- Reading RussiaIs There a Key?
Western experts, analysts, and policy makers always seem to be looking for the "key" that will explain Russian political behavior and provide insights into future Russian actions in the international arena. Certainly, the exercise of trying to discern what the Russian national interest might be is a good place to start, but the problem is that Russians themselves share no consensus on what their national interest is; in fact, the concept of "national interest" is still alien to the majority of Russia's citizens. Moreover, there is plenty of scope for misunderstanding here. The "national interests" of most democratic states are determined through an ongoing discussion between government and citizens, conducted through open public forums and in the media, and are expressed by a government that generally has the backing of the citizens whom it represents. The restrictions on media and limitations on freedom of expression in Russia preclude such a national discussion. Thus what passes for the national interest in Russia is the occasional and not always consistent expression of some desires by a group or person within the ruling elite, whether the foreign-policy establishment, the president, or more recently, the prime minister (who until very recently was the president).
The best of the Western experts who scour the speeches and pronouncements of Russian leaders know that public rhetoric rarely coincides with plans for actual policy. On some occasions, the rhetoric—even if delivered abroad—is meant to bolster the leader's tough image in the eyes of a domestic audience. On other occasions, the rhetoric may be meant to placate the West with a peppering of prodemocratic phrases and ideas (Vladimir Putin's early presidential speeches were full of these). In addition to learning how to gauge the audience at which [End Page 56] a particular speech was aimed, Western experts now must often resort to studying back-channel comments and off-the-record remarks by Kremlin insiders in order to navigate toward the truth. Sadly, some Western experts also resort to psychological explanations of Russia's behavior, invoking hurt "national pride" as a motivator, without examining exactly whose sense of pride is at work.
Creating a consensus regarding the "national interest" also assumes that there is a more or less clear acceptance of a common "national identity." But of all of the national republics that emerged out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has had the most profound difficulties in determining its national identity. Each of the non-Russian republics, all fourteen of them, had a clearer sense of this, especially where pro-independence protest movements had operated on the conviction that their ethnic group would be better off ruling itself within the framework of a separate nation-state. Even though the demise of the nation-state has been predicted for many years now, most of these republics happily reconstituted themselves within the nation-state framework and started to develop their own polities.
Russia, however, was left with a problem that it has still not resolved: "What is Russia and who are the Russians?" Are these ethnic descriptions? Geographical terms? Philosophical constructs? What is the essence of being Russian, and where are the boundaries of the "Russian World"? In contrast to the nineteenth century, when debates between Slavophiles and Westernizers kept the intelligentsia busy and away from the real exercise of power in the Russian state, today such questions plague the regime itself.
There has never been a Russian national identity that was anything other than imperial in its substance and ambition. The Soviet Union and the Czarist empire before it were built around the notion of an ever-expanding state. Although Russia's geographic expansion was mostly eastward, the country looked westward for approval and ideas. During the decades after the Second World War, Europe's idea of national identity evolved to supersede ethnicity and include a broader understanding of citizenship and democratic values. In the early 1990s, a Russia newly shorn of its "Soviet" identity did flirt with the idea of becoming a European nation, insisting on joining European international organizations. In 2009, however, in light of the Putin regime's dismal human...