Post-Soviet Russian Foreign Policy: in Search of an Identity

Post-Soviet Russian Foreign Policy: in Search of an Identity

by Vladimir Lukin, PhD in History, member of the Russian Federal Assembly's Federal Council

Happily or unhappily, today's post-imperial and post-Soviet Russia is only just starting to come to grips with its identity. A mere quarter of a century old in its present national incarnation, Russia is hard put to deliver a clear, consistent, and convincing message “urbi et orbi” as to what it is about and how it best intends to fulfill its aspirations in the world at large.

Meanwhile, with each new change of tack in Russian foreign policy, the question becomes ever more pertinent: how is modern day Russia projecting itself to the present world, how does it see itself in the near future, and what does it perceive as its mission in that world? How compatible is that cherished vision with the fundamental interests of other major world players, and where are their interests and aspirations dangerously out of joint with our own? Can longstanding strategic concerns be balanced out, or will the specter of a forcefully imposed realignment loom large again over the world – in either the “hot” or “cold” version?

Gauging the success or failure of foreign policy these days – i.e. its efficacy– is more and more down to: one, whether a given state has promoted (or compromised) its ability to safeguard its territory and its citizenry at minimal cost; and, two, whether it has put in place the external preconditions for favorable economic, social, and cultural development. That will depend directly on the capacity and the opportunity to ensure a properly calm - (ideally friendly) –foreign policy environment both near and far.

Given the context above, what does the situation look like with respect to the modern Russian state’s sense of identity and the search for it? At the end of the day, without an underlying conceptual premise, no proper, lasting, strategic foreign policy is likely to emerge.

Despite Russia's lengthy span of history, there has only rarely been a shift in the Russian national consciousness. More than half a millennium was to pass before the Philotheus Third Rome mindset was to cede to a Bolshevist view of Russia as the vanguard of the world proletarian revolution. In point of fact, though, what actually changed was the finer distinction. The Orthodox Christian nuance prevailed for a period, the Pan-Slavic for another, for yet another the Russian ethnos or nation, and for a time the European.

Even during the Soviet era those shades of the national identity were readily visible. The Lenin-Trotsky version of “Russia: the trigger for a world proletarian revolution” ceded to Stalin's variation on the theme: “Russia: the central and leading world communist power”. What changed was actually the spin given to the one form of self-perception. One either pitched it as more of a general picture, or one homed in on the distinguishing particulars and features, depending on international and domestic circumstances.

For a quarter of a century, with the appearance of the current-day Russian state, there has been a periodic and more or less impassioned search at the core of nation-wide debate for a so-called “national idea”. This author deems that to be an exercise in futility. Not so long ago the Russian President declared that patriotism was the national ideal for Russia[1]. That is self-evident. The problem is that the term “patriotism” is not a concept or a notion so much as a value, and we know values to lend themselves to various interpretation, sometimes absolutely contradictory.

For example, following the tragic events of the twentieth century in Spain, a memorial was erected to all the victims of the Civil War in that country, whichever side they fought on. It bore the inscription: “To those who perished for God and Spain”. In other words: to the patriots.

Regrettably, we have no such monument as yet. For a long while we glorified the “commissars in dusty helmets”* and demonized “the White Army and the Black Baron”. Now, it seems, we are bending over backwards to swap the heroes for the renegades, but with the same absolutist intransigence and intolerance, not breaking with Civil War mindsets but, on the contrary, incorporating them. All the same, there can be no doubt that all those who took part in those processes were governed by the greatest patriotic impulses. *[Bulat Okudzhava, “Sentimental March”, 1957]

An identity is not the same as a national idea. To identify with something is to establish one belongs to and is part of one cultural, historical community, sharing the same time and space both in the individual and collective consciousness. That gives rise, almost instinctively, to an “us vs them” situation (outside that community). Very important to note too is that the dichotomy is created not by setting groups off against one another, but by distinguishing between them (however much they otherwise might have in common).

This applies both to specific individuals and to collectives, of whatever size, whatever sort, including in the sense under consideration here: i.e., with a nation state's attributes.

Any country's sense of identity is the bed upon which some semblance of a proper national strategy can crystallize and be formulated. Without a national strategy, any tactical foreign policy move will be ineffective, and in most cases strategically pointless.

Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan were superlative ruffians, each one marching their troops from either Europe to India or in the opposite direction. And what was to be the historical and cultural legacy?

Something seriously did remain from ancient Rome: more than anything, the sense of a grand European cultural identity; and, in particular, the derivative that was the Third Rome, or, it follows, we ourselves.

