MacArthur's Igor Zevelev on Russia's Future
December 2009 | Commentary

Originally published in the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, Director of MacArthur's Russia office Igor Zevelev argues that Russian identity will grow out of the existing historical legacies and deep-rooted cultural traditions, which at the same time adjusting itself for a new vector of global development. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union did not resolve the “national question” for Russians. Rather, this event gave birth to the question. For the first time in centuries, millions of people who consider themselves Russian have found themselves separated by political borders and now have to live in several neighboring states. Since 1992, Russia’s policy towards ethnic Russians living abroad has been built as a cautious and moderate response to this challenge. Russia did not support irredentist sentiments in the Crimea, northern Kazakhstan and other places where ethnic Russians live in compact communities. Russia made the first attempt to protect its citizens and compatriots abroad by military force in August 2008 in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where ethnic Russians make up only about two percent of the local population. Does this mean that the ethnic factor does not play a significant role in Russia’s perceptions and policy vis-à-vis the post-Soviet space? Can the situation change in the future?

The attitude to the fact that about a quarter of Russians live outside Russia, of whom more than a half live in neighboring states, may become a major factor in the development of Russia’s national identity and the system of international relations in Eurasia in the 21st century.

There are two main approaches to the “Russian question” in Russia now. The first is a radical nationalist discourse on a “divided nation,” which, however, does not have a strong impact on concrete policies. The second approach embraces moderate concepts of “the diaspora” and “the Russian world,” as well as the governmental policy towards “compatriots.” If we place these two approaches in a broader context of the formation of Russian identity over the last two centuries, then we can say that they reflect the traditional coexistence of two principles – ethno-national and supranational.

After the Soviet Union’s disintegration, it seemed that many factors created favorable conditions for strengthening the ethnic awareness of Russians and their leading role in the formation of a new national identity of Russia. Russians, who now make up about 80 percent of the country’s population (compared with 43 percent in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century and 50 percent in the Soviet Union), are an absolutely dominating ethnic group in the country for the first time in the last two centuries. Russian ethnic nationalism received a strong intellectual impetus from the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was the first great thinker to challenge the supranational tradition in its imperial form. The deep economic crisis of the 1990s and the difficulties faced by ethnic Russians in neighboring nationalizing states created prerequisites for political mobilization around this issue. The inflow of migrants to big Russian cities during the last decade has provoked the spread of xenophobic attitudes and extremist groups. 

However, Russian ethnic nationalism has not become a serious force in Russia yet and it does not have any significant impact on the country’s policy towards neighboring states. Supranational aspects of Russian identity in various forms (imperial, Soviet, civilizational and universalist) continue to play a significant role. Why? Can the situation change in the foreseeable future? What international implications can there be in this case?


The experience of other countries has shown that it is usually ethno-nationalists that start building a nation-state on the ruins of an empire. Kemalist Turkey began its experiment with the construction of a nation-state with genocide and the expulsion of Armenian, Greek and Kurdish minorities. Austrians welcomed the Anschluss after having lived for twenty years in a small post-imperial state. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Croatia began to display aggressive nationalism and tried to redraw the post-Yugoslavian political map. All former Soviet republics harbored ethno-political myths that depicted the state as the motherland of an indigenous people. In all these cases, such views grew out of traditions of historical romanticism, which suggest that humankind can be neatly divided into nations, and historically or ethnically predetermined nations have certain sacred rights.

Due to a number of historical factors, Russia emerged on the debris of the Soviet Union as an immature nation with a surprisingly low level of self-consciousness and without any mass national movement. This was its fundamental distinction from the other former Soviet republics, in particular from the Baltic States, Georgia and Armenia.

For centuries, there were no clear-cut and historically substantiated criteria in the minds of Russians that would let them distinguish between “us” and “them.” The unclear situation with the Russian people’s boundaries was an important factor that shaped the historical development of Eurasia for at least three centuries and that facilitated the construction of a giant empire.

The Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union, were territorially integral entities, like the Hapsburg or the Ottoman empires: there were no natural boundaries between the center and the periphery. In Russia and then the Soviet Union, it was not some central territory but the capital – first St. Petersburg and then Moscow – that performed the function of the center. It was the geographical factor that played an important role in the formation of Russia’s national identity. Its main feature was a combination of closely intertwined ethnic and imperial components. Importantly, the Russian Empire took shape before the modern Russian national identity developed. For centuries, the Russian elite was more interested in expanding the empire’s frontiers than in strengthening the national identity.

