Time to Decide on Russia’s Identity
№3 2006 July/September

Post-Soviet Russia has been confronted with a number of
formidable challenges, especially the problem of
self-identification. The search for a “national idea,” which began
under Boris Yeltsin, can be seen as an attempt, albeit
subconscious, to acquire a new “civilizational identity.” Yet the
sheer fact that no such idea has ever been formulated highlights
the depth of Russia’s identity crisis.

The East European countries and the Baltic States were not
confronted with any such problems. From the very start they
oriented themselves toward integration into modern Western
civilization and its institutions, so other “national ideas” were
not seriously discussed. Many East European countries quickly
joined NATO and the EU, while others are waiting their turn.
Post-Soviet Russia has already made a few steps in this direction.
This refers not only to its G8 membership, but also its accession
to the Council of Europe, as well as its recognition of the
jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

The Russian Constitution, ratified in 1993, was based on a new
civilizational strategy regardless of the designs of its
architects. It broke with the old concepts of force, faith and law
as embodied in the relevant institutions of government. The
Constitution not only declared the universality of the law and the
equality of all before it, but also effectively blocked the
arbitrary use of force. By proclaiming the primacy of natural
rights and freedoms with regard to the state, and expanding their
boundaries to include the people’s right to elect the head of
state, the 1993 Constitution rejected faith in the former
politico-ideological role. By rejecting its atheistic/Communist
past, Russia also abandoned the use of religion to legitimize state
power. At the same time, after centuries of subjugation to the
state, the church became free and independent again.

All the above reforms speak of a nationwide movement toward
Western values; yet, Russia never gave up its search for an

This search is largely driven by Russia’s internationally
recognized status as the successor to the Soviet Union and nuclear
power, which suggests the prerequisites for restoring its “great
power” identity.

Thus, unable to formulate a “national idea” under Yeltsin or
Putin, Russia has ended up at a civilizational crossroads.


The history of old Russia, oriented toward expansion and
preservation of the empire, ended with the breakup of the Soviet
Union. So there is good reason to talk about a “new era” in Russian
history. However, unless this “new era” sees the evolution of a new
historical quality that is capable of securing the country’s
consolidation and development, it could eventually mark the start
of a new disintegration.

Such a scenario is quite feasible if Russian statehood is
interpreted as a combination of its old identity models –
Orthodox-Christian and imperial. It would be appropriate to recall
that Russia’s recognized achievements along its “unique historical
path,” which enabled it to acquire and maintain its status as a
great power, went hand in hand with national catastrophes, the
latest one being its territorial disintegration. It is also
important to remember that the Orthodox-Christian and imperial
forms of identity, which contemporary Russian pochvenniki
(traditionalists), driven by the patriotic idea of “reviving Great
Russia,” are attempting to see through, failed to be combined and
never actually existed in history.

Indeed, Rus [old Russia] owes its Orthodox Christian identity to
its consolidation during the Tatar yoke, liberation from the yoke,
the expansion of the Moscovy Principality, and its unification in
the fight against non-Christians during the first Russian Time of
Troubles. Still, the Moscovy Principality was unable to attain an
imperial/great-power status during the reign of the Riurikovich
dynasty: it failed to become a “Third Rome.” Attempts by Ivan the
Terrible to move in that direction ended with a defeat in the
Livonian War (1558-1583). Nor did the experiments by the early
Romanovs, who attempted to introduce Western military-technological
achievements to Russian soil, together with the administrative
consolidation of the Orthodox identity through the forced
introduction of canonical Byzantine liturgy, produce any results.
In fact, these attempts only caused a backlash and religious
schism. It is therefore difficult to understand exactly what the
post-Soviet traditionalists mean when they talk about the need to
restore Russian powerism as a spiritual-religious foundation of the
Holy Rus.

Other post-Soviet traditionalists recognize the continuity
between their politico-ideological arguments and note the
great-power experience from the times of the first Russian emperor
to the first Communist general secretary. Yet this position, while
convincing at first glance, offers more questions than answers.

