Russia’s Search for Identity

In the decade since the collapse of Communism, a proud but troubled Russian nation has struggled to find a post-Soviet identity. While some have prospered, most Russians have seen conditions worsen for them and their families. In the midst of all the radical political, economic and social changes that have occurred in Russia, a passionate debate has been going on to identify what it means to be Russian – a debate that is not controlled from the top down or the center out, as in the past.

Dr. James H. Billington’s new book, Russia In Search of Itself, is a brilliant account of “how Russians have been thinking about the nature and destiny of their nation since the collapse of the Soviet Union.” This is the kind of book we have learned to expect from Dr. Billington, an eminent Librarian of the U. S. Congress whose previous writings on Russia have made him one of America’s leading authorities on this subject.

Dr. Billington has been a mentor to me since I began my work in Russia in 1990, and his insights have helped me to navigate through difficult issues that I have faced there. Although I never sat in one of his classes at Princeton University, I feel as if I am one of his students after reading his five books on Russia – books which, in my judgment, should be “required reading” for all foreign nationals working in the former Soviet Union.

Russia’s Unique Challenge

When viewed from an historical perspective, it is significant to note that Russia’s current search for a post-Communist identity is occurring within a political entity that – for the first time in its history – has just become a nation rather than an empire and a democracy rather than an autocracy. Under Communism, the powers of the state were expanded to unprecedented levels in human history and then, equally without precedent, collapsed with barely a shot fired. Uncertainty in a time of drastic change has caused a “nervous breakdown” and a rich and varied public debate about the future. Billington’s book traces the main lines of this current debate, after laying out various Russian perspectives on this topic that originated in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The richness of Billington’s perspective is evidenced by his understanding of the moral passion and religious dimensions of Russian culture. Much more than other American scholars, he sees the impact of these cultural forces on the struggle for identity and the re-legitimatizing of civil authority within Russia’s reduced, but still large, borders.

Another insight that Billington shares with his readers is the fact that Russia never had an ethnic or linguistic unity within its empire before the 19th century. Orthodox Russia built its military, governmental and commercial institutions primarily on Protestant models, and its aristocratic culture on Catholic models. Russia’s modern artistic culture was heavily shaped by Catholic Europe, and its aristocratic culture, under Catherine the Great in the 18th century, was audio-visually Italian and linguistically French. It was only in the 19th century that a widespread consensus developed about Russia’s distinctive national identity.

New Voices in Russia

Particularly helpful in Billington’s analysis is his survey of the voices of the emerging new leaders in Russia, an examination that goes far deeper than simply summarizing the well-known views of established elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Thanks to his work with the Open World Program, which has brought more than 7,500 young Russian leaders to the United States, Billington has enjoyed access to a variety of perspectives not normally reported in the West. It is both the wide-ranging diversity of views as well as the vitality of the public debate that gives him hope in Russia’s future. In fact, Billington concludes his book with this comment: “[T]he very existence of such a discussion suggests that democratic government is already largely legitimized in Russia. . . [and] that future change in Russia will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary” (p. 139).

In addition to emphasizing the deep and unique historic relationship that Russians have had with Christianity, Billington notes the powerful lessons that they have learned about history now that they have lost most of their power to “make history.” The first is that progress is not built into history – no Russian version of the American dream has emerged in recent years. The second lesson is that, however bleak the historical outlook, individual Russians in their new condition of freedom are now responsible for the conduct of their lives. Neither of these convictions is widely shared in the modern world, yet others may have something to learn from Russia’s struggles.

A Challenge for America

Billington ends his book with a powerful challenge to America; his message, in my judgment, needs to be heard:

The prospects for world peace in the twenty-first century will depend in good measure on Russian democracy succeeding and becoming the norm for Eurasia. Beyond that, the question is whether or not European civilizations of the North will be able to live in peace with very different, more populous civilizations to the South. This, in turn, may well depend on the United States, the only superpower and the continuing focus of world attention for better or for worse. Will the United States sustain its own tradition of keeping power accountable in a culture that values both continuing spiritual renewal and continuous self-questioning. It is that combination that has made democracy dynamic in America – and gives hope now to a Russia that looks back for faith even as it moves forward in freedom (p. 166).