Democracy, Melting Pots and Greatness in Russia

If you believe that the modern Russia is the product of the thousand-year history of the Russian people, it follows automatically that Russia is part of Europe. If you say that Russia is a melting pot for everyone, Russia should be considered a Eurasian country – not quite Europe and not quite Asia. Today’s Russia could be compared to Portugal if it had kept Brazil, or Britain if it still possessed North America.

The question of national identity is extremely important for Russia. Society is always reluctant to have this kind of discussion, but it is necessary. I expect the discussion at the upcoming meeting of the Valdai Club to be substantive considering that it will be attended by leading Western experts on Russia as well as Russian political scientists with differing views. Some of the latter are liberals, while others are ‘great power’ advocates, but all of them are rational people. I wouldn’t be surprised if they reach consensus on many issues, including Russia’s identity – not on how to solve the problem, but on the need to address it at least. All of them acknowledge that the task of formulating a new Russian identity must move to the top of the agenda in the next few years, as this will bolster Russian statehood and help us better understand how we should conceive of ourselves and how we should present ourselves to the rest of the world.

This problem is now at the center of attention, and all other issues being discussed in society can be traced back to it. Russia’s national concept remains vague. It is not quite clear how to build federative relations within the country. It is no secret that the huge flow of capital from some regions to others as it passes through the notorious ‘power vertical‘ is increasing the distortions in the system. There is no clear solution, but we must search for one nonetheless.

Ethnicity is the most contested aspect of our national identity. Russia became a mono-ethnic country after the Soviet Union’s disintegration. The Soviet Union was a community of different ethnic groups, including three Slavic peoples (Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians), non-Slavic Europeans (the Baltic republics), and the Turkic peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus, to name a few. The Soviet idea of a new historical community was one of the most progressive in the world at that time. However, now ethnic Russians are 82% of the population, and as such it is entirely reasonable to call them the foundation of the nation. The French, Germans, Italians and Spaniards are not afraid to say this of themselves, so why should we? After all, we are not a nation of immigrants like America or Canada. The Russian state has developed independently for a thousand years and brings together many ethnic groups that should have equal rights by all means. That said, I don’t believe there is any need to start using a new “politically correct” term for Russian identity.

The idea of a melting pot only suits countries that have been that from the beginning – Australia, Brazil, Canada and the United States. For a country to work as a melting pot, none of its citizens should feel like the country belongs to them alone; none should feel like a stranger; and all elites should be essentially equal. These are the three conditions. Everything else depends on whether they are met. If you believe that the modern Russia is the product of the thousand-year history of the Russian people, it follows automatically that Russia is part of Europe. If you say that Russia is a melting pot for everyone, from an Abkhazian to a Tajik, Russia should be considered a Eurasian country – not quite Europe and not quite Asia. This is a fundamental difference.

To be ourselves we must know ourselves. Our problem is that we are always trying to define ourselves in relation to weaker nations. Ukraine, for example, has had a much easier time with the issue of national identity, because Ukrainians are asking themselves the right question: are they with Russia or Europe? This is a clear choice that will be resolved, likely at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November, where Ukraine may sign an association agreement with the European Union. For some reason, Russia is unable to pose a similar question to itself.

If you say you are with somebody, you had better be sure this somebody is stronger than you. We must define ourselves not in relation to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Armenia, but the big players: are we in the same boat with the EU, America or China? Who are we closer to? This is the first question we must answer. The next question is, who are we as a culture and nation? We will find our identity by searching for answers to these questions.

Russia is a thoroughly European country and as such we should learn from Europe. I’m not referring to such superficial values as same-sex marriage, tolerance, democracy and human rights, which took shape in recent years. I’m talking about ancient history. Let’s take the past 500 years – our history follows that of Europe at every turn. Europeans discovered the Americas, then colonized North and South America for the next 200 years, displacing Native Americans and establishing settlements. Russia did the same thing – Yermak moved to the Irtysh River, and a hundred years later we settled on Kamchatka. Russia’s settlement empire was larger than Spain’s in Latin America. In effect, European expansion was a single phenomenon in which Western Europeans moved westward, while Eastern Europeans moved eastward.

After 150-200 years, the European settlers realized they could live normally in their new homes and that they didn’t need to return to London, Paris or Lisbon. After the American Revolution in the late 18th century, Simon Bolivar’s uprising and Brazil’s separation, European powers departed both Americas. But Russia held on to Siberia. In this sense, as a European country we proved more successful than other Europeans. This was our identity.

In the 19th century Europeans launched a new round of expansion. They seized India and Indonesia and divided up Africa. However, as they were unable to resettle the hundreds of thousands of natives in these lands, they occupied them by force and built outposts. At the same time, Russia occupied the North Caucasus and Central Asia, going as far as the Hindu Kush. By the time Europeans were signing a treaty on the partition of Africa in Berlin in 1885, Russia had reached British lands in Afghanistan. This is the logic behind the rise of a great European power. Europeans left their occupied territories in the 1960s, and we quit Central Asia in 1991. Today’s Russia could be compared to Portugal if it had kept Brazil, or Britain if it still possessed North America.

Life in Russia is also entirely European. Our society is as individualistic as European society. In fact, Russians are more individualistic than any other nation.

We continuously try to add a political element to our national identity, whereas these things should be kept separate. Countries with very different identities may have similar political systems and vice versa. Brazil, for one, has a truly multicultural society, while Argentina’s is somewhat xenophobic. But politically, both are now democratic countries that were recently dictatorships. Greece was a dictatorship 35 years ago. Today it can be as Orthodox as it wishes, but it is absolutely against a military junta. Spaniards remained Spaniards under the rule of Franco, and they resumed a normal European life as soon as he died.

We are a quarter century into the era of globalization. The population is extremely mobile. The rate of inter-ethnic marriages in the EU is higher than in the USSR. In 1960 the rate of intermarriage in the countries of the current EU was just 0.6%. Now it is 5.6% – a ten-fold increase. These are multinational families between Finns, Italians, Germans and Spaniards. When the rate of intermarriage reaches 20%, it may then take only two generations to become a single nation.

But Russia is by no means marking time. Just several years ago we were told that direct elections of governors might be reinstituted in a hundred years, but they returned much quicker than that. The same is true of the anti-gay law. While it may seem like it will shape Russia’s relations with the West, it may only remain in place for a year or two.

We live in a global era and we must accept that our ability to influence events is much more limited than we think. Only those things that do not contradict the prevailing trend are possible in the modern world. We must know what we want and understand the trend in order to bend it slightly toward our position. If we go against the trend, we’ll be swept away; but if we go with the flow we may end up in the wrong place.

Both the past and future influence the process of forming a national identity. We cannot change history, so we must understand what future we want and develop a strategy of forming our identity that does not violate the logic of our own history.

Discussing questions of Russian identity with Western experts is inherently useful. Experts in the West, especially in Europe, are well-versed in this subject, and they have had both positive and negative experiences with multiculturalism and integration. We must learn from both their successes and mistakes. Unlike us, Western experts can discuss this issue without emotion or clichés. And this is how such issues should be discussed – preferably, with the use of facts and figures. For instance, Russian citizens have almost four million residence permits in the EU and just several thousand in China. Where is the evidence that Russians are turning to China? But then why can’t our elite take their eyes off Beijing? The agenda of this Valdai Club meeting deals with exactly the kinds of pressing issues that its members want to discuss. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.