Russia Direct releases its new Issue in which prominent sociologists, political analysts and representatives of the younger generation examine the key features of Russia’s national identity and the ways it has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Red Square, Moscow, Russia. Photo: Reuters

National identity has been a subject of bitter debates for centuries in Russia. Due to its geographical position between Europe and Asia, Russia has continually struggled to define its own path of development. For some time, especially after the end of the Soviet era, it looked like the West, with its market-oriented economy and liberal democratic form of government, had become a reference point for the decision-makers in Moscow.

However, with the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the following geopolitical confrontation and implementation of Western sanctions, this situation has started to change. The Kremlin’s announcement of the “pivot to the East” has raised questions about the future path Russia aims to follow and what it might mean for the evolution of national identity.

The new Russia Direct Issue – “National Identity: The 25-Year Search For a New Russia” – deals with these questions, aiming to provide an insightful look into the way Russian identity has been transforming ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It also outlines the main trends in how modern Russian society sees itself in the changing world.

Ivan Tsvetkov, associate professor of American Studies in the International Relations Department of St. Petersburg State University, begins by looking at the past 25 years of Russia’s history to define key factors that determined the country’s path.

“National identity is something that constantly evolves, and is a product of very deliberate decisions made by the intellectual, economic and political elites,” the expert writes. According to him, the post-Soviet period of the country’s history might be divided into three periods when different kinds of elites controlled the way Russia saw itself at home and abroad.

Tsvetkov argues that the state of constant choice between friendly relations and confrontation with the West has long been used by the elites to meet their interests. The realization that adopting an approach of calm and pragmatic relations with the West is the correct course of action should be the most important lesson of Russia’s past, he says.

Ivan Timofeev, director of programs at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), finds similar traits in Soviet and current versions of national identity. After offering his explanation for the reasons why Russia went its own way, which differed from that of other post-Soviet states, he argues that there is a missing element in Russian identity today.

“This is the universal idea, a worldview, a project that Russia was offering to be different,” he points out. In the Soviet Union it was socialism, today, as the author suggests, this project might be the creation of a greater Eurasia as a counterweight to Europe.

In an interview with Russia Direct, Lev Gudkov, director of Levada Center, sheds light on how the Kremlin’s foreign policy agenda shapes the self-perception of ordinary Russians and political elites. He explains why there is no identity crisis in Russia today and why the general public and political elites are no different in their mentality.

Gudkov also touches upon the question of Russia’s self-perception in light of the country’s rebalancing from the West to the East. Even though the public supports the leadership, Moscow’s attempts to establish close ties with China have not resonated within society. “For Russians, the East is not the guiding line – it is not the direction, in which their country should go,” he told Russia Direct.

One the new features of the latest Russia Direct Issue is a book review section, which, this time, offers an overview of the recent book by Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Titled “Russia and the World in the 21st Century” the book offers a unique insight into the factors guiding the Kremlin’s foreign policy and argues that “Russia is not the bridge between the two parts of Eurasia, but rather, a potential continental integrator.”

An additional value that the Issue contains is the selection of three essays written by representatives of Russia’s younger generation. Looking ahead to the next 20 years for Russia, Anton Tsvetov of RIAC, Igor Ostanin of Skolkovo and Tatyana Edovina of Kommersant Daily share their takes on the most urgent challenges facing the country in foreign policy, technology and innovation.

What is the current level of patriotism in Russia? How do Russians see themselves in the changing world order? Download the new Issue and find out.