevelopment of the Russian national identity
and the vague boundaries of the Russian people were largely due to
the institutional weakness of the RSFSR.

Throughout the Soviet history – from Vladimir Lenin to Mikhail
Gorbachev, there was a common political denominator, which
significantly weakened the formation of Russian ethnic
self-consciousness, erasing more and more its difference from the
supranational consciousness; this denominator was the struggle
waged by all Soviet regimes – albeit not always consistently –
against Russian nationalism. The systematic restriction of Russian
nationalism was the price that the Soviet leadership was ready to
pay for the preservation of the multinational state.

Unarticulated Russian national consciousness is a key factor
that explains why the Soviet Union broke up so peacefully,
especially if compared with the bloody disintegration of another
communist federation – Yugoslavia, where most Serbs had a clearer
idea of their national identity. Perhaps, a Russia without
clear-cut historical and cultural boundaries was the only peaceful
solution to the “Russian question” after the Soviet Union’s
breakup. It may sound paradoxical but inconsistent and muddled
relations between Moscow and the republics constituting the Russian
Federation, as well as moderate and sometimes highly inefficient
policies towards ethnic Russians living in the post-Soviet space,
proved to be favorable factors for ensuring security in Eurasia
during the transition period in the first post-Soviet years.
Attempts to work out a clear approach to nation-state building
could have resulted in a catastrophe, as they would inevitably have
caused a revision of Russia’s political borders. It should be added
that Russia’s political elite has often conducted unintelligible
policies over the last 18 years; however, these policies have
proven to be salutary – not due to the elite’s wisdom but because
of its utter weakness and inability to clearly formulate the
country’s national interests.


Mass-based nationalism usually follows the nationalization of
the elite. For a century and a half, intellectual battles over
Russia’s future centered on its relations with Europe.

Contemporary debates on Russian identity are rooted in
19th-century disputes between Slavophiles and Westernizers in
Russia. In those years, as today, public attention was focused on
Russia’s relation to and interaction with the West. Problems
associated with the multi-ethnic composition of the Russian Empire,
relations between Russians and other peoples, as well as the
boundaries of the Russian people, did not play a significant role
in discussions between Slavophiles and Westernizers, which later
became traditional for discussions among the Russian

Characteristically, specific problems of ethnic minorities in
Russia were first viewed from relatively consistent theoretical
positions not in intellectual salons of St. Petersburg or Moscow
but in the Kiev-based Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius.
The tone in those discussions, which began in 1846, was set by
Ukrainian poet and public figure Taras Shevchenko and Russian
scholar Nikolai Kostomarov, who studied the history of Ukraine.
Neither of them could even conceive of a separate existence of
Slavic peoples. Moreover, Shevchenko and Kostomarov advocated the
establishment of a pan-Slavic federation of liberal states, which
would include Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Bohemia, Serbia and
Bulgaria. In those times, no one viewed what is now Belarus as a
separate country, even potentially.

In 1869, Nikolai Danilevsky made an attempt to combine the ideas
of Slavophilia, Pan-Slavism and imperialism in his work Russia and
Europe. According to Danilevsky, the common Slavic culture could
serve as the basis for a leading role of Russians in a future
federation of Slavic peoples, with its capital in Constantinople.
This concept revealed a supranational, civilizational tendency in
the development of Russian identity.

There was one more significant intellectual development in the
19th century that left an important imprint on later discussions:
the idea of the “universal” character of the Russian identity.
Started by Slavophiles, this idea was developed by Dostoyevsky, who
wrote in his famous 1880 sketch on Pushkin: “For what else is the
strength of the Russian national spirit than the aspiration, in its
ultimate goal, for universality and all-embracing humanitarianism?”
In his deliberations, Dostoyevsky, like both Slavophiles and
Westernizers, referred only to Europe: “Yes, the Russian’s destiny
is incontestably all-European and universal. To become a genuine
and all-around Russian means, perhaps (and this you should
remember), to become brother of all men, a universal man, if you
please.” Dostoyevsky expressed, with an amazing passion, some
important features of Russian national self-consciousness of his
time: its openness, supranational nature, and messianism.
Dostoyevsky admired Pushkin’s ability to understand the whole of
European culture and place it into the Russian soul. The
universalism of Dostoyevsky is akin to the “chosen people”
philosophy of the Jews and Americans. As a rule, it is easily
combined with paternalism with regard to other nations.