The lack of clear-cut boundaries between the empire and its Russian core allowed some analysts to conclude that there was no dominant ethnic group in Russia: all groups, including Russians, were subjects of the imperial center. This view, which at first glance serves as a self-justification for Russians, plays a crucial role in their post-Soviet consciousness. There is no political force in today’s Russia that would view the empire as an instrument for advancing the interests of Russians at the expense of other peoples. This factor is in sharp contrast with the ideology and official historiography of other newly independent states. More importantly, it reflects the belief, deeply rooted in the post-Soviet Russian mind, that the empire was a burden for Russians (Alexander Solzhenitsyn), or that it served the interests of all peoples (Gennady Zyuganov), or that it was an evil for all because of its Communist nature during the Soviet period (liberals).

Another factor that until recently held back the formation of mass Russian nationalism is the commonality of the cultural, linguistic and historical roots of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and, therefore, the lack of clear-cut boundaries between the East Slavs. For centuries, this circumstance caused the Russian elite to “soften” its nationalism, just as the existence of the “home empire” (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) in the United Kingdom suppressed English nationalism.

Another factor that played an important role in weakening Russian nationalism was the concept of  “the Soviet people” and the realities that supported it. Children of mixed marriages, people who lived far away from their “historical homeland,” and Russians in large cities – all these categories proved to be particularly receptive to this concept. Russians took it more willingly than other ethnic groups, because to be “Soviet” indirectly meant being a Russian-speaker and acknowledging the “civilizing” mission of Russian culture and its extraterritorial nature throughout the entire Soviet Union.

Theoretically, the “Soviet people” concept in the Soviet Union and the “melting-pot” idea in the U.S. had much in common. (The American concepts of “multiculturalism” and “diversity” also had their ideological cousins in the Soviet Union – the concept of “the free union of flourishing nations.”)

Some nationalists complained that the imperial role deprived Russians of their ethnic identity. Slavophile writers expressed concern that “Soviet patriotism” destroyed Russian national consciousness and complained that residents of Russian cities increasingly often described themselves as “Soviet people.” It has become fashionable nowadays to dismiss the existence of realities that were behind the emergence of the “Soviet people” concept; however, this concept adequately reflected some tendencies (such as amalgamation of peoples and the formation of a new community), although it ignored some other phenomena (for example, national awakening, primarily among non-Russian peoples).

State institutions facilitate nation-building. In the 20th century, nations were mostly created by states, not vice versa. Ethnic Russians viewed the entire Soviet Union as their native land, which was in sharp contrast with other ethnic groups, for whom only their own ethnic republic was their homeland. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) within the Soviet Union lacked many characteristics that other Soviet republics had. The imperial center had merged with the ethnic Russian center. The RSFSR did not have its own capital, nor a Communist Party of its own (until 1990), or its own membership in the UN (unlike Ukraine and Belarus). The underdevelopment of the Russian national identity and the vague boundaries of the Russian people were largely due to the institutional weakness of the RSFSR.

Throughout the Soviet history – from Vladimir Lenin to Mikhail Gorbachev, there was a common political denominator, which significantly weakened the formation of Russian ethnic self-consciousness, erasing more and more its difference from the supranational consciousness; this denominator was the struggle waged by all Soviet regimes – albeit not always consistently – against Russian nationalism. The systematic restriction of Russian nationalism was the price that the Soviet leadership was ready to pay for the preservation of the multinational state.

Unarticulated Russian national consciousness is a key factor that explains why the Soviet Union broke up so peacefully, especially if compared with the bloody disintegration of another communist federation – Yugoslavia, where most Serbs had a clearer idea of their national identity. Perhaps, a Russia without clear-cut historical and cultural boundaries was the only peaceful solution to the “Russian question” after the Soviet Union’s breakup. It may sound paradoxical but inconsistent and muddled relations between Moscow and the republics constituting the Russian Federation, as well as moderate and sometimes highly inefficient policies towards ethnic Russians living in the post-Soviet space, proved to be favorable factors for ensuring security in Eurasia during the transition period in the first post-Soviet years. Attempts to work out a clear approach to nation-state building could have resulted in a catastrophe, as they would inevitably have caused a revision of Russia’s political borders. It should be added that Russia’s political elite has often conducted unintelligible policies over the last 18 years; however, these policies have proven to be salutary – not due to the elite’s wisdom but because of its utter weakness and inability to clearly formulate the country’s national interests.


Mass-based nationalism usually follows the nationalization of the elite. For a century and a half, intellectual battles over Russia’s future centered on its relations with Europe.