Attempts at forging a post-Soviet Russian identity

From the first days Russia existed as a post-Soviet state the most critical conceptual challenge was to define Russia as compared to its immediate predecessor: the USSR. A romantic pathos emerged in the delirium of those days with the push to identify new Russia as a self-sufficient, independent state, a country essentially distinguishable from both the Soviet Union and from pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia.

I submit that the only “legitimate” predecessor to “New Russia” was that proclaimed for the brief period February-November 1917, when Russia was a democratic state; whatever republic Kerensky decreed Russia to be from 1 September 1917 never came into existence de jure.

Even back then, however, that was not the universally endorsed view. In the first place, in order for that idea to take root there had to be something more substantial than the good intentions of a handful of liberal and social-democrat leaders and the sad episode of the country's rapid collapse, together with its political and economic instruments, its army, and its social and moral foundations.

In the second place, the Provisional Government's foreign policy vacillated over the spring and summer of 1917 between Milyukov’s motto of “Give us victory and the Dardanelles” and outright capitulation to the Soviet-Bolshevik slogans of “Peace without annexation or indemnities”. Lenin's and Trotsky's cynical disbanding of the Constitutional Assembly only served to drive home the demerits of identifying with anything so short-lived, vague, and contradictory as the fateful experience of marrying Russia and the Western democratic system.

Another attempt to define Russia's current identity involved disassociating it from the country that had been expelled for all intents and purposes from the world community as a result of the 1917 October Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing establishment of a totalitarian Communist state on the territory of historical Russia. According to that scenario, the 1991 August revolution signaled Russia's return to the “world community” - the family of western civilized powers - signifying the definitive triumph of democracy, the end of a bi-polar world, the decisive victory of “European values in the world”, and, in a more practical sense, the preeminence of the US as a great power, with the old and new democracies in Europe (and not only Europe) more or less dutifully falling into line, naturally including Russia.

In that global context, the Russian national sense of identity looked rather hazy and simplistic, seen as a break with the historical past – Tsarist, Imperial, and Communist. Russia was crammed into an either-or configuration: “democracy” vs. “dictatorship”, and all political institutions and socio-economic structures were assessed against one criterion only: i.e., the extent to which they complied with Western standards, institutions, and perceptions in whatever Western country. Russia's national interests were virtually assimilated whole by coalition interests - (in practice, American interests) - as part of the battle between democratic good and anti-democratic evil, now that the Evil Empire was no longer around.

Turn-of-the-century events to do with the collapse of Yugoslavia were to provide the first major test of that concept of a Russian identity, exposing it as over-facile and inadequate. It was not the “end of history”, which was why political science, however attractive, that overlooked persisting traditional factors, was devoid of any practical utility. In the real Russia on the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such a stab at describing the national identity missed the mark.


After the series of “post-Yugoslav” conflicts there was a notable quickening of effort - utilizing two well-worn approaches - to come up with the “golden key” to unlock a definitive version of the Russian sense of self.

The first camp called out vigorously for tracing post-Soviet Russia back to pre-Soviet Russia in the broadest sense: i.e. to what had been dubbed “traditional Russia”.

As resentment came to a head in Russian society over the anti-Serb posture the US administration had adopted, with European allies' backing, in confronting the many critical issues related to the demise of Yugoslavia, ignoring Moscow's fairly manifest objections, generalizations surfaced about the “West's” inherent and perpetual antagonistic enmity towards Eternal Russia. Like the ghost writers behind second Ukrainian President Kuchma's famous - largely famously titled - book, “The Ukraine is not Russia”, proponents of the post-Soviet Russian identity closed ranks beneath a banner that read “Russia is not Europe.”

Out of the dusty vaults came any and all constructs in support of this brand of Russian self-perception: the Third Rome (despite the obvious European origins of that doctrine, apparent even from the title), the Uvarov “Triad” (“Orthodox Christianity. Autocracy. Nationality”), the hunt for Turanian or other Eurasian origins for “authentic Russianness”, purged of any non-Genghis Khan elements, and, finally, the Pan-Slavic variation (however strikingly inconsistent that premise was with the actual reality of Russo-Balkan relations in the run-up to and for the duration of the First World War).

Add to this the fact that at different points in time “traditional Russia” was eminently polymorphous and diverse, not only in its internal make-up, ethno-political and geographic expanse, but also in its external surroundings, and in the position it accordingly assumed (both in the sense of culture-civilization and in the political-diplomatic sense). To confine oneself to but one facet then – (to wit, the anti-European nationalistic sentiment) - would scarcely be the method employed by serious-minded researchers, nor even by more or less inventive ideologists, but rather by mere opportunists scrambling to latch on to fleeting political fashion. Thus, the “traditional Russia” tenet is as obvious as it is ill-defined, and very suggestive of a choice between all or nothing.