First, Peter the Great’s idea concerning the
progressive development of the Russian Empire, and Stalin’s idea of
the avant-garde development of Soviet Russia, do not correspond
very well with appeals to the Orthodox Christian identity. In real
history, the imperial/great-power identity evolved regardless of
religious-Orthodox identity, as under Peter the Great, or even
contrary to it, as under Stalin.

It is noteworthy that many modern proponents of Russia’s “great
power” identity prefer to dissociate themselves from both Peter the
Great and Joseph Stalin. This is hardly surprising since these two
rulers enforced not religious (Orthodox) but secular statehood in
Russia – atheistic in the latter case.

Second, military-technological modernization
undertaken by Peter the Great and Stalin were based on militarizing
the lifestyles of both the elite and the population at large. If
post-Soviet traditionalists propose repeating the experience of
enforced reforms under the present conditions, then such a
“project” requires substantiation, which they have yet to

Third, the reforms implemented by Peter the
Great and Joseph Stalin did not overcome the domestic tradition of
extensive development but only shifted it to a new technological
level. Those were one-time borrowings of foreign achievements that
enabled the country to close its military-technical gap with the
West. This program failed, however, to create a favorable
environment to stimulate innovation within the country and
therefore could not safeguard it from periodic lags. One
distinguishing feature of the current situation is that old methods
cannot eliminate the technological gap that became apparent even
during the Soviet era. The urgency of the problem is somewhat
blurred by the existence of nuclear weapons, which guarantee state
sovereignty and security, as well as by the availability of raw
materials that ensure national survival. Nevertheless, nuclear
missiles, oil and gas reserves cannot meet all of the modern
strategic challenges, while it is still not clear how calls for the
restoration of the Russian great-power tradition can help in this

The potential for extensive development was exhausted during the
Soviet era, which in fact became one of the main causes for the
breakup of the Soviet Union. An extensive development plan impedes
the formation not only of an innovative economic culture but also a
pragmatic and effective political culture. It does nothing to
stimulate common interests (except for defense from external
military threats) that must consolidate the ruling authority, the
elite and the general public. It also fails to facilitate the
creation of legal mechanisms, streamlining the relations between
them, and helping combine individual freedom with state discipline
and responsibility.

The economic and cultural rise of Kievan Rus shows how
opportunities for extensive development can be used, while its
demise, which began long before the Tatar-Mongol invasion, shows
the helplessness of the state when these opportunities are
exhausted. This problem, which proved insoluble for Kievan Rus, has
never been resolved since – either during the reign of Peter the
Great, the Soviet Union, or in today’s political environment. The
approach of the traditionalists, who focus on the country’s former
grandeur, effectively ignores the problem. Meanwhile, without
resolving it, Russia risks getting stuck in the past forever.


The authoritharian-Orthodox ideal was adapted to serve
historical inertia

 plan for extensive development, both in terms of territory
and population, assumes a permanent state of war. For its part, war
can only be successful with a rigid vertical chain of command with
just one person at the top. Following the country’s liberation from
the Mongol yoke, the trend toward extensive development, which
prevailed during the Kievan period, strengthened even more. Given
that Moscow was concerned not only with annexing new territories,
but also defending against external threats to the territories that
were already under its control, the phenomenon of rigid Russian
autocracy appears to be not just the result of the political
insanity or the excessive ambitions of Ivan the Terrible, but as a
natural outcome of historical logic. Unsurprisingly, great-power
rulers like Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin saw Ivan the Terrible
as their predecessor.

Under an extensive development model, the diversity and
interplay of private interests erode its stability, which compels
the rulers to seek the monopolization of power. The pre-Mongol era
is a good case in point. In authoritarian-Orthodox Moscovy, the
problem of balancing individual freedom and state discipline was
resolved not by legislative regulations but by the complete
elimination of freedom – both ideologically and physically, by
threat or use of force.

