Historical legacy of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union in contemporary Russian identity
The Question of Russian Identity
“It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” - Winston Churchill 1st October 1939.
For such a powerful orator and careful wordsmith, it is perhaps worth pondering why Churchill chose to use “Russia” when referring to the USSR. The identity was perhaps interchangeable for the Europeans, however the list of 1945 founding nations of the UN contains not only the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but also the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics.
Lest it be forgotten, the USSR did not end due to the actions of any 3 letter western agency. It ended due to an internal decision by Boris Yeltsin and the then presidents of Belarus and Ukraine - that decision then being communicated to Mikhail Gorbachev and the United States, causing much consternation with both.
Thus the USSR was not Russia, and Russia was not the USSR. Internal individual identity mattered.
Identity is like an onion. It starts with the “self” at its core. For individuals it then expands to family, tribe/clan, then the town, the region and then to country. It also incorporates religion and ethnicity. Likes and dislikes, beliefs, affiliations, political party and many other cross-cutting cleavages also play their part in molding individual and group identity as academics such as Horowitz, Brown, Sklar and Dahl have all explored.
With any national identity comes current and historical moments of greatness and also shame. There are few nations, particularly on the continent of Europe, without its inglorious incidents. It is a brave political leadership and a mature society that accepts is moments of greatness and shame with equal measure. Yet it is here that patriotism and national identity are eternally forged.
Herein problems smolder for the modern day Russian Federation, as several layers within the Russian national identity onion have issues yet to be resolved.
Born under the large shadows of both empire, and latterly global superpower, to which historical identity does today’s less imposing Russian Federation accept by consensus as its own?
Is a white-European, Orthodox, Grand Duchy of Muscovy its dominant historical identity? Is a romanticized view of an expanding Tsarist Russian Empire the source of identity? Or a misty-eyed nostalgia for the USSR?
When was the last time a non-white European, non-Orthodox leader ruled or presided over Tsarist, Soviet or modern day Russia?
Do Siberians or Chechens view Russian national and federal identity the same way as the Muscovites or the Pitertsy?
Can the current Kremlin attempts to install a preordained and prescribed Federation wide national identity succeed?
Which historical legacy has a preferred dominance with any modern Russian Federal identity? Is it that of Muscovy, Tsar, or that of the USSR? A broad historical ad hoc collection and assimilation of all exalted moments of greatness whilst dismissing and rejecting the numerous shameful incidents, cannot sit comfortably, or for long, within a society that has often been the victim of its own leadership throughout history.
Current Kremlin revisionist attempts to find a Kremlin-agreeable identity for all are set to fail.
Rehabilitating Stalin, justifying Molotov, or revisiting Tsarist cartography will not return today’s Russian Federation to empire, superpower, or find a true and acceptable national identity. A modern day Russian Federation identity cannot be selectively cut and paste from history, given a positive spin, and expect to be successful.
No rigid or centrally imposed Russian Federation national identity is likely to last any longer than the current State driven nationalism. A self-sustaining nationalism requires a national identity accepted by all, or it is internally destructive when several such nationalistic identities vie for primacy. Indeed it becomes intensely divisive, with identities ascribed to others that threaten the self or that the self seeks to dominate.
Hence the current State driven nationalism of the Russian Federation as a mobilization tool requires careful direction lest it lose control.
Alternatively, the current en vogue “Russian World” concept is far too loose and woolly to become an identity with any depth or strength. It is as ill-defined and elusive as the “Russian soul”. True affiliations of Identity are too powerful, passionate and pervasive to be externally dictated either within, or without, the borders of the Russian Federation. Indeed some will argue that the artificial Kremlin creation and over-sensationalizing of threats from external others to the self reflect little more than weak leadership and inability to deal with the internal identity division that remain unaddressed.
That said, the foundations of an overarching internally generated, broadly accepted Russian Federal identity are there to be found and framed in such a way that general acceptance, and justified pride, is possible.
Finding that all-encompassing Russian Federation identity, however, requires Russia as a whole to confront its history honestly – and bravely. It will then have a clear-eyed understanding of its legacy and thus its present. From there it can build its future and further mold a common and robust internal identity.
Such identity has to be based upon substance and not selected, politically expedient Kremlin form, in order to take root and flourish within future generations.
It is indisputably in the national interests of the Russian Federation to arrive at a genuine federation-wide identity. More than two decades after its creation, how it will get there, if it can get there, and what that identity will be remains far from decided.
Although the Kremlin is clearly aware of this internal issue, currently there is certainly no desire within the political class to confront history with the necessary integrity. There exists only a desire to reinterpret, misinterpret and manipulate history on terms dictated by The Kremlin for short term justifications over actions it cannot hope to legitimize. It is a policy that is nothing short of folly if a Russian Federal identity is to be achieved and fully accepted by its constituents.
It is a folly, perhaps, with dangerous internal consequences if due care is not taken. Ferreting around in the dusty annals of previously accepted Russian history, seeking out politically expedient nuggets to be stretched, reshaped and perhaps left permanently deformed when discarded, will further frustrate continuingly failed attempts to proscribe a new Russian Federation identity to its masses.
Those internal consequences have, and will continue to have, regional ramifications.
Thus, despite all the questions preceding, perhaps the most important questions to ask with regard to any internally agreeable identity within the Russian Federation is, who decides? And who decides who decides?
The answers to these questions will determine whether any overarching and nationally dominant Russian Federal identity will be genuine and willingly worn by society – or not.
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