RD Interview: Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, explains how ordinary Russians and the political elites perceive themselves in the context of the country’s confrontation with the West and its turn to the East.

"Today there is coexistence of national pride and shame in Russia: One cannot exist without the other. The two concepts are inseparable in Russia." Photo: RIA Novosti

Lev Gudkov, a prominent sociologist and the director of the analytical Levada Center in Moscow, discusses with Russia Direct how the Russian national identity has been evolving since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition, he explains how the country’s foreign policy agenda shapes the self-perception of ordinary Russians and political elites in the context of the Kremlin’s confrontation with the West and its pivot to the East.

Russia Direct: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to come up with its new national identity. To what extent has it succeeded in overcoming the identity crisis? Is it still a problem?

Lev Gudkov: I don’t think that there is an identity crisis in Russia today. The nuance here is that the very structure of Russian identity is basically ambivalent. It is a matter of having a mentality of a country that is catching up to modernization, a country that is failing to develop a market economy and become democratic and open. That’s why the national inferiority complex is commonplace for Russia and it is a very important part of the Russian national identity system.

Lev Gudkov, the director of the Moscow-based Levada Center. Photo: Levada Center

On the one hand, it is the recognition of Russia’s own backwardness and dependence on the West; it is the aspiration of Russians to keep up with the utopian West, its prosperity, its high living standards and developed social welfare system. On the other hand, Russia’s failure to catch up with Western standards and turn into a developed nation fuels the feeling of envy and disappointment both in everyday people and the political elites.

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That’s why they seek to boost their self-esteem by the mythology of the past and Russian history, everything that is related to the Soviet or imperial past, the gigantic territory, military achievements, including the Soviet victory over Fascist Germany in World War II.  To sum up, this coexistence of the Soviet symbols and imperial ones, with the nation’s inferiority complex, is building a robust and deep-seated perception of the Russian national identity.  

RD: With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Russia tried to adjust to the values of the West and modify its national identity. To what extent did it really change?

L.G.: Since the collapse — or even before the collapse — people admitted and understood that the nation was at a historic dead end. “There was no way out,” “we are the worst,” and ”we are the example of how not to live one’s life” - such moods were common for public opinion in the period 1989-1991. It was a sort of masochistic reflection of the crash of the Communism project. After this deep [identity] crisis, in the late 1990s, there was a surge of Russian nationalism, with the flavor of imperial renaissance.

It took place when Putin came to power and started restoring the importance of the Soviet symbols and grandeur. He put forward the idea that Russia had a great past and we had nothing to be ashamed of. So, it fueled the national pride, but at the same time it reinvigorated anti-Western sentiments, which reached its apex after the annexation of Crimea and during the confrontation with the West in 2014-2015. At that time, Russians boasted that they finally returned to the status of a great power and forced the rest of the world “to respect us.” However, today this trend is changing a bit, with the anti-Western sentiments ebbing gradually. 

RD: We are talking about the national identity as seen by ordinary Russians. But what can you say about the ways that Russia’s political elites perceive the country’s identity?

L.G.: Our elites are homogeneous. Basically, they are not different from ordinary people. It is because Russia’s current political elite is legitimized not through creating a desired image of the future and setting new goals for political and national development, but through appealing to the myths of the past. So, there is almost no difference between the mentality of ordinary Russians and the political elites.

RD: To what extent do Russia’s relations with the West determine its national identity?

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L.G.: [It impacts the country’s identity] to a great extent. And it has been common for Russia throughout history, in fact. Relations with the West are extremely important in the system of Russian identity. It was the case in the first third of the 19th century and it is commonplace for the current era.

It is a matter of the inner mirror, which means that we are always trying to see ourselves through the eyes of the West. We are assessing ourselves from the point of view of more developed nations. So, the West’s influence on our identity is vitally important.

Yet, the 2014 propagandistic campaign focused on spreading anti-Western sentiments amidst the Ukraine crisis, but it doesn’t mean that Russians don’t care anymore what the West thinks about their country. They are just reassessing their attitude. Today the West is seen as the threat to Russia, as an enemy, as a necessary condition for popular consolidation around the authorities

RD: What can sway the pendulum in the opposite direction and drive Russians to reassess the West differently? 

L.G.: The increasing economic crisis might change their attitude, because worsening living standards weakens people’s support of the authorities and result in their direct indignation. Thus, it weakens their trust in the authorities and the population stops seeing them as the source of collective values. We are witnessing this trend now, when, according to our research, anti-Western moods are slightly weakening. The patriotic bubble starts gradually shrinking.

RD: How does Russia’s turn to the East influence Russians’ self-perception?

L.G.: You know, there is not any impact on the country’s national identity. There were some initiatives among those close to the authorities: They believe that the confrontation with the West will reorient Russia to the East. But the problem is that most Russians don’t find the East as attractive as the West. That’s why the majority of population is not excited with the Kremlin’s attempts to establish close collaboration with China. For Russians, the East is not the guiding line - it is not the direction, in which their country should go.  

RD: Why?

L.G.: Because all Russian values and guiding lines are related to the West. It is the West that became the center that attracts Russians most, not the East. On the contrary, Russians sees the East as a symbol of Asian backwardness, underdevelopment, poverty and ignorance.

RD: Do you mean that Japan, South Korea and China are backward, according to Russians?

L.G.: Japan and South Korea are exceptions. They are integrated in the West and, thus, associated with the West. Regarding China, Russians see it favorably, but collective consciousness is transitory, quick to change and ambiguous. They look at Russia’s cooperation with China pragmatically, because they have to. But, they don’t see China as the cultural and civilizational vector of the development of their country.

RD: In your view, how should Russia modify its national identity during a period of globalization?

L.G.: Today Russia’s national identity should be more pluralistic. I mean there should be several foundations for the country’s national identity. It should include the advanced development of institutions and the growth of trust toward the judicial system, so that people feel confident. Most importantly, they feel defended by the rule of law and they should be proud of their own country. On the other hand, they should also be proud of their past. But today there is coexistence of national pride and shame in Russia: One cannot exist without the other. The two concepts are inseparable in Russia.

RD: Could you be more specific and clarify this idea?

L.G.: Well, I mean that the population sees Russia as a great country with a rich culture and heroic past, but people live in poverty here, with rudeness, lawlessness, corruption and rampant underdevelopment being commonplace. I mean that pride is exposed through shame and vice versa.

RD: It is something similar to seeing Russia with a great educational and scientific potential, which it cannot implement and produce highly competitive global products, right?

L.G.: Yes. But, again, the feeling of shame, humiliation and disappointment comes from domestic institutions.

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Lev Gudkov is the Russian sociologist, Ph.D., Director of the Levada Center in Moscow and Editor-in-Chief of The Russian Public Opinion Herald. Gudkov is the author of several books and articles on the theory and methodology of sociology, sociology of literature, ethno-national relations and social problems of post-Soviet society.

This interview is abridged from the complete version, which initially appeared in Russia Direct’s report “National Identity: The 25-Year Search For a New Russia.” Is President Putin creating an ideology that can be the basis for a new national identity? Is positive nationalism possible in modern Russia? What are the odds that neo-Eurasianism will re-emerge in the country? To what extent is national identity shaping Russia’s foreign policy? To find the answers to these questions and access the full version of the interview, subscribe to Russia Direct and download the report.