A perpetual search of what is in Russia called the National Idea dates back to the Middle Ages, when after the failure of Constantinople an influential Orthodox monk, Philotheus of Pskov, proclaimed Moscow "the third Rome - and a fourth there will never be." This dictum served as a national idea until Tsar Nicholas I replaced it in the 19th century with the triad Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. This new national idea was quite vague to many Russians which made Count Alexander Benkendorf, the chief of the secret police, to issue clarifying interpretive guidelines: "Russia's past was amazing, its present is more than marvellous, and as for the future, it is greater than anything the wildest imagination could picture; that is the point of view for examining and writing Russian history." Nicholas I's formula proved so durable that it was adopted by Joseph Stalin in the 1940s by modifying the triad into Marxism, Iron Rule and Nationality (Volkov, 2002).
After the collapse of the Soviet Union Russians found themselves in an ‘ideological vacuum’. In June 1996 the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin, made a public call on intelligentsia to find a new national idea - a shared ideology - that would replace the one lost when Communist dogma was shattered (Wines, 2002). The call was timely: by June 1996 a tangled knot of unsolved social and political problems had been formed that might have led to another putsch. Yeltsin attempted to distract people’s attention from everyday struggling for survival to discussing a new overarching project that would make the nation become ‘a ‘faith-achievement’ group, able to surmount obstacles and hardships’ (Smith, 1991:16-17).
Russian intelligentsia answered Yeltsin’s call by setting up numerous conferences typically called ‘On the Main Principles of National Idea’. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a leading Russian newspaper targeted at intellectuals, launched a special supplement NG Scenarios – an ideological ‘laboratory’ where national idea and future scenarios for Russia started to be created. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a leading national pro-governmental newspaper, announced a contest ‘Idea for Russia’. Those who would create the most popular national idea were promised financial remuneration (equivalent to $3000 at that time).
The discussion of ‘ideas for Russia’ gained a significant prominence in the country’s political landscape. Although the ideological discourse on the pages of the national press sometimes ‘resembled the discussion of physics with lyric poets’ it was, arguably, ‘the only true large discussion over the recent years’ in Russia (Rubtsov, 1997). However, instead of moving towards creating one common vision of Russia’s future the national idea, thanks to this ‘rigorous search’, it has been fragmented into several irreconcilable concepts. It made Yeltsin to claim during his last year in power that it was useless to ‘think up some abstract national ideas’ (Yeltsin, 1999).
Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, put the concept of the national idea back on the political agenda, using the same argument of the need to fill the ‘ideological vacuum’ in the country. "I am convinced, he said in March 2000, that reaching the necessary level of growth is not just an economic problem. It is also a political problem and in a sense - I'm not afraid to use this word - an ideological problem. That is, an idea problem, a spiritual problem, a moral problem." (Reynolds, 2000). Putin was less hesitant than Yeltsin to lead the discussion of a national vision for Russia.
After Putin was elected President he ceased to give away the fixed recipes of national idea. In fact, in his address to the Russian Parliament in July 2000 Putin repeated Yeltsin’s statement of ‘no need to think up any abstract national ideas’. However, he did not hesitate to name the ‘fundamental features’ of national idea which in his opinion were state power, patriotism and social solidarity’ (Volkova, 2001). Also, Putin showed outstanding confidence in the perspective of the emergence of the national idea without any help from the state (Putin, 2000).
The nation-wide discussion was again on the rise but then quickly to the same result: emergence of a few irreconcilable concepts. The discussion subsided and died away quietly in 2003.
In February 2016, enjoying unprecedented support of the Russian population and on the background of rising patriotic sentiment, President Vladimir Putin claimed he considers ‘patriotism’ the only national idea in Russia (The Moscow Times, 04.02.2016). Putin publicly called for a nation-wide discussion once again.
Whether this discussion will lead to anything unifying is yet to be seen. In the meantime we will try and conceptualize the national idea in Russia.
At best the idea of the nation has appeared sketchy and elusive, at worst absurd and contradictory.
