Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 9

Russia’s post-Soviet ideologists are trying to identify a new set of common values

By Ilya V. Malyakin

On May 23, a group of presidential staffers, headed by Yeltsin aide Georgi Satarov, arrived in Saratov from Moscow. Such visits are generally received with great caution by local politicians, and Satarov’s was no exception. Indeed, it was preceded by an unusual number of rumors. For while the visit had been scheduled a long time before, no official explanation of its purpose had been provided.

On his arrival, Satarov lost no time in explaining that he had come to discuss the elaboration of a new Russian state ideology. Satarov explained that he and his team of philosophers, political scientists and sociologists were touring the provinces in order to investigate the situation that had taken shape outside Moscow since Yeltsin first called for a new state ideology nine months before. Yeltsin had expressed concern that many Russian people, deprived of the old certainties of the Soviet era, lack a coherent mental framework with which to make sense of the fast-changing society in which they now live. Accordingly, he charged Satarov to put together a team of consultants to analyze the question and present its preliminary conclusions by the end of the year. The aim is to have a final package of ideas ready in time for the presidential election scheduled for 2000.

In two packed days in Saratov, Satarov and his team met with a wide range of the region’s intellectual elite including regional officials and leaders of local political parties and interest groups. Satarov made it clear that anyone who thinks that, in the post-Soviet period, ideology is dead, is much mistaken.

Satarov distinguished between two concepts: one which he called "ideology for the government" and another which he described as "ideology for citizens." He acknowledged that many people think that, in the post-Soviet period, Russia has no need for a new state ideology and that all the principles by which the state should operate are already laid down in the constitution. Satarov disagreed. What is in the constitution, he said, is "ideology for the government." What citizens need is something else. He said that study of the outside world reveals that all countries in the world have a "national idea" such as the "American dream." These are the "values that form the core meaning of life" and they enable people to make sense of their situations in times of stress.

"In crisis periods," Satarov when on, "when old ideas about the world are shaken and people build their own individual worlds, it is hard for members of the population to reconcile their individual worlds with the real state of affairs if they do not share certain fundamental values. The search for an idea is therefore an absolutely natural phenomenon."

Aleksandr Rubtsov is a philosopher; his responsibility on the presidential team is to analyze the discussions of the future Russian ideology. He described the practical aspects of the group’s work, indicating that its aim is to unite society at a time when the intelligentsia is split and polarized. "We are working on a number of problems linked with the search for a new "Russian idea," Rubtsov said. "The intellectual community in Russia is split; some commentators immediately tried to shoot ideas down, others come up with a wide range of alternatives, without always having a sober assessment of reality. Therefore, we tried first to understand what the idea could not be. For example, if it is a national idea, then clearly it cannot be political, ethnic, or religious. Such ideas mobilize only one section of society, and their influence on society as a whole is divisive. Such ideas can be established as national ideas only after a revolution…."

Rubtsov said the team is asking two main questions:

"First: Why are people who are doing well still dissatisfied? There are people who are living better now than ever before, and who support what is going on in the country. Such people do not need an ideology. Then there are people who are worse off, but who still support the way the country is going. They too can make do without an ideology. Then there are people who are living poorly and who do not, as a result, support the country’s present path — we have to deal with them separately. But then there are also people who have begun to live better, but who feel extremely uncomfortable. That is the category to whom we must devote ourselves above all."

"Second, what we have in this country now is not an ideological vacuum, but a ‘crisis of overproduction’ in the realm of ideas. But these ideas do not interact. People are not listening to one another. Social communication has been disrupted. Therefore, we can formulate the second question in this way: ‘What deserves respect here and now?’ This used to be clear to everyone; there were a priori categories of qualities which deserved respect. Now, such categories no longer exist. This situation is extraordinarily dangerous. A society where no one respects anything is capable of little."

At the end of the visit, Georgi Satarov answered a few questions from your correspondent:

Prism: What do you consider to be the main achievement of this ten-month-long discussion of the "Russian Idea"?

Satarov: The intermediate — and I stress this — intermediate result that we can see now is that the discussion seems to have moved onto a higher plane. It all began in an extremely primitive fashion. People were poles apart in their assessments. There was complete rejection: "How can this be? They’re trying to force a new state ideology on us!" even though this was not at all what the president intended. And then there were people who came out with all sorts of proposals and formulas, such as "Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationalism," and the like…

This was the first spontaneous reaction, without any analysis of what a national idea was, why we needed one, and if we did, what it could give us, what international practice was, how this was linked to the solution of other problems which the state and society face, and so on.

Now, the discussion has moved onto a completely different intellectual level. Just as in love: it’s not just the result that’s important, but also the process itself. After all, the search for a new ideology is not just any old process, but the process of society’s self-knowledge. Society cannot exist without it. Especially when that society is in a state of crisis.

Prism: Is the Russian government itself — and above all, the leadership of Federation subjects — ready to accept a single state ideology?

Satarov: Both the federal authorities and the authorities on the regional level understand that economic, social, ethical, and ideological problems are all interconnected. There is no "first" or "second" here. They must be solved simultaneously, by explaining to people what sort of light awaits at the end of the tunnel, what they can see as the meaning of life, what is good and what is bad, how they should behave, and what a hero or an anti-hero is in the new circumstances. That is what we must do, along with solving other problems, in order to make life easier for people. This is clear to everyone, on both the federal and the regional level. I am a supporter of the idea of radically liquidating the concept of "Moscow versus the provinces." Moscow cannot impose a national idea from above. The idea must be cultivated by society. All that the government can do is facilitate this process.

Satarov also said that he was satisfied with the results of his first trips to the regions so far, since he has discovered that the intellectual potential here was even higher than he had supposed. As regards the mechanisms for instilling the future "Russian Idea" in society, he limited himself to a brief but firm statement:

"The president has taken a lot of heat from the critics for this. Some accuse him of intending to introduce a national idea in the country by decree. I assure you that this is not true, nor will it ever be true."

Translated by Mark Eckert

Ilya Malyakin is chief editor and political expert at the Volga Information Bureau, an independent news agency established in Saratov in 1992.