Up to Slavic Culture

Russian Identity

Contents: Frequency of identity discussions in Russia Why these identity discussions Pervasive "ability to forget" Why this "ability to forget" Russian ethics "I" and "we" problems" Why "I" and "we" problems Caveat

In the West, it is not commonly known that Russians tend to engage in discussions about who they are. They recognise in their culture both "Asian" and a "European" traits and disagree about the proper mix. Some may regard some cultural tendency as an "Asian" threat to True Russian Culture and, others may see "European" threats to the Russian Soul. Russian philosophy devotes a proportion of energy to the identity topic decisively larger than the world average.
The "Asian" is, in Russia, associated with strong community feelings, a pervasive role for religion, and  humanity not basing itself on rationality but rather on a mystical connection to God, its roots and each other, and a state organisation modelled in family fashion with political leaders not seen as members of society serving as executors of public will but rather as father figures ruling with absolute power over life and truth in society. The "European" refers to the values that constituted themselves in the European enlightenment: the value and ensuing equal rights of individuals to the acquisition of wealth, respect of individual property, individual privacy, freedom of opinion and its expression, the objectivity of rationality and knowledge, their accessibility for everyone on equal footing, the separation of judicial power and power of government, and democracy.

Origins of Russian cultural identity problems explained

History and geography provide the clue to the origin of identity discussions: most of Russia is geographically isolated as a result of extremely long distances and lack of good transport possibilities, such as navigable rivers and roads, resulting in high transport cost along long and time consuming trade routes open to robbers and local taxation authorities. Isolated local Russian agrarian nobility, extorting local peasants, thus had little incentive to enrich itself by means of foreign trade or conquest, because the geographical circumstances did not provide the means to prevent travelling traders to fall victim to extortion themselves. It is in precisely this aspect that Russians traditionally differed for Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Venetians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch and English in their respective hey days, with a radiation of wealth to a hinterland much closer and easier to reach than Moscow, Kiev and Petersburg to each other.

This problem of isolation resulted in Russia in a large degree of local autarky, low degree of division of labour and specialisation. For local Russian agricultural nobility, it was wise to avoid problems and be content with the exploitation of the local peasantry. Autarky, the isolation of the manor, even from the rest of Russia, was a rational strategy.

Yet, there were identity discussions.

You can only acquire identity problems if you are confronted with alternatives. Purely isolated cultures obviously can have no identity problems. And, yes, the Russian agricultural elite travelled, and listened eagerly to those who returned home.

The problem was the Russian way of travelling. People from trade nations travelled to trade, rob and conquer, hardly activities that lead to identity problems. The Russian travelling country nobility was not trading but came as tourist. Paris was the favourite place to be in the West: Russians naturally hate protestant ethics and are astonishingly fond of nice clothes and vanity. To the Russian princess Anna Pavlovna, married for money to a Dutch Orange King, the Netherlands were an outright disaster. But Russians mix very well with French. On such journeys to Paris, you had lots of time to think, without having the commercial interests to make your thinking serve a concrete aim, nor to use the results of your thinking for practical reforms of your home production en export.

When as a noble family, your home is isolated, you will not be rich, but you will not have many trouble too. So there is a lot of leisure time, say, to discuss the culture and ideas of Europe. If you are in your right mind, you realize that locally nothing is gained by adopting the Western values of individual freedom that you've encountered in Europe or heared talking about. For an isolated agrarian elite, life is far easier if the peasants are raised, not as free citizens keen on respect of their private property, but in fearful obedience backed by Russian orthodox religion. But what to do as an intelligent member of the a local isolated Russian elite with such an easy life, and no work at hand? It naturally led to navel staring, religious fanaticism, alternated with a periodic attack of pseudo Western messianism, the latter claiming that Russia should be moulded according to the "Western" model, where there usually was, without realising, an astonishingly Russian misunderstanding of what is "Western". Such Western thoughts were interesting for pastime conversations, but impractical in the fields where the peasants toiled at the crops.