As for the second camp, the last decades have been marked by renewed endeavors to define the face of new Russia as the direct descendant, heir, and successor to the USSR. That version is altogether unambiguous. Its propagandists affirm that post-Soviet Russia is still largely Soviet. It was simply that the pernicious activities of a certain host of malicious sworn enemies outside Russia, and just as sworn “enemies within” (although they may have altered appearances) caused the perfect, harmonious edifice of the Soviet Communist empire to crumble completely overnight. What was left was Russia the Federation – a portion of the USSR (only no match) – with, for the sake of argument, a Soviet anthem, but an anti-Soviet flag. So the point of the current Russian state’s existence and its inner drive to exist should mean there is the best possible chance (every chance) of aligning the flag with the national anthem, so long as the latter is restored as much as possible to the original version.

Whence the overriding foreign policy task: a possible fuller, albeit phased, revival of the post-war Stalinist world order. Not literally, of course - that is more the stuff of over-excited apologists pining for a legendary bygone era. Still, there is a more and more palpable veneration of the Soviet matrix, which has led so often to serious foreign policy tangles (gratuitous because they could have been completely avoided), when Russia has shouldered responsibility for all the dark deeds done in Soviet times that have and should have nothing to do with today's Russia.

Thus, the understandable and legitimate pride taken in the unique and historic part the Russian nation played in routing German Nazism is far too frequently accompanied by an attempt at apologia and the affixing of a modern “government stamp” on the Stalin regime's criminal actions (inter alia, during the years of the Second World War), which bear no relevance whatsoever to modern-day Russia, nor should they. Take the Katyns, and the mass relocations of “offending” peoples, or certain aspects of Stalin's interpretation of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements which served as the main catalyst for setting off the Cold War.

It is plain that such a form of national identity for modern Russia will be closely aligned with internal political debate; in particular, with the thoroughly pragmatic pitch to the aspirations of an intellectually and psychologically inert public opinion. Nevertheless, in terms of our country's long-term interests and prospects in today's rapidly changing world, that is both a destructive and counter-productive template for contemporary Russia's image. A masochistic element is clearly perceptible: indeed, what is accentuated are those very aspects of Russia's image least likely to win over the vast majority of those with whom Russia basically has dealings beyond its borders. And that is not just in Europe and North America, by any stretch.

Where that variant has particularly scored is among those people abroad who grew up under a bi-polar ideology with a foreign policy that consisted of milking two cows: the rotund American/European one and the considerably “leaner” Soviet one. Such short-lived, one-off bursts of heavily kick-started public support are all the more dangerous in that the Soviet dressing is so transient, and, as a rule, unrenewable. In a more fundamental sense, identifying with it could tempt us into “repeating the past”, especially if there is the political muster to follow through.

“Russia as the direct and unadulterated continuation of the USSR” is a notion to prompt a political leadership into pursuing a strategy aimed at restoring neo-Stalinist (post-war) geographic dimensions (at some point and in some way). The possible dream scenarios range from an absolutely fairytale return to the former scale of the Warsaw Pact to the more modest, though no less fantastical configuration of a “Russia plus the former Soviet republics”.

The political aspirations spawned by such a perspective have been seen to surface from time to time throughout the whole of Russia's post-Soviet existence. The most blatant and dynamic cases in point were towards the end of this century's first decade and the start of the second. The impact of that course now has been to throw the key policy aims out of kilter. The first had to do with integrating the former Soviet expanse, which, at best, can only be described as a non-starter. A detailed analysis of why is a special subject. The ultimate objective, both in political and diplomatic terms, as well as in an economic sense, was to provide for the mutual security of ourselves and the former Soviet republics. At best, that has produced mixed results, and if anything, has proved to be more divisive than cohesive. Our people on top may know what they want, but they haven't got the wherewithal. Our neighbors’ top brass, despite sizable differences in resource capacity, are short on inclination. Nor does it look like that is about to change any time soon.

As concerns the second policy element, foreign reaction to the Russian identification with a Soviet past, that is “AOK” as they put it. It could even be said that our modest retro-integrationist acts and declarations (as compared with any strategic agenda) have provoked quite an immodest reaction abroad. That reaction has proved so emphatically negative as to generate talk throughout the world, including on our patch, about a conceivable resumption of the second phase of the years-long Cold War, which was meant to have ended sometime between the 1980's and 1990's.

