Russia’s Bizarre Preoccupation With The Idea Of The “National Idea”

There’s tons of criticism that Russia no longer has a “national idea.”

The sentiment comes from almost everyone: Nationalists, liberasts, Communists, foreign critics, Russian “experts” with far too much time on their hands, and even some otherwise astute observers.

I don’t disagree with the thesis, but do ask: Why is that such a bad thing?

Grand narratives and universal theories tend to be poor at describing the world as it really is, and not infrequently lead to large-scale mistakes and suffering when pursued with excess zeal. The USSR is a classic example of a country with a “national idea.” So was the US under the neocons.

Even when they don’t lead to stupid outcomes they are almost inevitably farcical when promoted by politicos, under virtually any political system. Instead of inspiring, the only thing “universal” about them is that everyone mocks them. Suffice to mention “The Big Society” (Tories, UK); “sovereign democracy” (Surkov, Russia); “harmonious society” (the Chinese Communist Party).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5c3BrylMLc]

Putin himself put it best, in response the question, “When will Russia get an idea for which one can live for and create for?” He said, “Galina Dmitrievna, – for our children, our grandchildren, for our Motherland, Russia, it always was, is, and will be worth living for and creating for. What else is there? However we might try to come up with a national idea, it has to be said directly: There is nothing closer to someone than his family, his close ones, and his own country.”

Alternatively, the joke website Lurkmore too has a good article on the concept.

National ideas suck. Putin emphasizes pretty mundane things like conservatism, patriotism, pragmatism, and a growing GDP and I for one am more than satisfied with that.

  • Scowspi

    “National ideas suck.”

    I agree, but some are better than others. I could live with Bhutan’s national idea of “gross national happiness”:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_national_happiness

  • I agree with Anatoly and with Putin in that clip.

    I wish that the countries that are capable of it did more to promote science and technology, including space exploration. I also wish that they promoted art, the way Lorenzo de Medici, all those French kings who got architectural styles names after them, Napoleon, Stalin, etc. promoted it. I mean real art, not modernist crap. But I don’t think that either of those two things can be described as national ideas.

  • Mark Sleboda

    Because life through the constuction,direction, and aspiration of the socio-political systems that we humans live in for organization should be about something other than and greater than the technical continuity of that system and a ‘growing GDP’ and fetish for growth and consumption. People need an ‘idea’ to believe in and live for, other than just Randroid consumption and the preservation of the political and elite status quo. This intrinsic human need for something, some greater purpose, is an even greater part of what it is to be ‘Russian’ (the Russian soul) than in others, I and many others would argue.

    Without a ‘national idea’ (or a unifying socio-political idea not connected to ethnic-nationalism/nation-state) to believe in- the collapse of Russian national, social, cultural, and civilizational identity in the face of Westernized globalization and Liberal-Capitalist Modernity, as presaged and symbolized by the slow cancerous growth of the liberal opposition and ‘Pussy Riot’ is an eventual certainty. Memetic Defense of Russia against the West. If the gap is not filled, and quickly, then Western liberalism and globalization will fill it for us.

    • Arislan

      “Because life through the constuction,direction, and aspiration of the socio-political systems that we humans live in for organization should be about something other than and greater than the technical continuity of that system and a ‘growing GDP’ and fetish for growth and consumption. People need an ‘idea’ to believe in and live for, other than just Randroid consumption and the preservation of the political and elite status quo.”

      Really? Why?

      “This intrinsic human need for something, some greater purpose, is an even greater part of what it is to be ‘Russian’ (the Russian soul) than in others, I and many others would argue.”

      Prove this intrinsic need for some greater purpose exists. Present evidence of a “Russian soul.” Also, you’re clearly not Russian; you’re an American, so perhaps you could explain why Russians should listen to you lecturing them on the topic of a “Russian soul.” If such a thing truly exists, it can exist only for those born and raised in Russian society, if not ethnically Russian.

