Russia and Other Ideas

In the debates about Russia and its fate during the Yeltsin era, two terms inevitably recurred: “ideology” and “the Russian Idea.”  Discussions about the need for a state ideology, without necessarily endorsing Soviet values, took a Soviet philosophical framework for granted: a powerful state must have an ideology, preferably made explicit by experts and disseminated through the media and educational system.  On the surface, such an orientation resembles contemporary Western critique; scholars from Adorno through the poststructuralists have dedicated much of their work to exposing ideological constructs that circulate as “natural” (questions of race, class, and gender in particular). The Western academic Left exposes ideology in Europe and America as an act of resistance, while the post-Soviet argument in favor of ideology is in part an act of resistance against a perceived onslaught of foreign ideology (individualism, consumerism), and in part an affirmation that a consciously elaborated ideology both creates and binds communities.  In any case, the “ideology” argument had numerous obstacles to overcome, starting with the negative connotations the term had accrued over decades of Soviet power.

The “Russian Idea” had a much more attractive provenance.  As the country’s publishing industry (and, therefore, readers) rediscovered the heritage of Silver Age (pre-revolutionary twentieth century) culture and philosophy, a wealth of books arrived on the shelves with a seven-decade delay, but with an accompanying sense of relevance and immediacy that they would more than likely have lacked had they been part of the cultural conversation during Soviet times.  One of the many post-Soviet success stories of Russian pre- and counter-revolutionary philosophy is the revival of Nikolai Berdyaev, especially his most famous work, The Russian Idea (1946).  Both a history of Russian philosophy and a polemical analysis of Russian philosophy, The Russian Idea argued that Russian identity depended on a sense of messianic mission, eschatological purpose, and communitarian cohesiveness.  I bring up Berdyaev not to argue for or against the relevance of his particular notion of the Russian Idea, but rather to note his importance in propagating the idea of the Russian Idea as a discursive structure.  

The Russian Idea continues to exert a great deal of power as an idea, but in terms of any practical utility, it reached its nadir in 1996, when Yeltsin established a commission of experts to develop a new Russian Idea in the course of a year. [1] The commission’s unsurprising failure, along with the impossibility of resolving disagreements about the Russian Idea in any diverse public forum, is less a matter of intellectual incapacity than it is a sign that the search was being conducted in the wrong place. Russia’s identity was being effectively negotiated and renegotiated in popular and elite narrative.  



[1] As we’ll see a few entries from now, the concept of the “idea” was hugely important to early Soviet culture.  In 1992, I even met an old Russian woman whose name was “Idea.”  Or, since we were on formal terms, “Idea, Daughter of George."

Next:   Tales from the Cryptic