Modern traditionalists typically ignore this trend, which struck
deep roots during Moscovy Rus. They are only concerned with the
fact that a national identity evolved during that era. Meanwhile,
this period is also important in that it laid the groundwork for
the deadlocks that the country has yet to escape from.

The authoritarian-Orthodox ideal was adapted to serve historical
inertia, not the needs of dynamic historical development. It was no
accident that Russia was confronted with the challenge of
military-technological innovation that had come from Europe. It
responded to that challenge with a unique modernization program
during the reign of Peter the Great, which was accompanied by the
replacement of the authoritarian-Orthodox model of statehood with
an authoritarian/utilitarian model. Yet Peter the Great’s
autocracy, modernized and strengthened by achievements borrowed
from the West, turned out to be as inadequate for its purpose as
anything before. So Peter’s political legacy, as well as the legacy
of his follower, Joseph Stalin, belongs to history, not

What is relevant today is not what Peter the Great or Stalin
did, but what happened after them. Specifically, this was the
demilitarization of Russian life. State ideals were also
transformed to include liberal and democratic components – in other
words, the Europeanization of those ideals as such.


Whatever form they may happen to take, Orthodox-imperial ideas
are irrelevant because they fail to provide responses to the
challenges of the modern era. Today, the outlook for the imperial
project is even worse than it was in the 19th-early 20th century
when it showed its strategic infeasibility.

First, the imperial and Orthodox Christian
forms of national-state identity in the last two centuries were not
as weakened as compared to the period after the disintegration of
the Soviet empire, which had imposed atheism on the country and
deprived the Church of its traditional function, that is, the
legitimization of supreme authority.

Second, the historical – and even hypothetical
– prospect of Russia’s leadership in the Orthodox Christian world
as successor to Byzantium has also disappeared. The Ottoman Empire
is history now, while the majority of Orthodox Christian nations
today are oriented toward integration into Western

Third, after the liberation of the Slavic
countries in Eastern Europe from Soviet imperial influence, which
was followed by their incorporation into NATO and the EU, the
pan-Slavic ideology has lost any basis in reality. Invoked in the
last decades of the Romanovs’ rule to help Orthodox Christian
ideology, in 1914 this ideology was responsible for dragging the
country into a world war that eventually caused the disintegration
of the state. As for post-Soviet Russia, it is unable in principle
to return to this path since there are no prerequisites for
civilizational unity in the Slavic world today, while Russia’s
military strength is clearly inferior to the aggregate strength of
the West.

This suggests that the application of the old “unique
civilization” model to the new realities of the modern world is
encountering insurmountable obstacles. Furthermore, an appeal to
the basic principles of the “Western project” – which demands the
supremacy of the law and the priority of human rights and freedoms
over state interests – indicates that the idea of a self-sufficient
civilization, alternative to Western civilization, is deeply
flawed. As a result, the attempts to adapt the “unique path for
Russia” idea to modern realities have led to the emergence of a
Russian state that is quasi-democratic and quasi-legal.

The ambiguity of the “civilizational vector” betrays not only
Russia’s domestic policy, but its foreign policy as well. It
includes the preservation and consolidation of Russia’s military
might and hence its role as a center of influence. This policy
calls for Russia’s leadership in the post-Soviet area, as well as
being the engine for the economic and military-political
integration of the Commonwealth of Independent States, together
with its orientation toward integration into the European
community. Dictated mainly by pragmatic considerations, but lacking
in civilizational distinctness, this policy is clearly

The problem is not only that the quasi-democratic and
quasi-legal nature of post-Soviet Russian statehood impedes its
integration into Europe, but also that Russia has retained its
influence in the post-Soviet area mainly because the state systems
that exist there remain essentially the same. Such influence,
however, cannot be long-term. Nuclear weapons and military
superiority are not enough for maintaining Russia’s influence.
Instead, Russia’s influence should be based on the rule-of-law
principle, which means the denial of an “independent civilization
identity” integration project and integration, together with the
West, into the Second Axial Period [this is the time of universal
knowledge and great spiritual awakening; according to Swiss
historian Karl Jaspers, at the center of history is the [first]
axial period (from 800 to 200 BC, the time of the birth of major
world religions), during which time all the fundamental creations
that underlie man’s current civilization came into being.–Ed.].