Around 1700, though, the West was visited by Russians who wanted not merely to interpret Russia, but change it too: tsar Peter the Great tried to break the Russian economic isolation. He even moved the Russian capital to the shores of the Baltic Sea. A site for an entirely new trade capital, Petersburg, was selected and designed by a team of architects from all over Europe, the government under the leadership of the tsar himself went for schooling in commerce and transport to Holland. He drastically cut the power of the Russian Greek orthodox church and liberated the town's tradesmen from their local suppressers and extortioners. Gradually the Baltic region of Russia developed into a Western type of  capitalism. The rest of Russia did hardly share in the development.

In 1917 the Russian capitalist baby tree was cut by Lenin. The Russian people had not been unable to deal with the capitalist movers of Russia. It longed for the Russian orthodox religious community values that it found back in Lenin's carefully Russified pirate edition ("Marxism-Leninism") of the Western economic thought of a modern European scholar named Karl Marx.

According to Marx, mature capitalism would by itself collapse. And the results of mature capitalism would be essential and badly needed in the social developments that would follow after that collapse. Russia has no capitalist past to capitalise upon. In Russia, capitalism never matured. In the Russian revolution, society went straight back into a crypto Greek religious orthodoxy called "socialism", before capitalism got a real chance.

The Russian revolution was not a revolution in the Marxian sense: Russian capitalism was immature, only just beginning to unfold. If one would claim it to be a revolution in the Marxian sense, it showed Marx wrong: mature capitalism is avoidable. The Russian revolution was a Russian revolution. "Marxist"-Leninism is not primarily Marxism, but first of all a culturally and ethnically Russian, a Slavic social and political philosophy. We should now get deeper into the question of what is Russian, or generally, Slavic.

Specifics of Russian ethnicity: ability to forget

The main distinctive feature of the Slavic mind is its ability to forget. That marks how Russians, personally and collectively, deal with past and history. In Russia, ability to forget is considered to a virtue. In personal relations, people tend often to engage in some kind of crisis, followed by a shorter or longer period of bitter fight, treason or mutual ignoring and then, after that, mend their relation, not by a process of mutual explaining and forgiving but by simply starting from scratch: "let us forget everything". Right from the earliest stages of development, children learn to forget parts of themselves (and remember them again if required by the situation). Something somebody today claims "always" to have said, he might "never" have said tomorrow. Whence did you get the absurd idea he or she ever said that! In company, a Russian couple goes along lovingly and civilised, yet, as soon as they are alone, they will be having the meanest of quarrels with the meanest of suspicions towards each other, and not without reason, because as soon as they are somewhere separate from each other, they again behave like entirely different persons. But in a later context, they will remember nothing of it all, or only what is required by that new context. 

I have been married to a Russian woman. At the day she left, she took all pictures, and some tapes taken in the period we had been together. Later, I received them back, very carefully stripped from those aspects she had wished to erase from the record. Of some pictures, for instance, only the lower left quarter of the picture would have been returned to me, of others a tiny part would have been cut out. The careful analysis of the cutting procedure yields an intriguing view on her Russian psyche.

There is no doubt in my mind that Russians are the world champions in psychological repression (and resulting from that, repression generally).

Westerners are inclined to interpret this kind of repression as a lack of responsibility feelings for others, and most of all for oneself. But this is not doing justice to the Russian, because Russians have developed unconscious routines to cope with their culture of repression. And what Westerners interpret as deceiving oneself or someone else is, in Russia, an integral and accepted part of human communication ("of course I did not tell him, of course I forgot about it myself", "Please do not ask me any questions about that").

This "unconscious understanding" goes so far that you somehow know others have the same type of understanding of how you are misleading them if you do. So, often, I sense, deleted parts of peoples memories somehow are exchanged. That opens the possibility, if such semiconsciously communicated deletions are not accepted, of wild unfounded really ugly accusations to, for instance, your marriage partner or your best friends, who often will not be upset at all, but will loyally help you to get rid of your suspicions, to the surprise of Westerners who would, in such circumstances, think "I do not want to have someone as a friend who thinks such bad things of me". And the Russians who are the craftiest in making suspicions disappear, are often the ones who can be trusted to have deserved them.