The paradox is that whereas the first Cold War was about the rivalry between two real superpowers, each commanding the necessary military, economic, and ideological clout (value systems), the situation now is radically different.

What we have with the present form of national identity is a somewhat Kafkaesque turnabout emerging: virtual bi-polarity in the absence of a bi-polar context. Russia's 1.5% of the world's GDP is taken by protagonists of a new fit of bi-polarity as sufficient reason for an all-round confrontation with our opponent, who accounts for more than 40% of global GDP (i.e., the combined US and EU GDP).

This way of defining oneself is keenly reminiscent of Ilf and Petrov's immortal novel “Twelve Chairs” and the tooth-and-nail “bi-polar conflict” between Ellochka-the-Cannibal and the daughter of the American billionaire Vanderbilt. As such, this kind of fantasy identity can only be the stuff of dreams. Any real political repercussions can only take the form of judicious, momentary actions designed as domestic PR. There is absolutely no case for seriously asserting this sort of sense of self, because it does not correspond to any real world balance of power or any prospect of one in the foreseeable future.

Overall, we have to admit that there are substantial problems with Russia determining its place in this or a future world. And there are meaningful and objective reasons why. It is hard to break with the past. It is harder still, and certainly no laughing matter to break with a past which, among other things, had distinct glimmerings of greatness about it, as Marx wrote.[2] As I see it, it would be more accurate to say that if it is laughing, it is laughing through tears. There are many tears in our country we have as yet to wipe as we seek to define Russia's place in the world in the wake of the twentieth and preceding centuries. But tears blind us to what is around us or especially ahead of us. This is no longer the twentieth century, still less the seventeenth, when some people were driven out of the Kremlin by some other people to some other place. We are living in the twenty-first century. What is even more earthshaking is that we are starting a fresh page where we have to plot out just how Russia will feature in the third millennium. In this post-Einstein space and time, top of the agenda is the mapping out of our political, national, and cultural identity.

The Quest

It goes without saying that this author makes no claim to fully resolving the matter in the space of the few lines below. I simply wish to enumerate, or, if you like, present some aspects, especially those that do need to be discussed before we can know whether any consensus, even a partial one, is likely to be reached. Only then can we synthesize the findings to arrive at something approaching a final, though by no means definitive, result.

First and foremost, we need to order our thoughts as to the part space and time have played in the Russian self-perceived sense of identity. For several centuries one of the vital ways the Russian nation (state) asserted itself was through constant territorial expansion. The success or failure of one or another reign was pretty much gauged in terms of newly annexed territories. The acquisition of new lands, and access to the sea - (any sea, e.g. the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Pacific Ocean) – was acknowledged by all Russian autocrats as the top priority. How to develop the new territories was nearly always considered less important than actually gaining and holding on to them.

If anything, the development side was incidental to hanging on to territory for purposes of creating a stronghold for further, subsequent enlargement. Thus fortress-cities and outposts came into being, the very names of which denote their true assignation: e.g., Vladivostok – (vladeniye = domain; vostok = east), Vladikavkaz (kavkaz = Caucasus), Grozny (redoubtable), Dal'ny (far), Novorossiysk (New Russia). Generally, serious development work and the provision of infrastructure was left for later. That “later” never came, what with successive expansion targets and the investment of effort in consolidating gains.

By the mid-nineteenth century the problem of over-extension was making itself felt keenly. That was precisely when the conflict became clear between the call for reforms – to modernize core regions of Russia – and the need to organize basic routes of communication with the newly acquired “American” Russia. The sale of Alaska (at St. Petersburg's bidding, after overcoming Washington's reluctance) constitutes one of the very few examples of Russia having opted for the gain in time (i.e., progress in the form of infrastructure and modernization for what it already had) over the instinct to expand.

That conflict of interest persisted throughout the entire twentieth century, discernible in the secret protocols to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, yet most especially evident as the Yalta-Potsdam world order was being thrashed out after the Second World War.

The compulsion to acquire as much territory as possible, at any price, and the equally fierce desire to keep hold of that territory for all time and at any price meant that the country procrastinated on crucial solutions for ever more pressing structural problems in internal development, that it was lagging behind the increasingly fast pace of a scientific and technological revolution, and that it was suffering from a complete overload. As a result, the inevitable historical changes - (e.g., the post-war re-configuration of the world, as the European experience so amply demonstrated, was not to last more than 40-60 years) - proceeded along the lines of the worst possible scenario for the USSR, and New Russia came out of it a truncated behemoth.