Contemporary debates on Russian identity are rooted in 19th-century disputes between Slavophiles and Westernizers in Russia. In those years, as today, public attention was focused on Russia’s relation to and interaction with the West. Problems associated with the multi-ethnic composition of the Russian Empire, relations between Russians and other peoples, as well as the boundaries of the Russian people, did not play a significant role in discussions between Slavophiles and Westernizers, which later became traditional for discussions among the Russian intelligentsia.

Characteristically, specific problems of ethnic minorities in Russia were first viewed from relatively consistent theoretical positions not in intellectual salons of St. Petersburg or Moscow but in the Kiev-based Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius. The tone in those discussions, which began in 1846, was set by Ukrainian poet and public figure Taras Shevchenko and Russian scholar Nikolai Kostomarov, who studied the history of Ukraine. Neither of them could even conceive of a separate existence of Slavic peoples. Moreover, Shevchenko and Kostomarov advocated the establishment of a pan-Slavic federation of liberal states, which would include Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Bohemia, Serbia and Bulgaria. In those times, no one viewed what is now Belarus as a separate country, even potentially.

In 1869, Nikolai Danilevsky made an attempt to combine the ideas of Slavophilia, Pan-Slavism and imperialism in his work Russia and Europe. According to Danilevsky, the common Slavic culture could serve as the basis for a leading role of Russians in a future federation of Slavic peoples, with its capital in Constantinople. This concept revealed a supranational, civilizational tendency in the development of Russian identity.

There was one more significant intellectual development in the 19th century that left an important imprint on later discussions: the idea of the “universal” character of the Russian identity. Started by Slavophiles, this idea was developed by Dostoyevsky, who wrote in his famous 1880 sketch on Pushkin: “For what else is the strength of the Russian national spirit than the aspiration, in its ultimate goal, for universality and all-embracing humanitarianism?” In his deliberations, Dostoyevsky, like both Slavophiles and Westernizers, referred only to Europe: “Yes, the Russian’s destiny is incontestably all-European and universal. To become a genuine and all-around Russian means, perhaps (and this you should remember), to become brother of all men, a universal man, if you please.” Dostoyevsky expressed, with an amazing passion, some important features of Russian national self-consciousness of his time: its openness, supranational nature, and messianism. Dostoyevsky admired Pushkin’s ability to understand the whole of European culture and place it into the Russian soul. The universalism of Dostoyevsky is akin to the “chosen people” philosophy of the Jews and Americans. As a rule, it is easily combined with paternalism with regard to other nations.

Meanwhile, Russia’s policy in the 19th century was determined not by the ideas of Danilevsky or Dostoyevsky but by the “official nationalism” doctrine formulated by Count Sergei Uvarov. “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” were proclaimed the pillars of the empire. The third principle of the triad – “nationality” – was the vaguest one. The main question of the times remained unresolved: Was the Russian Empire a state of Russians and for Russians, or was it a supranational entity that required from all only the same loyalty to the monarchy?

Slavophiles and Westernizers, Danilevsky, Dostoyevsky, Uvarov, and others were interested in Russia’s place with regard to Europe, Slavic unity and the universe, but not to other peoples in the empire. They held that “Malorossy” (Ukrainians), “Belorossy” (Belarusians) and “Velikorossy” (ethnic Russians) were one Russian people, while all other ethnic groups in the empire were ignored in their theoretical studies. Obviously, the neglect of developments in the empire’s western regions, especially in Poland where ethnic consciousness was growing at the time, was an intellectual mistake.

When the formation of nations began to gain momentum in the second half of the 19th century, the Russification policy began to acquire increasingly visible outlines, becoming particularly active in the reign of Alexander III. There was an obvious shift from the de-ethnicized mindset of the imperial court, which was primarily concerned with subjects’ loyalty to the tsar, to ethnically colored attempts to turn non-Russians into Russians or, in other cases, to ensure the primacy of Russians over other “awakening” peoples. This shift created prerequisites for the emergence of Russians as a separate nation. Nevertheless, by 1917, when Russians’ loyalty to the throne was close to zero, they still were not a close-knit nation in the modern sense of the word.

Russian philosopher Pyotr Struve wrote: “The collapse of the monarchy… showed the utter weakness of national consciousness in the very heart of the Russian state – among the masses of the Russian people.” Surprisingly, like Slavophiles seventy years earlier, Struve ignored the problems of the composition of the Russian Empire’s population and the place of ethnic Russians in the state as issues of paramount importance. Similarly, the leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Russia, Pavel Milyukov, wrote about the formation of one Russian supra-ethnic nation, while underestimating the national awakening of non-Russian peoples in the empire.