Meanwhile, Russia’s policy in the 19th century was determined
not by the ideas of Danilevsky or Dostoyevsky but by the “official
nationalism” doctrine formulated by Count Sergei Uvarov.
“Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” were proclaimed the pillars
of the empire. The third principle of the triad – “nationality” –
was the vaguest one. The main question of the times remained
unresolved: Was the Russian Empire a state of Russians and for
Russians, or was it a supranational entity that required from all
only the same loyalty to the monarchy?

Slavophiles and Westernizers, Danilevsky, Dostoyevsky, Uvarov,
and others were interested in Russia’s place with regard to Europe,
Slavic unity and the universe, but not to other peoples in the
empire. They held that “Malorossy” (Ukrainians), “Belorossy”
(Belarusians) and “Velikorossy” (ethnic Russians) were one Russian
people, while all other ethnic groups in the empire were ignored in
their theoretical studies. Obviously, the neglect of developments
in the empire’s western regions, especially in Poland where ethnic
consciousness was growing at the time, was an intellectual

When the formation of nations began to gain momentum in the
second half of the 19th century, the Russification policy began to
acquire increasingly visible outlines, becoming particularly active
in the reign of Alexander III. There was an obvious shift from the
de-ethnicized mindset of the imperial court, which was primarily
concerned with subjects’ loyalty to the tsar, to ethnically colored
attempts to turn non-Russians into Russians or, in other cases, to
ensure the primacy of Russians over other “awakening” peoples. This
shift created prerequisites for the emergence of Russians as a
separate nation. Nevertheless, by 1917, when Russians’ loyalty to
the throne was close to zero, they still were not a close-knit
nation in the modern sense of the word.

Russian philosopher Pyotr Struve wrote: “The collapse of the
monarchy… showed the utter weakness of national consciousness in
the very heart of the Russian state – among the masses of the
Russian people.” Surprisingly, like Slavophiles seventy years
earlier, Struve ignored the problems of the composition of the
Russian Empire’s population and the place of ethnic Russians in the
state as issues of paramount importance. Similarly, the leader of
the Constitutional Democratic Party of Russia, Pavel Milyukov,
wrote about the formation of one Russian supra-ethnic nation, while
underestimating the national awakening of non-Russian peoples in
the empire.

In the 1920s, after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, a group
of young intellectuals in exile (Pyotr Savitsky, Nikolai Trubetskoi
and others), who called themselves Eurasianists, made an important
contribution to the discourse about Russian identity. In their
search for the origins of the Russian nation, they did not limit
themselves to Slavic roots and argued that Turkic and Ugro-Finnic
elements played an important role in the Russian nation’s
development. They were the first to include non-Slavic peoples in
theoretical studies into Russian identity. According to their
theory, Russia emerged on the basis of common geographical space
and self-consciousness; it was neither European nor Asian – it was
Euro-Asian. Although members of the Eurasianist school had
significant differences with other theorists, they continued the
tradition of a supranational, non-ethnic approach to the definition
of “Russianness.”

Bolsheviks were the party that gave the greatest attention to
the “nationality question.” They proclaimed the Russian Empire a
“prison of peoples,” denounced “Great-Russian chauvinism” and
proclaimed the right of all peoples of the country to
self-determination. However, contrary to the principles they
declared, Bolsheviks gradually re-established a centralized state
within borders that actually coincided with the borders of the
Russian Empire. The price that had to be paid for this was the
suppression of ethnic Russian nationalism and the creation of
national-territorial administrative units for other peoples of the
former empire, who were granted various degrees of autonomy.

Bolsheviks made considerable concessions to non-Russian ethnic
groups, providing them with ethnic territories and giving them the
right to self-determination, in order to secure their support. They
were confident that Russians, as a more “advanced” nation, shared
their social ideals and did not need such concessions.

