Imagining Russia: ethnic identity and the nationalist mind


Tiutchev's poem - and the many statements like it by Russian thinkers before and after Tiutchev - requests a certain generosity on the part of the addressee. And why not, since poetry, after all, does require a temporary suspension of disbelief in order to be appreciated for what it is. Westerner and Slavophile alike can accept Tiutchev's declaration in its poetic context. A poet is like a child who must be indulged. Just as the most rational and logical person necessarily makes certain accomodations when dealing with a child who does not want to part with his smelly and unclean teddy bear for the night, so too anyone who is capable of appreciating Tiutchev's marvelous poem "goes along" with it.
This does not mean, however, that one "goes along" permanently, or that a rational, objective view is impossible. One need only find an appropriate context for approaching the poem rationally (such as a scholarly study of Russian identity). Then it becomes possible to question the idea that we must "only believe in" Russia, that Russia is essentially "inconceivable, " that she among all other nations is somehow an exception to rational discourse. In other words, there comes a time when rational discourse must be applied:
Давно пора, ебена мать,
Умом Россию понимать.

It's high time, you motherfuckers,
To understand Russia with the mind.
Perhaps the Russians who parody Tiutchev in this fashion are being a little too emphatic. On the other hand, perhaps also this bit of folklore reveals that understanding Russia "with the mind" would necessarily bring the notion of motherhood ("ebena mat'") into the picture. I will have more to say about this. In any case, even the occasional nationalist, such as Solzhenitsyn and Shafarevich, will disagree with Tiutchev and encourage a rational approach to understanding Russia.
Important to Tiutchev's poem is the idea that Russia is special, that Russians are travelling a different road from all other nations. This idea is in keeping with a long tradition in Russian philosophy. Russian thinkers - especially those with a Slavophile bent - like to speak of Russia's originality ("samobytnost'"), her special path ("osobyi put'"). Yet Russians are not really alone in this respect: cf. American "exceptionalism" and "Americanism," or Japanese "uniqueness" or Nihonron, or the German idea of a Sonderweg for Germany. Indeed the idea of "specialness" characterizes all ethnocentric or nationalist thinking.
Most people are not nationalists, however. For example, the idea of national distinctivenes is not particularly prevalent in the general population in Russia today. Only 10.5% of a 1995 representative sample of Russian citizens felt they were supporters of the "search for an independent Russian path" ("poisk samostoiatel'nogo russkogo puti"), and just 7.3% could support the "idea of greatness, of national uniqueness, of a special historical mission of the Russian people" ("Ideia velichiia, natsional'noi unikal'nosti, osoboi istoricheskoi missii russkogo naroda").
Yet the fact is that some - sometimes influential - Russians do dwell on the peculiarity or uniqueness of Russia and of being Russian. The psychological nature of this concern was recently recognized by E. V. Barabanov on the pages of Voprosy filosofii. Barabanov speaks of the "insurmountable neurotic conflict" and the "neurosis of peculiarity" embodied in Russian philosophizing about Russia. The "conflict" is especially evident in the ambivalence Russian thinkers feel toward the West: xenophobic hostility alternating with practically erotic attraction. Despite all the self-righteous talk of Russian "samobytnost'," says Barabanov, there exists "a traumatic feeling of personal guilt, humiliation, helplessness, and inferiority" among Russian thinkers who have seriously contemplated the West. Barabanov has definitely put his finger on the narcissistic core of enduring Russian feelings of exceptionalism (more on this below, 000).
