The Search for “the Russian Idea”

Boris Yeltsin Launches a National Debate

In a meeting with campaign supporters in July, President Boris Yeltsin issued a remarkable challenge. After stating that the various stages in Russian history — monarchy, totalitarianism, and perestroika — each had their own ideology, Yeltsin noted that the current democratic path of his government did not have one. Like a good American politician, he turned his concern into a public contest and challenged his audience to come up with suggestions for a new ideology within the next twelve months (OMRI Daily Digest, July 15, 1996). In effect, Yeltsin launched a public search for Russia’s soul.

Yeltsin’s most loyal newspaper, the official Rossiskaya Gazeta, jump-started the search by offering its readers a 10-million ruble ($2,000) prize for the best “unifying national idea” submitted in seven typewritten pages or less. The newspaper invited “all who believe in the renaissance of Russia to participate.”

For Yeltsin, this challenge is an open admission that his country desperately needs an ideology which would allow Russia to consolidate its fractured society after a tumultuous transformation of its political, economic and social order. The euphoria of 1989-1993, a period of fascination with Western democracy, is largely over, but there is little agreement on what lies ahead. Yeltsin is hoping that the formulation of a national ideology will give sense and meaning both to the government and to many of its citizens, who are presently lost and disoriented and who see no inspiring prospects for their country’s future.

Historic Roots of the Debate and the Communist “Update”

The term “Russian idea” was coined by Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1860 and popularized by him and by the religious philosopher Vladimir Soloviev. Although discussion of this topic was banned during the Soviet period, Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party resurrected the concept for its own political purposes. By general agreement, this term stands for a characteristically Russian set of attitudes and beliefs regarding the Russian nation and its place in the world.

From the beginning, the term has carried distinctively anti-Western connotations. In Dostoevsky’s writings, his animosity toward Western Europe was clear: he loathed the French and despised the Poles. He viewed Western culture as shallow, legalistic, unchristian and inhumane. In his judgment, Russians have traits which distinguish them from others — in fact, they are superior to other nationalities. One facet of this superiority is their lofty spirituality, reminiscent of the doctrine of “Moscow as the Third Rome.” A second is the “remarkable universalism” which is uniquely part of the “Russian soul” (James Scanlan, “The Russian Idea from Dostoevskii to Ziuganov,” Problems of Post-Communism, July/August 1996).

For Communists and nationalists, this public debate is just what they want. Zyuganov never tires of telling his listeners that “Russia is a special world…. a special type of civilization.” It is “hostile in its soul to the West” because of the West’s “extreme individualism, militant soullessness, religious indifference [and] adherence to mass culture.” (“Russian Exceptionalism: Is Russia Different?” The Economist, June 15, 1996). Arguing for the need to “update” Marxist-Leninist theory to fit the Russian context, Zyuganov has offered his version of the “Russian idea,” which blends spirituality, ethnic chauvinism, and communitarianism into an aggressively anti-Western popular philosophy. In his view, capitalism is doomed and a strong Russian state is needed to save the world from disaster.

Other Voices in Russia

For many others in Russia, Zyuganov’s arguments are not attractive. While he was able to win the support of approximately one-third of the Russian voters in the last presidential election, polling data indicates that this support basis is relatively fixed and not likely to expand significantly. Among many Russians, the memory of a country completely dominated by the official Communist line has soured them and created a steadfast repulsion of any ideological doctrines, especially ones imposed by the government. One writer noted that distrust of the authorities and alienation of the Russian people were so great that a public search for the “Russian soul” was a bad idea. In his view, “an acknowledgment of political and ideological pluralism is sufficient” — no more is needed, except to create conditions of peace for its people (Konstantin Zuyev, “Right Idea, Wrong Time,” The Moscow Times, August 23, 1996).

A leading reformer in Russia, Galina Starovoitova, offered this sober judgment: “We are in a very natural, slow process of growing our values. It can’t be ordered up immediately by the state…. The solution is not building an official idea, but in continuing to build a civil society that will generate [its own ideas]” (James Rupert, “In Search of the Russian Meaning of Life,” The Washington Post, August 4, 1996).

Building Open Societies

While some Russians are convinced that theirs is a “special type of civilization,” unique in the world, many other nations are going through the same struggle to find an appropriate sense of self-identity. Despite the legacy of a great civilization and a lengthy history, China is experiencing profound difficulties adapting to the institutional norms and standards of the modern-state system. Without a set of ideals and principles that make them distinctive in the family of nations, Chinese manifestations of patriotism cannot rise much above the level of resentment of others (Lucian Pye, “China: Not Your Typical Superpower,” Problems of Post-Communism, July/August 1996). A similar debate is also underway in much of Eastern Europe. Building an open society takes time, and keeping lines of communication open across borders is critically important. Modeling democratic values and a respect for human rights is also essential as an encouragment to those who are working to keep their nations open societies, rather than exclusive, closed tyrannies.