The idea of Russia

Cultural Insights, politics and culture, Travel Destinations — By on January 9, 2008 at 7:35 am

It’s been two weeks since Time magazine named Vladimir Putin its “Person of the Year.” Now that the holiday craziness has ended, I finally got around to reading that issue of the magazine. In it, there is a fascinating portrait of Putin, but also an intriguing article about Russia itself (“In Search of Russia’s Big Idea”), which is the result of a road trip that Nathan Thornburgh took between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Russians have always fancied themselves as a special people, not unlike how Americans tend to think of their own nation, and Thornburgh tried to get a read on the soul of the country during his travels. Some excerpts from his report

“Russia is now resurgent”

I had come to the Russian countryside, though, to get beyond proverbs — and beyond Moscow — in search of what Russians like to call the National Idea. It’s often said that Russia is truly in trouble when it can’t articulate what it stands for. The Soviet National Idea of exporting revolution, conquering space and winning Olympic medals was a strange mix, but at least it was steady. By 1995, the last time I lived there, Russia had disintegrated into a rudderless mess…

Russia is now resurgent…To find Russia’s current big idea, I traced the path of a long-dead St. Petersburg customs official named Alexander Radischev. In 1790, the 28th year of Catherine the Great’s reign, the middle-aged father of four wrote a book called A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow

With plenty of detours, I visited hospitals, farmsteads, nightclubs and monasteries. At nearly every stop, I heard something that isn’t yet a fully formed National Idea but is perhaps more of a slogan: “Everything is coming back.” This meant a lot of things. Some were talking about rising salaries, others about how Russia had re-emerged as a counterweight to America. But more than anything, they were talking about a return to Russia’s prerevolutionary sense of itself, strong and traditionbound, rooted in religion and autocracy but with a full bank account and a sleek new weapon in oil.

“Do Russians really want to be free?”

Russians are turning inward at the very moment that the Kremlin is mounting a brazen power grab. Governors are no longer elected, just appointed by the President. Opposition leaders are harassed with new antiterrorism laws. Putin’s United Russia Party won a grossly uncompetitive election on Dec. 2. By and large, the Russian people offer little protest.

This raises an old question: Do Russians really want to be free? Russians are, after all, the people who actually begged Ivan the Terrible to return to rule them after he threatened to abdicate. As Radischev put it, Russians “come to love their bonds.”

These bonds — and their modern equivalent, Putin’s paper-thin democracy — are increasingly seen as not only tolerable but also intrinsically, uniquely, gloriously Russian. The Kremlin and its backers use new catchphrases like sovereign democracy to intone that they have their unique form of freedom. The West just wouldn’t understand…Russians are still looking for greatness, on their terms.

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