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Analysis from Washington -- Russia Is Searching In Vain For Its Identity

  • Paul Goble



Prague, 28 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian parliament's continuing inability to approve new national symbols highlights both a problem common to all the post-Soviet states: the need to define national identities in ways that do not deny the past but rather allow the peoples of this region to move forward.

Last Friday, the Russian Duma failed to approve a new flag, emblem or anthem. Some deputies want a Soviet-style flag rather than the now familiar tricolor. Others are passionately opposed to the use of the two-headed eagle, an inheritance from tsarist times.

And most remain deeply divided as to whether Russia should use a nineteenth century anthem that as yet has no words or adopt another one in its place.

At one level, of course, this failure of the Duma to approve these state symbols is almost a comic opera. Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his government seem unlikely to discontinue the use of the three symbols for which he sought the parliament's approval.

But at another level, Yeltsin's unilateral assertion of these symbols and the Russian parliament's unwillingness to confirm them reflects uncertainties and ambivalences that many people in the post-Soviet states feel about defining who they are and where they are going.

Except for the three Baltic countries that for the most part have simply restored the pre-1940 national symbols, all the other countries in this region have either had to come up with entirely new symbols or to make choices that are often politically charged.

For most of the non-Russian countries who gained or recovered their independence in 1991, these selections have generally taken place within the context of a sense of victory, of having achieved something that their peoples had long desired.

While there were debates in some of these countries -- in Ukraine, for instance, over flags -- in the overwhelming majority of cases, the political elites of these states quickly chose symbols that combined elements from their pre-Soviet past with ones that looked to the future.

As a result, both the ratification of these new symbols and their acceptance by their populations was relatively painless. But in Russia, the situation has been very different.

There are at least three reasons for this:

First, Russia has a longer and more complex state tradition than many of the others, a history that means there are simply more symbols from which to choose.

In addition to the standard tsarist and Soviet symbols, there are numerous variants within each. And there is a desire on the part of at least some in Moscow to identify some new symbols that will underscore what they hope will be a new Russia.

Second, many Russians remain deeply ambivalent about the events of 1991, both in terms of the social and political changes that have taken place within Russia and even more in terms of the collapse of the Moscow-centered empire.

If most non-Russians are convinced that they gained from the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians appear to believe that they were the losers in this process. And consequently they see any discussion of symbols as either a chance to reassert themselves or as a new threat to who they think they are.

And third, Russian identity itself is in several important respects less clearly defined than are the identities of many of the other nations in this region.

That assertion may strike some as strange especially when there have been so many studies suggesting that the national identities of certain other former Soviet peoples were and may remain weak. But in fact, it reflects the particular history of Russia. To a larger extent than many appreciate, Russia has been for most of its history a state that sought to create a nation rather than a nation that succeeded in building a state. As a result, Russian national identity has been much more dependent on the state than have the others.

Whenever the Russian state has suffered a radical reversal or change, many Russians have found their own identities challenged. And because the centrality of the state in their identities, they have sought to use its power to reestablish their own sense of who they are.

That is what happened after 1917, and it is what is happening again since 1991. Consequently, a lot more is riding on these Duma debates than even their participants may be aware: a Russia and Russians confidently looking to the future or a country and a people without any clear sense of just who and what they are.
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