Russia and Its Identity Abyss

Victor Pelevin, one of the most prominent Russian modernists and l’enfant terrible of Russian literature, gave the following description of the new Russian identity in a dialogue of the characters in his iconic novel Generation P:

“Our national business goes international. And there are all sorts of dough—

Chechen, American, Colombian____And if you look at them just as dough,

they are all the same. But each of them has some sort of a national idea. We used to have Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationalism. Then there was communism. And now, when it is finished, there is no idea at all, except for dough____We lack national i-den-ti-ty. . . . We need a clear and simple Russian idea to tell any bitches from any Harvard very simply: blah-blah-blah and nothing else____We also need to know where we are coming from.”30

The problem of not knowing where to come from is the fundamental in understanding the current excruciating question of the Russian nation to locate the birthplace of its identity. But looking into the past is not its goal. The paramount objective is to use or, rather, to construct the historical factsheets to “anchor” the future of the Russian identity. Multiple identity constructs of the Russian nation play an enormous role in the projection of “Russianness” to the level of the international system. Discourse on Russian identity occupies the centerpiece of the Russian foreign-policy decision-making mechanism at the highest level. Identity, on its own, is an intricate construct that is convoluted in multiple historical events that shaped the contemporary reality in Russia. Identity is a very important factor-variable stipulating certain behavioral patterns in many societies, including Russian. According to Sonia Roccas and Marilynn Brewer, “Through such collective identities, individuals become connected to others by virtue of their common attachment to the group rather than their personal relationships.”31 Identity connects an individual to a larger group of like-minded, like-looking, and like-behaving individuals and creates strong in-group solidarity.

Quite similar to individual identity, in the case of countries, the “collective ‘self’” is juxtaposed with the “collective ‘other’” but with a much larger notion of group solidarity based on collective memories, myths, and fables.32 Kay Deaux identified five human identity types that unite several more subcategorized identities: ethnicity and religion, political affiliation, vocation and avocation, relationships, and stigmatization.33 Nearly all of them apply to the Russian political identity, which can be grouped into two related constructs: internal and external identities. In turn, these identities are projected through two lenses: the concave lens of self-image and views on its place in the world, and the convex lens projecting the constructed identity outward via foreign policy.

The first category of identity refers to the inner vision of a nation on itself and its place in the world. This is what Stella Ting-Toomey and Leeva Chung call “self-concept”: personal identity constructs that encapsulate unique characteristics of individuals that form the given society.34 Depending on how each community chooses to identify itself versus others, the “self-concept” can include ethnicity, race, specific personality traits, language, and religion. The “self-concept” is similar to what Naomi Ellemers et al. call “collective self”: individual subjectiviza- tion with the group.35 Internal identity is a highly subjective construct of how a nation views itself and how it projects its vision to the outside environment, be this the immediate regional neighbors or the world.

The second form of identity is external—the “convex” lenses of constructed vision on itself as projected to the outer environment. Erving Goffman calls this “a dramatic effect”: a daily performance of internal identity for the purposes of showcasing it to the external audience.36 Simon Clarke gives more insights to external identity, which is directly relevant in the case of Russian political culture: “Identity is . . . projected at the target audience in a theatrical performance that conveys self to others. . . . [T]he performer can be completely immersed in his own act and sincerely believe that the version of reality he is projecting is actually correct.”37 This is especially important for in-group identities when they are projected outward. In essence, this sort of identity does not mean who you are in reality; it shows, however, to others who you want to be taken for.

Russian internal identity constructs have been traditionally viewed by the Russian political establishment as the interplay of Western and Eastern civilizational traditions. They were presented to the domestic audience as bridges connecting two geographic areas in a positive vision or as a split or a gap separating these two directions in a negative way. A special role in the quest for Russian identity is allotted to the school of thought called “Eurasianism,” which claimed the unique place for the Russian nation as located between Europe and Asia.38

Another outlook on the Russian identity connects it with the collective nature of the Russian nation. At a meeting of the two presiden?tial councils, on foreign affairs and on interaction with religious groups, the matter of Russian national identity was placed within the realm of national security. Even though identity constructs remain fluid, such a view means that any deviations from a given form and content of the notion of Russian identity will be considered national treason. The other form of promotion of the Russian identity is primordialist and rather nationalistic. The promoters of this view in the Sobor (Christian Orthodox Congregation) view the Russian nation as “global, peacebuilding; bearing salvation to the world; open to assimilation by others with whom it shared its being; striving to bring harmony to conflict- torn humanity. The Russian nation has raised the torch of spiritualized humanity in the name of all peoples.”39 This ecumenical vision of Russian identity places the “Russian” over any other cultures by presenting it as “high” and ready to accept the willing (or force the unwilling) “lower” ones.

Yet, from its historical perspective, modern Russian political thought lacks consensus as to what the starting point should be in the quest for Russian identity. The quest for a unique Russian identity is based on a marvelous melange of primordialism, modernism, and postmodernism— diverse and mostly conflicting views on nationalism that agree on a single starting point: the greatness of the Russian national identity spreading beyond the centuries of dynasties of rulers who contributed to the visionary construct of “Great Russia.”

The matter is not so much in the disagreement of various societal factions on where the Russian concave identity starts. It is about where it ends. Several contending “anchors” can appear: the ninth century when various warring East Slavic tribes decided to invite Rurik, a Varyagian tribal leader, to rule them; the times of Peter the Great’s “hack[ing] through” the window to Europe in the seventeenth century; the progressive reforms of Tsar Alexander II, who abolished serfdom in Russia; the martyrdom of Tsar Nicholas II, whose execution by his communist jailers in 1918 led to seventy years of the Empire of Evil; the era of Stalinism, which by the most prudent estimates took the lives of 20 million of its own citizens.40 Or the Russian identity is modern, after all, and it started with the sole victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany (as presented by Soviet and, later, modern Russian propaganda) and ended with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

There is a common “anchor” in this odyssey into the history of the Russian soul: velikoderzhavnost’—the greatness of the Russian National Power, as such, as revealed through the centuries of its existence on the Eurasian map. The identity quest sometimes brings quite unexpected and unforeseen results. In going way back in history and looking for the cultural and spiritual roots, none other but the mystical Aryan race was found as the predecessor of the Russian race. Vyachelsav Nikonov, a member of the Russian Duma (parliament) and head of the Duma Committee on Education (and incidentally the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, minister of foreign affairs of the USSR who signed the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in 1939) found the Ubermensch background in the Russians. On his official website belonging to the Duma, this mp writes, “We must always remember what country we live and work in; we must know our traditions. Our Fatherland has a great past. The Aryan branch of the tribe descended from the Carpathian Mountains; peacefully populated the Great Russian plain; Siberia, the coldest part of the planet; came to the Pacific, established Fort Ross; absorbed the traditions of the richest cultures of Byzantium, Europe, Asia.”41 Even though these multiple references are made to completely different historical times, what unites them all is the general line of Russia’s velikoderzhavnost’ playing the role of the regional and possibly global superpower.

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