What is the relation between the notion of ‘national idea’, so widely used in contemporary Russia, and ‘national identity’, a term which is more familiar to European and American scholars? Are they interchangeable? There is no simple answer to these questions. A search of three major Russian broad-sheets Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Kommersant in the period of the most active public discussion of a unifying concept for Russia (from 1996 to 2003) yielded 36 articles mentioning ‘national identity’ and 753 articles mentioning ‘national idea’. As it is clearly seen, the notion of ‘national idea’ is a way more popular in the Russian press than that of ‘national identity’. A quick analysis of the articles revealed that in overwhelming majority of cases ‘national identity’ is mentioned in reference either to European countries or to former Soviet republics seeking to re-establish contacts with Europe (Ukrainian ‘national identity’ in the context of Ukraine’s relations with the West has been mentioned six times). On the contrary, the majority of articles mentioning ‘national idea’ refer to inner Russian problems of finding a unifying idea that would fill in the ‘ideological vacuum’ resulted from the collapse of Communist ideology and serve as a basis for societal integration in the country. Only in very few articles authors used terms ‘national idea’ and ‘national identity’ interchangeably in the same context.
The vagueness of the publicly recognised similarity or difference, if any, between ‘national idea’ and ‘national identity’ in Russia complicates the implementation of the research. Nonetheless, I will attempt to theoretically define national idea in its relation to national identity by drawing on contemporary concepts of nation and national identity as well as Russian philosophy and media representations of Russian idea.
Nation as an ‘imagined’ community
There is no generally accepted definition of a nation. Peter Alter (1985, p.19), for example, questions the very possibility of a systematic definition of the term. According to Bauboeck numerous ‘subjective definitions of nations… tautologically determine in advance what is to be explained – the formation of a national idea of community’ (1991, p. 43). This socially psychological understanding of the nation as shared mental constructs of those who constitute the nation was first developed by Benedict Anderson who proposed to define the nation as ‘an imagined political community’ (1983). Nations are imagined, says Anderson:
because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them; yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…The nation is imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign… Imagined as limited, because even the largest of them has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations… Imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.
(Anderson, 1983: 15-16)
Anderson argues that the nation is to be imagined as a community stretching through time, with its own national history, which is no ones else’s, and its own future. It is ‘imagined across space, embracing the inhabitants of a particular territory’ (Billig, 1995).
The process of ‘thinking up’ a nation is a complex one. Poole writes that ‘when we imagine the nation we do not merely construct an object of consciousness, but we also form a conception of ourselves as existing in relation to that object’ (1999). If the nation is an imagined community, it is simultaneously a form of identity, which exists as a mode of individual self- and other-awareness.
In an argument similar to Anderson’s, Stuart Hall describes nations as ‘systems of cultural representations (1996, p. 612) through which an imagined community is interpreted: ‘People are not legal citizens of a nation; they participate in the idea of the nation as represented in its national culture. A nation is a symbolic community’ (ibid).
For Stuart Hall a national culture is a discourse – a way of constructing meanings which influence and organize both our actions and our conception of ourselves.
Anderson’s and Hall’s ‘subjective’ ways of conceiving nationhood are, however, an oversimplification. According to Billig ‘psychological identity, on its own, is not the driving force of history, pushing nation-states in their present shapes. National identities are forms of social life, rather than internal psychological states; as such, they are ideological creations, caught up in the historical processes of nationhood’ (1995: 70).
National identity as a discursive construct and a form of life
Taking into account Anderson’s and Hall’s arguments and Billig’s criticism we may disperse the concept of national identity into two important elements. On the one hand an identity is not a thing; it is a description for ways of talking about the self and the national community. On the other hand these ideological discourses do not develop in social vacuums, but they are related to forms of life (Billig, 1995). Thus, national identity is both a discursive construct and a form of social life.
From cultural and social perspective fundamental features of national identity (Smith, 1991: 14) are:
An historic territory or homeland.
Common myths and historical memories.
A common, mass public culture.
Common legal rights and duties for all members.
A common economy with territorial mobility for members.
