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Analysis From Washington: Searching for a New Russian 'Truth'

  • Paul Goble



Washington, August 6 (RFE/RL) -- Two media announcements in Moscow last week highlight how much Russia has changed in the past five years--and also how little.

On the one hand, the Communist party newspaper "Pravda"--the official voice of the now defunct Soviet government--closed its doors because it could not compete in Russia's freer media marketplace.

On the other hand, "Rossiiskaya gazeta," the official newspaper of the current Russian government, called on its readers to suggest a new "unifying national idea" for Russians and offered a 10 million ruble prize (about $2,000) for the best proposal.

At the most superficial level, of course, these two events have little in common. "Pravda"--the name itself means "truth" in Russian--died because it no longer enjoyed the state subsidies that allowed it to publish regardless of reader interest.

This latest search for a Russian "national idea"--something President Boris Yeltsin has urged in the past--will take place as a free competition and under a Russian constitution which explicitly prohibits the establishment of a new state ideology.

The official line provided by "Pravda" in the past and the apparent longing for a single "national idea" now reflect three profound continuities in the thinking of many Russians, continuities that will have a greater impact precisely because they so often pass unnoticed.

Many Russians remain profoundly uncertain about who they are and what kind of a country they are or should become. One can hardly imagine a debate in France about who is a Frenchman, one in Germany about what borders that country should have, or one in Britain about whether the country should be a democracy. But those are precisely the debates that dominate the Russian political landscape.

Many Russians believe, as they have in the past, that the Russian nation has a special word to say to the world, be it the Dostoyevskiyan idea of a Russian "god," the "truth" of "Pravda" during the Soviet period or the "unifying national idea" of the Yeltsin regime now.

Because of the insecurities generated by their history and because of their vision of themselves as bearers of a distinctive national idea, many Russians remain convinced that there must be one "truth," one "idea" rather than the multiplicity of voices typical of more pluralist societies.

Unfortunately, these continuities in Russian thought suggest that what would otherwise be a healthy search for self-definition could quickly degenerate into a major roadblock on Russia's path toward democracy and integration into the broader world.

If this competition succeeds in identifying a single national idea, as its organizers hope, and if that idea is then supported by the power of the state, as Yeltsin's sponsorship suggests, then such a new "truth" could quickly become a straightjacket on a society only now groping toward the complexities and divisions of pluralism.

Perhaps even more important, a new "truth" of this kind could entail serious consequences for Russian foreign policy. Not only would many possible variants of such a new "truth" be profoundly threatening to the former Soviet republics where more than 22 million ethnic Russians still live, but many of these "truths" could frighten the West as well.

In Soviet times, Western commentators frequently argued that Russia could integrate into the West only if it became a country rather than a cause. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians have made enormous progress in that direction. But this latest call for a new "truth" in the same week that an old one died underscores just how much more remains to be done.

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