Russian friends and acquaintances often tell me, “Nina, you have a Russian soul. That’s why you get along with us so well.” I’m not certain what components of my personality contribute to the Russian part of my soul, though. Does my love of the arts play a role? My interest in history or literature? What about my undying devotion to sour cream?
Russians balk at defining the elusive concept, simply branding me as “one of theirs (svoi chelovek).” Their hesitation is understandable; how can they define the Russian characteristics in me without first defining their own national identity?
The enigma of Russian identity dominated a discussion on Russian and American national identity in the modern world, sponsored by the Valdai Discussion Club and Georgetown University.
The comparison of two societies which viewed each other as the ultimate foe for the better part of a century may be unexpected, but some major similarities between the states exist. They are both multi-ethnic (Russia boasts of over 100 different nationalities). To varying degrees, they are both multi-confessional. And they are both geographically large. Yet thanks to historical narratives, the paths to national identity in the United States and Russia have very different end points; while Russia faces a “crisis of identity,” belief in American exceptionalism persists even in the face of crisis.
Discussants described Russia as a state “without identity,” focused more on the effects of history on its identity than actively shaping its identity for the future. While the main components of Russian identity are understood as its state, territorial, ideological, and religious identities, none of these components are universally understood by the population. The lack of consistent historical narrative over the past 100 years has befuddled Russia’s place and purpose. Whether the Russian Federation a successor state to the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire, whether the RF is Orthodox or multi-confessional in practice as well as in rhetoric, and whether the country has a system of governance similar to a western-style democracy or an energy superpower has caused Russians to throw up their hands and construct no coherent identity for the Russian state in the 21st century.
Instead, Russians profess that though they understand themselves poorly, they are certain that Russia is a unique state that must define its own future without advice or influence from abroad. Russian elites view the country an independent, influential, highly developed, multinational state (in which ethnic Russians play an important and irreplaceable role), with strong central rule, rule of law, and social justice. In light of its splintered national identity, whether the Russian Federation will ever achieve this image of itself remains to be seen.
Notably lacking from Russia’s conception of its identity are views on the importance of balance of power, representation in democratic bodies, the importance of an opposition, and human rights, all of which figure prominently into the United States’ perception of its identity. According to a variety of sources, Americans understand their country’s success primarily as a result of its institutions and the freedoms they protect.
The importance of a single historical narrative cannot be underestimated in the American case. Though the United States is a young nation, its identity was conceived in 1776 and maintained and bolstered in the years to come. As discussants pointed out, simply because we often question whether government continues to uphold the principles that contribute to our identity does not make our American identity any less true.
While the American narrative has shaped and solidified our identity, a century of institutional changes, each heralding the opposite of what came before it, has left Russia asking “What is the Russian identity?” Though as participants agreed, that question is as central to Russian identity as Russia itself.