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What Is Russia?


By Vadim Nikitin

This week was the Russian Orthodox Christmas. Twenty years after Communism and somewhat at odds with the newfound Christian ardour of Russia’s elites, it’s not a big stand alone holiday, falling relatively quietly in the middle of the 10 day vacation starting with the big Soviet milestone of New Year’s.

Yet at the same time, Russians are also not celebrating the centeniary of Leo Tolstoy’s death partly because, according to Luke Harding in The Guardian, “the writer’s criticisms of Orthodox religion and authority make him a dangerous figure for those in power – both in Tsarist Russia and also today."

The question of what to celebrate and why exposes a crucial open sore: After a decade of Yeltsin and a decade of Putin, Russia is still struggling to find an identity.

This unresolved issue has seriously harmed the country’s international standing.

“Today, Russia’s brand is quite negative," recently wrote an American and Russian academic in the Moscow Times. Their survey of Berkley students’ responses to what the word ‘Russia’ connotes was striking: “Their associations for Russia were overwhelmingly negative; communism (28 percent), cold (13 percent), vodka (7 percent) and corruption (7 percent) dominated the responses and placed Russia far behind the other four countries included in the survey (the United States, China, Italy and Britain)."

The professors advice Russia to get a brand makeover, and suggest the following new (and rather implausible) buzzwords: Multicultural Russia, Eco Russia and Resilient Russia.

However, any such brand makeovers are meaningless without a fundamental settlement of the identity question.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Alison Smalere counts what Russia means for some of its younger generation:

“This New Year, I spent a couple of evenings in the company of Natasha, mid-20s, just back from four years of study in London. Why return? “Because,” she said, “I wanted to be able to dance on tables.” Britain, she opined, was just too smooth and boring."

But apart from this vague sense of difference, today’s Russia can boast only a rather directionless modernisation: “Walking down Kutuzovsky Prospekt in west-central Moscow, I see the Escada shop and the sushi restaurant of the present."

Certainly, some academics, like SV Kortunov, think that Russia “can achieve more than merely modernization, a national state, and a materialistic civilization: it can be a country that combines the latest Western ideas (meritocracy, post- industrialism, etc.) with the traditions of Russian development, including Soviet traditions, and the achievements of Russian philosophical thought."

But as of now, even 20 years after the end of the USSR, the talk remains “of victory, and starting over — what the popular journalist and author Yulia Latynina calls “news in the future tense.”

Read more at the Foreign Policy Association's Russia blog.

(AP Photo)