The modern challenge to Russia’s great power ambition is the
challenge of civilization. Therefore, until Russia finds an
effective response, its influence in the world will continue to
decline. Its political confrontation with the West in 2004, during
the presidential election in Ukraine, was above all a clash of
civilization principles; geopolitical ambitions were only
secondary. The Orange Revolution, which was an attack against the
bureaucratic and quasi-democratic electoral procedures, showed that
not only the Ukrainian political class but also a substantial part
of Ukrainian society gravitated toward the global civilization of
the Second Axial Period. Ukrainian society demonstrated its
readiness to move from a quasi-democratic and quasi-legal statehood
to a truly democratic statehood based on the rule of law.

Russian society is showing no such signs. This enables its
political class to maintain a traditional imperial/great-power
orientation. So when Western civilization begins to expand by
absorbing parts of the former Soviet empire, the logic of
civilization is replaced by the logic of geopolitics. This was the
case at the end of the Yeltsin era, when in response to the latest
round of NATO enlargement with the Baltic States, Yevgeny Primakov,
then foreign minister and subsequently prime minister, put forward
the idea of a tripartite alliance – Moscow-Beijing-Delhi – that
would be capable of standing up to the “unipolar world order.” That
was also the case during the political standoff with the West over
the events in Ukraine, when President Putin put the same idea

Unsurprisingly, in the foreign-policy realm the Orthodox/ Slavic
civilization alternative, as opposed to the one forwarded by the
united West, could only result in rhetoric.

During the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, which provoked
severe and justifiable criticism by Moscow, Yeltsin chose to remind
then U.S. President Bill Clinton that Russia was a great nuclear
power that had to be reckoned with. Yet with the line-up of forces
that had evolved in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union,
such statements, together with the calls from the Russian political
class for admitting Yugoslavia into the Russia-Belarus Union,
amounted to nothing.

President Putin has repeatedly proclaimed these foreign policy
guidelines. For example, in his address to the Federal Assembly in
May 2003, the president, referring to “our entire historical
experience,” said: “A country like Russia can only live and develop
within the existing borders if it is a strong power.” Nor does he
have any doubts that Russia’s “main foreign policy priority” lies
in the post-Soviet space. At the same time, the president sees
Russia’s historical choice in a “broad rapprochement and real
integration into Europe.”

Nonetheless, such geopolitical projects, as opposed to the
Western project, only underscore Russia’s difficulties in
discovering its civilizational identity.


Today, the ideological thrust of Russia’s traditionalists is not
based on constructive long-term solutions, but on the complete
rejection of the liberal-democratic project, which naturally
resulted in yet another enemy stereotype. This approach ideally
fits in with the bureaucratic/authoritarian (and for this reason
corrupt) ‘vertical chain of command’ that is built by blocking
liberal-democratic objectives on the administrative and propaganda
level, but at the same time, preserving liberal-democratic
rhetoric. Yet, as mentioned earlier, such a culture cannot create a
long-term statehood – it only allows for a timeserving

We have many grounds for arguing that a strategic alternative to
the present timeserving statehood can only come in the form of
liberal-democratic statehood based on the rule of law and its
accountability to civil society. We also believe that any other
scenario will keep the country stuck in the rut of extensive
development, which in the 21st century would be tantamount to
stagnation and regress. Orientation toward statehood based on the
rule of law is an orientation toward the acquisition and
consolidation of a new civilizational identity. This implies a
conscious choice in favor of Western civilization of the Second
Axial Period.