In the 1920s, after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, a group of young intellectuals in exile (Pyotr Savitsky, Nikolai Trubetskoi and others), who called themselves Eurasianists, made an important contribution to the discourse about Russian identity. In their search for the origins of the Russian nation, they did not limit themselves to Slavic roots and argued that Turkic and Ugro-Finnic elements played an important role in the Russian nation’s development. They were the first to include non-Slavic peoples in theoretical studies into Russian identity. According to their theory, Russia emerged on the basis of common geographical space and self-consciousness; it was neither European nor Asian – it was Euro-Asian. Although members of the Eurasianist school had significant differences with other theorists, they continued the tradition of a supranational, non-ethnic approach to the definition of “Russianness.”

Bolsheviks were the party that gave the greatest attention to the “nationality question.” They proclaimed the Russian Empire a “prison of peoples,” denounced “Great-Russian chauvinism” and proclaimed the right of all peoples of the country to self-determination. However, contrary to the principles they declared, Bolsheviks gradually re-established a centralized state within borders that actually coincided with the borders of the Russian Empire. The price that had to be paid for this was the suppression of ethnic Russian nationalism and the creation of national-territorial administrative units for other peoples of the former empire, who were granted various degrees of autonomy.

Bolsheviks made considerable concessions to non-Russian ethnic groups, providing them with ethnic territories and giving them the right to self-determination, in order to secure their support. They were confident that Russians, as a more “advanced” nation, shared their social ideals and did not need such concessions.

When it became obvious that a “world revolution” would be a long-term goal, concessions to non-Russian ethnic groups that populated the Soviet Union became permanent. The centralizing role of the Soviet Communist Party served as the main counterweight to the ethno-national federal system. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the party’s influence began to weaken, and the state began to fall apart.


Many people in the West believe that Russia will cease to be a source of threat to the world and to itself when it gives up its imperial ambitions and becomes a “normal” European nation-state. They view the vague boundaries of the Russian people as a disturbing and threatening phenomenon which may lead to attempts to restore the empire. In contrast, they view a nation-state as a time-tested, familiar and peaceful alternative. This approach does not take into account many serious threats to international security, which may arise as a result of mechanistic attempts to put Russia on a par with its neighbors.

In the process of nation-building, the crucial questions are who should belong to the nation and what its borders should be. The most destructive features of any nation-building process were the absorption of ethnic and religious minorities or the destruction of large political entities (as a rule, multi-ethnic states). The feeling of ethnic commonality and solidarity too often was based on hostility towards others. The borders of any Western state and their nations formed as a result of numerous wars, outbreaks of internal violence, or combinations of both.

For Russia, an attempt to build a nation-state on the ruins of the empire would inevitably mean a challenge to its federative structure, which includes many ethno-territorial administrative units, and would call into question its external borders, which are based on artificial administrative borders established years ago by Bolsheviks. There is no doubt that such an attempt could easily undermine the entire system of regional and global security.

The ethnic identity of Russians became more noticeable as the imperial shell fell off after the Soviet Union broke up. Russian ethnic nationalism is not a well-organized political force at the moment, yet it may rise quickly, especially if the goal of nation-building becomes part of the political discourse. The term ‘nation’ traditionally has a strong ethnic, not civic, connotation in Soviet and post-Soviet academia, public opinion, and politics. As it has often happened in European history, common culture may at some point be perceived as a natural political boundary, which can become a springboard for demands to unite all Russians under one political roof.

The redefinition of Russia in more specific ethnic terms, as has happened in many other Soviet successor states, may become the most dangerous undertaking in its entire history – mainly because the implementation of this project would inevitably bring about a revision of post-Soviet borders. The essence of an ethno-nationalist program may be the restoration of geographical congruence between the state and the nation, and the creation of a new political entity on the territory where ethnic Russians and some other East Slavs live. This would mean the reunification of Russia, Belarus, part of Ukraine, and northern Kazakhstan. Interestingly, Alexander Solzhenitsyn called northern Kazakhstan “Southern Siberia and Southern Urals (or Trans-Urals).”

One cannot say that such ideas were advocated only by fringe politicians. There were several attempts in the period from 1998 to 2001 to embody such ideas in legislative initiatives. The State Duma discussed several bills, including On the National and Cultural Development of the Russian People; On the Right of the Russian People to Self-Determination and Sovereignty in the Entire Territory of Russia and to Reunification in a Single State; and On the Russian People, but none of them was adopted. Reality put very different tasks on the agenda, and the pragmatism of the Russian elite prevailed over ideological constructs of individual political groups each time.

