Thursday, April 24, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Language and Culture Not History ‘Main Unifying Factors’ for Russians, Valdai Club Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 24 – The Russian language and Russian culture are today “the main unifying factor[s]” for the citizens of the Russian Federation, unlike history which continues to be a source of divisions given that different groups have different understandings of past events, according to the Valdai International Discussion Club.

            The Moscow Higher School of Economics has summarized the club’s discussions on this point last fall in a new report entitled “National Identity and the Future of Russia.” Yesterday, Olga Vandysheva discussed its contents in an article on the “Expert Online” portal (

            In addition to the group’s conclusions about the relative utility of language and culture, on the one hand, and history, on the other, the report suggested that “the potential of a factor like the tradition of defending the country from eternal or internal enemies is also exhausted” because “people are tired of conflicts.”

            And the report continued, the enormous size of the country, “which could become a colossal resource for strengthening national identity, is not viewed by the majority of Russians as a source of identity,” even though the country’s size and wealth “exert an enormous influence on national character.”

            At the presentation of the report this week, Igor Makarov, who teaches at the Higher School of Economics, said Russians think about the size of their country “abstractly” because “very often, not having the feeling of being a master in their own country, people do not understand what they can love.” That explains, he said, the lack of patriotism in some groups.

            Valery Tishkov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, commented that few were prepared to accept the idea he and others began to propound in the early 1990s that “the Russian Federation is a multi-ethnic civic nation.” Skeptics dismissed it as something Yeltsin had dreamed up and that only ethnic groups could be nations.

            That has left Russia in an “anomalous” position, he continued. It has all the features of a nation but does not have a nation as such. Thus, the ethnographer said, he welcomed the new report’s recognition of the non-ethnic Russian [rossiiskaya] nation as having its own identity and self-consciousness.”

            Irina Khakamade, a member of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, said that it was important to stress that there is “no contradiction” between liberalism and patriotism, despite what many think, but she added that linking the national self-identification of Russians to the defense of the country as many do was out of date.

            Vandysheva quotes the report: While the defense of the country has long been part of Russian identity, “it is incorrect to define this cult of force as a manifestation of aggressiveness or a desire to beat the weak ...  Today the psychology of living in a besieged fortress inherited from Soviet times is [still] strong ... [but Russia] has overcome” the sense of weakness of the 1990s.

            Khakamda said that the current understanding of patriotism is “closely connected with geopolitical thinking: our country is large and we will be happy if it will be still larger.” She said she doesn’t accept this line of thought because expansionism is being used to distract attention from problems at home.

            “The most important thing,” she said, “is not a large territory but that the state in dealing with it creates good conditions for the individual” by establishing a meritocracy.

            Leonty Byzov of the Moscow Institute of Sociology said that already ten years ago, his surveys found that Russians closely link patriotism and social justice. He said that Russians had experienced “a crisis of identity” in the 1990s and looked to the strengthening of the state as a means to overcoming that problem.

            But the sociologist said that he “does not see imperial ideas” behind that trend. “Those values are not popular. On the contrary, people are extremely negative about various diasporas” and not to the Ukrainians.  “These are not characteristics of an imperial nation.” Rather, he said, they point to “a strengthening of the idea of a nation state” consisting of “ethnic Russians and those people who are integrated in the frameworks of the Russian project.”

            Russians have “a paternalistic consciousness,” he continued. They want a strong state but the state must be just and “defend the interests of ordinary people”

            The Higher School of Economics report stressed that Russian values have changed over the past several decades. “Now,” it says, “material well-being and consumption are in first place in the system of values.”  That has the effect of undermining spiritual values, Khakamada suggested.

            Byzov agreed. “The communal mentality has passed into history. Now people live in an atomized way and the impact of social ties is extremely limited” beyond one’s immediate family and friends. Few are prepared to sacrifice very much for the state or for any broader values, he said his studies showed.

            The sociologist concluded that “Russians often stress their distinctiveness” from others, but he suggested that this should not be exaggerated, especially now.  Both Russia and the West are consumer societies, he said, adding that when Russians say their country is not part of Europe or Asia, one needs to remember that Asia and China are “rapidly westernizing.”

            Consequently, he said, the opposition between East and West “is losing its meaning because the East is ceasing to be the East and the West the West.  Mass culture, connected with a common information space is overwhelming the traditional differences  in mentality.”

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