A discursive construction of national identify has been the object of various scholarly studies (see, for instance, Bhabha, 1990; Hall, 1996a; Kolakowski, 1995; Martin-Barbero, 1988; Parker et al., 1992; Schlesinger, 1991a; Wodak et al, 1999). From a discursive perspective elements of national identity may be described in the following way:
The vague idea of a national spirit which expresses itself in certain cultural forms of life and particular collective manners of behaviour, especially in moments of crisis. It is a metaphysical entity that floats in the minds of many people (Kolakowski 1995, p.54).
Historical memory. It is not important whether the content of historical memory is true, partly true or legendary. The further into the past the real of imaginary memories reach, the more securely nation identity is supported.
The foundational myth or myth of origin has a great significance in the invention of a national culture. The origin of a nation is often set so far back in time that it is lost in the fog of time and becomes a legend (Hall, 1996a).
Anticipation and future orientation. ‘A nation is just as future oriented as person; both worry about what may become of them, both try to survive and to make preparations for potential adversity, both think of their future interests’ (Kolakowski 1995, p.54).
Imagining the national homeland. ‘The imagining of ‘a country’ involves the imagining of a bounded totality beyond immediate experience of space’. (Billig, 1995).
Although parts of the above dissection of categories of national identity may seem problematic the division as such, in my opinion, possesses a certain degree of plausibility.
Conceptualising national idea
Commonsensically, based on its representation in the Russian press, national idea may be defined as formulation of the bonds that members of a population should share (Sperling, 2003).
According to Dostoevsky, who was first to coin the term ‘Russian idea’ in his journal Vremya in 1861, and based on the works of such Russian philosophers as Solovyov and Berdyaev, national idea may be described as a shared understanding of a common vision for the country in its past, present and future.
In this respect we may link national idea with the notion of national identity as a discursive construct. In doing so we may observe that in Russia the idea of the nation is experiencing major disjunctures, such as:
The vague idea of a national spirit is in a state of turmoil due to interruption of traditions, persecution of religion and inculcation of communist values under the Soviet regime that fell not quite long ago (in terms of a human lifetime) leaving people in ‘ideological vacuum’.
Individual and common historical memory is also going through a major overhaul that sometimes involves a complete re-consideration of Soviet and pre-revolutionary history.
The myth of origin is also being reconsidered in a new light. For example, in line with a ‘new orthodox tradition’ the origin of the nation is attributed divine characteristics.
Anticipation and future orientation is one of the main concerns of Russian people, who yearn for predictability in the present state of economic uncertainty and political muddle.
Imagining the national homeland is also fraught with major difficulties since many Russians, especially elder generation, were brought up in the tradition of imperial thinking.
These disjunctures are, for example, manifested in the confusion of Russians’ identification of themselves as a people. Depending on the political context and different understanding of the above elements of the discursive construction of national identity Russians may call themselves: ‘Russkie’ or ‘Rossiyane’. Ethnic ‘Russkiy’ has been formed from ancient Rus’. A word-formation ‘Rossiyanin’ is based on the word ‘Rossia’ imported from the West by Pyotr I. ‘Rossiyanin’ was re-introduced by the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin to emphasise non-ethnic, political nature of the Russian state.
National idea as a temporally fluid multi-dimensional construct
The discursive construct of national identity, revolves around the three temporal axes of the past, the present and the future. National identities, therefore, are not just imagined or assumed once, but are continually reinvented. For Schlesinger national identities should not be seen as fixed and static, ‘rather, national identities are continually reconstituted through strategies of exclusion and inclusion in the face of perceived threats from without and within’ (Schlesinger, 1991b: 299–300).
It is a delusion to believe that people belong to a solid and unchanging collective unit because of a specific national history which they supposedly have in common, and that as a consequence they may feel ‘obliged to act and react as a group when they are threatened’ (Wodak et al, 1999). Given the assumption of homogeneity and constancy, the term in this case cannot do sufficient justice to the complexity of the relationships in a real world. According to Martin (1995), due attention must be paid to the dynamic, relational complexity of identificational processes.