When it became obvious that a “world revolution” would be a
long-term goal, concessions to non-Russian ethnic groups that
populated the Soviet Union became permanent. The centralizing role
of the Soviet Communist Party served as the main counterweight to
the ethno-national federal system. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to
power, the party’s influence began to weaken, and the state began
to fall apart.


Many people in the West believe that Russia will cease to be a
source of threat to the world and to itself when it gives up its
imperial ambitions and becomes a “normal” European nation-state.
They view the vague boundaries of the Russian people as a
disturbing and threatening phenomenon which may lead to attempts to
restore the empire. In contrast, they view a nation-state as a
time-tested, familiar and peaceful alternative. This approach does
not take into account many serious threats to international
security, which may arise as a result of mechanistic attempts to
put Russia on a par with its neighbors.

In the process of nation-building, the crucial questions are who
should belong to the nation and what its borders should be. The
most destructive features of any nation-building process were the
absorption of ethnic and religious minorities or the destruction of
large political entities (as a rule, multi-ethnic states). The
feeling of ethnic commonality and solidarity too often was based on
hostility towards others. The borders of any Western state and
their nations formed as a result of numerous wars, outbreaks of
internal violence, or combinations of both.

For Russia, an attempt to build a nation-state on the ruins of
the empire would inevitably mean a challenge to its federative
structure, which includes many ethno-territorial administrative
units, and would call into question its external borders, which are
based on artificial administrative borders established years ago by
Bolsheviks. There is no doubt that such an attempt could easily
undermine the entire system of regional and global security.

The ethnic identity of Russians became more noticeable as the
imperial shell fell off after the Soviet Union broke up. Russian
ethnic nationalism is not a well-organized political force at the
moment, yet it may rise quickly, especially if the goal of
nation-building becomes part of the political discourse. The term
‘nation’ traditionally has a strong ethnic, not civic, connotation
in Soviet and post-Soviet academia, public opinion, and politics.
As it has often happened in European history, common culture may at
some point be perceived as a natural political boundary, which can
become a springboard for demands to unite all Russians under one
political roof.

The redefinition of Russia in more specific ethnic terms, as has
happened in many other Soviet successor states, may become the most
dangerous undertaking in its entire history – mainly because the
implementation of this project would inevitably bring about a
revision of post-Soviet borders. The essence of an
ethno-nationalist program may be the restoration of geographical
congruence between the state and the nation, and the creation of a
new political entity on the territory where ethnic Russians and
some other East Slavs live. This would mean the reunification of
Russia, Belarus, part of Ukraine, and northern Kazakhstan.
Interestingly, Alexander Solzhenitsyn called northern Kazakhstan
“Southern Siberia and Southern Urals (or Trans-Urals).”

One cannot say that such ideas were advocated only by fringe
politicians. There were several attempts in the period from 1998 to
2001 to embody such ideas in legislative initiatives. The State
Duma discussed several bills, including On the National and
Cultural Development of the Russian People; On the Right of the
Russian People to Self-Determination and Sovereignty in the Entire
Territory of Russia and to Reunification in a Single State; and On
the Russian People, but none of them was adopted. Reality put very
different tasks on the agenda, and the pragmatism of the Russian
elite prevailed over ideological constructs of individual political
groups each time.

After the establishment of tough presidential control over
parliament in 2003, the issue of the divided Russian nation and its
right to reunite was marginalized. Nevertheless, the Communist
Party included a thesis on the divided Russian people in its
program and reiterated its commitment to this idea at its recent
13th Congress. The program of the Liberal Democratic Party still
contains a demand to recognize Russians as a divided nation. Some
members of the United Russia party, especially State Duma deputy
Konstantin Zatulin, keep saying that the Russian people are “the
largest divided nation in the world.” Numerous websites and the
nationalist part of the blogosphere actively popularize these

A civic nation is an alternative to an ethnic nation. Milyukov
and Struve wrote about the formation of a pan-Russian nation before
the Bolshevik Revolution. Today, Russian scholar Valery Tishkov
insists that a modern Russian civic nation already exists. Amid the
domination of ethnocentric approaches, this discourse is highly
useful. At the same time, a Russian civic nation is rather a
project, a vector of the possible development, and one of the
trends. There are large groups of people in the country who view
themselves as citizens of the Russian Federation but belonging to a
nation other than Russian – Tatar, Ossetian, and so on. The Russian
Constitution codifies this situation. In addition, there are very
many fellow Russians living abroad, who consider themselves to be
part of the Russian nation. The development of civic identity also
delegitimizes the present borders of Russia, as it calls into
question the need for the Soviet Union’s destruction: Why was it
believed that a democratic state could not be built on civic
principles in its former borders?