One particularly widespread expression of Russian exceptionalism is the so-called "Russian idea." According to Vladimir Soloviev, in an article written in French in 1888, "l'Idée russe" is the essentially Christian - and therefore not even uniquely Russian - nature of the Russian people. Russia is composed of a "social trinity" consisting of the church, government, and society. The three are, ideally, in some kind of free interaction, and no one of the three alone manifests the Russian Idea. The three ought to be like the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: "To restore on earth this true image of the Holy Trinity - that's what the Russian Idea consists of." The Russian Idea has in it "nothing exclusive or particularizing," it is "only a new aspect of the very Christian idea that, in order to fulfill this national vocation we need not act against other nations, but with them and for them. . . ." Russia is part of the "family" of nations. Russia should not envy the West, but should exist in harmony with it, in service to it, or even in subservience to it (the masochistic overtones are unmistakable here). This approach, according to Solov'ev, would promote some higher ideal which he terms "the Good." The higher, altruistic ideal is what is important, not narrow, nationalist or chauvinist interests. Such a conception applies, by the way, to any national "idea" - Italian, Spanish, French, German, etc. - not just Russian: "Peoples live and act not for their own sake or for their own material interests, but for the sake of their idea [vo imia svoei idei], that is, for the sake of that which is most important for them and necessary for the whole world, that by which they can serve it; they live not only for themselves, but for everybody."
Nowadays the "Russian Idea" is often encountered in Russian political discourse, indeed it is as commonplace as "Cossacks in full regalia on the streets of central Moscow" - to use Michael Urban's apt simile. But rarely is there any understanding of what Soloviev originally meant by it. On the contrary, the term often has clear nationalistic overtones. At the very least the Russian phrase in these discussions is usually "russkaia ideia," not "rossiiskaia ideia," which is to say that ethnic Russians are agonizing for the most part about themselves, without too much concern for the minority peoples who also happen to inhabit their country.
The semantic ramifications of the Russian Idea at the end of the twentieth century are incredibly diverse. For someone on the left like Aleksandr Yanov the Russian Idea suggests everything that is backward or uncivilized about Russia - Slavophilism, Russian messianism, Russian nationalism, anti-Semitism, hostility to the West, etc. For someone like Arsenii Gulyga on the right the Russian idea is "the dream of the collective union of humankind" ("mechta o sobornom edinstve chelovechestva"), where brotherly love and Russian imperial ambitions are somewhat difficult to distinguish. For Aleksandr Andriushkin the Russian Idea suggests: the Russian "mentality," the moral superiority of sexual sinfulness over mercenary greed, the uniqueness of Russia, the inability of foreigners to understand Russia, the self-destructiveness of Russians, the unavoidable unhappiness of Russians, the grandiosity of Russia, Moscow as the "third Rome," etc., etc.
Adding to this diversity of philosophical approaches to the Russian Idea is the empirical approach of sociologists T. I. Kutkovets and I. M. Kliamkin. Their 1996 survey isolates nine different "Russians ideas." Of these, the largest percentages (at least over 20%) of respondents in a representative Russia-wide sample subscribed to the following statements: 1) Russia should become a state, the strength and power of which is secured by the growth of the well-being of its citizens; 2) Russia should become a state with a market economy, democratic freedoms, and observance of human rights; 3) Russia should be a multinational state of equal peoples; 4) Russia should be a strong military power. Of these, item 1) scored the highest percentage of respondents (52%). Overall, the versions of the "Russian Idea" which seem to predominate in the general population are relatively liberal, while those discussed by Russian philosophers and politicians tend to be conservative.
All these items - from Soloviev's theological conception to the pollsters' results - are heterogeneous, to put it mildly. Tim McDaniel, in his recent book The Agony of the Russian Idea, says that his use of the term "Russian idea" is broader than Nikolai Berdiaev's in The Russian Idea - and Berdiaev's use was itself deliberately very broad and hard to pin down. Berdiaev, who was expelled from the Soviet Union by the Communists in 1922, would roll over in his grave if he knew that the Communists themselves have recently appropriated the term. In 1995 Communist presidential candidate Gennadii Ziuganov published a red-covered anthology titled The Contemporary Russian Idea and the Government.