This choice, contrary to allegations by post-Soviet
traditionalists, does not represent either the loss of state
sovereignty or subjugation to Western interests. It does not even
mean mandatory accession to international structures, like NATO or
the European Union. Strictly speaking, integration into European
(Western) civilization merely presupposes a consistent application
of the legal principles that are recorded in the Russian
Constitution. If this task is not seen as a priority, and if
priority instead is given to the search for “national ideas” that
are meant to secure Russia a “special place and a special status in
the world,” the effect will be (and already is) the opposite to the
one intended: a system that does not follow the principles that it
proclaims but only pretends to follow them, paying lip service to
them, while containing no incentives for development.

Nor does the formation of a Western civilization identity mean
the devaluation of the former identity of a Russian Orthodox state
(although the loss of its imperial component is a foregone
conclusion). Greece’s integration into the European community did
not destroy the Greeks’ Orthodox Christian identity. Nor will it
destroy the Russian identity. Furthermore, the assimilation of a
European civilizational identity and European civilizational
standards in a multi-confessional Russia would help consolidate
various groups without the need to resort either to the reanimation
of old and ineffectual methods (for example, proclaiming Russian
Christian Orthodoxy as the dominant state religion) or to
ideological innovations (Russian ethnic nationalism). The
implementation of such attempts will only deepen the split along
religious and ethnic lines, eventually bringing the country to
catastrophe. This is especially important as sociologists are now
recording a significant rise in nationalist sentiments among the
Russian majority, which can produce radical/populist leaders
appealing to ethnic identity. The historical price that nations pay
for such experiments is well known, as are their consequences.

As for a strong-state identity, which has been preserved due to
the country’s nuclear status and self-sufficiency in natural
resources, it will not be weakened by Russia’s integration into
European civilization. On the contrary, it will open up additional
opportunities for its intensive development.
Over the past one and a half centuries, Russia’s political
tradition has undergone substantial changes: the idea of statehood
as an intrinsic value in and of itself was gradually – and not
without much backtracking and backsliding – complemented with the
ideas of civil rights, freedoms and the supremacy of law. The main
landmarks here were the following: Peter III’s edict on liberties
of the gentry, Catherine II’s patents of nobility, the Manifesto on
Emancipation of the Serfs, the October 1905 Manifesto, the
convocation of the State Duma, and the Stolypin reforms. Thus we
can see that the acquisition of a European identity is not a break
with the past but the restoration of Russia’s historical

Thus, impediments to the implementation of the
liberal-democratic project arise not so much from Russia’s
cultural-typological differences with the West, as was the case in
the early 20th century, as from its historical lag behind the West
against the background of the non-essential differences.

Russia’s acquisition of European identity, and its integration
into Western civilization, corresponds to its strategic interests,
just as it does to Western interests. The Western civilizational
project, which lays claim to being universal – i.e., as a project
of the Second Axial Period – is coming up against formidable
counter-challenges from the non-Western world where the majority of
mankind lives today. In fact, the Western project has already been
confronted with an ideological alternative in the form of Islamic
fundamentalism, which is adapting the religious universalism of the
First Axial Period to modern conditions.

The West has yet to come up with a response to this new
challenge. For example, its attempt to inculcate democracy in Iraq
by force of arms as a pre-emptive move has failed to receive
widespread support even within the Western community since such a
strategy was, essentially, a deviation from its own civilizational
principles and values. The novelty of the international situation,
which became apparent in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist
attacks in Washington and New York, and intensified during the Iraq
conflict, makes the West vitally interested in seeing a country
like Russia integrate into Western civilization.

Of course, Western civilization is not universally regarded as
being perfect. Even some major Western thinkers believe that
already in the 21st century the West will exhaust its resources for
further development. These forecasts may not be entirely
groundless; but if this is the case, Russia will be faced with a
serious dilemma: either start looking for an alternative
development model, or integrate into Western civilization and deal
with the impending crises together with this civilization while
having its achievements rather than lacking them.

The latter scenario seems to be the most reliable, if only
because the former has been repeatedly tested without allowing
Russia to acquire its own civilizational quality.