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The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 131-146

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Is the 'Greatness Syndrome' Eroding?

Vladimir Shlapentokh

The "greatness syndrome"--that is, the desire of a populace to live in a superior nation--has been a constant throughout world history. Led by the refrain of Rudyard Kipling's imperialism, the British were indeed proud of their empire, particularly before World War I. The same was true for the peoples of other colonialistic European nations. According to a Gallup poll released in March 2001, 67 percent of U.S. citizens were satisfied with their country's high international status; 30 percent were not. 1

The citizens of the Soviet Union were proud of their empire's ability to compete with the United States in all corners of the globe. In post-Communist Russia, however, the country's geopolitical standing declined dramatically. For this reason, most Russians have felt nostalgia for the USSR's lost superpower status--about 75 percent of them bemoaning the collapse of the Soviet empire 10 years after the fact. 2 Moreover, whereas only 14 percent of the Russian population defined the country as a "great state" in 2000, 78 percent thought that it would become one in the future. 3

Even though the desire for greatness is indeed natural, a problem arises when one's aspiration for greatness is disproportionate to one's ability to achieve it. Leo Tolstoy made this point in his diary, when he evaluated the individual according to a hypothetical fraction in which one's real potential was presented as the numerator and one's self-perception as the denominator. With a weighted denominator, becoming fractious and, in some cases, dangerous is certainly possible. This observation is true for societies, but with one important caveat: a nation's perception of itself often depends on its international status vis-à-vis others. For Russia these others have always been those countries in the West. In effect, the high status of France in the [End Page 131] eighteenth century, England in the nineteenth century, and the United States in the twentieth century all fueled Russia's greatness syndrome. Today, with the United States in a predominant position, Russians continue to measure their country's status against that of the United States.

The Source of the Russian 'Greatness Syndrome'

During the last few centuries, the greatness syndrome did not play a meaningful role in Russian society in only two brief periods--one after the February 1917 revolution, the other following the 1991 collapse of the USSR. After lying dormant for a few years in the wake of the Soviet collapse, the concept reemerged with new intensity in the mid-1990s and once again began to play a major role in the country's foreign and domestic policies. Some Russian elites, particularly cultural figures, justify their country's status as a great power by referring to its glorious past and cultural traditions: its rich literary and music accomplishments; its large educated class; and in some cases, its spiritual, cultural, and moral superiority over the rest of the world. Along with their cultural arguments, they cite the country's vast territory and abundant natural resources. Elites have nurtured Russia's messianic spirit for centuries, citing, for example, one of Dostoevsky's heroes, who suggested, "Truly great people will never reconcile with their secondary role in mankind." 4 Many sincerely believe that contributions to culture and education determine the geopolitical status of any country in the world. A leading literary critic in Russia, Valentin Nepomnyashchiy, recently hinted that, in their attempt to destroy Russia's overall greatness in the contemporary world, the country's enemies have been trying to downgrade the cultural colossus Alexander Pushkin, as well as other Russians. 5

Elites who are closer to the decisionmaking process in Moscow do not consider Russia's rich cultural heritage the true sign of greatness. Although they pretend to appreciate the country's traditions, they look to more decisive arguments for the country's international status. Along this line, Ivan Yefremov, a famous Soviet science fiction author, wrote that Russian men pretended to enjoy dry wine; slender...


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