The marking of “Russia Day” on June 12 triggered another round of debate about Russian identity. In his speech to a celebratory concert on Red Square, President Vladimir Putin said he was certain that Russia faces a “shining future” as “a great and flourishing power.” He said, “We can always be proud of out country, with its great history, its contribution to world culture, and its achievements in science and education.” He told prizewinners that the Russian constitution “is one of the most democratic in the world” (www.kremlin.ru).
The holiday was introduced in 1994. Officially it was the “Day of the Adoption of the Declaration of Russia’s State Sovereignty,” unofficially it was known as “Independence Day.” The Russian Federal Republic declared its sovereignty on June 12 1990, the same day that Boris Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Republic a year later, in June 1991. In 2001, the name was changed to “Day of Russia,” presumably because the references to “sovereignty” and “independence” reminded Russians of the break-up of the Soviet Union — something that polls indicate a majority of Russians still look back on with regret. There was also ambiguity about the nature of the “independence”: perhaps it means independence from the burden of subsidizing the non-Russian republics?
A recent Levada Center poll found that 46% of respondents thought independence was good for Russia, while 30% thought it was harmful. Similarly, a VTsIOM poll found 41% of respondents approved the idea of Russian sovereignty, and 30% opposed. However, 64% also said they doubted whether Russia is in fact sovereign. One can speculate that they might have in mind the recent wave of “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, which suggest Russia’s inability to influence events in the former Soviet republics. The old bugbear of Russia’s powerlessness in the face of international financial institutions no longer carries weight, since Russia is paying back its loans ahead of schedule, and under Putin Russia has managed to establish complete control over its national economic policy (www.levada.ru; Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 10).
But what exactly is the Russia that was celebrating its existence on June 12? Putin’s speeches focused on Russia’s international standing, with specific mention of education, science, and culture. There were general but unspecific references to Russia’s long history. Putin discussed the transition of the 1990s as a difficult test, from which Russia had emerged as a new, modern country. In a May 24 interview with Komsomolskaya pravda, Putin rejected a metaphysical search for a “national idea,” a theme that had repeatedly surfaced under President Boris Yeltsin. Rather, he said that Russian identity should not be tied to ambitious projects, but the wellbeing of its citizens.
What is striking about Putin’s official rhetoric is not what it includes (wellbeing, continuity, education) but what it leaves out – the legacy of communism, war in Chechnya, Russia’s multi-ethnic composition, the role of Islam, Russia’s international alliances, etc.
Putin’s careful and down-to-earth approach was echoed in a recent interview by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Reviewing Russia’s tortured history, he said that the primary goal must be “preserving the people,” by which he appeared to mean the “people” as a collective entity rather than as an aggregation of individuals. In previous writings, Solzhenitsyn has tried to elaborate a more ambitious notion of the Russians as a “self-governing” people (Fednews.ru, June 5).
Solzhenitsyn’s ideas found an echo at the other end of the political spectrum. Philosopher and former democratic activist Igor Chubais (brother of Anatoly) said in an interview with Voice of Russia that “the key problem is to restore our identity” and that “the way out of our crisis is continuity with the 1,000 year history of Russia” Chubais has a new book, The Russian Riddle Solved (Fednews, June 10).
Russia still has a way to go to bring its external image into correspondence with its self-image (a problem that all countries face, of course.) With the goal of improving Russia’s international image, the government will spend $30 million over the next two years creating a new, English-language “Russia Today” international television channel. Svetlana Mironyuk, general director of the RIA-Novosti news agency, said that polls they commissioned of young people abroad “showed that the words ‘Communism,’ ‘snow,’ and ‘poverty’ are the first three associations which, apropos of Russia, come into the head of a Western audience up to 30 years of age” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 8). Writing in the Wall Street Journal on June 10, State Duma deputy Alexander Lebedev suggested that the first word foreigners associate with Russia is “corruption.”