After the establishment of tough presidential control over parliament in 2003, the issue of the divided Russian nation and its right to reunite was marginalized. Nevertheless, the Communist Party included a thesis on the divided Russian people in its program and reiterated its commitment to this idea at its recent 13th Congress. The program of the Liberal Democratic Party still contains a demand to recognize Russians as a divided nation. Some members of the United Russia party, especially State Duma deputy Konstantin Zatulin, keep saying that the Russian people are “the largest divided nation in the world.” Numerous websites and the nationalist part of the blogosphere actively popularize these ideas.

A civic nation is an alternative to an ethnic nation. Milyukov and Struve wrote about the formation of a pan-Russian nation before the Bolshevik Revolution. Today, Russian scholar Valery Tishkov insists that a modern Russian civic nation already exists. Amid the domination of ethnocentric approaches, this discourse is highly useful. At the same time, a Russian civic nation is rather a project, a vector of the possible development, and one of the trends. There are large groups of people in the country who view themselves as citizens of the Russian Federation but belonging to a nation other than Russian – Tatar, Ossetian, and so on. The Russian Constitution codifies this situation. In addition, there are very many fellow Russians living abroad, who consider themselves to be part of the Russian nation. The development of civic identity also delegitimizes the present borders of Russia, as it calls into question the need for the Soviet Union’s destruction: Why was it believed that a democratic state could not be built on civic principles in its former borders?

To build a real civic identity, a nation must have legitimate and, desirably, historically grounded borders, as well as stable and effective state institutions. The all-Russian nation within the present borders of the Russian Federation is young, unstable and weak. Regular elections, political parties, common social and economic problems, and politics could gradually become a shell for a new political nation. However, the actual absence of democratic institutions and a host of unresolved issues between ethno-territorial entities of the federation and the center are serious obstacles on this path. The North Caucasus provides an extreme example of the difficulties that efforts to build a common civic identity may face in Russia. This is an obvious threat to the security of not only Russia but the whole world.

A nation-state is a very specific phenomenon which does not – and probably never will – exist in most of the world. Should Russia (or any other modern state) repeat, step by step, the path of Western European countries, which they covered two centuries ago? Is there an alternative to building a nation-state in today’s Russia?


The ethnic and supranational principles will continue to coexist in Russian identity in the foreseeable future. The question is, what form will these principles take? How will they correlate with each other? And what consequences will this have for international security?

A supranational project in any form – be it an empire, the Soviet Union, a Slavic-Orthodox civilization, or Dostoyevsky’s “universal” man – is always a product of the elite. The idea of a nation, ethnic or civic, is more democratic. If Russian society becomes more democratic, the balance between the two principles may change in favor of “ethnic.” That would be quite in line with global tendencies. In that case, the idea of a “divided nation” may take center place in the country’s foreign policy, which may have catastrophic consequences for stability in the region.

The intellectual challenge posed by Solzhenitsyn to the supranational tradition in its imperial and Soviet forms until very recently remained unanswered. However, beginning in 2008, for the first time since the Soviet Union’s breakup, the Russian government began to speak in terms of a large supranational project. More and more often, the ideological fundamentals of the foreign policy were formulated in terms of civilizational affiliation of the country. Continuing the tradition of the 19th-early 20th centuries, Russia has arrived at this understanding not through the comprehension of the “division” of Russians and their interaction with neighboring peoples, but as a result of its strained relations with the West. The failure of attempts to become an independent part of the Greater West and the realization that these plans may imply more than a momentary situation on the international arena caused Russia once again to think about its place in the world. In addition, the claim to the status of a Great Power forced Russia’s leadership to try to formulate its foreign policy objectives in terms that go beyond national interests.

Ideologically, the concept of civilization has proved to be very close to the Russian authorities. In the 19th century, it was usually conservatives, above all philosophers Nikolai Danilevsky and Konstantin Leontiev, who spoke about a special Russian civilization. The late Samuel Huntington thought in similar terms. Alexander Dugin has long been arguing that Russia is not a country but a civilization. The idea of civilizations is not very compatible with liberal concepts of globalization and the universality of democratic values.