Sergei Chernyshev, in one of his lengthy contributions to the Inoe collection, personifies the Russian Idea in a kind of Bakhtinian way, making it the enemy of Russian political power. Thus he declares that "the dialogue of the Russian idea with Russian power has come to a dead end," or that "for a long time Power and the Idea spoke different languages. Currently they have stopped listening to each other completely."
So, the Russian Idea is both broadly Christian and specifically Russian. It is both superior and inferior. It is both Orthodox and Communist. It is liberal and it is conservative. It can speak or be silent. And so on. In other words, the Russian Idea is everything - and therefore it is nothing. It is no wonder that the special commission appointed by President Eltsin in 1997 to develop a "national idea" came up empty-handed.
I am hardly the first to be skeptical. The indefinability, fluffiness, and even logical impossibility of the Russian Idea has provoked many. Iurii Buida writes that, "strictly speaking, nobody knows what this is," and adds that the Russian Idea is "something which never existed, but which therefore always exists." Philosopher Fedor Girenok takes a similarly oxymoronic approach: "The Russians are the Russian idea, that is to say, something which never was and which never will be. . . ."
Historian Aleksei Kiva characterizes the Russian Idea as "an empty vessel into which you can pour anything you please." Russian politicians who try to make use of the Russian Idea in their writings and speeches (e.g., Ruslan Khasbulatov) are just being opportunistic, according to Kiva. It doesn't matter how well you know your Soloviev and your Berdiaev. The Russian Idea, whatever it is, in any case is of absolutely no use in solving Russia's current economic and political problems. It smacks of mysticism, it does not even exist ("ne sushchestvuet") in Kiva's view. Russia and her problems are not special. All countries on the way to modernization and westernization, regardless of racial or ethnic makeup, have similar problems. One has to be practical, not philosophical. For Russians to harp on their uniqueness, especially now, is another way of avoiding serious economic realities. Better be careful, while there is still an opportunity. As Maksim Kantor put it: "From the Third Rome to the 'third world' is but a step."
A curious correlate to the emptiness and meaninglessness of the Russian Idea is the implicit directionality of cultural influence between Russia and the West. The full flows into the empty, and not vice-versa. If there is no substance to the Russian idea, then it should be overwhelmed by what is Western. In the nineteenth century, for example, Westernizers desired West European influence on Russian ways, while Slavophiles increasingly feared it. But there was practically no talk of Russia influencing the West, since it was assumed even by Slavophiles that Russia had little or nothing to offer the West. Russia was perceived as too empty, culturally, while the West was perceived as too full, too rich and influential. Russians could not resist the temptation to acquire, or imitate Western features. The concern (the desire, the fear) was that Russia might "become the West," not that the West would "become Russia."
In fact there was enormous cultural creativity going on in Russia in the nineteenth century. For example, in literature starting with Pushkin, in music starting with Glinka - works of a genuinely creative, non-imitative nature were being produced. There followed the likes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Chaikovsky, and so on. But, even when the West later displayed an interest in being influenced by Russia at this particular high level of culture, Russians - especially Russian nationalists - remained insecure. It still appeared that the West was the source of influence, that Russia was aping the West.
One way to combat this insecurity was to suggest that, below the glittering, attractive surface of Western life, something was terribly wrong. Here was a way to compensate for the perceived unidirectionality of influence. Official ideologists of the tsar and Russophile thinkers like Stepan Shevyrev, Vladimir Odoevskii, Ivan Kireevevskii, Konstantin Aksakov, Aleksei Khomiakov, Konstantin Leontiev, and others assured their fellow-Russians that Western Europe was diseased, decadent, rotten, soulless, and dead, spiritually. Even liberal Herzen sensed a "touch of death" on the "dilapidated organism of Europe." Russia was thus in a position of moral superiority - especially after it had already demonstrated its military superiority over Napoleonic France. A good example of this attitude is the character Faust in the epilogue of Odoevskii's Russian Nights (1844):
Great is our calling, and difficult will be the exploit! It is we who must revive everything! To enter [vpisat'] our spirit into the history of the human mind, just as our name has been inscribed in the annals of victory. Another, higher victory - the victory of science, art, and faith - awaits us upon the ruins of decrepit Europe.