That is the way things go. Children see it happening between adults and learn to play the theatre. And not always to undergo the theatre of others in resignation. This makes Russians rank top (with Africans) in hiding and spying, in creating huge drama's while uncovering or purportedly uncovering. Russian actors, the best of Russians, all of them good actors by force of Russian life, are the best in the world. Even Italians are no match to them. Finding out what people do not want you to know is the top national sport in Russia. Telephones are tapped, until the present day, not only by order, but more often than not to satisfy curiosity or in the hope to hear something exploitable.

Why this pervasive Russian ability to forget?

Forgetting. Russians can forget: agreements, loyalties, moral commitments, yes everything. And remember them again at the right moments.

In Russia, the weather is always rough, and Russians who want to survive, should not go against the forces of nature. Instead, they should make use of them as much as they can. What after all, is the big difference between Russian orthodox, white, red or whatever? Be the loved one of the one or the other? Russians are ready to switch alliances and relations every moment of their life. They are born survivors in their own habitat. All old "Marxist-Leninist" economists I met three years after the fall of the Soviet Union gave as their specialism: transition to market economy. The toughest of communists stood, after the wind turned, in no time in the front ranks of the reformist camp. Others, who liked to act as reformer in Gorbachev times, were, a few years later, smart enough to fill the gaps thus created in the political field by imposing themselves as leaders of those whose votes were guided by nostalgia to the communist era. Does it matter with whom you dine if the food is good? If you shut up about my former dish company I will do the same about yours. Times have changed. We should be able to forget. We a friends for life. Cheers!

Russian ethics

Hearing this, Westerns would be inclined to think that Russians have no ethics, but that would be a flatly false conclusion.

Russian ethics creates an image of man that in emotional elevation beats everything that has ever been brewed in the fantasy of mankind. Unfortunately the terms of the ethics are extremely flexible, as a result of which it triggers a freely floating feeling of value and elevation, which in turn leaves it to the user to decide whose skull could best be crushed for the sake of these elevated values, because it is clear to everybody that this is one of the essential tasks of every peasant, metropolite, tsar, red, white, comrade, new rich in the post communist era and what have you.
To be sure, I learned these cynical thoughts from Russians. They are well aware of the curious interplay of their elevated ethics and sinister cynicism. You can read about it in the Russian literature, hear the scornful remarks in the kitchen, watch it on screen and in the theatre.

One of the most popular and subtle comic theatre versions of the Russian view on Russian ethics is Gogol's Revisor. It is played year after year by many Moscow theatre groups simultaneously in ever varying subtle versions, in sold out halls where the audience attends not so much because they are interested in the old world, but because they all realise very well this is about their own modern environment -up to the behaviour of the latest post-communist tsars!

Evil is a shame, Russians hold. Evil is evil. If you wish to learn about evil, Russians are the ones to listen to. In sum: Russian ethics ranks top in the world. And they judge the world accordingly.

But there is one strict rule: as a Russian, you never start scrutinising yourself.  "I" and "we" are ethically taboo in Slavic culture (though as a Russian you read with interest about other persons scrutinizing themselves, like in Dostoyevsky's Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment)).

This leads to curious paradoxes, since those "others" who are ethically scorned in the kitchen, come to be subsumed under the proud "we" of the Russian People, no doubt, every Russian can tell you, and do not dare to deny it, the best people in the world.

Which leads to "des Pudels Kern".

"I" and "we"

The True Russian Identity is much sought after by Russians, but it is impossible for them to find it because it consists of a switchboard "I" and "we". Of an "I" and "we" not allowed, by survival needs, to real self scrutiny. That is the Russian aspect of Russian identity. The Russian "I" and "we" could only be found after dropping the habit and then it would have become, by definition, past. Real Russians can only be seen as they are really are by strangers. The basic aspect of Russian identity is inability of self observation. As soon as Russians succeed in seeing themselves, that basic aspect is gone, by definition. If you succeed, this will turn you, from a Russian, turn into a stranger.

