Are we witnessing the ascent of a new Russian “national identity”?

Prominent political scientist Sergey Karaganov, a former advisor to Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, hopes so.

Karaganov has called for a “restoration” of a “spirit of commitment” to the Russian “homeland” as a “national rallying point” following the fall of the Soviet Union. What is intriguing, however, is not the look forward but the look back: the values Karaganov espouses as a possible starting point for the new national identity hark back to the Slavophile movement of the 19th century.

Karaganov heads the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (Совет по Внешней и Оборонной Политике) in Moscow, a group made up of elite “public and government officials, heads of business associations, prominent businessmen, the military-industrial complex, academics and media representatives”. He is known for his creation of the eponymous Karaganov Doctrine in the Yeltsin years, which sought the promotion of Russian national interests in the “near abroad” and justified intervention in the internal affairs of former Soviet states.

In a speech at Moscow’s Valdai Discussion Club in September, Karaganov argued that since the fall of the USSR, Russia’s elite has struggled to find ideas to unite the country. Instead, he claimed, a section of the elite which “prefer to steal and couldn’t care less about the country’s future” has benefited from the “absence of a foreword-looking national idea based on identity”.

Karaganov warns that a similar situation prevailed in Brezhnev era in the 1960s and 70s — the so-called “Era of Stagnation”: “Nobody believed in anything anymore. Everyone sneered at everything. Soviet identity was dying. Eventually oil prices dropped and the country fell to pieces.”

In contemporary Russia, there are several, competing ideologies of identity in play — among them, the rising strain of ultra-nationalism, Communism, neo-Imperialism or new-Soviet, left-liberal, Western-liberal and right-liberal, all of which are “permeated with total pessimism”, in Karaganov’s view. If Russians cannot find a “national rallying point”, then they are doomed to repeat the era of the 1980s-1990s, the run-up to the dissolution of the USSR and Russia’s loss of power over the former Soviet Republics.

While Karaganov expresses antagonism to the former Soviet system — he argues that the main reason for Russia’s current lack of a coherent national identity “is rooted in its tragic history in the 20th century, when our people were subjected to a godless experiment, which the majority did not resist” — he does say that the USSR had “created its own identity that had many good features”.

The “Right Faith” and a “Great History” — A Return To Russo-centric Slavophilia?

So what does Karaganov propose as a starting point for the new, modern, post-Soviet Russian national identity? While he does not set out any ideology or principles as a guideline, Karaganov offers some rather strong hints.

The USSR did away with, he argues, the “best of Russia”:

This experiment (of the Soviet Union) destroyed faith, conscience, human dignity, the feeling of being part of a great history and bearers of these values –—clergymen, aristocrats, intellectuals and the working peasantry.

For Karaganov, Russia’s uniqueness lies in its “faith”, in other words its Russian Orthodoxy — the Russian term, pravoslavie means “correct faith — its “great history”, its unique values connected with that faith and history, and its ancient social structure that included an elite and religious leaders as well as the peasantry.

Karaganov believes that Russians’ deep faith not only survived the imposed atheism of the Communist regime but helped them transcend the entire “godless experiment” and retain the integrity of the Russian nation:

I will never tire of repeating that the only possible explanation of why we did not descend into a bloody civil war and commit national suicide in the past 20 years is that the Lord forgave the Russian people the heinous sin of communism.

Karaganov’s suggestions — embedded in his words though not explictly stated — reflect the 19th-century Russian Slavophilism, a Romantic nationalist movement led by thinkers Aleksei Khomiakov, Konstantin Aksakov, and Ivan Kireevskii, who argued that Russia should unite behind the principle of Sobornost, an organic sense of “togetherness” or “integration”, at the base of which were Orthodox Christian values and the uniqueness of Russian society.

The Slavophiles also believed that Russia should rule over other Slavic peoples, notably the Belarusians (“White Russians”) and Ukrainians (“Little Russians”), whom they saw not as distinct nations but as offshoots of the Russian nation.

Karaganov does reject Romantic nationalist ideas inherent in the Slavophile movement, including the notion of an idealized past, and says the concept of the Russian “obshchina” or idealized commune is “divorced from reality”. Instead, Karaganov praises the “Russia doctrine” school of thought, which he describes as having supplanted the “communalists”.

This doctrine, he says, is “rooted in traditional Russian Orthodox values but in a modernized form that emphasizes earthly success and moderate nationalism. Its proponents justifiably reject the notion that Russia possesses a unique spirit of collectivism. Apparently, the relatively modern leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church supports the Russian doctrine.”

Karaganov adds, “This school of thought appears to have a future despite the fact that it seeks to recreate a distant Russian past that never really existed.”

For Karaganov then, the “Russia doctrine” — in many ways a modernized version of the Slavophile movement, with the Romantic notions of communality and an idealized historical past cut out — is closest to the “national rallying point”.

Karaganov appears to be suggesting a modern version of nationalism that emphasizes Russia’s uniqueness, and which is based on Orthodox values or at least “faith” and a unity between the elite and “society” — but which does not reject, as Slavophilism did, notions of the West. Rather, Karaganov’s nationalism contains a strong element of pragmatism, rather than Romanticism, calling for a strengthened economy and a robust civil society. Most importantly, it should also be outward-looking:

We need an identity that will take into account the changing world around us and at the same time be based on a realistic assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, and our origins.

Read Karaganov’s full speech here.