But it was not until after the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 and the appearance of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918-22) that there was there any serious talk in Russia of an awakened, vital Russia influencing Western Europe rather than vice-versa. The reversal, moreover, was only temporary. The West did not rot away, after all, but thrived, while Soviet Russia was forever having to catch up ("dognat' i peregnat'," to quote the cliché based on an utterance of Lenin's).
To this day Russian nationalists protest against the unidirectionality of influence between Russia and Western Europe. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, for example, suggests: "On its own merits, the idea of joining up with Europe [vpisat'sia v Evropu] is perhaps not bad. But the thing is, when some state enters into a community of states, this DOES NOT MEAN a one-way street." In other words: "If Russia is to join Europe, then not only should Russia be Europeanized, Europe should be Russianized [obruset'] as well. But this is the sticking point." Zhirinovsky does not explain just how Europe might be "Russianized" in such a partnership. He does say that Europe - or the West generally - is too arrogant to make adjustments for Russia. The West is guilty of narcissism ("samovliublennost'"). Better, then, to "spit" ("pliunut'") on the West and forget about it.
But Russians cannot forget. They have never quite gotten over Chaadaev's blunt assertion that they have "a culture based wholly on borrowing or imitation," and that they constitute a "void in the intellectual sphere." This feeling of cultural emptiness was particularly acute among the educated, newly-Westernized intelligentsia of the early nineteenth century. But even later, and even among those with a Slavophile bent, such a sentiment was occasionally expressed. In 1871 nationalist Nikolai Danilevskii, perhaps inadvertently, referred to Russian cultural emptiness when he was discussing the "huge advantage which the national, Russian element has over the personal, individual element" in Russians:
Thus while the Englishman, the German, or the Frenchman, having ceased being an Englishman, a German, or a Frenchman, nonetheless keeps sufficient moral foundations in order to remain a personality noteworthy in one or another respect, the Russian, having ceased being Russian, turns into a nothing, a useless rag [obrashchaetsia v nichto - v negodnuiu triapku], as everyone no doubt knows from numerous examples which require no special comment.
What Danilevskii seems to have in mind are those Russians who permit themselves to be Westernized, who engage in an aping of European ways ("Evropeinichan'e"), for example, by participating in political parties. Starting as Russians, these people by definition have little in the way of individual identity, i.e., they owe their identity to their Russian collective. Losing that collective by becoming Europeanized, however, they now are reduced to the "nothing" which they were as individual Russians. This would seem to be a rather self-defeating idea for a nationalist like Danilevskii to come up with. It suggests that being Russian is itself a rather empty experience.
In an 1802 essay titled "On the Love of the Fatherland and on National Pride" proto-Slavophile Nikolai Karamzin criticizes fellow-gentry who speak French better than Russian and who do not respect themselves as Russians:
Everything has a limit and a measure: man and nation alike begin always with imitation; but in time they must become themselves, in order to be able to say: I exist morally! We possess now so much knowledge and taste that we have no need to ask: how do they live in Paris and London? What do they wear there, what do they ride, and how do they furnish their homes? A patriot hastens to adapt to his fatherland all that is beneficial and useful, but he rejects slavish imitation in trivialities, offensive to national pride. One needs and one ought to learn: but woe to both the nation and the man who remain eternal pupils!
The fellow-Russians Karamzin is complaining about are just these "eternal pupils," slavish imitators who have not yet "become themselves." Paradoxically, their Russianness seems to consist wholly of their ability to draw into themselves what is not Russian. Their Russianness itself would seem to be rather empty.
