What Does It Mean to be Russian?

One of the most difficult issues facing the Russian people today concerns their identity as a people and as a nation. For outside observers, this issue is often not clearly understood, and Russian attitudes on the issue of identity can be confusing and sometimes alarming.

As Russia enters the new millennium, this fundamental question about identity remains unsettled. Because Russian nationhood has never existed outside the framework of its empire, the concept of being a nation has not been developed in the thinking of the Russian people. Many in the West assumed that when the Soviet Union collapsed a new nation would automatically be formed out of the ruins. But the history of this part of the world leaves many questions unanswered: Who are the Russians? What are the natural borders of the Russian state? What kind of state best fits their needs?

Russia’s Historical Legacy

At the conclusion of his recent book, Russia and the Russians: A History, Professor Geoffrey Hosking (University of London) concluded that there are five ways in which the Russian nation might be defined today, based on its thousand-year history:

  1. By Russia’s imperial mission, as the creator and sustainer of a great multiethnic empire in northern Eurasia.
  2. As a nation of East Slavs, which would imply some kind of formal union between Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia.
  3. As a community of Russian speakers, regardless of ethnic origin or current civic status.
  4. As the Russian Federation, with citizenship independent of ethnic origin.
  5. As the Russian Federation, with preferential status for ethnic Russians.

While the fourth option corresponds most closely to the reality in Russia today, in practice, there are many Russians who do not accept the current borders of the Russian Federation as a full embodiment of what they understand as “Russia.”

Contrasting Perspectives

At a faculty retreat outside Moscow in August 2001, I had the opportunity to observe the differences in the ways Russians and Americans articulate their national identities. Clearly, the small sample of 30 professors, half Russian and half American, is hardly representative of the populations of either nation; the group all had advanced graduate degrees and the Russian faculty were mostly Muscovites. But the contrast was striking.

I asked the Americans to write down what it meant that they were Americans; I then asked the Russians to do the same thing in terms of their identity as Russians. The responses from the American faculty members were very similar: “I adhere to the principles enshrined in the U.S. constitution.” “I am the inheritor of a tradition of freedom based on a rule of law.” “I have been blessed by God and enjoy the freedom and responsibilities of living in a just and tolerant society.”

A number of Americans also wrote about sharing their freedom and wealth with others around the world. Many also emphasized the importance of the freedom of conscience and religion. Again, the sample was small and comprised primarily Christian educators.

Responses from the Russian faculty revealed a distinctly different attitude:

  • “Being Russian means belonging to a great culture, partaking in a great heritage, a great language.”“
  • Being Russian means to be a bearer of Russian culture, erudition, and spirituality.”
  • “Being Russian involves being worthy of the best part of Russia’s history and doing everything possible to improve life in Russia (to be personally responsible for carrying this name ‘Russian’).”
  • “Being Russian means to feel responsible for the continuation of the traditions of Russian culture, a culture that is multi-national, long-suffering, and productive.
  • Being Russian means to inherit the best traditions of the culture and customs of the Russian people.”

Unlike the Americans, who identified with the basic documents of our democracy – the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution – and the rule of law with its guaranteed freedoms and its responsibilities, not one Russian made any reference to governing institutions, civil authority, or leaders from the past. Their identity was primarily cultural and they were proud of their heritage, several of them noting the ethnic diversity of Russia’s cultural legacy.

Russia’s Challenge

It appears to me that defining their country’s borders is not one of the major issues facing Russians today. None of the Russians I have worked with over the last ten years has been concerned at all with a resurrected empire or expanded national borders. After centuries of exploitation by various ruling elites for whom the masses were regarded only as a resource to be exploited, the challenge for Russians is to build a civil society in which the people learn to trust their leaders – a society in which the people learn to participate on the grassroots level. A society built on the rule of law cannot be quickly constructed, but the richness of Russian culture and spirituality provides some of the key ingredients needed for this rebuilding process.