Formation of the national idea in post-Soviet Russia

Guri Bakradze
Ph.D candidate in Political Philosophy

Introduction

Discussion of the country’s national idea is quite frequent in academic and political circles of contemporary Russia (and not only), particularly on how to define national idea, whether it should become an ideology and on what grounds.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, once communist ideology suffered complete failure and the post-Soviet space was consumed by a long-term crisis, in addition to military, political and economic challenges, absence of a unifying idea became one of the main problems of Russian Federation – the legal successor of the Soviet Union. Russian President Boris Yeltsin even ordered to develop a national idea on July 12, 1996. The Russian intellectual elite had a year to fulfill the assignment; however, due to weakening of Yeltsin’s position of Yeltsin and other important problems, this initiative was destined never to be fulfilled.

From pro-Western to conservatism

Russia faced a task of determining the purposes of existence of its statehood and the basis for unity of numerous ethnicities within its boundaries; otherwise, the country could share the fate of the USSR. Important preconditions of the above threat existed in Tatarstan and in particular Chechnya, where Moscow had to fight 2 wars for suppression of separatist sentiments. Military campaigns in Chechnya, in particular the 2nd war and relevant media support instigated patriotic sentiments in a significant part of Russian population that led to consolidation, more or less. Terrorist attacks and fighting against them have also played a positive role in this respect. Eventually, the Russian elite managed to maintain territorial integrity and significantly suppress separatist elements without having an actual ideological basis, mainly owing to the image of the „enemy“ and at the expense of hard work of law enforcement agencies.

Territorial integrity of Russian Federation does not face a direct threat since 2000, although the issue of developing a “common Russian idea” is still on the agenda. There was an attempt to determine this idea when “Siloviki” came into power under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Even back in 1999 Putin and his team defined the “national idea” as “patriotism, statehood, statism and social solidarity” The impact of the liberal forces had significantly decreased, which, in addition to the pressure  from the state apparatus,  was conditioned by the fact that vast majority of the population associated the economic crisis and accompanying social problems with them.

In turn, “sovereign democracy” and the idea of Russia regaining the power that it used to have in the Soviet period became popular. The Ukrainian crisis and the subsequent annexation of Crimea led to an emotional uprising celebrating the start of “taking lands back” Again the “image of the enemy” factor is working, mainly in regard to the U.S. and their allies. Work on increasing patriotic sentiments is actively going on, overtaking and involving the country’s entire informational space.

It should be mentioned that the abovementioned factors as well as several others account for consolidation of the majority of the population; clear proof of this is unprecedented growth of the government’s rating and loyalty of the population towards Vladimir Putin personally  despite the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West.

It can be said that the vector of the Russian government’s ideological quest took a turn from being pro-Western to patriotism and from radicalism to conservatism.

Criticism of the West and strengthening of soft power elements

As we have mentioned, at this stage the government of Russia has managed to consolidate the population and generate unifying ideas with more or less success within the country. However, stating the same regarding its foreign policy would be premature. Goal of the Russian government, openly declared in various official strategic program documents about turning Russia into one of the poles within the multipolar world, first of all involves increasing influence of Moscow in the so-called “near abroad”. The strategic task of Russia is to form itself into an unrivaled power center in the post-Soviet space; otherwise, turning into a pole of an international system is unimaginable. In this respect, Russia will have to overcome significant obstacles.

Moscow confronts the West and especially the U.S. in several ways. It should be noted that the influence of Russia on a major part of the post-Soviet space is increased and even excels positions of other players, which results from military-political and, in number of cases, economic domination. However, Russia mainly achieves these results through coercive methods. One of the main problems of Moscow is obvious retardation in its so-called “soft power” issue in comparison to the West. For this very reason, the chapter about soft power first appeared in the 2012 edition of the Russian foreign policy. In official documents, Russian authorities have repeatedly stressed the necessity of extending its influence and popularity through non-military, peaceful ways.

In parallel to criticizing the West as the center of liberalism, Moscow tries to assume the role of a protector of traditional values. Such a tactic might prove efficient, but only for a limited time – the self-proclaimed new center of power, which longs for complete domination over the post-Soviet space and remodeling itself into a competitive force in other regions of the world should have its own ideas. Most importantly, its values should be equally compatible with the “target groups” – different nationalities or representatives of other religions. Otherwise, it is unlikely to form the Eurasian Economic Union even in case of resolving its military-political and economic problems.