National idea should thus be viewed as an ever-changing concept, influenced by internal and external events, ‘constantly evolving, often as a result of contradictory experiences’ (Hall, 1983). That is why in our analysis it is important to take into account political and social context in every particular stage of the discussion of national idea. The evolution of the discussion is bound to follow the external and internal transformation of social life which brings us back to Billig’s remark that ideological discourses do not develop in social vacuums (1995) and are contingent on institutional and other social conditions in a given period.
For Smith (1991) ‘a national identity is fundamentally multi-dimensional; it can never be reduced to a single element, even by particular factions of nationalists, nor can it be easily or swiftly induced in a population by artificial means’. Therefore, in an essential sense there is no such thing as one national idea. I believe rather that different ideas are constructed, according to audience, setting, topic and substantive content.
National idea in the state- and nation-building processes
National idea, especially conceptually coherent in the form of ideology, does not simply contribute to formation of national identity; it may also regulate social practices. Both Hall (1981) and van Dijk (1998) support the view that ideologies organize, maintain and stabilise particular forms of power and dominance (Hall, 1981). Ideologies are capable of ‘ironing out’ the contradictions, dilemmas, and antagonisms of practices in ways that are consistent with the interests and projects of domination (Chouliaraki and Fairclough, 1999). Eurasianism in Russia may be seen as an example of an ideology. It upholds the supremacy of Eurasian values as opposed to Western values.
If the state seizes upon or imposes national idea in the form of ideology it may have a cascade of negative effects on the prospects for democracy in that state. If nations or nationalities, in their turn, form and agree on their national ideas, their next logical step will be to use or obtain state power to ‘fix’ them. In this sense the nation and the state may become each other’s project: ‘while nations (groups with ideas about nationhood) seek to capture states and state power, states simultaneously seek to capture and monopolise ideas about nationhood’ (Appadurai, 1990). Accordingly, paraphrasing Cameron (1999: 15), many powerful political entities have engaged in the construction of ‘appropriate’ national identities and many nations have sought political power in order to protect or reconstruct their identities. This game is unavoidable in modern states. However, as soon as the game is over or identity crisis is ‘resolved’ and a certain ideology is proclaimed to be dominant, it may ‘lead to nationalism making people surrender their own liberties and curtail those of others’ (Smith, 1991) or what Arjun Appadurai calls ‘predatory nationalism’ (2000: 131). National ‘overidentification’ may manifest itself at its ‘crassest level in the undistanced oversocialisation of entire peoples under charismatic leaders in ideological systems. It is the source of the most and the worst crimes against humanity’ (Saner, 1986: 50)
On the other hand, if there is too much disagreement on a common vision for the country’s past, its present and future, state- and nation-building processes may eventually disintegrate. That is why ‘the appeal to national identity has become the main legitimation for social order and solidarity today’ (Smith, 1991: 16).
Appadurai (2000: 130-131) sees three major problems connected with state and nation relations today: the problem of legitimation pertaining to some ‘durable form of consent to a state or regime’; the problem of integration, which is essentially the problem of power and procedure; and the problem of what Appadurai calls ‘full attachment’ (or patriotism, in more common terms), which appeals more strongly for modern citizens ‘to their hearts and minds than the ideas of popular sovereignty and human rights’ (Habermas, 1998).
Whereas legitimation is connected with ‘the issues of consent, compliance and the procedural recognition of the modern state by its citizens’ (Appadurai, 2000: 130), full attachment involves a mobilization of patriotic feelings which can make people ‘die or kill’ for their nation.
Scholarship explores the ways in which people become mobilised into ‘die or kill’ state for the sake of their Motherland (Gordy 1999; Goldhagen 1996; Gourevitch 1998). The idea of patriotism in contemporary Russia is important, because the content of patriotism may well determine in which direction (civic or ethnic) the Russian national idea may turn (Sperling, 2003), especially taking into account the growth of patriotic feelings in Russia over the last two-three years.
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Articles under analysis:
‘Putin Declares Patriotism Russia's Only National Idea’ (2016), The Moscow Times, 4 February
‘Putin reminds that "patriotism drastically differs from nationalism" (2016), Itar-TASS, 7 April
Voronkov, L. (1998) ‘...A ring Does Not Have an End or a Beginning’, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 11 April