March 01, 1997

In Search of the Russian Idea

Once again, Russia is in search of a National Idea, something to define Russia’s place in the world, its goals and aspirations, its place in history. Sparked by President Yeltsin’s claim that Russia’s next generation will live under a new National Idea, and egged on by a contest in a leading newspaper, the intellectual competition to come up with an National Idea is in full swing.

Yet this search will be exceedingly difficult for at least two reasons. First, Russia is floating in a moral vacuum. Communism as a National Idea was more than a political system. It dictated a whole set of beliefs about morality and social justice. Rejecting communism has meant discrediting a whole belief system, including notions about right and wrong, about community and civil society. The new, market economy, shorn of the Judeo-Christian harness it enjoys in the West, has offered only moral relativism and a cult of consumerism — hardly the foundations for a healthy national idea.

Second, modern Russia has never existed in the absence of empire or authoritarianism. And yet, both of these ideas have been pillars of any past incarnation of the Russian (or Soviet) National Idea. Russia has always meant more than the Russian nation or the countries where Russian is spoken. Under the tsars, Russia was an adjective modifying an Empire which assimilated all non-Russian cultures. After the revolution, the Soviet adjective was introduced, with Russians and non-Russians alike being assimilated into  a ‘New Soviet Man’. History gives no guide to building a Russian state around pluralism, a market economy, decentralized state powers and democracy.

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