Why do we need national identity?
Publisher's Column
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Sergei A. Karaganov

Professor Emeritus
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Academic Supervisor;
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Honorary Chairman of the Presidium


SPIN RSCI: 6020-9539
ORCID: 0000-0003-1473-6249
ResearcherID: K-6426-2015
Scopus AuthorID: 26025142400


Email: [email protected]
Address: Office 103, 17, Bldg.1 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 119017, Russia

During a discussion held last year at the 20th Assembly of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, some Russian participants emphasized the need for its members to start a work to define Russia’s identity. Many council members, who rightly consider themselves an enlightened part of the Russian elite, thought this was a corny idea. Until recently only the most primitive and conservative Russian intellectuals were engaged in the search for a national identity.

But we still don’t know what history we should associate ourselves with, whether we are an independent but peripheral part of Europe, and whether we want to become this. Nor have we defined our connection to our own culture. Russia’s great literature of the 19th and early 20th century – its biggest contribution to world civilization – is losing popularity in Russian society. Even the majority of thinking Russians do not feel our culture’s connection to antiquity. But it is antiquity that bears the genetic code of our civilization and culture, including modes of behavior that were reproduced and further developed in Christianity. And how can we understand our greatest Russian, Alexander Pushkin, without understanding that he was raised on classical history and culture?

Even more urgent is the question of who we want to be and where we (the majority of the Russian elite and the general public) want to go. One of the most popular answers is that Russians are too divided and won’t be able to come to terms. And how can we come to terms with them? Those who held protest rallies on Bolotnaya Square? Corrupt authoritarians? Nationalists? Imperialism? If this remains the prevailing answer and the elite do not have the brains and instinct of self-preservation to start forging consensus on some common program, our future – which is usually unpredictable –  will become clear: we’ll become a self-destructive nation that will doom itself to stagnation, degradation and another collapse.   

The main problem of Russia’s modern identity or the absence thereof is rooted in its tragic history in the 20th century, when our people were subjected to a godless experiment, which the majority did not resist. This experiment destroyed faith, conscience, human dignity, the feeling of being part of a great history and bearers of these values – clergymen, aristocrats, intellectuals and the working peasantry. The best of Russia was done away with.

The Soviet Union created its own identity that had many good features. But the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its dysfunctional socialist economic model.

We had to survive after the collapse, and it was a miracle we did. I will never tire of repeating that the only possible explanation of why we did not descend into a bloody civil war and commit national suicide in the past 20 years is that the Lord forgave the Russian people the heinous sin of communism.

Struggling to survive is not conducive to quests for a new national ideology. People were bored to death by the very notion of ideology after 70 years of communism. We hoped society would produce a new identity and ideology on its own. But this was wishful thinking. We parted with the Soviet identity, and the memory of the Great Patriotic War remained our only national idea. Nothing new was created.

Neither society, nor the government or the intellectual elite have found any ideas to unite the nation and lead it forward. The successful restoration of the state was accompanied by the idea of “rising from our knees” and the idiocy of Russia as a “great energy power.” Later everyone became enthusiastic about modernization, but no investments were made in education or human capital. Russia’s accelerating de-modernization was simply ignored.

The absence of a foreword-looking national idea based on identity and shared by a majority of the elite benefits those representatives of the elite that prefer to steal and couldn’t care less about the country’s future.

Economic growth is slowing. Public discontent is creeping steadily upward. The elite is divided, with some simply choosing to emigrate or ship their children and money abroad.

The late 1970s and early 1980s was a similar period in our history. The ruling elite lived on the fat of the land, while the intelligentsia secretly despised the government but also lived a comfortable life by Soviet standards. One disaffected group, the Jews, left the country. People kept silent. Nobody believed in anything anymore. Everyone sneered at everything. Soviet identity was dying. Eventually oil prices dropped and the country fell to pieces.

Some debates continue in Russia, but they have different subjects and their participants are reluctant to engage in real dialogue.

Advocates of “communalism” believe in some special Russian spirituality and collectivism. According to them, the West is the enemy and Russia is the successor of the Byzantine Empire. In foreign policy, this worldview is marked by a disposition to all Western foes, including Islam and Muslim states. Before the 2000s, adherents also looked to China (Communists were strong in this group), but now they fear China as well.

The ideologists of “Russian doctrine” have supplanted communalism, which is entirely divorced from reality. The Russian doctrine is rooted in traditional Russian Orthodox values but in a modernized form that emphasizes earthly success and moderate nationalism. Its proponents justifiably reject the notion that Russia possesses a unique spirit of collectivism. Apparently, the relatively modern leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church supports the Russian doctrine.