To build a real civic identity, a nation must have legitimate
and, desirably, historically grounded borders, as well as stable
and effective state institutions. The all-Russian nation within the
present borders of the Russian Federation is young, unstable and
weak. Regular elections, political parties, common social and
economic problems, and politics could gradually become a shell for
a new political nation. However, the actual absence of democratic
institutions and a host of unresolved issues between
ethno-territorial entities of the federation and the center are
serious obstacles on this path. The North Caucasus provides an
extreme example of the difficulties that efforts to build a common
civic identity may face in Russia. This is an obvious threat to the
security of not only Russia but the whole world.

A nation-state is a very specific phenomenon which does not –
and probably never will – exist in most of the world. Should Russia
(or any other modern state) repeat, step by step, the path of
Western European countries, which they covered two centuries ago?
Is there an alternative to building a nation-state in today’s


The ethnic and supranational principles will continue to coexist
in Russian identity in the foreseeable future. The question is,
what form will these principles take? How will they correlate with
each other? And what consequences will this have for international

A supranational project in any form – be it an empire, the
Soviet Union, a Slavic-Orthodox civilization, or Dostoyevsky’s
“universal” man – is always a product of the elite. The idea of a
nation, ethnic or civic, is more democratic. If Russian society
becomes more democratic, the balance between the two principles may
change in favor of “ethnic.” That would be quite in line with
global tendencies. In that case, the idea of a “divided nation” may
take center place in the country’s foreign policy, which may have
catastrophic consequences for stability in the region.

The intellectual challenge posed by Solzhenitsyn to the
supranational tradition in its imperial and Soviet forms until very
recently remained unanswered. However, beginning in 2008, for the
first time since the Soviet Union’s breakup, the Russian government
began to speak in terms of a large supranational project. More and
more often, the ideological fundamentals of the foreign policy were
formulated in terms of civilizational affiliation of the country.
Continuing the tradition of the 19th-early 20th centuries, Russia
has arrived at this understanding not through the comprehension of
the “division” of Russians and their interaction with neighboring
peoples, but as a result of its strained relations with the West.
The failure of attempts to become an independent part of the
Greater West and the realization that these plans may imply more
than a momentary situation on the international arena caused Russia
once again to think about its place in the world. In addition, the
claim to the status of a Great Power forced Russia’s leadership to
try to formulate its foreign policy objectives in terms that go
beyond national interests.

Ideologically, the concept of civilization has proved to be very
close to the Russian authorities. In the 19th century, it was
usually conservatives, above all philosophers Nikolai Danilevsky
and Konstantin Leontiev, who spoke about a special Russian
civilization. The late Samuel Huntington thought in similar terms.
Alexander Dugin has long been arguing that Russia is not a country
but a civilization. The idea of civilizations is not very
compatible with liberal concepts of globalization and the
universality of democratic values.

To date, the Russian authorities have formulated two possible
approaches to Russia’s civilizational affiliation. One was set
forth by President Dmitry Medvedev in his speech in Berlin in June
2008: “The end of the Cold War made it possible to build up
genuinely equal cooperation between Russia, the European Union and
North America as three branches of European civilization.” Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, said that the adoption of
Western values is only one of two basic approaches to humankind’s
development. In his words, Russia advocates a different approach,
which suggests that “competition is becoming truly global and
acquiring a civilizational dimension; that is, the subject of
competition now includes values and development models.” In his
letter to a Latvian Russian-language newspaper in the summer of
2009 Lavrov used the term “Greater Russian civilization.”