To date, the Russian authorities have formulated two possible approaches to Russia’s civilizational affiliation. One was set forth by President Dmitry Medvedev in his speech in Berlin in June 2008: “The end of the Cold War made it possible to build up genuinely equal cooperation between Russia, the European Union and North America as three branches of European civilization.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, said that the adoption of Western values is only one of two basic approaches to humankind’s development. In his words, Russia advocates a different approach, which suggests that “competition is becoming truly global and acquiring a civilizational dimension; that is, the subject of competition now includes values and development models.” In his letter to a Latvian Russian-language newspaper in the summer of 2009 Lavrov used the term “Greater Russian civilization.”

However, there is an impression that the Russian authorities do not see much contradiction between these two approaches and view them not as mutually exclusive but as complementary. One approach is intended for the West, while the other is intended for neighboring states and fellow Russians abroad. On the one hand, the concept of Russia as a separate large civilization allows it to easily parry criticism of its undemocratic polity. On the other hand, it lets Russia interpret the “Russian question” in the modern, 21st-century spirit: “The Russian civilization is our state together with the Russian World, which includes all those who gravitate to Russian culture.” In this context, the “divided nation” idea sounds archaic. The choice between the two approaches to Russia’s civilizational affiliation will ultimately be determined by pragmatic considerations centered, as always, on Russia’s relations with the West, rather than with its immediate neighbors.

In 2009, the Russian Orthodox Church joined in discussions about Russia as the center of a special civilization. Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill began to pose not as the head of the Orthodox Church of Russia and Russian people but as a supranational spiritual leader of “Holy Russia,” which comprises Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and – on a broader scale – all Orthodox Christians. Continuing in a way Konstantin Leontiev’s Orthodox conservative tradition, the patriarch has obviously set out to preserve the East Slavic civilization, while respecting the present political borders and existing cultural differences. The latter circumstance is a new aspect in the policy of the Russian Orthodox Church. During his visit to Ukraine in August 2009, Patriarch Kirill often addressed his congregation in the Ukrainian language and called Kyiv “the southern capital of Russian Orthodoxy,” rather than just “the mother of Russian towns.” Eighteen years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church is now the only institution that still unites Russia and a large part of Ukraine.

For Patriarch Kirill, Orthodoxy cannot be reduced to “Russian faith” only. This is a major change from the previous years when Orthodox hierarchs were favorably disposed towards the “divided nation” concept, which, of course, looks much more provincial than the idea of spiritual leadership in an entire civilization. Symbolically, Patriarch Kirill has ordered that the flags of all states within the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction be put on display in his Throne Room, instead of just the flag of the Russian Federation. In 2009, the Russian Orthodox Church showed itself as a major participant in the discourse on Russian identity and on Russia’s relations with neighboring states and the rest of the world. Orthodoxy has begun to play the role of one of the most important institutions for preserving supranational principles in Russian consciousness and maintaining the unity of civilizational space in Eurasia.

However, a situation when the broad and diverse Russian supranational tradition will be reduced to the activities of the Church may inflict serious geopolitical damage. Many Russians and other East Slavs are secular or only nominal Orthodox believers, and they are not ready to determine their identity exclusively by religious factors. There also arises the issue of neighboring countries that are predominantly Muslim, though often technically, but which, at the same time, belong to the Russian civilizational space – these countries include, above all, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

For Russia to be able to “influence the surrounding world through its civilizational, humanitarian-cultural, foreign-policy and other attractiveness,” as Lavrov said, it should use the universalist, humanitarian tradition of Russia’s intellectual heritage. If Russia does not offer universal human values to the world, it cannot hope that it will learn to use “soft power” in international relations.

However, historical experience shows that, even if Russia uses universalist principles in projecting its image to the international arena, it may meet with a negative reaction. Indeed, over the past three centuries, Russian “high” culture evolved within the frameworks of an empire, and “universality” was its key characteristic. On the one hand, this helped it to gain worldwide recognition. Far from being “provincial” or “narrow-minded,” it easily absorbed the achievements of other, primarily European, cultures and made outstanding contributions to humankind. On the other hand, the attempts to include “everyone and their brother” in a boundless, “universal” Russia through culture and other things have constantly come into conflict with aspirations of neighboring peoples, most of whom do not want to become “universal”, seeing de-facto Russification behind such “universalism” and perceiving it as a threat to their very existence. Historical and cultural messianic traditions stand in sharp contrast to the new geopolitical situation in which Russia has found itself today.

Russian identity will grow out of the existing historical legacies and deep-rooted cultural traditions, while at the same time adjusting itself for a new vector of global development.

This article originally appeared in Russia in Global Affairs, No. 4, October-December 2009

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