At first I thought my inability to understand Russia was just because I was a foreigner, an outsider. Just as I couldn’t understand Russia, nor could my Russian friends understand the UK. “Why do you have two taps instead of one”, I have often been asked. “What does the Queen actually do?” is another. Or just simply, “House of Lords?” To none of these questions could I give a proper answer. Maybe all countries and cultures are just totally incomprehensible to any other, anyone not born there.
Then I read an article entitled “Why we don’t understand our own country” by Igor Chubais, director of the Centre for Russian Studies. The article expresses the identity crisis that Russia is currently suffering and tries to answer those questions so often tackled by the good and great of Russian literature: ‘What is Russia?’; ‘What does it mean to be Russian?’ Somehow I find it difficult to imagine an English equivalent.
Chubais suggests that, since it’s generally not acknowledged that today’s Russian Federation is entirely different from its predecessor, the Soviet Union, (he argues that the two states are equally as contrasting as, say, the Third Reich and the Russian Federation), today’s Russian citizens find it difficult to construct a certain identity. When, in 1917, Old Russia ceased to exist to be replaced by the Soviets, propaganda and intellectuals took great pains to emphasise the novelty of the new regime – it was an entirely new system, with its own government, symbols, morals even. By contrast, no such line has been drawn between today and the not so distant Soviet past. It is this ambiguity, Chubais argues, that has deprived current Russians of reference points to construct a new identity: Who are our ancestors? Were we born under the salvo volley of the Aurora or does our history start with the VIII century? Who are our heroes, where are our ideals, which rules guide us? Between historical Russia and the USSR there have been armed seizures of power, a Civil War, tens of millions killed and repressed, 70 years of totalitarian censorship… What Russia does our army defend? Soviet or Anti-soviet?
Russia is left in limbo, uncertain of her direction, equally incomprehensible to her citizens as to visitors. Of course in Britain we have our own soul searching (since the fall of the Empire could anyone really say what we are? Part of Europe, stand alones or just America’s special friends) but our search for identity knows nothing compared to the anguish of Russia, and the situation described by Chubais. How is it possible to face up to the past, the litany of repression and change that the country has seen, and assimilate it into today’s history. In short, it doesn’t: We live by rules that are at the same time both Russian and anti-Russian, Soviet and anti-Soviet, Western and anti-Western. [A situation] that destroys any general rules.
The question of what Russia is today and how this relates to her past has obsessed academics ever since the tanks rolled on to Red Square in 1991. Even before that, the difficulties of acknowledging the repressions of the 1930s and other atrocities of the twentieth century taxed a host of Soviet leaders. It is only now that this question of how to relate to the past is coming to the forefront in public (public, here being a very narrow space – the readership of fairly marginal newspapers and websites) and political debate, as the ministry of education seeks to define broad guidelines of how Stalinism is to be remembered in school textbooks. It is only when Russia has decided on what its past is, that it will be able to know its present. And then, maybe, I might start making some headway on working out why so many Russian men feel the need to sport the unattractive-on-everyone mullet.