An indistinct and ambiguous national identity is Russia’s key national characteristic. Throughout their thousand-year history as a people, Russians have been trying to figure out who they are,

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and to this day they do not have an answer. Are they European? Not if we were to believe President Vladimir Putin (2013/September 19), who declares: “For us (and I am talking about Russians and Russia), questions about who we are and who we want to be are increasingly prominent.” Moscow’s official narrative habitually accentuates that Russians are very separate from the rest of Europe; so, maybe they are Asian, after all? Or the “Eurasians,” as have claimed Aleksandr Dugin and other post-Soviet political proponents of a brassy fusion of nationalism, Bolshevism, and Christian Orthodoxy. As novelist Zinovy Zinik (2004) says, “Russians are in a state of permanent identity crisis.”

The nation’s common values, goals, and aspirations remain vague and undefined, for they have been upheld, followed by being radically denied, redefined repeatedly, then suddenly readopted in their original form, soon to be altered by a new, often extremist, ideological turnabout. Russian history—a key feature of national identity—has been reinterpreted and rewritten numerous times to suit political agendas. “We are witnessing a revival of Russian identity that is gradually squeezing out the former Soviet identity,” Russian intellectuals such as S. Kortunov (1998) rejoiced after the 1991 dissolution of the U.S.S.R. The celebration was premature, Putin conceded implicitly in 2014: “Finding and strengthening national identity really is fundamental for Russia” (Diesen, 2019). Putin’s government has usurped identity-construction almost entirely (the way other Russian leaders had before him) and critics of the Kremlin, including Kremlinology expert Lilia Shevtsova (2013), respond with undisguised skepticism: “it would be less threatening for the regime, the authorities apparently believe, if the society” were drawn into a new round of useless debates about identity than continue criticizing the administration for corruption and “pathetic governance” (para. 4).

The country’s fluid identity is critical for understanding Russia’s national psychology. People’s vague, unstable perceptions of themselves and their sociopolitical milieu are often accompanied by confusion, immaturity, and general insecurity. Concurrent is also negative self-identification, i.e., deriving identity by way of contrasting themselves to “others,” such as the “depraved West,” to appear superior in comparison. Indeed, a “red thread” of Russian history is perpetual fluctuation—be it positive or negative—either toward or against the West, as if Russian self-perception exists only vicariously, dependent on those it must “bounce off.”

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Presently, just like in the Cold War era, harsh anti-Western messaging and daunting statements about Russia being “surrounded by cunning, ruthless and plotting enemies on every side,” according to former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (Aron, August 13, 2008, para. 4), are prevalent. Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Lavrov’s assertions rely on a verified juvenile tactic of self-vindication by accusation: “We have not attacked anyone; we were always attacked” (TASS, 2022). By implication, a strong national leader would not only protect citizens but also end their perpetual confusion by providing shared meanings and values.

Putin intimated this point precisely when he offered to his disoriented citizens what he claimed was a new identity. Not that he unified Russia in any meaningful way; it is still conflict-ridden and polarized. Nor did he give his people any new system of beliefs to replace the Soviet vision, rendered irrelevant with the breakdown of the U.S.S.R., which Putin has characterized as the utmost geographic catastrophe of the 20th century. However, to compensate, he did reformulate and popularize a rather unsophisticated claim: the true bond of the Russians is their “greatness.”

Putin did not invent the notion of the “Great Russia” but readapted it as the essence of the post-Soviet identity. His propaganda machine emphasized anything “great” he could find or invent, including “the great Russian land,” “the great Russian literature,” and “the great Russian soul.” National greatness revealed itself especially in a glorious statehood, Putin accentuated. The official line was that Russian citizens have always been part of the same tradition, fused by the greatness of their state—under the tsars, the Bolsheviks, and even Stalin’s “Great Terror.” Instead of repudiating its past, the nation must be proud that it has endured “great sufferings and sacrifices” that yielded “great national achievements.” While hardly a cure for the wound of not having a meaningful, time-proven, and integrated identity, a unifying label of Russia’s greatness sufficed as a bandage (Geifman & Teper, 2014).

Traditionally, the notion of Russia’s “greatness” was based on its messianic goal of directing universal redemption. The concept originated soon after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. For the Russians, Byzantine’s defeat was divine punishment for straying from true Orthodoxy. In 1492, Metropolitan Zosimus called Moscow “the new city of Constantine,” the original capital of Christianity. In the first quarter of the 16th century,

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Philotheus, a monk in a Pskov monastery, wrote a memorandum to Tsar Vasilii III in which he developed this idea. The “first Rome” and the “second Rome” (Constantinople), he claimed, had lapsed into heresy, ceased to be the centers of Christianity, and must be replaced by Moscow. Because of their great sins, the “two Romes have fallen, a third stands, and a fourth there will not be.” Until the final redemption, Philotheus wrote, Moscow would be the spiritual center and leader of the whole Christian world. This idea became known as “Moscow—the Third Rome.”