Advocates of both these ideological trends disdain the European period of Russia’s development, though subscribers to the Russian doctrine accept Russia’s entire history. The “communalists” are unequivocally positive about the Soviet, Stalinist period whereas the “doctrinists” are more guarded in their assessment. The “communalists” represent the part of Russian society that lacks social mobility, whereas the “doctrinists” speak for the lower-middle and middle class. This school of thought appears to have a future despite the fact that it seeks to recreate a distant Russian past that never really existed. 

Ultra-nationalism and xenophobia are growing. They are not common in the formal intellectual environment but are very prominent in the blogosphere and public consciousness. The slogan “Russia for Russians” rejects not only the West but the entire outside world. Russians adhering to these views are especially hostile to people from the Caucasus and Central Asian republics. Anti-Semitism is also pronounced, but it has disappeared from the rhetoric of nationalists that support the government to some extent.

The neo-imperial (or neo-Soviet) school is trying to reassert itself with an idea is that Russia can’t exist without an empire. It is an ideology that seeks to restore the great Soviet empire, even by military force. Enemies are everywhere and war is inevitable, so it is necessary to prepare. Everything must be done to build up Russia’s defenses, the army and the defense industry. All major private assets should belong to the state. Advocates of this ideology want to go back down the road of military-economic mobilization that led the USSR to ruin. The government is flirting with this school of thought, but it is too obviously unrealistic to have any real future.

Left-wing ideas are gaining popularity in society for their emphasis on illegitimate possession of large property because of lawless privatization, the growing injustice of the social and political system, and the lack of social mobility for active members of society. The majority do not see a comprehensible or acceptable national development strategy. The new left-wing concept has not yet become an independent trend and still stands in the shadow of the old left-wing forces (communists). It is being heavily suppressed but it seems to have good prospects. Three quarters of Russian citizens favor nationalizing large private property. Indicatively, nobody can define what qualifies as “large.” We know from experience that this is any property bigger than mine. In other words, if we have completely democratic elections, we will get a new socialist revolution.

The Western-liberal camp of politicians and intellectuals, who are not ready for a strong opposition, offer their dreams for Russia and criticize the government as authoritarian. However, they pay no attention to real life in Russia and are guided by unrealistic ideals. They address only the advanced minority. And while they still suggest following Europe’s example, Europe has lost some of its appeal and is searching for its own identity. It is unclear which Europe we should emulate. Today’s Europe, which renounces Christianity in favor of the politically correct values of total equality and consumerism? Or should we follow the Europe of the past, which had a dynamic social market economy and elitist democracy, and was free of dictates from minorities? Or should we follow in the footsteps of the Europe that will emerge after making a profound adaptation as a result of the current systemic crisis?

The right-liberal majority of the creative opposition offers only total democracy and an almost total rejection of the government and its initiatives, and boycotts those who are willing to work with the government out of considerations of expediency or common sense. Despite the high level of education, so far this segment of the opposition has not offered any alternative to the policy of the government or its absence. This is why it is unsuccessful.

As for the ruling circles, they have no obvious development strategy or sensible ideological project to offer. It appears that their main – albeit tacit – goal is to skillfully maintain the division between the elite and society and to distract them from truly important problems. The reactionary elements are growing stronger, and reprisals are still selective but becoming more widespread. It is particularly alarming that, in an effort to curb outside influence on domestic affairs, which has been a factor since the 1990s, the government is suppressing one of the most important sources of development – independent public organizations or NGOs as they are commonly known.

All these trends are permeated with total pessimism.

To sum up, we need a national rallying point. We must find our national identity and restore a spirit of commitment to our homeland. We need to overcome our confusion and self-destructive mistrust and look to the future. We need an identity that will take into account the changing world around us and at the same time be based on a realistic assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, and our origins.

The debates at the tenth anniversary meeting of the Valdai Club organized by RIA Novosti and the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy are meant to encourage the search for a way out. Russians will take part in these debates for the most part. Foreign participants will evaluate the Russian debates and share their countries’ experience and their problems. After all, practically every nation is going through an identity crisis – the Chinese, the Europeans and even the Americans.

However, this issue is much more urgent for Russia. If we do not understand who we are and where we want to go, we will at best weaken our positions in the world even more. In the worst case scenario, which looks increasingly realistic, we will relive what we experienced in the 1980s-1990s rather than 1970s-1980s.

| Valdai Discussion Club, September 6, 2013