The 21st century. Once again  there is a brand new Russian philosophy. "Lenin is not anymore a popular philosopher", I hear say.
"But isn't now the time to read Lenin and really learn from the past." I ask.
Not in Russia. No interest in what really made all those Russians line up behind that red flag. Russian philosophers do not risk the dangers involved in self reflection as an historical continuity since...no, not 1917, but 993, the beginnings of religious Russian orthodoxy. The philosophy of orthodox christian psychological self-repression, the philosophy depriving itself of its self memory, because it does not allow itself to real self reflection. The philosophy of fear. The philosophy that always feels someone's knife on its throat, in the name of God, or something like that: the tsar, the metropolite, or, worst of all: the self.

Little has changed since 993, but the Russians forgot and, even now in the 21st century, frantically keep forgetting, whether queuing for the mausoleum of Lenin or burning candles in churches newly built with money earned while standing on top of a new generation of suffering and dead bodies.

Why "I" and "we" problems

And this relates to the Russian orthodox social conditions, stable and unchanged for more than 10 centuries now, under which the Russian has to acquire the basics of life: food, shelter, safety.

There are some metaphors that can shed light here. First, there is the metaphor of the oak and the rush. The oak has a fixed powerful structure, build up in a process of growth during many years, sometimes even centuries. The wind may be able to bend the thinner branches of oak a little bit, but they keep their position. The oak has, to use an engineering term used in coach-work design of products like cars and aeroplanes, a form memory.
In rough circumstances an oak runs into trouble. It can tear and burst, and this may mean its end.
Rush is different. It grows quickly in many weak thin stems that bend in whatever direction the wind blows them. It is a tough, powerful life form without the form memory characteristic for trees like the oak. It survives at places were oaks have no chance.

Another good metaphor is: ice and water. When you break a large chunk of ice and you collect the pieces, you could put the chunk together again. But there is only one correct way to do so, because every piece fits in only one place of the chunk. No so with water! Water assumes the form of whatever it is being poured in. But water too has a highly stable structure that is highly capable to survive extreme conditions, albeit a microstructure!  It is the same microstructure as ice. What matters is whether or not it freezes. It is thawing, the Russian is the water, the power structure of his society is the river bed.

These are instructive metaphors, but they fail exactly in one aspect of the Russian memory loss: the recoverability in circumstances where such is advantageous. The memory still is in the Russian head, the Russian only forgot it's there!
"Deleting" and "undeleting" pieces of the past is for Russians, trained as they are from youth, much easier than it would be for Westerners trying to master the art. The deleting-undeleting strategy is not unknown in the West, but its Western practitioners and their environment often feel unhappy with it and they thus tend to acquire psycho-pathological problems. Westerners, from their view of man, are haunted by the thought that inside a Russian there "is" nobody.
But at this juncture everything turns upside down again: exactly because inconvenient parts of the memory can be blackened with ease, the Russians can give themselves to life with much less inhibitions that a Westerner. With icy-oak fear the Westerner feels how Russians give themselves, unconditionally, as it seems, to others in warm bonds of relationships, and how they experience their bonds with fellow humans much more intense -until survival necessitates the betrayal of these fellow humans, a betrayal that later may be agreed upon to be "forgotten", after which a new start with the same Western jealousy provoking intensity is possible. 
It is these overpowering emotions of bond and togetherness that Westerners tend to miss in their own culture, and to give them a feeling of jealousy. They are natural and obvious to the Russian.
The wisest advice to the Westerners in Russia is not to deny themselves the joy and warmth of all those sincere and emotional feelings of eternal togetherness that some moments spontaneously seem to generate, nor even the emotional content of the phrases "I will never...", "we will always...", but they should, O how angry would Russians be if they read this, be enjoyed as the volatile spirits that invariably go with them in nearly unbearable quantities (which makes clear, in passing, the important function of strong spirits in Russian culture).


This web page is in danger of being misleading to both reader and author: any attempt to understand people from different cultures rests upon considering them alike in some respects, needed to connect the culture of the reader (and author) with that of the subject. Or: as far as I, Westerner, understand Russians, this can only be because I am like them.
Westerners might be stricken by the distance I covered, Russians by how far I still have to go.