Russia’s role was to be properly messianic. Moscow, with its exclusive access to Heavens’ intents for all humanity, had to take upon itself the responsibility for its redemption. For centuries, this doctrine remained an integral part of the Russian national mythology and basis of state ideology. It justified any imperial ambitions, insofar as they contributed to the idea that Russia’s destiny was to be a “light unto the nations,” illuminating the world’s path to salvation.

Since the 16th century, Russians have persistently claimed that their history is “suffused with sacred significance,” as “the culminating chapter… of historical events leading up to and including the apocalypse” (Bova, 2003, p. 31). “Russia’s special salvationist role in the world” (Levene, 2013) was taken for granted by all political regimes—be it tsarist, Soviet, or post-Soviet. Scholars and thinkers underscored “various parallels between this conception of Russia’s special historical responsibilities as the head of the true Christian church and the Soviet Union’s special historical responsibilities as the guardian of one true (Marxist-Leninist) doctrine of communism,” with its redemptive idea of a classless society (Bova, p. 31). Russia metamorphized from the Third Rome to the Third International, reformulating, rather than forsaking, its apocalyptic mission, stated Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev in The Origins and Meaning of Russian Communism (English translation).

There is a general awareness at the Kremlin that, as a key element of the national consciousness, a tradition-based messianic project is essential for sustaining the regime’s legitimacy, providing an ideological framework for foreign policy, and maintaining mass support. While Putin still relied on the notion of Russia’s “greatness,” around 2012 the official stance began to acquire a new vital emphasis. The Russian state’s greatness meant that it was to reaffirm its leadership in taking the world along a visionary path toward a redemptive goal.

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Since 2012, Putin and his associates often do not try to conceal their anti-Western stand. Russia’s president has argued that “many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values… They are denying moral principles” and equating “belief in God with the belief in Satan” (Putin, 2013). In contrast, Russia has returned to the path of true faith, and its Orthodox Christian values are at odds with those of the Western apostates, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov elucidated: The antagonistic West bullied Russia not for its foreign policies but for being a nation of Christian traditionalists.

It is an integral part of the Russian political culture that the state expects its citizens to be prepared to make personal sacrifices for their country, be it the Soviet Union or Mother Russia. The “long-suffering Russian people” time and again have proven ready to endure grave trials but always on one condition: The state must validate their sacrifices and render them meaningful.

Putin has done his best to make sure that the citizens—including many critics of his regime—endorse Russia’s February 2014 invasion of Crimea. His scorn for the protest from the Ukrainians and the international community as a whole suggested that Russia was a great power, undaunted by foreign charges and sanctions—a powerful identity-boost for the Russians, as usual acquired circuitously, via the outsiders. The official “Crimea-is-ours” slogan designated Crimean annexation as a noble endeavor to reunite the “historical Russian land” and its inhabitants with the rest of the nation. Above all, the occupying forces performed holy work: In the 10th century, the founder of the Russian state Prince Vladimir was baptized in Crimea. Thus, the Kremlin emphasized that it was as sacred for the Russians as the Temple Mount was for the Jews and the Muslims. The 88% approval for Putin in October 2014 revealed the popularity of his investing Russia’s aggression with state-sanctioned spirituality (Geifman & Teper, 2014).

In September 2015, Putin ordered Russian warplanes into Syria to protect the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad from the rival “jihadi terror” forces. Putin ensnared his country in Syria’s civil war not only to show himself as Assad’s unfailing ally but to also satisfy Russia’s centuries-long cravings for the warm waters of the Mediterranean. While obviously important, geopolitical and strategic factors alone do not clarify Russia’s decision to entangle itself in the quandaries of Middle Eastern politics. A key, if less pragmatic, factor is that spiritually justified military intrusion

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in far-away lands concurs with a tradition-based definition of a “great leader” who pursues messianic goals with potentially apocalyptic outcomes.