State-civilization

Russian authority and the Patriarchate of Moscow have been actively supporting the direction outlined in the country’s policy over the past few years – a model of Russia as state-civilization. Vladimir Putin has multiple times devoted attention to this issue. Pragmatic conservatist,[1]as he characterizes himself, ultimately favors this approach. In his speech at Valdai Club in 2013 Putin remarked that peculiarities of state structure of Russia are derived from the state-civilization model.“[2] Kirill, the Patriarch of Russia, supports this idea as well. As both secular and religious authorities in Russia explain, Russia is a country with a unique system of values, social development regularities, society and state model and historical and a “spiritual system of coordinates”. This is the state where many ethnicities and representatives of various religions have peacefully cohabitated over the centuries. In their opinion, Russia can be called a civilization, though some weaknesses might be distinguished – in particular, economic and technological backwardness in comparison to the West and a demographic imbalance with China and India, whom Patriarch Kirill also considers civilizations.

Russian State being considered a separate civilization, or at least a different kind of unity, has deep historical roots. Oswald Spengler, Nikolay Danilevsky, Arnold Toynbee and others talked about Russia that way. Spengler’s idea regarding the end of European civilization and formation of new civilization centers in the U.S. and Russia is very popular in the latter.

Parallels can be drawn with the origins of Eurasianism. Eurasianists consider that there is a third center between Europe and Asia – Eurasia, with determined geographical boundaries and inhabited mainly by Russians. For them, Russian culture has both eastern and western elements while being completely unique. From a geopolitical point of view, Eurasianists repeat almost word for word Mackinder’s theory about the heartland, while neo-Eurasianists in the form of Dugin declare the controversy of thalassocracy and tellurocracy a sacral war. In Dugin’s opinion, conflicts between sea-based and land-based civilizations is unavoidable. He considers the two core centers of power to be, on one hand, Anglo-Saxon (led by the U.S., and on the other, Slavic (led by Russia).

Currently, the impact of neo-Eurasian ideas on the Russian political establishment is obvious, which is expressed in an open confrontation with the U.S. and opposition to its liberal, idealistic and Atlantic views. Criticism of  liberal values and emphasis on the West’s deviation from traditional values serves Russia well in promoting itself as the alternative.

Vladimir Putin explains that in the 21st century, in the era of  great geopolitical mainlands’ formation, the absolute priority of Russia is to integrate more closely with the neighboring countries. The Eurasian Union is created to achieve this very goal. Its is aimed at keeping the identity of the nations living in the historical Eurasian space in the new world. Eurasian integration is the opportunity of the entire post-Soviet space to become an independent center of global development rather than a periphery for either Europe or Asia.[3] The terms “historical Eurasian space” and “an independent center” show the apparent influence of Eurasianism. It is also notable that the President of Russia implies the entire post-Soviet space is the Eurasian Union. It is said in certain circles that the main driving force of this intention is Russia cracking the sequence to reassembling the nations and states of the post-Soviet space.

“Russian World”

The project “Russian World” (Русский мир) is considered to be the main mechanism of implementing the state-civilization idea at this stage.  The “Russian World” represents not an ethnical, but a civilizational (cultural, geographical) notion and is the most important, but not the only dominant element in forming of the Eurasian civilizational unity.[4]

Discussion on the “Russian world” itself begins from the end of the 20th century; however, a prerequisite for current definition of this term was created after the article in the “Russian world and Russian transnational” published by Petr Shedrovitsky in 2000. According to Shchedrovitsky, all those who think in Russian are part of the the Russian world. However, this definition expanded over time and today’s authors and supporters of the “Russian world” idea define it as follows:

  • Every citizen of Russia despite their nationality, religion and place of residence;
  • All Russian and Russian-speaking people despite the place of residence and citizenship;
  • Russian Federation and other space within Russia’s allied states, whose citizens share civilizational ties and values of Russia and Russians and want to speak Russian and have connection with Russian culture.

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs with support of the Ministry of Education and Science, established the “Russian World” foundation[5]on the basis of a decree signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 21, 2007. Definition of the “Russian World” on the website of the foundation is as follows: “Russian World  is not only represented by Russians who live within Russia or abroad, but also the people who speak Russian and are actually interested in Russia and its future.

Every stratum  of the Russian world – polyethnic, multi-religious, socially and ideologically heterogeneous, multicultural and geographically segmented – is consolidated with the awareness of being connected to Russia.

Russian World is formed as a global project. Russia gets a new identity, new opportunities of relationship with the world and additional impulses of development. Russian world is the world of Russia.”