Russia has suffered from an ambivalent complex that stems from its sheer enormity and from its sense of having been dispossessed, a complex which has worked as a powerful stimulus for vivid and passionate emotions to arise, both in an individual and a collective capacity, in the discussions over Russia's sense of identity now. Space and time were again fusing into one, whereby the former strove to swallow up the latter. Many do understand, of course, that for every decade that passes the greatness of a country is equated less and less with the number of time zones it spans, but before that realization can lead to a strategy for national development centuries of intellectual and psychological inertia have got to be overcome.

As Lenin might have put it, unless we tackle the “main link”, we will never piece together a modern-day sense of self or identity for Russian citizens of the 21st century. To my mind that main link consists of pinning down the priority: i.e. should it be extensive or intensive development? Is the bottom line for our country's survival and progress multi-faceted and multi-vector modernization, or is it the restitution of the “traditional” bounds (which ones?) to our boundless country?

It stands to reason that the solution to this dilemma should be a Russian one. It would be wrong, however, in the process of considering one, not to cast a glance a bit afield and see how our major partners and opponents over time have dealt with this critically important dilemma. Since, geographically, we are a Eurasian country, it makes sense to concentrate particularly on the current leading heavy-weights in Asia and Europe: namely, China and Germany.

The twentieth century for both those countries was stormy and, in many ways, cruel and tragic. Yet for all our differences, for all their unique qualities, some of the twists and turns history served up to them in their latter development ever so closely resemble what happened in our country, possibly sooner, possibly later.

The Shanghai revolution, ending in the fall of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic-like system of governance, the collapse of China. Defeat in the war with Japan, then victory for the radical Communist forces over the centrist Kuomintang in a bloody civil war, and the near reunification of the country. The fiasco of the Maoist experiment on the Chinese people with the Great Leap Forward and the “Cultural Revolution.” In all of this it is possible to trace, if not an analogy, then to a large extent periods that coincide with Russian-Soviet history.

Yet what have we to compare with the major period of Chinese development that ensued, the 30-years beginning with the truly historic 1978 December Plenary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party that proclaimed the structural reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping? Much has been said about them, but in the context with Russia, the important thing to note is that those reforms signified a total break with Maoist foreign policy: that bizarre blend of revolutionary adventurism and the portrayal of China outwardly as a great power.

Such a policy would have been utterly impossible without a clear and unambiguous break from the pattern of preaching to others, whoever that might be – the US, Japan, South Korea, the USSR, Vietnam, which was creating a band of tension and contentiousness around the PRC and was further draining an already economically debilitated country bled dry politically by the many reckless escapades.

Instead, the clear priority was set for a real, not a pseudo, market economy, for agrarian reform, and, above all else, for creating a favorable foreign policy atmosphere to attract a rapid influx of foreign investment. As a result, just one generation on, China had radically changed its image and increased its real domestic capacity to such an extent that it now is seriously considering by what phases and by how much to step up its foreign involvements and its sway in those parts of the world that are the most important to China.

China was able to set out rational, long-term priorities at the threshold of the third millennium, because, among other reasons, the Deng Xiaoping generation had managed to prevail (against fierce opposition) over the Communist inertia of “Five-Year-Plans in Three” and the blanket quick-fix on all domestic and foreign issues– the argument being that “the enemy was all around” (which it would be, largely because of China's own rote dogmatism).

Importantly, in justifying their reforms, Deng and his team constantly stressed the need to shed the obsolete Chinese complexes of cultural superiority and playing god- i.e. teaching others rather(such assumptions as their original cultural superiority and their mission to teach rather than learn from others). A great politician, Deng relentlessly exhorted his fellow Chinese to become more modest and more tolerant of other opinions, and to respect the achievements of other nations in their economies, their cultural pursuits, and their quality of life.

In other words, one pillar in China's successful structural reforms was a major shift in the Chinese perception of their identity. One of the world's greatest civilizations managed to overcome the direst crisis, not least because it was able to cast out from the collective consciousness (or at least consign to a back recess or the sub-conscience) elements of the national sense of self that were handicapping a vigorous - as opposed to a reckless – dash for the train gaining speed down the line into the 21st century.

Possibly M. Weber was right when he said that the partisans of the Protestant brand of Christian ethics found it easier to adapt to the complexities and contradictions involved in setting up a capitalist market economy.[3] Yet the Chinese generation of the latter half of the twentieth century proved that even within as stable, enduring, and static a tradition as Confucianism was considered to be, it was possible to summon the socio-psychological appetite for radically transforming a country and undertaking self-reform, something which is best rendered by the Italian word “aggiornamento” (getting with the times without loss of self). One would hope that the Chinese aggiornamento serve not only to inspire envy of our successful neighbor, but to provide a lesson to us in our own soul-searching, which, let's face it, has been dragging on for a perilously long time.