  • Mark Sleboda

    Putin’s strict pragmatism has been the short term resuscitation of Russia, a temporary reprieve. But if not changed in the medium-term, it will be the long-term death of Russia as anything more than a Russian-brand flavored natural resource appendage of the liberal ‘global’ West. Its not just Russia that is facing this – the entirety of the civilizations of the Rest are in the same dilemma. Co-option of the technics of globalized Western Modernity as a survival mechanism must not be embraced to closely or too longly and allowed to corrupt core Civilizational Identity. The same case as the Indians presented with White Colonists or modern Humanity faced with an Alien civilization. Disparate development levels lead to identity and cultural abandonment and adoption of the Other. Identity must be preserved on the path to equalizing that divide – and an ‘Idea’ to live for and unify us beyond that provided for.

  • AM

    Hmm not sure… seems people need some kind of unifying idea beyond “bread and circuses”. For east Europeans which recently joined the EU this idea was to become full fledged European ( tho it might have failed in some instances like Hungary and Romania…).
    And Russia has more divisive forces than other countries … Regions dislike Moscow, Liberal Moscow dislikes the provinces, Ethnic minorities dislike Russians and vice versa, Muslims retreat to religiosity… at least people need the idea that Russia is on the right path and is going to be a good place to live … I think Putin is, not exactly helping with this, anymore… sigh…

    • Mark Sleboda

      “And Russia has more divisive forces than other countries … Regions dislike Moscow, Liberal Moscow dislikes the provinces, Ethnic minorities dislike Russians and vice versa, Muslims retreat to religiosity”

      All of these are concerns (except for the characterization of Moscow as ‘liberal’, while 15-20% of the population is politically and socially liberal, and that is more liberal than in the rest of the country, that hardly makes Moscow ‘liberal’ except in comparative terms of minorities) are legitimate concerns, but I disagree that they are more divisive than other countries. The relationship between majorities and ethnic and religious minorites (with the possible exception of the viral introduction of foreign Wahhabism to a very small percentage of the population to the Caucasus) is no more fractuous than many Western countries and certainly not more so than the Rest of the world – except in the minds of the sado-masochistic Russian print media and Western Russophobic MSM.

      However all of these tensions – ethnic, religious, metropole vs regions, communist vs imperial/monarchist histories can be resolved within a framework of Eurasianist ideology and values (except for the liberals, but they are only around 5% of the total population – so screw em, let ’em all immigrate to their beloved fictional West)

      “the idea that Russia is on the right path and is going to be a good place to live … I think Putin is, not exactly helping with this, anymore”

      – I can’t agree with that at all. In terms of macroeconomics, growing per capita income and wealth, financial stability, economic opportunity and prospects (esp for the young, educated, and professional), opportunities for social mobility, personal freedoms, and freedom to radically politically dissent from the government and status quo – I think Russia comes off far better than most of the West, and much of the Rest of the world. The only thing that scares me, living in Russia, is thoughts of what may happen and that all of this may collapse in a Russia after Putin (hopefully not until 2024!).

      • AM

        “However all of these tensions – ethnic, religious, metropole vs regions, communist vs imperial/monarchist histories can be resolved within a framework of Eurasianist ideology and values (except for the liberals, but they are only around 5% of the total population – so screw em, let ‘em all immigrate to their beloved fictional West)”

        Eurasian values could appeal to people (and in fact they still do), but for this to hold people need to feel like they’re being treated fairly by Moscow. They definitely don’t feel this in the republic I’m familiar with, and similar negative sentiment is expressed in focus groups from other parts of Russia. People feel treated like colonies for Moscow billionaires…
        I will also argue that there needs to be a place in Russia for the kind of people that protest in Moscow – for one most of them are social democrats (not neo-liberals in economic this sense), and they want the government to be accountable, which is perfectly reasonable. There also will be more and more of them as more Russians will enter the middle class …

        If you’re afraid that all will collapse in Russia after Putin this already should ring alarm bells, no? If I’m allowed to be dramatic I feel cheated by Putin – I genuinely though he was teaching the “Russian baby” to walk by herself, and now it seems he is exactly paving the ground for everything collapsing when he’s gone….

        • AK

          About the Moscow/regions thing…

          (1) Once you adjust for much greater inequality in Moscow, and higher prices, the median Muscovite is only about 40%-50% better off than the median Russian.

          (2) The average IQ in Moscow is about 10 points higher than in the rest of the country. And the highest proportion of university educated people in the country. All the country’s cognitive elites cluster there.