However, there is an impression that the Russian authorities do
not see much contradiction between these two approaches and view
them not as mutually exclusive but as complementary. One approach
is intended for the West, while the other is intended for
neighboring states and fellow Russians abroad. On the one hand, the
concept of Russia as a separate large civilization allows it to
easily parry criticism of its undemocratic polity. On the other
hand, it lets Russia interpret the “Russian question” in the
modern, 21st-century spirit: “The Russian civilization is our state
together with the Russian World, which includes all those who
gravitate to Russian culture.” In this context, the “divided
nation” idea sounds archaic. The choice between the two approaches
to Russia’s civilizational affiliation will ultimately be
determined by pragmatic considerations centered, as always, on
Russia’s relations with the West, rather than with its immediate

In 2009, the Russian Orthodox Church joined in discussions about
Russia as the center of a special civilization. Patriarch of Moscow
and All Russia Kirill began to pose not as the head of the Orthodox
Church of Russia and Russian people but as a supranational
spiritual leader of “Holy Russia,” which comprises Russia, Ukraine,
Belarus, Moldova and – on a broader scale – all Orthodox
Christians. Continuing in a way Konstantin Leontiev’s Orthodox
conservative tradition, the patriarch has obviously set out to
preserve the East Slavic civilization, while respecting the present
political borders and existing cultural differences. The latter
circumstance is a new aspect in the policy of the Russian Orthodox
Church. During his visit to Ukraine in August 2009, Patriarch
Kirill often addressed his congregation in the Ukrainian language
and called Kyiv “the southern capital of Russian Orthodoxy,” rather
than just “the mother of Russian towns.” Eighteen years after the
break-up of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church is now
the only institution that still unites Russia and a large part of

For Patriarch Kirill, Orthodoxy cannot be reduced to “Russian
faith” only. This is a major change from the previous years when
Orthodox hierarchs were favorably disposed towards the “divided
nation” concept, which, of course, looks much more provincial than
the idea of spiritual leadership in an entire civilization.
Symbolically, Patriarch Kirill has ordered that the flags of all
states within the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction be put on
display in his Throne Room, instead of just the flag of the Russian
Federation. In 2009, the Russian Orthodox Church showed itself as a
major participant in the discourse on Russian identity and on
Russia’s relations with neighboring states and the rest of the
world. Orthodoxy has begun to play the role of one of the most
important institutions for preserving supranational principles in
Russian consciousness and maintaining the unity of civilizational
space in Eurasia.

However, a situation when the broad and diverse Russian
supranational tradition will be reduced to the activities of the
Church may inflict serious geopolitical damage. Many Russians and
other East Slavs are secular or only nominal Orthodox believers,
and they are not ready to determine their identity exclusively by
religious factors. There also arises the issue of neighboring
countries that are predominantly Muslim, though often technically,
but which, at the same time, belong to the Russian civilizational
space – these countries include, above all, Kazakhstan and

For Russia to be able to “influence the surrounding world
through its civilizational, humanitarian-cultural, foreign-policy
and other attractiveness,” as Lavrov said, it should use the
universalist, humanitarian tradition of Russia’s intellectual
heritage. If Russia does not offer universal human values to the
world, it cannot hope that it will learn to use “soft power” in
international relations.

However, historical experience shows that, even if Russia uses
universalist principles in projecting its image to the
international arena, it may meet with a negative reaction. Indeed,
over the past three centuries, Russian “high” culture evolved
within the frameworks of an empire, and “universality” was its key
characteristic. On the one hand, this helped it to gain worldwide
recognition. Far from being “provincial” or “narrow-minded,” it
easily absorbed the achievements of other, primarily European,
cultures and made outstanding contributions to humankind. On the
other hand, the attempts to include “everyone and their brother” in
a boundless, “universal” Russia through culture and other things
have constantly come into conflict with aspirations of neighboring
peoples, most of whom do not want to become “universal”, seeing
de-facto Russification behind such “universalism” and perceiving it
as a threat to their very existence. Historical and cultural
messianic traditions stand in sharp contrast to the new
geopolitical situation in which Russia has found itself today.

Russian identity will grow out of the existing historical
legacies and deep-rooted cultural traditions, while at the same
time adjusting itself for a new vector of global development.