Germany's recent history provides another lesson. After much humiliation, vanquishment, and dismemberment from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards that foremost European power fell increasingly prey to a dangerous virus: visions of grandeur and dominion over Europe. Both in its imperial-monarchistic guise and in its imperial-ochlocratic mien – (i.e. Nazism), the German leadership ingrained in the national consciousness an archetypal Teutonic ethos, disdain for other peoples, the sense of having been chosen, and the right to impose its own “European order” “by iron and blood”. Bismarck's attempts after the triumphant Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871) to temper the fervor of nationalists and point out the risks of manic self-aggrandizement and over-enlargement went unheeded.

The upshot of that strategic choice is now common knowledge: two world wars lost, and the utter devastation and partitioning of Germany. It took those ruinous disasters before there could be any healing the destructive and self-destructive German self-identity. Post-war Germany, reduced to unprecedentedly confined dimensions, was able to banish its superiority complex (in form) and its suicidal tendency (in substance) to the realm of the sub-conscious, choosing instead carefully plotted internal development and active participation in European unification geared around economic and social cooperation as the priority. The reason that proved possible was because most of the German baby-boomer generation had made great strides in condemning the past and seeking German greatness in essentially new ways.

Looking at the clock face of history, those new ways would seem to have produced rather whirlwind and remarkable results. Germany is now reunified (even if not in the traditional sense of the word), more economically robust than ever, and firmly consolidating its lead in Europe, for having resorted to utterly unorthodox yet ultimately the most effective means of realizing its national interests. Achieving those undeniably monumental aims took the Germans a mere half century.

Yet again, one of the preconditions for that success was a thorough reassessment of the national sense of identity. That reassessment was conducted not only within the “compact motor chamber” of the top leadership, but from within the depths of mass consciousness and the mass sub-conscience.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. These days terrorism and migrant crises bring new trials and new challenges front stage. What impact they stand to have on Germany and Europe is a moot point, but a crucial one. The important thing to emphasize, however, is that the challenges are for the new, younger generation. The German post-war generation dealt very ably indeed with their own challenges; they did not spurn the opportunity history provided. That generation succeeded in creating the self-image and the public image that would allow them to tackle their own country's national concerns without triggering an extreme negative syndrome in Europe or other parts of the world and without reviving old anti-German phobia and prejudices, but rather damping them down to create a reasonably harmonious sense of Germanic and European consciousness. German reunification could never have happened without that; nor could there have been the progress with the EU, which, de facto, is now run from Berlin, not Brussels.

Accordingly, we have the example of two countries of exceptional significance and importance for us that paid the price of tremendous loss and dreadful ordeals, to arrive at a state where they could move forward again, in keeping with the era, mustering the inner reserves to define the balance between space and time and between what was national, regional, and global. That was accomplished on a genuinely nation-wide, popular basis, not from behind some government bureaucrat's desk. This was ultimately the “grass roots” - i.e., the national consciousness - at work.

These are lessons worth exploring in depth and comparing to our own circumstances, our own cultural environment, in which space and time are dangerously out of sync.

A major problem as we try to identify the Russian sense of identity, is that in our own worldview we give equal weight to the past and the future. I would say that we switch back and forth in our minds between demonizing or idealizing the past and the future. For a while we are caught up in the “legends of a bygone era”. We fashion an idealized, mythological picture of the past – either in its entirety, glossing over the extreme contradictions, or we select a specific segment of our history. We claim the ideal to have been the “Russian ethos” of the pre-Christian epoch, or we turn around and say it was the Kievan Prince Vladimir (but on no account Svyatoslav), or we look to one of the Ivans, or Peter the First, or Alexander (the Second or the Third). The same with Soviet times: the Soviet Union and Stalin were a good thing, people were happy then, not like these days; or the other way around.

To be sure, in a certain sense the exposé on a grand purpose by the rather idiosyncratic A.A. Prokhanov deserves a proper hearing.[4] Essentially, he says that without a grandiose, overarching sense of purpose one cannot mobilize a nation for active existence, behind, so to speak, some collective challenge, or to be young in spirit. I think that is a basis for serious discussion. Such a viewpoint would suggest that life is about striving for something, attempting the impossible, defying the limits. As Napoleon put it, “Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools”.

