Russia’s DNA: Unsettled Identity

Note: This is the sixth and final in a series of essays on ‘Russia’s DNA.’ The first essay ‘Russia’s DNA: Fear of Invasion’ explains the background for this series.

Is Russia an Enigma?

To outsiders, gaining an understanding of Russia can be a challenge. Many of us take refuge in Winston Churchill’s famous statement that Russia is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Russia often seems to be a remote country, with a history that is not easily understood by foreigners, but as journalist Robert Kaiser wrote more than twenty years ago, “This is a myth, encouraged by the Russians themselves, who would prefer that no one discover who they really are and how they really live.”Recently, President Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Vladislav Surkov, offered this advice to Westerners who wanted to better understand Russia: “Read Dostoevsky.” Because Dostoevsky’s characters are such complex and sometimes irrational people, Surkov might be suggesting that Russians elude understanding because of their uniqueness.

The Great Russian Debate

For centuries there has been an ongoing debate in Russian leadership circles about how Russians should identify themselves. Historians have labeled the two opposing poles in this debate “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles.” “Westernizers” are those who believe that Russia is a European nation and that it should follow Europe’s path of development. “Slavophiles,” on the other hand, argue that Russia is unique, it is not like Europe, and it should carve out its own special path of development. For some, Russia is a “Eurasian power,” a nation that straddles Europe and Asia.

In the 19th century, this debate often focused on the top-down radical reforms of Peter the Great, who is a hero to the “Westernizers.” For the “Slavophiles,” Peter is no hero, but rather a cruel ruler who tried to force Slavic people to be like Europeans. The debate during the Gorbachev years reflected some of these same tensions. Supporters of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms often argued that Russia needed to catch up with the West, to adopt capitalism and democracy, and to reach the level of development that the rulers of the Soviet Union promised but never delivered. Critics opposed the perestroika (restructuring) reforms of Gorbachev on the grounds that Russia was not a part of the “European family,” and that its future was distinctively different.

When this debate is being argued among knowledgeable Russians, the “Westernizers” praise the leadership not only of Peter the Great, but also of Catherine the Great and Alexander II, the “Tsar Liberator” of the serfs. The “Slavophiles,” in response, accentuate the reigns of Alexander I, who defeated Napoleon and taught Europe a lesson about power, and Nicholas I, whose slogan was “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality.” These two rulers looked down on Europe and clearly were convinced that Russia was a superior nation. In a similar way, the Bolshevik leaders who came to power in 1917 were committed to offering the world a model socialist society populated by “new” Soviet men and women. The USSR was an experiment in social engineering that its rulers believed was the wave of the future – and not a copy of the West.

The Russian Federation

For some, the two-headed eagle that symbolizes the Russian Federation illustrates Russia’s uniqueness: one eagle is facing west, the other east. For others, the two-headed eagle represents the problem: Russians cannot figure out who they are. Unlike other dominant cultures – such as China, with its strong sense that it is indeed “the Middle Kingdom” in this world, or the United States, where there is no identity crisis to speak of – Russians have not settled this question. Are they truly Europeans who just need to catch up with their neighbors to the west, or are they unique in the world, in which case they should forge their own special path?

Russians Learn from Others

As James Billington, the Librarian of the U.S. Congress and a leading authority on Russian history, has observed, Russians have repeatedly ended long periods of passivity with sudden, large-scale innovations in areas where they had no previous experience. They have demonstrated the ability to adopt wholesale the key institutions of their previous adversaries. For example, they raided Byzantium before taking over its culture, fought the Swedes before adopting their method of government, adopted French as the court language for a century before Napoleon attacked Moscow, and copied German modes of large-scale industrial organization while fighting them in two world wars. Whether the United States will serve as a basic model for Russia’s attempt to build a federated democracy is still an open question, but it is the only example of a democracy with a market economy on a continental scale with a multiethnic population.

While historical patterns that are centuries old only change slowly, they can change. Cultures can change over time, and it is yet to be seen how Russia’s new generation of youth and its emerging middle class will find their identity. Up until now, one strand of Russia’s “DNA” has been its unsettled identity.