Russia’s Identity Crisis ...
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Current Events & Politics
Russia’s Identity Crisis
Summer 2008 Issue
“Russians don’t know any longer who and what they are and therefore they are resentful of any attempt to define them.”
—Zinovy Zinik, “Censorship and Self-Alienation in Russia” (2005)
Russia may be one of the easiest nations to locate on a globe, but to define a Russian is a far more difficult proposition. To a Westerner, ideas about Russians are inherently complex and paradoxical. On the one hand there is the magnificence of Russian authors, artists and composers, from Tolstoy to Repin to Rachmaninov; Pasternak to Fabergé to Mussorgsky. On the other, though, we must grapple with the specter of Communist Russia, the terrors of the Gulag concentration camps, and the Soviet Union’s paralyzing economic and cultural inertia.
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Cracks in this self-regard began to show at the turn of the 20th century, however. Discontented Russians moaned at the continuing self-aggrandizement of the Romanov tsars. Their disregard for the poor fueled revolts in 1905 and ultimately their overthrow in 1917 by the Bolsheviks. Lenin and his followers ushered in a new ideology and a very different set of values. Communist Russia discarded artistic invention, banished or executed most luminaries, squashed religion, and instead pursued a worldwide socialist revolution focused on the workers (parodied as the “Average Man” by emigrant novelist Vladimir Nabokov). The new, soviet Russia was something unique, known primarily for its brute force and stagnating tyranny.
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This may be, in essence, just what Russians (as well as the rest of the world) have been seeking for centuries.
1 Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution (2005). 2 Igor Chubais, “From the Russian Idea to the Idea of a New Russia: How We Must Overcome the Crisis of Ideas,” trans. and ed. by J. Alexander Ogden (1998). 3 Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (2002). 4 Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (London: Allen Lane, 2007). 5 Simon Franklin and Emma Widdis (eds.), National Identity in Russian Culture: An Introduction (2004). 6 Marc Raeff (ed.), Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology (1966). 7 Zinovy Zinik, “Censorship and Self-Alienation in Russia,” Index on Censorship (2005).
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