The problem, though, is that for many of our observers today defying the limits suggests such banal and time-worn notions as continual incremental territorial expansion, with a romanticized flourish of ancient mythology. The romance is with the emphasis on “yesteryear”. And it's not even about a vanquished Napoleon, striving to achieve the impossible and dying in solitude on a remote sea isle. Yet ideologists like Prokhanov can scarcely be thrilled about how their dreams of a return to yesteryear's great empire are being pursued in practice.

Like the poet said, though, “Everything goes back to how it was/ Only how it was changes.”[5] And the world is not the same. It is not headed back to “yesterday” but moving on to “tomorrow”. What the morrow will bring none of us know. Except that in the context of the national interest, failure to shift the collective consciousness in time so as not to fall behind others in the pursuit of “tomorrow” is a sure guarantee we won’t get anywhere at all. As someone once put it, “I don't know where America will turn up, but I know they'll be the first ones there.”

Personally, I would rather that prediction not come true. I would prefer that we try and sort ourselves and our country out now, so that at the very least we all get to “tomorrow” together. All the more so in that “tomorrow” is far from being enticing; it is a distinctly problematic and, in many ways, a terrifying prospect. Not only is the configuration of a traditional world order unclear in that tomorrow, but even the basic prospects for life on this planet. Unclear too is the outcome for man's further evolution what with our current (traditional) way of perceiving ourselves. This is not about problems in an uncertain future. This is about problems in the here and now.

That is the backdrop to our idling self-awareness. So often we focus on impassioned debate over the eternal question as to where the ideal (ideally fair) border should be drawn between the state of Athens and the state of Thebes, and what the doleful and taciturn Spartans might think of it.

All the aforementioned classic “critical and hot headline” issues soon proved to be an enormously senseless page turned in ancient and semi-mythical history. Yet what remains for all time in the macro-history of humankind is not that risible hoo-ha, but one Athenian's challenging his fellow countrymen, and by the same token, humanity for all time: “Know thyself”. The challenge remains.

How New Russia should fit into the life of humanity to come, as part of our world-view, naturally involves considering our vast territory. Beyond anything, though, it involves our human intellectual potential. How much will our Russian contribution count in the overall contribution of European culture to the potential of humanity? How is one to discern harmony between the Russian, European, and global elements in the reality of the second half of our century (without going into more extended time frames)? How do we combine our country's enormous expanses, its ethnic and regional particularities, our population and its density, with optimal governance, and guarantees for unity and territorial integrity? Can universal human rights be compatible with maintaining the unity of a multi-ethnic country, and with keeping it open and unisolated from Europe (which we are part of, historically at least, and with which the majority of our citizens associate themselves)? The answers to all these questions are crucial in establishing our own collective sense of self, looking to tomorrow's world, and not dwelling on the legends of the past.

One other significant problem in finding a sense of Russian self- identification has to do with reconciling the ethnic and the civil components. Incidentally, that has been a real problem for many large multi-national, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial states, beginning with the Roman Empire and ranging all the way up to the present United States of America.

What complicates the picture for New Russia is that our country, having succeeded the largest continental colonial empire on the one hand, and a Soviet ideological empire on the other, has had a further territorial-geographical aspect grafted on to the ethnic diversity dimension that is bound up with elements of statehood. (Sometimes the ethnic and national factors become integral to the structure of a federative state's constituent entity.)

There are substantial distinctions between a sense of identity for a Russian national living in an indigenously Russian area, for a Russian national living in parts of the Russian Federation's Caucasus, like Ingushetia or Chechnya (where the population is virtually mono-national) or a Russian national in Dagestan, Tatarstan, or Bashkortostan (where the population is multi-national and there are specific problems bound up with intra-regional national and ethnic relations). That is further complicated by the addition of the religious factor to the conceptual-emotional cocktail, when the common religious or confessional affiliation acts as a pole of attraction, but the national or ethnic differences act as a repellant.

You can observe situations where, for example, the pan-Slavic aspect is especially emphasized in asserting a sense of identity, which in turn draws out the pan-Turk or whatever other attribute in other categories of Russian nationals. The concept of an “eternal traditional Holy Rus”, promoted by a number of leading figures in the Russian Orthodox Church, creates dire problems for forming a Russian statist civil sense of identity. In one sense, that idea aims at spiritually uniting all “tribes and nations” that have or have had a historical tie with the Russian Orthodox fiefdoms (or states) existing at any given time. In another sense, questions arise as to how much those religious and spiritual ties are compatible with the need to establish and strengthen a collective sense of self-awareness based on identifying with the modern-day, secular, and democratic Russian state and civil society. To what extent and in what ways do those two conceptual sets of values chime and to what extent do they conflict with one another? Even more importantly, to what extent does the one hinge on the past and the other on the less dulcet but practical realities of the present and the future?