The Foundation is actively operating both in the post-Soviet space as well as abroad. Its official objectives involve promotion of teaching of the Russian language and its popularization, support for Russian culture and Russian diaspora, etc.

In this respect, the primary concern of the Russian authoritis is promotion of the idea. Particular attention is given to the role of the educational system of the Russian world and the formation process of the Russian civilization. New history textbooks are compiled, where the focus is shifted towards patriotism and support of the common Russian idea. Hypocritically, the Russian authorities actively oppose the West’s attempts of “rewriting history”, in which the Communist and Nazi regimes are considered to be equal evils and in some cases, with the German side looking more humane.

Ukraine is the most vivid example of the influence of the Russian language factor and Russian culture in general. Moscow’s pressure on the government of Ukraine to designate the Russian language as a regional language served precisely the goal of applying soft power, and the Ukraine’s fragmentation was mainly carried out on these grounds. On the other hand, we may recall the “comic” initiative of the Mayor of Lviv to impose a curfew on talking in Russian till 22:00.[6]

Problems with implementing the idea

While the Russian government and church officials assess the civilizational project quite optimistically, they also add  that this is only the beginning and it is necessary to continue working on it. Creation of the Eurasian Union, formation of Russia as a pole in international relations and gaining Soviet-era  influence are considered to be a logical end. However, a number of  problems are emerging that need be resolved if this “new civilization” is to ever see the light of day.

It goes without saying that implementation of any ambitious project, should first of all be preceded by resolving military, political and economic problems. However, if we temporarily put these moments aside and consider the issue only in the ideological context, the following contradictions might be outlined:

  • The essence of Russia as a separate civilization is subject to serious debate right off the bat. Eurasionist visions are over-indulging in wishful thinking.
  • The concept of the Russian world itself leaves an impression of being Knowing Russian does not automatically incite desire to favor Russia or become part of Russian culture;
  • Russian population residing in some regions does not consider itself part of the Russian world and the level of their loyalty is mainly determined by the quality of law enforcement agencies’ work;
  • The attractiveness of the Eurasian Union compared to the EU is relatively low for the majority of post-Soviet countries not only for purely economic reasons, but also due to apparent backwardness in terms of human rights, corruption levels and other issues;
  • Although “Russian civilization” proponents emphasize polyculturalism (in parallel with criticism of multiculturalism), the post-Soviet countries, including Georgia, associate becoming a member of Russian world with inevitable Russification;
  • Lastly, despite these efforts, Russian propaganda still remains dead-set on criticism of the West and is in the role of a d

However, it should also be noted that despite the problems, mentioned ideas deserve a degree of attention. The fact stands that Russia is actively working on promoting pro-Russian moods both within and outside Russia.

At this point, most of the Russian authorities’ attention remains fixed on Ukraine, because without at least a part of Ukraine it is virtually impossible to imagine the Russian civilization and the Russian world in general, let alone “Great Russia”.

Conclusion

In conclusion we can say that at this stage, the process of formation of the Russian “national idea” is underway. Significant part of the representatives of the government, clergy and academia of the counntry agree that the idea should be based on conservatism and oppose the Western liberal value system. In addition it is necessary for it to have a common, universal character, which will be equally acceptable for the population of Russia and those mixed ethnic and religious population living in the “near abroad”.

At this stage, particular attention is devoted to the role of Russia as a power center which defends traditional values and ensures consolidation of the  “Russian world” and the post-Soviet space as a state-civilization, aiming to become one of the poles of a multipolar world  not only in military-political and economic, but also cultural-civilizational terms.

 

 

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[1] .Putin: I am a pragmatist with a bias for conservatism; 09/04/2013; rbc.ru;

http://www.rbc.ru/rbcfreenews/20130904114725.shtml

[2]   Vladimir Putin’s speech at a meeting in the club “Valdai “; 19.09.2013;  rg.ru;

https://rg.ru/2013/09/19/stenogramma-site.html

[3] Vladimir Putin’s speech at a meeting in the club “Valdai “; 19.09.2013;  rg.ru;

https://rg.ru/2013/09/19/stenogramma-site.html

[4]„National Idea Found“; 31.07.2014; Vladimir Lepekhin;Ria.ru;

https://ria.ru/zinoviev_club/20140731/1018124260.html

[5]Information portal of Russian World Foundation;

http://russkiymir.ru/fund/

[6]In Lviv, it is allowed to talk in Russian only after 22:00; segodnya.ua; 09.07.2012;

http://www.segodnya.ua/regions/lvov/vo-lvove-khotjat-zapretit-rucckij-jazyk.html

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