The Syrian domestic conflict certainly contains this potential, if only because of geography. It is an opportunity a Russian leader aspiring to greatness cannot miss—given his self-imposed obligation to be the star player everywhere a historical drama is taking place. Viewed in terms of a would-be visionary mission, the Middle East is a special attraction, and 66% of respondents in the national survey supported Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria. About a month later, Putin’s approval rating reached an all-time high of “nearly 90% largely thanks to his military moves in Syria, according to a new nationwide poll” (Eremenko, 2015, para. 1). Oppressed politically and economically, Russian citizens supported Putin’s costly Middle Eastern adventures because they were in line with Russia’s traditional messianic objectives, as outlined by the doctrine of “Moscow the Third Rome.”

Russia is constantly brewing an ideological blend, “mixing of the past and of the present. Reconstruction of the past leads to military action. We are witnessing extraordinary political decisions being made by people acting in the present but mistaking it for the past,” says cultural historian Alexandr Etkind (2014, para. 16) Precisely how Russia’s past justifies its present-day aspirations is clear from popular history books: between 4000 and 2000 BC “the ancient Slavs… gave rise to the following civilizations: Sumerian, Babylonian, Proto-Indian, Cretan, Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman (and eventually European).” Such claims are “a fairly typical product of the post-Soviet boom in amateur history. The shelves bulge” with impressive ventures to reveal “that the ancient Etruscans were ancestors of the Russians” and “that Jerusalem was a Russian city” (Franklin & Widdis, 2004, p. 11).

As the ever-popular stage star Zhanna Bichevskaia sang in a stunning May 2014 recital: “[we] will recapture Russia’s Sevastopol. The Crimean Peninsula will be Russian again [as well as] our sovereign Bosporus, our Constantinople, and Jerusalem, the shrine of humanity.” That the Russians consider themselves a chosen nation is not unique; many others have the same vision. What’s important is how much a nation is ready to sacrifice for such a belief. The Russians have made painful sacrifices for causes they perceived as messianic, and the spiritual ambitions that guide Moscow’s policies in faraway lands have not been buried in the country’s past.

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References:

  • Aron, Leon (August 13, 2008), What Russia’s war reveals. USA Today, https://www.aei.org/articles/what-russias-war-reveals
  • Bova, Russell (ed.) (2003). Russia and western civilization: Cultural and historical encounters. M.E. Sharpe, p. 31.
  • Diesen, Glenn (2019). The decay of western civilization and resurgence of Russia. Routledge.
  • Eremenko, Alexey (October 22, 2015). Vladimir Putin’s approval rating hits all-time high, boosted by Syria airstrikes. MSNBC. https://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/vladimir-putins-approval-rating-hits-all-time-high-boosted-syria-airstrikes-msna708176
  • Etkind, Alexander (July 28, 2014). ​Alexander Etkind: Academia is like football — you must find a vacant slot. Stelka mag. https://strelkamag.com/en/article/alexandr-etkind
  • Franklin, Simon, and Widdis, Emma (eds.) (2004). National identity in Russian culture. Cambridge University Press, p. 11.
  • Geifman, Anna, & Teper, Yuri (December 2014). Russia’s new national identity under Putin’s regime. BESA Center perspectives paper no. 279.
  • Kortunov, S. (1998). Russia’s way: National identity and foreign policy, international affairs. A Russian journal, 44(4).
  • Levene, Mark (2013). The crisis of genocide, Vol. 1, Oxford University Press.
  • Putin, Vladimir (2013/September 19). Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club [Speech transcript]. President of Russia. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/19243
  • Shevtsova, Lilia (October 15, 2013) How Putin is solving the Russian national identity problem. Carnegie Moscow Center. https://carnegiemoscow.org/commentary/53297
  • TASS. (January 26, 2022). Lavrov: Russia sees that Western colleagues are in a “military frenzy.” https://tass.ru/politika/13530907
  • Zinik, Zinovy (2004). The neighbour’s fence. The Andrei  Sakharov Museum. http://old.sakharovcenter.ru/museum/exhibitionhall/religion_notabene/zzinik2004.html

Authors:

Anna Geifman

Anna Geifman, PhD, is the author of Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917 (1993) and Entangled in Terror: The Azef Affair and the Russian Revolution (2000). She is the editor of Russia under the Last Tsar: Opposition and Subversion, 1894-1917 (1999). Among her other major publications are a psychohistorical essay, La mort sera votre dieu: du nihilisme russe au terrorisme islamiste (English translation: Death will be your god: from Russian nihilism to Islamist terrorism, 2005) and Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia (2010). Geifman is Professor of History Emerita at Boston University and a Principal Researcher at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. She can be contacted at annageifman-@hotmail.com.

How to Cite This:

Geifman, A. (2022). Russian national identity quest as motivation for policymaking. Clio’s Psyche, 28(3), 313-320.

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