It is evident that to consolidate Russian positions in the world over the long term there needs to be a solid base of internal support for them. That will have to entail serious structural transformations both in the economy, the social and cultural sphere, and the scientific and educational sector. So as not to be left with mere pie in the sky, the range of individual and micro-collective motivations has got to be substantially buttressed, elevating and extending it as far even as to make it the instinct of any “Russian citizen”. Whether that happens or not will be down to one simple thing: you cannot order a sense of civic awareness; you cannot organize it, not from the top down at least.

Many still ask whether there ever was such a concept as a “Soviet nation” in the twentieth century. My answer would be a cautious yes, and no. No, because that enormous state, the USSR, collapsed overnight, and the people in most of the subsequently independent parts adopted other, separate models for a sense of identity. Yes, because almost anywhere you look – even in the Baltics – invisible psycho-cultural ties (not necessarily of a kindly, well-disposed nature) persist to bind us to one another, creating a perceptible mutual psychological attraction. To the amazement of some and the disgruntlement of others that feeling has not died out over the last quarter of a century.

The question occurs: are sound horizontal identity structures forming on another level, to do with Russia's present nationhood? I am inclined to be cautiously optimistic that they are. At critical moments of world political upheaval during the last turn of the century Russia's leadership succeeded in rallying the country and national public opinion behind them in support of their solutions to exceedingly controversial issues. Despite all the changes of tack and even the occasional travesty, Russian patriotism (i.e., the current brand of it under the present state system) has proved to be a viable factor: patriotism, which is not synonymous with exaggerated extremist excesses.

At the same time, it is far too soon to conclude that a Russian national-state consensus has (finally) been attained at last. Firstly, the trials we have weathered this way, however intense– the war in the Caucasus, the conflict with Ukraine, the economic crises – were never perceived by society as the worst that could happen. Secondly, after floundering somewhat in the 90's, the current political leadership has managed rather deftly to draw on conventional as well as new resources to exercise a profound influence on the mass psyche to suit their agenda. As such, it is difficult to determine whether the makings of a national sense of identity are already in place or whether we are in the midst of a contextual “great silent majority” reaction. In the second instance, by contrast with the first, things are more short-lived and shifting, depending on socio-economic and socio-political developments.

Thus, the quest goes on for a national sense of identity that could provide one of the strongest underpinnings and bases for Russian foreign policy. That quest is fated to be complicated and prolonged. In the process one will have to contend with the natural egoism of a considerable portion of our new national leadership – (something which is intrinsic to ruling administrations around the world, but the heartier in ours for the youthful passion and arrogant benightedness of our “new Russians” come lately and their nimble companions from among the old bureaucracy). There are dead-ends ahead and a fixation with the past for our seekers of “new” purpose. Crab-like, they move back into a pseudo-brilliant past, more or less sincerely believing that they are forging ahead. They will have to confront the stereotypes inherited from the Soviet inclination to overly suspect anything that wasn't “us”, together with the sub-conscious feeling that we were perpetually and fundamentally trailing behind “them”. By dangerously cultivating an instinctive hostility towards “outsiders”, they interfere with the constructive business of defining ourselves and adapting with calm and assurance in the present world.

At the heart of our national way of thinking, which determines the main thrust of Russian foreign policy, there cannot fail to be consensus that we together must tailor this country's unique heritage left to us by preceding generations - i.e., space - to the imperatives of time's swift pace. That is precisely the challenge for Russia, one that is no less hard - and possibly harder - than the challenges with which our predecessors contended with better or worse results. As far as Europe, Eurasia, or the world at large is concerned, that sort of Russian national identity is not confrontational. It is not a dare to anyone outside. Only to ourselves. What patriotism today is all about is meeting that challenge worthily.

[1] Putin V.V. Meeting with the core group of the Leaders' Club. 03.02.2016, available at

[2] Marx К. A Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1848) // Marx K. and Engels F.Collected Works: 50 v. Second edition. М.: State Publishing House of Political Literature, 1955. Vol.1, p. 418.

[3] Weber М. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism // Weber М. Selected Works. М.: Progress, 1990. pp. 61-135.

[4] See, for example: A.A. Prokhanov, Svoi - chuzhye [TRANSLATION: Friend or Foe]. М.: Algorithm, 2007; available at

[5] А.А. Voznesensky, Yaltinskaya kriminalisticheskaya laboratoriya [TRANSLATION: Yalta Forensic Lab], available at