If the Russian Idea is indeed "an empty vessel" which "does not exist," as Kiva says, then perhaps it ought to be classified among those concepts and practices whereby Russians have traditionally deceived themselves, such as the Potemkin village in Catherine's time, or the rich tradition of royal imposters, or the show trials, fake harvest figures, pseudo-science (Lysenko, Marr), socialist "realism," and other misrepresentational practices of the Soviet period. Dissidents Viktoria and Mikhail Schweitzer observed that lying was a way of life in the Soviet Union, and quoted novelist Vasilii Grossman as saying: "All Soviet life is a huge theatrical scene."
There is also the native Russian tradition of regarding attempts to synthesize West European with Russian cultural practices as deceptive. Ivan Aksakov spoke of the "Russian lie" ("russkaia lozh'") which resulted from changes in post-Petrine Russia, and K. Kavelin wrote of the "whole world of fantasies and mirages" which emerged after Peter. Likewise Ivan Turgenev's character Litvinov characterized everything Russian as unreal, as phantasmagoric, as "smoke" ("dym") in an 1867 novel of that title ("smoke and mirrors" would be the roughly equivalent English notion). Deception was especially evident in the lives of royalty and members of the court, where, according to Richard Wortman, elaborate "scenarios of power" were enacted which produced "the illusion of the foreign and superordinate."
Foreigners as well as native Russians noticed the artificiality and deceptiveness of certain Russian practices. The French Marquis Astolphe de Custine was particularly caustic in the impressions he received on his 1839 visit: "The Russians have only names for everything, but there is nothing in reality. Russia is a country of facades." In effect there are two Russias ("dve natsii") in de Custine's opinion: "one of these nations is the Russia as she is in reality, the other is the Russia as they would like her to seem to Europe." As for Russians themselves: "Russians don't want so much to become really civilized as to try to seem so to us."
But the problem is not just a result of papering over Russian reality with Western signifying practices. The problem is also intrinsically Russian (which is not to say it is exclusively Russian). Mikhail Epstein, a leading spokesman of Russian postmodernism today, advances the notion that Russia is a land of semblances and specters. Following French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, Epstein says that, in Russia, "models of reality replace reality itself, which then becomes irrecoverable." There is a shortage of reality in Russia. Russia is not a civilization in the Western sense, but a "very plausible and impressive simulacrum of civilization." Postmodernism, it seems, is not the exclusive property of the West:
Almost all investigators of postmodernism cite America as a wonderland in which fantasies become more real than reality itself. America is not alone in this, however. Russia . . . also developed as a dream realized in actuality. It is curious that when Nikita Khrushchev came to the United States in 1959, one of the first things he wanted to see was Disneyland. My guess is that he wanted to learn whether Americans had succeeded in creating as perfect a simulation of reality as the Soviet model, in which Khrushchev himself and all his predecessors, both tsars and general secretaries, were such skilled masters.
The proclivity for creating certain illusions is thus a cross-cultural fact. There is something of Walt Disney in Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev.
I would add, however, that ordinary people, not just creative people or political leaders are needed to keep cultural illusions alive. For example, millions accepted the idea that Stalin was "Father, Leader, Friend, and Teacher," that "Stalin raised us," that Stalin was "the soaring of our youth," etc. To this day the sacred myth of Pushkin as an unambivalent patriot lives among Russians of all ages, as has been demonstrated by Yuri Druzhnikov. It takes ordinary people to sustain such illusions, to both interpret and accept the Russian placards pasted upon Russian reality. So it would make sense to consider how illusions come into existence in ordinary people. Here we have to go beyond the space where the illusions themselves are kept and catalogued, that is, the cultural space (folklore, Slavophilism, Westernism, modernism, postmodernism, conceptualism, socialist realism, etc.). We have to investigate the minds which collaborate to concoct such a space in the first place. Here I think psychoanalysis (and not merely "Freudianism") can be of help.

Imagining Russia     Previous Chapter;     Next Chapter     "Panorama"

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