          So there’s really no room for complaining. The differences are modest and explainable by the much higher-skilled workforce in Moscow; they are not vastly higher from what you see in some other countries like London/UK or Paris/France; and besides Moscow is a huge net contributor to the federal budget while many whining, resentful and envious regions leech off of it.

        • Mark Sleboda

          Well Anatoly already beat me to saying that the ‘region’s dicontent’ (with the exception of Wahhabists in the Caucasus) is no greater than metropole vs periphery discontent in most countries today – US, UK, France, Germany etc…

          As for the liberal Russian opposition being ‘social democrats’?!? Are we talking the same White Ribbon Protests here, because I live in Moscow and attended most of those protests to watch the enemy. First the numbers reported in the Western Press were vastly inflated. Second – most of their leaders – Nemstov, Milov, Sobchak, Kasyanov, Kudrin, Yashin, Navalny, Ryzhkov, Kasparov, Oreshkin, Orlov, Bykov, Mc Faul, Prokhorov, etc… – these people are all rabid flaming Hayekian neoliberals – most of them 90’s retread sore loser neoliberals that can’t come close to getting elected at that. Third – for the common attendees – yes there was the occasional social democrat – but far more neoliberals (for instance waving Yukos flags?!? WTF?!? As well as a hodge podge of Slavic Union and other ethnic nationalists, fascists, monarchists, anti-semites, national bolsheviks, fringe crazy communists, anarchists, hipsters, just plain crazy loons, – as well as your bourgeois hamichoks…Most of the White Ribbonists may be middle class (or just rich), but that certainly doesn’t mean that most of the middle class are White Ribbonists. On their biggest day – they had, perhaps, 80,000 – perhaps – and that out of a city of 14 million. And essentially none outside of Mooscow…(esp note – none at all in the Regions!) Who cares? Much ado about nothing….This group of Western-wannabee loudmouths just happens to have a soap box and the amplification effect of the echo chamber of the Western press to play in…Far far less in number and consequence than the #OWS and anti-austerity protesters across the West this last year…and of course the ironic thing is the White Ribbonists are by and large protesting FOR exactly what the #OWS and anti-austerity protesters in the West are protesting AGAINST…

  • johnUK

    Western countries and their allied Islamic regimes in the Mid East and until 9/11 Pakistan don’t have a national but an international policy where they are trying to transform the post Soviet geographic and geopolitical sphere against Russia via Islamic proxy and not just Wahabbism and support for pan-Turkic ethnic nationalism with the purpose other than controlling Russia’s natural resources and economy during the 90’s was to create a demographic shift among the ethnic Russian and non-Russian/Muslim population.

    The problem with Putin and Russia is not just that they have no national idea it is that they have no coherent national and international policy both of which are in the short term that rides on the coat tails of US/NATO geopolitical maneuvers that rather than fixing long term problems is making things worse especially his insane immigration policy.

    It took him more than 12 years to even establish some sort of framework for a Eurasian economic sphere and even that is not implemented yet and has yet to form a Eurasian ideology.

    So while all non-Russian ethnic groups have a strong ethno-nationalist identity supported by the international media, policy makers and billions of dollars from Sheikdoms in the Mid East, businessmen and international Islamic organisations supported by organised crime networks like the re-established drug trade in Afghanistan, Russians are in complete disarray drinking themselves stupid or creating and joining clownish fascist organisations.

  • Jennifer Hor

    It would be a good idea if Putin’s government had a long-term vision for Russia which would set a direction for long-term economic and social planning. Being merely pragmatic, conservative in social and economic matters and just generally keeping an eye on things is not enough. We had that approach here in Australia since 1996 and the lack of vision our governments have shows in our over-reliance on mining (as we didn’t invest in renewable energies and didn’t stop manufacturing jobs from flying overseas – to some extent, this requires some foresight and planning for future industry) and the problems this is causing. We don’t have a long-term population policy and this translates into not having a clear idea about which migrants or refugees to accept, how many, what skills they should have and what services they need to adjust to and integrate into Australian society. This of course leads to tensions in the community over immigration and the numbers of migrants coming here.

    With all due respect, it’s not strictly true that Putin emphasises mundane things, at least in the area of social policy, if this article in Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper is anything to go by:
    http://premier.gov.ru/eng/events/news/18071/